How To Master GMing Bar Room Brawls

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0540

Whether it involves barbarian’s stein-smacking pirates, or mercenaries blasting bounty hunters, you can run a barroom brawl in any tavern at any time in any genre.

I’ve run brawls to start campaigns, kick-off game sessions, introduce new PCs to existing campaigns, stall for time and to give flagging sessions a jolt of energy.

Brawls are great additions to your GM toolbox.

Recently, I received this reader tip request from Joe S.:

Hey Johnn,

Thank you for all of your tips from all of your sites! I am a subscriber to Faster Combat and feel it is well worth the money since I have been a subscriber to RPT for over 5 years.

I sincerely appreciate your insight and effort to help making gaming better across the board.

I have a request for tips on running BAR ROOM BRAWLS.

I remember coming across some long forgotten damage tables and can’t remember what they were. Any help?

For example:

  • Bowl of hot soup 1d4 divided by 2
  • Slammed into a wall 1d6 standard tavern wall damage, 1d8 for stonework

Thank you.

Joe, I do have some tips for you – keep reading.

However, I cannot find the damage tables you’re talking about.

Hello RPT reader, do you remember what issue or article the damage table Joe mentions might be? If so, drop me a note.

How to Run Great Bar Room Brawls

Master The Rules

Best come prepared to these events because they tend to use so many darned weird rules. Grappling, non-weapon proficiencies, subdual damage and acrobatic maneuvers are the main culprits.

So study up beforehand. As Tony and I teach in, use the first five minutes of the game session to go over tricky rules. This helps you and players learn and remember them.

When you have a brawl planned, or suspect one might erupt, create a cheatsheet of related rules. This will take an hour, but it’s worth it.

You could photocopy or copy & paste, but hand-typed and researched cheat sheets serve you best because you learn by doing.

Transferring rules to a digestible format means you need to find the rules, read them and translate them to point form, small charts, flow charts, mindmaps, and other formats.

Doing so teaches you the rules as you go, whereas copy & paste will not.

I mentioned flow charts and mind maps. Infographics let you pack great information into small spaces, such as a one-page brawl cheat sheet. So look for opportunities to create flow charts, mindmaps and infographics to visually illustrate the rules.

The grappling procedure in games like D&D screams for a slick flowchart. If you know of one for your game system, send me the link or file to share with others.

At the beginning of the session, hand out your cheat sheet and run through it in five minutes or less with your players. Voila – faster rules management at the table.

GM Screen

Update your screen with rules and references that did not make it on your cheat sheet.

For example, list page numbers to rules you might need or note each PC’s touch AC.

Examine your foes list for any rules you might need. For example, can undead take punching damage? Research and record to your screen.

If using a digital screen, add bookmarks to rules references. These will save you time and hassle during games.

Design The Foes

I would have a bunch of shmoes in the fight. One punch wonder types. Then I’d have a couple of special foes.

For shmoes, create a couple of core crunch stat blocks and reskin them to clone new brawlers during the fight.

For example, create Non-Martial Bar Patron, level 5 and Martial Bar Patron, level 8.

When you need another brawler, pick one of the stat blocks and tweak it on the fly just to keep the encounter interesting and not make the players feel they’re fighting clones.

For stats, fiddle with AC by one or two or switch out the weapon just for minor instant mechanical variety.

Keep skills, feats and other rules tough to change on the fly the same to minimize your GMing headaches during the brawl.

Add Flavour

The most important thing to tweak, however, is the flavour. Make each foe feel unique even though the stats are the same as the guy knocked out last round.

Have a list of names ready. If using a more in-depth world, such as Golarion or Forgotten Realms, get your cultures cheat sheet ready (names, typical behaviours and attitudes, accent, style of dress, etc. – for each culture).

You can re-skin foe flavour on-the-fly fast by changing two facts about each new brawler. Pick one from each list:

List 1: Appearance

  • Gender
  • Culture
  • Hair colour
  • Eye colour
  • Height, weight or build (make difference significant)

List 2: Behaviour

  • Weapon or fighting style
  • Clothes or armor
  • Speech style (i.e., threatens, jokes, prays)

Feel free to make your own lists or add to the above. The goal is to pick to two things and decide what’s different in three seconds or less. 🙂 Bring on the clone machine!

Special Foes

Amongst the riff raff add a couple special NPCs to make the encounter memorable.

Use your standard NPC tricks here:

  • Recurring NPCs
  • Rivals
  • Villains or part of villain’s entourage
  • Subjects of quests
  • Monstrous or weird

For example, the guy in the corner is a vampire in disguise. He tries to leave when the brawl breaks out. Give a PC a chance to stop him so it’s the party’s fault. If the PCs ignore the fleeing creature, have another brawler tackle him so the PCs notice.

Another example would be the NPC in the corner is the captain of the guard. She’s a good person, but when facing a PC there’s now honour and authority involved with the challenge.

With special foe selection, do whatever you can so the PCs have some skin in the game.

To summarize, create a fast brawler generator using two base stat blocks and something like lists of ideas for flavor inspiration. This will give you all the brawlers you need with minimal prep and maximum flexibility during the encounter.

Then add a couple special NPCs to liven the encounter up even more.

Plan Mini-Encounters For Each PC

Only some of the party will want to fight. The others have not the skill, stomach or interest for it (I’m looking at you elf mage).

You know the PCs are going to split up, right? So, rather than being forced to react, do a little planning so you can Bring It On when needed.

Best way to go about this is to plan things for each PC to do and get engaged with during the brawl.

Keep your plans simple and open-ended, so you have one PC targeted for the mini-encounter but there’s no problem accommodating more party members if they choose to get involved.

If you can encourage the party to clump up into two or three smaller groups, that’s better than every PC going on their own.

First choice is figuring out what each PC’s and player’s tenancy is. Fight? Roleplay? Stealth and theft?

You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. The more you cater to preferences, the more likely your players will join the mini-encounters you’ve got planned.

The more often players join your mini-encounters, the less reacting and thinking on-the-fly you’ll need to do. It’s great making things up as you go, but doing that for multiple PCs in a single brawl encounter can overwhelm.

Some example fun brawl mini-encounters:

  • Betting. Some players love to wager. Have an NPC call out for bets on particular match-ups during the brawl, including the PC brawlers as often as possible.
  • Picking pockets. Waggle the jingling purses to lure the rogue into the fight.
  • Shouting match. Use intimidate or other social skills to fight with instead of fists.
  • Looting the unconscious. Children dance between legs to grabs the easy pickin’s. How does the PC react? What happens when a brawler spots this and attacks a looter?
  • Mage duel. Finally, a reason to use those counter-spelling rules gathering dust. Don’t want to set the bar on fire!
  • Espionage. NPCs take advantage of the chaos. Perhaps a secret deal goes down or a kidnapping.

Have any other mini-encounter ideas? Email them on over.

Here are some general split party tips from past issues you might find useful:

Several tips — 6 Monstrous Tips — RPT#274

Manage the clock — 7 Tips On Creating Moments Of High Drama — RPT#245

Use multiple GMs — 5 Tips For Co-GMing Games — RPT #273

Maintain the split — 4 Tips On Encouraging Roleplay — RPT#246

Waiting players get antsy — 5 Tips On Managing Player Choice — RPT#244

Use cliffhangers — 7 Tips On Creating Moments Of High Drama — RPT#245

Have the players re-arrange their seating — 4 Reader Tips — RPT#248

Ask players to step into the hall — 4 Reader Tips — RPT#248

Give the PCs a portable communication device — 5 Tips On Managing Player Choice — RPT#244

Run the session in two blocks — Gaming The Horse, Part 2 — RPT#242

If the mini-encounters are important enough (they could actually be the main encounter with the brawl being a fun background element) you might consider assigning a player to manage the brawl. That frees you up for the mini-encounters.

Give the brawl itself a place in the initiative. When the brawl’s turn comes up, the assigned player handles movement and attacks. You jump in to help with tricky rules.

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Pretend the tavern is made of Lego. Magnificently exploding Lego.

Tables break spilling drinks and food and dishes everywhere. Banisters collapse tumbling brawlers through the air. Chairs swing about and crash over shoulders. Heads are clocked with bottles.

Destructible should have the biggest impact on flavor. Minimize rules implications to keep the fight fast.

Allow free actions for breaking things if it adds more flavor. Juice up NPC action descriptions with free actions.

“Big Bart with the swelling black eye flips the table aside and rushes you. Ale and potatoes fly through the air and slop on the floor. Bart’s meaty fist plunges at your face.”

With your game system, you might argue the table flip costs action points and the debris on the floor creates bad terrain. As long as the foe gets no advantage and the PC gets to disadvantage, you can keep this all as free action and flavor if you want.

Let PC Brawlers Act at Once

Face it, nobody is going to die here unless it’s the PCs doing the dirty.

Unless your grit is so gritty you have to brush your teeth after each session, PCs will not die from your regular issue bar brawl.

So tactical advantage and whatnot from managing initiate will matter less.

Which means you can run initiative the way you want to handle the brawl easiest.

I suggest two initiatives – the PCs and everybody else. Keep initiative order in case of mini-encounters or if something peculiar happens, but the brawl should be run as your turn – their turn until it ends.

Do the bad guys and then tell the players they can all do their turns.

This lets the players work out their die rolls simultaneously. And as bar brawls are a social thing, players can chat and laugh it up together in one big turn.

While we’re on the topic of stakes, use flavor to make the fight more interesting to offset feelings about lack of danger.

NPC sub-text is a super way to add flavor. Leverage who the NPC is and their story arc in your campaign.

For example, we already mentioned the Captain of the Guard. It’s illegal to attack a guard. What does the PC do? Instant flavor.

You can also mess the PCs up in other ways than physical wounds. Steal their stuff. Cover them in meat sauce (now that’s efficient dungeon preparation!). Embarrass them in front of the wenches.

And while we’re talking about TPKs, you might consider simplifying your combat rules of the brawl to make the fight fast and focused on the fun.

For example, D&D has detailed combat rules. But in this case, you might consider each round making one roll for each PC, perhaps a saving throw, and if they fail they are given a set number of damage, 2-4 points maybe.

That’s a whole lot faster than: attack roll, adding up attack mods, comparing to AC with mods, rolling damage + factoring in feats and special abilities or powers.

If you go this route, talk about it with your players first to get their agreement. You don’t want to nerf their special anticipated moments (there’s always one guy who wants to bring a two-handed sword and power attack to turn your fun brawl into a Tarantino movie).
If players agree with your rules tweaks, then great. If not, no big deal, it’s just a suggestion.

Don’t Forget Outside

Gotcha! That’s been my experience with bar brawls. One PC heads outside and I spent all my prep time and energy on the inside.

So give thought to what’s happening outside during the brawl and what mischief PCs might get into.

For example, will the rogue slip out to climb through upper windows for some looting or clue gathering? What’s the building exterior like – is it an easy climb? Is it raining outside? Are the streets well lit?

You can make things up during the session, which is awesome. But when idle before the game, say during commercials, think about the outside just so you don’t get caught off-guard and derailed.

A big portion of great GMing is based on emotion. If you feel confident, you’ll GM well. You GM well, you feel confident. It’s a feedback loop pushing you to be even better.

If a player does something unexpected, you hesitate. Confidence might drop. The quality of your GMing might dip. Your confidence drops more. It’s a feedback loop pushing you to stumble.

Simply realizing ahead of time the PCs might go outside, or into the cellar or upstairs, prevents a surprise moment that could jar you. Instead of OMG it becomes Oh Noes! Bad news is better than surprise news when GMing.

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Putting this all together, you want to make your bar brawls fast and easy to run. Learn the rules you need ahead of time, and prepare cheat sheets to help players during the fight.

Clone NPCs and include special NPCs to add an edge to the brawl.

Add as much flavor as you can with flying food and tasty NPC details.

And think a bit beyond the fight about what the PCs might do so you do not get caught by surprise.

Have a great brawl!

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Annoyingly Flawed Magical Items

From Roy Dunigan

This past summer, several friends and I were planning to begin a somewhat humorous D&D 3.5 edition campaign. One player’s character was going to start the campaign with an innate ability to find magical items.

Unfortunately, all such items he locates are flawed to some degree. In the process of brainstorming ideas for flawed magical items, here are a few of the better ideas we came up with.

Though my group was unable to get things rolling due to various reasons, I thought the following items would at least provide some entertaining moments in other people’s game sessions.

Screaming Shield

The Screaming Shield is a standard kite shield with intricate metalwork depicting a humanoid face appearing to be shouting in triumph over the enemy.

Originally, the shield was designed by the enchanter to magically emit war cries when struck by a weapon. The intention was that the cries and shouts would serve to demoralize an enemy and give the shield’s wielder an advantage in battle.

Unfortunately, due to a failure during the enchanting process, the shield instead magically emits cries of pain and terror whenever it is stuck. Repeatedly striking the shield will eventually drive it to plead for its life and beg for mercy, finally ending in a nervous breakdown in which the shield cries inconsolably for several days.

Eventually the crying stops, though the next time the shield is used, it will begin once again cry out in pain and fear.

Though the shield emits intelligible cries for mercy, it is not an intelligent artifact. It does not have the ability to carry on conversations with its wielder unlike some other better known magical devices and weapons.

The shield has no capacity to reason, though some who have encountered it have tried to lift its spirits by telling it everything will be all right.

Originally, the shield was to be paired with a sword to be named the Shouting Sword, but since the shield was a failure, the sword was never forged.

The shield is resistant to damage and even appears to “heal” itself of nicks, dents and other blemishes over time. The ferrous metals in the shield are not prone to rust, nor does the silver inlay tarnish.

Whether this was an intended enchantment or simply an unexpected side effect of the enchanting process is unknown. Whatever the case, the shield certainly is a work of art that holds its beauty very well.

Originally Feldon Krug, the dwarven creator of this shield, intended to name it the Shield of the War Cry. The purpose of this shield was to be as impressive as the originally intended name implies. However, the results were far less that what Feldon hoped for once the enchanting process was

Feldon Krug was known far and wide as an impressive armor and weapon smith. His attention to detail and ability to artistically express anything he envisioned with precious metals and gemstones was lauded as among the very best of his race.

Feldon was not, however, exceptionally literate. He would stumble over words with more than two syllables on the rare occasions he decided to read or write.

Therefore, it was surprising when he chose to try his hand at enchantment using a dusty old spell book he bought (rather cheaply one might add) from a travelling merchant.

The only reason Feldon even bought the book was that it was written in the language of the dwarves, which he could read with difficulty. He also thought to himself, “Why the hell not?”

Feldon’s poor literacy was blamed for the results of the enchantment. His colleagues assumed he just bungled the enchantment due to mispronunciation of the words.

The Screaming Shield, as it came to be known, was the laughing stock of the region. Feldon burned the spell book and vowed, red-faced, never to dabble in magic again.

The shield was tossed out as rubbish by Feldon only to be taken from the trash heap by a wanderer hoping to sell it for the precious metals.

In the ensuing years, the shield has turned up in the hands of various would-be adventurers, though no one has ever kept the shield for long after using it in battle.

For a brief period, the shield was a featured attraction in a travelling circus sideshow. During the show, the strongman would strike the shield with a variety of weapons whereupon it would begin crying out in agony and begin begging for its life much to the amusement of the show’s patrons.

Eventually, the strongman began to regret treating the shield so abominably every night. He disposed of the shield by tossing it off a bridge when no one was looking, later claiming the shield was stolen.

The current whereabouts of the Screaming Shield are unknown.

Holdout Quiver

The Holdout Quiver is a standard leather quiver of unremarkable quality enchanted to always contain ‘one last arrow’ so long as its owner is in dire peril.

If there is an immediate and unavoidable threat to the life of the Holdout Quiver’s owner, a single normal arrow will magically appear each time its owner reaches for another arrow. Once the danger is over or becomes avoidable, the arrows cease to appear.

It is unknown how the arrow determines the level of danger to the archer’s life.

Ordinarily, magically appearing arrows would be a great boon to any adventuring archer, but there is one exception in this case. Due to bad enchanting, the magical arrow appears in the quiver upside down, creating a risk that the archer may cut or impale his hand on the sharp arrowhead.

At the least, this requires the archer to turn the arrow around to keep from loading it onto his bow backwards, which could make a difference in that split second between life and death.

Once danger is past and the arrows cease to appear in the quiver, the archer must re-load the quiver with at least ten arrows. This is the action that will reset the enchantment.

The quiver’s enchantment works by exact duplication of the last arrow of those loaded into it by the archer. This only works for normal, non-magical arrows. Magic arrows negate the enchantment for some reason, and the quiver must be reloaded with normal arrows after such a negation occurs before the enchantment will work again.

Magically duplicated arrows vanish after striking a solid surface of any sort whether the target is hit or not, so they cannot be collected after battle. Though magically created, the arrows are normal and do the same damage as the type of normal arrows the archer loads into the quiver.

Poisoned arrows will be duplicated as long as the poison is not of a magical nature.

Due to the fact that the magically duplicated arrows appear in the quiver upside down, poisoned arrows may not be a good idea.

The Holdout Quiver’s origins are unknown, though the physical design is assumed to be Elfin. Most archers who have owned the Holdout Quiver over the years usually wind up selling it or disposing of it due to the flaw in the enchantment.

As far as is known, no one has ever attempted to correct the flaw. The Holdout Quiver’s current whereabouts are unknown; though most likely it is sitting on a shelf in a weapon shop somewhere.

Sword of Vociferous Commentary

Why anyone would want to create a talking sword to begin with is a matter for debate. One could argue that a talking sword could ease the burden of loneliness for a wayward lone adventurer.

One could also argue that anyone talking to their sword should seek help immediately.

Nevertheless, at various times in history, enchanters and gods alike have decided a talking sword is a necessary item and so have gone to great lengths to create these magical weapons.

One such enchanter, Thurmond the Determined, decided creating a talking sword would be a great idea and undertook the endeavor, though his contemporaries argued he lacked the skill to do it properly.

Those contemporaries were correct. Thurmond was without a doubt playing with enchantments way beyond his meager abilities. It is one thing to be able to enchant a picnic table cloth to shoo away flies, but quite another to imbue a sword with a personality.

Long story short, Thurmond did successfully enchant his subject sword to talk. Unfortunately, the sword only gives harsh critiques of its wielder’s combat abilities. Worse, it does so during actual combat. Even worse than that, it does so in the style of a professional wrestling ringside commentator.

Annoying voice aside, the Sword of Vociferous Commentary is a standard steel long sword with no identifying marks or decorations. One could say it has a rather utilitarian appearance, but the pointy end will still stick into an enemy quite nicely.

Usually, anyone wielding the sword will only discover its vocal capacity once engaged in combat.

During combat, the sword constantly gives a play-by-play of the battle, ridiculing its wielder’s swings, thrusts and parries.

The sword also speaks as if it is talking to an audience rather than to the wielder, and will utter phrases like, “Whoa, he really botched that one” and “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m not sure how he survived this long.”

Boots of Ascension

The Boots of Ascension are ordinary looking, brown leather boots that allow the wearer to carry twice his encumbrance limit without penalty to movement.

The boots have two fundamental flaws. First, they only work so long as the wearer is going uphill. The enchantment does not function while the wearer is going downhill or when standing on level ground.

This also creates the danger of the enchantment giving out once the wearer steps onto level ground while burdened with more weight than he ordinarily could lift. This has been known to result in back injury.

The second flaw is annoying in the fact that, when standing on level ground, the wearer’s body will actually lean at an angle anywhere from 15 to 45 degrees as if standing on the steep slope of a hill. This oddity simply renders the Boots of Ascension impractical for everyday wear.

The boots of ascension were commissioned by an unnamed quartermaster stationed with the King’s army at a fort located at the top of a very steep hill with a path too narrow for carts or wagons.

The idea for the boots emerged one night when the quartermaster was engaged in conversation with a travelling mage in the village pub. The quartermaster described his difficulties to the mage who suggested various methods for dealing with the problem. Thus the idea for the Boots of Ascension was brainstormed and commissioned.

The mage, however, took the quartermaster’s money, enchanted the boots in haste without regard for quality assurance, paid a random adventurer to deliver the boots to the quartermaster, and promptly departed the region.

The quartermaster, realizing he had been duped out of his money, still made use of the boots despite their shortcomings until the day he retired. His successor, rather than use the boots, discarded them and persuaded the fort’s captain to form a detail to widen the path for the use of carts and wagons.

Re-breather of Halitosis

This artifact of gnomish origin was created for the purpose of underwater exploration, excavation and salvage.

The re-breather works phenomenally well, allowing the user to breathe underwater for an unlimited amount of time.

However, there is one downside to using the device. The re- breather has the unfortunate side effect of afflicting the wearer with unbelievably foul breath for one to six days after using the device, hence the name, Re-Breather of Halitosis.

The wearer’s breath is so bad anyone attempting to engage him in conversation must make a save versus nausea or be incapacitated for 1d10 rounds afterward. The halitosis seems to be unnoticeable to the re-breather’s user, however.

No one has claimed credit for creating the re-breather, despite its profound effectiveness when used underwater. No one has been able to determine what causes halitosis after use, either. Thankfully, the effects of using the Re-Breather of Halitosis are temporary.

Codpiece of Self-Adjustment

The wearer of this piece of armor subconsciously makes constant adjustments to his crotch whether in private or in public.

The wearer is totally unaware of the constant fidgeting and fumbling with the codpiece, since these actions seem to function on the autonomous level much like a heartbeat or blinking.

Furthermore, the greater the number of witnesses, the more the wearer seems to adjust his or her crotch.

The codpiece, intended to be part of a complete set of such armor, was designed to be self-adjusting to ensure constant comfort.

However, the magic of the codpiece uses the wearer’s own hands to make those adjustments. Since the enchantment of the codpiece was a failure, the rest of the armor was never crafted.

Stylus of Inept Inscribing

Note: This item was inspired by the Quick Quotes Quill from the Harry Potter Series.

The Stylus of Inept Inscribing is a writing implement brainstormed by a rather lazy wizard who desired a way to get his thoughts onto parchment without the drudgery of actually dipping his quill into the inkwell.

The wizard would be able to dictate his thoughts to the Stylus, which in turn would magically perform the onerous task of writing them down. The idea was simple and quite brilliant. The enchanting process was flawed.

Probably due to the wizard’s laziness in researching and performing the enchantment, the stylus writes with a lisp.

Aside from the annoyance of having “s” written out as “th”, using the stylus to inscribe spells becomes a dangerous affair since who knows what will happen if a spell scroll is read with a lisp.

Comedic Compact

This small makeup case is beautifully crafted from mother- of-pearl with gold filigree inlaid onto a silver case. A single beautiful ruby adorns the lid and a tiny golden hasp easily slides aside to reveal the flawless silver mirror within.

Truly this would be a prize possession for any aristocratic woman of style and fashion.

The compact is detectable by reveal magic spells but gives no indication of what enchantments have been laid upon the item. The enchantment will reveal the nature of its enchantment only when someone attempts to use it for its intended purpose.

As a woman (or man if he is so inclined) uses the compact, she will see herself in the mirror as applying makeup to her face in such a masterful way as to enhance her natural beauty while appearing to have used little to no makeup at all.

While the user believes herself to be creating a work of cosmetic art, the reality is that she is actually painting her face in clown makeup.

It is unknown if this is actually a result of flawed enchanting or simply a deliberate practical joke.

Gloves of Martial Arts Mastery

Made of leather and studded with steel, these light gauntlets were the brainchild of a shaolin monk who, for a time, dabbled in enchanting.

His goal was to enchant a whole set of lightweight leather armor to grant the wearer knowledge of the martial arts, elevating even the lowliest student’s skills to the equivalent of the highest grandmaster.

The project proved to be farther beyond the monk’s enchanting skills than he thought. Rather than granting skills in the martial arts, the gloves instead emit dramatically cheesy sound effects when worn.

Each tiny movement of the hands causes the gloves to produce a variety of whooshing and swishing sounds. Touching objects or persons with these gauntlets produces over-the-top sounds of fists striking flesh in the form of abnormally loud smacks, cracks and thumps.

The sound effects intensify with the level of exertion or impact on a person or object. These sound effects only occur when the gloves are worn. Since they happen automatically, it is impossible to move silently while wearing the gloves since every motion generates sound.

The gauntlets provide only standard protection for their material type and grant absolutely zero actual martial arts skills. They do sound impressive, though.

On a final note, since the gauntlets were an abject failure, the monk abandoned the project (and enchanting altogether) and never attempted to complete the full set of armor he had in mind.

Laundry Bag of Holding

This magical object is the result of a failed homework assignment given to a student at one of the leading arcane universities.

The assignment was simple – turn an ordinary sack into a bag of holding. Though most of the students in the class passed with flying colors, a few did not.

One student’s failure was so bad it became school legend and has been used by professors as an example of how NOT to create a bag of holding.

The student in question, lacking a proper sack, decided to utilize his own laundry bag as the subject for his enchantment. The results were far from spectacular.

Anyone who uses this particular bag will only find dirty laundry held within, no matter what the user may have placed inside previously. The enchantment was so badly performed that the result was not a pocket dimension applied to the interior of the bag, but rather a wormhole.

This wormhole is unstable and tends to flit around, connecting the Laundry Bag of Holding to piles, sacks and baskets of dirty laundry in various locations throughout the multidimensional planes.

Whenever an object is placed in the Laundry Bag of Holding, it is exchanged for articles of clothing from bundles of dirty laundry at random locations throughout the multiverse.

The original owners of the dirty laundry are dumbfounded at the odd items that suddenly appear in their laundry baskets. In at least one culture, this has given rise to the legend of “laundry fairies” that leave valuable items in exchange for dirty drawers.

Well, I hope these few items were entertaining. If anyone is interested in contributing to this list of Annoyingly Flawed Magical Items, feel free to do so. I may compile them into a PDF project which would be released to the fans of Roleplaying Tips.

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How Do You Handle Encumbrance?

From Eric

I just started a low-fantasy, dark medieval game with friends, and the first thing we noticed was the difficulty of managing each player’s encumbrance.

First, I had to estimate on the fly every item’s weight. And second, my players had a hard time writing down their inventory and making sure the weight didn’t lock them down.

So I wonder, how do you manage such a thing quickly and easily to keep the action going at a brisk pace? Is there software that takes care of that like in video games? Am I putting too much emphasis on this? How do others go about this?

Johnn’s reply:

Hi Eric,

What game system are you using? Ask yourself what tracking encumbrance adds to your game. Playing 1st edition D&D, we scrapped encumbrance and “eyeballed” it instead, and the game lost none of the fun.

If tracking is a must, here are a couple of ideas:

  • Index cards: Draw a grid out in ink and laminate, or use pencil and eraser, to mark squares off as PCs take on more weight.
  • Glass beads: Give each player a number of beads or poker chips according to their weight allowance. They cash in beads or chips as they take on more weight.
  • Rounding to the nearest 10: Round stuff off to the nearest 10 or 25 pounds. Group items together to get rough estimates. “Your kit and sundry look like 10 lbs.”
  • The best software to track exact amounts is a spreadsheet. Use Google Spreadsheet shared with members of your group.
  • Put treasure on cards or paper you can just hand to players. Include encumbrance value on the back.
  • Make players track their own encumbrance as they divide up loot, and do the occasional audit if you think they’re fudging. As players divide up loot and update their encumbrance, use that free time to update your own notes about stuff or just think ahead a little bit. Those short breaks for the GM are n ice. 🙂

Hope this helps.

Readers, how do you tackle encumbrance in your games?

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Tips On Running A New Campaign

From Michael Garcia

One of your recent newsletters had a request from Chris for tips on running a new campaign. Here are a few thoughts.

There are so many tips on campaign creation that I don’t know where to start, but I guess I should first urge you to relax. Don’t get overwhelmed. It’s a learning process.

Even if you do a great job with your next campaign, you’ll consider it to be somewhat childish a few years from now (if you keep at it). As for specifics, I would start by pondering the linear versus sandbox debate.

Linear Plotline Versus Sandbox

This is one of the first concepts to grasp. Will you try to nudge things in a certain direction so a cool story unfolds, or will you simply set up a world and let the character’s play?

Either one, taken too far, can be disastrous. I think the best campaign has elements of both, so that’s what I try to do.

If you try too hard to forge a plot, you’ll end up “railroading characters,” or forcing them do what you want. This is the cardinal sin of role-playing, for it violates the whole point of a role-playing game, and your players will soon quit on you if you do this.

On the flip side, if you simply create a setting and leave the direction up to the characters alone, they may indeed have fun exploring for a while, but the campaign will start to seem random and pointless, and players tend to get bored with that.

So how to find the middle ground?

I think each campaign has to have a focus, and since the players are the main actors in your game, the focus should be on one or more of their characters.

Delve Into Character

During character creation, I have long discussions with each player to find out what type of character he is envisioning. What is the character’s background? What are his goals? What are his loves, passions, fears and idiosyncrasies?

I ask these questions not only because I’m curious, but also because it helps me to find my focus.

With the campaign I’m currently running, I was intrigued with a fighter named Diego de Vargas, whom the player envisioned as a Don Juan like character. He was a romantic figure, quick to fall in love, existing on the outskirts of the law, but not evil.

He had a strong sense of honor, much like a duelist. You have to love players that give you so much to work with. I give them extra experience points, for they really do make the game much better.

At the start of the campaign, I knew that Diego would become the focus, though I had no idea how.

Create Life Situations

Do NOT try to script out a story for your newfound focus. Good DMs do not design plots; they design situations. Think about your focus and try to envision an existing situation in which to place him.

By situation, I don’t mean one small scene from a movie (the bad guys are coming down the street and you need a place to hide) but a life situation (a powerful man in the city seeks to kill you, so you seek a job that will both feed you and provide an escape).

From this current situation, try to get a rough idea of the character’s possible future. Be sure not to impose your own desires on the character. Use what the player is giving you. In fact, go back and brainstorm with the player to ensure that he likes your ideas.

In Diego’s case, I thought it would be nice for him to eventually get some grounding. Perhaps someday he’ll win respectability and leave the rogue lifestyle behind, perhaps he’ll find his true love, perhaps he’ll connect with a long lost family member and cease to be a loner.

So your focus should be a character or a group of characters, in a certain situation, for whom you have a very rough idea of the future. In my case, the Don-Juan-like fighter named Diego de Vargas, a loner and a swashbuckler, who someday might find direction in life, establish himself, and grow roots.

Create an Anchor

Now, not exactly the same as the focus, I think each campaign should have an anchor. While your story will follow the focus (a character), the anchor ensures the character never strays too far. This helps you to avoid the pointless feeling of a pure sandbox campaign.

The anchor can be an employer, a family, an important cause. It need not direct every action of the main character, but it will provide some direction when needed.

For Diego and his friends, I decided to use a rich merchant prince named Martinengo Deltini, who for much his life was a ruthless and hedonistic businessman, but who has finally come to see the error of his ways.

Master Deltini, being so wealthy and well connected in various parts of the world, proved to be useful for almost every campaign run in my campaign world. Most new characters would be employed by him to do something.

Some characters sought nothing but money (these were the worst), some sought to make a name for themselves, some were religious and sought to help the Church, and some were devoted to the Aurelian Empire (where Deltini lives).

All found employment with Deltini to be sensible, for while he has become a religious and charitable man, who often does cooperate loyally with the Empire, he remains a businessman, whose agents travel the known world on business ventures.

Avoid Self-Destructing Parties

The campaign anchor also helps to avoid a major problem that is common among new groups — the self-destructing party.

As a player, I have seen this phenomenon many times. It’s not fun for anyone, and the bad feelings often go from characters to players.

One example should illustrate this problem. A friend planned to run an Arthurian-style campaign. Seeking to please everyone, he bid us make characters that would fit into one of the two existing societies — the old pagan – style society that was slowly disappearing or the newer monotheistic society that was slowly replacing it.

In a vacuum, six players sat around a table and produced a ranger, a druid, a cleric, a wizard, rogue and a fighter.

The DM then read his opening text and gave us our goal. We set off. Our first encounter was with a group of pagan bandits that had taken to the woods because the monotheistic society had taken away their lands.

Well, they ambush us and proceed to kick the crap out of us. In the chaos, my cleric wrestles their leader to the ground, pins him, and finally threatens to kill him unless he calls off his men.

This prompts an argument in our party, for half of the members (the pagan ones) were more sympathetic to the bandits than to my cleric.

Before you know it, characters are fighting characters and players are yelling at one another. The campaign ground to a halt.

My friend realizes his mistake in not giving us any common ground. Our characters had NO reason to be together, let alone to adventure and risk our lives for one another. He bade us roll up new characters and asked if we would be okay with monotheistic characters.

We were, and he established all the new characters as members of a secretive, strange and somewhat unorthodox religious order called the Order of the Ring. Its purpose was to aid the Church in ways that most people would not understand.

Our new characters did not need to be religious. Some were merely indebted to the Order, while others were raised as orphans by its members. In this case, the Order of the Ring served as the anchor. It gave us adventure hooks and gave us a reason to be together.

So when starting my current campaign, I found a healthy compromise between a purely linear plot idea (the development of Diego de Vargas) and the pure sand box idea (play within my campaign world).

I decided to focus on Diego, using Martinengo Deltini as his employer to nudge him along in a certain direction from time to time, but Deltini’s interests are so diverse that the nudging could be very slight and subtle.

At almost every step of the way, I could use Deltini to dangle six new adventure ideas before the PCs. This gives the players choice, but it ties each of their adventures together and eliminates any feeling of pointlessness.

Later, as the characters develop and find certain projects or causes to be more to their liking, I could concentrate more on these.