Instant Reward Cards

From Logan Horsford

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0452

Instant Reward Cards

In most games, there is no way of giving anything to the players on the spot who come up with good ideas, witty comments, or anything similar that the GM feels adds to the game. Giving an XP bonus at the end of the session falls short, and doesn’t offer instant gratification.

What I have done is make something that is easy and can work for pretty much any game. When players do something that contributes to the game, I give them cards at random from a deck. Not playing cards, but 3″x5″ cards with different things on them.

Most are helpful to the players. Some give minor bonuses to hit or damage, others give favors with NPCs, range bonuses, etc. Anything that is beneficial to the players and their characters can be put on a card.

There are other cards that do almost nothing – giving tiny bonuses or doing nothing at all.

Some cards give bonuses to the enemies, cause players to have to discard their cards, and similar things.

It is up to the GM as to what they wish to put into their card deck. I’ve turned mine into a side game where there is a strategy to using the cards. Some cards even allow you to collect certain other cards to cash them in for better bonuses.

Following are a few short tips surrounding my use of instant reward cards.

Deck-Building Materials

I suggest using the best quality ingredients available. I realize I probably game more than most people. My card deck sees a lot of use. If you game less often, your deck doesn’t need to be as sturdy.

To me, my cards are not only a really nifty play aid, they’ve become a photo album. I’d strongly recommend the best materials you can find. It will save you time and effort in the future.

You’ll need good scissors – comfortable ones, as you’ll be using them a lot. Also clear tape, sticky on one side. I suggest wide scotch tape. Get at least a four packs, which normally costs about $12, or be prepared to go out to buy tape later.

Buy 1000 unlined plain white 3×5 cards. For those who are not using a barbaric measurement system, please convert that into metric and get cards close to that size. I’d get the best, stiffest cards you can.

Why that large a card? Because some of the cards have a considerable amount of text. Others I want to have enough room for nifty pictures. Also, it is fairly cheap to get good quality cards in large quantities.

Write up a list of the cards you want to make. If you don’t build this list, actually making cards will be challenging.

Find or make pictures that fit onto the card. About 2 1/4th square inches seem to work well, but it depends on the card. You can make cards without the pictures, but they’re pretty darned dull.

I’d recommend choosing pictures that either appeal to you or match up with the game you are going to be running. It is neat to match up specific pictures with specific cards – better, I think, than just random images. Plus, it makes card play go faster later. Now – and this I can’t stress enough – store the pictures on your computer.

Lastly, make sure they are color pictures. I know black and white is cheaper, but color is better and this will make your deck more vibrant.

Find a couple of nice pens. I suggest Pilot G-2 07. Pick up a four or five pack. They are nice pens and you will use more than one if your deck is anywhere near as large as mine.

You’ll also need a box lid that’s about 2-3 inches deep and the size of two standard pieces of typing paper – A4 for those outside of the US, 8 1/2″ x 11″ for the rest of us.

This will take several hours. Scream at people if necessary to get the time. Go build yourself a shack out in the woods. Hide under the stairs. Whatever works.

Assembling Your Cards

Cut out all of the nifty pictures. Using the pictures to see how much space you will have left for the text, write in your text for each card. You might find some of the pictures are too big for the amount of text you need to put in.

Make sure you have a bit of space on each side of the picture. When you tape, I’d recommend a single layer of tape over the entire picture. If you don’t, the picture will degrade through normal usage. That’s the reason for the wide tape.

When I originally started making these cards, I had made the mistake of using thin tape just around the edges. It wore off pretty quickly and I was a very sad cheetah.

If you can’t write legibly, you have a choice. Either find someone else willing to invest several hours in writing your cards, or find some nifty way to type them up on the computer.

Care and Maintenance

The deck will tip over if you have enough cards, because they have tape covering the pictures. Put them in the large box lid to corral them.

Not long after you’ve made the deck, some idiot will attempt to anger you by spilling soda on the cards, eating them, etc. Because the materials make recreating the cards easy and you stored all of the pictures on your computer, it will be no problem to replace any cards lost to tragedy.

I’ve since switched to a fully electronic deck. I’m not going to go into how to make an electronic card as it involves whichever program you happen to use. I like Vassal, as it is free.

You can get Vassal from: Vassal Engine

The current link to my deck is available from Eyrie – look for HC module; whichever one is the highest number, as we continue to revise it.

Remember – the card deck will reflect you, your game, your players, and your world. A well-crafted card deck will be one of the things players look forward to using.

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Magic Item Backstories

The Storied Scroll

From Dfaran L’Eniarc

The item: A spell scroll with some notable mid- or high- level spell on it.

The hook: This scroll was scribed by none other than Mordenkainen himself, or Elminster, or Gandalf, or whatever big-name wizardly type you prefer. Whatever its magical merits are, the knowledge that could be gleaned from studying his particular style is probably far more valuable.

Certain collectors and magical scholars might pay huge sums of money for this valuable artifact. The spell itself is written with beautiful elegance, and perhaps Mordenkainen even left some notes in the margins, as an afterthought, suggesting ways to alter the spell and make it more powerful.

The question becomes whether it is more valuable to the PCs to cast the spell, copy it into a spellbook, or preserve this piece of wizarding history – and sell it for boatloads of money.

Alternatively, the spell in question is a simple cantrip, next to useless aside from the historical, scholarly value. Still worth boatloads of money to the right buyer, but could easily be erased by any competent magic-user in seconds –not to mention that it’s just a flimsy piece of paper.

Another hook: The scroll was cleverly scribed so the magical runes form a treasure map. No attempt to copy the map can be made without erasing the magical writing. The spell itself is one that would easily overcome many obstacles on the path to the treasure, except that once it is cast, the map will be gone. The PCs must decide if it is worth more to them to have their cake, or to eat it.

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Blessed Orb of Healing

From Jason “Flynn” Kemp

There is a legend among the Walkers of Joven, a society of wandering pacifistic monk-healers, of a holy magic item known as the Blessed Orb of Healing. In the early days of the kingdom, the Walkers would travel with the greatest of the First King’s armies, and use the Orb to heal the wounded of both sides once the battle had ended.

Many a land coveted such a powerful item, but it was the First King himself whose greed overcame him. Desperate to bring the power of such an artifact fully under his control, the First King sent a small band of his personal guard into the encampment of the Walkers of Joven at the height of a great battle, disguised as mercenaries under the enemy’s banner.

As the Fates would have it, however, at the moment where the Walkers were defending themselves  from the First King’s secret forces, the enemy broke through the front line and poured into the First King’s camps. In the confusion, the Orb was lost, and to this day, none have laid claim to possessing it, nor has its whereabouts been revealed to the public at large.

Now, a young scholar has discovered letters in the ruins of an ancient library that imply the existence of a secret order within the Walkers of Joven whose duty it was to protect the artifacts and relics of their healing god. Members of this secret order, the Order of the Inner Circle, were not bound by the oaths of pacifism that the other Walkers of Joven followed, and tended to follow the path of the monk more than that of the healer.

The young scholar suspects that perhaps a member of the Inner Circle managed to escape that fateful day with the Blessed Orb of Healing, and now the relic resides in the hidden vaults of the Inner Circle. Among the writings he’s found are clues to the location of this ancient trove, and he needs a brave band of adventurers to help him seek out this holy relic and the other treasures that undoubtedly exist with it in these vaults, all in the name of King and Kingdom.

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Unguent of Timelessness

From Brad Chacos

The town’s Captain of the Night Watch, a round, pleasant and well-liked older cleric with many years of service, approaches the group soon after they perform some act of unselfish good.

He has a confession: he is secretly a vampire who forswore his evil natures and devoted his life to Pelor and the proverbial greater good. He keeps the kind-hearted, yet judgmental and superstitious townsfolk of his small religious community ignorant of his secret by thoroughly covering his body in the Unguent of Timelessness every nine months like clockwork. This keeps his looks unremarkable enough, if a bit prone to some funky body odors.

But, the orcs that haunt the mountains between here and the coastal city that supplies the Unguent have been causing a lot of trouble recently. His normal merchant hasn’t been seen nor heard from – and the Captain last applied the Unguent almost 11 months ago.

Would the party be willing to make the trek to the coastal city and return with a full barrel of the Unguent? If they hear anything about Argyle, the merchant, the Captain would love to hear of that as well.

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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Comments on Police in a Modern Campaign

From Mark of the Pixie


Uninvolved or Marginally Involved Police

You could also have a “corrupt police” or “police as enemy” in the campaign. Not realistic in many circumstances, but there are many examples in fiction.

Several systems also have “Mundanes can’t even see the stuff PCs deal with” which can make the uninvolved police a bit easier to swallow.

Another popular option is the “Fringe police”. Law enforcement on the edges of civilisation, in near wilderness areas, with low populations. Australia has some jurisdictions the size of Belgium patrolled by a total of just two officers. Response times can be many hours. Backup can be days away. Crimes could be realistically committed in these areas with very little chance of any police involvement at all.

A related option would be “Overwhelmed police”. Areas where the police are trying, but the criminals are winning. You could get away with arson because the police are too busy dealing with the murders.

Police Process

The original Call of Chuthulu book had 3 or 4 paragraphs detailing how a officer would approach and if necessary arrest a suspect. It was short, detailed and quite accurate. It was presented from the point of view of PCs being arrested and I found it very useful.

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Additional Modern Police Tips

From Kenneth Gauck


Great contribution on police in RPGs from Logan. Here are some observations.

1. If you’re going to change the level of police involvement, it should be as a consequence of PC actions in full awareness of what they are doing. Actions such as leaving The Agency, or resigning from the force, or crossing certain lines of accepted behavior.

2. From a story perspective, minimal police involvement is a genre convention. But if you’re looking for a realistic explanation, there are three kinds.

First is police corruption. Especially well suited to 1920s Chicago or any place and time where cops are liable to take money to look the other way. Selecting this choice means you can have wide latitude shooting at other gangs and blowing up their criminal operations. Interfering with the police or harming law officers is a game changer, and as mentioned in point 1, will be a PC action that ends minimal involvement.

Second is inter-jurisdictional boundaries. This makes the most sense and has the broadest application when the PCs are spies and someone from Washington is showing up in some police chief’s office telling him this is a federal matter and to leave it alone.

This doesn’t mean sometimes the police don’t pick up the PCs or catch them doing something, but it does mean they get released without much difficulty when said agent from Washington arrives. While this is best for international spy or anti-terrorist stuff, it can also work for some domestic departmental rivalries, but its impact will be less regular.

The ATF, and to some extent DEA, have something of a reputation as cowboys with other agencies and local police. This can be played realistically, or can be a thin veil to maintain in-game suspension of disbelief.

Third is because the PCs don’t do things that interest the police. A campaign designed for role-playing story-telling-problem-solvers as opposed to tactical-power-gaming-slayers might involve PCs who could, for all intents and purposes, be little old ladies that solve crimes by asking questions of the right people.

Two genres that follow this style, even if they aren’t popular gaming tropes, are the private detective and the crime-solving civilian. These can start off as “my husband has disappeared but the police think he ran off with another woman” type problems that then turn out to be bigger.

Alternatively, they can be cold cases the police have stopped spending regular man-hours on. These can be interesting campaigns because they involve little or no combat and require players to prove their case so completely that the police act, or drive the bad guys out into the open with their bad behavior.

3. I have run several games where the possibility of the campaign turning into a run-from-the authorities was real. I told the players the story of Bonnie and Clyde, although John Dillinger, Jesse James, and other criminals work as well. The idea is that Bonnie and Clyde were small time crooks who were put into a situation where they might have been arrested, and chose to shoot their way out.

Having killed some state police they were no longer small time crooks but wanted criminals. Clyde Barrow then upped the stakes again by robbing an armory to get BAR’s and then by breaking a man out of a Texas prison work detail. By this time the police were willing to just ambush and shoot Bonnie and Clyde.

So when I am running a realistic police setting, there are three basic response levels.

  • The PCs are criminals who do things like rob gas stations and liquor stores and get normal police response to such actions.
  • The PCs are wanted men, and when located, the police set up perimeters, call in lots of back-up, and attempt to contain the PCs before eventual apprehension.
  • The PCs are considered so bad and so dangerous the police will kill you and the consequences for the police don’t matter because the game is over, you’re dead. You’re Dillinger at the Biograph.

Games normally involve concepts of proportional risk. A character of so many character levels, build points, or what have you, gets to fight NPCs designed to be a challenge.

Once you get to “C” in my scheme, proportionality is out the window. The man assigned to organize the posse to bring you down will hire and recruit whoever he needs. Special Forces, top Mafia hit men, whatever.

Only one game I was ever involved in played out this way, and the players were actually playing for a crazy nihilistic romp. Instead of playing their criminals as lovable rogues as expected, they stole from the mob, stole government vehicles, and just kept running until, like any spree- killers, they ran up against more firepower than they could possibly deal with, and went out in a “blaze of glory”.

Whether the law is the king’s sheriffs, the local police department, or Imperial Stormtroopers, playing a realistic police response is fun style for players who prefer to talk their way out of problems rather than shoot their way out. If these are your players, this kind of legal authority is something to consider in your game.

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Create Alternate Characters for SWAT

From Nara Van Rossum

As I read Logan Horsford’s great article, I realized the way I would deal with the problem of action, when PCs are police and the inevitable “Calling in the SWAT” moments, would be to give each player an extra character for the encounter.

If you have five players, each player gets a character in the main PC group, plus one character for every commonly called-in outside group. That way, players can capture hostile subjects, interrogate them, investigate the scene extensively, and never miss out on the interesting bits.

Whether these moments happen frequently or infrequently is up to the GM, but removing the NPC nature of backup could encourage players to keep it realistic and “call it in” more often.

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Identifying Your Dice

From Loz Newman

This dates from the long-ago days of yore when the only games shop in our town sold only one brand of dice…all the same color. To avoid confusing our dice with others, my friends and I came up with a simple solution: color the engraved number (from 1 to 4) on one face of each die a given color (use a thin-point permanent marker), each of us having a unique number+color combination.

I picked (and still use to this day) “Three/green” (I color the number 3 on each dice a bright green). My friends chose “Four/blue”, “One/purple”, “Three/red” etc. To sort out which dice are whose, just check the color coding.

Nowadays, with all the makes of dice rolling around, confusion is not such a problem. However, if you buy those big packs of identical d6 (or similar) this trick can be used to divvy them up between those who chipped in for the purchase.

This tip only works on dice with numbers stamped or engraved into the surface of the faces.


  • Why only 1 to 4? Because the smallest type of polyhedral dice (d4) only has 4 sides.
  • If your dice has black letters, lay down a little white liquid paper first…if it gets onto the surface of the die, just wipe it off before it dries.
  • If they’d been available (and cheaper!) at the time I’d have probably chosen to use one of those artist pens with gold or silver ink.