Keep The Peace – Part 1

From Joel Fox

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0401

A Brief Word From Johnn

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What’s Your Favourite RPG?

There is a new section in this week’s issue called What’s Your Favourite RPG? I have four game systems ready to detail so far, and am looking for more submissions.

Do you have a favourite RPG system people should know about? If so, please send me an e-mail with a description of the game and why you like it so much.

It would be great to expose us all to new games, ideas, and opportunities to have fun in new ways.

Have a game-full week.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

Keep The Peace – Part 1

10 Tips To Bring The Party Back Together and Keep It That Way

Characters in the same party often fight each other; it’s sad but true. They disagree on tactics, faith, politics, and an infinite number of other things. The task of keeping them together usually falls onto the lap of the GM, who struggles to keep the party from tearing each other’s’ throats out.

Sometimes I wonder if these efforts are just treating the symptoms of a more complicated problem: it’s not the characters that are struggling, it’s the players who conflict.

Characters are extensions of the personalities, backgrounds, and attitudes of the players who control them. Therefore, rather than trying to just get through the adventure without another brawl between party members, a better strategy would be to bring the players together, and by extension, the characters they control.

Not only must a prudent GM consider the ethics and personalities of the players, but also their backgrounds and experience with the various strata of your campaign setting.

Consider the following ten-point strategy for your next gaming session. While it’s true many of these tactics would be more effective when used at the beginning of a campaign, you can also retroactively apply them through open communication with your players anytime.

It might seem these ideas would be useful only when GMing a new group, but they can also be used to gain a new perspective in any group, regardless of how many sessions you’ve shared.

Player Backgrounds Concerning Gaming Experience

Some groups are composed entirely of seasoned gamers: every member has played a wide range of pen and-paper games, computer RPGs, console games, MMOs, and so forth.

This sort of group is nice in that it allows you to assume a number of attitudes towards GMing and the world in general: ideas concerning a gold-based economy, the Heroes’ Journey, NPC attitudes, etc.

But then again, even though most RPGs share many common elements, they still vary greatly on the specifics. It is less likely all members of your group have all played the same games, and each game adds something of itself to the expectations of the player in your group.

For example:

  • The Final Fantasy series (excluding the first couple games) have a well-defined party infrastructure in terms of party roles. There is always a strong character, a wise one, a foolish one, etc.

Also included in the Final Fantasy construct is the idea that every party member has some sort of magic or special technique; even the brutish grappler from FF6 had blitzes comparable to magic.

  • Dungeons and Dragons establishes a different sort of dynamic. Instead of one person controlling the actions of multiple individuals, each person controls one specialized individual (more or less).

Instead of working out strategies individually and controlling the separate elements of a tactical maneuver as one controls their fingers, the player is instead just a single finger.

A player more familiar with console and computer RPGs might feel disempowered and one-dimensional in a setting where teamwork amongst individuals is more important.

  • Games like Bahamut Dragoon or even Pokémon, while still definably RPGs, are different from the two previous examples. While the player’s attributes are important to their survival in the world, equally as important are the attributes of their minions.

A player familiar with these games might view the rest of the characters as his underlings and assume a support role in the party, applying buffs and healing; or he might boss everyone around and chastise his fellow characters for not obeying his commands.

  • More general effects can be derived from the medium of the RPG: console RPGs differ in length from computer RPGs, pen-and-paper games seldom have pre-conceived notions of ending outside loss of interest or falling out, and so forth.

Some of your players might have no RPG gaming experience whatsoever. Players like these might be starting out with RPGs, having only played other sorts of games in the past; or maybe they’ve never had an active interest in any games at all.

In this case, often much of the information that veteran gamers assume everyone possesses is lost on the novice players, creating a point of tension.

In this sort of situation, or even if none of your players have ever played an RPG before, information concerning their experience with the genre most closely related to your gaming environment (pseudo medieval, sci-fi, etc.) can help fill in the gaps (see next section).

As you can see, gaming background can have a considerable effect on player, and therefore character, attitudes and positions in the game world. It is important to consider these backgrounds when designing the campaign setting, planning adventures, inventing encounters, and so forth.

If your knowledge does not include this information, it would be wise to simply ask your players what sorts of games they’ve played in the past. Not only will this help you plan based on their assumptions (or lack thereof), but it also helps create points of reference in the future.

Player Backgrounds Concerning Genre Experience

Just as important as experience with different sorts of RPGs is the experience your players have concerning the genre of your current game. Books, movies, short stories, TV shows, comic books, and other media your players have been exposed to add more assumptions to their RPG mindset.

One key point of difference between RPG background and other media background is the removal of interactivity, the primary focus in RPGs. Try to find out what sorts of media your players are interested in, as they can have strong effects on their characters.

Books afford some interactivity by placing the reader in the protagonist’s role. Books generally have longer scope than movies and are more detailed. They could be considered less evocative, though, in that they rely heavily on the reader’s sense of imagination.

Players who read a lot of books in your game’s genre will be more experienced with the various fantastic occurrences that less savvy readers will be surprised by.

Specific books also carry information that skews the perceptions of the players. In Tolkien’s books, for example, magic takes a much smaller place in comparison to fighting technique and various lores. More combats in The Lord of the Rings trilogy are large-scale battles, as opposed to the party vs. monster skirmishes prevalent in The Hobbit.

Racial tension in Tolkien’s books sends religious tension to the background. Dragonlance places a greater emphasis on clerics, The Deathgate Cycle favors strong magic, and so forth.

Movies usually contain a less complex plot than books, and either grant total closure or obviously set themselves up for sequels. Players who’ve seen movies in your game’s genre tend to be more influenced by the movies themselves than by general movie-related data.

The medium of the movie adds little to the expectations of the players other than its comparatively rapid pace. This might make players who watch a lot of movies more interested in fast-paced games, calling into need house rules that speed up play.

Movies outside your genre that players favor can be useful in establishing tone and theme. Players who prefer horror movies, for example, might be more comfortable in vampire’s mansions and haunted mausoleums than players familiar with romantic comedies, who might instead prefer town-based intrigues.

TV shows vary, but contain some of the attributes of both movies and books. TV shows can go on for as long as books, but still have the constructed imagery and cinematography of movies.

This makes a TV show background useful for determining player outlooks. TV shows are efficient at genre exposition, with the familiarity gained from multiple plots and imagery.

Players who’ve seen many TV shows related to your genre will probably better grasp the containers of encounter, adventure, and campaign better, but they might also be expecting episodic action when you’re not planning it.

Another problem is that, while there is a wealth of TV shows about modern settings and sci-fi, there are scant few relating to fantasy settings. Though there are several anime series that are fantasy-related (Slayers, One Piece, Record of Lodoss War), the chances of your players having seen these shows are probably low.

Player Personalities and Party Roles

When you bring together a group of people to play a pen-and- paper game, most of them are already going to have a preconceived notion of what sort of character they want to play, even if they don’t know the specifics of the games you’re playing.

The easiest way to recognize this is to try to conjure up your own personal image of what an ‘adventurer’ is. Truly, this construct of yours would differ from that of any of your players, or from anyone you talk to on the street.

However, the problem with this personal construct is sometimes the character the player wants to play isn’t congruous with the player’s personality and the party’s dynamic.

For example, say a player has this idea of being a cleric. Traditionally, a cleric is the party support caster, healer, and defensive combatant. But, because the player is aggressive and independent, the cleric instead only buffs himself, ignores his allies, and charges into battle ahead of the fighter and barbarian.

Obviously, this presents a serious problem if the rest of the group is counting on the cleric to fill his party role. Eventually, the rest of the group recognizes the cleric isn’t doing his “job” in the party, and they go out and buy healing potions, buff items, etc.

Since the rest of the party has to focus a portion of their time and resources doing the job of the cleric, they’re less efficient at doing their own jobs. And when more than one party member causes this problem, the whole party is doing the work of the rest of the party. Such will be not only their downfall, but a major source of strife.

There are two ways to look at this problem. The first is the player really shouldn’t be playing a cleric, because the cleric archetype doesn’t mesh with his personality and strategies as a player.

People who haven’t played any/many RPGs before can have a hard time telling what sort of character they should be playing, but it should be easy for someone familiar with the game to figure it out.

People good at math and science often make good spell casters by virtue of their plethora of theorems and functions, much like a wizard’s book of spells.

Religious people don’t necessarily make good clerics, but often strongly partisan individuals do by virtue of their well-defined beliefs and stances on various issues.

People with many hobbies or skilled tradesmen sometimes make good rogues and bards, as the many skills and abilities of those classes reflect their toolbox of techniques.

For players who have played before and are simply trying new classes, communication between party members and “party planning” can help solve this problem.

Lack of party planning is the other way to view the problem. In the previous example, the party’s expectations of what a cleric should do are too well developed: they hear the word ‘cleric,’ they see a guy in white robes with a censer and a staff.

This problem is related to the idea of the adventurer construct. Often, other players have a good idea as to what a cleric ‘should’ be, but the player playing the cleric hasn’t encountered clerics in their fantasy background.

Party planning can help solve this problem. By talking about what directions players are going to take with their characters before the campaign begins (or earlier in the campaign, while there’s still time to change), players can plan their characters accordingly so as to create a strong synergy between party members.

Since a cohesive party consisting of a fighter, a rogue, a cleric, and a wizard is more powerful than those four characters acting independently towards the same goal, party planning is an important consideration.

Since this never works out perfectly, players who end up playing the sorts of characters they don’t enjoy should be given allowances so as to change their characters, or to make new ones entirely.

This gratuity should especially be afforded to newer players, who haven’t encountered all of the possibilities available to them in terms of what kinds of characters they can play.

Sure, it’s one thing to try and explain the various party roles and class choices, but playing them is entirely different. Just try to keep an open mind when noticing problems of this sort.

Player Experience and Party Dynamics

The problem of some party members having strong notions of what a cleric should be, as discussed in the previous section, is only a small part of a larger problem.

Even if everyone in your group started playing your pen-and-paper game around the same time, everyone has a totally different bank of experience with other role-playing media, and therefore some players are going to have more experience than others in certain areas.

Occasionally, there will be a point of contention between two characters, not because of any in-game strife, but because one player has encountered the present problem before and the other player hasn’t.

The first player has strong feelings as to what the resolution of the problem is, and the second player has come to his own conclusions as to the answer.

The players argue about what to do about the problem: first player will argue deductively (drawing upon past experience and applying it to the current situation), while the second player argues inductively (using basic logical processes and the information at hand).

In truth, both players have strong arguments, which leads to bitter quarrels and harsh words. It also leads to one player feeling insulted or unappreciated when the other player’s advice is heeded over theirs.

This problem can be tricky to work with. Both players “know” they are right, and that is the problem: the players know, not the characters.

A problem often encountered by people playing roles is they cannot separate themselves from their characters. Players utilize meta-game thinking to supply personal knowledge to their characters.

The first player does this more directly than the second: he’s encountered the problem before with a different character, or he’s read the Monster Manual more thoroughly, or he saw the same spell in a movie.

The second player does this more indirectly: usually he is utilizing a cognitive process outside the scope of the character’s attributes. Neither player is wrong, but both characters are receiving wrongful aid from their players.

Solutions to this problem are sometimes as simple as building characters around players. For players that do have a lot of experience with the game, and have encountered many fantasy elements in the past, making their character experienced or knowledgeable seems like an easy solution.

Maybe they’re a combat veteran, or an aged loremaster, or a world-weary rogue. Players without a lot of experience can have characters who are “wet behind the ears” and lacking in worldly knowledge.

Rogues who have always relied on luck, wizards who failed their academy courses, and fighters who drunkenly stumble through battle are all assumable roles in this category.

If players with experience are struggling with the players without it, creating a mentor/mentee or master/apprentice relationship can ease some of the tension. The player with years of RPG experience can be the master tracker, and the new player can be his cohort.

Though this may seem a problematic mechanic in terms of empowering one player and demeaning another, eventually the apprentice will learn the game well enough to surpass the master.

For players that try to use knowledge outside the scope of their characters, responses should be tailored to the player. If the player is making an honest mistake in using knowledge their character wouldn’t have, allow them to retroactively buy ranks in the appropriate knowledge skill in exchange for other skills they do have.

If the player does this repeatedly, however, it might be wise to reprimand them so as to curb future abuse. If your players are of the second sort, such as those with a character possessing an Intelligence score of 8 but who act like an 18, the same method can be applied; allow them to switch stats around so as to the accommodate their cogency.

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Stay tuned next week for Part 2:

  • Player Politics and Campaign Goals
  • Encounter Mimesis
  • Notions Concerning Equipment
  • Optional Rules
  • Empirical Adjustment
  • Last Resorts

What’s Your Favourite RPG?

From Joel Weight


About a month ago I posted a question on the GMMastery list about a role playing system called Universalis.

From the responses, there wasn’t much experience with the system, so I bought the book and was finally able to run a game. Here are my thoughts on the system.

The Universalis system isn’t for everyone. Of the core group of four players that I used to GM, there was only one I thought would enjoy Universalis.

If you are a min-maxer or rules-lawyer, Universalis might not be for you.

If you are shy or afraid to get into in-character dialog, Universalis might not be for you.

If you are not creative in the least and expect your GM to railroad you, Universalis might not be for you.

If you have to get your way all the time, Universalis might not be for you.

If you are afraid of player-player conflict, or are unable to negotiate, Universalis might not be for you.

On the other hand, if you like story driven gaming, and couldn’t care less about the “combat system” in your game, then you will probably enjoy it. You will need friends that feel the same.

The gist of the system is you have a number of points (tracked with coins) you can spend to influence the story. When you run out of points you can’t do much else to the story. Coins are gained at the end of each scene, but the best way to gain coins is to introduce conflict into the story.

The game was not difficult to learn. The entire rule book is a 136-page paperback. Basically, anything that you consider to be of importance in the story costs you a coin.

This could include major or minor characters, character attributes, objects, locations, and actions.

We had one player pay a coin to give a character a streak of purple in her hair. The rest of us argued it was just descriptive text and not really relevant to the story at all, so he could have it for free if he wanted, but he said he has plans for that streak in the future so he paid the coin and added it as an attribute of the character.

Anything you pay for, you can draw on in future complications. Anything you don’t pay for is just descriptive text to give the story color. The conflict resolution aspect is the only part you should read carefully in the rules; but once you get it, it’s simple and makes a lot of sense.

One major deviation from your classic role playing game is that nobody has sole control of any element of the story, including characters. At any given moment another player may take control of the character you just spent eight coins creating and cause them to do something else.

The traits you purchased with your coins still define the character, and they can’t act against those traits without justification. From there, you just play each scene (like a chapter in a book) until you reach a good breaking point, then close that scene and start the next.

It is very much a collaborative storytelling experience, and not so much a “role playing” game, although at times you will take on the role of various characters within the game.

One aspect of the game I particularly liked was the lack of game preparation. Nobody is required to go through hours of bookwork, carefully crafting a castle encounter that the players decide to skip, and then have to create a dungeon by the seat of their pants during the session.

The only prep work on my part was reading the rules, cleaning the front room, and digging out the loose coin bin and the bucket of 10-sided dice. I read the rules, then gave the book to another attendee a week before we played.

I wanted to have two people familiar with the rules for the first attempt, and that worked out well. We only referenced the book twice during our four hour session.

The three of us had a great time playing. Unfortunately, we can only get together once a month, but given the way you track the scenes and the characters, it shouldn’t be hard to get right back into the action.

One of the best parts is there is no prep for the next game, no GM, no railroading. Anything goes, and your story can take very interesting twists. That said, I was cautious with who I invited to the first game, because I can see certain personality types making the game very difficult to run.

One of the main reasons I wanted to try Universalis was to see if I could get it going in an online venue so I could still play with all my friends without dragging everyone away from their families for hours at a time on a Friday night or Saturday afternoon.

With only one session under my belt I’m not sure it is going to fill that need. After a couple more sessions, we might see how it works in an online setting, but I would probably write up a web app to track things rather than try to do it in just a wiki, forum, or email format.

My personal take? Great game. One source book and you can make infinite worlds. Time and money well spent.

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Thanks for the info, Joel!

GMs: do you have a favourite game system you’d like to introduce to others? I’m looking for brief overviews on a wide variety of systems, especially ones readers might not stumble upon at their local game store.

Write up a brief description like the one above, including the main features of the game, what sort of players it’s likely to appeal to, and anything outstanding or unique about the system. As well as highlighting good points, mention any major features that might turn people away from the system.


[email protected]

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Photograph Your Dungeon Tiles Layout

From Dave Chalker

I love WotC’s Dungeon Tiles. However, I kept running into the problem of how to lay out the tiles when making a dungeon during my planning. The online generator they provide is nice, but I prefer to actually play with the real tiles and rearrange them to taste.

Plus, I wanted to have a way to place the monsters and traps in each room in the diagram. For a while, I was setting up the dungeon, copying it all down in a notebook, then packing it back up.

Finally, I hit upon inspiration. I laid out the tiles where I wanted them, placed the minis for the monsters in the room they’d be on, and arranged any other features I wanted. Then, I took a digital picture of the whole thing.

I loaded the picture back onto my computer, and printed it out sized to a regular sheet of paper. Voila. I had my dungeon.

Then, I placed all the tiles and monsters in a box, so I knew I’d have everything I needed right there, and wouldn’t be fishing them out during play from among extraneous minis and tiles.

I also scribbled notes in each room for features that would be less obvious, like what was a secret door, where there was hidden treasure, which way the doors swing out, etc. I’m definitely going to use this method for every dungeon I design from now on.

My example is here:

My Mini-Tomb of Horrors Tribute Dungeon
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A Great Court Etiquette Resource

From Joel

For those GMs who want to add a degree of realism to their court etiquette, I’d highly recommend the definitive source on the matter, Baldassare Castiglione’s “Il Cortegiano,” usually translated as “The Book of the Courtier.” Written at the beginning of the 1500s, this was literally the textbook that would-be courtiers studied to learn how to behave in high-to-do society.

The Book of the Courtier (Dover Value Editions) – (

And for those with excessive interest in the matter, “The Fortunes of the Courtier” by Peter Burke is a modern historical look at how “Il Cortegiano” was used, when it was popular, etc.

The Fortunes of the Courtier: The European Reception of Castiglione’s Cortegiano (Penn State Series in the History of the Book) – (

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NPC Descriptions Trick

From Joel

It can be difficult providing varied descriptions for NPCs, especially with a large cast. Something I learned in an old creative writing class is to go sit in a public area for a few minutes and write down the physical appearances of those who happen to pass you by.

Do this while eating your lunch or waiting in line and you’ll have a small library of realistic and varied NPC descriptions just waiting to be added into your game.