Near Future Campaign Settings

From Kate Manchester

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0408

A Brief Word From Johnn

Expression Engine Knowledge?

By chance, does anyone have experience working with Expression Engine CMS by EllisLab? I’m converting the Roleplaying Tips site over to it, and am getting stuck on a couple of issues. If you are familiar with it, please ping me. Thanks!

Should GMs Charge Money?

Gnome Stew has posted an article that asks, “Under what circumstances would you deem it okay to charge money to run a regular gaming group? Do you currently charge (or pay to play) and, if so, what are your circumstances?”

Hot Button: Show Me The Money

I have never charged my players, unless you consider putting up with bad puns a “price to be paid.” One argument is that GMs bear the burden of cost for books and materials. However, to GM, you just need the core rules, and there are many free games you can get online legally, so technically, you just need shelter. I buy lots of RPG stuff, but that’s my choice, and it’s not a requirement to play, and certainly not an obligation.

I have participated in clubs and campaigns with a per- session or annual fee to cover meals, snacks, or facilities costs. Never paid a GM for their time or their RPG purchases though.

How about you? What’s your answer to Gnome Stew’s query?

One Sentence NPCs Contest Closes Soon

Thanks to all who have entered the contest to date. The contest ends July 13, so there’s still a little time left to enter. For new subscribers or folks who are just catching up, here’s the scoop:

Contest Entry

E-mail me [[email protected]] one sentence NPCs that generally use the tips outlined in issue #406: three traits, one conflict or contradiction, interesting. Any and all one sentence NPCs are eligible however, so don’t let writer’s block or my formula stop you from entering.

Alternatively, you can post your NPCs at Chatty DM’s blog:

Each NPC counts as one entry, and you are welcome to submit as many one sentence NPCs as you like to increase your odds of winning, or, just because they’re fun to write.

Contest is open now. Contest ends July 13. Winners will be drawn soon after contest close, and will be drawn at random, so don’t worry about writing skills. One NPC = one entry and one chance to win. Entries will be edited and then given back to everyone in the e-zine.

Note that I reserve the right to void entries judged inappropriate/nonsensical for the contest.


Each NPC entry gives you a chance to win any of the following:

Expeditious Retreat Press XRT Central.

1 print or PDF version (your choice) of the following:

  • 1 on 1 Adventures #9: Legacy of Darkness
  • 1 on 1 Adventures #10: Vengeance of Olindor
  • 1 on 1 Adventures #11: Unbound Adventures
  • Advanced Adventures #4: Prison of Meneptah
  • Advanced Adventures #5: Flaming Footprints of Jilanth

Goodman Games

  • 3 x GM Gems book (print or PDF – your choice)

From Wolfgang Baur:

  • 3 x Kobold Quarterly #4 issues (print or PDF – your choice)
  • 1 Standard Patron Open Design account (value $30)
  • 1 Senior Patron Open Design account (value $100)

From Hero Lab Lone Wolf Development

  • 4 x Hero Lab 2.0 licenses (character creation software for multiple game systems)

Paizo (care of Chatty DM) Softcover copies of:

  • Pathfinder #7: Edge of Anarchy
  • Pathfinder #8: Seven Days to the Grave
  • Pathfinder #9: Escape from Old Korvosa


  • 1 x White Wolf’s World of Darkness
  • 1 ebook: How to Get what you Want Out of RolePlaying
  • 1 ebook: How to Create a Believable Character

Thanks very much to the generous prize sponsors.

Have a great week.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

Near Future Campaign Settings

There are many types of campaign worlds, mostly falling into the genres of fantasy, modern and science fiction. Skating the fine line between the modern age and science fiction genres is what can be described as the near future.

The near future is a time period that one could potentially live to see: about 110 years or less in the future. Given that more people are living past 100, and the oldest living person is over 120 years old, it is theoretically possible for a person born in 1970 to see the passage of 2070, the current year in the most recent Shadowrun edition.

The near future setting can also be considered an “alternate reality,” because many of the game’s historical events occur in real-time years that have already come and gone. With a game set in the far flung future, the possibilities and technologies are limited only to your own imagination.

The near future setting mixes current reality with distinct possibility and fiction, making world-building a bit more challenging. Hopefully these tips can give you some insight into running a game within such a setting.

Innovation And Degeneration

The near future setting for a game world always seems to be a dark one. Disasters, both technological and ecological, play a major role in the world’s past, present, and/or future.

Pandemics can threaten the burgeoning world population, and resources of all sorts, especially food, are harder to come by. Governments tend toward benevolent dictatorships (if you’re lucky), dystopias (if you’re not), or something more exotic (corporate owned/controlled governments). Weapons kill faster and designer street drugs are far more addictive and dangerous than their modern counterparts.

While a good story is nothing without conflict, it also needs some hope. The future offers light in the darkness via technological advancements: replacement limbs/organs improve performance, medical marvels lengthen life expectancies, and new items of all sorts offer a better quality of life.

Thus, creating this sort of setting can be a matter of balancing the bad with the good.

And, just as the common vocabulary of 2008 is significantly different than that of 1948, the vocabulary of the near future would likely have undergone a similar evolution, with the addition of new words and phrases, or the blending of several languages. For example, Blade Runner’s “CitySpeak” is a mish-mash of Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, French, German and Hungarian.

Familiar And Unfamiliar Realities

In addition to stark divergences from our reality, the near future setting should offer some semblance of familiarity to the player.

Many buildings in our modern cities could certainly have survived to see the near future. Seattle’s famous Space Needle, for example, still exists in Shadowrun’s Seattle of 2070. Modern artifacts often still exist as either junk or collector’s items, replaced by newer, cheaper, and hopefully better technology.

The near future is not necessarily limited to the scope of the physical world. There is also the digital world, where computers, rather than physical laws, hold sway. In addition, information of all sorts is readily available for those who know how and where to look.

Some game systems also have the magical realm – an astral plane that magicians, adepts, spirits and other creatures can travel. These other realms offer additional possibilities for campaign design and adventure, and GMs running game systems offering these options should take advantage of them.

Alternate Present

Alternate histories, prevalent in science fiction stories and games, can work just as well in a near future setting. What if recent elections had gone differently, or certain natural disasters had been handled in a different manner?

Countries now at peace could be at war, or vice versa. Technology in an alternate near future could be heading in a very different direction from the way it’s going in our world, depending on the input of key political and industry leaders.

Changing important recent events and then projecting their consequences a few decades into the future can make it easier to create more plausible utopias and dystopias. Everyone has their own theories as to what would have happened if certain events had gone differently, and these ideas are often great inspiration for games.

Campaign Scenarios

As far as themes and possible scenarios, the near future campaign has a lot of potential. Games can include the acquisition, destruction or consequences of new technology, struggling for survival after some sort of disaster, political intrigue, paranoia (Big Brother is watching), fear of some unknown but very possible scenario, or a major shift in the current social or evolutionary structure (as in the X-Men comics). Mystery can also be involved, as the PCs could be hired to stop a vicious serial killer.

There are a fair amount of possible materials available for help and inspiration. Game sourcebooks are an obvious choice, but ideas can also be found in books, movies, magazines, and on the internet.

Potential References And Resources


The Shadowrun Supplemental – the e-zine’s early issues are awesome, though hard to find. The blog entries are helpful, but not as good.

FanPro’s Shadowrun reference – an interactive and informative site.

Duke’s Cyberpunk page – a good reference for all things Cyberpunk, including a timeline.

The Repository, a Cyberpunk resource site.

Shadowrun Missions: Actual runs set in Denver and available for download.

Second Life – touted as the future of the internet’ this game allows you to visit virtual locations of real places and make both virtual and real life purchases.

On screen:

Too many near future/sci-fi movies to list, but it includes: Johnny Mnemonic, They Live, Blade Runner, Dark City, the Terminator series, Soylent Green, the Matrix series, the Mad Max series, Demolition Man and The Running Man.

Noir films, even the ones set in the past, can offer dark and gritty themes and settings suitable for a near future campaign. The movie Blade Runner is sometimes described as “Future Noir.”

Television shows: X-Men animated series, Heroes, Sliders, Quantum Leap, and Jericho are just a few that come readily to mind.

In print:

  • Omni Magazine – no longer published, but it offered science fact, science fiction, and glimpses into the future.
  • Popular Science Magazine – doesn’t offer fiction, but does make predictions on the next technological advances.
  • Cyberpunk novels, especially those by William Gibson, the creator of the cyberpunk genre.
  • Dystopia novels, including Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984, but also Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and Burgess’ Clockwork Orange.
  • Science fiction novels set in a time frame where much of the modern world’s innovations still exist. These can include (but aren’t limited to) Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Lucius Shepard’s Life During Wartime, John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up, Robert Reed’s Black Milk, B.A. Chepaitis’ The Fear Principle, and Frederick Pohl’s The Space Merchants.
  • Game System novels – Shadowrun has quite a few, spanning publishers and editions.
  • Fodor’s Maps – these offer excellent maps and information on various world cities. In fact, some gaming source books use this format for their own city settings.
  • The science section that appears in some newspapers, which offers glimpses of possible technologies. For example, one article in my local paper dealt with developing a substance similar to what gecko lizards use to climb walls. Shadowrun actually has a similar item called gecko tape gloves used for the same purpose.
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The near future is closer than we think. While the feel of the genre can’t be easily captured or defined, it is certainly not outside the realm of possibility for a clever and creative GM.

Monthly Musing of the Chatty DM: Teaching An RPG To New Players


Unless you have been living under a rock, you likely know there is a new edition of D&D out. I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to share my thoughts on teaching a new RPG (D&D or otherwise) to new players. I’ll assume that you already have players that have accepted to give the new game a shot. I’ll also assume that one game session is enough to demonstrate the essential aspects of a game.

My goal here is to help you hook these players to this new game with a few tips.

Keep it Simple

You need to dive into the adventure you chose/created for this demonstration game as soon as possible. I don’t advocate showing the games’ core rules “as you go along,” because this risks breaking any kind of story/game momentum you may build as you step in and out of the game to explain concepts. However, you need to keep the rules lecture to minimum so your players’ eyes don’t glaze over.

While each system has its own level of complexity, I suggest you keep the presentation of the basic rules of the game to 10-15 minutes. For this, I strongly suggest you completely skip character generation, and provide players with pre-generated PCs.

Present the rules in basically the same order the rules book does. Go over attributes, basic task resolutions mechanism, combat and related statistics (Health/Hit points, wounds and dying rules). Keep examples and options to the bare minimum. You need to focus on the game’s most basic rules that allow capturing what you want to share with your players. Keep everything else for later sessions, or to fuel future discussions of the game with players if interest is sustained.

I strongly suggest not using house rules in the demonstration game unless such rules are necessary to make the game enjoyable to new players. If such is the case, make sure house rules are part of the initial presentation. While making house rules is one of the great fun of RPGs, they are usually not crucial for teaching the game.

Take a few more minutes to go through the pre-generated PC sheets with the players. Attribute them as you see fit (randomly, by player preference, etc.) and go over each one in a few key sentences. If you have some players who have already played the game and/or have read the rules, ask them to help you explain what each PC can do.

Once you are done with the rules and PCs presentation, take the time to answer questions your players may have. Be careful to reign in your enthusiasm for the game and keep your answers as short and to the point as possible. Your goal is to make your players secure with the new rules set, not awe (or more likely confuse) them with all the cool things that you can do with some of the more esoteric options/powers/variants of the game. If things go well, they’ll discover them when reading the rules while eagerly waiting for you to start a new campaign.

Keep it Short

Once players are satisfied with your answers, it’s time to dive in the adventure. Focus on capturing what got you interested/excited in the game, and infuse all parts of the adventure with those elements.

Since the goal is to demonstrate what the game is about, you should jump right into what the game does best. If your game is an action-driven RPG like D&D, start in media res with an action scene, such as an ambush or a chase. If the game is more geared toward storytelling, set a scene based on the narrative elements that make the game shine, such as a role- playing conflict.

In either case, inform players that it is assumed they know each other and are used to working together.

When starting the adventure, avoid elements that force new players to take initiative. They are dealing with a new system and are probably going to prefer reacting than planning.

While you should go with your natural style, avoid having a long background-heavy introduction to your adventure. Remember, you already spent 15 minutes going over the rules, and possibly the same amount going over the characters.

For the same reasons, if you chose a game or adventure that relies heavily on investigation type challenges, make sure that finding clues and ways to progress are relatively easy. The last thing you want is frustrated players stuck because they missed one clue, bringing the game to a jarring stop.

You should also pick/create an adventure that will be completed within the time planned for the demonstration session. I can’t say enough praise for the 5-room/scene model where you set up a whole adventure in 5 scenes or less, including introduction and resolution. If you play a more classic exploration-based” kill and loot” game, those 5 scenes can be an area (a dungeon) made up of 5 significant rooms (plus a few empty ones) including the entry, guards, and the area’s ‘boss’.

Use The Five Room Model: 6 Methods For Making Dungeons More Interesting – RPT#156

Keep it Open

You should open up all the numbers of the game so that players can understand the “why” and the “how” of the rules faster. That means putting the GM screen away and laying down the numbers as you crunch them during the game.

Slowly go through each task resolution, each skill roll, and combat rolls with the full numbers. You tell the players how hard it is to hit an opponent in combat, how skilled an NPC is they want to best, and how dangerous it is to try to jump over a snake-filled pit. Inform them that this is for demo purposes only this session, and that you are sacrificing some of surprise/fog of war effects for their benefit.

Thus, players get a complete picture of how the game plays from both sides of the table and they get to see what goes under the game’s hood. If this sets your teeth on edge, I invite you to rationalize this by seeing your role as more of a salesperson than a game master. You want the potential client to understand and embrace the product.

Since you are playing your own dice in the open, this means you won’t be able to fudge dice and statistics. If this goes against your usual play style, I suggest you make an exception, and just mention you usually keep such rolls and numbers on your side to provide the best possible playing experience.

Take the time to answer questions and explain, more than once if necessary, how you came up with the target numbers that players must roll. Informed players are more likely to be satisfied with their experience and base their evaluation of the game on the merits of its rules and your interpretation of them (plus your awesome narrative skills, of course!).

Keep it Fun

First impressions are vital, and your demonstration game is the equivalent of a job interview. You need to keep things moving as much as possible. You need to do everything in your power to eliminate downtime. If you are new to the game yourself, make sure you’ve read the rules that you need to use a few times. Make sure you are familiar with the adventure you use.

Keep rules discussions to a minimum unless it’s necessary to satisfy a player’s need for understanding. If any rules discussions threaten to break the pace of the adventure, invite the player(s) to discuss it after the game, or call a pause at the next logical point and continue the discussion.

During the game, especially during combats, don’t be a killer GM. Play opponents in a fair and believable way, but give more than enough chances for the PCs to shine. You want to leave an impression of satisfaction and pleasure in your players, not a face full of deaths and failure.

Keep it Up!

All this is a lot to rest on your already burdened GM shoulders, but know that you should be proud of yourself. By teaching a game to new players, you are doing the role playing games hobby a great service by bringing new players to it, or expanding the horizons of existing RPG gamers. If you make the experience fun and you manage to communicate your enthusiasm, chances are you’ll have sold the new game, and you’ll have takers for that campaign idea you have been working on.

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You liked this article? Head over to Chatty DM’s blog for more RPG posts on a wide variety of subjects. He’s got plenty to say!

Johnn Recommends GM Aid: The Adventures of TinTin: 3 in 1 Series

TinTin is an awesome comic series. Do you remember reading them in school? I’ve collected the series because the books are inexpensive these days, and I have been reading and enjoying them all over again.

What struck me this time around is how inspiring they are for GMing.

  • The characters are always varied and interesting – you can drop them straight into your games.
  • Recurring characters are common – notice how Herge re- introduces them in each story, and how some characters change over time.
  • Locations are always different and interesting, visually and from a gaming/interactive perspective. Keep on borrowing those ideas!
  • The action never stops and it flows well. Look at any single page. Notice how the location changes at least once, how the story moves along briskly, how several characters are always present amongst the panels. There’s no 10′ x 10′ empty room syndrome here.

I was amazed at how little the comics cost now. At Amazon, you can get the 3 Books in 1 series for about $12 per volume, which is only $4 and change per TinTin title.

I’m having a great time reading these books, and I know I’ll start from the beginning all over again in the future.

Here’s the scoop on the TinTin 3 in 1 series @ Amazon: The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 1

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

City Descriptor Macro

From ColeOnyx Online

I wrote a program for OpenOffice Calc called City Descriptor Macro that helps DMs give more flavor to a city.

The whole macro is based on the information available on the Maze Masters Guide, with a few modifications of my own to help fit my D&D games a little better. You can read about those modifications on my blog post entitled “A Detailed Explanation About The City Descriptor Macro.”

City Generator: CityDescriptor

About the City Generator:

About Mazes & Minotaurs: Mazes & Minotaurs

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Vault of the Wiglord Playtest

From Ken McCutchen

Thanks for making Vault of the Wiglord available in 5 Room Dungeons – Volume 14!

Here are links to pictures of the actual playtest. The d10 is a paladin and the d12 is a rogue, LOL! I also enjoy building RPG scenery with Hirst Arts molds.

Room One: Entrance and Guardian Entrance to the Tomb

Room Two: Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge Crypt of the Fallen

Room Three: Trick or Setback The Portcullis and the Ooze

Room Four: Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict Minions Of The Wiglord

Room Five: Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist The Wiglord’s Guardian

Here’s the Hirst Arts molds website: Hirst Arts Fantasy Architecture Inc.

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GM Binder

From Leah W.

When I started GMing, I made my own GM screen with some cardboard, bias tape, and rubber cement (plus photocopier access).

I used a coated cardboard, about the weight of poster board. If you get your dress shirts laundered and folded, some laundries will fold the shirt over a roughly 8″x11″ piece of cardboard. I used some of this. Poster board cut to size would also work.

Brush some rubber cements down one long edge of the first piece of cardboard, flatten out the bias tape, and stick one edge to the cardboard. Once it sets, rubber cement another sheet of cardboard on top of the first, so the bias tape is sandwiched between them.

Then, take another piece of cardboard and cement the other edge of the bias tape to it, leaving about a quarter inch between the two boards.

If you’re making a two panel screen, go ahead and cement another board on top; if you’re making a three panel you’ll need to cement another strip of bias tape to the other long edge before putting the top board of the “sandwich” on.

Once the screen is assembled, photocopy the charts you need, trim to size and glue them on. This actually worked better for me than the official GM screen because I was using some optional rules.

If you’re looking at the screen end-on, it would be something like this:

cardboard   cardboard   cardboard

bias tape      bias tape

cardboard   cardboard   cardboard

Bias tape is available anywhere that carries sewing notions, which around here includes most pharmacies and at least half of the grocery stores.

More One Sentence NPC Contest Entries

A cantankerous, blind sage who has come to hate the search for knowledge that has ruined his eyes and life.

The seller of “quaint, curious, and forgotten lore” is a benign(?) lich in disguise, seeking to fund its own esoteric research interests.

A retired hero of remarkable strength who is now extremely obese, but set on regaining his physical fitness and glory of old.

An outcast mage, cursed by his guild so that he thinks he is a duck, but who still knows the home base of those he once called brethren.

Cursed with two different personalities, he is a jester who sometimes believes he is a paladin, but he has been blessed with epic agility and speed.

A barrel maker by trade, he secretly hides and smuggles runaway slaves with the dream of becoming a great slave leader one day.

Mannix is an old ex-alchemist, bent on vengeance, who suffers amnesia and is afraid of fire due to a rival noble who burned down his lab with him in it.

Always trying to break free of his parents’ strict rules, young Conner Brewer left his small hometown to seek adventure, only to end up in the hands of gnoll slavemasters who would torture him if he did not produce the fine ale learned from his fathers’ brewery.

A cleric who follows the ways of law to the strictest letter, rarely showing emotion, choosing the correct path unerringly regardless of fallout, but who will wilt to his mother’s wishes in a moment’s notice.

A big, strong youth whose father has plans for him to follow in his path and choose the way of the sword, but his talents lie in the magical arts.

Driven by money and willing to do everything to accumulate it, though he will pay a high price for good stories and poems.