On-The-Fly GMing Tips

From Dariel R. A. Quiogue

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0473

A Brief Word from Johnn


Here is a bit of recent advice from Seth Godin:

I don’t know if this happens to you, but I’m noticing it more and more. Someone offers you a refund, or agrees to sell you something, or even hires you to do a project, but then spends a lot of time explaining that it’s a onetime thing, or that it’s against policy or it’s not even something they like to do.

What’s the point of agreeing to anything begrudgingly? Does it get your partner to do his best work? Does it increase the chances that you’ll get to win next time?

If you’re going to do something, do it. Go all in. Doing it half-in makes no sense at all to me. It’s a like a store that has so many rules and regulations about sales and exchanges that you wonder if they really want to be bothered to sell you anything at all.


Johnn’s RPG interpretation: Get to yes fast. Go all in. Celebrate the circumstances. Add detail. Add enthusiasm. GM in the moment and stop thinking about what’s going to happen in two minutes or two hours. Look players in the eye. Improve your own body language. Breathe deep. Make a game of it.

I wrote a little more on this here:

Say Yes, but Get There Quick
Create the Perfect Turn and Results Will Take Care of Themselves

On-The-Fly GMing Tips

Recently I ran a session as guest GM for a friend’s group, but thanks to being loaded with writing assignments just before game day I had almost no time to prepare at all.

I also expected no more than four players, but ended up with eight, which later became nine. Thankfully, I had a bunch of adventure seeds in mind, some nicely proactive players, and some tools that aided on-the-fly GMing.

The players liked the cinematic nature of the game, and were surprised when I revealed my prep time.

Thinking back on what I did, I realized there were techniques there that other GMs may also find useful.

Have A Bunch of Adventure Ingredients Ready

We were playing a game of pulp air adventure, where the players would be mercenary fighter pilots from the end of the Great War. So I dug into my mental library of pulp tropes and came up with zeppelins, air pirates, and the Red Baron. The key here is to have a bunch of plot elements and visuals you can throw together to create points of interest.

As long as you’re familiar with the genre or milieu of the game, it’s easy to come up with adventure ingredients quickly. Raid movies and other media for visual ideas. The innermost kernel of the adventure I thought up was the climactic scene from Fly boys, where you have this big swirling dogfight around a huge balloon.

Pick A Player and Hand Him the Ball

We kicked off the adventure by going right into one of the core elements of the pulp air adventure genre – a dogfight.

To get the players into the spirit of things, I introduced one of the PCs as a senior pilot of the merc squadron, and the situation was he was there to test the rookies.

This passed a goodly burden of the GMing load on the lead player, as all the other players were now responding to his cues. In your games, you can select a player character as the lead-in to the adventure; find something about that character that will give him or her the motivation to get all the others involved, and set up the scenario accordingly. A side benefit of this is that the players will get more opportunities to roleplay with each other.

Give the Villain a Plan and Modus Operandi

Give your villain a goal and a means of accomplishing it. The villain will execute the plan whether the PCs are there or not. The adventure revolves around the PCs either finding out about the villain’s plans or getting involved through the villain’s execution of the plan.

In my adventure, the mock dogfight suddenly turned real when the squadron received an urgent radio message (I introduced radios, though a bit anachronistic, so the PCs could interact during combat) alerting them to a luxury liner zeppelin being attacked by air pirates. The villains were trying to force it to dock with their as-yet unseen zeppelin carrier so they could rob the rich passengers – who were the cream of European society – and hold them for ransom. The PCs thus had a chance to interfere with the villain’s plan.

Take Player Cues and Run with Them

One of my players gave his character the name of ‘Sir Guise’ and roleplayed him with a British accent, so we agreed he was of the British aristocracy. When they landed with the zeppelin, the wealthy passengers came pouring out to thank them; I had one of the passengers recognize the aristocrat pilot and greet him by name.

To my surprise, the player said ‘Hey Edward, old chap, how’re you doing?’ Edward? British aristocracy? I had said the game was set in 1926, so I quickly thought, Aha, THAT Edward! Imagine the players’ surprise when I told them they’d just saved the Prince of Wales.

This was not something I’d planned at all. The idea I had at the time was to have a rich Italian-Spanish heiress looking for a sunken galleon in the Caribbean. But hey, having the Prince of Wales made an interesting plot hook!

I hinted that the Vulture Squadron would be very interested in kidnapping this prize. Right on cue, the players cooked up a scheme to use the Prince as bait. (It turned out the player wasn’t thinking of Edward VIII either, but Edward just happened to be the first British-sounding name he could think of).

The World Is Your Character

Think of the whole milieu as your character. Every NPC, location and object the PCs interact with is just a facet of that mega-character that you’re running.

You can have it respond to player character words and actions in a fluid, lifelike way by coming up with details you know are appropriate to the milieu at any time because you know the milieu so well. And just as individual characters have a purpose, so the world-as-mega-character has its own: to engage the PCs. Depending on how they interact with your world, the world can challenge them, provide clues and info, and spring surprises that twist the story of the game in wonderful new directions, as that player did with his casual drop of a name.

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Campaign Cultures and Equipment

More Than Dwarven Axes And Elvish Bows

From Alric

During the course of the past several decades, fantasy games and literature have established associations between certain archetypical fantasy creatures and their equipment.

Legacy and current editions of the Dungeons & Dragons game, for example, have linked elves with bows and longswords, connected dwarves with axes and hammers, and associated halflings with slings and daggers.

Such archetypical armament is so deeply ingrained into gamers’ minds that it is the exception, not the rule, that makes D&D players suspicious: arm an elf with a two-handed war hammer and many players will think it is an illusion or shape-changer.

Fortunately, the connection between campaign cultures and equipment doesn’t have to begin and end with dwarves, elves and halflings. A dungeon master can create similar associations for all cultures in a D&D campaign, thereby improving sense-of-place without radical changes in game mechanics.

This article discusses several approaches for accomplishing the task, resulting in greater dramatic flavor in the game.


The types of weaponry carried by characters can speak volumes about the cultures from which they hail. When deciding the typical weaponry of a given campaign culture, the DM may consider the following:

The impact of profession.

The predominant terrain of an area can dictate common occupations, which can affect a character’s choice of weaponry.

Mountain-dwellers, for example, often engage in mining; since they work with picks and hammers throughout the day, it is logical that characters from hilly or mountainous areas may favor military versions of hammers and picks.

For the same reason, plainsmen who subsist by hunting would likely employ “occupational weapons” like the bow and spear.

The functionality of the weapon for the terrain.

In an age when few people travel more than a few miles from home, it is logical to assume they will carry weapons suited for their home environments.

Swamp-dwellers may favor maces for crushing large insects, centipedes and other “creepy-crawlies,” while few forest-dwellers carry greatswords, since there is seldom enough space in their home terrain to wield such weapons properly.

Availability of superior materials.

In our own history, certain regions became well-known for exceptional craftsmanship of different weaponry types.

Steel weapons from Toledo or Damascus were highly valued during the Middle Ages, and English longbows were especially feared during the Hundred Years War.

If the DM concludes that superior raw materials for weapon- smithing can be found in a certain area, the locals are probably famous for creating exceptional weapons of the appropriate type.

The impact of cultural values on weapon type.

A culture’s attitude toward combat can affect typical weapon choices.

In this writer’s campaign, for example, the Clurgish Warbrides, known for their vicious fighting style, prefer to face foes hand-to-hand; they consider the use of ranged weapons to be an act of cowardice. The entire Clurgish military echoes this sentiment, as only the very young or very old serve as archers in the Clurgish army.

Other cultures may favor weapon types wielded by deities or famous historical figures.

Cultural attitudes about warfare can also impact weapon quality; for example, a longsword issued by an empire that mass-produces its weaponry would be very different from a longsword forged by an elite group of warrior-monks.

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Apart from decorative motifs – such as carved dragon images visible on equipment belonging to a character whose nation’s battle standard depicts a dragon – campaign culture can have a deeper impact on the selection and appearance of a character’s equipment. Consider the following:

Availability of materials

In a swamp setting, for example, quality leather is hard to find. Fortunately, swamp-dwellers don’t need quality leather, since it quickly deteriorates and grows mold in damp conditions. Thus, it is unlikely that any of the locals would own a leather backpack, but packs made from serpent hide, wicker or reeds will be much more common in the area.

Although there is technically no difference in game mechanics between a leather pack or wicker pack, a hero’s choice of equipment can tell others whether he or she is one of the locals.

Cultural values

From what has already been written about the Clurgish Clansmen, it’s easy to imagine that they produce some of the finest weapon sheaths and baldrics for hundreds of miles. It’s also easy to imagine that their pottery might not be very good, since so much of the society’s attention is devoted to preparation for and conduct of war.

In fact, people with unfit or asymmetrical physiques are sometimes described as being “shaped like a Clurgish pot” as an insult.

Cultural values affect more than just quality of certain items, though; sometimes, they lead to the creation of entirely unique items of equipment. Characters from a mercantile society, for instance, may routinely carry a type of hand tool useful for cinching loading straps on beasts of burden.

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Admittedly, accounting for these details won’t affect the mechanics of game play, and individually, they won’t matter much in a D&D game. But the sum of several of these small changes can have a lasting impact upon the way players see a D&D setting.

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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!

Name Things Based On Their Meaning

From Philip McKinney

When describing a person, place or thing, players might not (most likely will not) remember much more than the name and any combat related stats or abilities. This is a shame.

For example, I have just given the party thief a +1 masterwork dagger with Icy Burst (+1d6 cold damage in addition to reg. damage) and +2 to hide while actively being used. It could be the Stealth Dagger, or the Iceshard or Coldfang.

There is nothing wrong with those names, but with a couple moments of thought, it could become the Piccare Stiletto. Piccare is a word in vulgar Latin meaning to pierce. Now the item has a name with meaning, and you can share that with the players.

How do you find the names and words to use? I go through one or both of the following steps.

First, I might take some of the words I am thinking of using to describe the thing or place I want to name, and put them through an online dictionary. Those dictionaries offer the root or origins of words. A thesaurus can lead you to other descriptive words.

Here is the origin of the word trivial: 1400-50; trivialis belonging to the crossroads or street corner, hence commonplace, equiv. to tri- tri- + vi(a) road + -alis -al.

Here are the stats on some armor I created using to fit the name Trivalis Armor:

The name, roughly translated from Latin (trivi lis) means ordinary. Indeed, this leather looks like simple, well-crafted suit of armor. There are no special details to the flat dark brown color of the armor, and except for the exceptional craftsmanship which can only be discerned upon close inspection, none would of this armor’s extraordinary powers. +1 masterwork leather armor.

It has no magical aura.

Once per week it can be changed to look like one of the following: artisan’s clothing, aristocrat’s clothing, or merchant’s clothing (specifics at the user’s discretion).

While under the influence of the illusion, offers the wearer +5 to bluff and diplomacy.

While wearing merchant or aristocrat’s clothing also give same bonus to intimidate checks.

Adds +2 to all move silently checks.

Don’t you think Trivalis is much better than the “Sneaky Armor of Disguise”?

Second, I utilize online translators. They take a little longer, but can yield some great results. This is especially true if you want to give a certain cultural flair to a city or country your players are visiting, or even just a quirk for an NPC.

Think of words we use every day (in game or out) and see what other words could be easily used:


German: schwert
French: épée
Italian: s. spada; (fig) forza militare, armi; guerra
German:  berg; haufen
French: montagne; monceau, tas
Italian: montagna, monte; mucchio, (fam) sacco


German: v. rüsten; ausrüsten  n. Panzer, Rüstung
French: v. s’armaturer, se mettre une armure n. armure
Italian: v. corazzare, blindare s. armatura
German: n. Blut; Feindschaft v. Blut speien
French: sang
Italian: s. sangue; stirpe, discendenza; sangue reale; temperamento, indole; assassinio, morte; (fam) damerino, (spreg) zerbinotto; libertino v. (Venat) assuefare al gusto del sangue; instradare, avviare, iniziare

Whether it is naming a place, or changing a simple word or two that an NPC might use, all can add a little more color and interest to your game.

Until next time, I wish you all good gaming I miei amici (Italian for “my friends”).

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Track Conditions Using White Marker On Minis

From Chris Beukeveld

We’ve all done it. The action is fast and frenzied and we lose track of which bad guy is slowed and which is stunned; which got critted twice and which is unscathed.

Player: “That guy isn’t bloodied yet!? I hit him for at least 100 hp and he’s got ongoing 10!”

DM (sheepishly): “Oh that guy, er um, yeah he died 2 rounds ago, sorry.”

Player 2: “And I though this mage was silenced, but he killed me with some kind of Shrieking Death last round.”

Player 3: “Well if he’s not dead I’m not going to move towards him to heal him.”

Player 4: “Arrgg, I wasted my teleport spell!”

DM: “Um, right, sorry, so you’re not dead, and instead he’ll move here and…um, can we rewind 2 rounds?”

I’ve been using our White Dungeon Marker to number bad guys during combat. The markers are easy to erase and work great. All my players can see if there’s a spell or condition in effect.

When the effect ends, I wipe the writing off with a damp paper towel. Works like a charm, no more getting bad guys mixed up. “Oh, you were going after THAT guy, uh yeah, he died three rounds ago, sorry.”

See some example pics:

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RPGSoundMixer Tip

From John Walker

I use RPG-SoundMixer.

It is a great tool that lets you store sound bites and create libraries of ambient sounds. Libraries play non-cyclical since you can set the software to random sounds and the probability for each.

It also allows activating events with a single key stroke and many other great things. It has a great demo and plenty of sound libraries to get you started. If you are willing to dig in the German site there are even more.

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Handling Split Parties

From Johnn Four

Andrew asks: I’m planning a pretty good science fiction game that will most likely involve party splits during a good percentage of the game. While this seems like it might be a bad idea, is there any way to make party splits work without ruining the game for the players?

Johnn’s answer:

Hi Andrew. This topic has been covered in the Roleplaying Tips ezine in the past. Check out these tips and let me know if you still have any unresolved questions.

Gaming The Horse, Part 2 — RPT#242
5 Tips On Managing Player Choice — RPT#244
7 Tips On Creating Moments Of High Drama — RPT#245
4 Tips On Encouraging Roleplay — RPT#246
4 Reader Tips — RPT#248
Tips From Da Pit Fiend — RPT#262
5 Tips For Co-GMing Games — RPT #273
6 Monstrous Tips — RPT#274

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Tact-Tiles Are Back

From Darryl Hodgson

I recall the plastic tiles made some years ago but heard the company did not make it. In looking around I found another item just like them but clear – very cool.

Check it out.