Props Contest Entries – Part 1

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0423

A Brief Word From Johnn

Thank You for The Props Entries

The props contest ended last week and winners were contacted. Thanks also to Witches Closet for their awesome prize donations:

Everyone wins, though, starting this week with the first batch of contest entries posted in the e-zine. Look for more props ideas in future issues.

Review of Dragora’s Dungeon

Check out my review of Goodman Games’ Conan-esque 4E module, Dragora’s Dungeon. It’s a tough module with a combo of action and roleplaying, and I’m hoping to run it in my current campaign soon:

Thanks for The Sharing Secret Information Tips

Last week’s tips request for passing notes and sharing secrets generated some great responses. Thanks to everyone who e-mailed in! The tips will appear in an upcoming issue soon.

The readers tip’s bin is now officially empty, so Hannah and I have resurrected the Readers Tips Request portion of the e-zine, and we’ll be posting your responses to each request in following issues. In addition, if you have tips and links of interest to game masters on any topic, feel free to send those in anytime.

What do you think about an Ask Johnn & Hannah addition to the e-zine? Do you have any GMing questions you’d like to ask? Would such a question and answer format be interesting to read? Let me know what you think. Have a game-full week!

Props Contest Entries – Part 1

Entries from the props contest have rolled in over the past month. There have been a lot of great, creative ideas you can put to use in your game. Here’s the first batch – look forward to more over the coming weeks.

Stones, Bottles, and Jewelry

From Brent P. Newhall

As I strolled down the street of a quaint town, I noticed a curious sign: Geology Store. Intrigued, I entered the shop and discovered they sell a variety of polished stones, crystals, etc. My role-playing mind immediately began churning with ideas, especially when I found a box of white crystal orbs.

During my next roleplaying session, the players came across a sorceress who was summoning a dragon. She held in her hands a white crystal orb, which I held out to the gasps of my players. During their fight against her, they knocked the orb out of her hands, and I rolled it onto the table.

I asked, “Which one of you picks it up?” They all looked at it, dumbfounded, until one of them gingerly took it. I said “Okay, Kelly picked it up.” They finished the fight, and Kelly offered the orb back to me. I grinned and said, “You picked it up, and you’re carrying it, so carry it!” She said “Cool!” and put it with her things, under the watchful (and somewhat envious) eye of her fellow players.

Some other props I’ve been able to find for low prices:

  • Small stone statuettes. I bought tiny ones shaped like animals for $1 each. My paladin stumbled across one in a lizardfolk camp, which provides a +2 to his attack roll against all favored enemies within 10 squares, as long as he holds the statuette in one hand.
  • Old keys, often found in junk shops.
  • Potion bottles. You just have to keep your eyes open; there are also cool old bottles around. I plan to make the contents completely unknown to my (pretty low-level) players; they’ll have to drink them to find out what they do. I put water, a little blue food coloring, and some peppermint oil in the bottles. Be careful; very strong peppermint can be a bit tough to swallow.
  • Pewter rings. My local party store had a bunch of skull-shaped pewter rings for $1 each. They make great rings of power. I might create a whole cabal of villains who each carry one of these rings.
  • Pendants. I’ve been surprised at how often I’ve stumbled upon neat-looking little pendants, especially in craft stores. Perfect for the dying “Take this and remember me” speeches from NPCs.
Graphic of section divider

Small Props

From Laura

  • Plastic pirate coins. You can buy these for under $5 in quantities of 144 at most party stores. For my game in which actual cash is rare and a neighboring empire has money the PCs occasionally find, I hand out a few coins.

They come in gold, but you can spray paint them silver or copper. I have also cut some of the gold ones in halves or quarters because the dwarves are on a strict gold standard and don’t take coins of other metals.

  • Business cards with spell, alchemical items, or magic item descriptions on them. Without having to crack a book, you have the most important stats handy and speed things up while in combat.

It’s easy to run a combat with spellcasters and monsters with special items when you can expend the consumables and not have to stop the pace of combat to look up exactly what the range of Spell X is.

  • Vials. A surplus store had a bunch of these and I grabbed them for pennies each. They’re useful for representing unidentified potions. Water with food coloring make them distinctive and you can color code for school of spell.
  • Campaign Cartographer dioramas. I modified the Dungeon Designer treasure to make treasure chests. These can be glued together and are recloseable. Examples of what you can put in them are beads, slips of paper listing treasure, and slips of paper saying: “TRAP! Make a Fortitude save vs. DC 15 and tell me if you made it.” I had a bunch of these that the players had fun opening. It was a lot like Christmas morning.
  • Beads. I have a bunch left over from various craft kits. Each color and size of bead represented a different gem. They’re also cheap at most craft stores.
  • Parchment paper for books. Each book is printed on parchment paper and folded to resemble a book. The books all have titles, some have authors. If fiction, the book contains a D&D world-appropriate sentence or two summarizing a movie or book we’ve seen or read.

Plots and characters of these can give clues to important NPCs, cultures that may be encountered, lost civilizations, monster psychology, or artifacts that may be researched. The players enjoy playing “guess what book/movie this is” and the party likes adding to their library.

Non-fiction books must be read in their entirety to gain a benefit, and this benefit comes in the form of a bonus to a skill in a specific situation. Occasionally, some books are chock full of misinformation and will create a penalty the players won’t know about until they try to use their newfound knowledge. The book will have a title, description, and bonus to be applied when the skill is next used.

Graphic of section divider

Deck of Many Things

From Bill Parrott

In one past D&D game I ran, the party came across a Deck of Many Things. I know there are numerous resources out there with information on how to use a standard deck of playing cards as the deck, but I wanted something more personal.

For only a few dollars, I had the official cards printed (I was using the variant deck from WotC) on card stock paper. Then I had the printer laminate each card. Finally, I sewed a small pouch from brown, leathery-looking cloth, and added a flap with a button.

When the party came across the deck, they were eager to know what “loot” they had found. I won’t forget the looks on their faces when I tossed the pouch on the table and said “This.” Good times.

Graphic of section divider

Personalizing Documents

From Rob Martinek

Lemon juice applied evenly to paper is great as a player handout, such as a map or message they find. Leave it in the sun for a few hours to age and yellow the paper. Further age it by ripping tears into the document or pieces from it. This works especially well if you use the separate pieces as clues to be fit together as they find different scraps. I have also added character to the paper by crushing it, wetting it, smearing the ink, and putting food or stains on the document.

For a paranormal game, I have used news articles cut from The Sun and Daily World News to put together an “underground newspaper” for the players. At least one of the articles I wrote myself to give leads to potential adventures. Since my pieces looked different from the rest, they usually knew which one the adventure was based on, but I also sometimes used the real articles as other possible adventures.

For a vampire game that had Cthulhu overtones, I put together a pamphlet that contained advertisements for a local charity/church that included biblical-style text that seemed to be taken from unknown books of the Bible. While some characters pretty much only used it for the location of the church, one person spent a lot of time on the text and gained valuable additional clues.

For the same Vampire game, I set up a list of all my NPCs and found pictures of real people on the internet to represent each. When the characters would first meet an NPC, I would show them the picture on my laptop screen.

I also bought a couple of cigars that I never lit. Whenever I played a particular character I would use the cigar as a prop, either talking around it or gesturing with it. I have done the same thing with other small items, like a pen or a coin, giving the character a personal item and gestures the players would associate with the character.

Graphic of section divider

Dollar Store Finds

From Michelle

I GM for my 9 and 11-year-old boys and have found that props help keep their attention on the game. Our favorites are backpacks from stuffed animals, in which they put the other props.

I give them costume jewelry and Mardi Gras coins from the dollar store to represent treasure they have found. They are excited to be able to put the props in their packs and take them out when they need them in the game.

We also use other little toys, such as farm animals and dinosaurs. The dollar store has provided a lot of fun for our games. I know these are used for little boys, but surely something similar would be useful for grown-ups as well.

Reader Tip Request: Handling Henchmen

Villains can have henchmen by the dozen, and GMs are used to running the actions of multiple NPCs, in combat and out. Players, on the other hand, normally focus on their PC alone. So what happens when the party starts attracting followers?

Players who take leadership roles often want to manage their PC’s minions. Combats can get tricky with high-level characters taking several actions of their own, and directing followers to do a variety of things.

So, how do you keep things organized? Limit followers, treat them as NPCs, perhaps set time limits? Or something else entirely? Send us your tips for helping players to handle their henchmen.

Via email: [email protected]
Online: Contact Johnn Four

Through Dungeons Deep back in print

Published over 25 years ago, this book was an instant classic. I remember reading it the first time at the Vancouver Public Library. Long out of print, the author has recently resurrected it, and it’s now available at Amazon. Here’s what Amazon says about it:

“Through Dungeons Deep delves into the art of roleplaying, showing players and Dungeon Masters how to have more fun and excitement with fantasy RPGs.

Robert Plamondon wrote Through Dungeons Deep after realizing that the most important part of role playing games–role-playing–is barely mentioned in gaming systems. When it is, it is often confused with rules. But role-playing really boils down to make-believe, and the real fun in role-playing games comes from unlocking your imagination. But it’s also important to carry a length of rope and wear shoes you can run in.” More info: Through Dungeons Deep: A Fantasy Gamers’ Handbook – 1st Edition

For Your Game: Holidays

Introducing a new feature of Roleplaying Tips, For Your Game. Each series will have a specific focus, and include ideas and encounters you can immediately drop into your game. The first series is all about holidays, with a new fantastic holiday every week.

Holiday: The Path Not Walked

From Mike Bourke

Holiday description: Once a year, each celebrant picks a choice they have made in their life and explores what might have been had they chosen differently. Myth holds that each year, the gods choose one person and give him the chance to actually change the choice made.

Encounter Ideas:

  • “Exploring what might have been” might mean apprenticing yourself to a different (and possibly inappropriate) craft for a day. Possibilities include a PC taking on an unusual role (such as Hotel Concierge) and/or encountering NPCs doing so.
  • It might also mean revisiting the consequences and implications of the alternative choice – normally faithful wives become predatory man-killers, men place themselves in jail for the day to discover what it would be like if they killed a rival or enemy, and so on. These can all be activities for PCs or encounters with NPCs.
  • Finally, what if the myths are true, and one of the party’s enemies gets to succeed in a plot or ploy that the party had previously foiled? What if one of the PCs gets to change one of their own choices only to learn that the grass isn’t always greener? Or, what if the granting is only the opportunity to make the change, instead of a fait accompli?

The first two options give PCs the chance to step outside their usual roles and comfort zones, as well as gives major NPCs the chance to display different aspects of their characters.

Throw in dozens of other PCs and NPCs all doing the same thing, encounters with characters unfit for the jobs they are performing, thrill seekers just doing something crazy they would never normally contemplate, as well as the possibility of sending the whole campaign down a completely different track, and I think you have one pretty mondo holiday!

Dungeons & Dragons – The Complete Animated Series DVD

“Dungeons & Dragons tells the tale of six kids who, after riding the Dungeons & Dragons roller coaster, mysteriously get sucked into its fantasy world. There, each of them gains magical talents and abilities, all the better to survive their time in the Realm. The bow-shooting ranger, the acrobat, the thief, the cavalier, the wizard, and the boy-barbarian are soon joined by a baby unicorn, and tutored by the mysterious Dungeon Master. Opposing them is the evil sorcerer Venger, as well as various monsters and entities all intent on keeping the kids from getting back home.”

Currently 4.5 Stars out of 5, and $31.99 @ Amazon: Dungeons & Dragons – The Complete Animated Series

What’s Your Favorite RPG?

From Bryan Jonker


  • No level, no alignment, no classes. Everything is flexible. You build your characters based on what the GM allows and what you envision your character to be.
  • GURPS mixes magic, psionics, super powers, and cosmic powers nicely. It lets you create a character that does what you want it to do.
  • You can give beginning players a template to help them with 90% of character creation.
  • There are a lot of skills, and not all of them are focused on combat. The standard skill roll is basic and always the same — roll 3d6, going for low.
  • Combat is terribly quick and realistic and the rules make sense, but there are plenty of optional rules to make it more cinematic.
  • Character advancement is easy — you just give extra points, and players spend them as they spent their original points.
  • The rules are truly generic — they allow you to do anything from fantasy to super-science to time travel. You only need to learn one set of rules to run multiple genres.
  • Lots and lots of support.
[Comment from Johnn: and free rules here: GURPS Lite]

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Swami’s Generators


A cool link surfaced awhile ago at The Swami’s Generators.

Graphic of section divider

Give Players Choices To Reduce Prep Time

From Tommy H.H.

I have estimated that the average time in which a group of players will loot/interact with a room is about two minutes. They will fight in some rooms and pass quickly through others. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but the average time a DM will spend constructing a room will definitely not be two minutes.

Player choices can decrease the amount of work you have to do as a DM, because time spent arguing over which choice to make is time you don’t have to do additional prep to fill.

One good option is monsters that are actually a whole adventure in themselves. Adventures designed to involve choices that will make players think and therefore use time.

Imagine the players standing outside a giant labyrinth made of spider silk with a strangely woven entrance.

Tell the players they estimate a travel to the center of the nest will take at least 1d6+4 rounds. If they enter, roll a d20 each of these rounds – even results are spent dealing with encounters.

1-4 Blocking net. This net has HP and AC. The players can opt to walk past it, adding 1d4+1 rounds to their total travel, or they can attack it. During this encounter ignore all other blocking nets rolled on the d20. Ignored rolls subtract a round from the traveling time.

5-7 Hulking spider. This spider has a high AC, and rounds spent battling it don’t count as part of the total travel time. Roll the d20 anyway to see if monsters appear.

8-9 Mage spiders. These spiders have a special fireball spell that phases through bones and spider silk. They will each cast two spells and then crawl away. They only appear on the other side of several veils of net, so players are unlikely to harm them.

10 Barrier raising. The spiders raise a magical barrier around the nest that can only be crossed by spider like creatures. This means that players cannot escape the hive and will have to forge ahead.

11-14 Spell-eating webs. The players can feel magic being drained away as they near this area. If they are spellcasters, they will lose one random spell if they continue on. If the players decide to avoid the area they will take 1d4+1 extra traveling rounds to reach the center.

15-20 Hivebrood. This area is filled with miniature spiders. Any player passing through it will have to succeed in 3 saving throws versus poison; failure means instant paralyzation for 1d10+10 rounds.

If the players make it to the center, they will be met by a team of hulking spiders and mage spiders. If they win the battle they will stand before the hive orb, a magical phenomenon that pulses with an inner light.

If a weapon strikes the orb, it explodes in small brown droplets that melt away, and the weapon gains +3 versus spiders. Also, a rune will appear in any nearby spellbook with an empty page, imparting the mage spiders’ spell of web/bone-phasing. This spell cannot be copied by any means, and so must be found in ways like this.

You can see the pattern of this design. There is a unique reward that will make players seek out lairs like this. The encounter is time-consuming, and involves several encounters where players can improve their general chances by making choices.

You can also encourage player choices with puzzles. For example, “In the room of crystals blue, you fire cast at columns and gateway opens will.”

Every time there are columns and blue crystals in a dungeon, the players will want to cast fireball. But how many fireballs can the mage cast a day, and just how many rooms fit the description?

Rewards can also create difficult choices. Have the players face an object that can create two beneficial effects. The downside is that players only can choose one of these and then the object will fade away as soon as they choose.

Try this one: a stone slab is on the floor with the text, “If you me crush I offer you, a sword of gold or a book to behold.” If the group has a mage and a fighter, there will be a lot of arguing about which effect to choose, and this argument will take time.

Graphic of section divider

Seven Rules to Understanding People

From Gene

Reading your article on motivating GMs, I remembered an article I read recently on understanding people. I thought it might be interesting and useful: The Critical 7 Rules To Understand People

Graphic of section divider

Annoying Low-Level Villains

From Tommy H.H.

It would be easy to let a vengeful thief follow the players on their way to some destination. Let them know that if they stop the travel they will lose an opportunity – perhaps the moongem only appears once every hundred years.

Since the thief knows several shortcuts, he can sneak ahead and set up traps along the way. The players have to avoid or deal with his traps, and each trap is its own mini- adventure.

Just before the players arrive at the place, they will find themselves ahead of the thief for once. If they lie in wait for him, they can finally confront him. He will fight furiously to the death, and even though he is only low level, the players will enjoy killing him at last.