Props Contest Entries – Part 2

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0425

A Brief Word From Hannah

Level First, Awesome Later

Both of my current groups level by fiat, which means everyone plays their character and no one does math and every once in a while the GM says “you all gain a level.” While this system doesn’t use experience points (notice the lack of math), it usually takes into account the characters’ accomplishments. This means that the characters tend to all level after major battles, and other acts of awesomeness.

What I’ve come to realize is that using your new feat or high level spell is a whole lot more fun when it’s against the Great Spider-Priest Death   than when you’re mopping up some random lackeys. So why not level before major events, rather than after?

When it comes to major baddies, the more HP the party has to soak up damage, the more firepower you can give the villain. More powers mean more awesome all around.

In most games, you can be pretty sure that the Great Spider- Priest is going down, so does it really matter if the players get their reward beforehand?

If you level by fiat, try doing it before major fights, instead of afterwards. The fight gets more awesome, and the players get to use their cool new powers right away in a climactic battle against a major foe.

Trending Towards Normal

The party in my Candle campaign started out as a warlord, a ranger, a cleric, and a paladin. Now we have a fighter/warlord, a ranger/rogue, a cleric/ranger, and a paladin who sometimes is a wizard. So we’ve ended up with the four basic food groups despite ourselves.

We’ve also recently been joined by a warlock, who bears a suspicious resemblance to our paladin, whose magic-using twin disappeared a long time ago. Except that the twin has been found, and he’s already with the party. Or is he? Even I have a hard time keeping track, since right now we’re up to three characters who look identical to the paladin.

To top things off, Torog is having communication difficulties, the fighter/warlord is hearing voices, and the party now has a nuclear-powered generator that they accidentally dropped in a sewer. It also got hit by lightning a couple of times. So that might not turn out well.

In other news, while the party is perfectly capable of handling a young white dragon, they somehow are stymied when it comes to battling rats and spiders without half the party going down. Does anyone else have this problem?

Props Contest Entries – Part 2

Continuing with the great entries in the props contest, here are more tips for how to awesome-up your game with tangible items on a tight budget.

Tactile Treasure

From Brothertuck, Brett O’Reilly, Gabe, Jon Smejkal

Coins can be represented by old slot machine tokens, but pennies can work just as well. One of the things that players often don’t grasp in a roleplaying game is just how heavy money is. To combat this, I’ve had players loaded down with sacks of coin, corresponding with them in-game treasure collection, to give them a sense of how encumbered their characters really are.

In a pirate game, it’s fun to hand the player a real doubloon or a few “pieces of eight” when they’ve picked someone’s pocket. For a fantasy game, you could use any fake money from board games and such.

You can get pirate loot here:

If your budget allows, check out Campaign Coins:
Campaign Coins

Otherwise, unused video arcade tokens, loose board game chips, or coins from other countries will do the trick.

If you can’t scrounge up any cool fantasy coins, make them yourself. Simply take some pennies and beat the heck out of them with a hammer. You can get them flat, oval, or even square if you’ve got sturdy snips. You can use a nail to make holes in them, or a chisel to create marks on them. Either way, the end result is going to look like some kind of ancient copper pieces.

For gems, try using the plastic gems meant for arts and crafts. They have a paper backing that you can number with a marker. When gems are needed, or traded in along with coins, the DM looks up the number and value of the gem on his list.

Costume jewelry, especially gothic pendants from Halloween costumes, has all kinds of potential. It can be part of a treasure trove, have magical properties, or fill in as a character’s Holy Symbol when fighting undead. You can find them in the Halloween sections of department stores.

Don’t forget about ways of handing out all that loot! Have a small pouch full of coins and toss it to the players when an NPC tells them, “Here’s the first half of your payment.” Fill a small decorative bowl full of random glass beads and fake gems, and pass it around when the players are looting the treasury.

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Miniature Treasure Chests

From Brothertuck, Jon Smejkal

One unique way of keeping track of inventory is to give each person an individual treasure chest, about 2x2x3, where coins and gems are kept. These treasure chests can be found at an arts and craft store, and each person can personalize them with colored markers.

Treasure chests are also great for distributing loot. After the thief picks the lock and the party wants to open a chest, slide one of these across the table and let them open it. Inside, stock it with a 3×5 card listing the contents.

You can also set a chest in the middle of the table during game play and use that to collect anonymous votes in systems that incorporate that kind of mechanic.

Hobby Lobby has a plethora of leather-bound and wood boxes, chests, and cases with brass fasteners that make great- looking treasure chests.

If you can’t find a treasure chest you like at a store, you can also get them online:

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Clothing and Costumes

From Chris Torrence, Brett O’Reilly, Gabe, Joel T.

Custom t-shirts are easy to make, and could be based on your current campaign theme, or some favorite quote or event from the campaign.

Masquerade masks are available at dollar stores. They are simple, glossy, colored cardboard masks with feathers and plastic gems attached. These are great for elaborate costume parties, when the players have to interact with NPCs without ever being sure just who they’re talking to. Masks are also good for instances where characters run into thieves, highwaymen, assassins, or swashbuckling vigilantes.

Fake rubber teeth can also be found at dollar stores. Though of limited usability, they can create great moments of comic horror when a character seduces the buxom farmer’s daughter, and then she smiles. Ah, the joys of medieval hygiene and dentistry.

Don’t forget about headgear: hood and mantles, fur hats, felt hats, wide brimmed hats and turbans can all lend personality to your NPCs.

For props of this nature, a thrift store is a GM’s best friend. The clothing is cheap and you (hopefully) won’t feel bad about destroying it.

Next time your players kill that spy and search his body, toss them a set of clothing. They’ll probably notice the money in the pockets, but will they notice the map you have sewn into the lining of the jacket? The business card of the spy’s employer tucked into the hat? The note hastily stuffed into a spare set of gloves? The (plastic) knife hidden in the boots?

And for certain magic items, you might insist that the player has to wear it for the character to receive the benefit. This is best used with necklaces, rings, hats, and not so much with underwear, heavy coats, corsets, etc. Just be sure to wash the stuff first.

If you really want to wake up your players, buy a fake plastic body part and put the clothing on that. The players decapitated the traitor and now want to search the body? Toss them the head, complete with bloody neckerchief, eyeglasses, and hat. There is nothing like lobbing a noggin at them to make your players take notice.

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From Tim V E, Nayamek, Gabe, Giorgio Vezzini, Jon Smejkal

Swords and knives on the table or hanging on the walls in your gaming room can be a great way to add to the atmosphere. Swords are very expensive, so if you don’t happen to have any lying around, there are a lot of great, less expensive substitutes.

You can use a letter opener as a magical dagger. The light- up toy swords that make noises might seem cheesy, but your players will probably love it.

What about the wizard? One reader made a wand of an old goat bone and gnarly old stick, glued them together and used a Sharpie to make mystical runes on it.

If you can’t scrounge up any real weapons, at least print off images of them. If a player has two longswords, that’s boring. But if he has a longsword that looks a certain way, and another one he found somewhere else that looks very different, everything is more real and more fun.

If you’re running a modern game and don’t have any guns around the house, there are still plenty of prop options.

Even if you don’t participate in shooting sports, you can usually go to a local range and ask for a handful of spent shell casings. Make sure to wash then in soap and water before use. They make great sound effects when tossed over your shoulder after an extended gunfight scene – shotgun shells in particular. If you have the space, lay out a crime scene. You can even use them as wound markers!

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From Kate Manchester, Nayamek, Ryan Shelton, Sébastien Boily

Specific props are great, but what about your game room as a whole? Here are some things you can do to give the room an ambiance that suits your game:

  • Oriental Trading now has “scene setters” for Halloween that are simply panels that go around a room.
  • The door to the gaming room door could be easily transformed using a vinyl door curtain. Here’s an example:
  • Test tubes can give the feel of a mad scientist’s lair, and there are some types of candy that use test tubes as the container, usually a gel or powder candy.
  • Get some (preferably live sized) skulls. Put them on table before or during the session. In my own experience, I found this to be best used in conjunction with some dark red or black candles.
  • If you can afford it, invest in an old oak table. The table can be covered with an appropriate tablecloth. Perhaps you have an old linen bed sheet. In horror setting, add fake blood spots or burned sides.
  • For a game where the characters had to slosh through an underground swamp in winter, I filled a large bowl with ice and water and a few strips of cloth. The light was very low and it really drove home how unpleasant the situation was.
  • You can go to a pet shop and buy aquarium decorations. They usually have weird plastic plants, castles, minis, skulls, treasure chests, etc.

For Your Game: Holidays

Holiday: Starchosen Festival and Empire Day

From Donald Qualls

Empire Day, celebrated on the 19th of Oktobre (Georgian calendar – corrected from the Julian that was in effect at the time) commemorates the founding of the capital of the Empire of the Star at Starchosen, on the shore of the Inland Sea.

This happened when the first King, William the Astrologer, determined that the location of his vision had been reached and laid the first foundation stone for The Dome of the Star. That was on the night in Anno Domini 1274 when what is now known as King William’s Star stood directly above at midnight. This occurrence happens only every four to five years even to so-so precision, and only about every fourth century at astronomical accuracy.

During Starchosen Festival, a celebration that includes the day before and day after what’s now called Empire Day, one might encounter:

  • Drunken revelers passing from tavern to tavern
  • Streetwalkers plying their trade
  • City official, in a carriage, on his way to an official function
  • Healers en route to aid an accident victim
  • Caterer’s wagon loaded with a complete feast
  • Churchman in a litter, carriers a little tipsy
  • High courtesan in a horse-litter, driving too fast
  • Dead cart hauling away a corpse, no one else in sight
  • Baker’s apprentice delivering a huge bag of special holiday bread
  • Lost child, whimpering quietly to herself on a doorstep
  • Overset carriage, with injuries to passengers, footmen, and horses
  • Black-clad figure leaps across a narrow alley, three stories above
  • Squad of sailors frog-marching a prisoner toward the docks

What’s Your Favourite RPG? Sherpa

From Brent P. Newhall

I have trouble finding players willing to use it, but my favorite system is still Sherpa:

Sherpa RPG – Introduction

Sherpa was designed to be played while hiking, so it’s very light on rules. As with Universalis, this is not a system for min-maxers or rules lawyers. It’s best for people who enjoy playing a role, and thinking about their situation and environment.

Each character has six attributes: Strength, Health, Experience, Reasoning, Profession, and Agility (what does that spell?). These should be self-explanatory.

Each attribute starts at 4, and must be between 2 and 8 (inclusive). The GM decides how many points each PC can spend; about 8 for a standard hero campaign.

In addition to the six attributes and a chosen profession, each character must have at least one Gift and at least one Fault. A gift is some fairly unqualified benefit or trait outside of the character’s established profession, such as high pain tolerance, ability with gadgets, or luck.

Superpowers are considered gifts. A fault is some limit on the character’s actions – prejudice, clumsiness, a powerful enemy, etc.

Each PC is also given a few “luck tokens,” which can be coins, stones, or anything else convenient.

During play, if a PC attempts an unopposed action, the GM privately assigns a small difficulty modifier, such as -1 for an uncomfortable action. The GM adds this to the player’s relevant attribute, and rolls a d10. A low roll wins, and a 10 or 0 is an automatic success. A player can also turn in a luck token for an automatic success.

For combat, the attribute number and d10 result are added, and compared to the same result for the opponent. A higher value wins. The GM assesses the damage and announces damage points (1-2 for light wounds, 5+ for severe ones). If a character sustains more damage points than their Health attribute, they fall unconscious.

If you’re hiking in the woods and don’t want to roll a d10 onto a nearby rock, use a watch with a stopwatch feature. Let it run for a brief moment, then stop it and look at the tenths or hundredths digit for your d10 roll. Neat, huh?

And that’s about the entire system. The web page I linked to explains the rules in more detail, and the book is nice and complete, but that’s about all you need to play SHERPA. It lets you get into a new adventure very quickly, and resolve fights and combat with a minimum of fuss. Even better, the players can do most of the math for the GM.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters: Secret Information

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

Pre-Written Index Cards

From Mike

I love running games that feature mystery and intrigue, so I come across this problem a lot. Nine times out of ten, I know exactly what information I’ll need to convey before we even sit down at the table, so I prepare an index card for each secret. A GM should know what secrets he’s going to divulge. Of course, some cards are blanks or decoys, so that not every card I pass actually means something.

Over the years, I can’t say I’ve found a more effective system of controlling who knows what. Also, this is by far the best way to let a player know they have succumbed to a suggestion spell without tipping off the entire party!

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From Sonja Johnson

Our gaming group is fairly casual, but we have a big advantage in that the house where we meet is enormous. What I tend to do for secret information involves one of two methods.

If the secret info is something that comes up in between game sessions, I send an email to that player with the information. They can then mention the information to the other players (or characters) at their own discretion. If it is something that must remain a secret, I make sure to say so, and my players are all mature enough to go with me on it.

If it’s something that comes up in the middle of a session, I generally “sidebar” with the person. This means that I get up from the table (ostensibly to get a drink) and take the person with me “to chat.”

The other players know that this is a sidebar and that some sort of information is being passed along, but they never know just what kind of information will be given – I have made a point of taking someone aside for a purely story- related sidebar, like the time that the druid got pulled aside by a messenger (in game) and in the resulting sidebar found that the message was just about her family and nothing that had any immediate impact on the current situation. In fact, that information became important much, much later!

But because I do this, the players know better than to try to second-guess me; if a sidebar happens, it happens. Since the house is so huge, I can take my secret-information- giving to any one of half a dozen rooms, severely limiting the chances of a player trying to be “sneaky” and listen in on me.

On several occasions I have also had “scribblings” –actually I’ve typed up carefully staged documents and letters, and openly handed them to the player in question at the table. Such information doesn’t stay secret very long though, since the characters themselves are disdainful of secretive behavior.

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Post-its and Workbooks

From Mike Bourke

A bunch of solutions, based on different criteria.

Criterion 1: the likelihood that the player will divulge the information to the party in the short term, e.g. spotting a possible weakness in the critter they are fighting.

Criterion 2: the likelihood that having this information will change the character’s course of action markedly in the course of the current day’s play.

Criterion 3: the importance or significance of the information.

For info that will be divulged, just tell the players straight out. “The mage notices X but none of the rest of you do, so only he can act on it.” In combat, tell the player making the observation immediately before it’s that character’s turn to act.

For info that the player will probably want to conceal for a while, and when in doubt, move on to the next solution.

For less-important info that might affect the character’s decisions during that day’s play, a note written at the table will usually suffice. For extra concealment, ask to see the player’s character sheet for a moment, write the secret on a post-it note, and attach the note to the second page. Then tell them that you have made a correction on that page for them to look at. If more interaction is needed with the player in order for them to decide what to do about it, call a break and talk to the player privately.

For all other circumstances:

Buy a bunch of cheap exercise books, one per player, which you hand out at the start of the game session. At the end of each session, the GM takes these away with him. Between game sessions, write into them anything that the character learned or overheard or otherwise knew that others didn’t. Players start the session by checking their book for any secrets that their character has not yet revealed.

They can also add any supplementary questions about the information that they might have by writing them on one or more post-it notes and sticking them to the page. The GM can answer them after the end of the game session unless the player deems it more urgent, in which case it’s up to them to communicate that to the GM. So that no one knows who has gotten important info, write jokes, rumors, and other trivial info into the books for those who aren’t getting real secrets. This hides the secret info in plain sight.

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Decoy Notes

From Erik Luken

I’ve always preferred notes. If I know there is something to be found, I’ll prepare notes ahead of time with information.

I’ll also randomly pass out notes after having a character make a perception roll or knowledge check that say something to the effect of “read this, nod, and smile/grimace/chuckle,” or “This is a note from your friendly neighborhood GM.” Non-useful notes keep the useful ones from being immediately noticed.