Props Contest Entries – Part 3

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0427

A Brief Word From Hannah

Warm Up with Wushu

Several of my players and I are spending Thanksgiving together, and they wanted me to run a side quest for them. I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare, so I asked if they would mind if we ran through the minor encounters in Wushu, instead of 4e.

None of them had played the system before, but it took all of five minutes to explain it and get their D&D characters converted into Wushu characters. To give one example, our fumble-rolling elf ranger with high perception had the traits Sword-Fu, Wild Child, and I Saw That with the weakness Unlucky.

The Wushu encounters went great. The players got to describe their characters mowing down minor enemies who, several levels ago, had been major challenges. But the best part came when we switched from Wushu back to 4e for the climactic encounter of the side quest.

Instead of saying, “I cast Magic Missile,” our wizard said, “An orb of glowing light appears in my hand, and I throw it at the dragon.” The players kept on describing their actions as if we were still playing Wushu! Remembering to encourage vivid descriptions in combat is a big weakness of mine, and here the players were doing it on their own.

I highly recommend trying to work at least one Wushu combat into a session, especially if you need to save time on prep. I’m sure it won’t work for all groups or all campaigns, but if you think it might work for yours, give it a shot.


Martial Power Packs a Punch

One of my players picked up the new Martial Power book for 4e. It’s full of new builds, feats, paragon paths, and epic destinies for the martial classes. There are a lot of reviews of it floating around already, so I’ll keep mine brief.

Our party’s dragonborn fighter agrees with me that the designers have a crush on dragonborn fighters; that’s why he bought the book. Elves also get a bit of a boost for their Elven Accuracy power, with related feats that are statistically better than the one in the PHB. Aside from that, power creep seems to be minimal.

The book gives some interesting options for playing atypical race/class combos, which I like. The flavor text for the paragon paths and epic destinies is great, even if a few of the powers are weak.

I’d say it’s a great choice if you have a couple of martial characters in your group. It’s by no means a must-have, but it does add a lot of options, many of which look like a lot of fun. Martial Power: A 4th Edition D&D Supplement (D&D Rules Expansion)

Thanks For The Fantasy Job Postings

A couple of issues ago we had a request for fantasy job postings. We received a ton of great responses. There are so many we can’t even fit them in this issue! Look forward to a dedicated article full of fantasy job postings in the future.

Props Contest Entries – Part 3

Here is the next installment in the series of props contest entries, with lots of great tips for enhancing your game with documents, plus advice on clay and food.

Ancient Documents

From Kate Manchester, Chris Torrence, Tim V E, Brett O’Reilly, Giorgio Vezzini, Nayamek

A timeless classic is the mysterious letter, printed out on cardstock, then soaked in the sink, with the edges torn off. Don’t forget that notes can be blood stained (red ink stain) and torn, making them difficult to fully decipher. The “lemon juice writing” trick also has many uses, as does the “Elvish script” that needs to be translated to common.

Ageing tricks like these don’t just work on written documents; postcards often have pictures from far off lands or unusual things.

Old books make fantastic props. Leather books are great for wizards and those who dig in libraries. You can even find blank “old style” books; there are some crafters who hand- make them.

Blank journals can also be used. One could contain the last words of a previous adventurer, much as the book found in the Mines of Moria by the Fellowship of the Ring. It could be a valuable spell book that tells the PCs about a trap and what they need to do. It could also contain a puzzle, or a valuable password needed for later.

Inks, pens, and parchment are great props if you need to make up a message on the spot. They are especially successful with multi-coloured ink containers (preferably those old ones with cork closings) and some exaggerated ink pens.

Signet rings and seals are just as useful as props as they are as instant in-game items. Perhaps your players just made up a contract with a moneylender, or found new alchemical formula. Write it down and make it “official” with an official seal; either use sealing wax or melt a lit candle.

GMs often hand out items such as diaries, letters, missives, orders, etc. to players. But how many of these papers have different handwriting? Fonts can be a wonderful tool for giving different in-game “authors” their own distinct feel. There are even fonts available in different languages, including Elvish and Dwarvish.

Another use for fonts is as simple cryptograms. Type up a riddle or letter normally, then change the font to Wingdings, and you have a coded message. The first few words players will most likely decipher will be “the,” “a,” and “I.”

From there, the rest of the code should be fairly simple (albeit somewhat time-consuming) to crack. Two things that are recommended: don’t include punctuation (creates massive confusion), and try to put in one paragraph per player, so that everyone has something to work on.

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Campaign Documents

From Diego, Nayamek

Write fake travel guides where you put together a lot of information about a new area the group is about to visit. Instead of just describing it to them, make a brochure from a travel agency.

You can use the travel guides as in-game props the characters can actually get in the campaign, but I have also used them with success in settings where they wouldn’t exist, like fantasy settings.

In this case, the guide is intended for the players, not the characters. It’s a funny way for them to learn about the new region with colorful sentences like “Visit today the cave of the Red Dragon! Special discounts for groups,” or “Give a try to the local cuisine; just remember to avoid the poisonous fish of the Black River.”

Guides catch attention and are easy to read. Also, they can be useful if the info is well structured so the players can really use them as travel guides while touring new regions. Moreover, you can make different guides for the same region, with different level of detail, depending on each character’s knowledge about the area, thus forcing them to share the information to get the whole picture. You can even give them travel guides with conflicting information. For example, based on cultural prejudices from different peoples.

Be imaginative, throw images into it, add “special offers” detailing prices of bed and food in different towns, and so on. You can even include a small tourist map.

Campaign newsletters are also a great way to share information with players. Every few sessions, or after a major happening, hand out a newsletter. It helps if they are all in style of the campaign and printed on special paper (parchment style).

This prepares the players for what is going to happen next session, and with some plot twists that might appear in a future session. At the session itself, make sure at least one example of the newspaper is present at the table.

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Business Cards

From cra2

Business cards are the perfect prop if you’re doing pulp fiction, film noir, Cthulhu investigators, 70’s super heroes, modern spycraft, or even near-future cyberpunk.

When a PC’s background said he had a few “contacts” of various types, I made up cards for each contact and gave them to the player so he could feel like he had these contacts and could call their number when needed. It was more interesting and tangible than having a list of names somewhere on the corner of the PC sheet.

I had a group of players who were Minion Hunters from a supernatural investigation firm and I made a set of business cards for them. They all had the same style and logo, but each had their own name and specialty. Kinda made them feel more like a team. And they had fun whipping them out to introduce themselves to NPCs.

I made a menacingly evil set of cards for a major NPC villain once. He would leave a “calling card” in the pocket of each of his victims. When the PCs searched the body, I’d hand them the card they’d found.

To kick off a spy campaign, I roleplayed an NPC shoe salesman meeting each PC separately and handing them his business card. I handed the player a fake business card that seemed pretty normal. But on the back they found the handwritten number 13.

This caused discussion and speculation, and eventually they called the shoe company. The operator asked them what department they needed and they didn’t know what to say at first. Then suddenly one of the players told them to try Department 13. Instantly a whole new world opened up to them and the campaign began.

By making your own business cards, you can be even more clever by hiding hints, clues, or codes in the text itself or in the arrangement of the letters/numbers.

You can order them at your office supply store or local printing company. You can make them yourself with card stock and a printer. There are many sites where you can download free templates. If you need a bunch, you can even get your cards for free if you’ll pay for shipping. Just use whiteout to cover the ad on the back.

Speaking of free, I’ve collected stacks of cards from former contacts and trade shows and then kept these cards at the gaming table in a tiny case. They provided instant NPC ideas for people the PCs might bump into in a bar scene or on the street. And sometimes, I’d roleplay the NPC handing the PCs his card if it was appropriate in the conversation.


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Clay Props

From Joel T

Clay is an incredibly useful tool for the prop-using GM, though unformed it isn’t always the best prop itself. It can easily be shaped for a wide variety of purposes, and it is reasonably durable. If you have access to a kiln, it will be very durable indeed.

Clay can be made into model buildings, crude jewelry (or nice jewelry, if you are skilled), cups, bowls, statuettes, etc. Additionally, it is easy to hide things in. The characters might find a ceramic rod on the bandit they just killed, but will they think to break it open to find the map you’ve hidden inside?

Or, the PCs fight their way to the altar of Cult of the Big Evil Deity to find a crude idol made in the image of the dark god. Give it to the players and direct them out back to smash the cursed object. You might even have hidden a precious stone, key, or clue inside for them to find.

Amazon: Crayola Air-Dry Clay

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From Gillian Wiseman

I make items out of polymer clay. Here are some things that I’ve made that really add to my game:

The tree is my favorite. It can hold about 4-5 miniatures, such as archers or elves.

A small blue dragon curled up in his nest:

Some markers and other items

A tiny panther, ready to pounce

A pile of shiny loot

Here’s a group shot of all of them

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Edible Props

From Chris Torrence, Tim V E, Gabe

No matter how much effort you put into a game, it seems like your players never fully appreciate it. Well, here’s one kind of prop they’re guaranteed to enjoy – a prop they can eat!

  • For a gelatinous cube miniature, use a bag of jumbo marshmallows – every time a player hits it he gets to eat the “miniature.” The party will either finish it off quickly, or get sick trying.
  • Peeled grapes for eyeballs. Just put them in a bowl and get someone to reach in and grab one for the witch/hag/shaman – squishy!
  • Chocolate gold coins.
  • Cliff bars cut up as snacks can be Lembas bread. Any trail-food on the table is great for outdoor and traveling scenarios: dried fruit, bread, and dried or salted meats.
  • Make stew and bread, and tankards, goblets or a drinking horn available when an inn is the key backdrop.

For Your Game: Holidays

Holiday: The End of the World

From Marc Gacy

Eons past, when gods walked the earth, a great battle between the forces of good and evil so damaged the world that it was in danger of collapsing into oblivion and everlasting night. Each of the mortal races realized they needed to step up and do what was needed to save the world, as the gods were too weary from the cataclysmic battle.

The dwarves stepped up first and used their skills to reforge the surface of the planet. On the next day, the elves used their magic to rejuvenate the trees and plants to help hold the earth together. On the third day, the humans healed the animals that were needed to feed and assist the intelligent races.

Finally, all three races were exhausted, and yet the world was still out of balance, as there was no joy left. So on the fourth day, the little people (halflings/gnomes/faeries) sang and danced well into the night, brightening the spirits of the other three races, thus completing the mending of the world and ushering in the era of mortals.

These four days always come after the darkest (shortest) day of the year. They aren’t counted as part of any month and each race holds great celebrations on their specific day. On the dwarves’ day, all dwarves receive a +1 Endurance. On the elves’ day, all elves receive an extra spell (if a spellcaster). On the human’s day, all humans receive a +5 to a skill of their choice (it may change from year to year). On the small folks’ day, small folk receive a +1 Charisma.

Holiday Encounter Ideas:

The evil folk hate the idea of The End of the World, as it indicates the failure of their gods. For many years, they have either made punitive raids during the festivals or held their own rituals and sacrifices in cruel mockery of the good folks’ festivals.

Most of the time the raids have been easily ignored and rebuffed. The past several years have been different, however. The raids are fiercer, more frequent, and, disturbingly, more organized. The rituals are more potent, and the number and size of the guards surrounding the festivals has increased five-fold.

The reason for this is the prime god of chaos has finally been awakened after all these years and realizes the gods don’t have as much of a living presence as they had in the past to stop him. The god is aware of the irony of the name of the festival and intends to carry out its original meaning. Spies among the good folk have learned of this, and the gate that has allowed the god back into the world must be closed by the beginning of the festival.

The evil folk have their own version of the festival, and the characters have learned there will be a gathering of the orc leaders on the second day of the festival. This is a chance to strike fast and hard at the center of orc leadership.

This could be made more dramatic by the characters being of the “second day” race. They would have to actively leave their own festival without actually letting on why, as there are always traitors in the midst.

The dwarves have a smithing contest on their day, where dwarves take broken weapons and compete to see how fast they can reforge them. One of the weapons is actually an ancient, evil, magic weapon that has been slipped into the mix. The dwarves are the only ones capable of reforging this weapon, but would never knowingly do so. The characters have found out this has happened, but don’t know which weapon it is.

An elf princess has been kidnapped by the goblins the day before the festival. They plan to sacrifice her on the “elf day”. This has the double effect of ruining the festival for the elves and providing a more potent sacrifice to the goblins’ foul gods.

What’s Your Favorite RPG? Earthdawn

From Trevor Dreher

Want to play a post-apocalyptic fantasy RPG with a twist of horror? The answer most certainly should be yes.

What does a post-apocalyptic fantasy setting with a twist of horror look like? The world of Earthdawn. Earthdawn is a world of high magic. The magic goes through cycles of rising and falling over time. When the magic level becomes elevated the barriers between planes weaken and horrors come into the world.

Horrors are beings of great power that feed off the negative emotions (hate, fear, jealousy) of name givers (humanity). They cannot be reasoned or bargained with. Many are too powerful to confront directly. They devastate the world when they come, and name-givers cower in magical caverns, waiting for the magic level to fall and the horrors to retreat.

After 400 hundred years of hiding, the magic level started to fall, although not as low as was expected. Earthdawn is set 100 years after this fall of magic and emergence from the caverns. While many of the powerful horrors retreated, many remain and now the characters explore the world. The whole story is at: Earthdawn

Why do I unequivocally recommend this game? Three reasons.

The Setting

Earthdawn was created by FASA (responsible for creating Shadowrun and Battletech). The great thing about a FASA world is that it evolves. Factions change sides, nothing is written in stone. Name-givers are not united in their resistance to the horrors. It really allows for the suspension of disbelief. It is currently being managed by RedBrick, who are doing a fine job of continuing to evolve this world.

The Scalability of The System.

We have a group of characters that we played for over 10 years in the setting. We became powerful, but the nature of the world still allowed our GM to hand us our head on a plate any time. The horrors must be stopped and they are powerful. The rules allow this scalability and are the strongest I have seen for a fantasy setting.

The Magic System

In the Earthdawn, names and events have power. You cannot just pick up an item and use it to full power, nor does the item automatically become more powerful as you gain experience. You have to find out about the item and often quest to unlock its powers.

The setting is coming to D&D 4th edition but I won’t wait. Pick up the best fantasy RPG. You will not be disappointed.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Re: Going Beyond Win/Lose

From Mike Bourke

This is in reference to Going Beyond Win/Lose from Jolle Lont in

A further option is to ensure that the goal the players are trying to achieve is not one that will make them feel good about the outcome or that is otherwise dark in nature.

For example, setting up a situation in which the only way to defeat the evil other-dimensional being that’s turning the village into a place of nightmares is to kill all the inhabitants, because you can’t tell who has been tainted and who hasn’t, and you can’t afford to let even one escape.

Or the Coventry Solution: During WWII, the English learned through their decoding of Enigma intercepts that the Germans were planning a massive bombing raid on the city of Coventry. Churchill faced the difficult choice of rushing forces to defend the city, revealing by doing so that the Allies had broken the German codes, and ultimately costing even more lives and possibly losing the War, or letting the raid proceed.

He chose the latter, and more than 100,000 were killed in the attack. He “achieved the goal” as Jolle puts it, but I don’t think he would have been turning cartwheels about it.

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Free Maps

From Michael Tumey

Here is a gallery of maps I’ve created that DMs might find useful for their games:

Michael K. Tumey – Fantasy Cartography Portfolio

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Catalog Your Collection

From CyberSavant

Forgot which modules, scenarios and resources you have? It’s easy to set up a tracker as a MS Word table or Access database. To get started, decide what information you wish to record. For example, terrain type, settlements, major features, landmarks, notable NPCs, product title, game system, encounter level, and where they’re stored

This works well for published scenarios, side treks, and plot hooks, whether you have a collection of RPG magazines, published modules, home brew notes, or downloads. Putting the information in a database is particularly useful for sorting by criteria like terrain, creature type, encounter level, etc.

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Award XP For Encouraging Roleplaying

From Darren

Do you ever have a problem with your players’ involvement in your game? One player is bored and just going through the motions. Another is squeezing as much time from the spotlight as he can. Yet another is yelling his actions from the kitchen while making a sandwich. It can be quite difficult to get your players equally involved in the events of the story. There is only one thing that every player has in common: XP Greed.

That’s right. Those wonderful abstract points used to make your character better at whatever it is that he does.

Sure, there are roleplaying rewards, but those affect only the individual doing the roleplaying. This can create a problem. When one player takes over the game, it isn’t fair. After all, some people are good at roleplaying, some aren’t. Everyone can improve, though.

Give roleplaying rewards only if the player encourages you (the GM) and/or their fellow players to join in. If Ted is watching a fly on the wall, ask him (in character) how he and his family dealt with giants in the northern hills of Halmera. After all, the gnomes of Halmera are famous for holding back over a century of hill giant invasions.

Involve the character and their background. Wait for other PCs to prompt you and you might just come up with things you hadn’t thought of before. In an ongoing game, backgrounds can be just as dynamic as the current adventure. So don’t feel like you’ve overstepped your bounds if you’ve just created a neat bit of information about the world or your character. Build on it. Work with the other players (and the GM) to create a deep, interesting world with multi- dimensional and entertaining characters.

It is up to the GM and system to determine the amount of XP to be awarded to a player. The amount should always be reasonable for trying, but should be scaled to account for the overall effect on the game for the session. If the overall game was good, give the players who encouraged the others more than those whom they encouraged. Give the latter roleplaying XP and explain to them this little house rule. Chances are, they will take advantage of it. If not for a better game, then for the XP.

Keep in mind that Ted telling Jim to stop daydreaming and start roleplaying is not a form of encouragement. You may actually wish to penalize that behavior as it is harmful to the game and player morale.