Quick-Start Sci-Fi RPG Tips For Newbies

From Jonathan Hicks

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0115

A Brief Word From Johnn

New Article Posted At The Site: Hangings Can Be Fun

Mark Kibbe of Basement Games has written some great tips about cliffhangers.

New EXP System Working Out

For my new D&D campaign I’ve been using a new experience point system and it’s working well. I call it justified arbitrariness. At the end of a session I email all the players and ask them three questions:

  1. What were your PC’s high points in the session?
  2. What were your PC’s low points in the session?
  3. Who was the best PC for the session?

After a session I always have a gut feel for how much the PCs “experienced”, developed, and progressed along in life. So, I pick my EXP award based on that feeling and modify it by the players’ responses.

Players always know more about what their PCs did during sessions than I can log or remember. Plus, their replies are often surprising and reveal hooks and motives for future use, such as “Low Point: having two travellers murdered while I was 50 feet away. Randor forgive me.”

Of course, some replies are awesome for their pure entertainment value: “The highlight of the trip came when I nailed that evil priest between the shoulder blades with my crossbow and watched as the demon bug swallowed him whole!”

Anyway, I guess the core tip here is to encourage player feedback about their PCs after each session and let that affect their ongoing development as well as help you create personalized hooks and side-plots.

Till next week,

Johnn Four
[email protected]

Quick-Start Sci-Fi RPG Tips For Newbies

Never done any Science Fiction gaming before? Are you a Fantasy fan and fancy a change of scenery? Here are a few handy quick-start tips to make the transition smoother.

Dealing With Technology

It’s not necessary for a GM to know the ins and outs of how space gear works, such as communicators, lasers, and space suits, as these items are simple tools to aid the players and nothing else. The functions will be explained in the core rules of the system you are using. There comes a time, however, when these items need to be addressed in game terms to ascertain an outcome.

For example, let’s say Boris and Frank are floating around outside a spaceship – suddenly *gasp* he’s hit by Frank with a spanner – but what kind of damage would a spanner do to a spacesuit? How much protection would Boris get?

Most items are covered in sci-fi games and their damage limitations are detailed, but not all are given that kind of attention.

To deal with this, consider the following:

  1. How large is the item and what is its function? The bulkier the item, the more damage it can take, but remember that an item can still be delicate no matter what its size so allow for that.
  2. What is the source of the damage? Being hit by a fist or blasted by a plasma cannon? The destructive force of the hit should have a say.
  3. What is the item made of? Plastic, cloth, or molecular aligned steel? Its resistance to damage is a major factor.

Technology As A Game Aid

There comes a time in every GM’s experience where a piece of technology seriously unbalances a game:

  1. An item in the game that is powerful and the PCs get it.
  2. An item designed by a GM [and not play-tested].
  3. An item designed by a player [and not play-tested].

The item can be anything from a powerful weapon to a good scanner, so to help balance the game, here are a few ideas on how to deal with it:

  1. The item is good in one respect but bad in another. For example, a rifle scope – good at zeroing in on static targets but terrible at tracking moving ones.
  2. The item is vulnerable. It may be a handy bit of kit but it’s delicate or easily damaged.
  3. Prone to failure. i.e. an excellent machine with a bad breakdown rate or has the danger of exploding, making unskilled PCs hesitate to use it.
  4. Everyone wants one. The item is so good it’s prone to being stolen or attracts too much attention.

Making Space Voyages Interesting

Those long treks between stars can be over in an instant or they can spread out over days depending on what galaxy you’re in. In any case, the PCs will be spending time onboard starships and the words “right, you’re there” might work in some respects but hardly help the players suspend their disbelief.

There are a few things you can do to make the journey interesting:

  1. Ask what the players will be doing for the duration and describe the journey in detail. If there’s nothing important happening just give a description.[Comment from Johnn: to ensure the description is interesting, focus parts of it on the PCs, based on their stated activities:
    • What do they succeed in learning? (i.e. they’re studying/practicing new skills or using scientific instrumentation to monitor local space)
    • What is the result of their hobbies? (i.e. PC wins twice against the computer, but loses 23,867 times, or a small garden begins to thrive.)
    • What minor events not worth roleplaying occur that the PCs deal with? (i.e. a ship repair, letters from home.)]
  2. If the journey is a long one then get some interaction going between the players and NPCs. Conversations so that the game up to that point can be reviewed and plans made. Describe the hum of the deckplates, the flashing of the panel lights, the swirl of the stars outside the hull.
  3. Create a problem. An NPC turns out to be dangerous, an alien life form is loose on the ship, the vessel is attacked or hits something. Whole scenarios can be played out with panic on a starship and makes for some genuinely scary games – after all, where can the PCs run to?
  4. Choose a starship with character:
    • The vessel is old and broken and a cause for concern.
    • The vessel is new and expensive and woe betide anyone who scratches it.
    • It’s huge and glamorous, like a liner, with plenty of games, shows, NPCs – and intrigue.
    • It’s a battleship, crisp and clean.
    • The ship is a pirate vessel, hunted and feared.
    • The vessel’s so alien that the PC’s don’t know what to make of it!
    Give the ship some internal character, like a gurgling conduit that everyone knows if they tap it it’ll stop. The names of vessels are important, too. What ship would you board? The Soaring Angel or the Third Time Lucky? Add to that the fact that names can be deceiving…

Creating, GMing, And Role-Playing Aliens

Creatures from outer space! How can a GM effectively portray something that has no place in human consciousness? Well, in truth, they can’t, but here are a few ideas on how to give your aliens that slight edge that makes them seem out of this world.

  1. Concept. What is the alien’s purpose? Is it part of a human-like society or is it a beast with teeth and claws? This is like giving a alien an intelligence level, from the ignorant beast to the highly developed being.
  2. Visual. What does it look like? Mammal, Reptile, Amphibian? Natural history books and even tomes about dinosaurs is a must – you can get some great visualisations and simply saying “it looks like a walking ant” can do the trick.
  3. Personality. Is it friendly, with human traits? What does it like or dislike? Aliens might have a moral outlook on life that vastly differs from human, such as finding gladiatorial games acceptable or eating their mate!To the alien where this is perfectly normal there might be a PC moral conflict there. Basic emotions might be shared, such as love, anger, hate, but how the alien acts on these feelings might be different. Perhaps the aliens don’t know the concept of hate, or lying? Just a few notes on what the alien understands can make a lot of difference.
  4. Society. What kind of world does the alien come from? Is it a democracy, a dictatorship, or even some kind of monarchy? Perhaps the world has no leaders and they simply live there. Maybe they share a hive mind and only function as a group. The aliens’ environment can also make an impact on how they act and react, or how they view their surroundings or fellows.
  5. Sound and movement. Do they have any physical traits you can re-create yourself. A tic, maybe. Or perhaps they have arms that bend in different ways when they converse. Perhaps heads and limbs jerk with insect-like movements, or they permanently have their mouths down-turned like they are constantly upset.Remember that giving the alien personality is the key thing but personality must also be influenced by the aliens’ environment and view on life.You don’t want men in rubber masks with quirky things that make them appear like aliens – you want a fleshed out being or creature with a reason for existence. Think of it this way – you’re a TV show with a limitless budget – don’t restrain yourself.

How To Create Space Campaigns If You’re From A Fantasy Background

The truth is, designing a space-based campaign is relatively simple and follows pretty much the same rules as a fantasy- based campaign. You have your plot, your setting, your players, and your goals.It can also help to think of the 2D to 3D rule – in a fantasy game you’re pretty much limited to a 2D landscape, trekking across fields and woodlands and over mountains fighting and being a hero. In space games you’re in a 3D world, where you can also go up – far, far up.

What is the difference between two kingdoms and two planets? Nothing, other than the means of transport to get to either one. Change the horse to a hovercraft, change the tall ship to an interstellar spacecraft and you’re already half way there.Then you’ve got the technology. Most of it is window dressing so don’t worry about what it does. How does it work? Who cares? As long as it does what it’s supposed to do then it doesn’t matter.Then swap swords for blasters, bows for plasma guns, shields for energy protectors.

A suit of armour can be a power suit, a catapult a piece of plasma artillery. Your castles are your fortresses, your dungeons your mountain research complexes, your way stations your space stations.

Wizards become psychics, necromancers become re-animation scientists, alchemists are simple chemists. Your orcs, elves and lizard men are your aliens; your dragons, demons and wyverns are your beasts on the moons and on the unexplored planets.

Kings are Stellar Emperors. Knights are Space Marines. And your lowly kitchen boy is the floor sweeper on an interstellar starship, blasting from star to star with an eye for discovery and adventure. The two are not that different. There are very few things to change, except for the following:

  1. It’s handy to have some knowledge of what lies between the stars; nebulae, asteroids and the like. This is mainly for descriptive purposes but can be handy in certain situations.
  2. Make sure you’re familiar with the setting and what the players can/cannot do in general terms. Many technical questions will be asked and can be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but there’s bound to be surprises.
  3. Have the available locations handy. With faster than sound planetary travel and faster than light space travel the PCs can get to where they’re going pretty quickly.
  4. Be descriptive. In fantasy games the landscape is quite standard and easy to visualise, but in sci-fi there can be an infinite amount of alien worlds and settings in space that are vastly different from our own world. Even if you just say the grass is brown and the sky is pink – alien landscape. In time you will be talking of natural glass spire formations, crystal waterfalls, acid lakes, and phosphorous clouds without a second thought…

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Attention Game Publishers & Companies THIS SPACE FOR RENT

Do you have a gaming-relating product that you’d like to tell 11,500 Game Masters about? Put your information and links here! The GM subscribers to this ezine have been very supportive of advertisers here in the past and are open to learning more about your products as long as they’re useful to roleplayers.

Just don’t try to sell us any swamp land in Gehenna.

[email protected]

Tips Request: “Adventures For Weak Characters”

Here’s an interesting topic request I received from a subscriber:

“I was wondering, how about an issue on encounter ideas and tips for low-level/newbie characters. Most of the default encounters are way too commonplace (oh, more kobolds…), or otherwise way too risky.

How about twists to standard encounters, or ways to make some encounters less dangerous, while still keeping them challenging?”

So, what do you think? Do you have any tips, advice, or ideas for making encounters for weak characters interesting and challenging?

Email me personally at:
[email protected]


Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Make Silent Rolls With A Mouse Pad

From Adam T.

(see his RPG ad near the top of this issue for a mouse pad give-away)

With the use of a GM screen (or even a binder), you can place a cloth or mouse pad behind the screen and make “silent rolls” at any time. This will keep surprises as actual surprises. That is, if there is something happening, and the characters have a chance to detect it (through some of their skills), making a roll on a pad will not alert anyone (i.e. the players), so it comes as a total surprise to not only the characters, but the players as well.

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Cheap Minis For Creepy Crawlies

From Doc.

I took my youngster to the local nature center yesterday and in the gift shop were small plastic snakes, spiders and bugs. They were all the size that would be Medium to Large in the D&D scale, though a few of the spiders were Monstrous to Colossal :D. Besides the Center and its ilk I guess any zoo or other type of place would have them.

I wonder what the worker thought when she saw my hands full of the things and my kid asking if he could play with Daddy’s toys? [Comment from Johnn: I recently scored some awesome plastic giant animal figs from my local dollar store for…guess what?…a buck a piece. A little red and yellow model paint turns toys like these into demonic and dire creatures perfect for scaring your players!]

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Source For NPC Names

From Arkanabar

There are doubtless many players who will moan and groan when they hear this, but it is a great source for a huge number of names that will all be related: the Bible.

It’s great–especially those long boring genealogical lists in the Old Testament that would otherwise make you snore (and Joshaphat begat Joshael, and Joshael begat Joshahiah…). Genesis and Chronicles in particular are just FULL of really neat names. And Numbers can help you describe a really truly elaborate tent (or temple).

I also keep a pad handy whenever I’m reading *anything*, and write down almost any word that I’m not familiar with. It will wind up making a name for something somewhere at some time. I alphabetize them later and put them into my Names List.

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A PC Learning Plateau Simulation

From Walo

[Comment from Johnn: I thought you might find the following relatively generic game mechanic useful for spawning the occasional PC quest. If you hate dice rolling, skip to Reader’s Tip #5]

I’ve realized that in real life, in anything you do (be it playing chess, writing, for me it’s fencing), sometimes your progress comes to a standstill, leveling off for a length of time. To simulate this in my new campaign I’ve initiated what I refer to as the WALO’S TRUE TO LIFE ADVANCEMENT BLOCK SYSTEM (or WTLABS, but call it what you will).

Every character is assigned a percentage chance of coming to a block in training (similar to writer’s blocks) equal to +1% per level gained since the last block. So, a fifth level character who has never had a block has a 5% chance of hitting the wall. A PC who has just advanced to ninth level who had his last block upon reaching fifth level would have a 4% chance.

When a PC advances to a new level he rolls and if he gets caught with it, then all experience gains stop and the character must overcome some inner demon (through a quest, atoning for sins, seeking or bestowing forgiveness, anything really). Once they overcome this inner demon they gain just enough experience to level them up, and the percentage resets to 0% until they gain another level through actual work (god forbid).

Thus in some respects it is a double-edged sword. On the negative, they don’t gain ANY experience until they’ve battled their inner demons, but on the positive, once they DO defeat them, then they gain an entire level for working past the plateau. If it goes on for too long though, I will allow them to begin again, explaining that it was just a dry spell, a rolling black out, a bad pun gone awry, the pizza they had before dinner, and the old gypsy woman who needed help to the bathroom. It’s done well in my game, I thought the readers of the world might be interested…

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Give Leaders Multiple Epithets

From Kenneth G.

Regarding the “Epithets And Kings” tip from Aytug [ RPT#110 – Ten Ways To Enrich Your Campaign With Lists Of Rulers: Part II ]

It’s also true that many monarchs had several epithets, or sobriquets. So, whether an NPC refers to a living king as “mighty” or “hapless” tells you something about that NPC’s politics.

Aytug mentions that many kings are mighty, so a few actually get that name. That is certainly true once the fellow is no longer around to dispense favors. But, while he lives and is around to give pensions, grants of land, offices, and titles, there will be those who call him mighty, even if he’s never fought a war, or done anything even remotely mighty.

Living monarchs should have 3-6 sobriquets reflecting things like:

  • Personal characteristics (the tall, the fat).
  • The kinds of things the king wants to hear said of him (the great, the wise).
  • The kinds of things his enemies say about him (the bastard, the greedy).
  • Things that define his policy (the pacific, the good clerk).

Some kings, but mostly queens, are foreign born. This adds another whole category of epithets referring to the country or place where the person is from. References to being foreign are often hostile.

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Bruce Gulke is a Tips subscriber and contributor who’s made a great RPG utility (PC).

Here’s how he described it in a recent email to me:

“In case you weren’t aware of it, I just wanted to mention my program “TableSmith”. If you like random generators, you’ll probably like this utility Basically, it takes in ASCII text files written in a format that TS recognizes, and spits out results to an HTML file. I have a “Table Gallery” on my site that contains tables created by myself and others, and totals over 300 tables.

The tables can be used to generate names, book descriptions, treasure, runes, dungeon maps, D&D3 towns, calendars, horses, war cries, etc.

TS is shareware, though it’s fully functional (it’s actually more like “donationware”).

The URL is http://www.mythosa.net/Utils.html .”