Retro Style

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0595

A Brief Word From Johnn

RPT Goes Retro

I have been devouring Old School RPGs lately. Remember the red Basic D&D book? Games like that.

There’s a new generation of simplified OSR games out there now. Games like Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, Red Hack, Whitehack, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea.

So I’m in an old-meets-new mood and thought it would be fun to put together a Roleplaying Tips in the old format it used to be in. Maybe OSR means Old School Roleplaying Tips, lol.

I surveyed you and other subscribers awhile ago. 21% said the format was too long. 56% said it was just right. And 19% didn’t care about length. I ended up shortening the tips into periodic standalone emails with feature articles, Scrolls (reader tips) and Gems (cool links).

So this week I wanted to try mashing them all up into one to see how production felt and to find out if you like it.

Let me know if you enjoyed this longer format or if you prefer the shorter, chunked-out emails.

Have a game-full week.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

Retro Style

Venger’s Best Adventure Writing Tips

From Venger Satanis


Tap Into Shadow Creation

Write in stages. Leave blocks of time between creative spurts. Those non-writing periods allow the subconscious mind to influence the creation in unexpected ways.

I call this period shadow creation because it happens in a sneaky, crafty way under cover of darkness. Using shadow creation, things are being put together and designed without our direct awareness.

One just needs to space out those active periods of writing to activate the subconscious. The bigger the project, the more frequent and longer the blocks of time should be.

Use The Three Sentences Of Powe

Start each session with the three sentences of power! Most players don’t want to hear you read a couple pages of flavor text or “interesting” historical facts. They want to get straight to the action.

All that writing is unnecessary for you and just bogs down the game at the most crucial point – the beginning.

Ok, so what are the three sentences of power? Your elevator pitch, that’s what.

Think of it as a fast-paced movie trailer:

  • Sentence one: “In a world…” This describes the overall place or setting.
  • Sentence two: “During the time of…” This describes the when, giving a general idea of what’s going on.
  • Sentence three: “One rag-tag group stands in the way…” This is the basis of your adventure. It makes things personal.

Alright, let’s put it all together.

“On the desert planet Xixt, surrounded by three black suns, everyone is a slave to the Necromancer King. An uprising has just been squashed, millions dead… hope being the last casualty. Lord Nocren has decreed every male child is to be killed and every female child brought to him when the largest of the black suns rises above the others – in seven days time.”
Now, you have an adventure! It gives just enough detail, the right kind of detail, to get players interested and eager to involve themselves.

Move outward from the three sentences of power.

Be Brave And Borro

Borrow from the best. Take an idea or concept from your favorite movie, TV show, or novel and adapt it to suit your needs.

Several months ago, I planned on running The Lost City D&D module. Just for fun, I wanted to add something new. I borrowed the test of manhood scene from 80’s movie Flash Gordon. Instead of a mound of dirt or whatever it was, this was a metallic column or pillar with holes.

Certain holes would chop the hand off a character instead of yielding a poisonous bite like in the film. Unfortunately for the PC, he happened to put his hand in a chopping hole. For the rest of the adventure, that player’s wife teased him by calling him “lefty”. Incidentally, she also spotted the borrowing. “That reminds me of Flash Gordon.” She said. “Yep, that’s where I got the idea from.” Came my reply.

It’s important to note having our influences or borrowed elements recognized doesn’t detract from the encounter. In fact, the passing familiarity can be an advantage! Feel free to borrow. Just remember to at least make one small change so it’s not a total rip-off of the source material.

Create Something Unexpected

Come up with at least one really cool and unexpected feature in your adventure. Unexpected is the operative word as this adventure aspect must be as creative as it is unfamiliar – the stranger the better.

We’ve all fought orcs and kobolds. We’ve all found a sword +1. We’ve all experienced the flame-y end of a fireball spell.


If the whole adventure is filled with that kind of stuff, then it goes one step beyond predictable to the Land of Boring. Ouch, no one wants to play there, right?

Before running your next session, create at least one monster, magic item, spell, NPC or location that will blow the socks off your players. Just one should be enough.

Sure, it might take an extra 20 minutes of brainstorming to come up with a worthy piece of singular strangeness, but the work will be worth the effort.

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Tap Into Yourself

Put a little of yourself into each adventure. What are your problems? Strengths and weaknesses, favorite things? What are you afraid of? What are your aspirations? Favorite character traits? Hobbies?

Include a wizard and a cleric playing chess if that’s something you’re into. Put your arachnophobia to good use by including half elf / half giant spider hybrids.

Did you ever write a short story about a citadel made out of ice when you were in Junior High? Now’s your chance to re-use it.

Deposit a little of your own subjective taste or experiences into every session. It’ll be just that tiny bit more personal and satisfying.

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Thanks for giving me the opportunity to assist my fellow gamers, Johnn! Here’s a kickstarter link for my 2nd weird sci-fantasy module, The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence.


Scroll #1 Use Drop Tables For Quick Design And Inspiration

RPT reader Will recently sent me a request for a dice drop table.

But before I get into the links and story for this tip, I first want to describe what a dice drop table is, and why it’s cool. If you like the idea you can go bananas making up your own (and if you do, drop me a link or file for me to share out).

A dice drop table is a fun and simple generation tool. It’s like a mind map meets a random table.

Take a sheet of paper and divide it into zones. You can put words, pictures, ideas or whatever you want in the zones.

Once your paper is ready, you drop dice on it. The landing places of the dice generates whatever the dice drop table is for.

Why not just use a random table?

This technique lets you combo benefits of randomness, gravity, design of the sheet and number of dice dropped to get you specifically designed “readings”. This adds more dimension, creativity and visceralness to your standard random table format. (Because I never get enough opportunities to pick up a bunch of dice and roll them at once!)

Here’s an example from the blog Rolang’s Creeping Doom: Dice Drop Table: Evil Temple of Evilness

Ok, so back to the story. Will quests for a specific dice drop table:

“Hello there Johnn, I’ve been a long time reader and have benefited a whole lot from your emails and tips. I’m emailing you because at one point in time I read about a method of generating a map for a setting by getting various dice and tossing them into a box lid.

“After tossing the dice in you would look at where they are and the numbers to determine what is where. Certain dice represented towns, certain ones were forests and certain ones were mountains as well as a LOT more.

“If possible, could you see if you can find it?”

Unfortunately, I could not suss out the link, so I turned to the smart folks at the GM Tips G+ Group:

And they found the link at Gnome Stew: How to Make a Drop Map

I love the idea of drop tables as an intersection of doodling, game prep, GM inspiration and random generators.

Try it out yourself.

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Scroll #2 How To Dial Your Game Sessions To 11

Gary Furash asked the GM Tips G+ group:

“I’d like to have my sessions dialed to 11 more often. What are your top tips for making this happen as a GM?”

And here are a few notable tips from the discussion I wanted to pass along to you.

Make Something Explode

I seem to recall someone on the Happy Jacks RPG podcast saying that if things start getting boring, have something explode.

Of course, explosions aren’t always the answer, which is a complete lie. Explosions are always the answer.

But seriously, be comfortable with up-ending what’s been established, and be ready throw wrenches into the gears and find a way to make it work and be fun.

-Benjamin Kramer

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How Could It Play Out?

I treat my sessions like I am a producer/director of a TV show. “How do I make this AWESOME” is ALWAYS in the back of my head.

  •  I am very much in the “Yes, but…” school of GMs. If the players want to make the characters do something that would be awesome, LET THEM (even if not strictly supported by the rules). If the adversaries could do something awesome, LET THEM.
  • Another thing I always try to do (going along with the first part), is thinking “If I were filming this, how would I want it to play out?” Run from there?

-Glenn Griswold

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Work The Back Story

I find various ways to tie character back story into the current situation. This is most easily done when AT character creation, you force them to learn about their character.

I give them a picture in my mind of what the character’s story or quest is. And have them build where they’ve been thanks to that.

After that, just keep a few quick notes on what to plug in at random intervals.

-Steven Maloney

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Know Your Strengths

It’s really a matter of playing to your strengths, I think. What are yours?

It’s important to know your weaknesses too. I work actively to share up mine, and to avoid overusing my strengths. In that regard GMing is like cooking. A judicious blend is best.

But the “wow” moments are most likely to come when you’re truly in your element.

The best thing about GMing, though, is the way experience makes such a difference. I ran my first game almost thirty years ago. It was a wild and funny ride. I let my imagination run free, and we all had a ball.

Now, I still have my imagination, but I also have mental tools forged by decades of experience. And that lets me create more “wow” moments, more dependably.

-Peter Maranci

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Use Pacing For Effect

One of the ultimate examples of “dialing up to eleven” I’ve ever seen was the Japanese cartoon Gurren Lagann. It simply must be seen to be believed. But here’s the key: it earned that 11 because it fit the setting, the themes, the characters, and the plot.

It flowed along as “11” got bigger and bigger, but it felt either natural or else you grew accustomed to a “new normal” before it raised the stakes again.

It’s what Harold Ramis called a “domino effect theory of screenwriting” in the Ghostbusters commentary, which is worth a listen.

Think about that movie for a second: it starts with a trio of perceived collegiate quacks running from an honest-to-goodness ghost sighting and ends with them saving the Earth from an elder god by destroying its home dimension. And you never questioned the plot getting there because you were conditioned to accept things piece by piece.

Dial things up to eleven only when the time is right. Combine this with catharsis (which Ghostbusters and Gurren Lagann both use) by raising and lowering the tone back and forth, but always raising things a little more and lowering them a little less, resulting in a net gain.

And after you get to eleven, dial it way back down to begin the journey to eleven again.

Fewer is more when you “dial it to eleven.” Again, do you want a bunch of cool moments that blur together or do you want to truly remember them?

People appreciate the things they earn more than the things they are just given. Kids like Christmas more because they (at least believe they) earned those presents from Santa Claus for being good all year. When you get older, you see the wizard behind the curtain. It’s just a web of money transferring hands in the form of goods. You know you didn’t “earn” those gifts no matter how much you appreciate the thought.

Earn that 11.

-Scott Lorch

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Scroll #3 5 Room Dungeon Tips

From James Paese

re: 5 Room Dungeons

The thing I like most about the 5 Room Dungeon concept is it’s simultaneously structured and abstract. The scalability is my favorite aspect of this approach.

What I mean is, the “Entrance & Guardian” can be a single room, an entire location, an important NPC, a city, etc. When I think of “Entrance & Guardian”, I don’t think of it in literal terms, but more as the “this is where it all begins”.

By changing the scope of the 5 Room concept, you can build an entire campaign, with different “zoom levels”, while still retaining all of the great elements the 5 Room concept includes.

For example, one of my most popular adventures is called, “The Curse of the Black Hand”. It’s a straightforward idea. A necromancer has formed a cult to plot his revenge against a local noble who fired and exiled him.

The cult is extremely secretive, and the method of the necromancer is to raise the dead family members and descendants of people in the area villages and cities, forcing them to destroy their former loved ones.

His plan is to wreak havoc and chaos, and to force the noble to spread out his resources to deal with the problem, to make it easier to slip into the city and get his ultimate revenge by raising an undead army to attack the entire city.

So, on the metaplot level, the “Entrance & Guardian” is a number of area villages reporting their dead relatives are rising from the grave and attacking them. I usually start this out as an “in media res” situation, where the PCs are in one of the villages when an attack takes place.

But once the party finds the location of the necromancer’s lair, I can drop another “Entrance & Guardian”, which is an actual cave entrance. The necromancer’s lair has its own 5 Room Dungeon.

The best part about retaining an abstract view of the 5 Room Dungeon approach is it masks the system so it doesn’t become predictable, nor is it required to be linear for the PCs to succeed or reach their end goal.

What I usually end up with are a number of smaller 5 Room Dungeons within a larger 5 Room Dungeon.

Here’s kind of a synopsis of how I have this adventure organized:

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Entrance & Guardian

Nearby villages report dead relatives are rising from their graves and attacking. One of the attacks actually happens in the village where the PCs are at the beginning of the adventure.

Puzzle or Roleplay Challenge

The party needs to figure out the source of these attacks, and who is behind them.

Some of the clues are special amulets the undead all wear, rumors of a few possible suspects capable of such a thing, and the fact that necromancy isn’t a common occurrence in this world.

Trick or Setback

The PCs discover a former cult member living in seclusion in a nearby forest, who may know who is behind this horror and where to find them.

But instead of leading them to the necromancer’s lair, she leads them to a swamp infested by massive, poisonous snakes.

She tries to flee while the PCs deal with the snakes.

If they manage to keep her from fleeing or they find her later, she confesses she was forced to lie by the necromancer, who holds her children hostage.

Climax, Big Battle or Conflict

This is the necromancer’s lair.

Reward, Revelation or Plot Twist

At some point the party learns the necromancer was a former adviser to the noble, who was exiled for “strange and dark practices”, so they will be rewarded handsomely if they defeat the necromancer.

The plot twist is the woman who led them to the swamp is actually his sister, and a witch, who becomes a vengeful NPC who wants to settle the score with the PCs.

If the PCs did get her “story” earlier, she will try to warn the necromancer before she takes the party to his lair.

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Subplot Example – Village

Entrance & Guardian

The undead attack is the “entrance” to the adventure.

Puzzle or Roleplay Challenge

The villagers are terrified and relying on the noble who rules this land to send help from the city.

The PCs can either travel to the city to learn about the necromancer, or wait until the noble’s men appear in the village to conduct their investigation.

I also leave a couple of NPCs in the village who know about the strange woman who lives in the forest.

Trick or Setback

One of the village elders suspects the PCs, who are strangers in the village, are somehow responsible for this horror. He attempts to grow a faction to have them sent away, or tried for using dark magic.

Climax, Big Battle or Conflict

If the PCs drag their feet for too long while this is going on, the village grows suspicious of the PCs and try to run them out of town.

Reward, Revelation or Plot Twist

If the PCs help defeat the undead, they are rewarded by the local council.

I have several more 5 Room Dungeons for the adventure, including the necromancer’s lair, the main city and the swamp.

So, my basic approach is to create the metaplot as a 5 Room Dungeon, and then create smaller 5 Room Dungeons related to the metaplot dungeon.

I’ve also used separate entities for the 5 Room Dungeons. You could treat the 5 rooms as 5 NPCs for a game more intrigue based and character driven. Or, you can just use the concept to create the most important NPCs for the adventure.

For example:

  1. Entrance & Guardian: Gideon, the old wizard who seeks out the PCs for assistance in finding an artifact.
  2. Puzzle or Roleplay Challenge: Siraz, the young apprentice who accompanies the PCs to decipher the symbols at the tomb where the artifact is believed to be.
  3. Trick or Setback: Khelar, a disreputable bounty hunter also searching for the artifact for his employer.
  4. Climax, Big Battle or Conflict: Thûr, a demon bonded to the artifact, who appears if it is disturbed.
  5. Reward, Revelation or Plot Twist: Tharam, a priest who reveals the wizard actually has dark purposes for the artifact were he to get his hands on it.

I should mention I use the 5 Room Dungeon concept pretty much as written for one-shots, but I still try to be creative in their use to mask the formula. So the Entrance & Guardian can actually be several rooms.

One of the really neat things about 5 Room Dungeons is they are so easily expandable, especially if they have a plot twist in them. I think it’s possible to create an entire campaign and setting from a 5 Room Dungeon.


Gem #1 Running A Minimal Prep Game

I’ve featured this link before, but in case you haven’t read these tips I recommend clicking on over to Gnome Stew to learn how to reduce your preparation time.

Running a Minimal Prep Game

Gem #2 RPG Ouija Board

I thought this was cool idea for a game prop. Use it for clues, a weird drop table, a villain’s weakness….

D&D Ouija or RPG Witch-Board 

Gem #3 Table Of Untested, Untrustworthy And Somewhat Incompetent Henchmen

Need some character for the hireling the PCs just picked up? Try this funny but great table for quick NPC ideas.

Table of Untested, Untrustworthy and somewhat Incompetent Henchmen

Gem #4 Free Microdungeon Maps

Small maps in your back pocket bail you out of tough spots.

Maybe the party heads south without warning and you need to stall. Or you just made up a quick quest and need a location.

Check out the great compilations of small adventure location maps at the Micro Dungeons blog.

Scroll down the sidebar till you hit the “old map compilations” section”.

Year of The Dungeon>

My favourite so far is “The Witch of Heartbreak Square”: