RPT#220 – 7 Tips For Roleplaying Encounter Locations
A Brief Word From Johnn
Paranoia Is A Fun Game
I played Paranoia (2nd Ed.) for the first time today. What a great game! It’s definitely oriented towards one-shots and not campaign play, so it makes an ideal ice-breaker for a new group or a make-up game if your regular one can’t be played.
I burned through 5 clones and got in on two mutant commie kills. Because I was the new guy and didn’t know what I was doing, I was designated the party leader. And things went downhill from there. 🙂
A recommended experience for any gamer.
Have a game-full week!
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7 Tips For Roleplaying Encounter Locations
Treat your encounter locations like NPCs and you just might get more interesting and entertaining results at the game table. In Issue #219 I made a call-out for roleplaying encounter location ideas. That wonderful list follows as the last tip below. The physical location is just one part of the formula to great roleplaying encounter settings, though.
Encounters are like NPCs. And a good roleplaying NPC has multiple dimensions. In addition to designing his statistics, he would benefit from having a personality, a motive or goal, a secret, and a quirk or two, among other things. Treating encounter locations the same way, as a multi-dimensional game element, should give them more personality and life and please your players more.
The tips below assume you’ll be using the location for a roleplaying type encounter. The tips could easily apply to other types of encounters, such as combat and puzzle, though for those types I’d do things a bit differently. Maybe that would make a good future article?
Give The Location An Attitude
You’re either in design mode before the game or winging-it mode during the game and you’ve picked your spot for an encounter. It might be on a pier, in an empty church, or in the furnace room of a hospital. What now?It’s important to try and make every encounter location distinct and interesting. The players will be more attentive to the game and their PCs’ surroundings. You’ll be helping them envision the setting and get into character better.
While detailing a location’s contents and inhabitants well is important (see tips below), they don’t always help make a setting unique. What happens if the PCs visit the same place multiple times? The same old objects and NPCs will probably be there and each encounter in that place will seem less distinct and unique.
The solution is to add some attitude. Before the encounter begins, decide on a mood, disposition, or bias for the setting, and make it different each time an encounter takes place in the same location. This way, even if the location is the same, it will have a different feel to it and the players’ perceptions of it will change.
Example encounter location attitudes:
Once you’ve picked an attitude, slant the encounter’s various elements to suit the mood. This is where your creativity and joy of design comes into play. It’s a puzzle. For example, how could you make your next encounter location sad?
- Someone has recently died and the NPCs in the area are wearing black arm bands and are sad themselves
- The sky is overcast
- The air is stale and still
- It’s quiet
- Anything that’s moving is doing so slowly, without purpose or urgency
- The location is cast in shadow
- Flowers and other plants seem wilted
- Buildings seem in disrepair
- Sad music is being played somewhere nearby
- A dog is yelping and crying nearby
The PCs return in a couple of days and you decide the location now has a merry attitude:
- The period of mourning has ended, the black arm bands are off
- A small street party is taking place
- Laughter and cheer can be heard from a tavern
- Children and pets are running around, playing games
- The sun is bright and warm
- Plants are perky
- The buildings seem taller and straighter
- Merry music from a small band has people dancing in the street
It’s important that the NPCs in your roleplaying encounter react to the attitude you’ve created. This acknowledges the difference and draws the players’ attention to the attitude. It will also queue the players to roleplay and react to the attitude as well, which is one of the main points of the exercise.
Adding attitude not only makes encounter locations different and interesting, but makes encounter types different and interesting as well. Imagine a hostage negotiation in the scenarios above. Each roleplaying encounter would feel, and possibly play, differently because of the changed mood of the location.
In many cases, you’re dealing with a change of perception and a bit of poetic license. Today, the cracks in the walls seem discoloured and ugly; yesterday, they looked like they formed a happy face. As long as you don’t mislead the PCs, they’ll appreciate the special touches that adding attitude brings.
Add A Secret
Add a mysterious or unknown element to each encounter location. The secret doesn’t need to come into play or even be directly observed by the PCs. It just needs to be there as subtext and used as an interesting encounter element that subtly flavours your roleplaying.As with NPCs and plot secrets, location secrets can help you in other ways, such as by spawning side-plots, acting as hooks, or adding a wow factor to a future session when the secret is revealed to the players.
Examples of location secrets:
- The area is used by the underworld as a base for illegal activities
- A very important NPC lives nearby
- It’s the secret base of a villain yet to be encountered
- A crime is being committed nearby
- Something important is buried right beneath the PCs’ feet
- The residents worship an evil god
- The residents are loyal to a crime boss
- A serial killer is terrorizing the area
- An evil mage has a lab nearby
- Fugitives are hiding nearby
Make The Encounter Chime With The Location
Look for opportunities to make the location you’ve picked synergize with what’s happening in the encounter. For example, if the PCs are investigating some stolen jewelry and they’re interrogating a petty thief in an alley, you might take up the theme of “theft” and flavour the setting with it. A young hooligan might steal an apple across the street and a cheeky flight from the merchant ensues. Perhaps a dark cloud passes overhead, stealing the light and darkening the shadows of the alley.
Perhaps some kids are playing piggy-in-the-middle in the street.If you know what kind of roleplaying will take place and you still have the opportunity to pick the location, choose a setting that matches the anticipated mood or nature of the encounter.
If it’s going to be a clash of wits, for example, you might set the encounter in a library:
As the PCs try to verbally outmanoeuvre their foe, the NPC draws out various scrolls and books from the shelves to accentuate his points.
“As the bold, yet misguided, philosopher, Armedes, wrote [taps book in his hand in a condescending manner], just because something could have happened, might have happened, probably have happened, that doesn’t mean it *did* happen. [Sigh.]
In fact, there is often little relationship between the potential of an event happening, such as the crime you are accusing me of, and the actual occurrence of said event!
Good old Armedes [puts book back on shelf]. It’s too bad he was hung for making false accusations against the King.”
This tip works well in conjunction with giving locations attitude. You can set-up a double-whammy of location type and attitude adjustment to lend the place great mood, symbolic props, and poignant atmosphere.
Add Objects To The Scene & Interact With Them
If nature abhors a vacuum, so do encounters. Flesh out a location by filling it up with objects. The added details that objects provide help bring encounters to life. The objects themselves also make great props to help you and your players roleplay.Adding stuff is where many GMs get stuck, especially if they’re winging it. It can also be a time-consuming design task.
When fleshing out your next location, try these techniques:
Mentally Envision The Area
This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s often poorly done, and therefore yields poor results. What happens is that we get stuck in left-brain, analytical mode. You are presented with a location and you logically try to brainstorm a list of possible contents.Instead, if you graphically try to imagine what the area or place looks like, all sorts of details can come to mind that a brainstorm list might not get. Start with picturing the structure or boundaries of the area. Then fill in the lighting. Then entrances and exits.
The think of what the purpose of the area is and what kinds of things would be around that would serve this purpose. Picture furniture, tools, machinery, decoration, and storage.One of the big benefits of envisioning a location instead of just listing its contents is that you can usually instantly summon the picture during a session and describe it to the players with greater speed and ease than finding and reciting off of a list.This is also an activity you can perform while driving, standing in line, etc.
During a session, while winging-it, it often just takes a few moments to conjure up an image before you start the encounter.
Find a Picture
Use magazines, books, or the internet to find a visual of your location. Then note the scene’s contents and make a an inventory from there. If the genre and details are close, you can simply use the picture during the session. Just be prepared to answer all the “what’s this?” questions you’ll get!
Have a Player Describe The Scene
Players usually have less going on than you will and can spare a few brain cycles to ponder what contents the location would have. Once the player in done her description, you add in any other important items as required.It’s often effective to give the player a couple minutes’ advance notice so they can properly ponder what the location holds.
When the encounter starts, you might say, “Ok, I’m going to take a couple minute pause to get my notes in order. Bob, I’m going to ask you to describe the scene for us, including some details about what’s lying around and what furniture and other things are present.”
Once you’ve filled the area up with stuff, be sure to interact with it. Don’t have the NPCs stay rooted to their starting positions as they parley with the PCs. Have them pour themselves a drink, peer out a window, summon the shoe shine boy, or pick up the fire poker and wave it around. This will encourage the players to do the same and will bring the location to life.
Feel free to have the props act upon the NPCs and PCs too! Have something fall (not dangerously though), something operate, something move or make a noise. Have something break, spill, or work exceptionally well.
Add NPCs To The Scene & Interact With Them
We know it’s going to be a roleplaying encounter, so there’s going to be at least one NPC, be it a person, intelligent magic item, smart beast, or what have you. However, when possible, add more NPCs to your locations. Encounters hate being lonely!The purpose is to flesh out the encounter with things to interact with or talk about.
Non-essential NPCs are great fuel for adding flavour and enhancing the roleplaying. Often, their mere presence helps the players feel like there’s a vibrant world out there. It’s ironic, but quite often dungeon encounters have more people and creatures in them than roleplaying ones do. 🙂
Example background NPCs:
- Curiosity seekers
If your genre allows it, think of some unusual NPCs to spice things up–just beware of their distraction potential though.
- Smart pets
- Familiar or charmed animal
- Intelligent magic item
- Animated furniture
- Automated machinery
- Magical presence (i.e. wizard eye)
- Holographic presence
Adding NPCs also creates more witnesses. You can use this as a defensive or offensive GMing tactic. For example, it would be harder to for the barbarian commit a spontaneous attack/murder in a stadium full of sports fans than it would if the encounter took place beneath a bridge. To be on the offensive, and to create greater challenge, prying eyes and straining ears can make some types of roleplaying encounters more interesting for the PCs. Witnesses, and “filler” NPCs in general, are a great GM tool, so use them generously.
Don’t forget to think in three dimensions when considering the encounter location. Think left, right, up, and down. Believe it or not, your roleplaying encounters could suffer from the same toe-to-toe syndrome that your combat encounters might!Instead of the PCs and NPC(s) always standing or sitting close together and chatting, separate them and place them in all three dimensions. Put the NPC up on a ladder as he’s painting a room or looking for a book. Place the non-player character in the tiny cellar or up in the loft.
Have the PCs straining their necks as they stand speaking with the mounted guard.In your next encounter, try to add stairs, ladders, elevators, a dais, a pit, a cellar, a platform, and so on. Have the NPC(s) move around during the encounter so that they move through the location’s varied space to further drive home the impression of dimension.Add in some range and suddenly you have many more options and opportunities for bringing roleplaying encounters to life. Think waaaay up, and deeeep down.
Think what’s a few dozen yards to the north, east, west, and south. What’s happening in the area around the ground zero point of the encounter?
- What events are occurring nearby?
- Have NPCs “go for a walk” so that the encounter takes place on the move, further adding dimension to the location.
- What sounds and sights from nearby might impinge upon the encounter location?
Try to avoid adding too many distractions to a location, but it wouldn’t hurt for every third encounter or so to have motion or be impacted by something else nearby in mid- roleplay.
Huge List Of Roleplaying Locations
Following is a nice, long list of location ideas for your upcoming roleplaying encounters. These should act as kernels to which you add attitude, secrets, objects, NPCs, and dimension. Thanks to everyone again for their submissions!
- A dog (or fantasy creature) pound
- Abandoned mine
- Abandoned Victorian hospital
- Abandoned/active distillery
- Aboard a ship
- Aboard an airship
- Alternate plane or dimension
- Amusement park
- An AA Meeting
- Ancient caves beneath the sewer systems
- Animal fight
- Anniversary party
- Antique wine-cellar
- Anywhere where the power is cut
- Apothecary shop
- Archery contest
- Army Camp
- Around the office water-cooler
- Art gallery
- Atomic test observation bunker
- Auction block square
- Auction house
- Awards ceremony
- Back room in a carpet salesman’s shop
- Back stairs
- Backstage at a play or opera
- Base of an active volcano
- Base of an ancient triumphal arch
- Behind a hedge along the side of the road
- Behind the barn
- Behind the smithy
- Bell tower
- Below a bridge
- Below gallows
- Beside a statue
- Beside jugglers
- Birthday party
- Blind Man’s House
- Boiler Room
- Box seats at the theatre or opera
- Boxing match
- Branches of a giant tree
- Bridge deck of the ship
- Bridge pylon at water level
- Bridge service platform
- Burned tower
- Burning windmill at night
- Bustling bazaar
- Cabin in the woods
- Candy factory
- Car chop shop
- Car race
- Cargo hold of a starship while in orbit
- Castle laundry
- Cave while the ship sits off shore
- Caverns under an iceberg
- Children’s Playground
- Circus Wagon
- City’s abandoned mines
- City baths
- City battlements
- City gates
- City or castle wall
- Classy penthouse
- Cliff overlooking a canyon
- Cliff overlooking a great waterfall
- Cloister of a monastery where the monks are sworn to silence
- Cloister of a nunnery where you are not a nun or even a woman
- Coffee house
- College campus
- Common table in a crowded inn
- Company board meeting
- Confessional at a church
- Construction site
- Corn fields just before harvest
- Covered wagon
- Creepy, deserted windmill at night
- Crime lord’s furnished house
- Crossroads in farmland
- Crossroads in wilderness
- Dark corner of the tavern
- Demolition derby
- Deserted island
- Deserted space station
- Dining car on a train
- Dining room of a well-to-do merchant by invitation
- Doctor’s office
- Dog kennel
- Dog race
- Dormant volcano
- Dressing room (or prop room)
- During a public speech
- During a royal hunt
- Edge of a waterfall
- Elegant salon
- Famous monument
- Farmer’s field
- Ferry boat
- Ferry dock
- Fireworks factory
- Fish pond
- Floating inner tubes
- Flooded town
- Flying buttress of a cathedral
- Foggy graveyard
- Foggy street corner
- Food vendor’s cart
- Football stadium at night
- Furniture shop
- Gallows tree
- Garden of hot springs
- Gentleman’s drawing room
- Ghost town
- Girlfriend’s boudoir
- Grain silo
- Graveyard at night
- Haunted house
- Haunted woods
- Hedge maze
- Hen coop
- High-rise building being wired for demolition
- Hobbit/halfling hole
- Hollow trunk of large tree
- Horse race
- Hot air balloon
- House built among the roots under an old tree
- House of mirrors
- In a dinghy
- In the box seating at an opera, musical, or ballet
- In the midst of a procession through town
- Inactive volcano
- Initiation rite
- Inside a clock tower
- Inside of a stone circle
- Internet cafe
- Island from whence none have returned
- Island in a river
- Isolated cave
- Isolated lodge
- Jewellery shop
- Jousting tourney
- King’s bed chambers
- Lady’s garden
- Lady’s parlor
- Land-mine riddled former battlefield
- Levitating together
- Lingerie modeling session
- Lion cage
- Livery stable
- Magic carpet
- Market square
- Mayday (spring) festival
- Middle of a ring of flames
- Military training facility
- Miser’s House
- Missile test range
- Monastery/family burial crypt
- Mountain top
- Movie/TV show production set
- Night club
- Noble’s personal well room
- Noble’s quarters lit only by a few candles and a crackling fire
- Nuclear power facility
- Old battlefield
- Old burned-out church
- Old castle ruins
- Old marooned ship
- Only inhabited house in a ghost town
- Outdoor festival/carnival
- Parent’s House
- Pavilion or gazebo
- Peak of ghost hill
- Pig wallow
- Pirate cave while pirates are away
- Place of worship
- Playhouse, backstage
- Playhouse, in the audience
- Pocket dimension
- Police interrogation room
- Political or religious rally
- Pony express station
- Private gardens
- Private meeting hall inside an inn or tavern
- Public baths
- Public park
- Public square
- Puppet show
- Queen’s bed chambers
- Quicksand pool
- Radio sound booth
- Rafters of a great hall
- Rented coach/wagon
- Restaurant with violinist playing at the table
- Rich party
- Rickety bridge over a deep ravine
- Rifle range
- Ring of monolithic stones whose centre is a mirror-like pool
- River bank
- River/ocean dock
- Roadhouse outside town
- Roadside shrine
- Roller coaster
- Royal garden party
- Ruined farmhouse
- Scribe’s shop
- Secluded clearing in the woods
- Secret society dressing room
- Seedy hotel room
- Sewer tunnel
- Shaman Hut
- Ship’s bilge
- Ship’s crows nest
- Shuttle launch platform just before launch
- Side of the road just outside of town
- Skeleton of an extinct great beast
- Slave market
- Sleazy back alley
- Small desert island
- Small, secluded island just off the coast of a major city
- Smuggler’s cove
- Snowed-in cabin
- Soundproof booth
- Space station
- Space walk
- Sport team dressing room
- Sporting arena
- Stock exchange
- Storm cellar
- Street corner
- Street festival
- Surprise party
- Swimming pool
- Tea house
- Theatre, empty
- Theatre, full
- Theme park ride
- Tidal pool
- Tobacco drying barn
- Top of a desert butte
- Top of a tower that has just been hit by a catapult/cannon
- Torture chamber
- Town well
- Tree house
- Tribal mound
- Truck pull rally
- UN chambers
- Under a bridge
- Under the bleachers
- Underwater cave
- Upper floor of skyscraper under construction
- Vault of a bank
- Video game, anime, or comic book convention
- Village square
- Water park with an adjoining go-kart track
- Wine cellar
- World’s fair
- Wrestling Ring
- XXX theatre
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Readers’ Tips Of The Week:
From: Rick Friedman
When most GMs create NPCs they assign them certain characteristics, such as extrovert/introvert, etc. We all know these.
I’ve had many times where I’m staring at this and am scratching my head thinking…ok, what now?
I figured if I could get deeper into what that NPC has been going through in his personal life, it might reflect in the way he interacts with the PCs. I’ve tried to keep it simple, but you can see how easily you can add modifiers, or other areas of influence.
Basic areas of influence:
By rolling a die (10, 20, or 00, personal preference) you can see if they’re having a good or bad day in that part of their life (or week, month, year).
High rolls mean the NPC is doing well in that area, low not so good. It’s hopefully straightforward and you can see where it may even lead to some fun side-quests.
- Hey, the innkeeper got some money (+Money) in from his new marriage (+Love), but is sick (-Health) and is willing to pay the PCs to travel to the next town and bring it back.
- A lot of NPCs are in bad health. Is there a plague in the works?
- A lot of good fortune: organized crime paying people to be quiet. A lot of bad fortune: extorting protection money.
RPG Sound Mixer (PC)
The Sorcererre: RPT#219 – I Like The Way You Move
I’ve been reading your ezine for quite a while. As I find in almost every issue a worthwhile tip, I always wanted to return the favor one day. So, when I read the Reader’s Tip about Winamp-Playlists I finally had my own tip. For there is a program out there for exactly that purpose: managing your music and sounds for roleplaying sessions. It’s called RPG Soundmixer and a free demo can be found here:
It’s a great and powerful program, and although the original program and website is German, most of it has been translated to English.
Dealing With Spotlight Requests
From: Garry Stah
l Personally, I don’t set up encounters with the characters in mind–unless the foe has the characters in mind. I simply construct the situation and let the characters bring what they have to bear against it.
I used to get the complaint (always from the same people) “there is nothing for my character to do.” Eventually, I had the epiphany that this was code for, “I’m not constantly the center of attention.” I sat my group down and explained that it was not my responsibility to play their characters. They were responsible for applying their skills and ideas to the circumstances of my creation. That has been my functional doctrine since. Create the scenario and let the players decide how to apply the characters’ abilities to solve it.
The only thing I avoid is the one-solution problem unless the tools are right in front of the party. i.e. The one key will be around the bad guy’s neck. It is up to them to get the tools, but the tools are presented and obtainable.
Metric Movement Rates
From: Paul Simmonsre
These are great. I will definitely be using this for my games.
Here are some metric conversions:
Creature Or Vehicle - Base Distance Moved Per 6 Seconds ------------------------------------------------------- Insect, small flying (i.e. bumble bee) - 12 m. Insect, small walking (i.e. beetle) - 0.9 m. Insect, large flying (i.e. locust, giant bee) - 36 m. Insect, large walking - 1 m. Dog, small - 12 m. Dog, large - 12 m. Horse - 12 m. Human, small (i.e. gnome, dwarf, goblin) - 6 m. Human - 9 m. Tiger - 12 m. Elephant - 12 m. Tyrannosaurus Rex - 12 m. Bird, small (raven) - 12 m. Bird, medium (hawk) - 18m. Bird, large (osprey) - 18m. Bird, humongous (roc) - 24 m.
Skateboard - 18 m. Rollerblades - 18 m. Bicycle - 24 m. Cart or wagon - 6 m.
Rowboat - 4.5 m. Galley - 12 m. Schooner - 6 m.
Metres per minute: Base Distance x 10
Kilometres per hour: Base Distance x 3/5 or 0.6
Kilometres per day: Base Distance x 2 2/15 or 2.13333*
* this could be rounded to a simple 2.1 or 2.2