Skinning Gaming Systems

From Hannah L.

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0424

A Brief Word From Johnn

Campaign Update

This week will be our 7th session in our new D&D 4E campaign. The PCs are second level and we are still running through the Keep on the Shadowfell adventure. The party is about to descend to the second level of the dungeon where great danger awaits. The meta gamers in the group will notice that the module – when I have it laid open for encounters – is now thicker on the left side than the right – so the end must be near. Question is, will it be the end of the adventure, or the PCs?

This has been one of the strangest campaign starts for me. The initial premise was to use the first 4E module to test out the rules and see if everyone wanted to switch to the new edition or play something else. Because the adventure hasn’t ended yet, there has been little setting or plot introduced. The party also hasn’t established much of an identity, and the PCs are still figuring out why they exist.

At campaign start we began in the city of Carnus (Ptolus with a new name and some different elements) and the PCs were all employees of Lord Falroth, a mysterious rich man who chooses to live in the slums. This last-minute add-on to the adventure has saved my bacon because there’s not much else tying the PCs and campaign together at the moment.

Once we finish Shadowfell though, plots and characters should begin to develop. I haven’t decided if I’m going to offer the second module in the series as an adventure option to the group, but I’m definitely keeping the dungeon’s base village of Winterhaven as a recurring locale.

I think the lesson of the story is that, even with the typical D&D zoo party, an additional unifying element such as an employer – even if vaguely defined – can help keep a campaign alive in the early days, as everyone looks around and tries to get a feel for what things are about.

Have a game-full week!

Skinning Gaming Systems

A strange thought occurred to me the other day: everything in a gaming manual that isn’t a number can technically be classified as “fluff.” I’ll use the D&D 4th edition Player’s Handbook as an example, but this applies to any system.

There are eight player races. Each race has characteristics, based on how they’re normally perceived. Halflings are small, sneaky and mischievous, so they have a Dexterity bonus, skill bonuses in Acrobatics and Thievery, a size of Small, and various other related benefits.

Do you know who else are small, sneaky, and mischievous? Imps.

If all the descriptive text were gone from the page, and someone asked you what race’s stats you were being shown, would you be able to guess it was a Halfling? Probably. But if someone showed you those very same stats, surrounded by a description of imps, would anything seem out of place?

Changing the description while leaving the mechanics mostly alone, or “filing off the serial numbers” as it’s sometimes called, is hardly a new technique. But while I’ve seen it used on monsters and items, I’ve yet to hear of anyone applying it to the core races and classes on a large scale.

I think of it as being like skinning an operating system: you get to personalize the entire look and feel without worrying about messing up any of the underlying functionality.

There are a lot of interesting things you can do with this idea once you get started thinking about it. Here are a few examples to get the creativity flowing:

The Amazing Races

Let’s say we wanted to run a campaign with a party of demons. Usually, this would involve trawling through various obscure manuals looking for templates and monsters that fit the concept, then tweaking them endlessly and hoping against hope they turn out balanced.

Instead, let’s start with Halflings as imps, and see where we can go with the other races.

Dragonborn are strong, charismatic, intimidating, and attack with a breath weapon. They also gain a bonus to attack when bloodied.

The breath weapon isn’t a far cry from a banshee’s screech, and the bonus when bloodied fits well with the banshee’s mythological associations with death. They don’t just herald death; in some versions of the myth, they are dead themselves. It makes sense they would only get stronger as the battle progresses, and death draws closer.

The Charisma and Intimidation bonuses are easy; banshees are beautiful, yet terrifying. Strength is a little harder to rationalize. Still, given that everything else fits well enough, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find an explanation.

Tieflings are associated with demons already, so this should be easy. Resistance to fire? Sounds like an ifreet.

Then again, the Tiefling bonuses aren’t to Strength and Constitution, like you’d expect from an ifreet; they’re to Intelligence and Charisma, and the skill bonuses are for Stealth and Bluff.

Tieflings’ at-will power doesn’t actually do fire damage, so it could represent just about anything. If didn’t know any better, I’d say they looked more like incubi and succubi.

And so on. Once you take away all the fluff surrounding the core mechanics of a race, you can apply those stats and bonuses to just about anything.

What about different models of cyborg? Dwarves are obviously cyborgs enhanced for deep-space mining, while Elves are more often used for recon, and Human-model cyborgs trade out specialized power for versatility.

Class Act

If we can change the names of races, what about classes? Clerics are all about channeling divine power, or so we think. Considering you can play a cleric that doesn’t worship a specific god, the mechanics aren’t actually closely tied to that core idea.

Let’s take a look at what a cleric really does. They have the role of leaders, their key abilities are Wisdom, Strength, and Charisma, and they focus on healing and shooting lasers. Well, maybe not lasers. Then again, why not?

No matter how you describe their attacks, the main theme is this: they deal damage to an enemy while helping an ally, either by healing them, or giving them bonuses. Who else would be interested in doing that?

Perhaps a barbarian clan’s shamans draw their healing power from the clash of battle, and thus can heal while they fight. Maybe a strange cabal of sorcerers have studied how to steal life from their opponents, funneling it to themselves and their allies instead. Now the clerics’ hit- and-heal powers suddenly have a sinister twist.

Sure, clerics can still heal outside of battle. But perhaps that represents the stored life-forces of their many slain opponents. All of a sudden, you’re playing a Banshee Souldrainer instead of a Dragonborn Cleric. The mechanics are the same, but the gameplay experience is very different.

Not Too Racey

When you come down to it, all races are a set of bonuses and stats. True, you could get them from being an Elf or a Dwarf. But why couldn’t you get them from attending a certain fighting school?

You could run a campaign with only humans, but still enjoy the mechanical advantages of having a mix of races. Instead of being a Dwarf, your fighter attended a school that focused on endurance and never giving up ground. Your wizard isn’t an Eladrin; she just studied intensely to learn how to teleport.

Your charismatic, intelligent rogue who is extra good at bluffing is not a Tiefling. But he did attend a bardic academy that also offered courses in fire walking.

Or maybe humans are boring, and everyone is an elf. Dragonborn are the elves that have given up a bit of their flexibility to focus on being strong defenders of their homes. Dwarves are elves that have forsaken the trees to live on the ground, something that many of their relatives disagree with. Tiefling elves just have bad tempers.

Unlike the other tips, this one is more likely to remove color from the game than add it. It’s a great way to expand the mechanics available if you know you want a campaign of all one race, but it can make the party feel a little bland if not used carefully.

You don’t have to use this – or any of these -full-force. If you have a player who likes the idea of being harder to magically push around, but has something against Dwarves, then let them be a human with special training. Everyone else can still play the different races as normal.

Class Is Out

If races are a set of bonuses and stats, then classes are a set of bonuses and a progression of powers. But powers can come from a lot of places. Maybe it isn’t your profession that improves as time goes by, but instead something else. What if it’s your race?

You’re not a cleric, but an Avatar of a god. You come from the divine planes, and travel the mortal ones to do your god’s will. You start with a fraction of your creator’s power, but as you continue your journey, your power grows.

If classes are races, then what are races? Well, they must be classes. In the case of Avatars, perhaps they represent the god, or type of god, the Avatar is a part of.

You could map them to sins and virtues without much difficulty. Elves are Pride, Dwarves are Patience, Halflings are Avarice, Tieflings are Wrath, Dragonborn are Justice, and so on. You’re not playing a Dragonborn Cleric or a Banshee Souldrainer; you’re playing an Avatar of Justice.

You can go beyond just race and class when deciding what the stats in the book represent. Perhaps all the party members are possessed by legendary artifacts that grow stronger over time. Clerics are possessed by fragments of the Scepter of Life, Fighters by shards of the Shieldrender’s Sword, Warlocks by pieces from the Seven Crystals of Lost Beginnings, et cetera.

Getting more futuristic, maybe everyone is infected with a gene-splicing virus. Fighters have their muscles rearranged to be stronger, Wizards find themselves suddenly able to manipulate molecules, and Warlords slowly learn how to alter the brain chemistry of their allies.

Genre-Bending Fun

If a fireball wand can be a laser gun, then why can’t wizards be robots with built-in flamethrowers, hologram projectors, and grenade launchers?

I see no reason why a fighter’s great strength can’t be a result of cybernetic enhancements, and his weapons of choice a laser-sword and a vibro-axe.

If everyone is wearing power armor, then the impact of a laser-sword on an electro-buckler is probably the same as that of a steel sword on a wooden buckler. So why bother changing the stats?

Medieval fantasy is great, but so are other genres. Other systems are great, but so is D&D. The same applies in reverse – your favourite cyberpunk game probably has stats that can be converted to medieval fantasy with a little thought.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, as Arthur C. Clarke said. So that laser-spewing cyborg? You guessed it: Warlock. Knives and batons work just fine in medieval times, but what about guns? Aside from magic wands, there are also dart tubes and bows.

It may have the stats of a laser pistol, but that, my friend, is a hand crossbow specially engineered by a gnome alchemist to fire tiny vials of exploding potion.

Those medkits your cyberdoc always carries? Funny how they do the exact same thing as healing potions. Especially since your cyberdoc has the exact same stats as a cleric.

You can also increase the technology without losing the fantasy. Urban fantasy games are a lot of fun, and there’s nothing in the description of any class feature that states “this ability ceases to function after the invention of the light bulb.”

Skill names in 4th Edition are a lot less specific than before. Why can’t Thievery apply to hacking? Anyone with a high enough Bluff skill should have no trouble committing fraud via email. The urban jungle is a kind of wilderness, and if actual wilderness is scarce in your game, why not let those skills apply to surviving in a city?

What about superheroes? Radiation poisoning is a pretty good excuse for being able to breathe acid or teleport. Throw in a few boosting magic artifacts with high-tech names and some gaudy costumes, change the flying carpet into a brightly- colored hoverboard, and you’re just about set.

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With a little bit of thinking, a little bit of tweaking, and nothing but the core D&D books, you can run any sort of game in any sort of setting that you can imagine.

Readers Tips Request: Fantasy Job Board Postings

From Fred Ramsey

I’d like to see what people could come up with for “job postings” for fantasy. Things you might find on the town bulletin board.

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Dear readers, if you have any ideas for fantasy job postings, let me know at [email protected] – thanks!

For Your Game: Wizard’s Day

From Keith Burke

Holiday description: Magic users – wizards in particular – get to relax and spend one whole day without magic. This is without choice in perhaps the more controlled societies. It’s named wizard’s day because, of all magic users, wizards work the hardest in preparing or learning spells

Holiday encounters: The evil mind behind wizard’s day is absorbing all the unused mana in the air every year, until it is powerful enough to unleash a magic barrage against the temporarily defenseless (or at least unprepared) populace.

What’s Your Favourite RPG? Pendragon

From Kleef

Ever wanted to know what it is like to be a knight in shining armour? Ever wanted to woo a noble lady? Ever wanted to go on the quest of quests: the search for the holy grail?

Then Pendragon is your game. Originally created by Chaosium but now printed and developed by White Wolf Inc. (under the name Arthaus). Greg Stafford was its original designer and has been involved in the fifth edition as well.

The game is set in the time of King Arthur, mostly based on the book Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory, written in 1485. The players play knights. There are strict rules of conduct and what it means to be a good knight, such as chivalry and courtly love. For those familiar with D&D, think about paladins.

Furthermore, the world is a feudal world. There is a distinct difference between commoners, clergy, and nobility.

It is a system driven by the passions and traits of the characters. At first glance the character sheet seems overwhelming. You have passions, personality traits, statistics (like strength, size and appearance), and skills. The sheet gives a lot of information about your character, and it makes it easy even for inexperienced players to have fun playing their character.

But all these stats are unimportant. There is a single goal for each knight: to gain glory. To do this you need to slay monsters, save damsels in distress, and go on quests. Examples are a test of valour, a test of generosity, or a test of chivalry. A test to prove yourself for your lady, such as by winning a local tournament.

Why is it fun for the GM?

The most fun part is, while the characters are on a quest, you can test their resolve. As your players are mostly driven by their passions and traits you have a clue as what they probably will do. But also you can pit two passions against each other, such as their sense of justice against their loyalty for their lord.

In fact, it is your job as GM to make the characters’ lives as miserable as possible. My own players found this to be the greatest fun: to see their character in agony as they have to leave their lovely woman to go off to a war that will probably kill them. Or the agony of trying to live up to the standards set by their loved one, to win her heart.

Although your knights might slay a monster, they will probably keep their fiercest rivals alive. Knights do not go on killing sprees. They are not mindless butchers. These rivals can and probably will return to exact their revenge.

Why is it fun for players?

The game has a good set of rules concerning the traits and passions. As such, it is easy to get a feel for the character. The rewards granted are personal and it is your own actions that will give rewards.

Gamers who are fond of group efforts might be repulsed by this. Luckily, the game gives the players a strict code of conduct and this makes characters still try and work together to achieve a goal. Helping a fellow knight will also be rewarded.

Combat is deadly, so the number of combats will be limited during a game. A combat might incapacitate the characters for weeks. This means that as a player it is always good to try and defeat the foe without a fight. It is not so much a question of how much damage you can deal, but if you can show you are the better knight. Thus, a dispute can be resolved with a song as well as a sword.

The game itself: merits and flaws.

As said, one merit is your character is described in much detail. Even inexperienced players can have a feel for the character in a short time. For more experienced players, this can be restrictive as traits and passions are rolled randomly, and it can result in a character they do not feel comfortable with. Usually, I give players the chance to change their character until it fits their ideas.

Another downside is your players must have a feel for the period. You must like to be a knight in a period when chivalry and courtly love is the standard. So no hack and slash. But for players who like to be a chivalrous knight struggling to hang onto his beliefs, then this is your game.

Also, the game has no statistic for intelligence; it is up to the player’s wit to invent solutions to problems.

The game can be viewed as slow paced. A lot is done in downtime, between quests. Usually, the number of quests is one or, at most, two per year (in game time). The rest of the time you run your estate, get married, age, and other such important things.

As a result of this, a full campaign can mean that players play several generations. Players can retire their characters and play their own heirs.

A good merit is you can easily introduce or retire characters. It is no problem when your player group changes. It is a great game if your player group changes a lot or if certain players are not always present.

A problem might be that an evening of playing is centered on one character. It is his quest and he must take the lead. The others are only in supporting roles. This can mean one player has a lot to do, while the others have to wait. In my own groups, players tend to ask and give advice about actions of other players.

You can make this game a political game if you and your players like such a thing. Scheming and traitorous behavior can be the core of the game. But remember that glory also determines status in this society, so the word of a famous knight is taken better into account than that of an unknown one.

What about magic?

In the world of King Arthur magic plays an important role, although there are only a few magical items in the game. Until the third edition there were no rules for magic. This is one of the things I like the most. As GM, you can invent your own magic. You can decide what works and what does not.

In the fourth edition they created rules to play a magician. I find the rules complex and usually ignore them. You do not need to explain why or how magic works. You only need to explain its effects.

What about female characters?

Playing a female character is difficult. Women play a distinct role in the society of Pendragon. They do not tend to be knights and fighting is not part of their training. They send off their knights on a quest and stay home themselves.

If you have a game with a lot of political scheming then you can have ladies as player characters. But usually I advise against it. Their role is so much different that it is hard to keep the group together. Women do not join knights in their quest to search the hills for the giant.

The game has some possibilities of a woman playing a knight. But they are very rare, and probably seen as strange by the other knights.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters: Secret Information

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

Very Short Stories

From Johnn

Featured in an old Wired Blog post is a feature on 6 word stories. GMs might find the entries inspirational:

Very Short Stories

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RPG Forums and Chats

From Raven

Hangin Out Forums offers forums and message boards. They also have a chat center with four different chat systems, and a forum instant messenger. They have regular and RPG forums, and the chats have actions, dice, and other stuff. offers phpbb2 boards and chat. It’s associated with Cybatrons and Hangin Out Forums, and members can also get access to the Hangin Out Forums chat center. All they have to do is contact Hangin Out Forums, and they’ll send them an email asking for some member information. Once they have what they need, they’ll set up chat accounts for them, so they can use the chat systems at both sites.

The RPGs at Hangin Out Forums and are looking for both new and experienced players, especially people interested in getting in on the beginning and helping to build up new places. A few of them have been under construction for a while, but are accepting players.

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Free Sound Clips

From Shane Hyde

Here’s a website I discovered only recently:

Freesound has artists from all over recording sounds of different types. How this is relevant is, if you do a search for “city,” you’ll find .wav files that contain city sounds – a big help if you’re running a city-based RPG (in modern games, that is).

However, look deeper. Want a decent thunderstorm? They’ll have one for you. A copse of crickets? There’s a .wav called “cricket city” that I found in my search for city sounds. They should have sounds that suit everyone.

I run my game off a laptop using .mp3s for mood music and so-forth. Padding these out with a slightly quieter soundscape adds depth and authenticity. My players love it.

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Optional D&D Rules

From Ronny Hart

I have been a fan of your Roleplaying Tips Weekly for some time now. I am a DM with no players for a while, so I have been working on optional rules. I don’t know how to best share my ideas. I was hoping you could help me.

I want to share my ideas and hopefully get some other DMs’ input. Here is a link to my optional D&D time travel rules:

Here is a link to my optional chase rules:

I am also trying to start up a long-distance Age of Worms campaign. Here is a link to that site:

Ronny’s D&D games

Check out “Coins” and “Gems” in the “Quick Reference” section.

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The Only Sheet, Free

From Richard Taillon

I have a bit of news for my D&D 3.5 Product. I have released TOS free, which is an unlimited version of The Only Sheet. It supports Epic characters, up to 6 multi-classes, and is very customizable.

You can read the news tidbit here: