RPT#700: My Favourite RPT Issues Of All Time
Brief Word From Johnn
By Orcus’s Balls, Whodda Thunk It? 700 Issues!
I’m not one for reminiscing, so I’ll keep this short. 700 issues works out to about 3.1 million words according to my word processor.
Words from me, and words from you.
And out of all those words one simple message is clear: we love GMing!
Thank you for sticking with me, encouraging me to keep the newsletter going, and for helping me become a better game master. Your emails, tips, ideas, feedback, and words of support mean a lot to me. It’s a ton of fun to share this wonderful hobby together with you.
The first newsletter had three victims, and two of them were my own email addresses, lol. RPT#700 has 19,351 game masters tuned in.
When the first newsletter went out, fax machines reigned in the world, usenet reigned the gaming chatter, and D&D 2nd Edition reigned at my game table.
Today we have amazing online gaming services like Roll20, Fantasy Grounds, MapTools and others. We have social media to talk gaming all day long. And we have many, many RPG systems to choose from.
16 years, over 8000 tips, and millions of words. It’s been quite a journey. Whew.
Ok, enough with the chatter. We’ve got dice to roll!
Long live GMing!
Johnn Picks His Top 25 RPT Articles
I started the Roleplaying Tips Newsletter in November 1999 as a way to connect with other game masters. I wanted to improve my GMing. I still do. And sharing tips and tricks through the internet seemed like a great way to be a better game master.
700 editions later, there’s still a lot of road to travel. You can never stop learning. There are always new ideas around the corner, new things other GMs are discovering, new techniques I’m inventing and experimenting with in my own campaigns. It’s so exciting.
Last week in preparation for RPT#700 I went through the entire archive of editions. I skimmed each one and noted articles I liked the best. Several hours later, I had narrowed my list down to a mere 77. And several items included multi-part series.
I reviewed my list, and with much hand-wringing and tough decisions, I finally got to 25.
The following articles I’ve picked because each contains at least one thing that still captures my imagination. They might not be the best-written, or the deepest or pithiest, or even the most original articles. But there’s something in the paragraphs and lists that’s grabbed me by the screen and demands a revisit.
Here are my picks for the Top 25 RPT Articles of all time.
RPT#003: The Gamemaster’s Hall Of Shame:
Monty Haul’s Top Ten Cousins
A short and simple article poking fun at bad GMing traits. Seeing these cousins on the list is like looking in a mirror sometimes. Reverse engineer the cousins to find weak parts to shore up in your game.
RPT#018: 10 Ways To Make Your Ogres More Intimidating
Quick tips on making big dumb foes more dangerous. A great piece on making most monsters tougher, actually. You could also use these tips for some monster re-skinning approaches.
RPT#025: 8 NPC Parley Tricks
Some great suggestions for NPC portrayal. There was little advice like this online at the time. Always a good piece to revisit to brush up your NPC skills.
RPT#043 & #044: How To Maintain Game Consistency,
While Winging-It, For Left-Brain Game Masters
Combine these two articles for a quick guide on how to get yourself organized and productive as a GM. I remember calling it left-brained because I imagined my Chaotic subscribers cringing at the structure. 🙂 However, it’s how I roll to this day, even though the whole left/right brain thing has been disproven by science.
RPT#079: Using Limericks To Spice Things Up
This one is just crazy. But I still clearly remember the game session where I GM’d a limerick contest. Players had to each come up with a limerick to outwit their faerie hosts. I cheated and made the fey’s limericks in advance. The players did a great job though and managed to not only escape the faerie ring but make allies with the Queen of the Fey too.
RPT#127: Using ‘Top 7 Lists’ To Help Assimilate Published Game Worlds
I wrote this one because I felt overwhelmed trying to get a published setting ready for my campaign. The backstory is in the article’s introduction. I remember sitting at my table flipping through the Forgotten Realms book wondering how the heck I was going to eat this elephant and have it digested in time for next game. Then inspiration hit and I decided: one bite at a time!
RPT#117: 6 Tips For GMing Weak Characters & RPT#118: 7 More Tips For GMing Weak Characters
I get asked a lot how to handle encounter balance problems. I don’t believe in by-the-numbers encounter balancing any more. I’ll leave that for board game design. These tips and the ones from RPT#119 have some simple ways to flex. Just build your encounters so they are probably balanced, then adjust during the game.
RPT#119: 19 Tips For GMing Powerful Characters
What do you do when the PCs are too tough for your encounters? Readers offer their advice. I believe this article came out before 21st Level was a thing.
RPT#139: The Art of the Poker Face
GMs, make your bluff check. Don’t give up your game plan because you can’t keep a straight face. Tip #8 makes me chuckle to this day. I went straight to it while I was reviewing the archives. If you’re about the blow your poker face, hide behind your screen. Not exactly deep or meaningful, but it works.
RPT#201 & #203: Political Campaign Tips and Social Ladders
These tips stemmed from a Pro Wrestling RPG I made years ago. Yup. Wrestling. I had two ladders, one for the Good Guys and one for the Bad Guys. The ladders were based on popularity and victories. The top guys in one ladder could challenge the bottom guys of the other ladder for “story bouts.” And the top guys from each ladder could challenge each other for “belt bouts”. Everyone else could challenge who they wanted from the opposing ladder. Each “show” featured four matches – two initiated by the Good Guys and two by the Bad Guys.
Out of that weirdness came the idea of political ladders. And so these tips were born.
RPT#283: Rebooting Your Campaign – 7 Tips
I had a bad habit of not finishing campaigns. Grande finales are epic GMing moments and rewarding. Since I switched to a different campaign structure, I’ve finished campaigns regularly. RPT#283’s tips came when I was constantly getting bored mid-campaign and I wanted ways to breathe new life into my games instead of giving up and starting anew yet again.
RPT#331 & #332: Interesting Combats With Themed Skirmish Groups
I always felt these tips got a poor reception because I framed them up wrong. The problem I was trying to solve was, how do you make gameplay interesting when the villain keeps throwing the same types of minions at you? “Watch out guys, here comes another set of guards. Yawn.”
RPT#348: Sneaky Tactics For Weak Monsters
I read an Editorial in Dungeon Magazine about Tucker’s Kobolds. The GM, Tucker, ran these foes with such cunning that his players feared them even at high levels. However, the piece never went into exactly what Tucker did to make such lowly foes titans of villainy. RPT#348 crowdsources ideas on how to make them so.
RPT#350: 7 Ways To Be A More Entertaining GM
These are common sense, basic tips. Yet, watching various games on Twitch of late, I see the same mistakes in presentation popping up. I think RPT#350 should be reviewed at least once a year to remind us about the simple things we can do to be entertaining GMs.
RPT#382-385: Jail Break
It’s tough getting PCs into jail without railroading. So when you do, it’s time to celebrate with some great gaming. With this series you could turn prison into an entire campaign. Hold my pocket!
RPT#463: The Pirate Queen’s Adventure Checklist
Amy’s approach to adventure design differs from mine. She’s got some cool ideas, and I remember getting lots of fan mail about the piece when it aired.
RPT#467: Long Story Arcs – 3 Tips On How To Finish
This one has three quick tips for when you’re in The Grind and no end’s in site for a grand finale. Placing the villain a certain number of steps away I think is still a fantastic way to structure your campaign for a great finish.
RPT#523: How to Create Blockbuster Box Office Hits with Your Players Every Adventure
One of the most popular articles on the website, these tips show you how to become JJ Abrams at the game table. Good stuff.
RPT#531: How To Create Great Magic Items In Just Three Minutes
I love the stat block recipe here. It’s a solid way to build yourself a great bit of treasure 180 seconds.
RPT#599: 3 Line Cultures: How To Inject Your Races and Factions With Instant Flavour
This article got rave reviews online. Monte Cook plugged it along with others. The technique helps you build your world with adventure and gameplay in mind.
RPT#617: Left Hooks: 24 Campaign Twist Design Patterns
I’m quite proud of this article. It took a lot of thinking. I’ve seen lots of advice out there on making twists, but nothing on twist “recipes.” Using entries from a reader contest, I studied all the text until some patterns emerged. Common ways to structure gameplay so a twist squeezes out. This piece covers 24 such patterns I was able to glean.
RPT#619: 5 Tips on How to Design Diabolical Dilemmas
This article took a long time to write. I didn’t see much advice out there on exactly how to create dilemmas. I just saw blogs and articles telling us to put the PCs in tricky situations. I knew that, but wanted to know The How. So I think this piece did a good job sketching out a workable, repeatable recipe for you, and offers a running example so you can see it in action.
RPT#620: How to Make Magic Items Awesome
This is a crowdsourced article that lives up to the headline’s promise. Some great ideas here.
RPT#631 & #632: Combat Missions
Use this approach to change the way you game. Its principles run deep in my Faster Combat course. Stop grinding down to the last hit point. Get more story told not just with faster combats, but within the combats themselves. Combat Missions are a simple and very effective way to do this. One of my favourite GM techniques ever.
RPT#642: “I only have 30 minutes to prepare for a game” What do you do?
In a rush? Got game tonight? Don’t panic. Here’s a recipe using online resources to quickly put together a fantastic game plan.
That’s my Top 25 favourite articles. Do you have a favourite article not on this list? Shoot me an email, I’d love to know what it is!
GM Tip Exchange
Tips shared by your fellow readers to help your GMing. Have a tip to share? Just hit reply. Thanks!
Missing Players In Traveller
I wrote an article on how to account for missing players in the SF RPG Traveller. It’s free, and the article is on page 40 of Signs and Portents magazine (issue 93 PDF) here.
[Comment from Johnn: readers, you can find the full free Signs & Portents archive on Mongoose’s site here.]
The Witch’s Curse
One of our ways of dealing with [absent players] in the past was a simple but effective magical curse laid on the party by a nasty old witch.
It was a sleeping sickness that would occur “randomly” (whenever one or more players missed a game), causing the hero to fall into a deep sleep that would not allow them to be awakened.
The adventurers actually had a cart they pulled around behind them to have a place to carry their friends when afflicted. The curse went into effect only when a player missed a game, so often times the cart was empty, but they needed to keep it around just in case.
This allowed the heroes to use any items that might benefit the team while the PC was in this magical sleep, such as borrowing a magical sword or an important scroll with lore necessary to continue the adventure.
The character would awaken once his or her player returned, and the borrowed equipment would be returned to them. It was amusing since the character in the cart faced the same dangers as the rest of the team, so the group as a whole tended to be more cautious when having to watch over an unconscious teammate.
When multiple players were out, the team slowed down the plot progress, tending more toward roleplaying interactions between characters while waiting for their teammates to waken.
This tactic was easy for everyone to understand, and buy into. It also encouraged players to arrive late versus skipping the evening if this was possible.
Missing PCs As Background NPCs
From: Glenn Davis
I was rather surprised when reading both your most recent post and when re-reading your post #658 that you didn’t include what I had thought was a common mechanic for dealing with missing Players at the table. Since you did not address it and it has worked so well for my groups in the past, I felt I must inform you of it.
Our group treats the characters of missing players as background NPCs if interacted with. However, they usually do not participate directly in a session. Since we usually know whether someone will be absent before a session starts, the GM will ask them what they’d like their character to be doing during down-times. This might be any number of things that can continue to help the party’s goals (or character’s goals) but not directly effect the narrative focus. The GM must be willing to allow what a PC is going to do, so there are limitations.
If you are using the classic D&D archetypes, the options as to what your character is likely to do is already laid out before you:
At low-level may want to train (some melee skills require constant training – RAW), maintain their equipment, create new equipment if they have the right skills, make a few coins here on less death-defying guard duties (possibly picking up a new contact along the way.)
Higher-level warriors are likely to have a staff to do some of this work, but need to train that staff, give commands, and perhaps administrate a demesne.
Clerics, Druids, and Paladins
Might have to conduct church services for the usual church leader who is ill or on vacation (possibly getting some brownie points). They can also create magical items or cast a series of divination spells that tend to take awhile to complete.
If your group is anything like mine, they may also have to pray or conduct a spiritual quest to atone for alignment violations to get back in their god’s good graces.
Much like clerics, might also create magical items or cast a series of divination spells. They could also make a fair bit of coin or just curry the right kind of favors for casting spells on the behalf of others. Wizards also could experiment with new spells or work on accruing the considerably rare spell components we usually forget about as GMs and players alike.
Might work their craft for money, depending on alignment, but really they’re great at turning favors and working contacts in the underworld for long-term informational benefits – the kinds of information even divination spells can’t break into.
The House Rule of our groups is that a missing Player will not see his or her character’s XP increase. However, if the player can give the GM a description of something reasonable their character would have done while the player is missing, the GM usually gives that character a boost – partially, but not entirely offsetting the lack of XP gain from missing the session.
Since it is up to the player to decide what his character will be doing, it is often the player that will be able to decide the general nature of the benefit, while the GM will decide how it will be specifically bestowed.
Reviewing the above list, one of the more common benefits is in-game information given directly to the player as a reward for his absent character’s activities. A rogue snooping around, a caster making divination spells, or a warrior boozing it up in a bar. This is usually communicated either via email or a slip of paper when the player returns to the table his next session, and has direct bearing on an investigation or adventure the party is currently engaged in. Heck, it could be the plot hook that starts out the next session.
More selfish players might ask if their characters can create an item (usually a masterwork item for warriors or rogues, or magical for casters) during their off-time, and this is always granted if the character has the right skills.
Somewhere in between, characters might establish a new contact, patron, or ally that might help them or the party in the future.
Our campaigns often end up with the characters as established nobles, so administrating the realm is by necessity and is often done “on rotation” by whomever’s characters miss a session. This prevents too much magic-item inflation as the party gets higher up in levels as, if the demesne is not maintained, then corruption, discontent, and even rebellion are possible.
And if you have characters with their own side-plots and motives, well missing a session is a great opportunity to advance those stories without taking away from the main group’s time.
One important caveat to all of this is a player’s character cannot benefit from the aforementioned guidelines for more than one consecutive absence. This means if they miss and come back, they will be able to take advantage of what their character was up to in the player’s absence. But if the player is gone two or more sessions in a row, their character will simply have been AWOL just like the player. Sure, it will be explained away – perhaps from the list of possibilities above or otherwise – but the PC will receive no benefit whatsoever. This ensures players don’t feel like their character falls too far behind if they miss just one session here and there, but also ensures players don’t take advantage of the system.
A note on individuals who you know can’t make most sessions. In particular, how to handle the player who can make about half of all sessions relative to a group who can make most, if not all.
This we have handled by having two groups of PCs in the same campaign world. These two groups are usually, although not always, pursing the same or similar goals (although they might not always know this until later in the campaign).
When Halfie (this will be our name for the player that can only make about half of the gaming sessions) is around, we play Party A. When he is missing, we play Party B.
Still in the same campaign setting and world, and possibly running into the same NPCs and enemies if in close geographical proximity. If you have players you can trust to mind-blank, this can make for some pretty interesting situations. Especially if you have a duplicitous NPC that is only revealed as such if the knowledge of Party A and Party B are combined (can work even better if that duplicitous NPC has split personalities, or a double).
One exercise of this method occurred in a Star Wars campaign where Party A were Jedi and Party B was a group of Dark Siders. The climactic session ended with both sides dueling for supremacy (naturally). In another more ecclesiastic campaign, one party ascended to godhood while the other became the leaders of churches.
Sometimes the two parties work towards the same goal, sometimes they do not. Sometimes they work towards the same goal without knowing it. The best is when they are working against one another (again, usually due to misunderstanding or the schemes of the duplicitous I mentioned earlier – > which is to say the GM) but don’t even know it.
And then the big reveal. The “Ah-ha” moment that has them unite their goals to defeat the evil together. If that means for one session everyone has two characters, so be it.
If a player misses two sessions in a row and doesn’t answer his phone or email on whether they’ll be coming back, their PC just became an NPC. Simple as that. As an NPC, they may provide information and assistance to the party, but they are unlikely to be a part of the main adventuring group. I know that as a GM I am always looking to establish some long-term NPCs to give the campaign continuity and a feeling of realness, so I never waste the opportunity by throwing away a known quantity when I can be milking that PC for his value for sessions to come.
World Building Inspiration
From: Aesma Daeva
I just read your world building article and I felt like adding my two cents.
There was a time when I used to struggle a lot with world building and consistency, and I dedicated a lot of effort on trying to create interesting, believable, and coherent cultures and settings.
That was until I began to read some real history books and I discovered our own history is plagued with the most bizarre, fantastic and strange happenings.
I want to share the two books that have helped me more with world building.
- The Histories by Herodotus of Halicarnassus
- Utopia by Thomas More (it’s fiction but it has an awesome grasp of society building)
There are a lot more books to get inspiration from, but these are the two that I have found most useful for RPGs.
After reading those, I haven’t ever felt insecure about describing a ritual, a custom, or portraying a certain aspect of my societies. I used to think in terms of “Wouldn’t this be too childish?” or “Will my players find this silly?” But I stopped caring about that when I discovered our own real history was shaped in the most exotic and strange ways.
What I like about “Histories” is that it describes many of the early human settlements and societies in a way so primitive that they are just one step above being cavemen. So you get to understand how civilization evolved in a natural, simple, and comprehensive way. There is no such thing as police, courts, human rights, councils, popular representation, or anything close. As you read you realize how necessity itself forced humans to create each of those.
And primitive as they are, their customs are like anything you can imagine. A huge magic disc in the center of the city that refills with food each day thanks to the miracles of the gods that bless this city (priests place the food each night when no one watches them). Temples where cats roam around and they are considered sacred and no one is to disturb them. Temples full of priestesses where citizens can have sacred ritual sex. Festivities where people get out to the streets and at a certain hour they start a game in which they interchange stones or pebbles as fast as they can with anyone they have at hand and for no apparent reason.
You can also find interesting facts like a civilization that invented games (I don’t remember if they were dice games or some kind of chess or board game) so the citizens could endure living with just one meal a day and distract their minds from feeling hunger. Or how Babylonians dug a ditch around their city, and with the dirt that they took out, they built huge walls so they could have a double defense against invaders. How another civilization ate their cats, dogs, and eventually some of their wives and children so that they could endure siege. How a commander tortured and mutilated himself to earn the trust of a city he was planning to invade (he claimed their own allies have tortured him).
After reading these books and your article, I realized I pretty much take in consideration the guidelines that you described, but I don’t stop to think on them anymore, it just comes in a natural and fluent way. Basically I just throw what I would like to see in a world without regard of how wacky, taboo, odd, or strange it might sound, and then I just justify it and describe how it would affect the life of their citizens, the surrounding kingdoms, and anything that interacts with these aspects.
Read some history books, and you will never have to wrack your brains in world building again. Well, at least that’s my advice, I hope it helps.
Flip Chart Paper
I am follower of your newsletter. Thanks!
I like your idea with the white board, and that is why I want to hint this as an idea I had: the flip chart paper.
[Comment from Johnn: see an example here.]
The main advantages of a white board are obvious, and we do not need competition, but co-existence. So let me concentrate on those of the paper:
- Don’t fear someone uses a permanent pen.
- Serves as a table cloth, protects anything underneath (even from your greasy potato chips fingers and marks of your coffee cups, other drinks, worse things…).
- Flip back and forth to pre-drawn areas.
- Paper does not forget: re-usable in other campaigns (when you put up your map/floor plan of artistic value, and nobody vomited on it…) Coffee cup rings and such add to the value, of course!
- Did you ever notice its “natural” inch grid?
- Aligns with inch-scaled floor plans you just arrange on top.
- Shove to left, add next from the right, endless maps.
Let Players Do Crazy Things
Hey Johnn, long time reader, first time writing!
I was rereading a number of back issue articles (as I am wont to do – they give me all sorts of great ideas!) and I noticed, in the Murder Hobos recap of…I think it was #686, the PCs discovered a few cults, all of which had the “Cult of___” title.
It got me thinking about word choice in my campaigns, and its importance. Not to knock anything you’ve done, but I think word variance is important – it separates something from the rabble, and makes it a little more memorable.
I try to use the “Magic: The Gathering” Guilds of Ravnica as an example. Ten guilds, and not only did they not use the phrase ‘guild’ once, but they all had different titles! League, Combine, Collective, Legion. Yes, Cult too!
But that’s not the main reason I’m writing. That would be because I haven’t yet seen an article about letting your players do off-the-wall things. I get that it seems inherent in the game. After all, as we all know, those wily creatures will always make some decision we didn’t foresee.
But while some players will do things like have the wizard slingshot the barbarian or have the barbarian ‘fastball special’ the monk (both of those have happened, numerous times), I’m referring to the other things, that are even more odd, and drawing them to their obvious conclusion.
For example, in one game, the entire party grew attached to a pair of NPCs that were part of a terrorist regime. (Their Rapport and Deceive checks were off the wall that game, for some reason.) So not only was I forced to come up with quick names and backstories, the players protected them throughout the rest of that scenario, and even convinced them to switch sides!
So, instead of having them killed off by the boss (which I’ve had happen as a player before), I allowed (even encouraged) the players to escape with these two. And now, while they’re never main characters, they have their own character sheets, and are allies and fixtures of the universe. I’m now planning a few plot hooks around rescuing them as well.
Keep doing what you’re doing – this newsletter has been my most valuable GM resource!
[Comment from Johnn: Readers, what’s the craziest, off-the-wall thing you’ve let players do? Drop me an email and tell me the story. Cheers!]