How To Keep Your Adventure Going At A Breakneck Pace - Roleplaying Tips

How To Keep Your Adventure Going At A Breakneck Pace

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #703

I’m building an adventure series with James Introcaso called The Demonplague Dungeon. It’s going to be four parts long and will take PCs from first level to 20th. There are dozens of sites, ruins, and dungeons filled with factions, secrets, and treasures. There’s a village called Tomar’s Crossing that’s the last bastion of civilization after natural disaster has turned the region into a post-apocalyptic struggle for survival. And there’s five ages of history that each imbue the people, places, and things with hooks, roleplaying, and plots.

When you run this adventure I want your players to be breathless. You engage them with tantalizing character background hooks designed to drive the action onward. You lay clues as signposts while roleplaying NPCs to urge the party onward. And you unleash details as enticements during encounters to keep your friends demanding to play longer.

Part of my solution for this is the Knowledge Table. It covers facts about the adventure you can drop into conversations and encounters on-the-fly. It’s a glorified rumours table but with a twist. A couple of twists actually.

And today’s article is about how to build your own Knowledge Table and wield it for exciting play in your adventures.

Why Do We Want Rumours & Clues?

I saw my first rumours table when I read the AD&D module L1 The Secret of Bone Hill. Little did I know how important and powerful this simple GM tool was at the time:

  • Hooks to get players interested in playing the adventure — this one is important!
  • Angles to get the characters involved in play
  • Leads for which NPCs to talk to and why
  • Strong hints on what to do and places to go so the adventure kicks off at a good pace
  • Mysteries, secrets, and wondrous elements initiated to tease and interest players
  • Topics and details to help you roleplay NPCs
  • Transitions and lead-ins to next encounters and adventure sections

We’ll build our table to serve all these purposes.

The Rumours & Clues Table Approach

The default is a random rumours table at the start of the adventure. We’ve seen this in many modules. It’s what the PCs have heard prior to gameplay and is nice and simple. Choose or roll.

Another option is the phased table. As the adventure progresses, new rumours unlock for players to discover. Some modules accomplish this by splitting up the rumours table and putting a new table at the start of each act or section. This gives you a progression. It helps you protect the party from what they might not be ready for.

And a third option is hard-coding NPC knowledge and clues into encounters. Trigger the encounter for a chance to uncover the new information.

Each of these design solutions has something good to offer. A grand table at the start makes reference easy. Phased tables help storytelling and delicious twists and reveals. Embedded information makes it easy to orchestrate information sharing with specific adventure events and timings.

My idea is to combine these into one table — the Knowledge Table.

As you run your game, you roll or pull from the table as you need. Want to give an NPC a juicy rumour? Or add a clue to an encounter? Or throw a hook into a PC’s background? Just pull an entry from the table and wrap a story around it.

This solves several problems for us:

What if the PCs don’t talk to a particular NPC with a vital bit of information?

That’s ok, the Knowledge Table is not tied to specific NPCs. You pull from the table as needed, giving you the most flexibility.

What if the party never hits the encounter with an important clue?

Mark critical items the adventure depends on with an asterisk in your table. Mark them off when delivered. Deliver whenever you deem appropriate. Again, we are decoupling from hard-coded railroad design here. If you do tie clues to specific encounters because it’s appropriate for your design, you have the Knowledge Table as back-up in case the clues don’t trigger.

How can I roleplay on-the-fly and guide the PCs along the adventure better?

Think of this as a creative exercise, like Iron Chef or Iron GM. You take an ingredient from the Knowledge Table and try to work it into your encounter.

What if I suddenly need to add clues to encounters to help PCs who missed them previously?

Schemes like the Three Clue Rule are great for this. Use them with the Knowledge Table so you not only have back-up clues but the structure and tool to lay them into your game if things don’t go as planned.

In summary, build yourself a Knowledge Table you can pull from at any time during your adventure.

Here’s how I built mine.

Step One: Create Your Table Shell

Create a table or spreadsheet with six columns.

Column 1: d20. Numbered vertically for your roll. For example, if you have 20 knowledge items in your table, this column will contain the numbers 1-20.

Column 2: Whole Truth.

Column 3: Partial Truth.

Column 4: Truth & Lie Mixed.

Column 5. Lie.

Column 6. Reference.

Example: 

Step Two: The Facts

Mine your adventure for interesting truths. Write them in 1-2 sentences in this column.

I like to build this column out first so I know all the important information I’m working with. If you run out of prep time, at least you have a list of key facts you can warp on-the-fly during next game.

Things to mine:

  • Solutions to puzzles
  • The location and nature of tough foes and villains
  • The location and nature of cool treasures
  • Key locations and why they are important
  • Key NPCs and why they are important
  • Important facts from your adventure’s backstory
  • How to transition between each step of your critical path walkthrough
  • Key encounters in your adventure and their nature

For example, here’s a fact from The Demonplague Dungeon:

Sometimes comets carry demons from the Abyss to other planes in the multiverse. The impact of these comets is more devastating than a normal comet’s impact.

Read through your adventure and sift it for key facts. Write the facts in brief in column one until you have at least twelve. Twenty is better. One hundred? You’re a pro.

Step Three: A Morsel

In column three, write out part of your fact from column two. Just a snippet so the PCs don’t get the whole truth…yet.

Example:

Fact: Sometimes comets carry demons from the Abyss to other planes in the multiverse. The impact of these comets is more devastating than a normal comet’s impact.

Partial: Sometimes comets carry demons from the Abyss to other planes in the multiverse.

You can create more than one partial truth for each fact. In this way, you can multiply a d12 table of knowledge into dozens of juicy tidbits to toss into your games during sessions.

Morsels are great for pushing players onward. They get a piece of the puzzle, but not a whole answer. As they gather more tidbits, they start putting together whole truths, which is exciting.

Step Four: A Lemon Twist

In column four, True & Lie Mixed, add incorrect information to your truth or a partial truth. This creates gameplay where PCs must figure out what is true and what isn’t from all their information gathering. If your group loves this, create multiple entries for facts you like most. If your group suffers when derailed with red herrings, feel free to omit this column.

Example of column four:

Fact: Sometimes comets carry demons from the Abyss to other planes in the multiverse. The impact of these comets is more devastating than a normal comet’s impact.

Partial: Sometimes comets carry demons from the Abyss to other planes in the multiverse.

Truth & Lie Mixed: Sometimes comets carry demons from the Abyss to other planes in the multiverse. These comets never crash because they are piloted by demons.

A great lie has a bit of truth. In The Demonplague Dungeon, the comet that struck the PCs’ world was piloted. And it did crash. Truth and lie. However, it introduces the idea that comets can be piloted. So even in the lie, there’s an interesting nugget for the PCs to noodle on.

Step Five: Poker Face

In column five we write stuff that just ain’t true. We twist the truth and misinform the PCs.

Example:

Fact: Sometimes comets carry demons from the Abyss to other planes in the multiverse. The impact of these comets is more devastating than a normal comet’s impact.

Partial: Sometimes comets carry demons from the Abyss to other planes in the multiverse.

Truth & Lie Mixed: Sometimes comets carry demons from the Abyss to other planes in the multiverse. These comets never crash because they are piloted by demons.

Lie: The gods can strike the Material Plane with comets when they have been angered by mortals.

That might be true in your world, but it isn’t in The Demonplague Dungeon setting. Use lies like this to increase the drama. “The creature is THIS big and strikes while INVISIBLE.”

You can also use lies to guide PCs into greater danger or to explore parts of your adventure they skipped over. “There’s a magic sword buried under a bald hill with one gnarled tree on it.”

The reason we use facts from the Knowledge Table to build your lies is to keep your deceptions on-theme. Observant players can tell when information does not mesh with the milieu. Use that on purpose to help them puzzle things out, not as an unintended side effect of bad design. If NPCs spout exaggerations and mis-remembered things that fit naturally in your campaign, then players will enjoy it more.

References

The last column is a cheat sheet for where to find related information stuff in your books and notes. If you are a Campaign Logger customer, every note has its own unique URL, so you can paste that in. Ditto Evernote and certain other apps. Write in page numbers, card numbers, or whatever will help you find the source reference fast.

With table complete, keep it handy during play. Roll for the row number to get your fact. Then roll a d4 to see what type of reference it is:

  1. Truth
  2. Partial Truth
  3. Truth & Lie Mix
  4. Lie

In my experience with this so far while playtesting The Demonplague Dungeon, I tend not to roll the d4. Instead, I choose based on how I want to run the game at that moment. If the PCs could use some real help, I stick to the fact. If things are going great and I want to make gameplay fun with a little puzzle or misdirection, I’ll choose from columns 3-5. And if PCs already have heard something from a row I roll, I’ll pick an item from an unused column to avoid repetition.

Tell A Story

During games you don’t want to just read out from your table. By keeping entries short, you should be able to skim them. Then you can paraphrase or adapt to the current situation.

However, consider turning them into stories. Use them as stories seeds, like an improv game. You are given a quick piece of information. Doesn’t matter if it’s the truth or not, you’re going to tell a quick little story using the Knowledge Table entry as if the NPC or clue is truthful.

  • Start by setting the scene. Where is the story happening and when?
  • Introduce who’s in the story and have them doing something.
  • Bring in an obstacle or conflict.
  • Have the character(s) succeed or fail and describe how.

That’s a core formula for all stories, not just for turning Knowledge Table entries into roleplay.

For example:

What do I know about these here parts? Well I tell ya, you don’t wanna be livin’ here. I used to be farmer. Had me a right good farm and wife and family, ya know? A good life. But then one day I sees a bright light in the sky. In the middle of the day! I got a real bad feelin’ when I saw it. I ran into the house, rounded up me wife and kids, and said, ‘We gotta run, somethin’ bad is gonna happen!’
So we run. And run. And run.
Did na matter though. ‘Cause the next day the flood came ridin’ a wave taller than any hill. Lost me wife and kids then. Just up and washed away. Ain’t seen ’em since.
Wife always said the gods don’t like us. Said they punish us with star rocks. She was right.
No sir. You don’t wanna be livin’ around here.
In this sorrowful example, the PCs asked a local in Tomar’s Crossing about what they knew of the area, probing for adventure hooks. I took the Lie column entry and then put it into a story of one person’s tragedy when the floods from the comet-melted glacier turned Luna Valley into a post-apocalyptic nightmare.

The story contains very little information. I just imagined what the farmer was doing when the comet struck. What did he think about it? Then I imagined what happened when the tsunamis came down the river. I just made up what happened one step at a time along a simple timeline. This happened, then this happened, then this happened.

The story had a time and place. It had characters. It had a conflict. And it had a resolution.

Use this framework and practice turning your Knowledge Table entries into stories you roleplay. Then try turning them into stories depicted on objects as art or clues. That’s more abstract and a bit tougher. Start with a mural or tapestry where you have space to get your thoughts into images. Then try it with less and less space.

Conclusion

A Knowledge Table is a ready inventory of curated information you can drop into your game anytime. It gives you the most important things: adventure details and continuity. And then it arranges them in bite-sized chunks for you to tell stories with.

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Brief Word From Johnn

I think I’ve been using the wrong words for something. A discussion at a forum debated using random encounters. Someone said they preferred planned encounters because random critters out of the monster manual broke his sense of disbelief. Others agreed.

When I think of random encounters, I think of a curated list or table you’ve put together based on your adventure. Monsters leaving their lairs, foes scheming something, nearby critters checking out the smells, lights, and noises.

And in a sandbox sense, I think of random encounters as either set pieces with some details left blank to adapt when the party takes action, or lists of encounter seeds you keep handy to trigger as desired. Still curated, though, to match the party, adventure, and milieu.

What do you call these not-so-random encounters you’ve given a bit of thought too?

Today’s tips are about the same kind of planned randomness. Do a bit of prep to create a random Knowledge Table so you can stir the plot with any encounter that happens — rolled or not. Here’s how.

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Roleplaying Tips Mailbag

Here are some fellow RPT reader responses to recent emails I’ve sent out.

My Players Are Crazy! They’re Destroying Treasure

Ref. https://roleplayingtips.com/treasure-reward/players-crazy-theyre-destroying-treasure/

Hi Johnn,

A cool post, however I think there is an unaddressed lesson here regarding treasure design: Make sure treasure is recognisable as treasure! It doesn’t have to be jewel-encrusted, gripped in the hands of an NPC who declares it to be a treasure. But, deliberately designing a treasure so as to conceal its intent or value will unsurprisingly provide the results you described.

Sure, a smelly rag that induces rage in barbarians is thematically appropriate, but evidently not apparent enough to any of your players to have been recognised for what it was — treasure. Maybe an ‘angry face’ mask or a cloth that shimmers in shifting shades of crimson and black, getting darker the longer you stare at it, as your rage boils over…

Alternatively, hiding a thieving tool in a unicorn is a bit of a thematic mismatch — just what is it about unicorns that implies unlocking doors? Perhaps a statuette of a hand with the outline of a key embedded onto each finger, or a leather charm bracelet with tiny silver keys (one key charm per charge remaining) which inexplicably DON’T make a sound when they jingle against one another (ooh! magic!) would have worked better than a unicorn.

My point is that if you have players destroying treasure because they couldn’t tell it was actually supposed to be treasure instead of garbage or a trap, then you need to rethink the form factor you’re creating for your treasure.

– Adam Bragg

I use the natural events of the game as a teaching method with a group of middle-school students I role-play with on Friday afternoons. I allow them to find, and destroy, valuable items, and then let them know what could have gone right. For example, thinking of alternatives before allowing the barbarian to smash open the chest of potions.

I do like to get certain items to certain players, however. I like to deliver those a little more directly. For instance, the thief will find the magical hand crossbow hidden in a place only she happened to look. That place is not determined ahead of time but when she happens to be looking for something else. Also, some items can be discovered without the other characters having any knowledge of the discovery, giving that character some time to discover its unique powers, if they so choose. A wizard in my game secretly discovered a tome of necromancy the rest of the party would have objected to, but would eventually become a story item that added depth to the adventure.

Curtis Richard

Sometimes they’re like kids and they do all they can to go sideways. For the rag, I must admit considering it poisoned or thinking it belong to a lich and carries a malediction, which might excuse the behavior of the fighter. But for the unicorn I must say it’s tough to justify the destruction…

I have a special “plan” in our universe: think of it like a giant old school dungeon maze with no logic (no ecosystem, creature spawning without food for month, demigods in the hall battling each other for no reason—you know, D&D when you were 13). I use it from time to time for PCs to travel through different places, a giant hub shortcut. Anyway, it’s a perfect location for special puzzles and great treasures as I don’t have to justify anything here (David Lynch’s style).

The priest was telling the warrior how he loved ferrets. So in a room that is just a place to rest, there’s an NPC having two of them, obviously magical and nice. Did my player even ask the owner if she wanted to part with them? No. Did they go there at least 3 times in 2 years of play ? Yes. I still have the plastified card I made for those and my player still has no familiar. Sigh.

(I make little card for special treasures, this way nobody can’t contest who owns what when. Wasn’t that one of your advices btw?)

Tomorrow we’ll BBQ without playing, I like to pause from the game to talk rules and let them express their feelings and frustrations. Outside the game, I can hint directly without needing to justify finding the information from clues or NPCs. It’s a bit game breaking, but as it’s outside the table and the GM screen it doesn’t feel like spoilers.

– David Sacré

Dealing With Perfectionist Players

Ref. https://roleplayingtips.com/gm-techniques/pain-gming-perfectionist-player/

Johnn,

If there are experienced players in your game let them help guide the newbie or suggest actions and options. I have had a similar issue with players that can’t ever quite commit to action. They spend excessive time prepping and planning even before the adventure begins. I tried may ways to combat this, but finally, just let them shop, seek more rumors, ask the sage, and whatever waste of time they wanted to do.

After the better part of two game sessions, they realized they were getting nothing done and despite a few stragglers most of the party was ready to move on, and not just for that adventure but for future ones as well! When the stragglers tried to delay them again, the rest of the party said, “Well you can stay here but we are heading out of town.” This motivated the stragglers to go as well.

– Alex Ulmer

Hey Johnn,

I haven’t had a perfectionist player before, but I’ll do my best.

One of the common traits I see in new players, though I’m not sure if this is applicable for the RPT Reader’s player, is extreme paranoia over every encounter. I think this is due to many new players believing that RPGs are the GM vs. the players. I think if the nature of RPGs is discussed, this would help. Not every old lady is trying to poison the PCs! Hopefully, most GMs out there are not as arbitrary and cruel as the old game books were, where an innocent (but wrong) move spelled instant death for the adventurer.

If combat is where the player is slowing down, I think limiting time to make players think faster during combat is a great idea, and more closely models real life where you don’t have the time to make the perfect choice. General Patton said something to the effect of, “A good plan executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.” Combat is a good excuse to make sloppy decisions, because you don’t have the time to think it through.

Part of the issue might be the rules themselves. Most game rules seem to try to mimic and reward realistic behavior. This is not always the fun or exciting thing, though. How do you play a barbarian that charges into the thick of battle every single encounter? In books/movies/TV, he’ll always be fine. In RPGs, he might die after the first (or third or fourth) encounter.

I’m wondering if the player is trying to make the perfect move because he is afraid of dying. If this is the case, maybe decrease the lethality of the game by using lower levels of bad guys or give the PCs more powers or re-rolls. Or make resurrection/healing a lot cheaper and easier to find. This would only work if a more cinematic style is appropriate for the game, though.

– Jeffrey Lucarelli

The way I’ve handled this in the past is to point out when the player is looking over too many options. Generally, this is to point out when sometimes a fireball is the right response even though transmuting the rock under the enemy to mud, then transmuting it back might be cooler. Another way is to provide some challenges where the absolute right answer is the fastest answer.

I don’t stomp on the player, except to stop needless repetition of why the plan should work. The monster ought to react the way the player expects. I also avoid always having their plan blow up. Sometimes the plan should work so the planner gets the joy of having gotten it right. However, I try to limit the time they monopolize at the table.

My current player’s woes are more about number of spells. We try to speed things up in a number of ways: put each spell in its own file, on its own card, on its own page of a notebook. Have a list of spells the character can cast with a one sentence summary. These are never enough, but they give a fast index to check.

Gently reinforce to the player that sometimes fireball is the answer, but not always. Then sit back and watch them come up with ways around the generic fireball. This has paid off in spades. I have seen this caster swap places with an enemy so he could use a whirling weapon thrown down the line of targets, transform himself into lightning to transport across the field while slaying enemies, and use fireburst from his body to destroy enemies but requiring him to enter melee before everyone else. It has been a wild ride, and enjoyable.

The main thing is to allow the planner enough freedom to work out their ideas without monopolizing the game’s time or breaking down the flow. This is hard, and is more art than science. The planning is a lot of the fun. They’re not satisfied with stabbing the evil duke, they want to leap from the balcony, swing on the chandelier, fall amongst his evil minions and surprise him and get that first critical hit. If you completely squash this kind of planning, time consuming though it is, the planner doesn’t have a lot of fun. Conversely, if you let the planner take over the game session for half an hour, the rest of the table gets bored and feels like their contribution doesn’t contribute a lot.

In the current game I play in, we have to walk a line with this as well. I’m a tactical battle planner, and we have a spellcaster who likes to be safe. In one battle we had recently, the spellcaster wanted to block the approaches to the party. His PC is a missile weapons person and this is fine for him. However, I wanted to sneak in behind the camp and be prepared to take out spellcasters, and as I pointed out to the spellcaster, if he completely blocked all approaches to our party, the two melee fighters would be completely bored and not have fun.

We compromised on this plan: we blocked most of the approach to us, I snuck in first and then sent up a flare spell as a signal. When the orcs charged, a sizable proportion did get surprised and killed by the blocking spells, but the melee fighters still had a lot of fun. I was still behind them and able to sneak from cover to cover sneak-attacking spellcasters. The GM also had the orc necromancer raise skeletons that could bypass the blocking spells without damage. All of these things allowed the plan to work and allowed everyone to have fun.

That said, getting this plan together and making it more reasonable for everyone took a good ten to fifteen minutes of discussion, primarily between the GM, our spellcaster, and me. Our other two comrades at the table felt left out and somewhat resentful. The trick is to get the planner to not just worry about their own perfect action, but to try and include everyone in it.

Trying to move along the idea, trying to get the planner to occasionally go with suboptimal when it’s the most expedient, and including other players at the table, all helps to make a planner happier, but allows the game to still move and feel immediate.

– Jeremy

I simplified this conundrum years ago. I only have new players when someone in my game has a friend to incorporate when I have had a player move on. In the case of a single player, I have them start as a friend, companion, significant other, or henchman of the person that invited them. Doing so gives them an experienced player they trust to help them acclimate.

In the case of a new group, I have at least one seasoned player, familiar with my GMing style, with the group and that person becomes the group speaker. These methods have helped train the players, giving them a supportive and experienced resource to learn from, while not making my already challenged life harder.

– Wrayyth

Over the last 40 years or so as a gamer and a GM, I’ve not only been where this new player is myself, I’ve had dozens of other players who did the same thing. It’s not a huge problem at all.

When I bring in a new player—and by that I mean a player who has never experienced a roleplaying game before—I encourage them to play one of the simpler characters. For example, when the game is D&D or Pathfinder, I steer them toward fighters or rogues. They still have options, but the options are more direct and easily understood by someone whose never done that before.

As far as planning with the other players go, I allow any non-“in game” conversations they want, but “in game” talk is restricted to the players whose characters are present. And I do tamp down on the “there’s no way you could possibly know what Player A is thinking” sort of thing.

My group uses common sense when it comes to time limits for discussing plans; early on. I threatened to bring out my chess clock (I used to be a tournament chess player) and the image of me sitting at the head of the gaming table with a clock timing their discussion encouraged the players to police themselves when it came to preventing over-long discussions.

During player discussion, the GM should be an active participant too. Not suggesting things, but keeping the conversation from stagnating by asking questions, answering questions, and pointing out things the characters would know but the players have forgotten, or pointing out things the characters would not know but the players do. Thus, the GM can shape the planning as it goes.

Allow the players to be as creative as they can be, but as a GM be willing to say no when the planning goes too meta or dips into things the characters by rights should not be able to plan for.

And lastly, talk to the player away from the gaming table and discuss the game with them. Get them to realize there’s nothing wrong with improvisation or reacting on the fly.

Good luck and have fun.

– Jack Butler

Another line of idea, along the idea of a turn timer, is the boulder run. They are being chased by the boulder. If they take too long they get squished. Start off with some time, but keep the tension on. It’s getting closer. Let them think. After a bit it is closer and closer. Lightly push for quicker reactions and fewer options.

In the end, make it seem like their faster, gut reaction actions were right. I hope you get what I’m trying to say. I’m not the best at describing, but hope it can be understood. Thanks.

– Shidub

I think it is best to not rely on a turn timer. You put undo pressure on a new character. Instead, make them roll up their turn in advance and use the pre-rolls. They can do this while others are rolling and right before the combat happens.

I find using cards with the initiative order printed on them helps all players make the combat go faster. The players roll and post their initiative so the whole party knows who goes next. Even the DM posts their initiative for the monsters so players know what to expect.

Perfectionists want to get it all done and get it all done right, which in the heat of the moment isn’t always possible. Let the player know you are not asking for perfection. Perfection under a time limit is impossible. Only deal with the best they can do. Good enough is what they should strive for. Sometimes we learn the most when we make a mistake or two.

The DM can go easy on a character, fudging some rolls so they don’t die quickly in combat, or better yet, by throwing easy combatants at the player. Having the boss monster concentrate on the more experienced and the less perfection orientated players can help, just don’t make it too obvious.

Assign the player another player who can help coach—hopefully one who has some patience. They can ensure the DM and other players don’t steamroll over the player who needs help.

Go over the character thoroughly with the player prior to play so they know all their options, effects, magic items, and spells. If necessary prepare a cheat sheet.

After each combat a short and simple critique can help them grow. Make sure they know you are doing this as a service to improve their game and do it for all the players so they don’t feel picked on.

Patience is key for any new player and for the perfectionist player. Patience to get it right and patience to make sure they understand all their options. A game with more roleplaying elements and less combat can be helpful in that the pressure can be lighter.

– Dan Scififan