Shaking It Up – How to Fix Game Rut With These 3 Techniques

From Owen K.C. Stephens

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0547

A Brief Word From Johnn

I’ve Been Interviewed

In retrospect (I did the interview in 2011 when I was swamped) I think most of my answers in this interview with ENnies biz manager Tony Law are too short and fluffy.

But you might find the first one, where I talk about my recent GMing burnout, of interest:

And I’ve Backed A Couple Of Kickstarter Projects

I love the innovation happening thanks to crowdfunding. I’ve backed three projects recently.

A couple are closed now, but I thought you might be interested to see what I’ve bought for my GMing delights:

Rappan Athuk (I’ll get you now, foolish PCs):

Random Dungeon Generator as a Dungeon Map:

Story Forge – Brainstorming Cards for Storytellers

How about you – backing any projects?

I’m About To Hit The Abyss

Riddleport is potentially visiting Yeenoghu’s Realm! I can’t wait.

It’s been ages since I’ve gamed in the Abyss. This past week I’ve been mulling over what the gnoll god’s plane might be like, and what kind of encounters could happen.

The PCs are thinking of traveling there to recover some lost friends and a piece of Riddleport’s puzzle – The Black Book.

The Black Book is reported to be the Philosopher’s Stone to the Cypher Gate, which recently activated at the harbor mouth of the pirate city.

The PCs are hoping to recover the ancient tome from the abyss to give them leverage back in the city.

That’s if they make it back.

Yeenoghu has other plans.

Shaking It Up – How to Fix Game Rut With These 3 Techniques

Despite an endless range of possible of stories you can tell, sometimes you settle into a routine with your sessions.

Your players learn to maximize the effectiveness of their characters’ abilities, and you grow accustomed to the reactions you’ll get from players.

This isn’t a bad thing, but it can make it seem like nothing new or exciting is happening in a campaign.

To fix this, break up your normal style and pacing of a campaign to shake up your players’ expectations and plans.

Below are three unusual kinds of scenes, the aside, flashback and in medias res, you can use to move a game’s plot forward while forcing both GM and players to think a bit outside the box.


Run your players through an encounter that doesn’t include any of their normal characters.

Step 1: Build Pre-Gens

Create pre-generated characters to serve as temporary PCs. Choose NPCs the players are familiar with and make them allies or foils of the PCs.

Step 2: Create An Encounter

  • Make it short.
  • Provide clear goals and consequences for the temp PCs.
  • Give it some long-term consequence for the campaign’s normal PCs.

Step 3: Set It Up

Hand the temp PCs out to the players and explain what encounter you are running them through.

Think of an aside as a scene in a movie or TV show that focuses on a crucial moment none of the main characters are present for, but it still has plenty of drama.

This gives players a deeper glimpse into your campaign world. It lets them play characters with different abilities. And if you use a type of encounter your group hasn’t had in a while, it shakes things up.

For Example:

In Jayne’s game PCs are working for the Prince of Te Essar, who is engaged in a cold war with the Magocracy of Keria.

The PCs have discovered that an invasion force from Keria is crossing the border into Te Essar in a largely unpatrolled area. The group has sent a messenger with word warning their patron, the Prince.

Until help arrives, the PCs must try to delay the army. Rather than just decide how long it takes the messenger to take the note back to the Prince, Jayne decides to run an aside.

At the next game session, she lets the PCs run their first delaying tactic, a trap that avoids any actual combat. Then she tells them they get to play an encounter that will determine how long they have to hold off Keria’s army.

Each player is given a simple character (to keep the scene short) representing a group their messenger has put together from scouts of Te Essar he encountered en route.

The messenger and scouts run across an ambush by an advance unit of Kerian soldiers. The players must try to get the messenger through the ambush.

If they make it through the ambush, the Prince learns about the invasion quickly.

If the messenger has to retreat, it takes much longer.

If the messenger is killed, the Prince may not hear about the invasion at all.

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A flashback is a great deal like an aside, except it takes place in the PCs’ past and the players are given the roles of younger versions of themselves.

If the PCs weren’t together earlier in their histories, you can run multiple flashbacks (over multiple game sessions) and in each case have one player run a younger version of his character, while other players run minor characters in the same scene.

Flashbacks are useful to establish events and characters you want to be linked to current events, but either didn’t originally think to have PCs include in their character histories, or are at best vaguely defined.

Unlike an aside, however, a flashback works best when the stakes aren’t high, because too major an event added to a character’s background might change how the character would react to other events already played through.

(You can avoid this by starting a campaign with a series of flashbacks, showing how characters became the people they are by the time the game’s timeline starts.)

For Example:

Michelle is running a swashbuckling fantasy game for her friends, who are all playing privateers.

She wants to introduce a Radjack, a roguish captain the characters knew earlier in their careers, but never quite trusted.

Rather than just tell them about Radjack, she gives them all low-powered versions of their characters and tells them this scene took place in a tavern before the game began.

She introduces the roguish captain – who buys drinks and spreads around some money – just before the town guard burst in to arrest him.

A bar fight breaks out and the PCs are mistaken for Radjack’s allies.

As the encounter plays out, early attitudes between the Radjack and the PCs are determined, and at worst the PCs spend a night in jail before they are exonerated.

In Medias Res

Start gaming a scene after the action has started, rather than from the beginning.

Instead of explaining how the characters got to where they are now, you just set up an encounter, tell the players their goals (with as little explanation as can be given without leaving the players confused) and the action begins!

In medias res requires a fair amount of trust between you and your group, since you are declaring the PCs ended up in a specific situation without giving them a chance to avoid it.

Some groups have no problem with this kind of narrative power. But it can be a touchy subject with players who feel their only real control in a game is to decide on their own character’s actions.

Here’s what I do in this situation:

  1. Ask permission to attempt something like this if your group is more cautious about narrative segments.
  2. Open the encounter with assurances the players aren’t being penalized by any actions they are assumed to have taken.
  3. Ensure the “right” course of action for an in medias res scene can be easily determined. It isn’t fair to deny characters an opportunity to gather information and then throw a trick situation at them.

The simplest form of in medias res scene is a fight, since players generally have a pretty good idea what to do if they are surrounded by brigands trying to kill them.

This is especially true if a game’s pacing has slowed or become predictable.

If a game session normally starts with a long recap of previous events, updating character sheets, and a debate among players on how to best proceed next, the GM can add sudden excitement and surprise by telling the players they are fighting a group of wererats in an alleyway, and all other concerns can be handled after that’s over.

You can also use in medias res to bypass encounter types you want in the storyline, but your players don’t like much.

For Example:

At session end the PCs decide they need to uncover who killed Lady Ansivelle. However, your players dislike crime investigations.

So you bypass the “boring” parts of that adventure. You tell your group at the start of the next game session they tracked a series of clues to a warehouse. Upon arriving, they were immediately attacked by wererats.

The players get to jump straight to the part of the game they prefer, and still get to roleplay scenes later where they are congratulated for solving a difficult murder.

By the same token, you shouldn’t use in medias res to skip encounters players would enjoy to force them into situations they’d rather avoid. But if used judiciously, it can skip slow segments of a game session you know from experience no one will miss.

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Try It Next Session

Surprise your group next session. Pick one technique and run it. If you do, let please do us a favour and let us know which technique you used and how it went.

Also, if you have any questions about asides, flashbacks or in media res encounters, drop Johnn a note.

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30 In-Game Party Games

From Jeremy Brown and Jacob Truax

[Comment from Johnn: in RPT#546, Jeremy and Jacob treated us to some great GM advice about how to make adventure conclusions more satisfying. You can do this by holding celebration parties for the PCs.

This week, the duo offers up several ideas on events you can include to bring your celebrations to life. The lingo is D&D-centric, but these games should be easily portable to your system of choice.]

Dragon Boat Racing

This is a component of festivals in China and has become a more common sport in modern times.

Besides dragon boats, it could be used for long ship or galley racing.

The boat I used in my game was crewed by an oarsman, a drummer, and six paddlers with one as leader or main paddler.

The drummer’s perform check added +2 for DC 15 and +2 for every increment of 5 beyond.

The oarsman’s navigate check or intelligence or survival check (any of these is appropriate depending on system) added +2 for DC 10 and +2 for every 10 beyond that point.

The chief paddler made a strength check aided by the other paddlers.

The high number won the race.


  • Opposed intimidate at beginning
  • Opposed spot or sense motive versus bluff
  • Opposed intelligence check or if playing with d20 modern, an opposed knowledge tactics roll
  • Best two of three wins


This is the four person version played in China, not the common solitaire computer game version. These same rules can be used to mimic card games.

  • Random d20 roll
  • Spot DC 10 gains +1; each multiple of 5 past ten gives +1
  • Bluff gives DC 10 +1; each multiple of 10 gives +1
  • Sense motive DC 10 gives +1; each multiple of 10 gives +1
  • Intelligence check DC 5 gives +2; every 5 beyond gives +2
  • Highest score wins


If you want Robin Hood style classic British archery, the target is a fine wand with a base defense of 13.

Remember to take range penalties into account.

The wand has hardness 5 and 3 hp. If less than 5 points of damage are done, the arrow strikes but does not stay in the target.

6-7 hp of damage causes the arrow to stick in the target.

8+ points of damage results in a split wand a successful hit.

A more traditional target is medium size with three rings and a bullseye.

The target itself is DC 5, the outer ring is small and DC 6, the middle ring is tiny and DC 7, the inner ring is diminutive and DC 9, and the bulls eye is fine and DC 13.

Again, range penalties are important. In this variant, the outer ring scores 10 points, the middle 25 points, the inner ring 50 points, and the bulls eye 100 points.

The game is played in three rounds at increasing ranges. The person with the high score at the end wins.

Although it might make things harder, the Wii Sports video game has a cool archery tournament where the target has 10 rings.

Each ring is worth 10 points. This gives greater variance in points scored.


In a joust, each participant must make a ride check. The higher gains a +2 bonus.

Both launch attacks against the normal armor class. If the strike hits, roll damage remembering that a charging lance scores triple damage.

The opponent must make a ride check against DC 5+damage dealt.

If made, the person remains in the saddle. If failed, they are unhorsed.

If a miss is rolled against the rider, roll an attack against the horse with a -4 penalty. A reality of jousting tournaments was that horses were sometimes killed under their riders, and though this was considered bad form, it happened.

Riding Contest

  • Opposed ride checks


  • Opposed perform oratory or charisma check

Dance Contest

  • Opposed perform dance check

Battle Of The Bards/Bands

  • Opposed perform checks

If a band is involved, the leader makes the roll aided by the other members.


  • Handle animal check
  • DC 15 gets something, less than DC 5 loses hawk
  • DC 25 or better gets magnificent prey


Darts works similarly to archery above, but they have a range increment of 5 ft. and must do more than 1 point of damage to stick in the board (they do 1d2 naturally).

  • DC 10 outer ring 10 points
  • DC 15 inner ring 25 points
  • DC 20 bulls eye 50 points

Darts can also be a gambling game. When you play darts, it’s usually collect 3 hits in the 15-20 wedges and then three hits in the bullseye.

There are small rings interspersed throughout, and they count for double wherever they are.

For instance, if you hit the 20 in the small ring, you get two of your 20’s crossed off.

  • DC 15 score 1 number
  • DC 17 score 3 numbers
  • DC 19 score 5 numbers or one bullseye
  • DC 21 score 7 numbers
  • DC 23 score 9 numbers or two bullseyes

Then just play until the first player has cleared all 18 numbers and three bullseyes.


These rules do not do justice to pool, but they do give a good 5 or 10 minutes of enjoyable play between players and NPCs.

  • Natural 1 knock in the eight ball
  • DC 10 hit an unintentional ball in
  • DC 15 hit one ball in
  • DC 20 hit two balls in
  • DC 25 hit three balls
  • For each 5 points above add one ball

When you have cleared your balls, to hit the eight ball into the proper pocket is DC 20.

Ability is determined by base attack + dexterity.

For more complex rules, a player may forego extra balls from an exceptional shot to inflict a -2 penalty on his
opponent’s shot for each extra ball he gives up.


Dex + base attack. Must hit DC 10 to clear the net. If make it over the net, the opponent must equal or beat your attack roll to volley. This continues until a miss is logged.

Basket Ball

These rules were developed for solo or small group play. They give a feel for a small scratch game of basketball. They are not intended to mirror “real” play.

These rules do take a while, so quick play rules might be useful. The fastest way to speed the game up is to not allow steals, fakes or blocking.

A player must make a DC 10 dex check to dribble the ball down court. The court is 120 feet long.

If you fail this check the opponent may make an attack of opportunity versus DC 6 + dribbler’s dex modifier to steal the ball.

If you roll a natural 1, then the ball goes out of control and opponents make opposed attack checks to see who gains control.

If a shot is made within 30 feet it is 2 points. The basket has a defense of DC 15. Any shot is a thrown weapon and has a maximum range of 60 feet with a -2 range penalty for each 10 feet beyond the first (i.e., the ball has a 10 ft. range increment).

Any shot made from 31+ ft is a 3 point shot.

If the opponent is actively guarding a dribbler, they can make an opposed attack roll to block the shot. If their roll exceeds the shooter’s attack by 5 or more, they steal the ball.

If an attacker wishes, they can attempt to steal the ball. This requires a bluff check as a free action opposed by the opponent’s sense motive check.

If the sense motive fails, the attacker must make a DC 15 attack roll to steal control of the ball.

If the shooter wishes to fake for a shot, then he makes a bluff check as a move action, opposed by the guard’s sense motive check.

If the sense motive fails, the shooter gains a +2 bonus to his attack for resolving blocked shots only.

The foul line is 30 feet out and scores 1 point per shot. The victim is fouled if any attack roll for control of the ball fails by 5 or less except in the case of a failed dribble.


Utilizing the basketball rules above, a horse game is simple.

A player chooses a spot on the court to shoot from. If he hits, the next player must make his shot at the same DC (attack roll) or get a letter (h, o, r, s, e).

The GM may impose penalties for trick shots (shooting from behind the goal, from behind one’s back, or even for difficult side goal shots).

The game is over when all but one player has received enough letters to spell horse.


These fishing rules mirror the survival skill rules in D&D. The authors are aware that fishing is neither this easy, nor this profitable as a rule.

If those rules seem unrealistic, remember that a large proportion of most fish is lost due to gutting, scaling, and optionally, filleting.

  • A DC 1 survival check means your line breaks and you have to spend 10 minutes working up your rod.
  • DC 6-9 means you catch something, but it wriggles off the hook or, alternatively, you catch something too small.
  • DC 10 means you catch something. Each effort takes 1d4+2×10 minutes. For each 2 you beat the DC by, the fish is larger by 2 lbs. DC 10 gets a 2 pounder.

Egg In The Spoon Race

Each team must run down the course holding a wooden spoon balancing an egg. The course is 30 feet long.

  • Participants must make a DC 10 dexterity check on each pass.
  • To hand off the spoon, the receiver must make a successful unarmed attack roll against DC 13.
  • If the attack is fumbled, the spoon drops the egg.

The team that completes the course the quickest wins.

Sack Race

Consists of a course 60 ft long. Most contestants will have a jump check of +4. Make jump checks to determine how far each participant clears. First to beat 60 wins.

Remember that from standing DC 4 = 1 foot, DC 8 = 2 ft., DC 12 = 3 ft., etc.

Each landing requires a DC 10 balance check or fall prone.

Three-Legged Race

This requires a spot and balance check each round. The balance check is penalized by the differences in speed between the two participants.

The spot check is penalized as follows:

  • Quarreling -8
  • Working consciously together +2
  • Hostile but not quarreling -4
  • Not working together -2

Spot DC bonus to balance check:

  • DC 15: +1
  • DC 20: +2
  • DC 25: +3
  • DC 30: +4

Both participants must make the spot to get the bonus.

The course is 100 ft long. The team can move 1/2 the slower person’s speed.

If a balance check is failed they fall.

At the end of each movement make a DC 15 balance check.


All participants roll percentage. 97-00 gets a bingo.

Since you probably won’t get that every time, the bingo range needs to go down each roll.

For example, you roll percentage, 97-100 gets a bingo. If no one gets a bingo, everyone roll again and 94-100 gets a bingo. Etc.

Laser Tag

As normal gun combat, but guns have a range of 60 ft. and a hit lights up the victim’s indicator. This can also be used for paintball.

Firing Range

10 targets of three different sorts:

  • One is the standard stationery target
  • One is a pop-up silhouette
  • The last are small, fast moving targets

01-20 Rapid Moving Small Target Defense 17, Hardness 4, 5 hp. 5 points for hit, 10 points per destruction.

21-50 Normal Target DC 12 hits outer ring, DC 16 hits middle ring, DC 20 hits bullseye. 2 points outer ring, 5 points inner ring, 10 points bullseye.

51-100: Silhouette Defense 15, 15 hp, Mas 10. If hit target 2 points. If top hp 5 points. If top massive damage threshold 10 points.

Random Ranges:

01-15 30 feet
16-30 50 ft. +1 point
31-45 75 ft. +2 points
46-60 50 ft. +1 point
61-75 30 ft.
76-90 50 ft. +1 points
91-100 100 ft. +3 points

Bean Bag Toss

-2 to hit because of aerodynamics. DC 10 to hit back board. DC 13 to hit low tier prize. DC 15 to hit medium tier prize. DC 18 to hit high tier prize.

Ring Toss

DC 10 to hit low end, DC 14 to hit medium, and DC 18 to hit high end prizes.

-2 to hit. DC 15 low end prize, DC 18 medium end prizes, DC 22 to hit high end prizes.

Pick a Duck

  • 1 in 100 of picking gold duck very high end prize
  • 4 in 100 chance of picking red duck high end prize
  • 8 in 100 of picking a blue duck medium prize
  • 18 in 100 of picking green duck low end prize
  • Rest white duck nothing
  • 01 gold duck
  • 02-05 red duck
  • 06-12 blue duck
  • 13-30 green duck
  • 31-100 white duck

Caricature Drawing

Craft visual art. Any that beat DC 15 wins a prize. Any that beat DC 20 win a prize and get put up on display.

Pin The Tail On The Donkey

A DC 20 attack roll minus the -4 blindness penalty and the 50% miss chance wins.

Dunking Booth

Must hit DC 18 to dunk. Person inside will taunt the attacker. A character who fails a will save DC 12 has a -2 to hit.

Strong Man Pole

A DC 20 strength check will ring the bell. The winner collects a high end prize.