Space Opera Part 3: Making It Personal

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0691

A Brief Word From Johnn

Murder Hobos S2E9

Last session ended with the Hobos rescuing their ally Gar, who is on a demon hunt. We kick season 2 episode 9 off with the PCs deciding to pursue the earth cult bulette rider. The rider had escaped with Gar’s daemon-slayer sword, Bloodweep, and was last spotted heading east to the Sacred Stone Monastery.

Vargulf summons giant owls who land gracefully on the ground and wait for orders. With trepidation, the Hobos each climb onto the back of an owl and take flight. The druid’s power lasts just two hours, but the party travels farther in that time than they would have walking all day on foot.

Air Strike

Near the end of their harrowing flight, the group spots the bulette rider, who has joined a camp of earth cultists and two vrock demons. It’s still night, and the PCs use darkness to fly with stealth towards their enemy.

Just as the group is about to strike by surprise, Gar stands up on his owl and yells, “For the justice of Torm!” and dives towards a demon, his owl steed’s claws and beak snapping in anticipation. Surprise ruined, the Hobos strike.

Kriv does a miraculous mid-air leap onto a demon and then grapples the creature, forcing the flying vrock to drop to the ground. Gar sees that and does the same. The others dismount or fall from their owls and attack from the ground.

Midway through the battle Roscoe is suddenly confronted by an angry spirit. Rising out of the pond where the rogue was battling cultists, the ghost of Phandelver’s Townmaster leers at his murderer, and Roscoe barely maintains his composure. (Roscoe killed the Townmaster early in season 1 and buried his body in the Townmaster’s back yard.)

Fighting cultists, demons, and ghost, the Hobos eventually clobber their way to victory and rest. Unfortunately, the bulette rider escapes with Gar’s sword again by burrowing under the combat. Vargulf sends an owl after the rider and learns he is heading back west in the direction from which the PCs just flew. Several slaves were part of the cult camp, and they escaped during the battle. The Hobos decide to not go after them.

The Boar & Spear

The group rests and waits for Vargulf to regain his ability to call forth the giant owls. Then they are airborne again and headed to the monastery. Vargulf’s creatures get the party just an hour’s walk away, and soon the Hobos are at the gates of a manor, small village, and monastery, all ringed by a low stone wall.

However, the community looks deserted. Not one soul in sight. The group heads towards a small inn called The Boar & Spear. The place is empty except for one forlorn barkeep who barely acknowledges the strangers. Roscoe tries to pry information out of the villager, who says the party should leave now while they still can. But that’s all he’ll say.

The group starts to explore the inn, and discover it empty. The ghost of the Townmaster appears again and starts berating the PCs. The group attacks the ghost, who is forced to flee to his ghostly realm.

Eventually the group learns the barkeep’s story. This place was once a quiet and peaceful manor of Lord Rodrick of Waterdeep. Then a strange man called Marlos appeared one day and shared his crazed visions with Rodrick, who believed them. The pair then visited the monastery abbess, Hellenrae, who listened and then also became a believer.

In the following weeks strange men, heavily armed and armoured, some even riding terrible burrowing monsters, moved into the village. They conducted raids and brought back many slaves to work in a new mine being dug underneath the monastery.

Rodrick and his family were never seen again. And Marlos also disappeared. But the raiding continued, until the flow of slaves trickled and the cultists began taking manor staff and villagers in the night. Soon it was just the innkeep left. The village was empty, the monastery having gobbled them all up.

As the innkeep finishes his woeful tale, weird elemental weather starts to rain drops of magma. The inn begins to burn. The barkeep runs out the burning building and into the wilderness. The PCs go the other way and storm the monastery.

The Sacred Stone Monastery

The party breaks into a back door and finds themselves in a kitchen. Cultists are baking bread, so the Hobos murder them. Opening more rooms, the PCs discover a contingent of duergar and more monks. A running battle ensues and that rouses the entire place.

Soon the monks gather in the main chapel and await the intruders. The group splits up and assaults the chapel from two directions. Three priests, several guards, and numerous monks prepare for battle. Then Six gently guides a fireball into place and the screams of dying cultists drown out the gleeful taunting of the Hobos for a few moments.

Once the flames take their victims the Hobos charge in. Kriv gets immediately surrounded and Vargulf is hemmed off by several monks. Then the statues start to move, revealing themselves to be gargoyles that attack Roscoe, Gar, and Malcor. The battle carries on for a long time. Six lobs arcane attacks at numerous foes, whittling them away. Finally, the enemy breaks. The priests retreat to the mines below, the few remaining defenders are dispatched, and the gargoyles are turned to dust.

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We end the session there. No sign of Hellenrae or Marlos. The PCs have taken a beating but by Torm’s favour have delivered some justice. We agree to play again in two weeks.


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Space Opera Part 3: Making It Personal

From Christopher Sniezak,

I love space opera, laser swords, and ray guns, jet bikes in space swooping around ships bigger than they are and winning. These epic stories in vast galaxies sometimes take place a long time ago, far far away, and sometimes they’re in our own time and space, but you need to play a video game well enough to even be noticed by the star league. I love the scope, tone, and feel, but those things all play second fiddle to what makes space opera most compelling to me: the characters and their personal stories.

Put Three Spoonfuls of Personal in the Epic

Space opera isn’t so different from epic fantasy. In fact, it shares a lot of the same storytelling ideas. The one I identify and know can be leveraged during your games is making it personal. Now what do I mean by making it personal? I’m glad you asked. This comes in a couple of flavors.

1. Relate Them To Real Life

If you create NPCs that are relatable to real life, your players will have something to grasp. I know, I know. This is space opera, which means it’s in space and the whole setting isn’t relatable. That’s actually not true because there are lots of situations and characters we can instinctively understand based on how they’re presented.

In the Last Starfighter, Alex Rogan is a teenager living in a trailer park. He dreams of getting out of his situation, but he’s really only good at one thing, playing a video game called Starfighter. This eventually gets him recruited by aliens to fight a real battle in a Gunstar, where he meets his copilot and mentor Grig, an alien Starfighter pilot who becomes his teacher and friend.

In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is a teenager living on a moisture farm. He dreams of getting out of his situation and is a remarkably talented pilot, but has responsibilities to his aunt and uncle. He eventually meets Ben Kenobi, who becomes his mentor after his aunt and uncle are killed, and goes off to learn the ways of the force from Ben.

In both examples there are a couple of things we can use. The first is the idea of trying to better our situation, dreaming of being more than we are. For a number of gamers that’s either a story we want to play out, a story we’ve lived, or a story we’re living. It’s relatable to real life so we can grasp it. It also doesn’t hurt that it’s a trope we’ve seen over and over again, but it’s also more elemental than that for the reasons I described above.

The second is having a mentor. Yes, it’s a storytelling trope, but if you have a player who is playing the mentor character, or you are playing a mentor character, then expect to get killed at some point, probably with a red lightsaber. There’s a pattern now. It has that elemental feel of life because many of us have either been mentors to others or looked up to someone as a mentor. Those emotions and memories are real, and because they’re part of u, they give us another thing to latch onto when playing games with aliens, laser swords, hyperdrives, and spaceships.

Mad Libby

As an added bonus, those two examples are really a Mad Lib waiting to happen for any game you might want to run or play in with an NPC-PC duo or a PC-PC duo. Here it is broken down for you:

Talented character is still in a mundane life situation wishing to be more than he is. His talent may or may not be useful for being a mundane life situation. He meets mentor figure, who shows him the world is a wider place and offers him a chance to better himself. He chooses to not take that chance due to a personal problem to his situation until that situation action. Then he takes the chance to be shine.

Talented Character – The talented character comes from the game you’re playing. Here are a few ideas for space opera:

  1. Hotshot pilot
  2. Technomancer
  3. Abandoned scavenger
  4. Video game mastering teenager
  5. Brilliant outcast youth
  6. Pseudo-magical teen
  7. Troublemaking lucky village youth
  8. Crafty hustler

Mundane Life Situation

  1. Trailer park resident
  2. Repair shop slave
  3. Scavenger
  4. Outcast
  5. Moisture farmer
  6. Student
  7. Taxi driver
  8. Office worker
  9. Nurse
  10. Village youth

Mentor Figure

  1. Old hermit
  2. Alien salesman
  3. Older person who has a talent similar to the talented character
  4. Grizzled soldier
  5. Political officer
  6. Smuggler

Personal Problem

  1. Duty to his mundane life situation
  2. Obligation to family
  3. Obligation to loved one(s)
  4. Fear of what’s out there
  5. Insecurity about himself
  6. Obligation to friends


  1. Is threatened
  2. Is killed
  3. Throws him out
  4. Teaches the talented character a terrible truth
  5. Frees him from his personal problem
  6. Shows him he should follow the mentor figure

2. Personal Issues Directly Relate to Solving Galaxy Problems

In space opera, often the key to solving the galaxy’s problems is for the characters to deal with their personal issues. Luke turning Vader back to the light side directly affects the killing of the Emperor and deals a huge blow to the Empire. Leia and the rest of Han’s friends saving him causes the death of Jabba the Hutt and the destruction of a vast criminal empire.

Those are the endpoints of long drawn-out stories with a lot of personal plot points along the way. With that in mind, you can build a structure for the various characters to make it personal for them and let those personal beats solve galaxy problems. Let’s take a look at the formula:

First, we need a character. Let’s look at Han Solo.

Second, we need a personal issue and a way to relate it to a galaxy-wide problem. Han’s problem is he owes a lot of money to Jabba the Hutt, a notorious gangster with a vast criminal empire.

Third, we need to provide a way for the character to solve his problem. Han gets a job smuggling Luke, Ben, C3PO, and R2D2 to Alderaan for a lot of credits.

Fourth, we need to complicate his life because of the issue. Greedo shows up and threatens to kill Han if he doesn’t give Greedo the money.

Fifth, we need to provide the character with a moral quandary related to his issue and the other things he cares about. Han gets the money to pay off his debt – will he pay off the debt and leave the rebellion high and dry in their worst hour, or will he help them?

Sixth, just repeat three through five until you feel the tension of the story is at its high point. Han’s life is complicated by the attack of a bounty hunter on Ord Mandell because of the bounty on him placed by Jabba the Hutt. His life is morally complicated because he’s fallen in love with Princess Leia. Also, he has good friends, such as Luke, in the rebellion, so it’s hard for him to leave the rebellion. There are opportunities for Han to make the money he needs to pay off the debt, but the rebellion needs the money more.

Seventh, either you find the opportunity in play when the personal issue finally catches up with the character, or the characters decide to deal with the personal issue. Han’s issue catches up with him when he’s caught, frozen in carbonite, and delivered to Jabba the Hutt. His friends decide it’s time to deal with his issue when they go to rescue him.

Let’s recap:

  1. Start with a character.
  2. Figure out what his personal issue is and then tie it to a galaxy-wide problem.
  3. Provide a way for him to solve his problem.
  4. Complicate his life because of the issue.
  5. Give him moral quandaries related to his issue and other things he cares about.
  6. Repeat steps 3-5 until the tension of the story is at a point where everyone feels it could be resolved.
  7. Resolve the issue when you find a good opportunity to do so, or when the players decide it’s time to deal with it.
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Tips and Advice to Make This Work

You Know The Characters Better Than I Do

This article assumes you’ll already have made your characters and know them better than I ever could. That means you should know what the characters care about and what their personal issues are. If you don’t know or are unsure, ask your players. If they’re hesitant, explain to them that these answers are part of what makes space opera feel like space opera. Without them you can’t have the full experience.

The other thing you can do to get around having to figure it out on your own or through having discussion about it post-character creation is to make it part of character creation. Just add these two questions early in character creation as the players are figuring out their character concepts:

  • You care about something. What is it that you care about?
  • You have a personal issue. It can be either internal or external. What is it?

Now you’ve made it part of the game and you’ll have this information, which is quite important for the next section.

Creating Moral Quandaries

Having what a character’s personal issue is and what he cares about gives you the two pieces needed to create a moral quandary. You do this by playing the personal issue against the things the character cares about. This creates a choice point for the PC and lets him decide what’s more important. You’ll need to let go of a little control to see what happens next, but the payoff is that everyone gets to be surprised when they learn what kind of character the player is playing.

Earlier I mentioned how Han needed to pay off his debt to Jabba, but if he does he leaves the rebellion high and dry when they’re in their darkest hour. It’s not a great example for an RPG because if Han decides to go pay off Jabba, then Luke gets blown up by Vader, Yavin IV gets annihilated by the Death Star, and there’s no more rebellion, which makes for a pretty lousy Space Opera story if that’s how it ends.

Here’s a better example. The Verdant Alliance is at war with the Draconis Imperium, and it’s been going poorly for the Verdant Alliance. Our character, Jack, is a pilot for a small shipping company in the Verdant Alliance. This shipping company makes runs to the front lines for the Verdant Alliance fleet. Jack’s dad used to be the lead pilot in the Alliance’s best squad, but he betrayed the V.A. and went over to the Draconis Imperium. Jack is an Alliance man to the bone and does everything he can to make up for his father’s betrayal, but he also wants to know why his father turned against the V.A. It haunts him when he sleeps.

Fast forward a few sessions, when Jack has become a pilot in the VA fleet. His current mission has him and his squad deep inside Draconis Imperium space trying to rescue a spy for the V.A. They extract the spy but get into a skirmish with some excellent pilots. During the skirmish, Jack learns one of them is his father and has the chance to shoot him down. Moral quandary: Does Jack shoot his father down and eliminate a threat to the V.A., or does he let him live? There’s a third option too. Jack might try to disable his father’s ship and take him prisoner to get some answers.

Those are the kinds of situations you’re looking to create, spaces where the personal issue and the thing the character cares about intersect. If you can also insert a conflict that is a microcosm of the galaxy’s problems, as in the example above, then you’ve really found a great moral quandary. This example also provides a choice that doesn’t halt the game but provides for a variety of ways for it to move it forward.

Problems That Could Occur

Using this method has some potential downfalls. If you’re a linear GM, you’ll need to do a little work to try and account for any branches the players might take. If they do something you weren’t expecting and you’re not sure how to deal with it, call for a five-minute break to think about things, or ask them for a little help figuring out what happens next. There’s nothing wrong with sourcing the table for ideas or material if you get stuck.

Tying the personal issues to the galaxy-wide problems of your campaign isn’t always the easiest thing. I find that creating characters together makes this easier to manage, as you can work with the players to have the issues they want to deal with fit into the campaign problems. Another thing you can do is to modify the campaign problems based on the characters’ choices for their issues and the things they care about.

Finishing Up

Relating the stories to real life and then tying the characters’ personal issues to the solving of the campaign problems of your space opera game will make your game feel like space opera, that feel of an epic story that hinges on the actions of a few brave souls adventuring across the galaxy and fighting against the evils that arise.

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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

How to Create a Bag of Dice in Excel

From Phillip Dunn

I love your newsletter and am always forwarding your tips to our group. This time I have something to contribute!

Following up on Darren Blair’s tip How to Roll Dice in Excel, rolling dice is even easier now. Starting with Office 2007, Excel has the RANDBETWEEN() function, and it is used like this:

=RANDBETWEEN(low,high) where “low” is the lowest value and “high” is the highest.

If you wanted to generate old school D&D characters: =RANDBETWEEN(3,18), for example.

Here are the formulae for a bag of Excel dice:

1d10 =RANDBETWEEN(1,10)
1d12 =RANDBETWEEN(1,12)
1d20 =RANDBETWEEN(1,20)
d% =RANDBETWEEN(1,100)


[Comment from Johnn: Thanks to Juergen Walker for also writing in about RandBetween.]

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Making Advantage Rolls In Excel

From Jared Hayter

RPT#685 has a tip from Darren Blair about using the Rand function in Excel to generate dice results. I used to use that method myself until I discovered that Excel has a better built-in function. Use the formula below:


Where “n” is the highest possible die result. The results returned are integers and don’t require further manipulation unless you want to simulate rolling multiple dice and summing.

Roll and pick mechanics can also be simulated in Excel. For example, the D&D 5E advantage/disadvantage roll can be simulated using the formulas below:



Once you start building more complicated expressions, using a text editor may help you copy and paste the parts you need into your spreadsheet more easily. This also gives you a permanent record of all the formulas you’ve created.

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The Scroll of Lorem Ipsum

From Ed Allen

This could be easily adapted to make scrolls available as simple-to-manipulate handouts for online RPG play:

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Use Facebook Groups to Organize Your Games

From Don Fuller

I can’t stop evil-GM laughing at the Greedy Magic Item from RPT#685. That will officially be found by my characters in the next session or two. Brilliant!

I’d like to recommend Facebook private groups as a great resource for organizing a game. I recently started using them. My players are more responsive to communications in the FB group than via email.

The events feature lets me announce the next game and get confirmations. I can use the file storage and photo albums for storing characters and handouts. And I can post the game session summary right into the feed.

I created picture albums with custom covers, and I’ve been uploading campaign art, pictures from the books, and character portraits.

It’s something so simple. Many people already use FB, and I feel like it just kicked my game organization up a notch. Thought I’d share!

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GM Style Survey

From Jeremy Brown

In answer to your GM questionnaire idea, Johnn, I think creating one as a community would be an awesome idea. I think the questions from the GM philosophy article you cobbled together from my ramblings might be one place to start. I’ve added some additional ideas below. However, this doesn’t even scratch the surface and should probably be better organized. Further, a “what type of player” survey would be good too. I think trying to correlate two would be fascinating. On to the initial questions such as they are:

Are you a planner or an improviser?

Is the environment, based on the above, carefully scripted? Random? Semi-random?

Does your campaign world support the characters, challenge the characters, or both?

Do character actions have meaningful impacts? Consequences? Repercussions?

What are the laws of your setting? By this, I mean not so much actual legal systems (though that’s always important) but cosmological/magical/divine/physical laws. A universe run by a single pantheon will feel quite different from a world run by multiple pantheons. What about gods and their provinces? Forgotten Realms has the idea that the gods supervise such things as mortals stealing each other’s arcane marks and the like. Are your laws and constants and cosmological power active in the world? Passive? Are they well known? Yet to be discovered fully? How easy is it for your world and its inhabitants to interact with cosmological phenomena such as gods and planar vortexes/portals?

Are the characters regular joes? Ordinary people with ordinary foibles but extraordinary abilities? Just another group of adventurers among many? Heroes the likes of which have not been seen in a thousand years?

Is the universe unforgiving, or do the dice sometimes favor the characters even when you roll a critical hit against the only character standing?

Should the players trust the GM? If so, why? If not, why not?

Does the GM allow the players to make all decisions, or does the story at some point require GM manipulation of events? Is this manipulation subtle, or of the “Sauron is rising and you have the one ring” sort?

Is the world a gritty, realistic place, or is it cinematic?

Do you prefer longer or shorter game sessions? If one or the other, does this lead to huge snippets of good stuff getting skipped or running to silliness?

Do you listen to what your PCs are saying or do you try to anticipate your PCs’ actions? Do you present adventures tailored to their abilities, or use things that they might not have the tools to accomplish?

Is your word law, or are you willing to discuss decisions and rulings? Do you do so in the game or outside of game? Why?

What’s your main focus? The fun of the group? The story arc? Whether or not the players advance? Using this cool module you found?

How do you adjudicate arguments?

What steps do you take to try and get a session back on track?

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