4 Tips From Your Fellow Subscribers

From Jonathan Hicks

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0137

A Brief Word From Johnn

Free Article Available From The NPC Essentials eBook

Well, at long last, I’ve finally finished my book on roleplaying, GMing, managing, and designing NPCs. Woohoo! I was originally commissioned to produce 50 pages. However, there was just too much I wanted to say, so I ended up writing 82 pages. It was a lot of fun to do and I hope you get years of GMing value from it!

One buyer left this comment at the site: “This book was absolutely invaluable to me. It is written unbelievably well, getting to the point on the very first page and ensuring that every one of the following 82 pages is full of useful information. It was uncanny how a question I’d ask while reading one section was answered a few pages later (even going into fantastic detail in many cases – the section on NPC power bases most especially). The intuition that went into writing this is great.”

If you can’t wait any longer, follow this link to buy and download it instantly Ratkin

If you’d like to find out more info about it, I’ve created a report that includes the table of contents, article titles, and an entire article pasted in, titled “INTRODUCING NPCS”, that discusses how to make killer NPC entrances, good first- impressions, and smooth campaign introductions.

To get the freebie article and report about the eBook, send a blank email to: [email protected]

Supplemental #10: Internet RPG List

The list of subscribers’ PBeM, forum, chat, IRC, and other online games is finished and available by email! Just send a blank email to: [email protected]

Readers’ Tips Special Issue

This week I’m publishing several Tips submissions that are a little too long for the Reader’s Tips section and a little too short to make up an entire issue. I hope you enjoy and get value from all the great advice from your fellow subscribers!


Johnn Four
[email protected]

Modern Gaming Tips

A lot of Gamer’s Want to Game in the Fantastical

But gaming in a contemporary setting is a mirror of real life, so you have to ask the question – what’s the point? I’ve combated that by placing the players in a setting they hardly know from experience, such as a Vietnam game and special ops in South America. Removing the players as far as possible from their real life environment can be as effective as placing them in a fantasy world.

Because the World you are in Does not Require a Lot of Imagination

As the details/settings/items are all provided for you, it can be difficult for the GM to maintain that suspension of disbelief. In a fantasy setting, the players know none of it is true and they allow themselves to be immersed in the setting. With contemporary games, the real world can pretty much drag the players ‘back to reality’, and they can feel the limitations and constrictiveness of normality. To combat this, I try to keep the game moving at a good pace. This is possible because I don’t have to spend time describing the appearance and function of many of the items and locations. If you can’t keep the game going with atmosphere then keep it going with plot and action. The problem is, burn-out usually tends to come sooner rather than later because of the pace.

The Players May Feel Restricted in Their Actions and Capabilities

Because they are within a real world environment where all those real world rules and regulations are going to apply. So, the players will have to be wary of actions involving the police, their own skills, and the impact of their actions (because the GM is more likely to realise the effects in a world they know inside-out). Also, most gaming systems I’ve come across reflect this real world feel, where there is great danger in over-zealous actions and a high payment (death) for certain mistakes in judgement or hits from weapons. With these kind of restrictions, the players will soon get bored, tired, or frustrated.My answer to that is to throw out the rule books. Be more forgiving to the players, allow them to do James Bond-style stunts and Indiana Jones-style rescues. The more latitude they are given, the more ‘into’ the game they will get.

Most Games in Contemporary Settings are a Mixture

The real world and the fantastical, involving alien conspiracies, vampires, magic, and great old gods come back to reclaim their world. This is good news because it puts the players within a familiar environment whilst allowing their imaginations to work on the fantasy elements of the game.However, the game can be limited because the game world limits the exploration of the chosen genre. How many vampires can you dust in different ways before it gets repetitive? How many times can the “truth” about the government conspiracy slip through your fingers before you just give up? How many sacred artifacts do you have to recover before you begin to think “hold on… this is all very familiar”? Once you’ve defeated the foe and saved the world – where do you go from there?A great way to get past this problem is to have a deep well of imagination, which is why I started GMing in the first place! Fantasy and Sci-Fi games open up many possibilities in their own realms of fiction, but contemporary games consist of the same setting, the same world, the same attitudes. This can limit the adventure, sure, but it can also help you in your quest for a new idea. After all, the world is set and you already have your guidelines as far as the setting goes – all you have to do is come up with the plot. Sure, the game may be another murder-mystery, but it’s the reason and circumstance surrounding the murder that makes it unique.

[Comment from Johnn: another way of putting this is, because you are already intimately familiar with the setting of the modern world, you can focus on deeper thinking about setting elements and come up with rich ideas for stories and encounters.For example, in a fantasy world you need to do some design work before you’re familiar enough with the campaign area’s power structure and villains to create top-down stories. In real life though, you already know about the power and story possibilities of politicians, lawyers, money, guns, Mafia, gangs, drugs, and foreign powers. With this large base of knowledge, you can build great plots, twists, stories, and webs of relationships in great detail.]

My Favorite Idea is Turning the World Up on Its Head

A vast plague leaving few survivors, a new Ice Age, a holocaust, an alien invasion, the Rise of the Machines… You take the world and twist it all out of sense and proportion. This works great because then the rules don’t apply any more. There’s no restrictions on society or law, and you can change the rules to reflect that.

Hope these few ideas help!

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Go For The Money Shot

From David F.

Here’s some tips on how to make a memorable session:

The Money Shot

Create a mental picture of the scene you want to be memorable for the players, such as the PCs lying wounded in a rainy courtyard as their nemesis walks off, covered in their blood, gloating about how he’ll finish them later but that he must attend a ceremony that will endanger the world first. This scene is your money shot, your goal.(Lacking inspiration? Listen to some music. The scene I just depicted came to me while I was listening to, of all things, wrestling entrance music.)

Getting to the Money Shot

Now that you have your memorable scene, go backwards in time and envision how the PCs could get to it. Don’t skip any parts and envision as much of the sequence and detail as possible, including scenery, props, NPCs, and so on.

What are they trying to do?

What are the party’s intentions that would motivate them to follow your envisioned sequence of events? You don’t want to railroad the PCs, so run through your imagined plot line forwards now, start to finish, and ask “Why?” at each step along the way to ensure the PCs will want to advance to each scene.

The Details

Okay, you’ve got the PCs into the mess you wanted them in, so now draw up the map, flesh out NPCs and locations, and voila! Instant memories!

It’s a good idea to have an alternate ending handy, just in case. I can also picture the villain lying there in the rain, in a pool of his own blood, his armor dented and shattered, the PCs clutching their sides in pain and standing over him as the villain utters his deep, meaningful last words, then quietly passes away. Have a bunch of money shots ready, just in case.

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Cinematic Mass Combat

From Jay Steven Anyong

I’ve gotten to thinking about the many ways to handle Cinematic Mass Combat. Being a pretty standard situation that GMs will have to face sooner or later, I’ve decided to type out how I handle such situations.Take note that we’re talking about combat on a huge scale of armies taking up the horizon. For consistency, I’ll use a fantasy setting for my examples.

Cinematic Battles are still Cinematic

One of the best rules for running Cinematic mass combat is to keep it as simple as you can, avoiding rolling and rules that might break the tension and the excitement of an otherwise well- paced battle.

Zooming In and Zooming Out

Another concept that’s good to keep in mind is that you can use two “lenses” to cover the battle, which I prefer to term as Zooming In and Zooming Out.Zooming In is keeping your descriptions to things immediate and personal to the characters. This is usually used when the characters find themselves stuck in the middle of the combat. As with all things, be descriptive here: blood spurts, weapons clash, and the screams of the dying fill the air.

The smell of blood, bile, excrement and sweat mix as the two sides devolve into a (usually) chaotic mess of people determined to walk out of this fight alive. This is the lens by which you handle hand-to-hand combat. Barbarians, Fighters, and Dawn Caste Exalted players love this kind of stuff.Zooming Out, on the other hand, deals with the tactical view. This is the lens that I use to describe the battle to the players on the castle walls, away from the melee. When I’m detailing the battle using the Zoom Out lens to a player, I focus on the movement.

Battle is dynamic and should always be portrayed as such. For the “feel” of this lens, think back to the last time you’ve played a Real Time Strategy game (like Starcraft, Red Alert, Battle Realms, or Warcraft 3) scrolled up to the bunch of red dots crawling to your base and you went, “OH CRAP!”In the Zoom Out lens, the player on the castle walls gets to see the big stuff.

The sudden appearance of enemy cavalry from a hiding spot in a nearby forest to flank the infantry on the side, the explosion of magical energy that tears apart a friendly formation like so many toy soldiers, and the great flaming chunks of burning pitch streaking across the sky in great arcs to smash against the castle walls. Never confuse this lens with a dry description of events. Even if they’re on the castle walls, they are still participants of the fight, and time is of the essence.

Another method I use is to split the party up. I GM some to become officers of their own (vanguard?) units and I GM the less combat intensive PCs to get involved in events on or behind the castle walls.This makes for some great roleplaying opportunities for all involved. The front liners can lead their units to victory, and feel the joy of having men respect (or fear) them, following the PCs’ orders because they know that the PCs will (somehow) get them out alive.

Meanwhile, the Mages, Thieves, and Bards can watch from the castle, overseeing the situation from a tactical point of view. From their vantage point, they can cast spells, issue orders, and go off on “secret missions” (really fun for thieves).

Think of the possibilities: 

  • Fighters get to kill as many other soldiers as they can.
  • Paladins get to ride around on a horse, probably lead the cavalry, and save the infantry just in time.
  • Rangers can lead a small group to ambush the supply lines of the enemy.
  • Clerics heal and call for divine intervention (and hit on the pretty priestesses in the sick tent too).
  • Mages cast spells with impunity! “Look! A unit of 30 infantry. Fireball!”
  • Thieves can sneak into the enemy command tent and kill a few officers or poison the enemy’s water supply.
  • Bards can do everything from keep watch, maintain morale, demoralize the enemy, secure the supply lines, and pass along orders.

Each PC type can do something that will benefit the battle, and make *all* the players heroes.

No Plan Survives Contact With The Enemy

Not everything goes according to plan. There will be ambushes, underhanded tactics, elite bands of enemy soldiers magically teleporting into courtyards, and the ever-happy feeling of watching the battle from the castle walls only to realize that those steadily-growing dots on the horizon are dragons.This will keep the battle from becoming stale.

Fighters are suddenly flanked by enemy units, mages suddenly have their spells countered, and the solo ranger might be misled to ambushing the enemy’s reinforcement wagons rather than their supply train. Nothing adds more fun to a game than uncertainty.

Dying Is For The Stupid

This being a discussion on Cinematic mass combat, I’d like to make things clear: dying is for the stupid. If your fighter constantly ignores your paladin’s pleas to, “fall back before it’s too late” even if his men are dead and he’s in the middle of the opposing army then there’s something wrong. Perhaps you could help give him a few moments to try and make a run for it, but if he ignores those…then perhaps the PC will be better off dead.

If not because of the impossibility of saving him, then for the added shock value it will have for the other players.Sure it might not be fair to the player of the fighter, but five different second chances are more than enough. Be sure to make his death as heroic as possible to help soften the blow (think Boromir). The player of the fighter will be proud of his epic demise at the end. This will also make the other players jumpy as death is something that’s suddenly become a little too real. A win-win situation on my book.

Time is Crucial to Victory

The last tip for running Cinematic Mass Combat is setting a time limit. This is crucial for players who are in the Zoomed Out lens more than the others, as their decisions have major effects on the battle. If a player is ever stuck in a moment of indecision, give them a five second count. If no response is given in time, then the situation goes unchecked and he’ll have to live with the consequences of his indecisiveness.Watching allies get mowed down by the barn-sized golem summoned by the enemy mage, just because you didn’t know whether to tell your men to shoot with their bows or try to dispel the summoning by yourself is never a happy experience.

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A Different Perspective On Ancient Ruins

From Johinsa

“This place is not a place of honor. No highly esteemed deed is commemorated here. Nothing valued is here. This place is a message and part of a system of messages. Pay attention to it! Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.”I found this site today, and while it isn’t exactly gaming- related, it started me thinking. The page is http://www.halcyon.com/blackbox/hw/wipp/wipp.html and is the website of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a disposal site for nuclear waste.

The task of the experts involved in this project was to design a marking system for the site that would still be understandable after 10,000 years (the projected lifetime of the waste).This seemed like a fascinating idea to me. So often in games we have players run across ancient tombs, ancient religious sites, lost cities, etc., and this page provides a really neat look at some of the problems involved.

  1. “Each component of the marking system should be made of material(s) with little intrinsic value. The destructive (or recycling) nature of people will pose a serious threat to the marking system.”Other people have probably been here before the PCs. Be they grave robbers, other curious explorers, or just peasants who’ve settled some unclaimed land, the site is not going to be undisturbed. If something valuable is known to be there, people will come looking for it. Less obviously, even if there’s no great treasure known to be there, people might well cart off bits of the place anyway; an abandoned city makes a very convenient stone quarry. If people have done this, there might not be much left of the place for the PCs to explore. If they haven’t done this, there’s probably a reason why not, whether it’s marauding undead, superstition, or just the fact that the locals don’t build with stone.
  2. “These standing stones mark an area used to bury radioactive wastes. The area is __ by __ kilometers (or __ miles or about ___ times the height of an average full-grown male person) and the buried waste is __ kilometers down.”Systems of measurement change; try reading the King James Bible and figuring out how big things are. Even in context, you can only get a general sense of things. Warnings using measurements that the PCs can’t decipher exactly could be a neat way to generate tension (“Danger! These tunnels unstable, next twelve daywalks!”) or perhaps a puzzle that needs to be solved by logic or experimentation.
  3. “Do not destroy this marker. This marking system has been designed to last 10,000 years. If the marker is difficult to read, add new markers in longer-lasting materials in languages that you speak.”If the civilization that built these ruins lasted a long time, its monuments may have been “updated” to reflect cultural changes. This may have changed the meaning of signs and inscriptions, either accidentally (through bad translation) or deliberately (perhaps the king buried here fell out of historical favour, so the list of his accomplishments was considerably shortened?).Clues that the PCs need to solve some mystery may have been altered in the intervening centuries. Puzzles that are language-dependent may no longer be solvable by anyone but classical scholars. Even if the words seem the same, they could have acquired different meanings over the years, or perhaps they have some meaning in the local idiom that PCs from another region might not understand.
  4. “We decided against a large radiation symbol prominently displayed on a marker lest the potential intruders take a quick reading, find nothing more than background radiation, and ignore the rest of the message.”Perhaps some of the traps are no longer active, or were designed to trap something other than the PCs’ species. Finding traps that are inactive, obvious, or not particularly threatening could lull the PCs into a false sense of security, setting them up for quite a shock when they blunder into the next level of traps, ones that *are* specifically designed for them.
  5. “We did decide to include faces portraying horror and sickness… Such faces would relate to the potential intruder wishing to protect himself or herself, rather than to protect a valued resource from thievery.”What sort of warning symbols are present? Do they mean the same thing to the PCs–or have the same impact–that they would for the people who originally built the structure? A human figure with a stern expression and one hand raised, palm outward, may convey the message “Stop!” to us, but how can we know what it would mean to people ten centuries from now? Alternately, would pictograms devised by the Spider People be even remotely comprehensible to PCs of the standard races?
  6. “What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger… The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours.”Many of the abandoned sites the PCs will encounter, such as ancient temples and lost cities, were at one time in common use. Why were they abandoned? Does the reason for their non- use still persist? If the town was stricken with plague and evacuated, this is probably no longer a threat once the bodies have decomposed. If the temple contains an imprisoned demon, it could be dangerous indefinitely.
  7. “The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.”What level of disturbance will cause the danger to appear? Just entering the area? Walking on the surface? Digging and excavating? Living there for a substantial period of time? Perhaps the site is only dangerous in certain seasons, or during certain phases of the moon, or in specific years.There’s a lot of interesting stuff on this website, and it could provide some great story ideas. I suspect I’ll never look at ancient ruins in quite the same way…

Announcing A New Book Series
GM Mastery A Collection Of Game Master Help Books

Our first book: NPC Essentials is a collection of tips, techniques, and aids designed to help game masters inject detailed NPCs into any role-playing campaign. Inside, readers will find advice on designing, role-playing, and managing NPCs during the entire lifetime of their campaigns. Also included are NPC archetypes, charts, and an example NPC-centric adventure. Written by that hack writer Johnn Four. Now available!



As a special bonus to Roleplaying Tips subscribers, all orders from The Hero Factory get a free item from our secret Resurrection page! This month we are featuring some rare Planescape and Shadowrun materials, along with T1-4, Q1-7, Rary the Traitor, and The Complete Book of Necromancers!


Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Playing In A PBEM Game Tip

From Michael Kenner

Something I have found useful when playing in a PBEM game, where responses are often a week apart, is to cover not just my character’s immediate actions but also to try and communicate his overall plan to the GM. This way, the GM can assume my actions, if necessary, which can save a lot of back and forth emails.

Here is an example from an Amber PBEM game that I played in:

“Tobias runs towards the creatures feigning an attack at one of them. At the last moment he shifts to the side trying to run between the creatures. He will attempt to get to the window without fighting either of the creatures. Once there he will jump out the window and use the motion to fall through the shadows in a hellride, shapeshifting into a hawk and pulling up before he hits the ground. He will then continue to travel through shadow randomly for several hours in the hopes of evading any pursuit.”

In an email such as this I make a lot of assumptions, the main one being that I succeed in getting past the creatures and if I do that I will get out the window, and another being that my idea of falling through shadow will work as well as walking through it. Describing my actions for the next few hours after that is optimistic at best. As this was a weekly game however, if I covered actions one by one, then that same plan would take over a month to communicate.

Another technique is to use contingencies, thinking of all the possible results of your action and describing what your character would do in each of them. Even if the result was one you would have never thought of, you will hopefully have expressed your character’s thoughts well enough for the GM to anticipate your actions and assume them if he needs to.

Obviously, whenever people make assumptions such as these the other person may object, but if only 20% of these assumptions are wrong then 80% of the time your game will still be moving on faster than if you waited a week for each action that your character undertakes.

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IRC Tips

From Rexides

I live in a small town with a nearly non-existent role playing community (it’s just me and my 10-year-old brother) so my only role-playing experience so far is with IRC.

I read the last article, and I decided to share my wisdom on the matter:

  1. Even if you are on IRC, you are still not talking in real time. There is the time lag demon that can ruin a good planned session. The worst thing is when players interrupt the GM in the middle of an important description. They don’t mean to, but the lag demon made them think the GM was finished.To solve the problem, when the GM was typing descriptions, he would put an “$” character in front of every line. This worked like a “stop” sign, and really helped.
  2. Off topic discussion is a real menace in IRC rpgs. At a table, if a player says a funny remark, it just disappears the next second, no harm done. In IRC, it stays on the screen, and it can be really annoying. So, we all enter another chat room for off-character discussion, keeping the important role playing dialogue in the main game room.
  3. A nice thing about IRC is that you can change your nickname at will. When the GM is playing an NPC, it helps if he changes his nick to the NPC’s name. Just look at this:
    <Rexides_DM>Johan says he will follow you. Nice, but look at THIS: <Johan>I will follow you. It helps get the players into their characters and then they too will start acting in character.
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Use Thesaurus.com To Generate Thematic Names

From Seph G.

I’d like to share this website: Thesaurus Dictionary

It’s an excellent resource for generating names for specific themes. Just type in a word and use the synonyms–some of which are not commonly used in the English language. This method also inspires excellent names for cities and towns.

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Online Weather Tool

From David Reeder

This is a cool site for gamers and referees. It generates random weather tables with reports on daily high temperatures, low temperatures, precipitation, wind speed, and special weather conditions.