5 Tips For Sci-Fi Campaign Preparation

From Jonathan Hicks

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0181

A Brief Word From John 1 & 2

Voting Has Begun!

The voting has opened for the ENnies at ENWorld. My book, NPC Essentials, is up for a Game Aid award. Even if you don’t intend to vote for the book (gasp!) please swing by the site and support your favourite products. The voting ends Sunday, so there’s not much time left.

Here’s the link: EN World Tabletop RPG News

Early Issue

It slipped my mind that I have a wedding to attend this weekend, so I’m shooting this somewhat shorter issue out a bit early. While the ceremony will be most enjoyable, of course, I’ll be profiling the guests for NPC inspiration for my campaign as well as taking mental notes about the event in general. While I don’t expect a hoard of undead to crash the party, it never hurts to be observant.



A long time ago, in a basement far, far away…

Back in the old days, Dragon Magazine, the TSR house organ, used to publish much more than just D&D stuff. You could be charitable and call them eclectic, but ‘unfocused’ was probably more accurate! About 25 years ago, they included a fun, tongue-in-cheek board game for 2 players called “The Awful Green Things from Outer Space.” When our D&D group couldn’t all get together, or if we just wanted something different, we’d play a variety of games; Awful Green Things was one of the favorites.

It seems like it didn’t matter who my opponent was, or what strategy I used, or whether I played the side of the awful green things or the spaceship crew, I *always* lost. Usually it was quick and painful. As I was nearing yet another defeat, one of the lookers-on burst out laughing and said “John, you must be the worst Awful Green Things player of all time!”

I ruefully accepted the title and it stuck with me for as long as we gamed together. So what’s your most embarrassing gaming moment, huh?

John C. Feltz [email protected]

“It’s a GAME MECHANIC, not reality!”

5 Tips For Sci-Fi Campaign Preparation

To be fair, there are plenty of ideas in this article that GMs playing any genre can use to help prepare for their all- important campaign, but the idea of this is to aid GMs new to the sci-fi genre and perhaps the realm of campaign building as a whole.

Sci-fi opens up so many opportunities for setting and scope that the sheer numbers of plot ideas cannot be covered by a single article. This short list covers the basics and throws a few suggestions around as far as the preparation goes for things such as locations, NPC creation, and game pace.

You Are Here: Gaming Within Your Chosen Setting

So, you’ve got the plot idea and the story germinating in your head, but where to set it? You have a choice, a large choice, but as a GM, you have to be familiar with your chosen setting. That’s a given.

In addition, not only must you be familiar with the setting, you must also be aware of its limitations. The limitations of the setting means the boundaries covered within the game that you may be restricted to.

A certain choice of setting or system may limit you to one planet or one solar system, but always be aware that you are the GM, it’s your game and you are well within your rights to break those boundaries and go further. It may also make a nice surprise for the players to be allowed that amount of free rein within a game they thought constrictive.

As a first-time GM, it may be wise to stick to the boundaries of the game, as then you’re within the area you know and some of the pressure is off as you concentrate on what you have. The course of the campaign should help to keep the players on track as they follow the plot. Players can be unpredictable though, so at least be prepared to improvise with a couple of ideas in case they leave the course of the game.

The Game: Using And Implementing The Rules

There won’t be much of a game if you don’t know much about the rules, so make yourself aware of all the rules that will matter to you the most.

Using Rulebooks

For clarity, highlight certain sections you think may be necessary, and for ease of reference place titled bookmarks in the pages of the books you are using. This saves you having to flip to certain areas, slowing the pace of the game. So make sure you have bookmarks ‘Combat’ or ‘Skill List’ at the pages you need.

Use Of Initial Rules

Try to keep dice rolls to a minimum for the first game or two as you settle into the role of GM. If you do have to get into a lot of dice rolling, take it slowly and calmly. Many first-time GMs tend to panic when an action sequence heats up. They feel that taking their time or searching for rules in books will slow the game down and ruin the atmosphere. Don’t be concerned about that.

As a first-time GM, the players will be aware that a little time will be needed to settle in. GMing the same rules that you have previously played in will make things easier, as you will already be aware of the system and know most of what will be required.

Using Different Rules Within The Game

Sci-fi games are usually more complicated rules-wise than fantasy or contemporary games. Not only do the rules encompass the world and all its peoples, they often have to cover different weapons types, starship capabilities, and a variety of ground and airborne vehicles. Not to mention the possibility of psionics or pseudo-magic. To deal with these, and to not overload yourself in the first gaming session, try to space out the different aspects of the game across the first few adventures.

In the first game, deal with fist fights and maybe ranged combat, coupled with skill use and any of the run-of-the- mill game mechanics. The next game, insert a bit of vehicle combat or use, building up the encounters so that you can use a different aspect of the rules. Then you’ll be confident in going all the way up to starship stuff and the rules encompassing larger things. Don’t just throw them in, make them part of the plot so that the game flows along with the learning curve. This way, you can get used to the rules and build the game to a satisfactory climax, with lots of different things happening.

Choosing Which Rules To Use

Don’t be afraid to disregard certain rules if you cannot fully come to grips with them in the first one or two games. There may be a complicated chart or interpretation that slows down the action, and if the roll isn’t too important then just roll the dice, don’t look at them, and adjudicate things in favour of the PCs. This fudging shouldn’t be repeated too often, as the players will feel that chance is no longer a part of the game and that the GM is deciding on success and failure. This should mainly be used when the game comes to a standstill because of a ruling.

After the game, read and re-read the section you became stuck on, set up some examples with NPCs, and make the rolls yourself several times until the rule is clear in most circumstances. This can lead to the use of ‘House Rules’, modified rules that are used within your particular gaming group. But don’t make that a priority at the moment. Try to use the rules as printed and see if you’re comfortable with them.


Designing and fleshing out NPCs can be a long, drawn-out prospect when designing the campaign. The details of NPC design could be covered in a huge tip all of its own. But what about all those smaller characters the PCs may come across in the course of the game that you never allowed for?

There are two ways to handle this:

  • Design Stock Characters
    There are a lot of NPCs of varying skills, so designing those ones that the PCs may come across during the course of their adventure may be a good idea. The merchants, bodyguards, specialists, and average citizens will be everywhere, and the PCs will ignore most – they might ask some simple questions but that’s it.

Having a few stock NPCs with the basics listed for their personality and skills may be a good idea if you see the game going in a certain direction and you need someone to get the PCs back on track, or to accompany them on their new course. A stock NPC will have limited details, but will have all the important statistics needed to run the game. Some games have Character Templates within their rulebooks, so a lot of the work may be done for you already.

  • Using NPC Lists
    The second way to handle NPCs is to create three lists:
  • Templates covering trades and skills
  • A list of male and female names
  • A brief personality note

When the PCs come across an NPC and it looks as though the NPC may become a permanent fixture, take a template, choose a name and a personality, and that’s it: instant NPC. The great thing about it is, once you’ve created the lists, you can use them forever, even in future campaigns. This also means that any holes you may have left in your initial campaign design can be instantly plugged.

Using Index Cards And Filing Systems

A great way to keep track of all those NPCs, even the off- the-cuff ones you created using the lists, is by writing the details of the NPC on a filing card or a single sheet of paper and placing it in alphabetical order in a filing box or folder. This makes life much easier when you need to find the NPC. Filing cards are especially good because you can flip through the box to the desired NPC. This cuts out the long-winded searches for misplaced characters and reduces the amount of clutter in front of you.


The PCs will probably be jetting off to one place after another, and the fact is, in a sci-fi game, they can usually get to where they’re going pretty quickly.Make sure you have the main locations created and detailed, but also ensure you’ve got some fall-back locations in case the players go in the wrong direction or decide to head off to rest, recuperate, and plan their next move. To do this, create a few stock locations, from a normal everyday shelter and the surrounding area, to huge cities, to generic space stations.

Design the locations so they can fit into any environment so that continuity isn’t disrupted. By this I mean you should be able to slip the location into any environment, be it forest, snow, or desert. This is a necessity, as sci-fi games usually cover longer distances faster than any of the normal fantasy genres. In fantasy the GM has the luxury of being able to stretch out the long journeys between locations, stalling until the next game so he or she can design the place the PC’s are heading for.

In sci-fi games, it’s usually a flick of a switch and ? pop ? there they are. Having several locations designed and ready is a good idea. You can just grab one, change it to suit the environment the players are headed for, and put it in place. With your NPC lists, it should make creating a location easier, either off-the-cuff during the game or in advance of a session.

Common Problems

There will be a few problems a new GM may come across in their first few games. Here are a few pointers to help you through it.

  • Don’t panic! Try to keep yourself calm and think through everything that challenges you clearly and methodically. Pace it out, don’t try to handle everything all at once. Before the game starts, let the players know that you’re still settling into your role. Never forget that if it’s a completely new system, the players will be as confused as you are. It’ll be a learning experience for all of you.
  • Try to keep your GM’s area tidy. Notes and papers and scraps of info hurriedly written down can make things difficult, and clutter can get in the way. If you need something quick, and there’s all kinds of scrap lying about, it’ll make things harder for you.
  • Don’t let the players control the game. If it is a system you’ve played but not GMed, don’t always listen to the players’ interpretation of the rules as it will almost always lean in their favour. Check and double check rules either during or after the game, but don’t dwell in the books. If you think the ruling may take a while to check out, make a fast decision and then check on the ruling after the game is finished.
  • On the flipside, don’t be afraid to ask for a little help from anyone who may know the rules better than you. This is especially true if one of the players is a former GM. When you hit a snag or a problem, a quick word or piece of advice from the players may help push things along.
  • If you get to a point where you are stumped, just hold up your hands and call a timeout while you figure out the problem. The players will be a lot more appreciative that you stopped the proceedings to smooth things out properly rather than blundering through and hoping things would sort themselves out.
  • Don’t push the players in the direction you want them to go. A gentle guiding hand with scraps of information, clues, and leads should be all they need to follow your game. Make sure you always have at least the illusion of free will. Blatantly pushing them along a set path can frustrate the players.
  • The players are part of your roleplaying group. They are not your enemy, so don’t treat them as such. If all you want is a simple combat simulator then you should be playing a wargame, not a roleplaying game. GMs are not there merely to throw the players into death-dealing battles and traps, but rather to supply an enjoyable adventure and gaming experience. Don’t be out to get them.
  • Try to be fair and consistent with each player, and be attentive to each of them. You don’t want players feeling ignored or picked on, so try to spread your attention equally between them.
  • Most important of all – be prepared! Make sure you have your plot notes, locations, characters, ideas, maps, dice, books, sheets and all the other stuff you’ll need present and accounted for.

Take a deep breath and get in there. Don’t be thrown if the players decide to go off in different directions or miss leads. Go with the flow. If the players are enjoying a certain aspect, go with it. If you see they’re not too impressed, then don’t try to force the issue. Veer off in a different direction instead. As long as the story isn’t unduly affected by the change of course, then things should be fine. If it does go so far off track, then don’t force the players back on path. Move the story slightly to intercept the player’s path and draw them back into it.

“If you’re a DM and running a D&D game,
you should have this book. Period.”
~Monte Cook, from his first perfect 10 review

A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe has been praised like no other d20 supplement. Its content is up for three ENnies awards, including Best Setting Supplement. Pick up your copy today at www.exp.citymax.com or www.rpgmall.comand you’ll agree: it is simply the best.


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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!

100 Items Found In An Abandoned Mine

From the GMMastery list

  1. Broken pick
  2. Rusty shovel
  3. Broken lantern
  4. Small nugget of <mineral>
  5. Rats
  6. Turned-over ore cart
  7. Shards of glass
  8. Burnt out torch
  9. Filthy rags
  10. Broken beam
  11. Abandoned helmet/hardhat
  12. A bone!
  13. A rusty spoon
  14. Sharp rocks
  15. A piece of rope
  16. A hole
  17. A dead canary
  18. A broken bird cage
  19. Candle stumps
  20. A broken chain
  21. Rusty wheel barrow
  22. Wooden lockers
  23. A boot
  24. Hole covered with planks
  25. Puddle of filthy water
  26. Rats’ nest
  27. Snake’s shredded skin (perhaps a really big one)
  28. Rusty old tinder box
  29. Scorch marks
  30. Oil spill
  31. Simple wooden crane
  32. Broken ladder
  33. Piece of old rope
  34. Old water skin
  35. Bucket and ladle for water
  36. Broken old table
  37. Old abacus (used for tallying wages)
  38. Half a copper coin
  39. Old blood
  40. A barrel
  41. Boxes
  42. Rotten fruit in a box
  43. Water trough
  44. Animal pens
  45. Rickety scaffolding
  46. Small cupboard
  47. Long table
  48. Manually powered lift (block tackle and rope)
  49. Air shaft
  50. Rusty old steel grill
  51. Key
  52. Map of tunnels (old and almost impossible to make sense of)
  53. Journal of a miner
  54. Production notes in leather bound books on shelves
  55. Guide to safe mining practices (book)
  56. Duty roster
  57. Old padlock
  58. Locked chest (inside is an expensive scale)
  59. Wooden cup
  60. Chalk (used for marking walls)
  61. Narrow tunnel or crevice leading down
  62. Old cave paintings (origin unknown)
  63. Small cave-in
  64. Leather map of tunnels hanging on a wall in a wooden frame
  65. Shredded whip with blood stains
  66. Tool rack
  67. Warning sign that the tunnels ahead are unsafe
  68. Symbols on the walls painted there to tell miners where to dig next
  69. Broken stalagmites and stalactites
  70. Hay
  71. Cloth dust mask
  72. Gloves
  73. Torn fabric from a jerkin
  74. Roots from a huge tree above
  75. Mushrooms (eat don’t eat?)
  76. Sawdust
  77. Carpenter’s tools
  78. Smith’s tools (rudimentary)
  79. Horseshoe (small, for a mule)
  80. Nails
  81. Small animal’s skull
  82. A turned-over handcart
  83. A few feet of cart-tracks
  84. Bats
  85. Rusty old air filtration machine (mechanical or magical)
  86. An underground stream
  87. An ancient magical artifact–broken
  88. Mementos from the last miners
  89. Bits of clothing from the last miners
  90. Bits of the last miners!
  91. Broken mirror
  92. Broken pair of glasses
  93. A rickety wooden cage in an old shaft
  94. Moldy cheese and weevilly biscuits
  95. A broken block and tackle
  96. Cracked ceramic chamber pot
  97. A swarm of insects
  98. Cask of old wine, now very vinegary
  99. Broken dagger
  100. A letter home never finished
Graphic of section divider

Thorns and Roses for Post-Session Review

From Andrew

Re: RPT#178 – 5 Post-Session Player and Campaign Development Tips

One thing I find has worked very well in my roleplaying is to do “thorns and roses.” This is where every single player and the GM state something good and bad about the game. I got the idea from Boy Scouts and have used it routinely for several years now. This allows everyone to see what people want and don’t want from the game. It has helped out our current campaign immensely, allowing two of us to see how destructive our side-talk is without there being a nasty fight about it.

Just my $.02 usd.