6 More Techniques For Maintaining Player Interest

From Trevor Dreher

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0173

A Brief Word From Johnn

Wilderness Encounter Contest Winners

Thanks to everyone who entered the contest! I’ll be editing and posting the entries in an upcoming issue. The winners were:

Alan M.
Mark M.
Derek M.
Tim R.
Mark K.
Ashley H.
Brian S.
Joseph H.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

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“He hasn’t a single redeeming vice.”
–Oscar Wilde

6 Techniques For Maintaining Player Interest

The group I play with has been RPGing for over 15 years; yup we’re old. After that many weekly 8-10 hour sessions, you would think that we would be bored. Nope. We manage to keep player interest high because we have fun and do a few things right. Here are some of our suggestions for maintaining player interest.

1. Player Backgrounds and Character Sheets

When was the last time you read through your players’ backgrounds or skimmed over their character sheets? This is where the gems lie. Your players will tell you what they would like to see happen to this character.

A few areas to pay particular attention to:

  • Family history: How did the character become what he is today? Does he still keep in touch with his family? I had a character get a surprise message from a father that he believed had been dead for over 10 years. Needless to say he spent a lot of time looking for him.
  • Goals and motivation: Look for the character’s goals. Is it world dominance? To be the greatest warrior, wizard, or pilot? Do they have any unusual personality traits? We had a player in the party that always announced his martial arts move before he attacked and sometimes needed to be reminded when he just rolled the dice. He was always having fun coming up with innovative names for his character’s moves.
  • Read between the lines: If the character’s background is a little light, then fill in some information. Maybe the next person who asks the characters for help is an old childhood friend. If someone has amnesia (a common ailment in my gaming groups), make them sorry for not being more creative. “What do you mean I killed the high prince! I’ve never even meet the high prince… or have I?”
  • Skills and abilities: Does your character have a unique ability or skill that does not often get used? In my Shadowrun campaign I discovered that one of the characters had the troll punk rock bands skill and I made sure that this skill came in handy every once in a while after that.

2. Subplots

Players want their characters to be center stage, of course. But even if they are not always directing the main plot, subplots give everyone a chance to shine. Try to give the players the option of pursuing the subplot rather than forcing them into one.

Some subplot ideas:

  • Romance: This can get overused but it does add a unique element to the game. Sure, they can save the world, but how do they deal with the in-laws?
  • True identity: What if the character is the long lost prince that everyone has been looking for? Introducing this slowly over a few sessions would be very interesting. What does the character have to do to regain the throne?
  • Mistaken identity: What if the character is not actually the long lost prince that everyone has been looking for, but many people think he is? Certain factions may still try to take advantage of this situation.
  • Connections: This can happen from time to time. In Shadowrun, one of the bouncers at a hot club happened to be an old high school buddy of one of the characters, and they got into the club quicker.

Again, allow the characters to choose part of the direction and the zeal with which they pursue the subplot. If a character really does not care that he is a prince, then move on and try something else latter.

3. Handouts, Handouts, Handouts

I think this is the best way to keep player interest throughout a session.

They love to put their hands on:

  • Maps: A player map, with important information missing and/or incorrect, is very good as it gives characters the chance to make choices with them thinking they know what will happen. “We’ll exit the dungeon using the door at the end of the hallway… What do you mean when you say the hallway has collapsed?”
  • Item cards: Develop cards for magic items and other important things that characters use all the time, and give them out to the players. This allows the players to quickly skim the powers of the item. If you find a picture for the item as well, so much the better. Earthdawn has cards for magical items; they help players visualize an item, use it effectively, and make them loath to lose it. It’s one thing to say “erase that item from your character sheet”. It’s another to say “erase that item and pass me back the card”.
  • Legends and journals: Finding an NPC journal is a great way to add interest to an objective the players are currently pursuing, especially if the journal documents that the previous group failed. It introduces mortality without killing any of the PCs and makes them wonder how they will succeed when the last group failed. Legends found or heard may not have anything to do with the players’ current quest but are a great way to plant seeds for future adventures. Hopefully, the players will be so interested that they tell you they would like to go after it.
  • A picture of their target: In Shadowrun, my team had to do a few extractions–taking important people out of hard-to- escape-from places. Providing a handout with a picture and a little bit of background information makes it more interesting. It’s much more appealing to rescue the scientist or princess if the players have a dossier with a picture and some known history of the NPC rather than the GM just reading a description to them.

4. Make Your World Big

As GMs, we often think the players know as much as we do about the world. This is not true in most cases. We read the source books, the novels, and the forums, but the players may not. You need to ensure that your players know how big the world is, that even if they are not doing anything the world goes on.

  • News net: I email my characters monthly news net features in my Shadowrun campaign of events that are happening around the world. Some are future adventure ideas, some are ideas to help solve problems they are facing currently, but most focus on the world around them. My characters in Shadowrun have never been to Japan, but they do see news that comes from there.
  • Gossip: At clubs, bars, or inns, gossip from NPCs is a great way to plant adventure seeds and make your world more vibrant. Gossip in my campaigns is seedier than what you find on the mainstream news. Again, it’s not just local events or events that will affect just the characters, it’s events from around your world.
  • Town crier and town square: In a fantasy setting there should be news from around the world too. Maybe a crier walks the streets at festivals, or the news of the world is posted in the town square for all to read.

5. A Nemesis

The classic idea of the recurring villain can add a lot of life to any campaign. Rather than go with the grand villain that the whole campaign revolves around, such as a dragon or an all-powerful mage, try using a smaller villain over a shorter number of sessions. This helps to keep the characters focused and gives them a sense of accomplishment sooner.

  • Organizations, factions, and cults: While they lack the personal touch, they make very credible villains as they have the resources to thwart the players again and again. Try using a smaller organization that comes back to bite the characters after they thought they had defeated it.
  • Individual: This has the personal touch and can really drive a story line. Again, look to match the group against this person for a few adventures, and then give them the opportunity to defeat him.
  • Friendly competition: Let your group know that they are not the only adventuring group around. They passed through a town that needed their help, but because they had another mission they went through. When they return to help they find it’s just in time to join the celebration because an NPC group helped out. Someone else got the glory. Friendly competition between groups can go a long way to keeping players sharp.

6. Take a Break!

If the players are losing interest, this could be a sign that your interest or intensity is falling as well. Do something else but try to focus on group activities. Perhaps your players just need to get to know each other better and a non-RPG session might be just the trick.

  • Board games: Risk, Monopoly, etc. It’s a completely different pastime but it is a lot of fun.
  • Paintball: A team sport that gets everyone out of house.
  • Console and computer games: Still multi-player, but a departure from the norm.
  • Have someone else GM: Maybe your players just haven’t adjusted to your style. Let someone else give it a try and observe your fellow players. You can always pick up one or two things that you could do better in your own campaign and the break will help keep you fresh.

Remember to make fun the goal of your gaming sessions. Just that outlook alone might be enough to re-spark your players’ interest.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Practical Tips On Winging It

From Tony Budden


The hardest part of being a GM is when your players do something unexpected. Even the most predictable bunch of players will do it sooner or later and you’ll find yourself having to wing it for a while. If you are anything like me, there are times when you haven’t done as much preparation as you should and decide to make it up as you go along. Here are a few tips I hope you find useful.


It’s much easier doing things if you have confidence. When you are GMing, it is important to be fully conversant with a lot of basic stuff about the game system and the PCs so that you aren’t wasting time or energy in worrying about minor points of the rules or what the PCs are capable of.

Learn The Rules, As Much As You Are Able

Nothing breaks the mood of a game more than the GM flicking through a rulebook trying to find an obscure table. Go so far as to practise a few combats before you play if you need to (I find this helps a lot, especially if you use the PCs in these practise fights–it gives you a feel of what the party is capable of). The better you know the rules, the less distracted you will be. This gives you more time and energy to concentrate on winging it.

Listen To Your Players

If you’re going to GM on the fly, you need to use the input your players are giving you. Listen to what they say and act on that interest. I’m not saying pander to what they want, just make sure that they are interested in what’s going on. If you are winging it, using their interest is vital in taking some of the load off of your shoulders.If they have written lots of background for their characters, include it in your story.

This rewards the players for taking an interest and is a ready source of plot hooks. If they seem interested in a minor NPC or plotline during a game, use that interest if you can and develop the plot or the NPC a bit more.Another wonderfully sneaky thing you can do is to use players’ ideas and incorporate them into your plot. If you are listening to your players, they will come up with thoughts and ideas about what is actually going on. Sometimes those ideas are so good it’s worth using them and pretending that the player has cottoned on to “your” plot.

Simply change what you planned slightly to fit in with this version.

For example:

Player 1: “So the dwarves are using molten rock as a weapon. Does that mean they are in league with that fire-elemental guy we met three months ago?”

Player 2: “Oh gosh. I’d never thought of that…”

GM (thinks to self): No, neither had I, but thanks!

Player 1: “Well that makes things much more interesting.”

GM (thinks to self): “You’re not wrong there…”

GM (out loud): “And around the corner walks the fire elementalist.”

Not only does it look like you’ve been plotting this encounter for months, but it also sets you up with a few more hooks and complexities. And all you’ve done is listen and react to a good idea from one of your players–they’ve done the work for you!

Mistakes And Inconsistencies

Remember that you need to exude an air of confidence and “being in control”. This helps to convince your players that you are fair, considerate, and have a reason for doing things. It makes it easier for the players to trust you and concentrate on what is happening story-wise, not on the mechanics of play.One of the most difficult things to do when winging it is to retain consistency. Even simple matters like remembering names of NPCs can be tricky when you’re working off-the- cuff.

Make notes of facts that you are likely to forget. If you are being faced with something that is beyond you, then call a break.So how do you deal with your own mistakes? Well, that really depends upon the situation. Sometimes, it’s so minor you can ignore it (and hope your players don’t spot it). Sometimes it’s something minor but obvious, like getting a character’s name wrong or being confused about which figure is which. Make sure you apologise and correct the mistake immediately.

This maintains your aura of professionalism and assures the players that if you do make mistakes you are willing to correct them.What happens when you make a major blunder is another thing. Be fair, and if in doubt, share the problem with your players. Obviously, the solution is going to depend upon the situation, but options include re-running the adventure from the point you made the mistake, coming up with a good explanation for what happened, or simply re-telling the story with the mistake and its consequences edited out.

The most important thing here is being fair to your players. Don’t make them suffer because of your mistake.If you make a mistake with your plot, you have other options open to you. The easiest is to simply admit it to the players and amend the story. Sometimes this isn’t a practical solution though. A better solution is to work around it if you can. Incorporate these errors into the plot well and they can actually make the plot more interesting.For example, I had one adventure where there were a plethora of NPCs.

Two of the more important ones were supposed to be brothers and the PCs knew this. Unfortunately, when I described the pair to the players, I forgot this little fact. I made them very different. When the PCs investigated this (and I realised I’d made a mistake), it was quite simple to resolve. Instead of amending the description or changing what had happened I added it to the plot. The two were half-brothers. Everyone in the village knew this, but ignored it, out of respect to them and their mother.

Made quite an interesting bit of roleplaying when the PCs challenged them, as the half-brothers got quite upset.

Prevarication, Procrastination, Preparation

One useful thing you can prepare beforehand are some short interludes. These are little encounters or scenes that you can slot into your adventure, either to break up the pace a bit or to fill out when you’ve run out of inspiration. When preparing, try to make them pretty flexible, particularly in regards to location. This will make them much easier to slot into wherever your party happens to be at when you need them.

A few examples of this sort of short interlude:

  • Shopping: If you have a player who doesn’t enjoy their character buying stuff then you are a rare GM. Let the players encounter a shop or a traveling peddler or an underworld supplier. If they are selling stuff the PCs want, then you will get them interested.
  • Stories: There are never enough people telling stories in roleplaying games. I certainly don’t do it enough. The advantages with stories are manifold. First, you get to roleplay an NPC telling something interesting. Secondly, you get to give out background information in an interesting and “realistic” way. Thirdly, you can scatter a few plot hooks in your narrative. For example, get one of your “grizzled veterans” to relate a past adventure, or the local priest to retell a myth, or the bartender to tell a shaggy dog story. All these go a long way towards bringing the world alive and can usefully fill up half an hour of gaming time.
  • Found stuff: Have the PCs find something strange or valuable. Prepare a story about how it got there and who it belongs to, or just put it in and make up the reasons later. It could be an interesting book, an old weapon, the remains of a corpse–anything that will pique their interest.
  • Vignettes: Something I’ve often done is to write a short “adventure-ette”. Something interesting, but not designed to take up much time. Simple episodes, such as catching a small child thieving, or dealing with an aggressive but harmless drunk, are minor challenges for most PCs but can easily lead to bigger plots. For instance, the small child is starving – what do the PCs do about that? Or the drunk is locally quite important–the way the PCs deal with him will have important ramifications later on.
  • Dream sequences: Maybe prophetic, maybe some sort of clue, maybe just a normal dream. They add flavour, and are pretty easy to GM, as the player(s) involved have little control over their actions. All you need to do is to tell them about it. They also have the beauty of being very flexible, as all you need is a sleeping PC!
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When Family Commitments or Prejudices Affect Your Involvement in RPGs

From BT

A question that might be cool to ask your readers is “What do you do when family commitments or prejudices affect your time and involvement in RPGs?”

My solutions are:

  • Reading fantasy novels, although the family budget can limit this.
  • Reading and participation on related websites and boards, such as RoleplayingTips.com and the Kenzerco and Classicbattletech boards–this keeps you abreast of the industry.
  • Play-by-mail and play-by-email games.
  • Maintain the attitude that RPGs were my hobby before, and still are except for some commitments, and that one day they will be again.
  • Stay in touch with your gaming group. I insisted that I be CC’ed on the weekly “where, what, and when” circular. It helped me keep touch with the lads as well as gave me an idea of what was happening. From time to time I’d ask how a session went.
  • Find those rare opportunities to play and grasp them with BOTH hands.
[Question from Johnn: This is a good topic. How have other Tips subscribers stayed in touch with the hobby when conflicts prevent participation, in the short term or long?]
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Protect Your Maps

From Markus

While toying around with various ways to depict battles, I came around to the following solutions and tips:

  • If you print out something, protect your investment in ink and paper! I use a lot of free downloadable floor tiles for my games. Laminate them or put them inside clear plastic covers.
  • For those really big maps and mats, like those you get with campaign world boxed sets or magazines, there is a very cheap and good solution. Buy clear plastic protectors in your local art store. They have sizes for storing big drawings. I can get one for around $5 here in Germany; size DIN A1 is bigger than the big Dragon Magazine maps.

Since we’ve used this method of protecting, we haven’t had a single fatal cola-spilling accident so far! And it’s a nice touch to put a Star System map for your Star Wars game on your table–heck, it even protects the table as well!

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Fleshing Out NPCs Using Relationships

From Ruobhe

Re: RPT#169 – 8 City NPC Tips

I think something that should be added when thinking about the 8 City NPCs Tips article in issue 169 is a great tool for fleshing out characters: relationships. Feuds, businesses, and marriages are only some of the relationships that affect how an NPC will react to certain situations. Someone is more likely to give information if the person involved is emotionally tied to him, either by love or hate.

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Dungeon Twist Idea

From Sam A.

A neat dungeon twist–it’s not mine, but it’s great: Have an empty dungeon room with only a gold piece, or something pricey, in the middle of the room, stuck to the floor. Talk about paranoia!