6 Techniques For Maintaining Player Interest

From Keith Earley

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0160

A Brief Word From Johnn

NPC Essentials Is At Game Stores Now!

My eBook has made it to print! More info below in the Shameless Self Promotion section.

This Week’s Article

Amongst all the game planning, design work, and game session preparation, a busy GM sometimes forgets to check-in with their players to ensure they’re still interested and excited about playing.

Keith’s article this week has some good ideas about creating interesting games, but his article can also serve a great checklist for those mid-campaign workhorse games to ensure you’re keeping things entertaining. Enjoy!

New Articles Posted At GMMastery.com

I’m the “article posting guy” at the GM Mastery site, so I thought I’d let you know several cool new articles have been posted there:

  • The Big-City Guard – A Cityscape d20 article By John Simcoe
  • Riddles and shields – A Tome of Troubles d20 article By Justin Gasal
  • Rewarding Your Players – By Doug Lochery



Johnn Four
[email protected]

6 Techniques For Maintaining Player Interest

It’s going to happen in the best of campaigns…the slowdown in intensity, the acceptance of the “set” adventures, or just a lack of general enthusiasm for the game, that only a few months before was the talk of the local gaming circuit. The following ideas should help you keep the interest flowing in a group, especially one that’s been together for awhile, both in and out of game:

PC Motivation

This may be the most direct method for keeping the game flowing and alive. Focusing on one or more of the PC’s personal interests alone can provide for a new direction in a group.A few questions you may want to ask yourself or them are:

  • Why was the group formed in the first place?
  • Do they have any common interests?
  • Is there a long-term goal in mind for them?

An example of this would be in a newly formed band of adventurers who just happened to have been hired by a local merchant as Cartographers. Not only was this fledgling group given great adventuring opportunities, but they also had the added incentive to go out and explore previously undiscovered areas of the local terrain.

PC Background

The second method to bring a group back into the game is to focus on a PC’s background. How an adventurer came into his or her own in their chosen profession gives the player a good chance to delve into the character while giving his or her companions an adventure or two to follow along the way.For example, a fighter whose village was wiped out by orcs when she was young and who subsequently fled into the bordering elven woods.

She was later adopted and trained in the ways of an orc-slayer…this not only helped get the campaign off to a good start when they began the adventure exploring her abandoned village, but also established her as a very, very scary combatant to her enemies later on in the game.

PC Dynamics

Another method to keep things going would be to explore PC interactions and group dynamics: love, tension, loyalty, friendship, even conflict at times. All of these help make the group what it truly is and can be used to keep them glued to the gaming table, waiting for the next dice roll that could influence their relationships.Some examples of this would include:

  • The friendly rivalry between a fighter and ranger on how to truly destroy your enemies while wielding two swords
  • An almost brotherly relationship develops between the monk and druid in the group, especially after the monk starts teaching the other some defensive techniques
  • An all-out rescue attempt when the sorceress of the group is abducted by a former “love interest” who is now a dangerous mercenary.

Atmospheric Changes

Sometimes the problem isn’t with the group but with the overall feel of the game. This can be resolved by a simple change in tempo or mood for a session or two. This helps the PCs change and adapt from “The Same Old, Same Old”.A good example of this was in a group getting bored and complacent with the way the campaign was heading. This changed with the sudden re-appearance of a major villain who managed to force them into a dimensional gate, sending them to a very evil pocket dimension.

This dimension was broken up into several smaller holdings each held by its own faction.Just getting out of this dimension cost them dearly, as one of the adventurers got left behind, buying time for his companions to escape through an exit portal. The return trip to this dimension to bring the adventurer home was a long time coming, which was greatly appreciated by the player when it happened.


You can have a great group, incredible story line, even the best dice set ever, and it will all crumble to pieces if you present it in a monotone that will make even the most enthusiastic player, who just downed a double-espresso, fall dead asleep at the table. This is not saying that you need to become a professional actor, but try to keep it interesting and exciting. Make the game your own true creation and it will show to your group.This can be accomplished with even a simple exchange between a PC and a local merchant or barkeep.

Actually stand up, get out from behind the screen, and really play out the encounter. Shake the player’s hand as you introduce yourself as a humble dealer of goods and services, pick up a cup and towel from the kitchen, and act like you’re closing up shop for the evening, or ask the PC “What will it be, my friend”?You can even look with disdain at the dwarf or elf player and state “We don’t serve your kind in here”. Giving an occasional boost to even the most mundane situation can help wake those bored players up.


Maybe the most important way to keep a campaign and the player’s interests going is in the plotline. A great theme or idea can carry a group through thick and thin, good and bad times, personal triumph and tragedy.A plotline can be simple or complex, one base idea, or a string of inter-connected plots that weave and entangle the players as they delve deeper and deeper inside it.Here you need to be careful, and “gauge” your players. If they want a major land war, forcing them to deal with intrigue in the local lords’ court week to week simply will not work. Running a game that both you and your players want to play in can keep a group together for weeks, months, or in the case of my group, even years.

Good continuity can breathe life into games all by itself at times and help things along almost naturally.A game doesn’t have to be an exercise in frustration; it needs to be fun for everyone involved. After all, this is why we all play in the first place, right? Make the game as fun and interesting for everyone, and the experience and results will be that much greater, maybe becoming the stuff of future gaming legends.

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Keith Earley is the creator of The World of Elkor. http://www.fantages-studios.com(under the Genesis Product Line, look for “Elkor”).

Fantages Studios is a site that highlights a few D20 System gaming supplements that are sold online. The site’s been up and running for almost a year now, and has several links inside for a variety of interests.

The World of Elkor is the first published gaming supplement by Keith Earley, who has been playing Role-Playing Games for over two decades. Published under the Genesis Product Line of Fantages Studios, he hopes that this is the first of many successful publications for him.


NPC Essentials Is Now In Print!

Woohoo! My first RPG book is hitting game store shelves as we speak. Now I’ve got something to set coffee mugs on, hold windows open, and prop-up lopsided table legs with. Cool.

What’s interesting is that the publisher and I decided to publish it in Pocketbook format. That means it’ll fit in your pocket like a regular paperback. It’s a bit of a risk, I guess, producing “a book that’s not like the others”, but I personally felt it suited the content much better.

I packed NPC Essentials with tons of fluff-free tips and advice, and it definitely has lots of meaty text. So, I felt it was more of a read and re-read on-the-go book than a game table reference. Therefore, we made the book convenient and portable so you can take it anywhere and read it during the gaps of your busy life.

When you buy the book, let me know what you think of the format. I’m currently writing Book #2, so your opinions will definitely count.

Book ordering options:

Online at my RPGShop.com store ($13.46): http://www.roleplayingtips.rpgshop.com/

Through your Friendly Local Game Store (International):
Title: NPC Essentials
Publisher: RPGObjects
ISBN: 0-9724826-3-6

Supporting and ordering through your FLGS is a big help actually. In the weird world of RPG book publishing, game store requests make the distributors take the book seriously and stock it up.


If you are a GM who can’t stand their campaigns made up of loose sheets of paper that possess the unique ability to get lost just when you need them, MyInfo will help you put an end to it!

MyInfo for Windows makes organizing campaigns, adventures, NPCs, and sites easy. Search for any information fast. All you have to do is convert your ideas into entertainment for you and your players.


[Comment from Johnn: Milenix didn’t pay me to say this, but I thought I’d chime in and say that I’ve been using MyInfo for gaming, work, and personal organization for over a year now. I vouch for their software.]

Tips Request: Game Master’s Book Shelf

Expanding on last week’s Tips Request for GM reading materials (non-fiction), why don’t we put together a list of cool reference books every GM should have in their bookshelf?

To make this list useful, send along:

  1. Title and author
  2. Publisher and date of publication (if known), availability (if known)
  3. Brief description of contents.
  4. Relevance/usefulness to RPGs

Send your book recommendations to [email protected] and, with Neil Faulkner’s help, we’ll put them in a freebie Supplemental Issue.


Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Another 6/666 Tips For GMing A Group Of Evil PCs

From Marin S.

They Needn’t Be Evil

At first, this headline looks like a bit of a contradiction, considering that you’re planning to GM an EVIL campaign, after all. But look at it like this: evil people rarely think of themselves as being evil. Hardly anyone could stand being truly evil and having to face it. Thus, especially in settings that don’t espouse the classic fantasy view of Good versus Evil (watch the capitals there), it might be worth a try to ask your players about their ‘non-evil’ motivation.

Look, for example, at the brilliant scientist who is on the way to find the Ultimate Cure For Each And Every Disease… but who would kill babies (or competitors) without a second thought because he’s working for the ‘Greater Good’ (capitals, again). This Greater Good makes for an excellent excuse for Not-Exactly-Evil characters — to make an omelette, after all, you have to break a few eggs.

This is what these tips are all about: moral ambiguity and how to exploit it for your evil groups.

Different Systems Of Good And Evil

“One man’s fun is another’s hell”, so they say. And if you look around human society, you’ll probably see a lot of people considering a lot of other people as evil; this seems an inevitable effect of clashing cultures. An “evil” PC might be evil simply by virtue of him following a certain philosophy or belonging to a certain group that’s considered unclean or otherwise evil by the majority of your game world.

Take, for example, the Teragen from White Wolf’s “Aberrant” roleplaying game. Most people think of the Teragen as an organization of terrorists and super-villains, a kind of ‘Brotherhood of Evil Mutants’ — but in fact, the Teragen is simply a group of super-beings who doesn’t want anything to do with humanity at large, which isn’t that far-fetched a view, considering the Evil Things [TM] humanity has done in the past. Yes, there ARE terrorists and nutcases in the Teragen — but whether the terrorists are a product of the Teragen’s bad reputation or the other way around is just a matter of whom you ask first.

Evil vs. Amoral

“Do what thou wilt”, those were Aleister Crowley’s words. They’re a nice starting point for examining what exactly makes evil — after all, most stereotypic ‘evil’ guys in novels, movies etc. seem intent primarily on harming others, causing havoc, and so on. What about people who simply don’t CARE about other people? What about those who don’t subscribe to the moral codes of either good or evil? Or, differently put, what about those characters who would probably classify as Neutral on the classic AD&D scale?

There may be characters in your group whose morals don’t match either good or evil. There may be characters who are simply unaware of the consequences of what they’re doing. And there may be those who simply don’t care. What to do with them? After all, they’d surely be considered evil by the ‘good guys’ standard. You might want to try having one or two characters who are interested neither in the ‘good’ nor the ‘evil’ side, but simply in their own affairs — they might make for excellent hooks for reflection, temptation or redemption.

When Good Becomes Evil

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, so they say. So, why not have a good character who’s gone bad? I’m not necessarily talking Fallen Paladin here. I’m not necessarily talking Fallen at all! The character might still be pursuing his old good goals, but using means that his former colleagues consider evil. Think, for example, of the monster-hunter who has become a monster himself on his fanatic quest… and yes, the scientist from Tip 1 also fits in here.

A variation on this one is the fallen zealot (okay, okay, I AM talking Fallen here) — a PC who strove for good goals before but for various reasons (internal corruption on the ‘good side’, burnout, temptation, helplessness) fell from those goals, realized their fallacy and is now heading full- power into the opposite direction.

Got an example here, too — think of the monster-hunter again, intent on saving the world and destroying all evil. Some day, he realizes how impossible a goal this is, how unthankful and unjust people are towards him for attempting to tackle it, and how much better the prospects are on the other side of the fence… to which he has already come as close as only nemesis can come to each other.

Evil’s Not Always Fun

Let’s take a completely different direction here — the tragic evil character. As mentioned above, hardly anyone is able to stand looking at themselves and seeing evil… and yet, some people have to. These people don’t do evil things for fun or out of conviction; they do evil out of compulsion, and they’re not necessarily happy about it.

Think, for example, of the guy who does drug runs because the local crime syndicate threatens his family. Think of the poor wizard who has accidentally given over his soul to a demonic overlord who now forces our wizard to commit the most vile atrocities. Think of the ‘murder addicted’ serial killer, the vampire who kills to sustain himself, the brainwashed government soldier… there are numerous examples all over literature and movies.

The Classic: Up-Front Evil

Now, last but not least, I have to include the most obvious thing that comes to most people’s minds when they hear ‘evil’: the monster, who does evil things just for the fun of it. Those are usually people with serious derangements, mental or otherwise. This kind of evil guy not only doesn’t care about other people, he’s already beyond that — he WANTS people to suffer. Keep in mind, though, that very few evil people are actually like this… even though that’s what ‘non-evil’ people make them out to be.

It’s somewhat hard to truly breathe life into this kind of character, quite simply because he’s highly stereotypical. So, even if it’s fun to play a sadistic monster, think of creating a good reason why he is like that — only psychopaths, demon-children and people with a Truly Bad Childhood become this Evil.

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Guide PCs Through Intelligence Checks

From Neville P.

The players themselves are about to take a course of action that is ‘patently stupid’. Something has gone wrong because the GM has run out of chances to provide any extra clues without being accused of railroading, but the characters in- game are meant to have been smarter than this.

I find a useful technique is to heave a long-suffering sigh and ask for Intelligence rolls (or Intuition rolls) all round. Any player who is bored enough to want to be railroaded towards the next chance of some action will happily roll. The rest promptly refocus their thinking without the GM having to say anything further. The mere threat of the dice roll is often enough to shake them out of their current rut and they often realise what the GM was hoping they’d grasp all along — without even having to resort to the dice after all!

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Dream Tips

From Ryan H.

  1. Dream interpretation books are a good resource for symbolism in dreams and give the dream a genuine “random” quality.
  2. Trick the players into thinking the dream/nightmare is real and give them complete control over their characters during the course of the dream. This is a device used in movies all the time where the viewer is lead to believe the dream is reality. This can be fun because as a GM you can get away with all sorts of things that you might not want to do during “real” game play, such as killing the characters in horrible ways, having them get cursed/diseased/etc. At an opportune moment of drama make the characters awake from their dream state. This can be good fun if used VERY sparingly.As a twist, maybe certain effects in the dream state carry over into the waking world: a mortal wound leaves a bruise, a touch from a god leaves the character under the effect of a Bless spell for the next day, etc.
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Adding Flavor To Magic Items

From Mathis B.

I use a special concept in creating magic items for my players. I had the problem that when my group improves their abilities the magic items they possessed were not equal to their special abilities.

Then I got the idea to create items that become better when the PC becomes better. So, the paladin first finds a +1 longsword. When he gets more experience/levels, the sword adjusts to him, becoming a +2 longsword at 5th level, then a +2 sword of holy smite at 10th level, and so on.

You can explain it as the magic item getting some of the spirit of its holder. This helps a player build a connection to his weapon.

Another point is that the PCs can focus on more important things than searching better weapons all the time. It also creates tension not to know what ability the item will show next. And it’s fun to see the PCs running around when the item is stolen.

This idea also functions with other items, such as holy symbols for clerics or wands for wizards.

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Fleshing PCs Out Each Session

From Kelsey

I give each player a note at the beginning of the session asking a question that relates in some way to character development. The idea is that they’ll write it up during times when they don’t have anything to do during that night’s gaming, then give it back before everyone leaves. I ask open-ended questions that usually involve telling me some kind of story. Ones that relate to the PC’s past or inner life.

Some examples are:

  • “Tell me a secret: What don’t you want the other members of the party to know about you?”
  • “Tell me a funny story about your childhood”
  • “Tell me about a childhood hero of yours.”

I’ve found that my players love the questions and often write upwards of half a page. I can see it really adding depth to their characters and it often challenges them to think of their characters as whole people, making it harder to stereotype (the best question for this was when I asked a very Machiavellian and serious character about a funny story from his past) and easier to role play.

I don’t know how well this would work for players who don’t like to roleplay, but you might be able to pull it off with modifications for your group.

[Comment from Johnn: this is a great tip! Thanks Kelsey. What I’d love to see is someone to create a Word doc or HTML doc with 25+ questions formatted for index cards. Then, GMs could print out the cards, keep them in a box, and randomly/specifically select a card for each player each session. Next session, the GM shuffles the cards and distributes them again.]
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Starship Design Tips & Template

From MGCJerry

As I was working on a concept for a space vessel in my game at school, it occurred to me to use a real “fact sheet” as a basis for what *basic* information to provide. This type of information is usually the span, length, height, power plants, top/stall speed, etc. While you don’t need to worry about aerodynamics in space, it should be considered for ships/craft that are capable and/or permitted to land on a planet. Again, the GM can choose if real life physics and/or dynamics are used.

Also, I found another useful reference is an encyclopedia or fact books concerning aircraft. De-classified plane information is helpful too.

I can easily write a 20 page description and technical reference for any of my ships and the technology they can utilize. Some of the details I include are: Name, Make, Model, Developer, Street Price, Designation, First Rollout, Length, Span, Height, Empty Weight, Total Capacity, Life Support, Crew, Weapons, Loaded Weight, Power Plants Info, Systems (sensors, radar, etc), Weapons (defensive, offensive, and countermeasures), Structural Layout (deck count, rooms, room locations, etc), and many other types of info. For each type of descriptive info, I include a couple paragraphs on each item in the category and its upgradability.

Another thing I make my players aware of is the “compatibility” among the manufacturers, and between ships themselves. This includes targeting modules, radar systems, core systems, network systems, communication, etc. Something else I toss in are “older” types of technology long forgotten (nuclear drives is one of them) and older type ships with very high incompatibility with modern technology. I treat all ships the same as the PCs’ ships.

Having different races on a ship surely makes for some interesting encounters relating to sector size, food, and general space attitude. I usually have large cruisers and such have segregated living decks for each type of race, since most of my game’s races generally prefer not to live on the same ship. Also, the race that designed/built the ship should play a major role in the appearance and size. How well would your PCs fit into a ship developed by a race twice your PCs’ size or maybe half their size?

Another thing I toss in is the “repair” shops for smaller ships and large vessels. In my game, I have ships that range in size between an FA-18 and 490 mile long battlecruisers and planet evac/rescue ships. Most of the larger ships are created by races with the technology, and the resources to construct such monsters. I also throw in some structural failures for improper modifications, sub/hyper light engine failures, communication failures, navigation failures, and even complete gravity generator failure could cripple, if not kill, the crew on board.

Customization on a ship is good, but it is up to the players and the GM to find an acceptable limit. One of my players can spend 3 to 4 sessions customizing his ship, and even develop “custom controls”. I generally give him access to engine compression methods, compression ratios, engine customization, and deck customization, among other the things he loves to do, but others get lost in it.

This brings me to my final tip. The core technology used in vessel construction should already be documented by the GM so it is easier for people to remember or keep records of technology they want or will need. I currently have a “pool” of about 50 different technologies (communication, gravity, propulsion, sensors, etc.) and these core technologies are generally known by different names by different races which can make some messy repairs adventures ;). I usually spend about 5-10 times more time on a ship design than an important NPC.

[Johnn: Check out the starship design template MGCJerry created: Manufacturer Type – Ship Name ]