Take 10: Gather Information

From David Newland

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0275

A Brief Word From Johnn

Back From Holidays

It’s good to be back from camping. I had a fun time relaxing and visiting with NPCs, er, family. Thanks for waiting patiently for Issue #275. I’m slowly ploughing through my e- mails – if you e-mailed me recently I’ll hopefully be getting back to you soon.

Take 10: Gather Information

David has written us a great, player-centric article this week. Thanks David. GMs can get good mileage out of it as well:

  • Print out copies for players with PCs who have a gather info type skill but don’t remember or know how/when to use it. New players would especially find David’s examples illuminating and inspiring.
  • For your NPCs. Use this list to help figure out what NPCs would do in certain situations, such as reacting to the new PC presence. Imagine the druid PC’s reaction when he learns from his animal friends that someone has been asking _them_ about the PCs!
  • Encounter generation. Use each tip from the article to create an encounter that the PCs interrupt, spy, or stumble upon.

David has agreed to write a new article about another skill type for players for a future issue. If you have any feedback on this article, we’d love to hear it.


Johnn Four,
[email protected]

Take 10: Gather Information

A character with skills is a character with options. Often overlooked and underused, skills can change the game with a single die roll. Skills add meat to the ability score bones of a character, developing their persona and creating heroes that are memorable and playable. To get beyond the everyday basics of loading up on the usual stealth and perception skills requires a little creative thinking. Presented here are ten ways to use the D20 skill, gather information.

(Note: Since the D20 System is the probably the most prevalent and familiar system to many, this article references D20 skills. The ability to chat up contacts, fish for information, and listen to the word on the street, though, is common to every game system. GURPS players, for example, substitute in streetwise and carousing. Shadowrun players, use negotiation or street knowledge. Fans of the old Alternity system, substitute interview.)

When You Need A Contact

PCs returning with the riches of ancient ruins and monstrous lairs still need to convert booty into hard cash, identify magic items, auction heirlooms, and restock for the next adventure. Gather information can locate jewelers, collectors, fences, mages, antique dealers, or the idle rich. It can also find guides who know the way through uncharted woods, ship captains who will take on passengers, servants with spare keys, scroll scribblers, and friendly guardsmen of the city watch.

When You Need The Latest News

When entering or leaving a city, an adventurer’s lifespan is increased significantly when they know what’s going on around town. An hour spent on the docks might reveal that pirates are operating off the coast. A minor official in the temple quarter might let slip over drinks that the Festival of Raining Frogs parade will be moved up two days. An afternoon at a magic university could produce valuable knowledge about an impending conjunction. News might take the form of future adventure hooks, planted clues, or DM warnings, but it’s always a chance to role-play.

When You Need Another Skill

Mystery-laden adventures can falter under the weight of their own clues if PCs don’t have the right knowledge skills to understand them. With a successful gather information check, PCs can find a local wizard (knowledge arcana), sage (knowledge history, geography), priest (knowledge religion), court official (knowledge nobility), or scalawag (knowledge local) who can interpret the clues for the PCs. This technique also applies to finding folks who can help the PCs with a variety of skills: merchants who will honestly appraise the PCs’ treasure; crooks practiced in forgery; actors adept at disguise; and artisans with craft skills, to name a few.

When You Need To Increase Another Skill Roll

With a successful gather information roll, PCs can learn knowledge that adds situational bonuses to their other skills. Before rolling her perform skill check, a bard should find out what kind of music a crowd likes. Knowing old passwords might help a rogue bluff his way past castle guards. A paladin could learn about the underlying issues of a disagreement she is trying to resolve with diplomacy. Most charisma-based skills, in fact, benefit from a little legwork, as do skills like forgery, search, and sleight of hand.

When You Need To Scout A Location

Gather information is useful for learning about any area, from an entire city to an individual building. Some examples include finding out who are a city’s movers and shakers, which nobles are the wealthiest, what monsters live nearby, where the thieves’ guild operates, when the city watch has its patrols, or why all of a town’s inhabitants have a strange red mark on their hands.

Large, public buildings are excellent targets for a gather information check. Monks know about their monastery, priests their temples, guests their hotel, patrons a library, students their university, and monsters their dungeons. Scouting a location is essential before a heist, a hit, or a rescue.

As an example, let’s say the PCs are on the lookout for thieves who stole a magic ring from them. In their search, the PCs pass by a two story shop in the merchant’s quarter. The DM has information about the building’s function (outwardly a simple haberdashery, but secretly a thieves’ guild safe house), occupants (two salesmen in the front shop, 3 on-the-lam thieves in the back room), schedules (the shop is open from lunch to dusk then the salesmen retire upstairs), and defences (a DC 30 lock is on the back door, but PCs can pose as deliverymen with reams of cloth to get back room access). Depending on their roll, the PCs can learn some or all of this information and be better prepared when the action starts.

When You Can Talk To The Animals

The great thing about gather information is that all it requires is a large enough group to talk to. When there aren’t enough people, try animals. Those PCs with psychic powers or a speak with animals spell can talk to fish and dolphins about sea travel and sea threats; to rats about sewers and dungeons; to wolves about the woods; to camels about the desert; to birds about towers and treetops. Information is only limited by the animals’ intelligence and point of view, but a clever character can still learn a lot about trails, dangers, food sources, weather, monsters, unusual occurrences, and enchanted places.

When You Encounter A Foreign Culture

In the wilderness, there are lost tribes of jungle savages, secretive bands of wild elves, and roaming barbarian clans. When meeting them, the usual course of action is to say, “Take me to your leader.” Leaders, however, have a distressing tendency to have their own agenda and carefully guard the group’s secrets. Ordinary members might not be so tight-lipped. A generous donation of gifts and a good skill roll can provide the PCs with rumors of nearby ruins, knowledge of the local geography, the history of their group, and most importantly, their intentions towards the PCs.

When You Want To Reconnoiter A Dungeon

Many dungeons are just underground towns with humanoid citizens, with the obvious difference that most monsters don’t take kindly to adventurers. With the help of disguise self or polymorph spells, a PC can blend in with the dungeon’s inhabitants and then use gather information to find out about the dungeon’s layout, traps, guard posts, leaders, and treasure.

Don’t forget to look for information outside a dungeon as well. Local experts, local animals, and local tribes might know a lot about a nearby dungeon as well, although the information gained won’t be as nearly as accurate (or as dangerous) as information obtained from a dungeon’s actual inhabitants.

When You’re On The Move

Mass transport means mass opportunities for a gather information roll. Adventurers sometimes find themselves accompanying caravans through the desert, booking passage aboard a ship, or using more exotic forms of mass transport (such as the airships and lightning rail of the Eberron campaign world). In these cases, they would be wise to quiz caravan riders on the lay of the land and the history of their travel companions. Teamsters will know about secured cargoes. Sailors will know about sea charts, pirates, places where stowaways could hide, the ship’s layout, and where the all-important lifeboats are located.

When You’re At A Dead End

When clues are opaque, leads dry up, and there are looks of frustration on the faces of both the PCs and the DM, a gather information check can give everyone a chance to role- play encounters, gain a little more knowledge, and get the adventure back on track.

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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

Use Name Tags

From Matt Butler

Name Tags. Each person playing has to wear one – it takes the fumbling, “Hey, Joe, what’s your character’s name again?” business out of the game, especially when there are new characters (or when just beginning the campaign). Now, no more excuses for not using character names!

These can be the fun “Hello, My Name Is…” variety, cheaply bought in the office supply section of most any grocery store. They can be as simple as a piece of masking tape stuck to the shirt or just a long piece of paper folded over a shirt pocket.

Plus, the GM can wear a different, plot-specific name every week. This keeps the players on their toes wondering when they’re going to finally meet this specific and enigmatic NPC whose name the GM has chosen to wear.

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Form Follows Function

From Matthew Burack

When designing dungeons, building, palaces, and other areas, think about the use for which the place was built. Think about how it is used every day. Think about the needs and abilities of the inhabitants.

Is the “castle” used for everyday living, or as a fall-back defensive position? Is it a palace or a fortress? If it’s used for living, convenience will rule the interior and only the exterior will be oriented on defense. If it’s a defensive fortress, then conveniences will be an afterthought and only in so far as they do not impede defense.

For instance, a living castle may have quite a few different passages leading to the same places, making a virtual maze of corridors so that servants can move about quickly and unseen by VIPs. A defensive one will have very few passages so that the enemy’s forces can be channeled towards strong defensive positions.

Is your “dungeon” really a tomb, a prison, a mad wizard’s testing grounds, or an underground complex that has been overrun by monsters? A tomb has no conveniences and will probably rely on undead guardians, traps, and/or constructs to defend it, as well as having very few branching paths. A prison will have certain conveniences, but it will be laid out so that movement is tightly controlled and it’s harder to get out than in. A mad wizard’s playpen is fair game for anything. This is what old-style dungeons were like – traps and monsters strewn about haphazardly. An overrun complex is designed for one thing but has been converted to another purpose. In this case, you need to think about the original form and design, then think about how that form would be modified by its current inhabitants.

Inhabitants that can climb or fly think differently from walkers. Small creatures build smaller dwellings, large creatures build larger ones. Worlds where gateways, teleportation, or flight are common have to develop ways of dealing with this. Fireballs and lightning bolts also present unique challenges to designers if they are commonly used in assault. “The Stronghold Builders’ Guidebook” for D&D is pretty good for giving some ideas about layout, assault, and defense that can be ported to other systems.

Take a look at floorplans of real castles and palaces as well as other buildings. Look at how they are placed in relation to the landscape as well as how they are laid out.

House plans give you the basic elements of what we need in our living spaces: shelter, storage, private rooms, communal rooms, food storage and preparation, waste disposal. Look at how they are arranged with respect to one another, especially in older houses.

Also remember that a castle can be underground and a dungeon can be above the ground. Form follows function.

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Aging Maps

From Mike Bourke

Some additional tips for aging maps:

  1. Buy a couple of cheap texta-colour markers and extract the ink-bearing material from inside the texta (be careful not to transfer colour from your hands). Place one of these of appropriate colour in the water with the map. Agitating the pan gently will “wash” some of the colour out of the texta and onto the map. If done with care, this can “bloodstain” one corner of the map, for example.
  2. Brush some lemon juice onto the dried, stained, map. Then add a few drops directly onto the map and place the sheet on a baking dish over some greaseproof or baking paper. Bake the page for 5-10 minutes on medium heat; lemon juice turns brown at high temperatures. Warning: this process makes the paper more brittle.
  3. After drawing the map, but before aging it, use your fingers to rub some egg white into the paper from the “plain” side (the one with no map drawn on it). The paper will absorb some of the egg white, stiffening it, and raising the surface somewhat. Apply the “Lemon Treatment” as above. Then sand the map lightly on the drawn side. Where egg white was applied, the paper will become more worn and frayed on its surface, permitting it to absorb other colours more easily, and the “aging” stains from other treatments will then vary in tone over the page.
  4. When the map is “finished” but still wet, place it face- down on a sheet of baking powder. Place an old towel or cloth over the top and use an iron on the towel. The varying levels of heat and pressure will cause some parts of the map to be smoother than others and some rougher. With cloth and paper-type combinations this can also “imprint” a texture on the paper surface. Note that the cloth may not be useful for anything else afterwards!
  5. If you’re having steak for dinner, get some of the blood and drip it onto the paper! Hold it at an angle to get it to stream, or hold it flat to get spots. Then leave the map where it is to dry.
  6. You can use deodorants, kitchen spices, perfumes, perfumed talcum powder, and even scented soap on the finished map to trigger the sense of smell. A slice of mushroom rubbed onto the surface will not only stain but scent the map as well. This can add considerably to the realism.
  7. In addition to the option of coloured pencils and watercolours, add lipsticks to the repertoire. Used sparingly, these can smear and stain nicely. And, being oil-based, they won’t wash away if you need to darken the stains.
  8. Instead of simply placing your staining agent in a pan, apply it with tissue paper to vary the darkness of the paper.
  9. Finally, you can try melting and dripping wax onto the page one teaspoonful at a time. You can even use the candle supplying the wax for the heat. Use the back of the spoon to smoothly spread the wax. When you fold, bend, and mutilate the page, the wax will crack, permitting additional stains along the cracks; because the wax itself is waterproof, the surface beneath will not be harmed. This stiffens and strengthens the paper. Later, the wax can be sanded back a little if necessary. Alternatively, “Wax-crack” a piece of paper other than the map, then coat the wax with a little shoe polish. Note that there is almost certainly enough on the shoebrush already. Use the “waxed” paper as a stamp by way of the “hot iron” approach (item 4 above). This can produce a quite different effect.
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Ask A Player To Start A Session

From Mysticalkat

When wanting to jump-start my game, I pick one of the players and ask them to make up a scene. This gives the player a sense of control knowing that they get to make the first choice rather me telling them, “okay this is why you’re here, your character is doing this….”