Take Ten: Appraise

From David Newland & Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0287

Take Ten: Appraise

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. Presented here are ten takes on the D20 skill, Appraise.

For non-D&D gamers, here’s a description of the skill: Appraise Skill 

The defining feature of the Appraise skill is determining the value of an item. Knowledge and Craft skills can determine quality and utility, but Appraise renders a judgment in cold, hard cash. Appraise also functions as a catchall category. While Knowledge and Craft skills are subject-specific, Appraise works on any item, something clever gamers can use to their advantage.

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Worth Its Weight In Gold

For Players

Get the most value from treasure, and be efficient with encumbrance.

Some monsters are helpful enough to stock their lairs with valuable, portable treasure, with gems and platinum ranking high on the wish list of most adventurers. A more realistic treasure trove is a smorgasbord of trinkets, artworks, fabrics, spices, antiques, and other bulky items that lack price tags.

When it comes to deciding what to carry out and what to leave behind, Appraise separates the wheat from the chaff by distinguishing high quality furs from mangy pelts and masterwork weapons from peasants’ armaments. A good financial tactic, it quickly becomes a better combat tactic, once encumbrance starts to weigh you down, and you must choose between losing loot and losing speed.

For GMs

Characters have limited build points to devote to skills, and Appraise is often left undeveloped in favour of survival oriented abilities. Here is an opportunity to beef up your NPCs!

The Appraise skill is very useful in reducing encumbrance and saving resources (what PC wants to go to great lengths to protect something fragile only to learn it’s worthless?). This should be brought to the attention of your players, then you can add this skill to NPCs for better story integration.

For example:

  • A hook to encourage use of henchmen
  • A cover story for a spy
  • A hook to admit an NPC companion into the party
  • A worthwhile expense to add to your game economy

In addition, this skill might prompt you to add additional unwieldy items of varying value in treasure piles. It’s a good trick to place a large, forged painting in a horde, for example. Instances like this will encourage PCs to consider taking the Appraise skill or hiring a henchman who has it (thereby creating more adventuring tactics the players can weigh).

They also make treasure piles more interesting, and are logical ways to increase (or decrease) reward levels without affecting NPCs, preventing the classic issue of NPCs having useful stuff just lying around that would’ve helped their cause.

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Better Bargaining

For Players

Be informed about who and what you’re trading with.

Not all transactions are completed with coin. Bartering is still common, moreso the farther you are from civilization. A successful Appraise check helps you determine the value of all items being traded, and helps stop you from being duped into the bad end of a barter.

A more profitable use is recognizing items that have higher values to collectors and other interested parties, such as lost heirlooms, rare antiques, historical documents, memorabilia, and the like.

Appraise also works well on the bargainers themselves. A quick check of their clothes and possessions might give you an indication of how wealthy they are and how much they can afford to pay. How much you decide to mark up your wares is up to you.

For GMs

Implementing a barter economy is a great way to devalue a party’s horde of coins. Peasants and monsters can’t eat gold (usually :), nor will a pile of coins keep them warm, so unless they can trade coinage for the things they need, the party’s money is no good to them.

Bartering also encourages roleplaying and use of social skills. For double benefit, use bartering situations with NPCs to impart clues, plot hooks, and information in a natural, storytelling way.

If the PCs can use Appraise to evaluate goods and people, so can your NPCs. The players will enjoy your good tactics as NPCs size the characters up and down, as well as evaluate any transactions the party is attempting.

Appraise checks also give you good roleplaying cues for your NPCs as they react to their Appraise checks accordingly. For example, if an NPC appraises one PC as being powerful or wealthy, he might treat that character differently than another party member who he deems to be roguish. Don’t forget to ham up badly failed checks as well.

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Spell Components

For Players

Use Appraise to gather valuable intelligence about spellcasters.

What’s a fantasy adventure without religious rituals, magic incantations, and otherworldly apparatus? Spells don’t come cheap, though. Some spell components cost thousands of gold pieces. Combined with a Knowledge: Arcana check, Appraise can give a clue to the spells used by a wizard or priest based on the components found in their chambers, laboratories, workshops, and spell component cases.

A few examples:

  • Expensive black onyx gems are a good sign of necromancy (used in Animate Dead and Create Dead)
  • Raise Dead requires 5000 gp of diamonds
  • Thousands of gold pieces worth of powdered diamonds and opals are used in every Symbol spell
  • Less expensive, but still pricey, is the gold and diamond dust used respectively in Fire Trap and Glyph Of Warding

For GMs

Valuable spell components are an important, but oft- underused game element, so try to get the most out of them:

  • Treasure. Unused components of foes make logical and interesting PC rewards.
  • Resupply. PC spellcasters are ever on the hunt for precious components. NPC inventories are a great way to supply them without painful shopping trips.
  • Foes with purpose. Folks often speak of letting the PCs do what they want without being railroaded. If you make much needed, valuable spell components rare, the PCs will have incentive to pursue rival and foe spellcasters for their supplies, saving you from having to use your own plot hooks.
  • Tricks. Smart spellcasters will realize their components are in demand or will be Appraised and analyzed. This provides a natural excuse for tricks and traps! NPC casters will hide their components, plant fake ones, and put tricks or puzzles in place for security.
  • Adventures. Quests for more spell components, jobs to steal components, and requests to guard components are perfect, logical grist for PC adventures. Appraise becomes a key skill now, as employers will want people who know what they’re doing and who are able to properly identify and Appraise the objects of their quests.

Next time you have an NPC spellcaster in your campaign, scan their spells and make a list of valuable components then need for their incantations. Use this list to populate your adventures with challenges, treasures, and plot hooks.

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Impressing Others

For Players

Use Appraise to impress NPCs with your knowledge.

Everyone appreciates an expert in the finer things in life, especially those who own the finer things. At royal banquets, high society balls, and other flashy occasions, a successful Appraise check can supply information on the event’s wines, artworks, fashions, jewelry, antiques, or armaments, just the thing needed to start a conversation, flatter a host, or impress people with your expertise.

For GMs

NPCs can use Appraise for similar purposes. Foes who point out PC deficiencies are especially fun to game. Imagine the PCs strutting around at a feast when a haughty noble approaches and starts pointing out their frayed garments, non-masterwork equipment, and inferior ten foot poles.

Anticipating PC use of Appraise creates good encounter design opportunities as well. Give NPCs items and clothing that don’t align with their intended impressions–providing clues and useful skill check opportunities. For example, a humble beggar might be wearing quality silk garments, indicating something isn’t right.

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Gauging Personalities

For Players

Use Appraise to get the measure of others’ behaviours and motives.

You are what you own. Clever adventurers who Appraise a person’s possessions might gain insight into their nature. A craftsman claiming his inferior goods are of masterwork quality is a cheat and liar. Cheap booze swilled by a nouveau riche patron indicates he might not be that bright or that cultured. A wealthy noble who displays none of her fortune is either parsimonious or paranoid.

For GMs

I encourage you to have your NPCs employ the same mechanics the PCs use to live each day in the game world. NPCs with Appraise should noticeably use it to form opinions and gather intel about the PCs. I say “noticeably” so that there’s a potential point of interaction created. If the players never know their characters are being scanned and analyzed, they can’t think or do anything about it.

Next encounter, narrate how an NPC seems to study them closely during a parley, or how a stranger seems to be keenly watching them from afar. Be sure to also game out the consequences of failed Appraise checks and the misinformation gleaned therefrom.

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Gauging Abilities

For Players

Use Appraise for tactical advantage by scouting out the opposition.

A person’s possessions can also illustrate their abilities. Soldiers with masterwork armaments are most likely better fighters than average men-at-arms. Sages with rare books and papers probably have high Knowledge skills in their field. An expensive horse breed famous for its speed guarantees a faster rider. A shoddy product means a poor craftsman.

For GMs

This player tactic presents interesting design considerations. If the PCs use Appraise to gather intel, and if this tactic is known by NPCs, then you have an opportunity to design NPC countermeasures. This creates interesting puzzle situations. NPCs might don garments and equipment that mislead others about their skills and abilities (appearing more or less skilled, indicating incorrect types of skills and abilities, hiding abilities).

Set-ups are also now possible. One NPC might trick another into wearing something that alerts Appraising PCs, causing a diversion, red herring, or false accusations.

Thanks to Appraise, once you delve into the world of detection, counter detection, counter-counter detection, and so on, design opportunities abound.

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Piercing Subterfuge

For Players

Be on your toes and use Appraise often to uncover secrets and mysteries.

Lying, cheating, bluffing, and forging are just some of the levels to which people will stoop to gain and maintain riches (adventurers included!). With a successful Appraise check, you can spot discrepancies in the wealth of others. A nobleman’s house bereft of expensive ornaments might indicate the family has fallen on hard times, while a lowly city guard with gold plated armor seems to have acquired a suspicious change of fortune.

A heavily guarded caravan setting off with only cheap bulk goods could be the start of a smuggling operation, whereas fake diamonds in a museum display point to a snatch-and-switch that has already taken place.

For GMs

When designing plots and encounters, use PC Appraisals to propel the story, for hooks, and as clues. Try to encourage player use of Appraisals. Do this by rewarding successful Appraise checks with useful and valuable information, by suggesting it from time to time, and through NPC requests. Once PCs get into the habit of Appraising things, you might find you get lots of improv opportunities, as ideas often come to mind when players get curious.

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Performing Subterfuge

For Players

Use Appraise to help your disguise.

With the Appraise skill, you have enough knowledge of valuable commodities at your finger tips to pose as a merchant, antiquities dealer, fence, artisan, guild leader, or other role. Though not as effective as the Profession Skill, it can help in a pinch and its broad use makes it suitable for a variety of disguises.

For GMs

NPCs can employ this same tactic, creating potentially entertaining Appraise vs. Appraise situations:

  • PC tries to provide a more accurate Appraisal than NPC
  • PC tries to catch NPC giving false Appraisals
  • NPC tries to catch PC giving false Appraisals

For example, an employer might hire a PC and an NPC to get two opinions on the worth of a family heirloom. The fact that the object is cursed adds an interesting twist to the encounter.

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Weather Dice

Forget charts. Forget boring weather. Try weather dice to make weather generation fast and easy. A d6 with the following faces:

  • Thunderstorm
  • Tornado
  • Rain
  • Sunny
  • Partly cloudy
  • Snow

Weather Dice at RPG Shop

Wizards of the Coast: Hellspike Prison

Fantastic Locations: Hellspike Prison features two double- sided poster maps designed for roleplaying and miniatures skirmish play, plus an accompanying 16-page adventure that can be dropped into any campaign. The two poster maps can be put together to form the fiery underdark cavern known as Hellspike Prison, while the reverse sides feature other fantastic underdark locations players can explore.

Hellspike Prison at RPG Shop

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Adventure Creation Tips

From J Lubek

  1. Create a Few Random Tables. Every so often, the thoughts run dry. Writers call it “writer’s block’ and GMs have it too! If you’re ever rushed to create that killer adventure for your group of eager gamers, yet you can’t fill in the details, roll your favorite d20 on a table. Countless tables exist for such things as NPC Personality Quirks, Dungeon Types, Magic Item types, and so on.On one of those days where you’re just having one of those great days and you’re filled with all those great ideas, create a simple table. It is great to have a custom-made table that can be used throughout the DM’s career. If you choose to customize yours, you have the added bonus of adding game-specific, campaign setting specific, and other advantages to your list.
  2. Take a Break. After slaving away at an adventure, I need a break. Usually, I’ll go fragging a little in Halo or I’ll listen to music. For some reason, after partaking in these activities, the ideas come flooding back. What would a grunt from Halo look like in D&D? How cool would a medieval sticky grenade be? A gold mine for ideas….
  3. You Ruthless Thief! I encourage stealing other people’s ideas when it comes to GMing. Sometimes, I do admit that Tolkien can have a better plot thread then mine. That is when I convert those helpless hobbits into a group of wandering halflings on a great “exodus.” It is always nice to change a few details while in the process though. Customize the work and make it fit your game!If you do end up publishing your adventure, remember to give due credit though.
  4. Set Down A Theme Before Play. Before beginning adventure creation, I always give myself a theme. For my recent adventure, my theme was a Halloween inspired psychological horror trip. With that set idea, not too loose or not too constraining, my mind spawned countless ideas. A theme can be one simple sentence describing the general direction of a game and mood. A theme is a kickstart for ideas.
  5. Always Have A Notepad Handy. Throughout the day, I have a small pocket-sized notebook in my pocket. Since I am both a hopeful fantasy writer and a GM, I find that this handy book is great for putting the pen to paper when I get a good idea.
  6. Remember For Whom You Are Designing. After and before I finish the adventure, I sit down and try and analyze the game from each character’s standpoint. Would he find this adventure entertaining? Does it offer ample situations for his character to be heroic? Would he get bored from the NPC’s epic speech? These kinds of questions help you find the problems with your adventure.
  7. Complex or Overly Simplified? I once played with a GM whose game was too complex. He had plot lines up the gazoo for a one-shot adventure. Every player was confused and the GM himself looked it as well. It was chaos–and he expected us to enjoy ourselves in such a chaotic realm? Yet, I also have played with many a GM who run the cliche, over- simplified dungeon crawl. Both instances are not fun. It is up to you to find the balance. You must learn to draw the line as to when you think the game is heading too far into one spectrum.
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Game Table Layout Illustrated

From Loz Newman

Here’s my gaming table layout.

I use a dedicated room that also has (off-table): a cooler for drinks and fruits players bring, a stereo, cupboards for plates/cutlery (we eat during play), and other games stuff (sourcebooks, other games, board/card games, comics for non- active players to browse). The players have two windows behind them and the GM has a mirrored wardrobe behind him, insuring good light distribution.

The GM (me) often has folders of game info at his feet, propped against the chair legs. Ditto his personal dice bag. My arsenal of LARP weapons decorates the walls along with a few tasteful fantasy pictures.

Everybody gets a glass and a coaster for their drinks, too.

N.B. According to the game played, players often each have “grids” of combat/magic rule info in clear page holders (reduces drink spillage damage and increases life-span of documents).

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Circular Game Table

From Amber

I had an awesome idea for a gaming table when I was working at a nursing home. The CNA’s feed the elderly who are unable to feed themselves around a half table so that they are within arms length of any elderly persons at any given moment.

So, one day, while I was cleaning the room (I was a house keeper), I got the bright idea of pushing 2 of them together to make a circle. You’d have to leave about a foot of room between the tables (or be prepared to move them out, or for the DM to go under and come out the middle) but it would allow the DM to situate the guys around him/her and the problem of having one unfortunate soul at the end where the DM has to get up and go look at the roll (if needed) is averted.

This worked well for our group as the DM didn’t *need* to look at everyone’s rolls all the time, but when he did, all he had to do was turn around. And, we could get groups together that were traveling together, so that if the DM was running a part of the game in which only a few were going to be doing something for a few minutes, he was able to address them all at the same time rather than have to “find” the people in our sea of players.

We had more than one table too. We used one table like that for general gaming. Then we had 3 other tables we used for terrain. It worked well because terrain could be set up as if it was truly a path and he could move miniatures, do dice rolls, and things like that, from the middle, and everyone could see instead of one person being in the back or so off to the side it was impossible to see. It alleviated a lot of problems.

Now, I don’t know how much the tables’ cost. I happened to get lucky. All of the tables we had were broken and we refurbished the legs to make them work, so I got them free. But, I thought it was a great idea.

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Another Message Board Site Looking For Players

From Chris McDaniel

We have a PBP that is always looking for players and it is a D&D 3.5 game solely dedicated to Greyhawk. If you happen to highlight anything more on PBP gaming or sites that are related to such, We of the Circle of Eight would love for players to stop by Chronicles of Greyhawk and check us out.

Chronicles of Greyhawk 

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Online Source For Generic City Maps

From Kamal

For good, generic city and regional maps, try:


This will give you satellite imagery of cities and towns across the US, with the fields clear and so forth. I guess you could pull up images of National Parks for wilderness areas.