The Session Checklist: Ingredients To A Successful Game Session – Part II

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1099

The Session Checklist: Ingredients To A Successful Game Session – Part II

One Surprise

Another good item to include on our session checklist is at least one twist, unexpected turn of events, or surprise. Players love being hit with the unexpected.By including at least one surprise each session, you also ensure that your games do not become predictable or stagnant. You’ll also find that players will be on their toes and more attentive.Players also enjoy beating the GM to the punch. They are greatly pleased when they guess a surprise before it happens. So, it doesn’t even matter if the twist comes as a curveball or is guessed ahead of time–you’ll have achieved some level of entertainment value just by including it.

One Seed Planted

Next on our checklist is plot hooks, side-plots, and multi- threading. Player choice is an important factor in sessions. If the group feels like it’s being forced along a specific path, it’ll rebel, get frustrated, and retaliate with ye ol’ hack ‘n slash.A good technique for ensuring choice and opportunity is to plant at least one new seed for a plot, quest, or adventure each session. The full benefits of this will take a few sessions to build because the players might follow the first few seeds right away. But, as time goes on and progress slows a bit on one or more threads, the unused seeds will soon start to stack. As the stack grows, the players will feel excited, and possibly even giddy :), that they have so many untapped choices!I used the word seed with purpose here, because any seed left unrooted by the party should be allowed to sprout, bloom, and bear fruit.


Between sessions, do an update on what’s happening with each seed’s thread. Ensure that it progresses to match the PCs’ pace, or at least, the campaign’s time line. Ensure the characters learn about or experience any effects or consequences of the seed’s growth.


If still left alone, the seed becomes a full background event, world or campaign changing development, or a current adventure incident. The exact time when a seed comes to flower is at your discretion. Busy GMs will want to keep as many threads in a seed state as possible to take advantage of any planning done, because once a seed blooms, its nature changes and you’ll need to modify your plans.However, it’s thrilling for players to have a thread that they’ve been tracking or getting periodic updates about suddenly burst into a bunch of campaign activity. Because they’ve watched the thread transform over time, they’ll feel like your campaign is alive, vibrant, changing, and exciting.In addition, there’s often a reason why players don’t follow a particular seed. Sometimes the party is simply too busy. Many times though, the seed hasn’t appealed to them as an adventure opportunity. Allowing the seed to bloom gives you a chance to change it and try again to see if the players will pursue it.

Bear fruit

Here’s where the big benefits of regularly planting seeds lie. When a plot thread matures to a certain point, it should starting spawning its own seeds. Without a lot of effort, you should be able to get many new background event, adventure hooks, and plot ideas from a thread that has been allowed to mature without direct PC involvement.

The benefit to you is a natural, easy, self-generating plot machine. You will also find your campaign world becomes an exciting land where adventure or story opportunities abound. Campaign details and information will spawn in a logical, seamless way as opposed to forced effort done on a blank sheet of paper.

It’s at your discretion when a background plot thread comes to maturity and bears fruit. When this happens, you have to change your plans, repurpose NPCs and maps, re-stock some dungeons, modify plot lines, tweak unused encounters, and so on. However, for the threads you do transform, you’ll be paid back with a more complex campaign environment that came together in a natural and simple way that you and your players watched grow and so have come to know like a dear friend.

Ok, enough with the plant talk. The point of this checklist item is to keep your campaign growing and your players happy by offering a steady stream of new choices over a long period of time.

One Background Event

This directly relates to our seed planting tip. Unless the PCs are deep in a dungeon or isolated from the world during their adventure, have at least one background event come into play each session. This will remind the players that there’s a campaign world out there.Background events are perfect problem solving fodder as well. Imagine that the PCs face a wide chasm that has no bridge. They have a long rope, spikes, a bag of sardines, and a levitation scroll. The players should have fun concocting a plan to get them to the other side using a successful combination of their resources. Background events supply resource opportunities in the same way as rope, sardines, spikes, and a scroll do.For example, the PCs must break into the jail and rescue a fellow PC. They decide they need a good distraction that will clear all the guards out of the jail. In the city, there’s currently a guild strike, a visiting Prince, a sardine market glut, and a heat wave. Perhaps the characters can use and interact with these events to solve their problem? The paladin could suggest to the Mayor a parade be held in the Prince’s honour. The rogue could recommend to the leader of the striking guild that he stage a strategically located protest along the parade route. And the mage and cleric could buy several sacks of sardines, hide them in and around the jail, and let the heat wave do its work.It will be obvious to some readers the idea and benefits of using background events. The key here is to add the category to the session checklist so that at least one event occurs or progresses every session.

One Way The PCs Have Changed The World

Some players measure progress through experience points, others through character development. Either way, victories eventually become shallow if the characters never get to witness how their actions impact the game world–at least at the regional level.For example, the PCs are hired to defeat a monster that’s been plaguing a village and they emerge from its lair victorious. They return, make their grand announcement, and get great pleasure at seeing the stress, worry, and fear dissipate from the villagers’ faces.That’s an example of short term change. You can create ripple effects that range from short to medium to long term, and the PCs should get to learn about or experience the effects their stories and adventures have as the campaign goes on.For example, it’s been a year since the PCs released the village from the monstrous terror. The group is now in another part of the kingdom helping a Baron with a small owlbear problem. At the Baron’s table, as an agreement over payment for services rendered is being reached, the Baron serves the PCs some tasty wine. The Baron comments that the wine hails from a southern village that has, until recently, been strangely absent from the wine market for some years. Aha! The PCs can proudly claim their important involvement, or perhaps just derive some quiet, personal satisfaction. (Keep in mind that, if a year in game time has passed, chances are several sessions have been played and news of the village would have even more impact on the players–a great benefit of long-term ripple effects coming into play.)Before each session ends, be sure to include a reference, circumstance, or event based on the PCs’ past adventures that lets them know they’re having an effect on the world around them–no matter how small.

Example methods:

  • Rumour, news, gossip
  • Rivals taking credit for the PCs’ efforts
  • Unexpected presents delivered to PCs, possibly on the anniversary date of the event, if applicable
  • Random encounter with an involved NPC
  • Related or affected products or services encountered
  • Descendants encountered (long term)
  • Correspondence (messenger, letter delivered)

Example effects:

  • Economic (imports, exports, growth, slump)
  • Political (area becomes more or less important)
  • Personal (new friendships or enemies, PCs attract attention)
  • Social (fashion changes, event is popular topic of discussion)
  • Adventure (new job or quest opportunities)

An Entertaining Conclusion

A strong session end leaves a lasting impact on players and GMs alike.

Frequent benefits include:

  • Creating anticipation for the next session (that hopefully motivates a quick start).
  • Creating a higher level of satisfaction (it’s important for everyone to feel the time they invested into the session was well spent).
  • Lowering player absenteeism.
  • Generating positive player feedback that motivates GMs to continue working hard on the campaign.
  • Increasing player participation for between session activities, such as homework tasks.

The classic ending is a cliffhanger. The session concludes mid-combat where it appears the villain or foes will be victorious; or the game pauses with the life of a PC in the balance; or a great revelation is about to be revealed.

Not every session can end this way though, due to the circumstance of the PCs, story line, or current location.

Here are some additional session-ender ideas:

  • Celebration of a group victory
  • Division of a big treasure pile
  • The PCs solve the puzzle, they hear a click, and…
  • The appearance of an important NPC wearing a strange, interesting, or bemused expression (soap opera style)
  • The appearance of the wrong NPC at the wrong place at the wrong (or right) time (again, like in a strategic soap opera scene cut)
  • The trigger of a plot hook
  • Large experience or story point reward (enough to impact the characters and cause player joy
  • While player energy is still high
  • Arrival at an important destination
  • End of a big combat
  • A mystery solved
  • A story element finally exposed or explained
  • A return to a safe harbour

Checklist Summarized

Many of these checklist items will be familiar to you. However, it’s easy to forget including them each session, especially as your head gets filled with numbers, NPCs, and session development information. The purpose of putting these very important game elements into checklist format is to provide you with an easy quality assurance tool.It’s just like a pre-flight check. Before the game, run through your checklist quickly and determine if you have ideas or a plan for each point. Midway though a session, check your list again and note what things still remain untended to. And an hour before the session ends, look at what still needs to be included and fit it in if possible, before it’s too late and the game is over.

  1.  A Quick Start
  2.  One Shining Moment For Every Player And PC
  3.  One Shining Moment For The GM
  4.  One Cool Reward For Each PC
  5.  One Plot Thread Measurably Advanced
  6.  One Surprise
  7.  One Seed Planted
  8.  One Background Event
  9.  One Way The PCs Have Changed The World
  10.  An Entertaining Conclusion
Graphic of section divider

Read the first five items on my checklist.

Ingredients To A Successful Game Session, Part I

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Fantasy World Design

From Strider Starslayer

With Issue #197 being focused on sci-fi game worlds, I thought it might be helpful to throw in my own thoughts on fantasy game worlds. While the two types are rather similar, there are things you can do with a fantasy world that you cannot do with your ‘average’ sci-fi one.

Of course, nothing says you can’t have a sci-fi fantasy world with dragons competing with hover bikes for the skies, and magic swords competing with force swords for the melee weapon of choice for distinguished rogues everywhere.

I’ve divided the following into sections and subsections to make this a bit easier to look up and be more convenient. For instance, if there are no lost civilizations, skip the lost civilizations section.


(Repeat this section again for psi powers if you also wish to include them.)

  1. Is magic available? This may seem a silly question, given that it’s a fantasy world, but sometimes fantasy can be fun even without the magic.
  2. Aspect? Is magic the same everywhere, or is it easier to work necromancy in an orcish battlefield then in pristine wilderness? If magic does have different aspects in different places, how profound is it, and how controllable is it? Remember, if you make it too controllable, sure it’ll be neat to have a convenient reason why the evil necromancer is always in an underground crypt, but you’ll find your players finding interesting ways to exploit this as well. (Not that that’s a bad thing.)
  3. Flow. Is magic ubiquitous and equally strong everywhere? Is there a city that floats in the sky using mere trinket level enchantments that would be useless elsewhere, or a grizzled barbarian village that charges more then a thousand ransoms for it’s seemingly useless swords that, once taken out of the low manna bowl they sit in, become weapons of legendary power?If you decide to aspect your world, you once again have to decide if it’s ordered, has rhyme or reason, or perhaps is related to a weather phenomenon in which manna comes and goes like the wind.
  4. Reason. Does manna have a reason to exist, or is it just “there”? Some examples: Much like fossil fuels, manna is created by the death of creatures. Great battlefields will have much more manna than untouched deserts.Another example: Manna is a natural part of the universe, and flows like wind. A mage must spend decades studying manna patterns to acquire the skill of manna-ology and determine when the most auspicious time to cast a spell is.Third example: Manna is actually a collection of super- advanced nano-tech robots created by the Elders–a mysterious race that went extinct long ago. Those who can “cast spells” are actually just individuals who have the unique genetic markers required to command the machines telepathically.


  1. What’s the overall level of technology? Though this is somewhat important, there can always be exceptions. For example, dwarves and gnomes using powerful steam and clockwork machines, elves with superior metallurgy, dark necromancers with “free labour” in the form of zombies.

    I think that the big tech decisions in a fantasy world should be:
    • What’s the highest level of metallurgy available?
    • Has gunpowder been invented? Note that, even if gunpowder has been invented, that doesn’t mean the cannon or the gun exists, especially if metal is still too fragile to build them.
  2. Variations. Just because the human race doesn’t have gunpowder, that doesn’t mean that the dwarves don’t have some “secret fire powder” that they use in their steam golems to make killing them almost as lethal as letting them run their course.


What level of scientific research have the people reached? This is an interesting question and not directly related to the level of technology but more related to the level of understanding. It’s possible to have a society that has virtually no technology outside of the jaw bone of some animal, but has a deep and thorough understanding of the world around them, thus enabling them to calculate when earthquakes, storms, or other natural disasters are coming, or reliably directing them to move into areas they know will be full of food.


(Repeat the steps above for religious magic.)

  1. Prevalence. Decide how common religion is going to be, how many people believe, and if any given religion is more prevalent then the others.
  2. Number. How many major religions are there? How many of those have sub-religions and orders?
  3. Truth. Are any of the religions actually “right” while others are “wrong”? Or is there a god for every religion” (This is important if you’re building evil religions or religions where the gods are particularly active.)


Races have been covered in other issues, but one thing I like to stress: MIX IT UP. No one likes to see the exact same orcs every time. Maybe make the orcs on your world the pinnacles of evolution due to their constant “thinning the herd” with wars and extremely fast breeding rates.Make Trolls the forgotten servants of a lost race and therefore possessing of some very strange skills, such as atomic power plant operation. It’s innocuous enough that it won’t come up in a regular game if you have a troll PC, but will be stunning if you do have it happen. “Wait, your telling me Ogg, the one who can’t remember which way he’s walking half the time, managed to walk up to the weird humming thing that was making us sick, and then pressed a series of 200 buttons in a specific order, and now we’re not getting sick and a hidden city has dug itself out of the ground outside!?”

Lost/Forgotten Civilizations

  1. Are there any? Some fantasy worlds, it seems, are built on layers of different species, each of which was in power for some period of time, and a lot of them seem to be missing now, for whatever reason, such as a natural disaster, being overthrown, or all having ascended to another plane of existence.
  2. What happened to them?
  3. Are there any left? Maybe some hidden locale has a whole village of them, or one or two have turned themselves into liches to ward off time. Or perhaps they have simply forgotten who they are and have entered society proper.


How much of the world is explored? Most fantasy authors seem too focused on one or two connected continents rather then an entire world, and the reasoning is simple enough: how would they cross the great waters? But, a world with magic or even lost technology could have the whole world explored, if not accessible. Powerful mages may even have a rudimentary space flight program in place!


Consider the terrain of a fantasy world, especially one that has magic. If humans can use magic, and elves and dwarves, then why not some plant life, or animal life. The effects of magic-using plants and animals could be profound on an environment. For example, if there are magic plants that create their own water, then a special sort of rain forest may exist in a desert. Invisible hunting panthers could make travel especially dangerous for creatures that don’t have the additional senses to back up their sight.But don’t stop there, what about a planet that uses magic on a rudimentary level? Snowy plains right beside sweltering savannah, separated by a thin belt where the manna aspect changes. Rock formations that seem almost communicative, but even the most powerful scrying finds them to be a natural phenomenon.

Graphic of section divider

Dwayne’s Session Planning Method

From Dwayne al’ Trawick

I really liked last issue so I thought I’d share my own planning ways. Your way is very efficient, in that it basically breaks down to what everyone wants. Mine is still kind of in the stone age, but maybe we could learn something by going back to the basics. So, here goes,

Dwayne’s Sessions Planning Method:

  1. Get the idea. This is the hardest and most painful step. It’s basically getting the rough idea of “what are we gonna do on Wednesday?” I start thinking about this on the Wednesday before. If I’m lucky, I get it down by Thursday evening or Friday morning.
  2. Write the newsletter. I do a weekly newsletter for my group, and I always try to incorporate information that may be somewhat important to the plot line of the next session. It rarely works out that way, but I still try.
  3. Define the adventure. This is where I pull out MSWord and start hacking away at scenario ideas and my prepared “scene clips”, which are little narrative descriptions that will be too important for my ad-hoc, stuttering, winging-it usual speech. Here is where I make maps and give names to the important NPCs.
  4. Get down to points. I use the term points because I GM in GURPS, which is a point based system, not a level based system. At this stage I build whatever NPCs I need (thus the points) and get down to the details of the scenario. I also look up, reread, bookmark and/or note important rules I know I’ll need.For example, the players could pursue the bad guy up the hole he climbed back to the surface. In case they do, I get down on paper how high the hole is, how many climbing rolls will be needed, what the defaults will be, and how much damage is done if they fall. I’m not great at looking up or remembering rules on the fly, so when I know I’ll encounter something I’m not familiar with, this is the stage that I look it up in.The same would go for traps. Okay, this is a pit trap. They need this kind of roll to spot it, they can’t disarm it but by putting a table or something over it they can overcome it. If they fall then I roll 1d6-3 to find out how many spikes they hit, each spike does X amount of damage.
  5. Game night preps. On game night I set aside the figures I know I’ll need, and I also prep the weekly quiz (I give characters a chance to earn more points by answering questions in the newsletter), and I also print out whatever adventure stuff I need.
  6. Game it. This part is self explanatory.

Well, I hope it helps!

Graphic of section divider

Fantasy Language Idea

From Rob M.

I recently came across an article discussing the resurrection of a whistling language in the Canary Islands.

The Whistling Language, known as “Silbo Gomero,” contains four vowels and four consonants and a four-thousand word vocabulary. The language allows individuals to communicate over distances of up to two miles.

In a low-magic fantasy campaign, this language could be an important method of conveying critical information across great distances. Whistling stations could be set up along the major highways allowing messages to be sent and replied to faster than the best rider or carrier pigeon.

A whistling language could also surprise your party when apparently random “bird calls” convey concise information from community scouts to community leadership, detailing the party’s composition and apparent intent.

If the storyteller is feeling especially kind, he may allow player characters the chance to learn this specialized language. This knowledge would allow the characters to coordinate their activities over long distances.

Graphic of section divider

NPC Portraits

From Dale Thurber

Lately, I’ve been downloading images from the web – ones that are portraits and freely usable in my campaign. I’ve been using the Baldur’s Gate computer game series of portraits and a few others.

I copy and paste as many as I can on a page in Word, and then print. I then cut and paste onto 3×5 cards (or you could print on cardstock). Folding the bottom allows the whole thing to stand up, and voila – instant NPC face! On the back I can use the lines of the 3×5 card to write in details about the NPC. In combat, I can arrange the cards in order of initiative.

I can hang the NPC card on the DM screen when that NPC is talking with the characters. Most players are visual learners – they’ll recognize the NPC later a lot better, and it saves time in a description.

Plus villains are more real. They have a visual identity and a DM has to describe little, just show a face.

Graphic of section divider

Equipment Management Tips – Shadowrun Style

From Debbie Johnson

I GM Shadowrun and they have an excellent system to spend less time on mundane living expenses. Keep in mind that Shadowrun is a futuristic, non-d20 roleplaying game, but I see no reason why this aspect couldn’t be adapted for other systems.

There are 6 levels of lifestyle choices. They are Street, Squatter, Low, Middle, High, and Luxury. Each has their monthly cost and what is included in that cost. For example, Middle costs 5000 per month, and you would get a nice house or condo and a standard car. (More details are, of course, provided in the game, but this should give you the idea.)

Since most missions would be short term and take place on the home turf, there is no need to go weekly food shopping in game. However, if the GM (and consequently the PCs) planned an extended out-of-town trip, then supplies would be critical and the puzzle effect that you referred to could be explored.

I usually don’t require the players to decide their lifestyle at character creation. Some people I’ve played with have their entire character concept in their mind before ever touching a piece of paper, but I like to play a character for a while to get a feel for him/her. So, my players have the option of playing four game sessions before they must purchase a lifestyle. They’ve usually earned some extra cash by then and can pick what they want as well.

They even have the option of purchasing a permanent lifestyle, which is a one-time fee of 100 months of that lifestyle. Once they have gotten high enough level characters this is a viable option. So, even if they bring “guests” home, and their apartment is destroyed, they can find another one quickly, or it gets fixed, free of charge (mutually decided by the player and the GM).

Something new in Shadowrun is Lifestyle Edges and Flaws. These can be chosen by the player or GM to customize their home sweet home, or randomly picked to reflect greater realism. They all have values assigned and the idea is to have an equal balance of edges and flaws. Examples of edges are Hasty Access and Terrific View. Flaws can be Annoying Neighbors or Trigger-Happy Landlord.