Tips From Da Pit Fiend

From Da Pit Fiend

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0262

A Brief Word From Johnn

GM Encyclopedia 2004 Updates Finished

This weekend, I uploaded the complete 2004 updates to the GM Encyclopedia. The updated Encyclopedia now includes Issues #1 to #250. I have also e-mailed everyone who purchased an Encyclopedia in 2004 and 2005 and sent a download link. If you are an Encyclopedia owner and have not received my e-mail, then:

  • Check your filtered and junk folders
  • Ensure you’re using the same e-mail account that you used when you originally purchased the Encyclopedia

If you don’t see my e-mail, and you have purchased the Encyclopedia in the past, please let me know and I’ll get a download link to you.

A Little Different Format This Week

I thought I’d try something different this week by publishing an open letter containing miscellaneous tips from a good friend. I’ve added section and sub-section headers here and there, but otherwise it’s as I received it, and I think it has several great tips based on prior ideas published in the e-zine.

If you have any feedback about this “Miscellaneous Tips” letter format, I’d be glad to receive it. Thanks.

Gaming Website Feedback

In Issue #256, a reader asked for what features we’d like in a campaign management website. I only received a few responses, but here’s a summary. If you’re a webmaster currently working on building a campaign website, or a campaign website service for the RPG community, please consider these requests:

  • A campaign library:
    • campaign outline/episode synthesis
    • public information files on known races, cultures, character packages, famous places, and historical timeline
    • file upload for players and GM
  • Online Player Character sheets, with thumbnail images, that each player can fill and the GM can modify
    • Character files can be split into “Public Info” and “DM-&-player-only” sections
  • Forums
  • Login/private group area
    • Guest-lurker access
    • Guest-contributor access
    • Player access
    • GM and admin access
  • User-created galleries and media files with upload
    • To allow players to upload character graphics
    • To allow GMs to upload campaign maps and graphics
  • Search capability
    • Of campaign library
    • Of forums
    • Of character sheets
  • Wiki, for fast document modifications and easy collaboration
  • Location notes
  • Vehicle/ship records
  • Customizable in-game calendar that doubles as a GM diary, blog, and timeline.
  • Configurable weather generator

If you have more campaign site wishes, drop me a note and I’ll add to the list.

Have a game-full weekend!


Johnn Four,
[email protected]

Tips From Da Pit Fiend

The Arcadian Guild

I once, a long time ago, promised to get back to you with a series of thoughts and ideas about some of the items I have gleaned from the weekly e-mails.

This pit fiend has had much to do in other forms, but now I find myself with some time and a desire to share what I have observed. This letter will likely be a bit rambling as I am hurrying to try and get my thoughts all out; perhaps you may find some things of use in it?

Where to begin?

Pocket Points Feedback

How about news of some positive impact that one tip in particular has had?

The best tip I received, and have not only put into use but have some ‘refinements’ for, is the use of ‘chips’ (or other markers) to allow the players to ‘reward’ one another for their good role-playing. I cannot say enough good things about this concept, but I have encountered a problem with the original idea that we have come up with a correction for.

Here is the original tip from Andrew G: Roleplaying Tips #93

Basically, players toss a poker chip out whenever they feel the receiving player deserves ‘recognition’ from their fellow players. Each player gets a certain number of chips, and all are encouraged to ‘spend them’ on the good role-play of their fellow players. At the end of the session, each chip is worth a certain number of XPs that get awarded to that player’s character.

Great concept, but here is the first rub: “What if one player never gives out any of his chips? Does he get points for the chips he keeps?”

Solution: Give each player a different color of chip or type of marker. These markers/chips are of _no value_ to that player. What I have done now is make 10 foam “chips” that are constructed from colored craft foam circles glued together. I place a small fender washer or penny inside to give them some ‘weight’ and to allow them to be easily tossed across the room and not injure anyone at the destination (after using plastic poker chips and having a fat lip given me in one session, I decided that something less lethal should be designed).

This way, at the end of the session, only different colored chips have any value to the player and not the ones that they started with.

An extension to this concept is that the GM has some special other chips for use (I use small wooden craft stars) that can be given out for particularly good role play, character portrayal, or ideas.

In our games, I have observed some effects that the chips have had:

  • The general efforts in roleplay and not rollplay have increased by all players. They are starting to use voices, acting out actions, and working to impress their fellow players. This has had the effect of improving the entire game!
  • Since I play GURPS, and each session is recommended to be worth no more than 5 character points (GURPS equivalent to experience points), I have made the chips that the players give out worth 2 points to the player with the most, 1 to the second-most, and the others do not get any. Each session then becomes only 2-3 points.
  • A suggestion in GURPS is to give out 1 character point for good character actions, good ideas, etc. as they happen. I have always been very bad at writing down when a PC has performed some action that should be rewarded, and now that I have the ‘stars’, I simply award at the moment the action has occurred, reducing the ‘notes’ I need to make.
  • The players like the immediacy of their play being rewarded this way. I see it as being akin to applause (which happens at times also) in that if they play well enough they will get character point rewards for that great role- playing.

To end this thought, I highly recommend that every GM take the time to get at least 5 chips/markers/pawns/coins/old playing cards or other items that are similar to give out to each player at the start of the session. Also, to have at least 1 marker for each player in the game that is distinctive so that the GM can give it out as a direct reward for actions or role-play the GM thinks deserves reward.

A suggested guide for the final value of the rewards:

GURPS:Player with most chips = 2 CPs
Player with second-most = 1 CP GM Chip = 1 CP each
D&D:Each player chip is worth 25 to 50 XPs
DM’s chips are worth 100-200 XPs depending on how much ‘role-play’ rewarding you want to give out.

I think the chips can have good effect on any game, including convention games or other ‘one shot’ forums. All GMs out there that have not tried this should consider at least giving the GM’s chip idea a go and see what happens to the role-play that you reward and how much more of it there is in your games.

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On Figs And Minis

Lots of the tabletop ideas from the e-zine are interesting to encounter as I have seen some of them put to use by miniatures gamers for years before they were mentioned in your forum.

Some that come to mind are:

  • Fender WashersUsing metal ‘fender washers’ under miniatures make the mini better balanced. If you use a large fender washer (as I do) then the ‘base to base’ contact gives a good physical coverage of how much room is needed for weapon use in combat (sword swinging room). The physical presence of a large animal (such as a horse or giant) can be achieved by using an even larger fender washer.Combining the metal washers with magnetic strips for storage is a method long used by Napoleonic war games players. This way, the minis move around much less and are subjected to less risk of damage. As I also play tabletop war games (and plan to expand more) I have plans to combine the fender washer idea and magnets into the game play directly (making for a more flexible use of the minis in different rules sets that call for different sizes of bases). I shall have more news on this once I have played with them for a few years.
  • Battle MatsOne topic that has come up many times and I have tried my hand at a solution is the dungeon mapping/mats and use of minis in game play. I was inspired by the Dwarven Forge system of modular pieces and by a convention game of ‘Space Hulk’ I was involved with (writing the rules and handling the combat on the table). The other gamer with me who enjoyed building the 3D alien spacecraft hulk environment had the idea of setting the ‘grid’ by carving it into the surface of some 2 inch thick insulation foam we had acquired. Later, he revised the system by using a pencil- soldering tool to ‘melt’ in the desired grid. By painting the foam with a thick layer of ordinary house paint, he had a great, well-designed 3D environment.For those less interested in the large designs (the hulk was 3 feet by 2 feet) I have adapted the foam design to the modular Dwarven Forge idea. The refinement was for the sake of the ‘fender washers’ mentioned above. Instead of 1 inch squares, I went with 1 1.4 inch and had the squares established as 5 foot markers rather than 10 (this way, many of the newer 28mm figures as well as my fender washer mounted older 25mm figures would look right).The added bonus to this system of ‘opening out’ allowed my stubby fingers to get at the minis in tight quarters better. To open things further, I did not run all the walls to the full height. Instead, walls are more ‘represented’ by short sections of foam glued on the top of the flat foam with the melted-in square grid. The foam is very cheap (and can often be found for free from packing items) and a bottle of carpenter’s glue is always handy to have around.All that you likely need to pay for is a can of tinted paint. I have two cans: one in gray, the other black. By using thick latex paint, you protect the foam from other scrapes and minor spills that might melt the foam, and you are making a material that is very light- weight and reasonably durable.I understand that this will be hard to visualize, so I shall include a set of pictures so that you may better describe the sections of the dungeon.


I have made up my sections based on the ‘random dungeon generation’ tables found in the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979). So far, the mix has not been run out as we simply move the sections along the table as the role-play action moves.

In the past, I had also been trying to create a ‘hex-grid’ for use in role playing as the GURPS system calls for the hex grid, and as a games developer I have found that the hex grid is better than square for a ‘fair’ way of laying out terrain for game use. This foam system is now my preferred one as I was able to get all my materials for free and did not mind being rather hard on a pencil-solder tool (as the foam melts it will coat the tool).

Today, I have six 2 foot by 2 foot sections of two inch thick foam in hexagons, and two of them are also marked in squares on the other side. This has made even large encounters manageable. I am now experimenting with a modular hexagon design that will also serve for very widely distributed actions.

  • StorageLooking back through the Tips zines, I see items that relate to carrying minis. My favorite method to use is gun carry cases. They are very durable, seal tight, and come with layers of foam already ‘pre-cut’. If you are going to the effort to have painted minis you might as well protect them reasonably well. For fantasy games, I use a rifle case that can hold about 80 25mm miniatures, I have pistol cases (large) for my 15mm armies, and I use a small pistol case for taking 12 or so figs to RPG games.
  • Most other storage systems are only good for minis kept at a location and carried short distances (from the shelf to the table) as they tend to take damage.
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Create A Group Trophy

On the topic of player and GM rewards, I have started a new ‘trophy’ for the Arcadian Guild, one that everybody can participate in. Each year at our annual awards ‘dinner’ we get a chance to break bread without having dice in hand and swap tales of the current games and heroes and failures.

The new ‘award’ is the Character Award. At the dinner, everyone is encouraged to bring an award or series of awards for presentation over the evening. In the past years, it has been a plaque or other such device that I have come up with, with themes like ‘Vacant Hour Veteran’s Award’ for a player who was always turning up an hour late to every game.

Recently, I gave away a colored t-shirt with the Starship emblem to the ‘crew’ of players in our StarFleet game (based on the old classic Star Trek TV show). It only cost me $6 a shirt, and at the next game everyone was ‘in uniform’ and we really got into the game fast!

Later, medal cases were made (I think it cost me $2 each in materials and some sticky label paper maybe worth $5). These little on-going rewards have made the game better and all the current players are keen to carry on the game, making this the longest running (three years) sci-fi RPG that I have managed to keep going.

Player Comment Books

re: Roleplaying Tips #180

I wanted to relate to you and your readers the value of my player comment books (now in the fourth volume). They are an excellent way to improve directly from the input of your players, not to mention a wonderful way to ‘go back’ to fun had before.

An added bonus comes from the ‘return to the world’ that writing in the comment book does for the players. This allows the players to be ‘at odds’ with one another’s characters and create tension, then release the emotional ‘tension’ in words after the game rather than on one another or in sacrifice of other more important real world matters. I can credit the comment book with at least two friendships saved by having a venue of release for such energies.

Split Party Groups

Past e-zines have gone into the ‘split-party’ concept. For the longest time I had tried to ‘keep all together’ in the spirit that was set by AD&D long ago. Then I ran into the problems of first ‘alignment conflict’, then later, character personality/plans conflicts.

By my personal interpretation and game implementation, alignment conflict in D&D comes from the need for certain high level character classes (namely Paladins) to not associate with certain contrary alignments (‘evil’ for the Paladins). Essentially, any DM that ignores this is also guilty of ignoring other alignments, something that was and still is the heart of the D&D system.

Good vs. Evil, Chaos vs. Law cannot ‘get-along’ once characters start increasing in levels. This comes about because the religious characters (save for Druids) should be either converting the contrary aligned (if good) or ‘offing them’ (if evil). In the case of non-religious characters, the law-minded ones should start having extreme conflicts with the chaotic ones, and vice versa; likewise for the evil vs. good minded ones.

While this makes for a good ‘one shot’ element of tension within a party or group, over a long time this kind of tension should lead to inter-party conflict (even PC killings in the case of the truly evil).

Character personality/plans-conflict comes in games like GURPS where alignment does not exist as such, but, as in real life, certain personalities should never be put together, nor will they work well together (other than for a short time like a one-shot adventure). The end results are similar to D&D alignment conflicts; as the PCs gain power or experience with each other they will become less likely to cooperate.

Now the game part of the problem; as a GM you are left with the very real RPG problem of motivated players who like their characters and want to continue to tell the story with all of the characters, just not all together or in action at the same time.

Solution: split them all up

The GM can manage this by having the principle characters that started the adventure become the ‘main characters’ in the ongoing saga. Let those characters split up as they please. Once the new ‘mini-groups’ are set, let the size of those groups of ‘main characters’ determine how much time should be set for them.

For example: Mary, Richard, David, Michael, and Lucy form one group, Dan, Bill, and Victor form the other.

This means that 5/8ths of the time should be spent on the larger group, and that Dan, Bill, or Victor become either ‘secondary characters’ that are sympathetic to others’ alignment and/or personalities/plans, or that Dan, Bill, or Victor can become ‘adversary characters’ who are essentially GM assistants and emote the various villains that the ‘main’ and ‘secondary’ characters will encounter.

To keep the players focused on advancing the game fairly, they get to keep the character points (XPs) that they gain in their ‘secondary’ or ‘adversary’ character roles for use on advancing their ‘main’ characters.

For a definition of adversary character check out: GURPS Lite

A second advantage I have found by taking this approach is that it allows me to keep the story rolling along no matter how many of the ‘main character’ players come to a particular session. I tend to run my sessions all day long from 10 am to 10 pm one Sunday a month (for 3-5 months at a stretch) so I have the time to be able to stretch sessions into two main party threads.

Another effect of this is to allow the players to enjoy both a main character that is growing and developing in their part of the story and to have an ‘input’ into other parts of the story with the ‘secondary’ characters, which for some players becomes like a ‘theatre sports’ session wherein they get to try out strange or very different personality types.

Finally, there is the advantage that this system encourages attendance by as many of the main characters as possible, because missing a session means that your character may be temporarily ‘written out’ of the story and that, upon return, the player will be catching up with the party. This is a motivation for some, but not all players.


From a GM’s perspective, there are now multiple threads to have to prepare for. If you are a detail oriented GM do not do this as you will burn out. If you are a GM who can ‘write on the fly’ and improvise effectively, then this extra work is not so bad as all you need do is ensure you know which group(s) you will focus the most time in the session on. I do this via email so that I have some idea of whom I need to be ready to GM for.

For the player, there is the limitation that only a small part of the time will be spent on their ‘main character’ and this can be disappointing for those new to the idea. Solutions are for them to embrace the ‘secondary’ or ‘adversary’ roles they are handed to play at a session, or to adjust their ‘main character’ plan or attitude and re- join a larger ‘main character’ party. This may mean them going over their character with the GM and sorting out the needs of the story and the needs of their character.

It takes a leap of faith on the GM’s part to be willing to hand over some of the NPCs and some of the story elements (secrets) to the ‘secondary’ or ‘adversary’ characters. This system also takes some mature players that are willing to suspend their desire to ‘meta-game’ and go with the flow of the adventure and the characters that they are asked to play.

I have found this system immensely satisfies the need to keep a grand multi-session campaign going along. As an example, the current ‘main character’ group of my campaign started 6 years ago and split up 5 years ago. We are all still playing and I am still getting encouragement to continue the game and expand the story.

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Melting Pot

Recently, I have tried to combine my two interests in gaming together: Napoleonic tabletop games (using AH’s Napoleons’ Battles) and role-playing.

I wrote up some simple character profiles based on historical accounts of the principle leaders and organizers at the Council of War at Olmutz Castle held on December 1, 1805.

Then I found some miniatures games players that were willing to try to ‘role-play’ this fateful meeting and write up the orders for the troops to follow on the next day (to be played out on the tabletop by these same players).

What came from all this was a wonderful study in the history of the Battle of Austerlitz and in understanding more of the motivations and of the nature of the errors made on the battlefield of Austerlitz on December 2, 1805.

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So there are the thoughts for now, mainly I wanted to give kudos to the chips idea, and give my ramble on other RPG topics, the split groups, and share some of my future plans with your readers.

Da Pit Fiend


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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

Emphasize Team Play

From Dirk Collins

What makes a good GM?

I couldn’t say all the things, on account I don’t know.

I do know you have a good game going when your players call you and wake you when you are sleeping to ask out-of-game questions, to try to get you to reveal more of the plot before the next scheduled session, or if they ask questions about character builds, improvement, or advancement.

My #1 thing is being sure that any story, scenario, module, or adventure created has elements to include total team play, and solo “Star” status play for each of the players’ characters.

The corollary to this is that each player also have some unique abilities written in (through stats or background experience) that allow them to make unique contributions to the game.

To get the players really involved, I think it is important to fire their creative imagination and ask them to define a special ability or skill for their character based on the background story of their character that allows them to contribute to defining their character.

Anyone else, feel free to add to this, for the benefit of both new GMs and experienced GMs that may want some new ideas for making a better game.

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Single Player and Small Player Groups

From Joe

Long time reader of your very good newsletter. There are those of us who moved to new cities, are far from other gamers, or otherwise do not have access to a regular sized gaming group. I’m sure there are more than a few of us gamers who are in the same boat as myself.

I have lucked out in having a girlfriend who is into science fiction and is willing to try out a pen and paper RPG (she only has experience in computer RPGs). When someone has played CRPGs, the concepts of Attributes, Advancement, Skills, and such are a bit easier to explain.

Some tips I have for smaller or single player groups (or have gathered from other sources) follow.

  1. When running a single player campaign, the GM _can_ play a character, but it should not overshadow a player’s character. For example, in a space campaign, having the NPC being the captain can allow a GM to steer (but not railroad) a novice player. The captain NPC can stay with the space ship (to oversee repairs or do the dreaded paperwork) and send the player to explore the star port or planet. In this way, the spotlight can be on a player’s – instead of the GM’s – character.
  2. Keep the campaign geared toward a small group or single player. Spies, smugglers, private detectives, and reporters are ideas that can be played by a single character. Blade Runner is a good way to see a major character with a cast of minor characters in the background. Having a GM play a side kick might be seen by exploring Han Solo and Chewbacca (GM controlled sidekick) in the Star Wars Trilogy.
  3. Consider giving the character a few extra character points to spend from the get go. This will allow the PC to add some “jack of all trades” skills to make up for the lack of other party players. This can easily be abused by players, so watch out.
  4. Give the player a small edge. For example, instead of having a ship with extra guns and armor, give them a more maneuverable ship.
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Encouraging Roleplay

From Bear, DM in San Diego

Roleplaying is very important in my campaign. To encourage it I do the following:

  • Create an environment where the players know it’s “cool” to roleplay and “uncool” to make fun of the players with the guts enough to start acting out their PCs voice and motivations.
  • Structure the challenges so that the party has to roleplay with various NPCs and each other to get critical information to reach the challenge. When they come to something that requires serious thinking, investigation, and RPing, I just say “ok, what do you do”, look at each PC in turn and then penalize them <gently> if they do nothing and try to stall. It suddenly becomes pretty real when I stop spoon-feeding them clues.

The more talented and bold PCs then quickly start thinking and asking questions, and the quieter, shy players start to realize the advantages of having a “leader” type around.

  • I act excited, and encourage and sometimes reward the PCs who make the most effort at RPing.
  • Cracking jokes is a necessary part of the player experience – it’s a great way to relieve tension after almost “dying” – but I encourage them to make the jokes after a big encounter and discourage them from being funny when there’s a lot of RPing going on. RPing seems like getting up on stage and acting – if someone starts laughing “at you” instead of “with you” it can really take the wind out of your sails!
  • Give them plenty of XP after a game session for roleplaying.
  • Create detailed and interconnected groups of NPCs so that the players can feel the “realism” and also believe that the RPing is really going to get them somewhere… no PC wants to roleplay with a stereotypical NPC, and especially an NPC that doesn’t seem somewhat “real.”

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