Special Equipment Tips

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0268

A Brief Word From Johnn

Gamer Classifieds Are A Go – Contact Me For Details

I received dozens of positive responses on the issue of including Gamer Classifieds at the end of the e-zine, and one negative one, so we’ll give them a whirl.

In case you missed the initial Brief Word about them, I’m going to add a Gamer Classifieds section of short RPG- related ads at a fraction of the price of regular ads for those who’d like to promote their websites, services, auctions, and so forth.

If you’re interested in placing an ad and reaching 13000+ gamers, e-mail me for rates and info.

2004 GM Encyclopedia Purchasers – Update Now Available

Last call: if you purchased the Roleplaying Tips GM Encyclopedia in 2004, there is an update now available that includes Issues #201-250, as promised. Send me a note if you did not receive my update e-mail. Anyone purchasing the Encyclopedia now receives the updated version automatically.

Session 14

My bi-weekly Birthright campaign hits #14 Monday night. Currently, the PCs are 4th level and investigating a mysterious haunted tower for an NPC who claims he’s their future lord come to their village in disguise to get the measure of the community first before revealing himself. He plans on using the tower as his base of operations. Some of the PCs believe the would-be lord, and some are highly suspicious. Perhaps the truth will be revealed in #14.

The campaign so far hasn’t been very Birthrighty. It’s seen some great roleplaying, a bit of intrigue, and some fun dungeon crawls. However, there’s been no politics to speak of. That might change if a new lord does move in, though.

Also, it’s been hard to take a lengthy in-game break to allow the party’s crafters to work their magic (pun intended, maybe :). That’s my fault for providing new hooks and opportunities each time the group accomplishes a goal. It’s tough getting all plot threads to end or pause at once though. It’s hard to believe that I need to make the game so boring the PCs decide to settle down for a bit and craft. Hopefully a natural break will occur–winter is not too far off…


Johnn Four,
[email protected]

Special Equipment Tips

Equipment is often taken for granted, especially by experienced players and groups that have been gaming together for a long while. All too often, equipment found in the player’s book is assumed to be equally accessible to all player characters. After awhile, the equipment becomes blase and an uninteresting game element.

I remember making my first few PCs years ago. Every copper piece was eagerly spent during character creation. Every item was tactically and contextually considered. Then I entered a phase where equipment was a painful part of PC creation. A friend gave me some photocopied equipment “packages” that I could use to instantly equip my new characters with, and I eagerly used those for a time (thanks Pit Fiend!). Nowadays, I use a variety of methods for dealing with PC and NPC equipment.

I also recently acquired Mongoose’s D20 Ultimate Equipment Guide, Volume 2 (UEG2), and a few of the tips in this article were also inspired by that book. You can read my full review of UEG2 here:

Ultimate Equipment Guide, Volume 2 Review 

Create Equipment Packages

I mentioned this method in this article’s introduction, and it’s a very fast and efficient way to manage equipment for new PCs and NPCs. You give yourself a budget then make a list of the equipment purchased. This has a high, upfront time and preparation cost, but it pays huge, long term dividends, and the more package configurations you build, the more time you’ll ultimately save.

Some package examples:

  • For each core class or PC archetype in your game
  • Culture based
  • Racial based
  • By budget (small, medium, large)
  • By background (noble, peasant, mercenary)
  • Anticipated campaign use (dungeon, wilderness, urban)
  • Climate and weather (cold gear, desert gear)

To save yourself some time, ask your players for help:

  • Give idle players conditions (budget, package type) and ask them to create a package or two
  • Ask players to provide you detailed equipment lists and total costs for their new PCs and turn these into reusable packages.
  • Ask idle players to review packages and make improvement tweaks

By the way, if you know of any equipment packages available online, feel free to send me the link(s) and I’ll post’em in the e-zine.

Use Equipment To Add Mystery And Puzzles

The cool thing about a book like Ultimate Equipment Guide 2, and any other source of interesting equipment, is that the items within will be unknown to your players. This presents an opportunity to add mystery to your campaign, or to craft interesting puzzles for the PCs to solve.

  • The first thing you should do is check with your group to ensure none of your players has read the book or source from which you’re drawing the equipment. There’s no sense in spending design time and planning energy if a player will instantly recognize or identify the item.
  • Next, pick an item that seems interesting to you, that sparks an idea, or seems to have the potential for use as a mystery or puzzle.
  • Third, put on your thinking cap and brainstorm a list of potential uses for the item. Imagine if an NPC in your campaign had the item, lots of time to experiment with it, and a goal, such as making money, self-defense or protecting property, entertainment, making a task easier, and so on.

A core component of interesting encounters is conflict, such as violence, theft, betrayal, or competition. As you’re making your list of clever uses for the item, try to think along the lines of how the item could be used in a conflict. This will help make the item relevant to the more interesting parts of your game.

For example, the UEG2 has an alchemical item called burning ink. You write on paper using the ink, and then, when a special black powder is sprinkled on the paper at a later date, the ink burns, destroying the message. This item could be used as a convenient way to handle paper garbage. However, it would be much more interesting if used by a spy network or by distant lovers who must keep their feelings a secret from their families.

Once you’ve finished your ideas list, pick the most interesting use that fits with your current plot or designs, and that relates to some kind of conflict.

  • Next is the most interesting part of the process, for me at least. With the item’s clever best use in mind, brainstorm a list of all the causes and effects the item’s use would have, from mundane to plot-inspiring. Note all details and circumstances you can think of surrounding the item’s use.This will create your master list of clues or puzzle elements you can drop into your encounters to successfully mystify and stump your players.For example, with our burning ink, we might craft this list:
    • Ink container (let’s say, a uniquely shaped black jar)
    • Pen or quill (new and used with ink stains)
    • Spilled ink
    • Ink on writer’s hands and fingers
    • Parchment (nothing special required for ink to work, so probably all types and sizes are possible)
    • Burnt parchment (corners and parts that didn’t get consumed when ink was hit by the black powder)
    • Burnt parchment with writing still on it (areas that weren’t covered by the powder and possibly left behind in haste – perhaps a classic fireplace clue scene)
    • Invoices or receipts for the special ink and powder, with vendor’s name on it, and possibly purchaser’s
    • Black powder container (let’s say, it comes in small leather bags)
    • Black powder, spilled during use and not cleaned up
    • Smell? Is there a specific smell after the ink has burned, perhaps?

Keep a notebook handy as more ideas will come to you out of the blue while doing other things.

  • Once you’ve crafted a list of 5+ clues, order them in terms of vagueness and identifiability. You want to save the most obvious clues for last.
  • Finally, depending on your design approach and GMing style, weave your item’s use into your plot line, and sprinkle your clues amongst your planned encounters, in order of vagueness, appropriate to the situation. Alternatively, with a firm idea of who is using the item and why, and a list of clues handy, GM things on-the-fly, and plant your clues as you go based on gameplay.

Feel free to repeat clues, signs, and evidence when the PCs haven’t picked up on them previously, or to give the PCs a sign that they’re on the right track.

Design The Distribution Chain

A great way to make equipment a fun and exciting game element in your campaigns is to plot out its distribution chain. Equipment doesn’t materialize out of thin air (usually ;). Instead, it requires a sequence of events, which I call a distribution chain, that starts with the item’s inventor and ends with the item in the final user’s hands.

During each stage there are plot and encounter opportunities you can take advantage of. In addition, the ideas spawned in this manner often feel like they’re part of a connected whole, logical, and believable. This can help make your games seem real, alive, and unique.

For example, I have read many modules new and old where the plot is based on some powerful, ancient magic item crafted by a long-lost race, culture, god, or wizard. In a few cases, this harmonizes with the overall theme and scope of the adventure, but most of the time I feel it comes across as heavy-handed and cliche.

Imagine instead a pair of adventures involving the low-key, small scope, somewhat mundane burning ink mentioned in Tip #2. In the first adventure, the ink and powder is used as the primary method of communication between agents in the field and HQ by a villainous organization. The ink presents part of the adventure’s mystery, lends the organization a touch of uniqueness, and in several instances, helps advance the plot.

In the second adventure, after the heroes have figured out the ink puzzle as a side-plot to the main goal of defeating the villain, they are sent on a mission to discover the origins of the ink and powder, and to either return with its method of manufacture or with a large supply so their lord can use it for his own spy network. Along the way on their search, the PCs discover a sinister plot to overthrow their lord by a henchman of the former villain who got away in the first adventure, which ends up becoming the main plot of the story.

These type of equipment-spawned plots might suit your campaigns, worlds, and milieus better than plague-bearing artefacts or comets falling from the sky. If so, then consider the following steps that could be part of your item’s distribution chain:


Who designed the item? The inventor is often either self- motivated (with various goals ranging from wanting to make money to seeking revenge) or hired to invent an item based on specifications provided (which begs the question, who hired the inventor and why?).

Also, consider the process the inventor used. Some inventors start building based on a vision and continue iterating until trial and error brings success, final failure, or catastrophe. Other inventors start with the design stage, crafting plans, and doing research. Each approach can provide interesting elements for your game, such as prototypes and blueprints.

Campaign use: An inventor NPC of a specific item in your campaign can be a source of clues, knowledge, plot threads, and roleplaying encounters.

  • Find the inventor (or his grave, notes, laboratory, etc.) to:
    • instruct on an item’s use
    • hire to build a new invention
    • learn more about a sought-after item
    • get the knowledge to build more of a particular item
    • reverse-engineer a strange new item
  • Save the inventor
  • Kill or detain the inventor (i.e. could be an evil NPC/creature inventing weapons for the enemy)
  • Find other items invented by the same NPC


The one who invents an item and the one(s) who build current versions of it are often different. A crafter might have purchased, stolen, or stumbled onto the knowledge of how to build an item proven to have worked at least once, or a guild might provide plans obtained from an inventor to authorized, licensed, or approved craftsmen for reproduction.

Crafters and inventors have many similar needs that can feed into your GMing designs:

  • Raw materials: find, purchase, steal, discover.
  • Tools: these involve the same distribution chain as the final piece of equipment itself! Tools might need to be obtained, invented, or crafted before the item can be invented or crafted.
  • Storage: tools, parts, ingredients, prototypes, completed items, and so on need a sheltered and possibly secure location. Finding a hidden workshop, guarding a storage area, or using a storage place as a cool encounter location are just some of the potential campaign uses.
  • By-products: does any part of the inventing or crafting process create waste materials? Are the materials hazardous, valuable, or troublesome in any way?

Note that each of the above bullets can be used as grist for clues, puzzles, encounter details, and plot hooks.


Someone needs to get the crafted product to the end user. The crafter or inventor might deal directly with employers or customers, but often they don’t to save themselves having to deal with sales, customer service and support, and finding a market.

Retailers come in many forms, such as a merchant in a shop, a caravan or travelling salesman, or a consultant or expert. Retailers might specialize in one particular item or type of item, or sell a range of items.

Campaign use:

  • Find a retailer who sells the item
  • Parley with a retailer to find out where they got the item
  • Get knowledge from a retailer about an item’s use or maintenance
  • Find out who has purchased (or stolen) the item


In some societies or markets, there’s an opportunity for a middleman to act as an agent between the crafter and the retailer. Crafters want to craft and retailers want to be in front of customers as much as possible with inventory in hand. Therein lies an opportunity for an individual or agency to discover and bring new items to the market, supply one or more retailers with an item (minimizing retailer and crafter travel time), manage relationships (and pricing) with crafters, and so on.

Distributors are essentially retailers whose customers are other retailers. Clever distributors will try to employ a few different tactics that can have fun campaign implications:

  • Corner the market. By being the sole source of an item it forces all retailers to deal with them and prevents other distributors from interfering.
  • Protect the identity of the crafter and inventor. This helps prevent retailers from bypassing the distributor or dealing directly with an item’s originator.
  • Secure rights, licenses, laws, and agreements for as much exclusivity as possible from whatever authorities prevail in a region. This prevents other distributors, craftsmen, and retailers from competing with the distributor.
  • Price fixing.
  • Disruption of retailer and crafting guilds. If a distributor can keep the upper hand by being the most powerful part of the distribution chain, its prosperity is guaranteed.
  • Elimination of competing products. Through means legal and not, a distributor gain advantage if there are no better or alternative items available in a region.

These actions will often generate reactions from craftsmen and retailers. For example, merchants might try to form a guild or send out agents to other regions to find other distributors. Kings might play distributors off against retailers while collecting taxes from everybody. Once you get into the details, it’s a very exciting opportunity for game design!


Ultimately, an item needs an end user or it has no value, other than perhaps being a hobby for the inventor or crafter.

Campaign use:

  • Who wants the item and why?
  • Who knows about the item’s availability in the first place?

Often, a special item defines or reveals something about a customer, as in the case of poison or expensive clothes. Always try to consider equipment in the context of the end- user.

The distribution chain can serve as the structure for an adventure all by itself. The PCs must start at one end to get to their desired goal at the other. For example, they might have to track down the inventor and their only lead is a traveling merchant who is known to sell the item from time to time. Through the merchant, they find the supplier. From the supplier, they learn the crafter’s identity. Through the crafter, they learn where he got the blueprints. Optionally, some links in the chain might need to be repeated. Merchant A bought the item from Merchant B who stole the item from Merchant C, for example.

The distribution chain can also help you vary your encounters. Rather than the PCs always finding special equipment through treasure or merchants, perhaps they stumble upon the inventor or the distributor’s warehouse. Prying the items out of these sources might require some good roleplaying, puzzle solving, or violence, as per your encounter design.

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Stay tuned for more equipment tips in an upcoming issue.

L5R RPG: Third Edition!

Welcome to the third iteration of the Legend of the Five Rings Role-Playing Game. This player’s guide will provide players and GMs with all of the setting, culture, and rules needed to create characters in the Legend of the Five Rings world and stage ongoing campaigns in Rokugan. While this book contains an updated version of the familiar rules, conversion rules will be included so that none of the many previous volumes set in this world will ever be obsolete.

L5R RPG: Third Edition! at RPGShop 

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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

Pegboard for Initiative Tracking

From Gillian Wiseman

Having followed the discussion on using crib boards for tracking spells and initiatives, I’d like to describe the system I came up with. I bought some cork squares (the kind used to cover a wall) at a home improvement store. I cut one-inch strips from one square, and hot glued three of them together to create a nice, thick inch-wide strip. I used a sharpie to number 1-30 on it, for initiative rolls. At the top, above the initiative numbers, I divided off a section and numbered it 1-15 (the initiative numbers were all one long string, but the round numbers above were in three rows).

Then I bought colored push-pins (I recommend solid colors, not translucent, as they’re easier to read). On each pin I can write a PC’s initials, numbers for foes, or letters for spells and effects. I have one pin that I use to track what round a combat is in, and the others can be used wherever needed. We all really like using this system, and it seems to give us the flexibility we need. Simply cutting wider strips would allow more space for tracking larger groups or more effects at one time.

It was cheap, and is easy to replace when the cork gets too crumbly from use. [Scot – For additional ideas on using cribbage boards fortracking purposes see: Roleplaying Tips issue #64 and issue #259 ]

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Character Perceptions

From JM

Some of the characters in the party are probably smarter and/or more perceptive than their players. Know the PCs’ abilities and skills so that you don’t shortchange them on information. If a PC has a huge modifier on Survival and the Track feat, then even the most boring and ordinary room may hold footprints to fascinate them. Don’t underestimate the intuition of a high-WIS character (or the knowledge of a high INT, or both since the party probably has both).

If you want to quantify intuition, use Sense Motive. Regardless, intuition is probably going to pick up more of those little hooks to tell them what sort of people are in an area based on items (is it a library of unread bestsellers or is that the Necronomicon on the shelf?) and the condition of items (is it a lively bar with cheerfully worn stuff, or a rowdy bar with randomly abused stuff?)

Knowing character abilities is also very important for listen & spot checks. If you don’t know the maximum audible/visible distance for the characters, then you won’t know when they can hear or see folks approaching resulting in inappropriate ambushes against the characters. For example, a couple of large creatures sauntering up while chatting that are detected by a 20 listen check start 200? away, not 80?.

If you doubt this, consider: a human starting with an INT of 18 is fluent in 5 languages; how many languages is the player fluent in? How about the game’s DM?

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Music in Games

From Tom G.

As we all know, the right music playing in the background adds drive to a game, heightens emotions, and incorporates a whole new layer to an RPG experience. Music that I’ve used in the past includes, but is not limited to:

  • Yngwie Malmsteen (song title, then source)
    • Crying, Trilogy
    • Dark Ages, Trilogy
    • Trilogy Suite Op: 5, Trilogy
    • Disciples of Hell, Rising Force: Marching Out
    • I am a Viking, Rising Force: Marching Out
    • Overture 1383, Rising Force: Marching Out
    • Soldier without Faith, Rising Force: Marching Out
    • Marching Out, Rising Force: Marching Out
    • Molto Arpeggiosa, Rising Force: War to End All Wars
    • Preludium, Rising Force: War to End All Wars
    • Tarot, Rising Force: War to End All Wars
    • Instrumental Institution, Rising Force: War to End All Wars
    • Black Star, The Yngwie Malmsteen Collection
    • Judas, The Yngwie Malmsteen Collection

The majority of Malmsteen’s stuff is the perfect flavor for medieval roleplaying, but 5 discs of it will get old pretty quickly. Above are the tracks that I prefer to use for games.

  • Glenn Danzig
    • Black Aria (all tracks)

Black Aria brings a decidedly sinister feel to a game, and increases both tension and foreboding feelings.

  • Kronos Quartet
    • Black Angels (all tracks)

Truly bizarre, this music is great for leap frog scares.

  • Tomb Raider Soundtrack
    • Original game (Leave out voice tracks, unless you can work them in)

Very versatile soundtrack, great adventure music.

  • Kodo
    • Japanese Taiko drums, this stuff is great!

For some Asian flavor (or any culture that uses drums, not many of those, are there?).

  • Huun-Huur-Tu & Tuva
    • Mongolian Throat Singers for a culture-shock experience.

Sending your players to a new continent, new plane of existence, etc.? This is well worth working into your plans. One voice, two different pitches at the same time!

  • Midnight Syndicate
    • Any and all discs

Great gaming music, any way you look at it!

  • Eberron Soundtrack
    • Came with Sharn: City of Towers sourcebook

No-brainer on this one, it came with an RPG book!

  • Last of the Mohicans soundtrack
  • Independence Day soundtrack
  • Power of One soundtrack (African flavor)
  • Lord of the Rings soundtracks

Of course, soundtracks play a huge role. Use your favorites, but one word of caution. Try not to use music that is too distinct; Star Wars or Indiana Jones are good examples. If your players hear something that they know and know well, you may well find that they start listening, and thinking about Darth Maul and Yoda instead of the orc that’s now barreling down upon them. If you’re playing a Star Wars game, obviously, the Star Wars soundtrack is the perfect thing to use, but you get the idea.

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Visual Aids

From Chris Dyszelski [ In response to Roleplayint Tips issue #260 ]

I started doing something of this sort when I was running a Vampire game set in my hometown of Milwaukee when I lived in Ohio. I took pics of some of the major locales by night (Vampires after all). I also collected lots of things like phone books, maps, tourist brochures, and newspapers, to provide a local flavor. I got a book on local architecture to help people to visualize certain neighborhoods.

I used the Internet to find out about major events in town (concerts, sporting events, conventions) to work into events in the campaign, like the traffic jam downtown when the game lets out that prevents characters from getting where they want to go. I kept all the information in a master calendar which I could then track the campaign time in.