7 Tips For Sci-Fi Burn-Out

From Jonathan Hicks

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0133

A Brief Word From Johnn

New HackMaster Contest: What RPG(s) Do You Play Regularly?

Congratulations to HackMaster for winning Game of The Year at Origins. This week, the good folks at Kenzer & Co. are letting me inflict you with another contest.

This time, 20 amazing GM Screens are up for grabs.

I say “amazing”, because they’re truly incredible feats of RPG engineering with 30+ panels of information. Even if you don’t play HackMaster, enter the contest so that you have a chance to check one of these puppies out first-hand–they’re sure to inspire organization and efficiency in your own GMing tools. For more GM screen info, check out this link: [ http://www.kenzerco.com/rpg/hackmaster/webtour/gmtour01.php ]

The contest this time is easy: let me know what RPG(s) you play regularly. I’d like to get a better idea of the game systems and genres I should try to write tips for, and I’ve never done an official poll before. If you play PBeMs, online, or multi-genre games, let me know the genre as well, if you wouldn’t mind.

Entry deadline is July 27th, midnight PDT. One entry per person.

Kenzer & Co. is paying for shipping, so there are no strings attached here.

Privacy: For this contest, I will be forwarding Kenzer & Co. contestants’ names for the draw, but no emails, IP information, or any other personal information. Names only. They’ll pick the winners, email me their names, and then I’ll contact them all by email myself.

Send your name and names of the RPG(s) and genres you regularly play to:

[email protected]
Good luck!

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Game Humour

I found a humorous Cool…Not Cool article online recently and wanted to share this little bit of wisdom:

Cool: Designing adventures on-the-fly.
Not Cool: Having adventures with your fly open.

LOL. The full article is here: http://www.gamewyrd.com/archives/cool.php

Be sure to check out their quick and easy online calendar maker as well: http://www.gamewyrd.com/archives/calendar.php


Johnn Four
[email protected]

7 Tips For Sci-Fi Burn-Out

Are your sci-fi games losing their spark? Want to try something different? There comes a time when the game needs a little “something” to perk up the play. Players and GMs will have a moment when the continuation is a little lackluster and the campaign needs a boost. Luckily, the genre you have chosen is vast and there are plenty of directions the game can go in. Here are a few hints on how you might be able to get things back on track for your sci-fi campaigns.


First of all, and probably the most obvious, the gaming group should simply sit down and discuss where they would like the game to go. Don’t talk about plot details, but knock around ideas about where the game could lead or what other settings the group might like to play in. There are different kinds of sci-fi settings, such as dark and dangerous planets filled with aliens, laser-fighting heroes with energy swords, or a post-apocalyptic world filled with danger and uncertainty. Any of these can also be combined to make the setting dangerous and challenging.

Change Of Pace

Let’s say, for example, the players have been spending three games searching for the whereabouts of a missing starship. There has been lots of talk, interrogation, accusation, and other elements, but not much action. This is no fault of the players or the GM – the nature of the adventure calls for brains and lateral thinking.

Suddenly, out of the blue, a new threat arises as the players close in on the truth. And this threat doesn’t bother with brains, it has some heavy ordnance and wants to use it! Suddenly, the players have bullets and laser bolts shooting in every direction. The game has suddenly changed – their attention perks up and they have an incentive to get the problem solved quickly.

The reverse works well too. Are the players always blowing things up? Stop them in their tracks and help them realise they have to think a little, and that using a twin-barrelled plasma injected auto cannon will not always solve their problems.

What the players like about the setting will affect whether they respond to this technique or not. Usually though, if they’re playing a role-playing game set in a future universe then they’re going to be pretty open-minded anyway!

Turning The Setting On Its Head

This is a little difficult and can be disorienting for the players, but it can also be effective if handled properly. What if the players are suddenly thrust into a game world they know nothing about? Or what if the world they live in is a lie? You’ve no doubt seen The Matrix – this is exactly the type of twist I mean.

For example, let’s say the players have been blasting about the galaxy fighting evil in a big way, with exploding battle stations and death-defying star fighter combat in asteroid fields. How would the players react if their starship crashed on an uncharted world where everything was completely alien and the nature of the game was not to defeat evil, but to simply survive? The battles turn from laser fights into simply getting through the day – finding water and food, fighting off weird beasts, finding heat and shelter.

If some of the bad guys crashed with them they may have to work together. The whole idea of the setting is changed and the players, so used to the world they inhabit, must fight for another type of victory.

Perhaps the players are simple planetary surveyors who are thrust into an inter-galactic war, or they have been wandering a near-future Earth wasteland and discover that there are aliens abroad, or they’re flying an experimental orbital and are thrust through space and time into a future they hardly know.

Throwing your unsuspecting players into a detailed setting (especially if they’re veterans of your current setting) often works like a charm.

Change Your Genre

There are different types of science fiction and they all appeal to different kinds of fans. Some like the technology, the actual theory behind some of the ideas expressed by the creator, and the possibilities it presents. Some like action and adventure, the space battles, and the laser fights. Others enjoy the personal aspect. Perhaps they’ve developed strange psychic powers or they are explorers of the cosmos. Different things appeal to different groups, but there’s no harm in passing over into someone else’s territory.

So you’ve been sneaking around dark starship hulks trying to eliminate the alien threat, or you’ve been wandering a wasteland trying to help others with your psionic skills. You may like it, but the game you are playing cannot be stretched out too far or it becomes repetitive and dull. It can be refreshing to change settings for a while, go from sneaking to blasting, from investigating to daring-do.

What’s fun is trying out games you wouldn’t usually dream of touching; you may be surprised at how good they can be and how refreshing a change can be. When you come back to your chosen game world you’ll find it welcoming and filled with fresh ideas.

Mixing Genres

For beginning sci-fi GMs, it’s not a good idea to mix the different sci-fi genres to create a hybrid setting. Inserting one genre with another can be hard work because you have to cope with rules and ideas behind more than one game world, and you have all the extra design that entails. You also may find it disorienting. All that being said, there’s no harm in letting the genres “touch” on one another, with elements of each setting just bleeding into each other’s realms.

For example, let’s take an actual, iconic sci-fi setting: the Star Trek universe. The players have been zapping about the Federation on the USS Microwave and the group fancies a change but doesn’t like the thought of leaving the genre they’ve chosen. Unfortunately, the GM is a massive Aliens fan, so one of three things can happen:

  • The USS Microwave finds a derelict spacecraft and brings an actual H R Geiger alien on board the starship – players with phasers and tri-corders are then forced to run about a brightly-lit starship with a myriad of sensors at their beck and call to track down a beast that is supposed to be dangerous but ends up being trapped in a force-field and secured in the bio-lab on deck seven. The game is over in exactly three minutes fifteen seconds. As you can see, the two genres didn’t mix very well.
  • The USS Microwave discovers the alien beasts, but is unfortunately hit by a meteor storm that knocks out the lights. They also lose their sensors due to a technical failure and the energy weapons don’t work due to a power leak. The alien is then able to traverse the decks and be dangerous, as it was designed to be.What is the result? Well, the GM got his alien into the mix, but he had to sacrifice the reality of the game setting to make it work, and the players feel as though they’ve been pushed into the situation with all the co-incidental things that have gone wrong with the ship. It might be fun, but it won’t last.
  • The USS Microwave finds an H R Geiger-type alien, physically similar to the movie version but with differences, such as no tail, no bones sticking out of its back and a different shaped head. The creature is brought on board and kept in stasis where it is studied. The problem is the creature has subliminal psionic skills, so it convinces one of the crew, possibly a PC, to free it and sabotage the ship so that it can feed. The crewman does this and the alien runs about the sabotaged vessel doing its dastardly deeds.

The players are within their game world and are reacting to a plausible situation – a creature they can relate to in one sense, as it’s a new life form they know nothing about but is iconic of the movies they have seen, and a creature that can exist within the PCs’ game world because it has been subtly changed to fit.

Number 3 works best because the two genres were mixed successfully and changes were made to it so they would fit together. Direct genre crossing is not a good idea, but changing one of the designs so that it fits within the existing game world can work. It’s the idea behind the design that should be utilised, not the design itself.

Character Backgrounds

Some players enjoy giving their PCs a fleshed out background and these can be sources of inspiration for the GM. So the PC has been blasting about the galaxy and having grand adventures in the depths of space, but what if someone from the past resurfaced with a problem, threat, or request? The odd throwaway name they used to fill out the character history suddenly appears. The friend they thought dead. The relative they had fallen out with, the rival that disappeared.

This brings the game down to a personal level, and while that may initially be distracting for other players whose past it does not concern, once the whole group gets embroiled and begins to find out more about their fellow adventurer – maybe things that were best left unknown – it can make for a very entertaining game. What if a whole group of people from all the PCs’ pasts got together? Everyone is involved then, both personally and emotionally.

Another great format is to pick on the PC whose past hasn’t been fleshed out. What if they suddenly discovered that their life has been a lie or has some other dramatic twist?

Single System Games

Completely changing settings is a great idea for GMs who want the challenge, but there can be a drawback: the players may become annoyed that, in order to change systems, they have to learn a new set of rules. This may put some of them off.A good answer is to turn to a multi-genre RPG, such as Steve Jackson’s GURPS or West End Games D6 or Masterbook Systems. These games allow GMs to utilise rules and chop and change their environments so that players can use the same rules in different settings.

If you have a core set of rules, even rules cannibalised from the setting you already play in, then all you have to do is purchase the source material you need in order to play in the chosen genre. These types of rule books are highly recommended as you can also have a stab at fantasy or contemporary games, if you’re so inclined, to give your sci- fi batteries time to recharge.

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Hopefully there should be a few ideas bouncing around in your head now. If you think some of the ideas you have had are too outlandish or twisted to work, don’t cast them aside. Make some notes and then try to imagine how the players may react to the idea and how it might fit in with the setting you are gaming in. This is the realm of science fiction after all – anything can happen in the next half hour!

Announcing A New Book Series: GM Mastery
A Collection Of Game Master Help Books

Our first book: NPC Essentials is a collection of tips, techniques, and aids designed to help game masters inject detailed NPCs into any role-playing campaign. Inside, readers will find advice on designing, role-playing, and managing NPCs during the entire lifetime of their campaigns. Also included are NPC archetypes, charts, and an example NPC-centric adventure. Written by that hack writer Johnn Four. Release date is August 8.


Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

4 General GMing Tips

From David F.

  • When you’re planning, ask yourself “If this were a movie, would I want to go see it?”. We see memorable moments in the movies all the time, so try to set-up similar ones for your games. This also means you should add elements of the movies, like huge special effects, romance, political intrigue, action, and memorable NPCs.
  • Make sure the PCs are special to the players. If the players become attached to their characters, they will fear losing them so that, when the huge enemy threatens the PCs, the players’ hearts will pound with fear and adrenaline will pump.
  • Keep the players busy. If you have a huge battle planned for a couple days down the line, the occasional bar fight or small mystery can occupy their time until then. Always have some filler in case things slow down.
  • Avoid having a battle that is all one type of enemy. And, when the time comes, throw in that big enemy in the form that no one expects. My players were surprised when they had fought off a bunch of sword-wielding enemy troops and found themselves having to fight a flamethrower-armed first- generation tank with only a few spells and their melee weapons.
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Dealing With Player Monster Knowledge

From Joachim

In response to Issue 99 (“5 meta gaming tips”) about separating player and character knowledge, I have a tip to all GMs who face this problem (that is, quite likely, most of us). The worst problem of this sort is often the rules lawyer who has memorized all creature information, but the same tip – with some minor changes – can be applied to all “firewalling” problems.When the players want to use the information they, as a player, know, they must make a roll of some kind based on their characters’ skills.

In 3rd edition D&D it’s a Knowledge (Creatures) check, in GURPS it’s a “Monster Lore” (a Mental/Very Hard skill) roll, etc. They are not allowed to use their information *unless* they succeed on the roll.I will not give exact stats, but I give a description (the better the roll, the better the description) of the creature, which might tell them what it does instead. Knowing how big a boulder a giant can throw will let the players have some grasp of its strength. Also, I may give the characters some information the players do not have if they succeed at this check.

This same tip can be applied to other knowledge the players may have access to but the characters do not. For instance, if someone knows too much about your campaign world, he will only be allowed to use this information if he succeeds at a roll.Keep up the good work!

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A Classic Tip: Let Players Run Minor NPCs

From Michael A.

One trick to lighten the GM load is to pass on the duty of roleplaying “minor” NPCs to another player, one whose PC is not involved directly (my PCs tend to split up when in a town).I give a brief synopsis of the NPC (usually in a note) to the player and let him run with it. This way I don’t have to play every barkeep or wandering minstrel the players meet and, more importantly, it gives the players more chance to have fun in an encounter where the spokesman of the group is doing his thing.

I have a lot of fun sitting back and seeing what the players do with some of the NPCs, especially as they almost always play the NPC as less amiable to the party’s wishes than I would! This is a great way of making the NPC more memorable because the players generally have more “energy” to give to minor roles than the poor, harried GM.Of course, there have been sessions where the players never actually make it out of the inn, such is their involvement in playing the minor NPCs.

We actually had a game that consisted of the party sitting in a hotel, getting drunk, gambling, and chatting up the staff (no, it wasn’t live roleplay :-). Just make sure the serving wenches and shop keepers aren’t TOO fun to play!

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Town Generator & Resource

From Rickard E.

Just wanted to share this link with others who are thinking of making their own towns: http://www.io.com/~sjohn/demog.htm

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Sources For Names

From Denise

One of my pet peeves is that, in most published game worlds, there is no common flavor to the character names from different races or cultures. Names of people and places are made up with no apparent thought to how they fit together. In the real world, names from different cultures have a distinctly different “feel” to them based on the sounds in the native language. Even names with the same basic meaning, such as John, Ian, Hans, and Evan, have different sounds and pronunciations.

Therefore, in a setting like the World of Greyhawk, for instance, you wouldn’t expect a Rhennee name to sound like a Baklunish name any more than Chang sounds like Natalia.In my search for creative names for characters I have discovered a truly amazing site on the web. It is a comprehensive list of real names from all over the world, but instead of lumping them male/female and sorting them in alphabetical order (like most baby name books), the list is sorted male/female by nationality.

This greatly speeds up the time it takes to find that perfect name. I have used it for contemporary, historical, fantasy, and sci-fi futuristic campaigns.To help keep the flavor of each culture, just pick a nationality from the list and use it to create the names of all your PCs and NPCs in that part of your world. If you have two cultures that have had a history of mingling, pick two nationalities that are close together (say, Italian and Spanish) and mix-and-match from the two lists.

There should be enough differences to make it interesting. Using “real” names also helps make your character names seem more realistic. Check it out: http://www.kabalarians.com/html/surf-by.htm[Comment from Johnn: be sure to click on the individual names as well. If they’re in the Kabalarian database, you’ll get a great psychological synopsis–perfect for instant NPCs!]And if those just aren’t enough names for you, here’s another site: http://anzwers.org/free/jhpn/This one contains an A-Z list of links to other name-related sites on the web.

Castles, ships, actors, gemstones, and Pokemon are just a sample of the lists you can find here. There are even links to sites that will explain how to build and pronounce ethnic names (Arabic, Ancient Egyptian, etc.) correctly.

I hope you enjoy them!

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For Epic Campaign Campaigns, Think Small

From Joel

The Lord of the Rings movie got me thinking about epics and campaigns. Every GM I know — including myself — likes to have that epic feel in their games, but sometimes we fall short. I am fortunate to say that my current campaign is my most successful to date. It captures the epic atmosphere. What makes this campaign different from the others is I did not start grand. I began small.An epic is larger than life.

If the PCs are grand characters who possess grand items or powers, the campaign will be dwarfed by them. The key is to think small. Sure, there are powerful forces gathering and evil plots brewing, but how do they affect the everyday person? By starting at that scale and looking out, the events start to have an epic bearing.Pacing is very important. Start them knowing as little as possible, especially about the scope. Often, we GMs announce our intention of running an epic campaign: “Karamon’s evil forces are advancing from the south.

Only the Scepter of Asumandy can hope to stop him. Unfortunately, it’s been broken in three parts and scattered across the continent.” Whether you start your PCs as farmers who uncover a part of the scepter plowing their field, or a guardsman on a far outpost who encounters an advance scout party for Karamon, do not clue them to how big the campaign really is.Also, do not rush it. Tolkien’s work took him half a lifetime to complete, and he was still editing it when he passed away.

An epic campaign should not be completed quickly. In my campaign, we’ve been playing for a year now and the players are only starting to get a hint of the scope. I’ve made the focus of my campaign not to stop the forces brewing, but to discover them. I intend to run several campaigns in the same time line. If I ever do finish it, I’m sure everyone involved will feel a grand accomplishment.Eventually the campaign will be about heroes, powerful items, and unspeakable evils, but only when the time is right.

What’s looming over that next hill or around that corner should always seem to be just a little bit bigger and a little bit tougher. The key is to work your way to the epic. So remember, for grand epics, think small.