Running A Sci-Fi Game Setting Well: 8 Tips For Newbie GMs

From Jonathan Hicks

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0123

A Brief Word From Johnn

Supplemental #7: City Places now available!

Remember my request waaay back in Issue #81 for buildings and places ideas for cities? Well, I’m finally making good on that promise and I have a whole bunch of lists and ideas ready for you, all sorted and categorized in one handy file.

“Buildings, Establishments, and Places You Can Find In Villages, Towns, and Cities”

Getting Your Foot In The RPG Biz Door

Heather Grove from has sent us some great tips about how to become an RPG writer, and I’ve included them in this week’s issue. I’d also like to point out an article that I’ve reposted, with permission, from Otto Cargill, about getting your foot in the door.

Minor Rewards: PDF

Jim B. sent me a PDF version of the Minor Rewards file that includes bookmarks to all of the items for easy reference.

Thanks Jim!

Lots of goodies this week. Whew!

Johnn Four

Running A Sci-Fi Game Setting Well: 8 Tips For Newbie GMs

During a game GMs come across all kinds of situations they have to deal with on the fly, but there are certain situations in Sci-Fi games that crop up again and again that can throw the everything into disarray.

The most difficult problem is if the players aren’t getting ‘into’ the setting. GMs might look across the table at any time and see one or two of the players (and in the most extreme cases, all of them) looking a little bored or lost. This might have something to do with the way things are progressing or because they can’t get a feel for the game.

So, below I’ve included nine ways a sci-fi GM can enhance and colourfully portray their game’s setting.

Use Pictures, Photos, Printouts

Have pictures ready to hand out for certain aspects of your game so the players can better visualise their surroundings.There are an abundance of visuals on the Internet and in books and it’s good to have a visual representation of what it is you’re trying to explain.

For space shots, use photographs from the Hubble Telescope, for starships there are plenty of movie and actual space agency design sketches you can utilise. Even a rough sketch by you can serve the purpose.


Base Your NPCs On Actors

Saying that the captain of the starship looks like Pierce Brosnan or the assassin looks like Angelina Jolie can take all the work out of the need for descriptions and speeds the game along. It gives the players a good point of reference if they can match the face to the name.


Choose The Right Game System

Make sure your system is suitable for the players. There’s no point in running a Star Trek type of game if the players want to kick Aliens-type backside. Chopping and changing the game you have designed so that it will suit the tastes of the players is not a big job and in the long run it will serve its purpose.


Know Your Game World

Sci-Fi settings can be vast, and constantly referring to sourcebooks during play can be tedious for the players and detach them from the game setting itself if they feel the GM is not in full control. Not knowing what a certain alien is capable of, especially at a crucial point in a game, might destroy the suspension of disbelief. Also, the players not only need a GM’s narrative ability, they also need to be secure in the fact that he can supply them with a tangible world.

Know The Setting As Well As The Players, If Not Better

There’s no point in running a game where the players know more about the setting than you do. Let’s say you’re running a Star Trek game – you’ve seen a few of the episodes and the movies, have got the gist of the genre and know the rulebook inside out. Unfortunately, the player(s) know the series inside out, can quote lines from specified episodes and have lots and lots of supplementary books. You can see where this is going.Situations will constantly arise where the players will say they can do something you did not foresee and you know that if they do it might:

  1. Upset the route the game is taking, or
  2. Make the game too easy for them

There are only so many times where you are able to say ‘I can’t allow that’ before the players feel as though they are being constricted within a setting they know well. Also, how do you know they’re not making some of these things up? Be educated in your chosen setting.

Make Sure You’re Within Your Chosen Genre’s Boundaries

There are generally three different types of Sci-Fi genres.

These are:

  1. ‘Hard Science Fiction’, where the technology and physics are based on actual real-world capabilities and possibilities, with the abilities of equipment based on actual theory.
  2. ‘Space Opera’, where it doesn’t matter how something works – it just does, and Star Wars-type action abounds with large space battles and even larger technology.
  3. ‘Science Fantasy’, where the powers of both psionics and inter-dimensional theory actually exist.

Most of these genres don’t intermix, and if they do then they usually just touch on each other. If the players are running through a ‘Hard’ setting, with theoretically possible vessels and ecologically viable planets, and then it suddenly switches to huge laser battles and starfighters, they may find it a little disorienting. It’s best that the genres are not intertwined so that the players can identify with their surroundings and are able to concentrate on exactly what is expected of them.

Be A Good Mimic

This sounds a little strange, but having a talent for vocal diversity and being able to do sound effects with your voice can help. The ‘pyoo’ of laser bolts, the ‘brmmmm’ of rumbling starships, the ‘swoosh’ of hovercars, the ‘bloop’ of computers… Yes, it all sounds very embarrassing, having to sit at the head of the table and basically rip your throat out with silly noises, but if you become good at it and it’s close to the desired effect, then it can help.

Keep Things Moving

Even if the story promotes slow investigation, speed up the pace. Throw in a bad guy, have the characters get shot at, do something that will grab the players’ attention. If they’re suddenly cast into a life-threatening situation then they won’t have time to wonder at their position in the game.

Noble Knight Games
“Where the Out-of-Print is Available Again”

Noble Knight Games is your one stop shop for both new and out-of-print RPG’s, Board/Wargames, Miniatures, etc. We carry over 15,000 titles all accurately graded and offer discounts from retail on in print titles. Our website features a shopping cart with secure checkout and all titles listed are in stock and ready to ship worldwide. We also buy and trade for any unwanted gaming items.

Visit our website at: Noble Knight Games

Promote Your RPG Product Here

Do you have a gaming-relating product that you’d like to tell 12,400 Game Masters about? Put your information and links here! The GM subscribers to this ezine have been very supportive of advertisers in the past and are open to learning more about your products as long as they’re useful to roleplayers.

Just don’t try to sell us any swampland in Gehenna.

[email protected]

Guest Article: Breaking Into the Roleplaying Biz – The Five Top Tipsnbsp

From Heather Grove

I’ve freelanced in the roleplaying industry for 7 or 8 years now. I’ve worked for 2 companies and I think 8 developers. I’ve also known a couple of developers as good friends, so I’ve had the advantage of hearing things from the other side of the fence as well.

I’ve done a lot of writing about the roleplaying industry, and it would take me… oh, let’s see… at least twelve articles to really fill you in on all the basics (that’s how many I’ve written so far, anyway). What a lot of people want to know, however, is the short form of this: How do I break into the business in five easy steps? What do I do to start writing for the industry?

This article is the short answer to that question: the five best tips I can give you; the guiding principles that shape everything. All the rest is just details.

Learn to Write!

People who want to write for the roleplaying industry often don’t stop to think of it as a publishing industry. It just never really occurs to them that they have to be able to produce writing of publishable quality in order to work in the industry — not just a cool plot or some neat characters.Think of some of the game review sites you see out there.

Reviewers get very unhappy with game authors who make typos, misspell things, have poor grammar, create cardboard characters, create inconsistencies, and so on. If those reviewers saw your work, would they find the same mistakes and problems in it? If so, improve your writing a bit more before approaching a company.

Get Published First

If you want to break into the business, you need to be able to prove to a company that you can write work of publishable quality. This means you should have a writing sample ready. If you don’t have anything you can use as a writing sample, that’s probably a very good sign that you aren’t ready yet.If you don’t know whether or not your work is that good, you probably need more practice.

If you think your work is publishable but you would like a second opinion, then submit short pieces (short stories, reviews, articles) to various appropriate magazines and web sites. Not only will this tell you whether or not other people agree with your self- assessment, but it will also give you resume material.Just don’t give up if you don’t get published right away. Most authors collect rejection slips for quite a while before getting published.Why is this?

  • Yes, not having previous publications can sometimes hurt your chances. If you’re trying to get published on RPG- related web sites though, this probably isn’t an issue.
  • It is very rare for a writer to have hit the point of publishability as early in her life as she thinks she has. Hopefully during those first reams of rejection letters you’re still improving your craft, sometimes in response to editor comments (most editors don’t personalize rejection slips. If one of them does, treat the advice like gold).
  • Often, a piece that’s wrong for one magazine is right for another. Keep resubmitting manuscripts and you might eventually find the right market.

Keep Improving

No matter where you are in your writing career, you can always stand to improve. So while you’re networking, submitting proposals, writing sample chapters, and so on, keep improving your writing. Keep working on it. Buy a copy of “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers” by Browne and King, and keep it next to you whenever you write. The more you improve your writing, the more you improve your chances to get published.

Follow Directions And Be Self-Sufficient

Check out the company’s web site and look for writers’ guidelines. Read every word of those guidelines and follow them to the letter. Those guidelines are there to make this process easier on the developer. If you circumvent them, you’re making the process harder on the developer — and he isn’t likely to thank you for that.Don’t ask the developer questions that are answered in the guidelines. Don’t ask the developer how to submit material when there are guidelines on the web site that you could read yourself.

You’ll find that most guidelines will tell you not to send manuscripts that have to be signed for, and this one is a biggie — no developer wants to stand in line at the post office for half an hour just to get your one manuscript. Such packages are likely to be tossed in the trash.Why is all of this such a big deal? Because it says a lot about you. It says a lot about your willingness to do your own research. It says a lot about your willingness to follow directions and do work.

If you can’t do any of this, then why should the developer expect you to follow the directions in your outline or contract?

Get Involved

Get involved in communities that revolve around the games you want to write for. Hang out on message boards, mailing lists and forums and hold intelligent conversations. Go to cons and participate in company-run games and tournaments. Be generally helpful. Review books from those game lines in an honest, forthright, and thorough manner.Why? Because this can make a developer notice you.

If you’re being straightforward, friendly, and helpful and you’re saying things about his game that make sense to him, he might remember your name in a positive way. This means that when you finally get around to sending him a proposal, he might be saying to himself, “oh yeah, that guy. He seems to really have his head on straight.” There are a few things to remember when doing this, however:

  • Don’t do this just to get someone’s attention, or it’ll probably show. Get involved because you enjoy the game and want to support it anyway.
  • Be polite. Few developers are going to want to hire someone who shows a propensity for screaming at the fans.
  • Remember your spelling and grammar at all times. It may seem like overkill on a forum, and I’m sure a few typos here and there won’t screw over your chances. But it’s all about the impression you leave the developer with.
  • Try to be honest (but remember that politeness thing). I think that the majority of developers out there are interested in hearing honest opinions that disagree with theirs, as long as they’re polite and friendly, well- thought-out, and well-spoken. (Obviously there are exceptions to every rule, however.)

Keep Trying

Don’t give up easily. If you really want to write for the RPG business, then keep sending proposals and writing samples and so on to various companies. If one company says no, pay attention to why (if they say). Try to improve in that area a bit, then approach the next company. And so on.On the one hand, you don’t want to ignore the fact that a company has said no. It may mean that you have some improving to do before you’re considered publishable. This goes with that “keep improving” rule above — use it as yet another reason to get even better at what you do.

On the other hand, just because one company has said no doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t do the job. They might have all the authors they need right now, or you might have used a turn of phrase in your cover letter that just really annoyed someone, or the developer might have had a bad morning that day.Don’t go to either possible extreme here. Don’t assume that you’re amazing and any rejection is just a developer’s stupidity. But also don’t assume that just because a company doesn’t want you, it means your writing sucks and you’ll never get anywhere.

Be a Professional!

One of the best things you can do for yourself is to behave like a professional. This means that you don’t treat your RPG freelance work as though it were a hobby — treat it like a real job, because that’s what it is. Developers tend to run into a lot of flaky people. If they get even the slightest hint that you fall into this category they may pass you over without a second thought. Many of the previous items fall into the “be a professional” category; here are a few small additions.

Cover Letters and Other Communications

Treat every communication with the developer seriously. Every email and cover letter should be written with good grammar. Include all of your contact information. Capitalize words properly. Spell-check the letter. Why? Because if you can’t even bother to spell-check your letter, why should they expect you to take the time on a full manuscript? Remember — writing is all about presentation.

Be Polite

This one should be pretty self-explanatory. Be polite. Don’t be rude. Don’t tell the developer how awful his writing is. Don’t insult his company.

Be Accommodating

Be willing to do what the developer asks of you. If he wants a writing sample, be ready to give him one. If he wants to try you out on a less popular line before giving you a shot at the one you love, be ready to say yes and to do a good job on that project. If you agree to a contract, make sure you actually have the time to complete it!This doesn’t mean that you have to do anything the developer says without using your head. Be smart — read your contracts carefully; don’t sign anything you aren’t willing to abide by; and so on.

Bonus Tips

Now that you have my five top tips for breaking into the business, I’m going to pass on a few words of wisdom learned from long years of work and talking to other freelancers. These are my top tips for staying in the business and doing well at it.

Turn In Complete Drafts

When you turn in drafts to the company, don’t turn in that mess of ideas that your writing teacher would call a “rough draft.” Turn in a completed manuscript. Spell-check it and edit it first!

Be Careful

While most companies in this business are straight-up and reasonable, there are cheats in every business. Don’t sign anything you aren’t willing to abide by. Keep copies of all your contracts. Talk to other freelancers and ask them which companies to stay away from.

A Few Realities Of The Industry To Be Aware Of

  • Freelance writers in other businesses will tell you that work-for-hire contracts (ones in which your employer owns the work you do) are evil and you should never sign such a contract. The truth of the matter is, work-for-hire contracts were created for a reason. Many magazines and newspapers try to use them inappropriately and thus they’ve gotten a bad name. However, by and large they are appropriate to the RPG industry.
  • Checks are often small and slow to arrive in this industry. VERY few people in this industry can completely pay for their rent and other needs by doing RPG work. Be prepared to do something else (a more lucrative type of writing; a day job; etc.) in order to make the money you need.
  • Freelance writing is done on a contract basis. Don’t expect a full-time job or health insurance.
  • Once Again… Be a Professional. The fastest way to tank your RPG-writing career is to screw over your developer. The occasional late contract or cancellation is probably inevitable, because tragedies do happen. Do everything you can to minimize the effects this will have on the developer and company. Warn the developer ahead of time if you think you’ll be late. Do everything you can to turn things in on time. Let him know immediately if you have to cancel a contract. Get the idea?
  • Do good work. Turn it in on time. Follow your outlines. If you can manage all of this, you’ll probably get more offers than you have the time to accept.
  • Beware Burnout. In both the software field and the freelance writing field I often hear 10 years quoted as the point at which most people burn out. In my experience, that’s pretty close to the mark. As far as I can tell that’s because in fiction you’ll find that most writers write about half a day every day –whereas in the RPG market, people usually have to write all day every day to earn a decent amount of money.Keep an eye out for burnout, and be ready to take a break or switch to doing something else when it happens. If you keep trying to do contracts when it happens, you’ll only make it worse. You’ll know you’ve probably burned out when you develop a persistent feeling of really disliking the work you’re doing.

Writing for the RPG industry can be a lot of fun, if not terribly lucrative. If you have the necessary skills and are willing to behave like a professional, you’ll go far. Such a combination is rarer than you might think. Developers are eager to hire such people, and desperate not to hire more flakes who will screw them over. If you think you fit into the former category, you shouldn’t have a difficult time breaking in!

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More of Heather’s articles can be found at the Burning Void:
Welcome to The Burning Void

There you’ll find a series on writing for the RPG industry, as well as articles on the writing process itself.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Bluff And Surprises For NPCs

From Christian

A ploy that I use (but not over-use) is to confront PCs with scenarios that are outside their concepts of the “normal”.

  • I have had battles between 1/2 Orc paladins and tainted maidens occur before the heroes. Let them pick a side.
  • High level, intelligent characters or monsters who are wounded try to bluff the PCs to stand down or turn and run.
  • Obvious but hidden trap mechanisms that serve little or no purpose.

Keeping the players thinking and guessing are my main hopes for each session.

It is important to be aware of the inevitable and the effect of having the impossible (in the PCs’ eyes, anyway) occur, but this can lead to far greater roleplaying opportunities.

Imagine a low level character becoming famous (or infamous) for defeating a high level monster. Some NPCs will cower, while others out to make a name for themselves will challenge the PCs. Such an unexpected act in an adventure could lead to an entire campaign.

There should be some logic behind these events that could be uncovered, but again that is another adventure.

Things are not always as they seem.

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Four Poison Tips

From Karl

  1. Magic is usually the first suspect when no natural source of a poison can be found and can make a great red herring.
  2. Exotic poisons are a worry to all in a game world. If the best mages have no idea then you can bet the King is sweating bullets. This can be a great plot hook and can get the PCs into some very interesting company.
  3. A poison is always a strategic weapon. Subtle (sometimes), quick or slow, odourless/coloured, etc. It is a chosen, deliberate, and pre-planned method of killing someone.
  4. If the PCs are already chasing an exotic poison it provides a great platform to introduce other exotic elements. This adds to the sense that they are dealing with the unknown and increases game tension.
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Medieval Name Resource

From Matthew H.

This is the most astonishing site I have ever found as a solution to a classic problem: Medieval Names Archive

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A d20 Character Generation Tool For PC/Mac/Linux

From Julia F.

I noticed that someone was looking for d20 Mac DM tools, and not finding too many…

Let me recommend PCGen [ RPG Character Generator ], a totally open-source java-based d20 character generator and maintenance program.

It can be used on any system that runs Java 1.3 or greater, which includes Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X (but not Mac OS 9…sorry!).

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In-Game Tip: Lack Of Privacy

From Garry S.

[Comment from Johnn: I thought this great information might help you plan out a neat scene or two, or help you roleplay with some extra details.]re: Issue #110

“Dealing with privacy issues can become an obsession, leading to rulers who hide their very identity through means both mundane and magical.”

This is worse than the modern mind might even think. Medieval rulers had no privacy, AT ALL. Everything up to and including bodily functions were observed by someone. The ruler’s wedding night “bliss” would have observers so that those who must would indeed know that the marriage was consummated.

Mind you, in medieval Europe, the first time the nuptial couple saw each other might have been a few days beforehand. Nine months later the queen would be subjected to a birthing environment more like a ball park. Everything but the grandstands and snack vendors. The true maternity of the royal heir must not be in question.

The East could be even worse. The Chinese Emperor had astrologers who would determine which of his wives and concubines he would bed on the most auspicious nights of the year. Sure, the guy had a lot of women, but he didn’t get to pick. It was a life closer to a prize horse than that of the most powerful man in the land.

For royals East or West the concept of privacy didn’t exist at any level. What does this do?

Well, if you live with it all the time, it gets normal. We would be appalled, but our houses are full of doors, and we have halls to separate rooms. Not so in olden times. Everyone from the guests to the maid tromped through one’s rooms day and night. Since the ruler has no expectation of privacy, no one could expect any privacy.

Servants would be “invisible”, totally unnoticed unless the Royal whim wanted something. Audience seekers, if important enough like military officers, advisors, etc., would get used to seeing the royal person in any state of dress or undress. Modesty, would not be a royal virtue. Taking reports of the war while in the bathtub and dictating letters to another king while changing clothing for the ball were the norm.

Lastly, the Royal never did any work. Seldom did they even pen their own letters. The great one spoke and it was done. This varied from society to society. English monarchs commonly wrote their own letters at least. The French made sure the prized royal was never burdened with any work.