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Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #336

10 Tips For Crafting Adventure-Based Holidays, Part 1


This Week's Tips Summarized 

10 Tips For Crafting Adventure-Based Holidays, Part 1

Plus, Holiday Contest

  1. Design For Adventure
  2. How To Design For Adventure
  3. Design For Encounters
  4. Craft A Game World Calendar
  5. Game World Calendar Method: Index Cards

Readers' Tips Summarized 

  1. Use Toy Cars For Car Chases
    From: John D'Amanda
  2. Kobold Ambush Idea
    From: Arthur
  3. Use IMDB For NPCs
    From: Debler

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This is a great and inexpensive way to get a "house dice" collection started, or to just get a bunch of dice at a fantastic price.

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A Brief Word From Johnn 

Holiday Contest

A new Roleplaying Tips contest is long overdue, so let's get one going while we are on the topic of holidays with this week's issue. As you'll read, game world holidays can serve several GMing purposes, including world design, adventure inspiration, and seamless encounter design. They are useful little tools, those holidays.

Contest Entry

Create a holiday and describe it in roughly 1-3 paragraphs. Please use this format:

Holiday Name:

Holiday Description:

Holiday Encounter Ideas: (bullet list of ideas or paragraphs)

E-mail your entries in one e-mail message or several to

You can submit as many entries as you like.

As usual, entries will be edited and then re-posted in this e-zine so all GMs will benefit from your creativity.

Contest entry deadline is December 17, 2006. Winners will be selected randomly from the pool of entries, so don't worry if writing isn't your strong suit.

Prizes Up For Grabs

From Johnn Four:

From Expeditious Retreat Press:

  • 1 on 1 Adventures #1: Gambler's Quest (print)
  • 1 on 1 Adventures #2: Star of Olindor (print)
  • 1 on 1 Adventures #3: Forbidden Hills (PDF)
  • 1 on 1 Adventures #5: Vale of the Sepulcher (PDF)
  • Advanced Adventures #1: The Pod Caverns of the Sinister Shroom (PDF)

You can check out the products at Expeditious Retreat Press's website.

From Ronin Arts:

That makes for quite a few prizes, and great odds for winning! (If you have a prize preference, feel free let me know in your e-mail entries.)


Johnn Four,

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Scourge of the Howling Horde

Goblins set upon the quiet town of Barrow's Edge, and the community cries out for heroes to save them. What has turned the secretive and reclusive goblins into bloodthirsty raiders? Who is the mysterious new leader of the tribe? The truth lies deep within the Howling Caves....

Scourge of the Howling Horde is a stand-alone adventure designed for a group of 1st-level characters. Perfect for new or seasoned players, it features an easy-to-use encounter format and includes useful DM advice for beginning and experienced Dungeon Masters.

Scourge of the Howling Horde at RPG Shop

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10 Tips For Crafting Adventure-Based Holidays, Part 1  

By Johnn Four

From my new e-book, GM Mastery: Adventure Essentials: Holidays

As you figured from the byline above, I have a new e-book out. It's about helping you plan, prepare, and GM better adventures using the in-game element of holidays.

In many of the world books I've read over the years, holidays are given short shrift. This is too bad, because they are an awesome GMing tool.

As a GM, you typically have three needs:

  1. World building and setting design. You need a location that brings your game to life and grounds your adventures (pun not intended, sorry :).
  2. Adventure building and design. You need a reason for the PCs to act and take risks, and you need a strong central theme or plot to build your story upon.
  3. Encounter building and design. Encounters are the building blocks of adventures. Encounters are where the action and the interaction takes place; they are the base unit of interactive stories.

Holidays are one of those excellent, multi-purpose GMing tools that let you have your cake and eat it too. A well- designed holiday can satisfy each of those three needs. This, in turn, creates extra benefits:

  • Reduced design time
  • Reduced session planning time
  • Harmonizing setting with adventures with encounters
  • Designing becomes easier

You can wield the holiday tool to craft a tight, integrated campaign that doesn't seem like a patchwork of ideas fighting with each other.

Following are a few tips taken from GM Mastery: Adventure Essentials: Holidays that will help you craft adventure- centric game holidays.

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1. Design For Adventure 

At first glance, holidays might seem like a good way to flesh out a game world and add interesting trivia to a campaign milieu. However, holidays are also a perfect GM tool when used for adventure. They provide plot hooks, encounters, and interesting encounter locations. Associated NPCs, events, and history can feed existing plot arcs, spin off new ones, or tie several together.

A single holiday can spawn numerous hooks and stories that make perfect RPG plots for players to explore. Properly designed, a holiday will have deep ramifications, plot threads, and factions you can use as the backbone for adventure construction. If you need an adventure idea or a side plot for your group, holidays are a great solution.

A key holiday design step is to adopt the right attitude. Holidays are opportunities for adventure; they don't have to be window dressing. They are campaign and plot design tools with conflicts and rewards, just like dungeons and encounters. What makes holidays special is their unique blend of timeline, events, and location that you can tweak according to your campaign's needs. They present new and interesting situations and environments in which to adventure and tell stories.


Deadlines create drama. You decide when holidays occur, including one-time holidays such as coronations and funerals. Once set and the PCs notified, the campaign has a looming deadline, which adds drama if you can weave in situations that will be difficult to achieve by the holiday date.


You can design holidays with one important event the PCs get mixed up in, or with several events PCs can pick and choose from, much like a fork in a dungeon corridor. Additional dramatic tension is created if two or more events happen at the same time.


Holiday events require locations. Because holidays can range from simple to complex, sublime to weird, all types of locations fit without breaking immersion or consistency.

For example, your low magic campaign does not normally have gates to other worlds or plane travel, yet you have a craving to do something unusual.

The solution: you craft the Sun Holiday, during which a portal opens at a special, secret place at high noon providing a gateway to the Plane of Fire. The holiday makes this a temporary effect during an unusual time, and maintains campaign balance and immersion.

Next time you note down a holiday for your game world, adopt an attitude that this thing is an opportunity for adventure. Flesh the holiday out and think about how you can use its timeline, events, and locations to build stories and encounters with.

Demand that your holiday entry not gather dust, but do the triple duty of providing world development, adventure creation, and encounter opportunities.

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2. How To Design For Adventure 

Designing with adventure in mind is quick and easy. Adopt an attitude for adventure so you can spot opportunities as you design.

While crafting, look for ways to build in the following basic adventuring elements:

* Conflict. Two or more sides compete for a scarce resource such as gold, the attention of the Emperor, the right to participate in the holiday, or control over a special location. For any given holiday element, create two or more factions who compete over it.

Note: the level of competition can range from friendly rivalry to deadly combat to devastating betrayal, giving you more options to keep adventures fresh and interesting.

  • Mystery. For any given holiday element being designed, try to add an element of mystery, a secret, or an unpredictable outcome. This not only creates drama, but opportunities for discovery, quests, investigation encounters, and villainous plots.

    For example, the funny little Groundhog Day we celebrate in North America has mystery: will winter end soon, or will there be six more weeks of it?

    Imagine in your world that, instead of a groundhog it's a dragon, and the result is real.

    First, you'd want to give the gods a smack upside the head for creating such a fragile triggering mechanism on which to base the climate. :)

    Second, this looks like the perfect opportunity for a villainous plot: the evil Black Lord raises and trains a special group of dragonslayer NPC quintuplets who, on their 19th birthday, are sent to destroy the dragon a week before the holiday so the whole world is thrust into a nightmare realm of never-ending winter.
  • Location. As you design your holiday, ask "where?" as often as you can. Holidays often involve history, ceremonies, and events - which all require locations. These locations have unusual and cool circumstances and opportunities for interesting encounters.

    For example, the PCs are hunting for a serial killer and are asked to bodyguard the mayor during Arrow's Folly, which is a celebration of the city's founding. The mayor must give a speech on the green outside the mage's guildhall. A platform and chairs has been set-up, along with a buffet, entertainers, and several tents.

    During the ceremony, the PCs spot the serial killer in the audience. The integrity of the ceremony is at stake, but so are the lives of future victims. If a battle breaks out, instead of fighting in a 10'x10' dungeon room, there's a 10' high platform, a crowd, chairs, tents, tables full of food, and other interesting location elements. Sweet.
  • NPCs. A great way to ground your holiday to game table action and relevance is through NPCs. Add notable figures-- past and present--who are integral to, involved with, or affected by the holiday. These people can serve as hooks, sources of conflict and mystery, and the basis of encounters and events.

    You can craft specific either NPCs or NPC roles. For example, a holiday might require a high priest, a sacrificial victim, and a huntsman who selects and returns with the sacrifice. You can craft specific NPCs to fill these roles, if required, or you can move on using just the notion of the three roles to fuel other details and designs.

  • Reward. Motivating PCs is half the battle between adventure design, session preparation, and railroading. When PCs act out of self-interest, they feel in control, even if you planted the reward. To this end, know what motivates your players and their characters, and sprinkle these elements throughout your holiday.

    For example, one of the PCs seeks to build a castle. During the Festival of Trolls, large bounties are paid on trolls killed in the nearby badlands, plus the King personally and publicly thanks those who killed more than two trolls. This is a perfect opportunity for the PC to earn gold toward his future goal, plus meet and hopefully befriend the King who could grant him land in the future.

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3. Design For Encounters 

Holidays should be more than a name and a date on your game world calendar. The mere task of fleshing out your holiday can spawn encounters, encounter seeds, and encounter hooks. Your goal should be bringing holidays to the game table and making them real and interactive for your players through inspired encounters.

For holidays that are to be the backbone of one or more encounters, document the following:

  • Holiday name
  • Brief summary: Craft a solid overview, one to three paragraphs, of what you've designed for the holiday to help keep encounters consistent.
  • Mood: Pick a specific mood for the holiday and document the reasons for this.
  • Hook: Give the holiday at least one strong hook to increase the likelihood of PCs triggering the encounter and to give the holiday a good presence within the encounter.
  • Who the Holiday is For: Have a general idea of the holiday audience as that might influence how you populate the encounter.
  • Timeline: The holiday will get firmly established in the campaign timeline, so document the date and length of holiday for future consistency.
  • Working Or Non-Working: Know whether this is a working or non-working holiday as that might influence how you populate the encounter.
  • Costume And Dress: If the PCs will be directly interacting with celebrants, then you'll want to know if special attire is in effect. In addition, if the PCs are participants in holiday events, they might need to know about costume requirements for disguise, roleplaying, and planning.
  • Food and Drink: If you think the menu will be a factor in the encounter, then know whether there is any special food and drink associated with the holiday.
  • Decoration: If the encounter is within the holiday area, you'll need to know what decorations there are, if any.
  • Backstory: If backstory or an element from it is integral to the encounter, flesh out the holiday's history. If backstory won't come into play, then having a general idea of the holiday's background will help you roleplay and GM with confidence. A short summary is all that is required. If the encounter is dependent on a specific backstory element, then feel free to add more details to that in the backstory while leaving other details vague.
  • Significance: Have a good grasp of the holiday's significance to help you design and roleplay the encounter. As with backstory, detailing significance is only necessary if it's integral to the encounter. Otherwise, just craft a general idea of how important the holiday is to society and why.

As you design these holiday elements, note down any encounter ideas that spring to mind. This is important, because the purpose of fleshing out an adventure-based holiday to such a degree is to inspire encounter hooks and foundations as you build. It's a mental exercise and tool that accomplishes several things at the same time, as noted in the introduction.

After you do a first-pass on a design, keep your encounter idea list handy and use it to seed future game sessions and adventures. Add to it often. Feel free to go through two or more pass-throughs of your holiday notes, tweaking and improving, and to keep writing down new encounter ideas as they come to you. Even if you only use a few of the encounter ideas this time around, that means you still have a long, inspirational list to use in future adventures and campaigns!

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4. Craft A Game World Calendar 

Having holidays means you have a campaign timeline. It's a horrible moment when you realize you've forgotten about a holiday and the timeline has moved passed it. Players might wonder why there was no holiday this year but not say anything, or you might remember at the last moment and be caught totally unprepared.

Complex holidays should be noted well in advance so you can craft desired events, have NPCs roleplay and validate the holiday's existence, and build whatever hooks, clues, and paths you need.

You also want to avoid inconsistent timelines where recurring holidays happen at the wrong time because you forgot when the holiday happened previously, or you forgot to track things.

The best way to ensure holidays run on schedule with advance notice is to craft a game world calendar tool. You will probably have a calendar created as part of the setting product or your world design, and now you just need to build something in physical or digital form that lets you schedule holidays and events for years to come.

Craft Summary Tools

If you do create a calendar tool, then you should also craft handy holiday summaries. On these summaries, you should note:

  1. Calendar structure.
    Summarize your calendar structure:
    • # of days in a week
    • # of weeks in a month and year
    • # of months in a year
    • Any other notable periods
    • Names of the days
    • Names of the months
    • Year names, if they have them
    • Names for any other important periods
  2. Cycles of celestial bodies or events
    Note cycles or phases for:
    • Moons
    • Suns
    • Comets, asteroids
    • Aurora
    • Eclipses
    • Planetary alignments
    • Planes and dimensions
  3. List of holidays. It will help to have a list of holidays and their dates in one place. If holiday dates change each year, craft an updated summary card a year in advance as time passes.

Place Advance Notice

Regardless of the calendaring method employed, schedule advance notices of upcoming holidays. Complex holidays and holidays that require GM planning need longer real-life advance warning, and possibly, more than one advance notice.

For example, Baker's Day of Delicacies occurs every year one week after the last crop is in. Bakers, cooks, and chefs spend a whole week crafting tasty treats and try to outdo each other with new recipes. On Baker's Day, the whole community comes out to sample and vote on all the tasty treats, breads, and dishes.

This is a minor holiday, but you like to roleplay it, so you put a note one month before Baker's Day to remind yourself that cooks everywhere are starting to shop and search for ingredients.

You also place a reminder one week beforehand to tell the PCs how busy chefs and bakers are this week, how darn good the streets smell, and about the growing buzz around the community.

You also like to throw in special dishes the PCs can consume that bestow various random magical effects (for good or ill) and this requires a bit of design. So, you put another reminder two months in advance to have enough time to craft a table of random effects between sessions.

Watch The Pace

Note how fast time tends to pass in your campaigns. If it's slow, perhaps because the players like to game out every day of their PCs' lives, then you can shorten up GM reminders. If the pace tends to be fast, or if weeks sometimes pass in the blink of an eye, you'll want to extend your reminders to the fringes so you have at least one between-session period to plan for an upcoming holiday.

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5. Game World Calendar Method: Index Cards 

This is my preferred method to track game time. Index cards are physical, portable, cheap, and easy to use.

Each Card = One Day

Each index card represents one day in your game world's year. You need enough cards to fill out one year for your game world. Label the date (day and month only, not year) in a top corner so you can find specific cards/days fast. Make notes on specific dates as needed, including holidays, plot events, and session logs.

Craft Month Separators

Find a method to separate day cards into month groups to make searching and filing faster. One way is to use tabbed cards. Another is to add Post-It Tabs or Post-It Notes as tabs. You can also use a marker and color the top edge of day cards in alternating months.

Aim For Re-use

To avoid making a new set of cards for each campaign run in the same world, aim for re-use. Do this by attaching Post- Its to the face of the cards as needed and then tear off the Post-Its when a new campaign starts. You can also flip the cards and use the back to get two uses, or divide the cards into quadrants front and back for eight uses.

In addition, as you make notes on cards, mark the year. This helps date journal entries when the calendar cycles through each New Year - day and month are labeled at the top, and year labeled per entry.

When you reach the last day of the year in the calendar, return to the first card. You can see last year's notes this way. Holidays will recur naturally as you cycle through the cards again. For holidays that aren't synched to a particular date, you'll need to go through the year in advance and note new dates for holidays (marking the year per entry so you can keep your history straight).

Use Colour

Feel free to put holidays on new cards of different colours and insert them before their scheduled day. The color is a visual way to note upcoming holidays. In addition, the separate card lets you document holiday specific information without filling up a regular day card.

* * *

Stay tuned next week for Part 2: 10 Tips For Crafting Adventure-Based Holidays

  1. Game World Calendar Method: Spreadsheet
  2. Game World Calendar Method: TiddlyWiki
  3. Create A Holiday Stat Block
  4. Types of Holiday Encounters
  5. Crafting Holiday Encounters

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Readers' Tips Of The Week: 

1. Use Toy Cars For Car Chases 

From: John D'Amanda

Playing with a drawn-out map of city streets and toy Matchbox cars is useful. Cover the map with paper sheets that can be removed as the car chase proceeds. Block off some streets and tell the players they know some streets are blocked. Use miniatures for pedestrians.

This means you don't have to map out an entire city--just a certain route. The car chases are easier if the NPC is running and the PCs are chasing, but it works either way.

Make the players and villains roll a d20 every round, or twice if they push the limits, to see if they get a 1, in which case the wheels fall off or the engine throws a rod.

Every round roll 2d6 for each driver. A roll of 9-12 means you can do a super car stunt, like driving on two wheels down a narrow alley or jumping a bridge halfway open over a river and so on. A roll of 5-7 means you adequately maintained control of the vehicle. A roll of 3-4 means you sideswiped something, but kept going. A roll of 2 means you lost control of the driving and the car is careening out of control. Slowing down means you never lose control but also that the one you are chasing gets away.

If your game has skill ranks for driving, piloting a wheeled vehicle, car operation, or stunt driving, give a bonus to the driver with a high rank, such as only having him check to control his car when trying a special stunt or 1 check per 4 rounds.

Likewise, a high performance vehicle would get a benefit of some sort too.

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2. Kobold Ambush Idea 

From: Arthur

Hey Johnn,

I wanted to share something about specific combat units, or skirmish units, from a few issues ago. I made up just such a thing right before the article came out.

The party was coming into a part of a dungeon controlled by kobolds. I armed them with thunderstones that had flash pellets tied to them. Instant flash bang grenades!

The PCs entered the lair at a T-intersection, with the kobolds at either end of the T, and the PCs all bunched up in the middle. The kobolds threw the grenades then let loose attack dogs on the deafened and blinded PCs. I had the PCs make two saving throws, one for the thunder stone and one for the flash pellet. Some PCs were blinded, some deafened, some both.

The PCs will never underestimate kobolds again.

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3. Use IMDB For NPCs 

From: Debler,


For a while now I've used likenesses of actors for various characters throughout my role-playing universes, but a buddy took it to another level by casting all his NPCs with actors who play them.

For example, we fought a dagger-throwing rogue in a brown poncho played by Willem Dafoe (, which instantly gave the NPC personality in the minds of the players, as well as gave the GM some basis for how the character was to act.

I later ran an epic Star Wars adventure where I cast every single NPC the players encountered. The one problem I found was my less-cinematically versed players would be clueless when I named an actor they hadn't heard of. Eventually, I started printing the first couple of pages of their IMDB history, highlighting films the players might know the actor from. If the actor wasn't on-point with a picture of themselves on the site, I'd do a quick Google Image search, find a pic, and just cut and tape it onto the sheet.

Often you might not know an actor, like Jack Gammon (, but you see his pic and it all comes back, especially if you can do a halfway decent impression of his voice.

A danger I've run into is that I flooded my world with too many NPCs using this technique. So many of them start to seem significant that players begin to feel overwhelmed with NPC details. I found that giving the players a list of the NPCs, their race (significant in Star Wars), the actor who plays them, and a very brief reminder of who they are helps players a lot.

When an NPC is not obviously important, the players might not think about them as important to the story, but if they see them again and reference them to their NPC cheat sheet, they re-evaluate their significance to the tale.

Many senators in Star Wars might only have a line or two about his support of the Jedi in one or two sessions, and not be that significant to the story, but when the PCs need to contact a senator who can help the Jedi cause, all of a sudden that character comes back into play.

As a rule, I've discovered you are far better off re-using an NPC than creating a new one, if possible. With this in mind, I have found the benefits of casting my stories with real actors far outweighs the negatives, and this is a technique I will be using for a while to come.

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