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Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #338

How To Awesome-Up Your Players


This Week's Tips Summarized 

How To Awesome-Up Your Players

  1. Always Keep The Main Thing The Main Thing
  2. Give The Players The Sun And Make Them Fight For The Moon
  3. Your NPCs Suck And They Are All Going To Die
  4. The Game Is Neither The Mechanics Nor The Rules
  5. When In Doubt, Let A Player Roll Some Dice

Readers' Tips Summarized 

  1. Holiday Tips
    From: Garry Stahl
  2. Lesser Curses (D&D)
    From: James Thomas
  3. Creating Believable NPCs
    From: Kit Reshawn

Roleplaying Tips GM Encyclopedia

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A Brief Word From Johnn 

Dog Dish Best Purchase In Awhile

A couple of weeks ago I purchased a plastic double dog dish for two bucks to be my new dice corral, and it's been my best game aid purchase in awhile! I put my dice in the section where the water should go, and I roll in the section where the kibbles are supposed to go. It makes a satisfying rolling sound too. :)

Check it out (JPG image).

Contest Week #3 - Deadline Is Next Week

The holiday contest is just about over, so be sure to get your entries in this week. For contest entry details, e-mail me or visit: Roleplaying Tips Issue #336: A Brief Word from Johnn

Prizes Up For Grabs

From Ronin Arts:

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:

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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D&D Cityscape

There's more to adventuring than crawling around in dungeons. The city holds many avenues of peril and intrigue. It teems with adventure and offers unsurpassed opportunities and challenges. Dark alleys, busy guildhalls, rowdy taverns, fetid sewers, and palatial manors hold secrets to be discovered and mysteries to be explored.

This supplement for the Dungeons & Dragons game reveals the city in all its grandeur and grimness. It makes the urban dungeon feel alive with politics and power, especially through influential guilds. This tome also describes new feats, spells, urban terrain, hazards, and monsters guaranteed to make the party's next visit to the city a vibrant and exhilarating event.

D&D Cityscape at RPG Shop

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How To Awesome-Up Your Players  

A guest article by Jeff Rients

[Comment from Johnn: I first learned about this article from the Treasure Tables blog. Thanks for the link, Martin! Treasure Tables: Five Tips for High-Octane Play]

I liked Jeff's article and contacted him to get permission to share his tips with you. Cheers to you, Jeff.]

What I'm about to lay on you won't work for every campaign. My comments are mostly applicable to the kind of game where kicking asses and taking names isn't a job, it's a calling. What I'm trying to do here is outline how you as the DM can empower your players to make the game a non-stop, high- octane freak-out. (Now, with extra hyphenation!)

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1. Always Keep The Main Thing The Main Thing 

Is that an old Bob Newhart line? My wife likes to bust out this phrase once in a while. Anyway, the Main Thing in an awesome-focused campaign is this:

Your players are rock stars and they're here to rock your house.

In this paradigm your job is to be the roady, the manager, and all the other people who make the concert possible. This isn't one of those analogies that can be stretched forever. Instead, just meditate on the simple fact your job is to help your players rock out without getting in their way. Everything the follows builds from this foundation.

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2. Give The Players The Sun And Make Them Fight For The Moon

Give the players almost everything they want and then put them through a thousand Chinese hells to get everything else. Put the PCs on the throne of Aquilonia, if that's what they want, then have ten-thousand angry Cimmerians invade, intent on burning their capital to the ground. Not because you're a sadistic jerk, but because fighting off an army of Conans is one of the cool things kings get to do.

One good place to put this principle in play is at character generation. Even a guy like me, who like robots and lasers in his D&D, occasionally gets on this funk where I consider trimming down the character build options to achieve some sort of artsy-fartsy effect.

You know the drill. "I want to do something Arthurian, so no Asian-flavored classes in this campaign," or, "This is going to be all Conan-y with the swords and the sorcery, so no demi-humans in this campaign."

Although I truly, deeply understand the profound artistic reasons for such an approach, let me simply say: screw that crap. We're talking about D&D here. If you can't fold themes and motifs into a game starring an elf ninja, a halfling bard, and two ill-tempered gnome wizards, then you should be writing bad fan fiction, not running actual games for real players.

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3. Your NPCs Suck And They Are All Going To Die 

Few players show up to the table to soak in the glory of experiencing your skills as a thespian. Even fewer will ever show the awe and respect you want for your own personal Drizzt. Leave that stuff at home. Instead, show up to the table with stats for people they can beat up. Similarly, you and your players will be a lot happier if you get into the zone of thinking about your campaign world as "that place the PCs are going to destroy and then remake in their own image."

On a related note, I've never seen any good come from uber- powerful people sending the PCs on pissant missions. "If we don't pick-up Elminster's laundry from the Dry Cleaners of Doom then he might turn us into a toad," is never a sound way to structure an adventure. You'll do better just frankly stating to the players, "I wrote this dungeon. That's tonight's adventure." And leave it at that.

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4. The Game Is Neither The Mechanics Nor The Rules 

Don't let the mechanics dictate anything they don't have to. For example, Doug wanted a spiffy new magic sword. He had 120,000gp burning a hole in his pocket. (That's a big pocket.) The 120,000gp disappears from his char sheet and the ubersword takes its place. The rules say Doug's PC Angus has just purchased that sword.

But Doug knows better. He knows the rules are there as a tool to support the game. So, right in the middle of my hack-n-slash gamist pawn-stanced D&D game, Doug seizes directorial control and gets all narrative on our asses. "Angus is given an ancient, ultimate sword by his homies in the church of Thor. He blows the 120K on the biggest party the City of Greyhawk has ever seen."

Doug rocks. And I rock too, because I run a game where Doug feels comfortable wailing on his mind-guitar like that. This example goes right back to Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing, as Doug was very actively rocking when he did this, but my rocking right then was more of the wei wu wei method of rocking. Sometimes the DM paints a picture, but sometimes he just sets up the canvas.

[Comment from Johnn: some related links for the curious:

Here's an example that doesn't involve me high-fiving myself for doing nothing but sitting on my ass while my player does all the work:

Last night, Gruul the half-orc had a bead drawn on one of the bad guys and loosed two feathered shafts into him. This dude only had 2 hitpoints left and Gruul hit him with two critical strikes. In some games those crit rolls would have been wasted. Any two arrows hitting would have iced that mofo. But Jon (the DM) freaked me out when he then called for Jason (Gruul's player) to roll two to-hits against another foe standing directly behind the first. The shots hit and damage is tallied.

Jon: "The first guy totally explodes and the arrows pass through him into the second guy, who drops dead."

Do you see what Jon did there? He went over and above the call of the mere rules to allow Jason's guy to totally kick ass. In-character, this did much to cement Gruul's reputation in the party as a badass mofo with the bow. Out- of-character, my appreciation of Jon's DMing went up a big ol' notch.

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5. When In Doubt, Let A Player Roll Some Dice 

If your Inner Magic 8-Ball isn't giving you anything to work with, sometimes you should pitch things back to the players in the form of requesting a die roll. If you can't make up your mind how to answer a question, just break it down to a simple roll. Clearly outline the stakes and have a player roll it.

This technique gets at least one player engaged in the game (making it a good thing to drop on an otherwise disengaged player), gets them rolling dice (which all decent, right- thinking, non-communist players love to do), and gives them ownership over a part of the game that isn't their character (thus empowering the player).

And if the die roll yields a result unsatisfying to them, the blow is softened because they had a fair chance to get another result. It's not like you faked some roll behind a screen. Not that I'm against faking rolls behind a screen.

By the way, I break out a real Magic 8-Ball once in a while. Because I can.

* * *

Good tips Jeff. Thanks for writing them!

Tips readers, you can read the original blog post of Jeff's here: Jeff's Gameblog: How to Awesome-Up Your Players

Do you have a tip about how to awesome-up your players? I think the principle is a great one that all GMs should add to their toolboxes. If you have anything to share, drop me a note:

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GM Mastery: NPC Essentials

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, roleplaying, and managing NPCs during the entire lifetime of their campaigns. Also included are NPC archetypes, encounters, charts, and an example NPC-centric adventure. Written by Johnn Four and illustrated by V Shane.

GM Mastery: NPC Essentials at RPG Shop

(Be sure to check out the 30 reader reviews at the link above.)

Readers' Tips Of The Week: 

1. Holiday Tips 

From: Garry Stahl

Holidays are important to any civilized setting. In the religions glosses I create I make sure to include holidays that reflect the purpose and flavor of that religion. I list a date, the reason for the celebration, and the manner in which it is celebrated. Likewise, in my atlas listings civil holidays are listed.

How To Use Them

Calendars are prepared a head of time. Each calendar has the holy days and civil holidays that will matter or affect the PCs. As the days pass I check them off.

Plan to take the holidays into account. For example, the party cleric might not be able to travel during the Festival of Cleansing, which comes in a week. The planned journey will take at least ten days, so the party must postpone plans.

In my current Saturday group, the PCs are local yokels. With three religions practiced in their hometown alone, everyone gets into everyone else's parties. The calendar of feasts is very important, and the PCs make every effort to be home for the big bashes.

Include The Unexpected

Include the unexpected to enliven a group. In a past session the group used a flaming hands spell to stop a rust monster from attacking them. Other rust monsters where stopped with holds. As they gathered their wits about them I described a savory odor rising form the "cooked" rust monster. Gingerly, they tried the taste of the beast and found it delicious indeed. When the remaining beasts were examined and one found to be an egg heavy female there was much rejoicing. The newly renamed "Land Lobsters" were taken home and the husbandry of rust monsters was begun. Party plans must now take into account the care, feeding, and breeding of the rust monsters.

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2. Lesser Curses (D&D) 

From: James Thomas of Roseville, California

Everyone's heard of "the gypsy curse" or the "evil eye of the old woman." Country folk have blamed each other for giving "the curse" for all kinds of misfortunes: poor harvest, cows not milking, acne, bad luck, unrequited love, diseases, etc. While not seriously debilitating, a Minor Curse is annoying and frustrating for the subject and his companions. So, what happens when a PC falls victim to the "evil eye" of a resentful Adept or village Wise Woman? Offer a role-play bonus of 50 points times the PC's character level for those who perform well during the game session. A Lesser Restoration spell will remove the Minor Curse.

One of the following befalls the PC:

  1. Convinced he's another, random character class.
  2. Laughs uncontrollably at anything another person says.
  3. "Chosen One" of the gods! The gods don't fart, you know. PC farts constantly by becoming the vehicle of divine flatulence (-2 charisma).
  4. Three words: painful, rectal, itch (-1 Dexterity).
  5. Bad breath (-1 charisma to anyone within 10 ft).
  6. Bad body odor (-1 charisma to anyone within 10 ft).
  7. Attracts insects.
  8. Attracts animals (specific type: mice, birds, cats, skunks, etc.).
  9. Makes bad jokes.
  10. Has no inner dialogue.
  11. Says everything twice. Says everything twice.
  12. Whenever anyone makes a successful skill check he always declares, "I can do better than that..." or the equivalent
  13. Always eating/drinking.
  14. Shouts whenever he speaks.
  15. Loses all sense of hygiene.
  16. Loses all sense of modesty.
  17. Large warts (-1 charisma).
  18. Acquires a rare, but harmless, skin disease (-1 charisma).
  19. Drools constantly.
  20. Stutters constantly.
  21. Enlarged body part:
    1. Ears
    2. Nose
    3. Chin
    4. Feet
    5. Hands
  22. Becomes a pathological liar (will always tell an untruth, even if it is pointless or harmful to do so)
  23. Is convinced a common inanimate object is a beloved pet or advisor; talks to it.
  24. Loses at all games of chance.
  25. Obsession:
    1. Cleanliness (always washing and avoiding others' "germs")
    2. Food item
    3. Shiny things
    4. Tidiness (hates messes; will "tidy up" after battles)
    5. Wealth acquisition
    6. Grammar (corrects others)
  26. Sings whenever he speaks.
  27. Contrariness (will disagree or contradict any request or proposal, but is easily fooled by "Reverse Psychology").
  28. Has to "go" every 15 minutes.
  29. Has to write down everything that happens in a journal.
  30. Thinks he's invisible.
  31. Cannot say any word with the letter "D".
  32. Blinks constantly.
  33. Only speaks in questions?
  34. Phobia (PC is shaken whenever confronted by his phobia):
    1. Heights
    2. Darkness
    3. Vermin
    4. Reptiles
    5. Water (going in or crossing)
    6. Aberrations
    7. Undead
    8. Clerics, Paladins, Druids, or Adepts
    9. Outsiders
  35. Indecisive: PC declares his action for his combat turn and rolls a die; if he rolls low, he must change his action to something else.
  36. All hair falls out.
  37. Insists on going barefoot all the time.
  38. Can never finish a sentence (others have to help them).
  39. Has to use "Huzzah!" in every sentence.
  40. Equipment wears out twice as fast.
  41. Nearsighted: -2 ranged attack, x2 range penalties.
  42. Farsighted: cannot read books.
  43. Grumpy: acquires Abrasive feat.
  44. Narcoleptic: -5 spot/listen, -2 saves vs. sleep.
  45. Hiccoughs constantly: -1 move silently, -1 to charisma based checks.
  46. Sneezes frequently: -1 move silently, -1 to charisma based checks.
  47. Sweats constantly.
  48. Has frequent itching spells: -1 dexterity.
  49. Becomes hard of hearing: -2 initiative.
  50. Stutters: +20% spell failure.
  51. Bad Luck: -1 to all d20 rolls.
  52. Sickly: -4 to disease saves.
  53. Clumsy: -2 to all dexterity checks.
  54. Insecure: -4 to fear saves.
  55. Jinxed! 50% chance of -1 to any skill check rolled by any companion within 50 ft. (Have the player throw a "jinx die" in front of the player making the skill check, if it comes up low, he's jinxed!)
  56. Sleepless (fatigued all the time).
  57. Drained: loses 1 hit point per character level until minor curse is removed.

Lesser Curse (Necromancy)

Level: Clr 2, Sor/Wiz 3
Components: V, S
Casting Time: 1 standard action
Range: Close (25 ft. + 5 ft./2 levels)
Target: One living creature
Duration: Permanent (D)
Saving Throw: Will Negates
Spell Resistance: Yes

With a fling of spittle or a forbidden gesture of the hand, the subject receives a subtle but annoying minor curse. Effects vary and are not terribly debilitating, but the effect on commoners and those in the public eye can be devastating.

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3. Creating Believable NPCs 

From: Kit Reshawn

Creating believable people is a little bit more difficult than it sounds. There are many things that go into making a believable person, and without putting in a lot of effort, it can be easy to overlook important factors. To keep things easy, here is a process I created to make things more organized.

First, start out with how this character will fit into the world. What job will he or she perform in their life, and what type of history do they have. From this it is easy to figure out their personality traits and general world attitude. Although no two characters should ever be exactly the same, you will probably start to see several basic personality types that characters will tend to fall into. This makes a nice template you can then take to the next step....

Add in character specific traits. These are things that make your character easy to recognize and can be anything from defining physical characteristics to turns of phrase. Be careful to not go overboard here. For minor characters, one quirk is probably plenty. For major ones don't go over three or four. If you get too many then it becomes difficult to believe. Also, keep in mind that sometimes having a completely 'normal' character should happen.

Next, you need to figure in the character's skills. Try to keep this in line with the person's personality and career. For instance, a thief would probably be good at stealth and acquiring things that do not belong to him, and may also have some talent in fast talking the police. It is likely he knows how to fight, but is probably barely proficient since it is better for the thief to run rather than fight. He is fast on his feet and smart, but sticks his nose into things he shouldn't.

Once you have the personality and history, specific character traits, and skills worked out, it is time to figure out the character's motivations. For 99% of characters the first motivation should be to stay alive. This is vital for a believable world. Most people's first goal is to stay alive. There are exceptions, but unless someone is losing their grip on sanity or truly fanatical about something, they are likely to have life be their primary motivator. After this pick two or three more, and determine how important each one is relative to the other.

The character's goals along with personality and skills help you determine how they are likely to act. For example, take the blacksmith who has the following goals:

  1. Stay alive
  2. Create the most magnificent weapons ever
  3. Make money

A PC comes to the blacksmith and wants a weapon, triggering goal 3. They haggle and the blacksmith is very unforgiving, refusing to lower the price very much because he wants to make money.

However, another PC approaches the same blacksmith and has a rare material and wants to have it made into a sword. This triggers goals (3) and (2). Because the blacksmith really wants to make a magnificent weapon this takes priority and he is much more willing to lower his price, although the goal of making money means he is unlikely to do the work for free. As a result, the PC gets his weapon and a good deal to boot, while the blacksmith brags about the sword he made to every customer to come to his shop from then on.

Finally, there is the PC who decides to rob the store at sword point. The blacksmith may want to make money (which he cannot do if his stuff is stolen), but he is not a fighter and doubts he can overpower the PC, so he doesn't resist, knowing he can call the guards later, and hopefully get his things back that way.

Things to keep in mind:

  • Since most people have their first motivation as 'stay alive' it ought to be rare for fights to the death to happen. In the event someone thinks they will lose they will try to escape or surrender. Killing someone outright would probably be rare (a good roll on damage). Of course, if the players become known for abusing/killing prisoners they may find people don't surrender as often. In general, the only people who should be willing to fight to the death are fanatics or highly trained and reliable military personnel.
  • One thing that _must_ be included in each character's personality is his likes/dislikes. The list doesn't have to be huge, but should include what types of people and things an NPC likes or hates. Don't be afraid to create the occasional racist character, or old war vet who refuses to trust anyone who is from the nation he spent his life fighting. If players are clever, they will find out who and what an NPC likes or hates, and try to find a way to use this to their advantage.
  • Have a few sparsely built NPCs on hand. Just a few notes on the NPC's name, skills, personality, description, and motivations. Try to keep it as bare bones as possible and write it down on a 3x5 card. These are your emergency stock. It is impossible to plan out every person in the game, and every so often your players will start chatting up a random person. At times like this pull out one of these cards at random. By keeping the notes sparse you are able to easily insert this NPC into any setting and have something ready that doesn't seem like a cardboard cutout. Also, if the encounter gives you an idea you can keep the NPC and jot notes down on his card.

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Mini Santa Cthulhu

This is a mini version (5"-6") of the popular Xmas Cthulhu we've offered in the past, just the right size for a stocking stuffer!

Limited number available.

Screenshot: Mini Santa Cthulhu