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Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #380

Preparing For Games Faster: 7 Tips


This Week's Tips Summarized 

Preparing For Games Faster: 7 Tips

  1. Roleplay More
  2. Keep NPC Relationships Simple
  3. Prepare Encounters, Not Stories
  4. Create Simple Conflicts
  5. Create Seed Lists
  6. Commit The PCs Before The Session Ends
  7. Actively Build The Setting As You Play

Readers' Tips Summarized 

  1. Adventure Planning
  2. For Those "Darn! Now What Can I Do To Save This?" Moments
  3. Dodging GM Burnout
  4. Making Your Campaign World Actually Yours

Advanced Adventures #3: The Curse of the Witch Head

An OSRIC module levels 6-10 (also compatible with the first edition of the world's most popular fantasy roleplaying game).

Two centuries ago, Duke Ithinge built a secret underground complex to house the Witch Head and keep it from those who would use its powers for evil. He could not destroy the Witch Head for it was forever linked to his family line.

Last month, good Duke Ymis received a secret message from a band of outlaws: the Witch Head had been discovered, and unless the Duke hands over to them his daughter Derica, they would use the relic's powers to ruin the countryside and bring his rule to a crashing end. Can a hardy band of adventurers put down the ancient evil, or will it rise again?

The Curse of the Witch Head at Your Games Now

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A Brief Word From Johnn 

First Batch Of 5 Room Dungeons Ready For Download

Volume one of the 5 Room dungeons contest is now ready for download! If you experience any issues, let me know. Stay tuned for additional volumes.

Download (PDF 945KB)

Caveat Emptor - Dungeon Survival Guide

I browsed through the new D&D Dungeon Survival Guide last week and had a very negative reaction to it. However, because everyone's tastes are different, I'll just say buyer beware. If you're thinking of picking this book up, get your hands on a copy first to see if it is to your liking.

Check out some Amazon reviews on it as well, and be sure to check out the 4 star review amidst all the other 1 star reviews.

Fit some gaming in this week.


Johnn Four,

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Preparing For Games Faster: 7 Tips  

Preparing For Games Faster: 7 Tips

Not feeling prepared for game sessions creates GM stress and is a top reason why game nights get cancelled. Some GMs dislike prep a lot, which causes procrastination and tension build-up as game day approaches. Other GMs spend too much time on the wrong things and end up crafting content that isn't applicable to gameplay, so there is never enough time to prep properly.

Following are a few tips on preparing for game sessions faster. They should help you find more time and energy to run game sessions. These are just a few of the possible tips on faster prep - if you have any additional tips for your fellow GMs, drop me an e-mail.

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1. Roleplay More 

Roleplay encounters are often faster to prepare for than other types of encounters. They also tend to be easier to GM than number-crunching combats, and more fun to game master than mind-stumping puzzles. And hey, any reason to put more R in RPG gets my vote.

The key is to make roleplaying encounters meaningful and not game filler. If there's purpose, conflict, and reward, players will engage. If roleplaying just seems like a stalling or filler manoeuvre, players will block or bypass.

The basis of any roleplaying encounter is the NPC. Therefore, your best planning investment is to craft interesting NPCs that have recurring roles in your adventures.

  1. Create a first draft for the NPC that meets the needs of your encounter. Skip the combat stats and this becomes a fast game preparation task. If you have a natural curiosity of people, or can develop one, for modelling NPCs after, then this becomes quick indeed.

    Past issues have discussed creating NPCs based on people you know, whether they be co-workers, family, celebrities, or fictional characters.

    The core is to create a personality tid bit (quirk, secret, motive, trait, ability) that makes the NPCs memorable and fun to interact with, plus some kind of conflict or challenge so that your roleplaying encounters don't take five seconds.

    Some example challenges could be:
    • Gaining the NPC's trust
    • Solving the NPC's current problem so the NPC can focus or become calm or reasonable enough to communicate
    • Getting the NPC to act politely to an enemy to help the PCs extract important information
    • The NPC speaks cryptically
    • The NPC is in the middle of an argument, which must be settled first
    • Making the NPC a friend or ally
    • Helping an NPC deal with a phobia
    • The NPC needs help remembering
    • The PCs must figure out what trigger will get the NPC to help them out, such as learning of a mutual enemy, discovering a common hobby, or realising there's a distant family tie with a particular PC
  2. 2) Design with re-use in mind. How can this NPC play important roles to the plot or be useful to the PCs again in the future? You don't need to sketch this out for their first incarnation, but make it a GMing habit to open up these possibilities as you plan or GM.
    • Job. The NPC's job makes them a valuable contact or ally.
    • Home. Where the NPC lives creates a convenience for the PCs, or gives them a foothold in a community or neighbourhood.
    • Family and friends. The NPC's social network could help extend the PCs' social network. Next time you need to invent a new NPC, try to link them to an existing one.
    • Knowledge. People know many different things and accumulate new knowledge over time. Send the PCs back to familiar NPCs over and over during information quests.
    • Authority, power, influence. An NPC who is a judge, head of a family, or keyholder of some kind would have many uses for PCs.
  3. Flesh out as you play. Ease up on prep time by crafting the basics as mentioned above, and fleshing the NPC out as you GM. Let the players ask the questions, add new bits with each NPC appearance, and be creative while GMing.

    A great method to inspire NPC details is F.O.R.M.

    F = Friends
    O = Occupation
    R = Relatives
    M = Money

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2. Keep NPC Relationships Simple 

Creating complex webs of connections and relationships between your NPCs and other game elements takes time. First, you need to figure out the relations. Second, you have to document them. Third, you have to keep them organized so they're accessible when you need to figure things out.

Look at relationships from your PCs' point of view as well. Will they care? Will any particular relationship be important to them or affect gameplay? Can they handle the complexity, or will it just end up being a confusing mess for them after a few sessions?

Instead, keep NPC relationships simple.

  • Detail just important relationships. Some relationships will justify backstory and details. What was the relationship between the victim and the murderer, or why does NPC X fear NPC Y so much? For everyone else, use F.O.R.M., some other brief method, or skip the details altogether.
  • Use one word to describe the relationship (and an arrow or other symbol to add context, if needed):
    • Arthus < father Menion
    • Arthus -brothers- Philus
    • Rex + Ardin + Wendel + Arthus = The Black Swords
  • Create NPC relationship maps. A family tree is an example of a relationship map. A drawing with bubbles, labels, and connector lines is another type.
  • Create and document as you play. Make it up as you go and take good notes. This reduces prep but keeps your campaigns detail rich and consistent.
  • Use one sentence. Force yourself to keep relationship descriptions to just one sentence per relationship. If you use a computer for your campaign notes, then for each NPC sentence you write, paste it into the notes of each NPC in the relationship.

    Use all involved NPC names in each sentence to minimize editing. For example, in your entry for Arthus the baker you write "Son is Menion." If you paste that line into Menion's entry you'll need to edit it. Instead, if you write "Arthus is the father of Menion," then you can paste the same line in Menion's entry and be done with it.

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3. Prepare Encounters, Not Stories 

In a previous issue I outlined my personal definition of story as what emerges through gameplay from PCs actions, and I defined plot as the game master's set-up plan for that action.

Of the two, story is the most important to gameplay, for memorable sessions, and to players. How did actions and events play out, and how were they meaningful or entertaining?

Save yourself a load of prep time by building fun encounters and not writing out complex stories. Creating a script that is guaranteed not to be followed by the players will only frustrate you, the players, or both, as well as waste valuable prep time.

Encounters are where the action takes place. They are the building blocks of game sessions, as discussed in Issue #12.

You could argue that GMs need to have some idea of how encounters tie together, and I agree. However, kill the need to plan out the story ahead of time. Let the story emerge through the gameplay of the players. Instead, plot out potential entry and exit points for encounters, and motives for the PCs, as well as have an understanding of your group members' play styles.

Know why the PCs would choose to trigger an encounter and leave the how to be settled during the game. If you know the "why" you can create compelling hooks that give planned encounters the best chance for triggering. Keep the number or prerequisites for triggering each encounter to a minimum. If you can create drag-and-drop encounters, that's even better.

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4. Create Simple Conflicts 

Complex conflicts require more prep time than simple ones, and they don't result in better gameplay (great encounters result in great gameplay). Complex conflicts are more brittle, and they need more maintenance, notes, and organization to stay afloat. Complex conflicts also run a higher risk of luring you into scripting stories rather than preparing encounters and loosely plotting their possible connections.

A good formula for one type of simple conflict is:

X is foe of Y because of Z

The trick is to keep Z simple. Creative GMs have a tendency to flesh Z out, take it in all kinds of directions, add backstories, and need many words to justify Z. Resist this tendency unless you have lots of prep time. :)


X is foe of Y because Y betrayed X

X is foe of Y because X is greedy

X is foe of Y because Y is having an affair with the wife of X

X is foe of Y because X is jealous of Y

X is foe of Y because their families are rivals

X is foe of Y because X is a criminal and Y is a police officer

X is foe of Y because the two nations are colonizing the same region

X is foe of Y because the two deities have opposing alignments

But these plots are too simple, I hear you say. My players have played these before and want to be surprised! I agree. But, I say instead of front-loading your game with details, histories, relationships, and story scripts, game it out. Your games will get complex enough through encounters and the consequences of the PCs' actions. Surprise your players with encounter twists, entertaining NPCs who do unexpected things or have secrets, and great descriptions and interpretations resulting from dice rolls that occur as a normal result of playing the game.

If you know two nations are enemies, skip the backstory and history lesson and move straight to sketching out an encounter where the PCs stumble upon a skirmish where one side is wearing red and the other blue. What if the PCs join in? What if the PCs watch? What if they parley during or after the skirmish? What if they avoid the skirmish and keep on going?

Sketch out interesting ideas for consequences like these and the plot will take care of itself over time. When plotting, brainstorm a list of encounter ideas whose theme revolves around the nations' conflict, pick the best ideas, and flesh out those encounters as needed.

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5. Create Seed Lists 

You can save a lot of preparation time by keeping lists of ideas handy. Use these lists to inspire and speed up game prep, overcome writer's block, or help out while you're GMing.

Top lists would be:

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6. Commit The PCs Before The Session Ends 

(This tip is a paraphrase of a previous Reader Tip that I now cannot find and give credit to. Khaaaan! If you remember, drop me a note so I can properly credit the tipster when this issue is archived.)

A classic preparation time waster is planning for something that doesn't get triggered next session. While you can try to save the material for later use, sometimes circumstances change, so you need to edit your old plans. In addition, if time is at a premium, then time spent on something that goes unused robs time that could have been spent on higher priority items.

One common method to ensure you plan what's needed is asking players what their future intentions are at the end of a session. Another method is to ask the same thing via e-mail between sessions. As you've no doubt experienced, what players say and what they do are two different things.

Your group might have agreed to visit town at the end of last session, but when the next session starts they instead decide to head straight to the dungeon. Alternatively, new ideas, new feedback, or input from previously absent players throws intended plans askew.

A great solution is to get the party on a vector that will carry through past the start of next session before the current session ends. Instead of blocking out your plans from session start to session end, offset them from an hour before one session's end to about an hour before the next session's end.

Try to pace things so the PCs will choose their next steady course of action and game that out for awhile, an hour before session-end, so you'll know with great certainty how next session will begin.

A potential gotcha is the players take an unexpected course at the juncture point before session end and you need to improvise. However, you'll only need to improvise for about an hour, which is much better than being in a panic as soon as the session starts. As a bonus, an hour of improvisation flexes your GMing muscles, and you can plan between sessions more accurately, and therefore more efficiently.

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7. Actively Build The Setting As You Play 

The number one way to need less preparation time is to know your game world in great detail. The better you know the setting, the more comfortable and confident you are wielding its elements during gameplay. Familiarity translates into having more information inside your head, more use of improvisation, and faster calculations of element interactions and consequences.

For example, if you have a mental catalogue of every NPC in the home base village of the campaign, you'll be able to GM those NPCs without much planning required. In addition, you'll be able to spawn numerous encounters, conflicts, and side plots just from knowing your NPCs so well.

The challenge comes from getting to that level of game world knowledge. Here are a few strategies:

  • Stick with one world or region for several campaigns
  • Pick a published world with lots of information available so you can read and absorb its details
  • Do most of your world building before campaign start
  • Go bottom-up by starting with a small region and building a world up around it as play progresses

Regardless of strategy, you can shave game prep time by actively detailing the setting as you play. Take good notes, make a conscious effort to world-build as you GM, and GM often for best results. :)

  • Embellish every encounter location as you GM with trivia and impromptu NPCs.
  • Reward player exploration of environments with description, encouragement, thanks, and impromptu PC- specific hooks.
  • Re-use elements, such as locations and NPCs, and add new details with each use.
  • Make an effort to use in-game terminology as much as possible. For example, month names and currency names.
  • Keep a region map handy and drop places of names and locations frequently. A standard NPC roleplay tactic might be asking the PCs where they're from, which will likely cause the PCs to ask the same, giving you an opportunity to re-use locations or introduce new ones (even if by name only).
  • Keep a world map nearby that you can write on, and record the locations of places as you make them up. This will give you greater confidence to make up new places on-the-fly.
  • Some goes with a cast of characters. Write down NPCs and details as you mention them.
  • Keep a few lists handy, such as seeds lists for encounters, NPCs, and conflicts. Also, random name tables for regions and NPCs helps a lot as well.

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Readers' Tips Of The Week: 

Have some GM advice you'd like to share? E-mail it to - thanks!

1. Adventure Planning 

From: Todd Hill

Start Small. This one sounds like a broken record, but ends up being the easiest and most true of all the adventure planning "rules."

For example, let's look at the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit was an adventure that set the stage for the next 3 books (or 6 books, depending on how you look at them). Bilbo went on an adventure with the dwarves in which he found a seemingly simple magic ring. Many years went by before it was discovered the magic ring was the key to the Dark Lord's power.

The Hobbit could also be broken down into many smaller adventures, but for the purposes of this tip we will create our own adventure.

Step 1: A Goal

We should start with a goal - orcs are harassing a PC's home town.

Great. The players now have a problem that needs solving. How they accomplish this task is up to them. Due to the personal nature of this adventure, it can open up all sorts of background options that might not have been seen before, and brings the character more into the 3-D realm.

Step 2: A Setting

Now that the goal is set, it is time for the adventure setting. If the orcs are raiding small towns, they should have a base of operations. A lost colony/town in a distant valley (a few hours' ride from the area they are attacking) with some ruined buildings and a couple of small caves in the hillside. We now have an adventure location. From this idea we can make the map.

Step 3: Opposition

With a goal and general idea of a location, it is time to determine the strength of the opposition. I like 2-3 waves. This rule is that any adventure will have 2-3 different encounters that will significantly challenge the players.

In this adventure, I ran with low level characters. I used three encounters, and came up with them by just thinking a moment of how the raiders might operate.

  1. The raiders will need to move fast to attack and get away, so they will be light and have mounts.
  2. The base will have a larger defender to guard while the raiders are away.
  3. The leader will be slightly stronger in some way than the rest of the troops.

After looking at what I came up with, the opposition pretty much suggested itself.

  1. With mounts, orcs generally ride wolves and such, so with the addition of fighting mounts, the orcs could be slightly less powerful and not make the adventure too easy. 2-4 wolves, 1 orc handler, and 2-4 riders.
  2. A base guard would be larger than the raiders since they might have to defend against a few angry villagers. In this case I used an ogre. Its general strength would give the lower level characters a tough time if they don't scout the area first.
  3. A strong leader would be relatively stronger than the ones they are controlling. In this case, I used a normal orc that was pretty clever.

In total 1 ogre, 1 clever orc, 3-5 slightly smaller orcs, 2- 4 dire wolves.

Going back to Step 2, we can place the opposition and adjust the map if needed. The ogre would need a good view of the area to watch over, so he takes residence in one of the run- down buildings. The wolves will tend to have a den, so they have taken a side cave. The leader will have his own room, and the troops will have a common room. Lastly, plunder will need to be put somewhere.

The map needs a couple of buildings, and a cave with at least four chambers. Since the leader is clever, he would most likely choose a place with a hidden exit.

Bang, the adventure is complete (well, complete enough for one night of adventuring).

  1. The PCs get a letter asking for help from their home town.
  2. The PCs swoop in and take care of the threat.
  3. The PCs get back all the stolen goods, plus some other things (maps with some orc symbols, maybe a couple of seemingly minor items, etc.).
  4. The players get a party in their home town.

Step 4: The Hooks

Once the players finish with the adventure, what do they do next? Go back to the city to look for another job? Become farmers and marry the mayor's daughter?

Well, the adventure suggests a few different options. Were the orcs acting alone or were they part of a larger group? If part of a larger group, do the maps and the symbols have major significance? Troop movements? Location of item caches? Orc bases?

Are the orcs searching for something? Does the map show possible places they need to check?

Were the orcs hired by someone, and if so, will their failure make the PCs the target of revenge from some unknown enemy? Could this enemy be someone known by the players and thought of as a friend?

This simple adventure is the start of something larger. Although, the next few adventure ideas we're not worried about till this one was done.

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2. For Those "Darn! Now What Can I Do To Save This?" Moments 

From: Loz Newman

It's a dirty, rotten, lousy trick, but somebody has gotta play it....

Sometimes players come up with the most brilliant ideas/pieces of luck/coincidences. They manage to capture a key NPC, roll a critical hit with that demolitions skill roll, uncover a terrible secret, or just flat out luck into an unanticipated way of short-cutting an entire sequence of events. This cuts the legs out from under a crucial part of the GM's wonderfully built scenario, possibly with all sorts of nasty consequences for the campaign.

A GM of my acquaintance came up with a solution to this. He keeps a pack of unique playing cards near to hand, and is ready to pass one out to the group saying, "Nope, didn't happen. Never mind the reason why, the GM just can't allow this."

These "Dirty Trick" cards are the GM's way of saying, "Give up, it ain't gonna happen." However, he is willing to allow the players to play the "Dirty Trick" card right back at him later, to allow the players one automatic, no-roll-required success (he can veto abusive uses of this, or even lay down another DT card). Or, at the end of the scenario, players can redeem the card for a small XP bonus. This last discourages players from using them up as fast as they get them, for frivolous reasons.

Used judiciously (and this word applies to the players as well as the GM), the Dirty Tricks cards have enabled our gaming group to get through some sticky in-game incidents with a smile and a laugh.

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3. Dodging GM Burnout 

From: Travis Eneix

One thing that works for me when combating GM burnout is to not run a game unless I am completely prepared. Without an ending in mind, key plot points along the way, scene ideas, and NPC stats, I don't feel comfortable GMing. In the days when I started gaming there was no issue with that as I had plenty of time to prep. Being underage and supported by someone else's job make for lots of free time.

But, as life has become more complex, I do not have the time. So, what I've done with my weekly group is start up an ongoing campaign, and only run through a scenario when I have it prepped to my satisfaction. In between we have an ongoing campaign of Warhammer40k. It tends to work out to me running a single scenario for 3-5 weeks, and then a 1-2 week break for miniatures battles. That way I can sit back and play sometimes, but we still run the RPG campaign often enough that my players don't lose the feel for their characters or the world.

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4. Making Your Campaign World Actually Yours 

From: Crazy Nedri

Here are five tips to help you customize your own campaign world, give it a more personal feel, and give the players a sense of realism as they travel its realms.

  1. History Put a history of some sort into your world. Have old legends that lead to ancient treasures, old ruins here and there from a time past, or have a lost vein of magic woven into the very ground waiting for PCs to discover.
  2. The Cities I often found my cities were described alike and had no real differences. To solve this, I concluded that every city and town should have one notable fact or landmark about it. One city could have an ancient druid garden, given as a gift from the Grand Druid for services in the wars, the next one could be placed in the mouth of a river, and is mostly made up of canals and bridges. This one fact does make a difference, and the players will notice the extra touch.
  3. Races Well, yes, I know what you all are thinking: dwarves, humans, gnomes, halflings, elves. Well, maybe in your campaign world there are no halflings, or there are very few elves. Or, maybe a race that would be considered evil in one world is an easily accessible PC in the next.

    For instance, the gnolls in my campaign world are more cultivated and live in small camps scattered around the plains. They are friendly towards the other races and can be taken as a PC race.
  4. Government/Structure How is the world governed? Who upholds the peace? Can the common man make political changes?
  5. Monster manuals on this one. Some rare creature might be common in your world.

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