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Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #390

Players, Meet Your Characters: 6 tips to help players get to know their characters better at campaign start.


This Week's Tips Summarized 

Players, Meet Your Characters: 6 tips to help players get to know their characters better at campaign start.

  1. Get A Photo Or Image For Each PC
  2. Fill Out Your GM Reference Card
  3. Have Players Describe Another Character
  4. Start With At Least One Personality Hook
  5. Run PCs Through Boot Camp
  6. Run Campaign Preludes

Readers' Tips Summarized 

  1. How To Avoid Total Party Kills
  2. Cave Encounter Ideas
  3. KeyNote Game Information Organizer

Johnn Four's GM Guide Books

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A Brief Word From Johnn 

Ideas On Finding An Editor?

I'm on a quest to find a volunteer e-zine editor/writer. I'm still defining the role, but I need help with writing tips and putting e-zine issues together.

I have built a long list of ideas thanks to your ongoing suggestions and feedback on how I could improve the e-zine and website, but all my hobby time is currently being used in producing each weekly issue.

With more time freed up thanks to an editor/writer's weekly involvement, I can focus on making improvements to Roleplaying Tips, running more contests, and so on.

I'll post the opportunity in this e-zine. However, if you have ideas on where else I could look, or how to find an editor/writer in general to help me man the helm, I'd appreciate your feedback.

Win The D&D 4th Edition Core Rulebooks

Yax at is running a contest currently with the 4th Edition D&D core rulebooks as prizes. I've already entered - who can resist free paper? :P

Here is the linky.

Have a game-awesome week.


Johnn Four,

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Lose The Eraser With Turn Watcher

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Ideas Request: Bringing The Party Together

What interesting ways, methods, and situations have you used to introduce the party to each other and kick-off a campaign?

Though this topic has been discussed in the past, having a current list of ideas for everyone to use would be a great resource for the community.

Please e-mail me at with ideas and examples of how you've brought the party together in campaigns past and present. I'll gather these up and post them in this e-zine for all to use.



Players, Meet Your Characters: 6 tips to help players get to know their characters better at campaign start.  

By Johnn Four

A reader sent in the following request about new players getting to know each other and their characters:

Hi Johnn,

I hate introducing a new group of players (and more importantly, their characters). When they come out to game for the first time, it's pretty much a given they will be working together. I just don't like using a fiat, "Well, you all know each other already..." because they truly don't know each others' characters.

Even if you have everyone introduce their characters out-of- game (by e-mail prior to the first meeting, for example), there still is that feeling of, "I really don't know who these characters are, or what they will do." This is especially true when you are playing with RPGers you have just met.

Has there ever been a "how to" on making introductions, for example as part of a starting a new campaign theme? Perhaps there should be a list of ideas on how to get the characters together in one place, and then to get them to work together that seems realistic, and is satisfying to all.


Thanks for the tip request, Dave. Below are some quick ideas how to help players get to know their characters a bit better at the start, before a campaign gets serious.

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1. Get A Photo Or Image For Each PC 

Character pictures convey a lot of information. They pass theme, personality, and a general sense of who the character is, quickly, to party members.

If possible, arrange before the first session for each player to bring in a picture that represents their PC. Put these pictures in front of respective players, mount them on a wall or board, or put them in the middle of the table, for all to see.

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2. Fill Out Your GM Reference Card 

A great GM tool is the PC reference card. Whether you use an actual index card, a spreadsheet, other software, or a paper form, gathering up the key stats of characters for future reference is useful:

  • Saves you time. Instead of asking players the same questions over and over, just refer to your card.
  • Keeps secrets secret. Avoid giving away upcoming surprises with skill checks that you need to ask players for. Roll for them yourself and consult your stat card.
  • Design informed. With key points of information about each PC handy, you can design encounters better.

One way to fill out your card is by asking players at the table, and making a bit of a game of it. Players get accustomed to playing together, and they get to know their characters better.

The game is simple. Ask for most/least, alternating each time, and determine the winner of each round. Each winner gets a small reward, such as a gold piece. Questions will be based on your game system, but here's an example using D&D:

  • Who is the weakest? Players will call out their strength scores, and you dutifully record them, plus give the weakest PC a gold piece.
  • Who is the smartest?
  • Who has the least amount of health and vitality? (Hit points)
  • Who is the best person to talk to strangers? (Charisma)
  • Who is most likely to suffer a wound in a sword fight? (Armor class)
  • Who makes the most noise when they walk? (Move Silently)
  • Who can speak the most languages?

And so on. Notice how well-worded questions can reveal important information about characters and the party make- up. Together, the group learns who should be their public relations officer, who needs the most protection in melee, who is the sneakiest, etc.

You might consider asking the winner of each round for a quick story or explanation about their strength or weakness. "Has your keen intellect ever gotten you in trouble? Where did you get that fine armour from? What has been your clumsiest moment to date?"

If you have characters who don't win many of the rounds, because they are perhaps generalists, then ask for who has the least amount of party weaknesses, and who has the least amount of party strengths, and grant those characters a reward.

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3. Have Players Describe Another Character 

Another way to fill out your stat card quickly and get players familiar with each other's characters is to pass the character sheets around and ask for your key information.

Start by asking players to pass their character sheet one player to the left. Then ask for character name. This will make players search the strange character sheet before them. Then ask for a few stats and then have players pass sheets to the left again. Repeat until players have had a chance to check out every character sheet and your stat card is complete.

A more roleplaying oriented method is to have a player describe another player's character. With another character sheet in hand, each player scans the information, especially areas of equipment and appearance, and describes their first impression of each other.

Impressions can change, and don't reflect the true nature of a character, so if a player gets the completely wrong impression about someone's PC, no harm is done. On the positive side, each player gets to know another character better, as does the group, and players will get new ideas about how to represent their PC during the game by listening to another's impression.

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4. Start With At Least One Personality Hook 

This tip has been mentioned before, and it's worth repeating. Ensure each PC has at least one interesting character hook before play begins. Some players might have several, but some might have none, so work with these folks immediately.

A great way to develop a quirk or trait is with a random chart. This helps an undecided, nervous, or non-roleplayer quickly determine a hook for their PC without judgement or hassle.

I was chatting with a player in my group last session about the good, old, secondary profession chart from first edition D&D. "Kids these days have a whole list of skills to choose from. When I was growing up, we had to use a chart, accept what was rolled, and we liked it!" Heh.

My point though, was this chart provided an instant character hook. It was amazing to see how many times a character's carpenter profession came into play. I think players saw it as a challenge.

The character's personality hopefully won't stop at just one hook. Often this little bit of information becomes a seed and many more traits and hooks sprout from it.

This method also sets an expectation for roleplay within the group. Sometimes players new to each other aren't sure if roleplay is welcome, and getting a roleplaying hook sorted out right away communicates "go for it!"

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5. Run PCs Through Boot Camp 

An option for the first session is something I call boot camp. It consists of several quick encounters that cover the gamut of play styles and character abilities. Such an approach helps everyone explore their own characters and learn about each other's capabilities.

This also allows you to observe game play so you can learn a bit about what each player's style is, their approach to RPGs, what they like, what they don't like, and about the party's strengths and weaknesses. Record this information and put it to work whenever you design.

A classic example is the tournament and fair. This is a short, discreet event that makes a great campaign launch point. You can insert as many plot hooks as you like while the event runs, and because the event isn't long and must have an ending, you won't be cornered by a campaign start that forces you along a specific vector.

A tournament and fair often involves numerous competitions and games, which makes the session accessible to all character types. Some competitions will be combat and skill oriented. This is a great way to become familiar with a game system, and a way for players to get acquainted with character mechanics plus their own PC's stats.

I highly encourage adding one or more roleplaying competitions as well. Try an insult competition, a Limerick contest, or something involving improv. Be sure to sprinkle all encounters and competitions with interesting NPCs - hopefully ones that will be recurring.

Often, a GM will weave in an interesting story or side plot as well. For example, there might be a kidnapping, some villainy, a strange event or two, or a monster attack.

This is just one example of a boot camp start. Other examples:

  • An actual boot camp. The PCs are undergoing military training.
  • A sports event. Something akin to the Olympics.
  • School event. Harry Potter is an example.
  • Police. Similar to a military boot camp, the PCs are taking police or guard training.

The key to a boot camp startup is short, quick, varied encounters. This means just about any setting and setup would work:

  • Business. Each character works for a corporation in some capacity and are brought together due to an unusual circumstance or event. Perhaps the building they work in collapses and they must work together to get out.
  • Family. This is an effective way to get disparate characters together. Perhaps the PCs meet at a family reunion where games and events are being held.
  • Public events. Sports, entertainment, and rallies are ways for the PCs to collide and get into several shared encounters.
  • Travel. This is a great way to run an effective boot camp. Travel allows PCs to be passengers, merchants, guards, pilots or drivers, hitchhikers, and so on. As the trip unfolds, events of all kinds can take place, bonding the PCs together.

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6. Run Campaign Preludes 

I've GM'd preludes in a couple different ways to varying effect. A prelude involves crafting what's happened in the story before the official campaign start date.

  • One-On-Ones

    This has worked well for me. I've run exclusive sessions, with one or two players at a time, preceding the first group game session. I've also done quick preludes out in the hall with each player while the others are finishing up their characters or chatting at the game table.

    What's worked best is having the meeting point, event, or condition already in mind before starting the preludes. This gives me my target when telling the story, roleplaying with the player, and reacting to PC actions. If a player does something unexpected, recovery is easy through GM fiat.

    The player takes a boat to an unexplored continent? Unfortunately, there was a horrible storm, the boat blew off-course, then foundered, and the PC - lucky to be alive - washes up right at the other PCs' feet.

    This example is a bit extreme, but it happened, and it worked out well because of the interesting backstory the PC now had. The prelude status meant there was an expectation of limited free will, as well. In addition, the shipwreck spawned a treasure hunt, crewmen appearing later in the campaign, and a couple of plot hooks based on the cargo.
  • Choose your own adventure

    This one is literal. I set the start point for each PC and gave them two or three choices. I then let them know the consequences of their choice and took them to a new point where there was a new set of choices. We continued in this fashion until the PC was at a point where he could start the campaign.

    The stories woven in this fashion were usually interesting. The gameplay was almost always diceless. The players got to know their characters a bit better, some of the game world was revealed, and I got to steer things fairly easily by establishing choices and outcomes.

    The most important part of this exercise, though, was delving into why the characters made the choices they did. Some situations revealed a character's morals or alignment, some revealed preferences, and some revealed character abilities. In many cases, players revised their character stats and concepts to align with what happened in their preludes.

    To save time, on occasion, I'll create a single scenario and run each PC through it. I remember, for one campaign, being inspired by the fortune teller at the beginning of Ultima IV and doing a similar "shared experience" prelude.

    The other times I've used this method, I've generated a few light notes beforehand and winged it. There was no pressure to perform, because we were just running preludes, we weren't using game mechanics, and I was mostly just reacting to character choices and steering them with new options.
  • Individual game session

    These were fun, but took a long time to prepare. I would run each character through their own game session. After all one-on-one sessions were complete, I'd look for common points in the stories that unfolded and chose the campaign and first session starting points from those.

    Most individual sessions started from a point in each character's life where they departed from normal society and started on their path to hero, adventurer, or chosen one.

    These sessions always went well. We weren't obliged to play for a full session length, though sometimes they'd go on for longer. Often they were impromptu. I would suddenly have spare time and would call players until one could come over and game their PC backstory.

    Sessions were always casual, with the players making changes, updating overlooked sections of their character sheets, and roleplaying more than dice rolling.

    The big cost was time, but an organized GM can blow through these in one or two focused weeks, if desired, and start their campaigns with minimal delay.
  • Character questionnaire

    The most common method I employ is the character questionnaire. I'll have a few backstory or history questions planned out in advance, and then I'll work through the answers with players either as they finish making their characters in the first session, or before the session via phone, visit, or e-mail.

    Sometimes I'll go the random chart route and ask players to weave the results together into a cohesive backstory. Central Casting has some awesome, out of print books for random character background generation. And the Hero Builder's Guidebook from D&D 3.0 has great charts as well.

    Here is a couple of excellent questionnaire resources:

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Readers' Tips Of The Week: 

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

1. How To Avoid Total Party Kills 

From: Varianor

  1. Vary the combats with non-lethal brawls and confrontations. A bar fight is a tried-and-true choice. PCs having to run crowd control on a mob of panicked commoners is another good one.
  2. Substitute action scenes for fight scenes. If the PCs need to outrun hot lava pouring down a tunnel and rescue someone along the way, it's a threat (in d20 it only does 2d6 per round) that will get their blood flowing but has a lower risk of death.
  3. Examine the tactics of the players and monsters.
    1. Is it one player whose PC is always dying? If so, try a different approach by suggesting they build a tougher character.
    2. Is it the entire group suffering from TPKs? If so, why were they all killed? Did they go up against a truly formidable foe "just because," or did they feel like this was the only way they could go?
    3. In either situation where you keep getting kills, do the monsters try to negotiate a surrender occasionally, or are they always jumping out with surprise while invisible?
  4. Examine the spells and special abilities being used by the opponents. Is there a type of offensive power your NPCs are using frequently? Level draining, for example, or frequent fireballs. Try to vary the spell use and ability use to mix it up.
  5. My favorite. Substitute a roleplaying encounter for a combat. Perhaps the PCs can negotiate an exchange of hostages, or trade with some hostiles for a rare herb that's needed to cure a disease outbreak, or even seek critical information.

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2. Cave Encounter Ideas 

From: Strider Starslayer

  • The Go Board Of Doom

    For those not familiar with the game of Go, the point is to own a majority of the board at the end. A simple 9x9 board will take about 15 minutes to play, as long as you don't spend too much time thinking about it. A full size board is 19x19.

    The players enter a room with a lot of lines on the floor. When attempting to cross the room, they are stopped by a magic force field that gives a riddle along the lines of "before you can move on, you must learn to go." Then, a Go board appears in front of the party.

    When the game is done, all the parts controlled by the riddle-causing force will disappear, leaving what's remaining to cross the room with. (Don't put anything vital on the other side in case they loose. Or, provide another, more difficult way around.)
  • The Dragon Who'll Trade

    Dragons in most games are portrayed as intelligent creatures, but are usually given an obsession with building a hoard. However, the dragon's attachment to a hoard is not necessarily related to the usefulness of its contents, but to its beauty and aesthetic value. As such, a dragon might have accumulated several powerful artifacts that are somewhat ugly, and would be willing to trade.

    The party stumbles upon a dragon's hoard full of weapons and gold. After a few brief threats by the dragon telling the party to not touch its stuff, it looks at the quality of their goods and decides they might be useful. It gives the PCs an offer they can't refuse: a few, powerful artifacts (things you could not buy) for 50 times their weight in gold, gems, and other pretties.

    The problem is, how will the party move that much wealth from their hoards, banks, and holdings to the dragon's cave without drawing attention and attackers who'd take the loot? (You could also make the dragon try to double-cross them, but that's too trite.)
  • The Undead Community

    Several forms of undead in many games need not bother the living for sustenance, and are intelligent enough to carry on existences. However, undead are generally considered monsters that must be exterminated.

    Undead that have no need to trouble the living (liches, wraiths, intelligent zombies and skeletons, ghosts, etc.) have set up a retreat deep in a cave complex to avoid the swords and blades of a society that would kill them for what they are.

    What happens when the party happens upon these rejects from society? If the party does not make a good impression, they might have trouble leaving the area - well, alive anyway -as the undead are fearful they will return with more undead hunters.

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3. KeyNote Game Information Organizer 

From: Francois Beausoleil, Developer of Java GUI Builder

Hello everyone,

I remember seeing a utility named MyInfo in this newsletter. Well, I found a Freeware/OpenSource version of a program that does just about the same thing.

Check out the KeyNote program on the left-hand side.

This is a utility that lets you attach sounds, pictures, text and what-have-you to nodes in a tree. Then, when the adventure is hot, all of your precious information is handy, since everything is in one file. Search for nodes and/or text content easily using the handy search feature.

Anyway, I am not affiliated with the person who made the program, but I thought it might be interesting.

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Johnn Four's GM Guide Books 

In addition to writing and publishing this e-zine, I have written several GM tips and advice books to inspire your games and to make GMing easier and fun:

Inns, Taverns, and Restaurants - new

How to design, map, and GM fresh encounters for RPG's most popular locales. Includes campaign and NPC advice as well, plus several generators and tables

Adventure Essentials: Holidays

Advice and tips for designing compelling holidays that not only expand your game world but provide endless natural encounter, adventure, and campaign hooks.

GM Mastery: NPC Essentials

Critically acclaimed and multiple award-winning guide to crafting, roleplaying, and GMing three dimensional NPCs for any game system and genre. This book will make a difference to your GMing.