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Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #396

Start Campaigns With Unrelated One-Shot Adventures


This Week's Tips Summarized 

Start Campaigns With Unrelated One-Shot Adventures

  1. Creating A One-Shot
  2. Same Rules, Different Setting
  3. Same Setting, Different Plot
  4. Same Plot, Different Angle
  5. Extra Twists

Readers' Tips Summarized 

  1. Create Relationship Diagrams To Manage NPCs Better
  2. There And Back Again: Give Players Inaccurate Maps
  3. Use ReBoot TV Show For Inspiration
  4. Use Post-Its For Quick Referencing
  5. Rationale For Trap Clues

Johnn Four's GM Guide Books

Expeditious Retreat Press releases The Prison of Meneptah

Advanced Adventures #4: The Prison of Meneptah is now available in stores and in PDF! This 32-page OSRIC(tm) module is designed for 4-7 adventurers of levels 8-10, and explores a mysterious desert-like plane in hopes of uncovering powerful magicks to overthrow the dreaded Lord of Flies himself!

Advanced Adventures #4: The Prison of Meneptah at Expeditious Retreat Press

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A Brief Word From Johnn 

Top RPG Movies For Game Masters

Thanks to Bob G. for putting together a web page of the huge movies for RPGs list that first appeared in Issue #386. The web page includes new additions and errata.

Top Movies for Game Masters

5 Room Dungeons Volume 16 Now Available

The next volume of 5 Room Dungeons contest entries is now ready for download. Featured in this volume:

  1. The Sledge
    by Dragonlordmax
  2. The Pyramid
    by Jeremy Coffey
  3. The Masters of Evil
    by David J Rowe

Download (PDF 800 KB)

Previous 5 Room Dungeons

Have a great gaming week!


Johnn Four,

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An Adventurer's Guide to Eberron

This lavishly illustrated visual guide explores the magical, medieval fantasy world of Eberron. Climb aboard an elemental airship and visit wondrous locations, from the soaring spires of Sharn and monolithic mountain strongholds of the Mror Holds to the cyclopean ruins of Xen-drik and the gleaming glaciers of the Frostfell.

See the world like never before and discover its many secrets. If you're a fan of fantasy artwork and literature, the Adventurer's Guide to Eberron makes an excellent addition to your library. It brings the world of Eberron to life visually and gives non-Eberron gamers a glimpse into a rich world of magic and mystery.

An Adventurer's Guide to Eberron at RPG Shop

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Start Campaigns With Unrelated One-Shot Adventures  

By Hannah L.

My first D&D character was a mage who didn't know the spell Magic Missile. As laughable as that sounds, I'm sure most gamers have been in a similar situation: you're building a PC for a brand new campaign, and, not wholly clear on the rules, you overlook some vital trait or stat, and you end up with a severely underpowered character.

To avoid having players in that situation, try starting off a new campaign with an unrelated one-shot. Not only will your players get to know the game mechanics, but they'll also get to know each other's gaming styles. This leads to a more balanced, functional party, and that means less stress in the first few sessions as players settle into the campaign.

You can set up a starting one-shot in a number of ways, each with different benefits:

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1. Creating A One-Shot 

The first step in making a one-shot is to calculate how much time you have to play. If this is your players' first game with a new ruleset, budget in extra time to get a quick explanation out of the way. Don't worry about details to start. Part of the purpose of the one-shot is to familiarize players with the system, so it's better to just explain most of the rules as they come up.

Keep It Simple

Once you have a rough idea of how long the one-shot should take, start plotting. Good one-shot plots are usually simple, with a defined start and end point, and room for at least a few choices in the middle.

Create An In-Game Time Limit

A good way to define an end point is to set an in-game time limit. Action movies, and zombie movies especially, are a great source of inspiration for this. The villain's plan will take effect, the city will be bombed by the air force, or the space ship will run out of air if the players don't do something by a certain time.

PC Fatalities Are No Big Deal

The key to designing a one-shot ending is to remember it doesn't matter if the PCs die; the players only have a few hours invested in the characters, and will have to set them aside afterwards anyway. You don't have to come up with a reason why the air force might call off their attack if the players stumble; if your real-life game time is up, the bombing will begin.

Use Pre-Generated PCs

Crafting a starting point for a one-shot is easier than for a campaign, because in most one-shots, the GM will have designed the characters. This saves valuable gaming time, and is especially helpful when trying to introduce players to a new system. Be sure to have more characters made than players - about 1.5 times the number of expected players is a good rule. Having premade characters also gives players the benefit of trying out different classes and races before committing to one. Be sure to have a variety of choices available.

Use The One-Shot To Demo PC Choices

If the system you are using is classless, try building a couple characters that are similar to classes from games the players are familiar with, and a couple of characters that are entirely different, to illustrate the range of possibilities. Depending on everyone's style, you might want to write up backgrounds, or just brief personality sketches of each character, and let the players flesh out the rest.

Define the characters' personality, or at least how they relate to each other, to make starting the one-shot much easier.

Allow 10% Customization

If you think you will have extra time, or some of the players have played the system before, try building the characters 90% of the way and allowing the players to add a few personal finishing touches at the start of the game.

Use In Media Res And A Direct Threat

Starting in media res (in the middle of things) is a good option, especially when time is limited. If the one-shot's end point carries sufficient urgency, the middle of the adventure should take care of itself, as players try to foil whatever disaster threatens the party. Building a one-shot around a direct threat is certainly the easiest way to go, though a competition or a minor quest also works just fine.

Build Encounters That Showcase PC Abilities

Once you have the basic plot outline and the characters, create encounters that show off the various talents of the PCs. Have encounters that highlight the game's core mechanics, as well as one or two of the trickier mechanics players might not have seen before.

Before doing all this, you should figure out if, and to what extent, the one-shot is going to relate to your final campaign.

One option is to have the one-shot be completely unrelated to the campaign. Use the same rules and rules modifications, but set the game in a completely different world. This is a great opportunity to explore a new genre, or maybe just play with different themes. If you've been gaming for your group with a while, a chance to switch it up might be just what you need - a refreshing change of pace before you dive in to a whole new campaign.

Alternatively, working a bit of the main campaign's plot into your one-shot gets things started right away, and gets the players itching to learn more. Even just exploring the setting is a good way to start. Letting players get a feel for the game world before diving into the story allows them to create characters with more cohesive backstories.

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2. Same Rules, Different Setting 

If you want the one-shot to be about learning the rules, you have a lot of plot design freedom. Try having the one-shot take place in an entirely different world than the main game to ensure nothing the characters do impacts the actual campaign.

Depending on the system, you might be limited to a specific genre. If not, this is a good opportunity to try something a little out of the ordinary. One caution is to make the play style similar to that of your campaign. If you're planning on a low magic campaign, running a high magic one-shot risks confusing your players, and leading to the very problem you're trying to avoid.

Unless your system's rules focus heavily on usage of technology, varying the tech level should be fine - players who enjoy wielding a light saber during the one-shot shouldn't be too disappointed by using a great sword during the campaign.

If using a different setting just for one adventure seems like too much work, then don't bother. A one-shot set in the campaign world doesn't necessarily have to interfere with the main storyline, and can have benefits of its own.

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3. Same Setting, Different Plot 

Getting player knowledge of the setting up to par with character knowledge is never easy, especially when you're running a homebrew adventure instead of a published one.

Running the one-shot in the world of the campaign lets the players get a feel for the setting before designing their characters. It can also be a different way of exploring the setting than the players will get to experience during the campaign. There are various ways of ensuring the one-shot doesn't intersect with the main campaign's plot.

One way of distancing the one-shot from the main campaign is to set it in an out of the way corner of the world, among people who will have little plot impact. This is a good way to show off the unique flavor of your campaign world, and give players a break from epic adventuring.

Not too many parties spend a lot of time interacting with the average people of the campaign world. Having a rather low-key one-shot where players take on the roles of typical citizens could be just what's needed to make the setting come alive.

If what your players crave is more epic action, consider setting the one-shot far back in history, in a time the main campaign will regard as mythical. Having the events of the one-shot turn into legends the eventual PCs might hear about gives players a great connection to the setting.

High-powered characters tend to be more complicated, so for a group of players just getting to know the system, playing demi-gods might not be ideal. However, perhaps the events of the mythical age weren't quite so epic while they were happening, and it was only in later retellings that the figures of that time became larger than life.

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4. Same Plot, Different Angle 

If the plot is so tied to the setting that it's impossible to avoid, or you just can't wait to get started with your shadowy web of intrigue, running a one-shot that interacts with the plot from a different perspective than the eventual campaign also works.

One possible perspective is the distant past. Rather than having the party play a part in a minor legend, send them back to the time and place where the current conflict began. This gives the players a chance to see the roots of things.

If the main campaign centers on an ancestral feud between two races, how cool would it be to have seen firsthand how it all started? Perhaps the party's own characters inadvertently triggered the fatal disagreement. Even if the one-shot PCs were only on the fringes of things, it will still give the players a deeper appreciation of the conflict.

Another possibility is to set the one-shot in the future. This can go in one of two directions - either the rosy future the eventual PCs will be fighting for, or the dark dystopia the party will be seeking to prevent.

A glimpse of either or both of these possible worlds is a great way to build investment in the plot, and maybe even a way to drop some early clues. If the overlord's top henchman in the future is nothing but an ordinary, if charismatic, politician in the main campaign, you can bet the PCs will be keeping an eye on him.

Setting the one-shot in the worst-case future also makes ending in a timely fashion easier - just have the PCs mercilessly gunned down by random thugs. What better way to make the players that much more determined to foil whatever evil wants to bring about such a dark future?

If you know your players are just as excited about causing evil as foiling it, perhaps their one-shot PCs could be minor bad guys. Spreading mischief for the main villain will give the party better insight into their eventual foes, as well as a connection to the conflict. Spending part of the first session repairing the havoc their one-shot PCs wreaked is also a great reminder that actions have consequences, something many players forget.

If you're worried the consequences your players cause might get a little too chaotic, consider just setting the one-shot in an alternate timeline. This lets you reset everything before the main campaign, without having to worry about consistency.

It's also great if you're planning your first session to be extra challenging. If the one-shot is something similar, the PCs get a chance for a "do over." This can work well if you're trying a new gaming style your players might not be used to. If the hack-n-slash players get a chance to discover that rolling initiative first and asking questions later isn't going to solve the problem, they're less likely to make the same mistake the second time around.

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5. Extra Twists 

Beyond all of the obvious, you have a lot of options when running a one-shot that aren't available to you during a full campaign. Some possibilities:

  • Whatever pre-generated characters the players don't choose become backup lives. Whenever a player dies, let them take over one of the spare characters, and keep going as if nothing had happened. This works well for violent one-shots, and also lets players try out more types of characters.
  • Have a competitive one-shot. Rather than racing to prevent some sort of disaster, the players are on different teams with mutually exclusive goals. Maybe it's even a complete free-for-all. This can get messy, so be sure you know your players can handle it.
  • Play as monsters. If the enemies have similar game mechanics to the characters, this can be a good way to learn the system. Be sure your players don't get too attached; it's hard to run a campaign for a party of dragons!

* * *

While the purpose of starting a campaign with a one-shot is to introduce the players to the rules, the setting, or even just each other, it is still a one-shot. Try something new, get a little crazy, and above all, have fun with it.

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Battlestar Galactica GM Screen

The Battlestar Galactica universe offers many gaming possibilities, from the crew of a war-weary military vessel, civilians struggling to survive in a rag-tag fleet, or guerilla fighters striking out against the Cylons on occupied worlds.

The Battlestar Galactica Game Master's Screen is the perfect accessory to accompany the Battlestar Galactica Role Playing Game. Four panels provide everything you need to run the Cortex System game rules at a glance, and a poster map shows full deckplans of Galactica itself.

Battlestar Galactica GM Screen at RPG Shop

Readers' Tips Of The Week: 

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

1. Create Relationship Diagrams To Manage NPCs Better 

From: Phil, The Chatty DM
Musings of the Chatty GM

Sometimes, when you sit down to prepare your next adventure, you are struck with a cool idea for a convoluted plot. You know, the kind of idea involving a large group of NPCs that your players need to untangle to move the story forward.

Alternatively, you might be doing some world building by creating groups of countries or city-based organizations and trying to establish the relations between each without writing a geo-political essay.

In such cases, depending on the time you can allow to adventure preparation, you might decide to forget about the whole idea and try to improvise it, hoping you'll be able to keep the relationships between each NPC/Country/organization straight. Some GMs are very good at this. Others, like myself, aren't that gifted.

Fortunately, there's a simple tool you can use to help rapidly map out these more complex relationships. We call it, appropriately, the Relationship Diagram.

Here's an example (PDF). See Figure #1.

It boils down to writing the name of your NPCs or organizations on a sheet of paper (graph paper works best) and linking them with arrows. You then label the arrows with a short description of the relationship. Examples of such relationships can be 'in Love,' 'wants to kill,' or 'at war.'

Make arrows bi-directional if the relationship is reciprocal. Create your own legend of arrows to code for secret relationships, alliances, magical domination, etc.

Such a diagram can even be used to plot out a character- intensive adventure. For example, in Figure 2 in the PDF linked above, I charted some NPC relationships, based around the biggest cliché of fantasy role-playing: The Tavern Scene.

Take a couple running a tavern. They have a beautiful daughter (of course) that isn't the actual daughter of the owner. Her mother had a secret relationship with a traveling bard that led to the daughter's birth.

The daughter now has her own secret liaison with the town's baker, who's actually an evil cultist. Said cultist is plotting to corrupt the daughter to his dark gods and take down the town's Holy Guardian, the Paladin.

Of course, said Paladin, who's the stuffy, rather righteous sort, also just happens to be an old adventuring buddy of the Traveling Bard. He doesn't know that his buddy is the true father. The Paladin has also fallen madly in love with the much younger tavern keeper's daughter. (I say, when you go for a cliché, embrace it thoroughly!)

Finally, the bard has gotten wind of the cultist's plot but can't afford to get involved personally. The bard therefore approaches the PCs with the very sensitive mission of investigating the girl's activity and protecting her.

Figure #2 summarizes this graphically and can be used during the adventure to drive NPC decisions or reactions to PCs and other NPCs.

You can also use your favorite graphics or software to create your charts. I used PowerPoint to create them in a few minutes.

The tool is not limited to game masters. Players who need to work out a complex situation can create their own charts to help them work out how to navigate the GM's devilishly created tangled skein.

All in all, it can be a very useful and easy to implement gaming aid.

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2. There And Back Again: Give Players Inaccurate Maps 

From: Patrick Riegert

Don't consistently, if ever, give players accurate maps. There are many good reasons to deceive your players:

  1. Historically, mapping is inaccurate
  2. It takes less GM prep time
  3. It allows the players to add to the map as you go, making it theirs
  4. It allows you to add new places or new encounters that the players (and perhaps you) did not expect

A lot of RTS (real-time strategy) games use the "fog of war" mechanic whereby areas not explored are blank. Do the same thing with your maps given to players: leave areas blank. Let them fill it in as they go, thereby letting the players themselves create the inaccuracies! *insert evil cackle here*

If a map is from a farmer, make it look crude with thick charcoal pencils, and don't write anything on it. (Most medieval farmers were illiterate.) Make it vague. Distances will be exaggerated; the distances are either much farther or much shorter than indicated.

A map coming from a librarian or scholar in a large urban centre would be more accurate, but still nowhere near perfect. That doesn't mean you can't give assurances from the NPC that it is: "Accurate? Of course it is! It was originally charted by Vanay in the field during the Wars of Consolidation."

Use large, thick sheets of paper for your maps. They come fairly cheap at art supply stores, are easy to roll up, and can take a bit of rough handling. I also use charcoal pencils - thick ones for more rustic maps, and finer ones for more articulate ones. Normal pencils don't tend to be dark enough, and they don't smear. Smears can make maps used and authentic looking. If you want to be really fancy, use an ink pen.

When drawing maps for player use, consider:

  • The time the map was charted.
  • Who charted it.
  • How much knowledge the charter has/had of the world, or how much access they have/had to records, other maps, and geographical notes.

A 400-year-old map might be almost useless to players since city names may different (if even noted). Cities, towns and villages might have been destroyed or built; rivers get redirected or flood new areas; fires destroy portions of forests; landslides close mountain passes; etc. Though the map might be useless, the players don't know that.

The best place for inspiration is online. Search for maps of Europe or North America circa 1700s and you can see how almost comical they seem given today's cartography technologies.

[Comment from Johnn: check out the map links in Roleplaying Tips Weekly Supplemental #12 "Online Sources of Free Maps". ]

Also, J. R. R. Tolkien created much of his own art, at least for the Hobbit. His map for the Hobbit included specific, personal markings, and certain landmarks were out of scale.

Add these great little touches. If it's a hand-me-down map, maybe there's a recipe on the back, or crossed-off names. The players will wonder if it's relevant. If nothing else, it adds to the belief that not everything in the world pops into existence just prior to them arriving there.

Also, be realistic. What if, in the course of an adventure, the map should be exposed to fire? Simple. Expose the actual map to fire for the duration it takes for someone to rescue it. The party takes a spill into a body of water? Soak the map and see what happens. Your players will moan and laugh, but mostly they'll be excited to see real consequences.

Use misdirection in your games. It keeps the players on their toes, and adds a realistic touch, both of which make games more fun, for you and them.

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3. Use ReBoot TV Show For Inspiration 

From: Tom Brendlinger

With regard to basing ideas on TV shows and movies: the mid- nineties brought us excellent GM fodder: ReBoot. MegaByte and his bumbling henchmen are excellent models for incompetent villains, while a character similar to that of Enzo is great for giving plot hooks.

I've run a campaign about chasing after a villain based on Hexadecimal, an evil character who wears a variety of masks to show her expression.

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4. Use Post-Its For Quick Referencing 

From: Tom Brendlinger

Use post-it page markers to speed up book referencing. Sure, it makes you look like a nerd among nerds, but when a PC strikes up a conversation with the man walking down main street, I know where in the DMG II to find the Random NPC Agenda table. If I want the Random Harlot Encounter table, I turn to my good old AD&D DMG and find the tab labeled Harlots.

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5. Rationale For Trap Clues 

From: Joachim de Ravenbel

Everyone has heard about the trap where the floor is tiled with letters and you have to step on the letters to form the command word. What I found a bit odd is that often the trap is found with a clue giving the right word. It means that the trap won't work on any foe of average or better intelligence.

How can we still use that nice trap without breaking disbelief? I've found some solutions:

  1. The foe has many such traps (or at least a lot involving codes) so he can't remember all of them and has to leave a clue.
  2. The foe has the clichéd dumb assistant who can't remember anything and needs the clue. But, he might carry it. So have the PCs meet and search the assistant to find the clue.
  3. Better yet, the PCs met the assistant sessions before and have had the clue for some time. Will they think of it?
  4. The word is obviously the only one those letters can form. No clue needed. The word should be related to the game world and/or the foe.
  5. It is possible to form many words (in French we call that game "Mots Placés." I don't know how it translates) and you can only step on those letters not used in any word.

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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.