Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #471
Role-Reversal: GMing other GMs
This Week's Tips Summarized
Role-Reversal: GMing other GMs
Game Master Tips & Trick
- Nonlinear DMing
- Post Apocalypse / Dark And Gritty Music Suggestions
Johnn Four's GM Guide Books
A Brief Word From Hannah
Be Excited About the Book of Rituals
Goodman Games' Book of Rituals is now available for
preorder. Why am I saying you should be excited about it?
Check the list of contributing authors!
That's right: I have a couple of rituals in the book. I
can't tell you exactly what they are since the book isn't
out yet and that would be spoiling the fun. But let's just
say that if you think a supplement full of rituals has
nothing in it for your fighter or your ranger, you are very
And if you'd like to make something cool and lasting,
whether you're small village's healer or the terror of
kingdoms, there are some rituals you might be interested in
And that's just the ones I wrote! I can't wait to see what
all the other contributors came up with.
Book of Rituals
Roleplay Media Network
If you can't get enough RPG discussion (and why else would
you be reading this right now?) then there's a new way for
you to get your fix: the Roleplay Media Network.
It's billed as "a community for rpg bloggers, podcasters,
vidcasters, and their audiences," and I've found that to be
true so far. I've had some interesting conversations about
gaming, marketing, underwater deathbots and life in general,
and met a lot of cool people.
There are nearly 400 members as of this writing, which is
pretty impressive for a site that's only been around for a
few weeks. Time will tell whether it continues to grow at
this rate, but I can say that it's already a useful tool
for networking and just plain having fun talking about
Roleplaying Tips Editor
Return to Contents
Reader Tip Request: Roll vs. Role
RPT reader Brock writes:
I enjoy good role-play and developing my character's
personality. To me, that is still the primary reason I play
On the other hand, I understand the perspective of the
"ROLL-playing" gamers. I still want a "game" in the role-
playing game, with some rules I can comprehend and try to
leverage to succeed at tasks. I even enjoy the bit of
random chance that the dice rolls add to the role-playing.
Nothing like a good critical hit to give you an opportunity
for good role-play!
So, I am both a ROLE-playing gamer and a ROLL-playing gamer.
Maybe an article discussing the different types of
satisfaction different types of gamers get out of RPGs
might make for an interesting tip?
What do you say, readers? How do you use ROLL-playing to add
to the fun of the ROLE-playing aspect of your game? Let
players describe critical hits in detail? Ask players to
explain why their character failed when they botch a skill
On the flip side, how do you use ROLE-playing to affect your
ROLL-playing? Bonuses to attacks that are especially
cinematic? Free background skills if it fits the character's
Let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Role-Reversal: GMing other GMs
A guest article by Jinx Strange
How is gaming with a GM inherently different from gaming
with anyone else?
Fundamentally, it isn't.
The same game rules apply; the same expectations of manners,
courtesy and participation are all relevant. On the surface,
running a game for someone who has run games of their own
shouldn't be any different than with someone who has not.
That being said, it can still be a nerve rattling task to
have to perform in front of your peers. Imagine a dentist
giving a lecture on dentistry to fellow dentists. He's going
to feel pressure to be knowledgeable and on point by virtue
of being in front of people who know what to ask, and how to
decipher the answers.
GMs are not a special breed, subject to rigorous, individual
training, who are then issued forth from GM Academy armed
with grid paper, pencils, and voluminous technical knowledge
unavailable to the unwashed masses.
They are people just like you or me (and include you and me)
who have tried on the GM hat.
Getting to the meat of this week's tips, I've answered some
questions you might have when going into a new game with a
1. What if I don't know the new GM?
That's okay. Chances are favorable you didn't know anyone
you've gamed with at one point or another. The very fact
that you don't know their gaming experience can actually
serve to calm your nerves a bit; are you more likely to be
intimidated by a known factor, or an unknown one?
Just treat them as you would any new player. Ask them a few
questions about what they like and don't like, and toss the
fact out the window that they've run games before. You're
new to each other, so establish your relationship on the
only lines that you have: As player and GM.
2. What if my game isn't as good as his?
For something to be competitive it generally has to be
Unless your group keeps a Fun-o-Meter at the table (and if
you know where to buy one, please send me a link), then it's
unlikely anyone is measuring your game by any strict
It doesn't matter if you run the same kind of game as your
friend. If you know what the group enjoys then you can
figure out how to break the Fun-o-Meter by taking a page
from Charles Darwin, and using a little natural selection of
your own. Favor activities that engross players, elicit
emotional responses and keep the players interested in
what's going on. Dispense with activities that leave them
stacking corn chips and fiddling with iPhones.
There are hundreds of tips in the archives on how to run a
fun game. Dive into some back-issues and quit worrying about
how your buddy runs things. This is your show.
3. What if the other GM knows more about the setting than I do?
Bone up on any setting you're going to be running
consistently. It's just a good idea.
Admit to yourself there isn't always time, especially on the
spur of the moment, and think small. Use what you do know;
keep the scale of the session local, small and don't try to
cram every bit of lore into the first session.
You can run a great session inside a single room (or tavern,
or hospital ward, or geostationary space research vessel)
with the world in which you're running it being virtually
indistinguishable from any other of the same mechanics. This
option will buy you time.
Use Mister Lorepants over there to your advantage. If it
doesn't interrupt the flow or mood of the game, ask for
input occasionally. Think of him as your tour guide, and
have him help flesh out the map for your adventure. It's
okay. It doesn't make you any less of a GM.
4. What if the GM uses his mechanics knowledge to gain advantages?
It sounds like you have a Rules Lawyer on your hands, a
disease not limited to GMs by any means.
I would hope anyone who has sat behind the screen would be
especially respectful of not trying to pull this, and would
only offer rules clarification to help the game run
smoothly, but alas, I am a realist.
In this instance, you treat them no differently than any
Rules Lawyer. There are already tips on handling this,
5. My Player-GM is giving me a lot of feedback and it's a
Sometimes people who feel experienced like to offer a stream
of coaching and feedback to newbies in any activity.
Sometimes this is to assert dominance through knowledge, and
sometimes it's out of a genuine desire to help and
contribute to everyone's overall enjoyment.
If the main point of the feedback seems to be to point out
just how much you don't know, you're probably dealing with
the former. If the subject seems to be a handful of tips and
tricks of the trade, it's likely the latter.
In either case, always try to take what you can out of any
feedback and be open to suggestions and ways to improve your
game. The GM who's done learning how to GM probably isn't
going to run a very fun game for long.
Thank the person for their input, but feel free to put
boundaries on it if it's making you uncomfortable. "Thanks
for the heads-up! You can be sure I'm reading up as much as
I can as we go. I've got a lot going in my head right now,
though, so would you mind saving your thoughts for the end
of the session/week/month/campaign? If you think of
something, just jot it down and give it to me at the end,
and I'll read it."
6. I think my Player-GM might be hijacking my game
This is no good, and I've seen it happen. Sure, he starts
out as a player, and everything goes great at first. As the
action picks up, though, he starts throwing out ideas like:
PGM: "You know what we should do next? We should go charge
the castle and try to get the orb back from the wizard!"
Even though the wizard is your PC's employer in this
With the party gleefully in tow, as they get to the castle:
"You know what would be awesome!? If the wizard actually
turned out to be our nemesis in disguise! And then we could
take over the keep for ourselves!"
Party: "Yeah! I've always wanted access to the Forbidden
Library and Mausoleum of Treasure!"
PGM: "Okay. So yeah, let's do that, then. We break the gate
down. What happens?"
Yuck, yuck, yuck. Now your party has taken a lot of creative
license (that you didn't grant) and absolutely ruined your
story. Players will sometimes try to pull this, but I've
never seen it happen so surreptitiously and easily as with
It makes sense. They're always thinking about plot and
characters and interactions. It stands to reason in
scenarios that they might occasionally think "Oooh. Here's
what I would do to make this situation juicier." But they
don't know your plans, and railroading your game in such a
meta way is especially poor form. I've used the following
solutions, and all of them work:
- Just roll with it. If the players are excited by this new
possibility and are having fun, that's the point, right?
Plus, running with a plot twist that didn't come from you
can be a fun challenge.
However, this should always come with a caveat: "Okay, I
like that idea, too. But just so you guys know, you can't go
tromping all over the plot whenever you feel like it."
This let's them know you're not a railroading robot and want
them to have fun, but you're still in charge. You're being
generous by letting this slide.
- "Hey, hey, hey! When you're running the game, you can make
the villains whoever you want. Nicodemus didn't give you all
that gold just so you'd take his house away and mount his
head in the library."
Just put a stop to it outright. Have a sense of humor, but
hold your boundaries. They'll still respect you in the
- "Remember, if you guys have anything to discuss in-game,
you should probably do it in-character." Now it's your PCs
who are plotting a coup, not just your players.
With a nod to the will of the group, it's your game, and you
deserve to run it to fruition. You don't have to railroad
the party, but when they start reassigning roles to your
NPCs and changing the world to suit their purposes, it's
probably time to put on the brakes.
7. I'm running a convention game and Johnn Four just sat
down. What do I do?!
Relax! First of all, J4's head is a cartoon doodle obscured
by a GM screen, so you're unlikely to recognize him to begin
with. Secondly, should you end up at a table with the J-Man
(or anyone you look up to as being knowledgeable and vastly
experienced), you're probably looking at a really great
player to have, too.
Chances are good that if someone has been running games for
a long time and finding people who can put up with them,
they know a thing or two about how to have fun on both sides
of the screen. For my part, I love getting to put on the
player hat, and I get to so rarely.
I'm not the least bit worried about your proficiency with
mechanics or the world or how well thought out I think your
story might be. I'm just going to get into my character and
be very pleasantly in the moment with you.
I will bring my big bag of manners, and an equally large bag
of snacks. If you're really sweating up there, I might pass
you a helpful note, or try to help you along by having my
character do something useful to you. When the game is over,
I'll thank you heartily for running it, stick around to hear
your thoughts on how it went, and offer you what I liked
about the game.
Give your fellow GMs-turned-Players the benefit of the
doubt! I've found they make some of the best players, as
they draw on a good bit of sympathetic experience to your
job, and nobody knows how to make a GM's job easier than
Expect constructive and positive feedback, and even some
thanks for letting them ride the roller coaster for a change
instead of always having to stand on the ground and pull the
As a GM yourself think about how you would act as a player
for someone else. Not so bad, huh? If anything, you might be
even more considerate, polite and on-point with what was
needed from you. That isn't an unreasonable expectation to
have in return.
Relax, communicate, and as Johnn always reminds us, have
more fun, especially if he's at your table!
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Change the Flavor Text (D&D 4E)
By Dennis "Wyatt Salazar" Santana
of The Spirits of Eden
A lot of people are okay with changing the flavor texts (the
italicized portions beneath each power) of D&D 4e powers.
Some people even think it inhibits creativity to have those
flavor texts there.
However, these flavor texts are usually so simple and
generic that it's hard for me to think they could inhibit
creativity so much as stoke a desire to change them.
It gives you a short description so you can imagine
something in the ballpark of what's going on in the power,
and sometimes it tries to be clever and barely gives you
even that. Almost the same thing can be said with the
1. Changing Flavor Texts
- Changing flavor texts starts with the DM. Players won't
generally be encouraged to go above and beyond unless their
DM is comfortable with it. Embrace the mutability of flavor
texts and tell your players to be creative with their combat
Don't just "hit the goblin with tide of iron" because, if
anything, haven't you done that enough already? How about
stabbing the goblin in the shoulder and then sweeping your
shield to strike him in the face, pushing him back?
- Think about your character's power source and what your
power is doing. If your power is just "damage and knock the
target prone" then you have a lot of flexibility as to how
you do that.
Do you hit him so hard he falls over? Do you hit him in the
legs, sweeping them out from under him? If you're using Icy
Terrain, it's kind of a given why he falls - you froze the
floor! But if you're using a power called Knockdown Strike
where the flavor text is you knocking some guy down, you
have a lot of liberty.
- Think about what monster you're attacking. If you're
using a power blinding a creature with no eyes, that's one
of the examples often used of why D&D 4e is too abstract.
Think of what the Blinded condition does - combat
advantage, everyone has total concealment to you if you're
blind, you can't flank.
So perhaps it's not blinding; you've inflicted a grievous
wound instead that's preventing the target from continuing
to fight. You hit a nerve or vital point. It seems generic,
but at least it's now explainable.
- Usually, each time I use a power, I describe it in a
slightly different way. I play online and run games with a
lot of narrative, so "using tide of iron" is by default not
a description I want.
However, for extra fun I try to imagine the many different
ways my attack could be described, and I jot these down.
Though they're all the same power, my fighter could have two
or three different "techniques" that are different
descriptions of a generic power.
This helps spice up the narrative. It's good for At-Wills,
so you don't devolve into "I hit him with cleave" over and
over when you're out of other powers. Take some time to sit
down and goof around with your powers like this and you'll
save yourself some boredom later.
2. Arcane Examples
- Magic Bullet Hell: A blast or burst or area isn't just a
singular "template" that is slapped onto the board. You can
describe it as being a thousand projectiles flying out of
your implement or your person, striking everything around.
Most Arcane attacks target all creatures in the area, not
This serves this description well: you're firing so much
magic over such a wide area you couldn't possibly control
what you're hitting without the help of items, feats or
other powers. All your magic is a series of different energy
projectiles, sometimes launched in more mass than others.
- Component Magic: You throw bat guano in the air and say a
rhyming phrase, and a fireball erupts and flies out at your
opponent. Read over the D20 SRD and find out spells which
have components of some sort, or if you have old AD&D books,
you can read over them and see if the spell descriptions
These can help you to give more flavor to your wizard. In
your off-time, you could gain roleplay XP by looking around
the wilderness or hitting up shops for components.
- Rune-Based Magic: Words of power scrawl themselves in mid-
air in front of you, weaving a message upon the face of
reality in a dead language, which then glows and via its
energies causes whatever effect to occur.
Or perhaps you write on your body a number of tattoos,
lines, words and symbols that represent your magic, and by
erasing or concealing a part of the message, you trigger the
If your magic is innate, then perhaps the words are tied to
your birthright, and you are the only person in the world
who understands them. Or maybe it's just a very difficult
old language that you as a studious arcanist mastered.
- Psionicist Magic: You think about certain things that
trigger certain emotions, which in turn cause certain
effects to happen. Anger is your flame, joy your flight,
envy your acid, cruelty your ice. You can perhaps tap into
people's minds and make them feel what you want also.
If your powers are innate or granted, this is even easier to
roleplay because your powers already come entirely from
inside you, or are channeled through you. This is just your
way to express them. If your powers are learned, you can be
imaginative and still go with this as your method.
3. Divine Examples
- *Hymn Magic: In the Spirits of Eden there are songs which
have divine power, called Hymns. Hymns possess their power
because of the spiritual events that inspired them, as they
are often stories, and because they are sang in the
A Hymn prayer can be a few parts out of a song. You could
write two or four rhyming lines of a poem for each of your
powers, and the first time you use them you can give the
little poem. The next few times, describe the power by its
effects (radiant light and all that jazz) so you don't have
to say the poem too often - or if you're adventurous, you
can make up even more lines!
- Prayer Magic: Literally praying to a deity to cause an
effect is an easy way to roleplay your powers, and it's
better than just saying the power name and pointing at a
mini on the board. Write down three or four one-sentence
oaths for your powers, and give the oath whenever you use
that power. Come up with new oaths every so often according
to the situation.
- Spirit Summoning: Lance of Faith doesn't just shoot the
enemy with light. It summons an ephemeral, beautiful eel-
like spirit that dives through the air and wraps about your
opponent, giving off radiant essence that enervates and
renders it vulnerable to incoming attacks.
Spirits of Eden talks a lot about spirits, auras, chakras,
and other supernatural things that link to the Divine, and
in the setting you can definitely get away with saying your
Sacred Flame casts out a small, flying salamander-like
spirit, and so on.
The spirits you summon with these effects are ephemeral and
merely effigies for the real things, so they are not a true
summon (like a Summon-type power), but they are nonetheless
majestic and impressive.
- Just Magic: Sort of like the "magic bullet hell" and other
Wizard examples, describe solely a magic effect. Your prayer
causes your opponent to glow from within with radiant
energy, burning his very soul. And so forth.
You could even use arcane flavor examples with a bit of a
divine twist. Your psionicist magic is used not just to
weaken enemies, but you can get into the minds of your
allies and inspire them, sealing away their inhibitions. You
can play down the divine aspect and just be a support
4. Martial Examples
- Just Brute Strength: You're just a brute, pure and simple.
You cause so much damage, such pain and suffering, that your
enemy can't stand against you. You don't knock an ooze prone
- you leave it reeling in sheer otherworldly pain searing
through its primitive, supernatural nervous system. You
carve a dragon's flesh with your axe, and cause it to become
dizzied with pain. Describe in grizzly horror the wounds you
Play with the wrong attitude about HP - it's not about
grazes and near-misses and wimpy morale. It's about losing
gallons of blood and carving skin all over the place, then
patching it up with bandages and herbs and getting up like
the gritty, manly monster you are and doing it again.
- Precision Technique: You have honed a fighting technique
to incredible effects. You are agile, fast and your strikes
precise. You cut at just the right time and place to cause
your opponent to become slowed. You exerted just the right
pressure in the correct spot to unbalance your opponent and
cause it to fall. You cause just the right amount of pain to
be distracting to an enemy, or cut the right artery or
nerve. This is really good for rogues and other non-
strength-based martial characters.
- You're Cheating: You're a cheater. You threw some pepper
into someone eye's as you were attacking and that's why the
enemy is blinded. You coated your blade with poison and
that's why the character is slowed (it helps if you bought
some poison, even if it's just the lame 5 ongoing poison
damage cheap-o poison).
You can feint without feinting, because every one of your
attacks is some kind of diversion or trick that's going to
come back and bite the enemy where the sun don't shine. Just
- Just A Bit of Magic: Your techniques, while martial, are
also supernatural in nature. This works well in Eden, and
probably badly in more normal settings. Maybe you were
taught an ancient martial art, and you can strike the
enemy's body chakras or pressure points, or even cut through
the aura around its body. Maybe your bloodline has a
supernatural creature as an ancestor and you have a bit of
demon blood or something in you, giving you the strength and
speed to do improbable things.
You move so fast past people you turn their blades on them.
You can knock down dragons by smashing them in the leg. You
can stir up an ooze and daze it by hitting it right in the
jell-o hips. Perhaps this only triggers when you're in
danger, too. Maybe you can't knock down a statue by hitting
it somewhere, like you can a dragon.
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Game Master Tips & Tricks
Have some GM advice you'd like to share? E-mail it to email@example.com - thanks!
1. Nonlinear DMing
From: Mike Strand
The ideal situation for a DM is one where every cool
encounter you create is actually encountered and every cool
NPC that you create interacts with the PCs.
1) Work Smarter not Harder
I am a lazy DM. More accurately, I prefer to be efficient.
If I'm going to spend my time developing a cool encounter
then the party is damn well going to run through it! If I'm
doing my job well, the party won't notice the railroad
tracks. If I'm keeping the action tight and playing the
"just in time card" appropriately, they will be on the edge
of their seats and won't care.
2) Seeming is believing
If I need them to run into an NPC then the NPC will find
them. Not that he will come and hunt them down, but he will
be at the inn, sitting on the coach next to them, or
wherever seems plausible.
I don't get stupid about it. They do need to explore the
town. There is not going to be a line at the inn of NPCs
waiting to talk to them. The art of DMing is making it all
seem like it is happening by chance, or even better, because
of their clever play.
If I have an ambush set up, then they will get ambushed,
whether they take a left at the fork in the road or a right.
I call it non-linear, but it is really only non-linear
seeming. I find it challenging enough to come up with truly
interesting and unique encounters, and I don't want them to
start accumulating unused while I try to slap together an
extemporaneous alternate encounter because they zigged when
they should have zagged.
3) It Should Work Like Clockwork
You are creating a story. Do you think the author of a
novel is really surprised when the detective reveals
whodunit? Of course not, but as the reader you were.
Running in a campaign should be full of tense encounters
and edge of your seat suspense. Running a campaign
shouldn't be. Ideally, it should be a beautiful plan that
you watch come together.
- Mike has been DMing for 30+ years and when he isn't gaming
he writes a column in the Brain Injury of Minnesota's
Journal "Headlines." His book "meditations on Brain Injury"
is available from Amazon.com. He also officiates weddings
and is a tireless advocate for brain injury survivors.
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2. Post Apocalypse / Dark And Gritty Music Suggestions
Contributors: Bill Honchell, e1ros, Tyler Elkink, S.
Sanford, Jon Smejkal, Fabien Deneuville, Chris Boland,
Lee Williams, Bret Boyd, Kerry Smith, Jason Barlow,
Diana Cox, Brad Russell, Andrew MacLean, Caesar St John,
Sean Mahoney, Tony DeCastro
Thanks to Fallout 3, 1940s music is likely to sound
appropriate to many players; Glen Miller and big band jazz,
the Andrews Sisters, Fats Waller, and early Frank Sinatra
are all good bets. Unless you're aiming for a Fallout 3
feel, however, they might be overly nostalgic.
Rock, and generally the angrier the better. However, a lot
of music from this style tends to be distracting from a
game; Metallica, Slayer, Sex Pistols, etc. The BubbleGum
Crisis soundtrack, from a cyberpunk show with post-
apocalyptic elements, might help. The Matrix soundtrack is
similarly heavy with angry music; Marylin Manson,
Rammstein, Rage Against the Machine, and The Prodigy.
For more atmospheric music, less distracting but still
thematic, neo-classical and symphonic metal are forceful but
do not demand the listener's attention. Apocalyptica,
Metallica's Symphony&Metallica album, Yngwie Malmsteen,
Stratovarius, and Blind Guardian are all good choices.
Search through electronic indie artists that create music
with an industrial / post industrial feel. However, they
should not be too rhythmic or too hip hop or rock, as the
post apocalyptic theme suggests wasted lands, weird places
and desperate feel.
Take the Wayback Machine to the age of Industrial music
For example, look up the band Godflesh on youtube.
Industrial music, at its best, sets a heavy and dark
ambience. This might be a bit much for the entire campaign,
but for battle scenes you really can't go wrong.
A little less heavy would be Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
They're an experimental band out of Canada, a lot of their
stuff is instrumental and pretty ambient. Look them up on youtube.
Try songs like Dead Flag Blues, East Hastings, etc. They
tend to stay low-key enough that you won't have to worry
about them overtaking your narrative, but definitely good
for setting a scene.
Lastly, try old video games. Quake, Mechwarrior 2. If you
don't already have these games, you can probably either find
the CDs in a bargain bin somewhere or find the music online.
This is from back in the day when the CD the game was on
doubled as the soundtrack, so just skip to track 2 and have
Some other suggestions:
Here's his catalog, some of which could also apply:
- The Hardware soundtrack
- Dead Hollywood Stars create some kind of western-like feel
with electronic sounds. On their album Gone West, you will
find tracks that can be of great impact, especially "The Way
of the Fugu," "Arid Zona" or "Jigsaw Motel"
- Squaremeter's latest album Nyx in 2006 creates an
atmosphere of desperation and nihilism, using powerful
sounds and drums. I recommend all the tracks of the album,
especially Eris, Thanatos or Hypnos.
- Silent Watcher of Dark Matter. Same style as the former
with less vibrations and the use of more sound effects.
"Sandstorm" or "Lux Aeterna" are good tracks, full of
- DJ Krush, "Still Island with Suuzan Morita" or "Slit of
Cloud with Akira Sakata" on the Jaku album.
- Deep Dish; think of "Junk Science" and "Persepolis" on the
Junk Science album.
- Mana Junkie
- Tangerine Dream
- Original Matrix soundtrack, Cool World Soundtrack, Gravity
Kills, Lords of Acid, Rammstein, Crystal Method.
- Ghosts 1-4 by Nine Inch Nails
- VNV Nation
- Space Station, Drone Zone or Doomed
- Kraftwerk, Alan Parsons Project, or The Grid
- Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings
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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:
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
Advice and tips for designing compelling holidays that not
only expand your game world but provide endless natural
encounter, adventure, and campaign hooks.
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.
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