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Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #506

Taking The Initiative: These Methods And Ideas Will Surprise You



This Week's Tips Summarized 

Taking The Initiative: These Methods And Ideas Will Surprise You

Taking The Initiative: 4 Methods

Reader Tips On Initiative

Game Master Tips & Tricks

  1. 20 Ideas For Inserting Legends And Myths Into Your Campaign
  2. Source of Maps And Inspiration
  3. Use Wallpaper For Great Mapping
  4. Use Tarpaulin For Maps
  5. Generate Encounters Using Tarot Meets 5W2H Meets Maslow
  6. Haunted Western Ideas

Johnn Four's GM Guide Books


Eight eerie forest adventures for Pathfinder

Enter the darkness of the deep woods in Tales of the Old Margreve by lead designer Tim Connors and Open Design patrons. In this setting, inspired by the medieval folktales and superstitions of Eastern Europe, you may hear the rusalka's song rising over the crackle of a midnight fire, or glimpse the white flash of a deer centaur's tail as it vanishes between the trees. Here, those who ignore the old ways are never seen again...

Old World adventures, monsters, spells and incantations -- get Tales of the Old Margreve in print or PDF today!

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A Brief Word From Johnn 

New Contest: Win Packs of D&D Minis

Time for a new Roleplaying Tips contest. Gator Games (see their ad in this issue) has kindly offered an amazing 12 packs of D&D Heroes minis as prizes. There will be four winners in all, and each will receive two or more packs of minis. Thanks very much, Gator!

How To Enter

Email me a tip related to minis or battlemats.

  • Do you have a cool minis storage or organization idea?
  • A neat way you use minis in game?
  • Ideas on how to use minis for better storytelling or faster combats?

Enter as many times as you like. Each entry gives you a chance to win packs of D&D Heroes minis by Wizards of the Coast.

How To Win

Winners will be selected at random. Do not worry if you can write well - it's the idea and tip that counts.

Due to shipping restrictions, minis can only be sent to residents of Canada and United States. However, if you do not live in those countries and win, I'll hook you up with a cool RPG PDF.

Contest ends November 30. Minis will be shipped in December, when the new packs are released.

I'll assemble and edit entries, and give them away to Roleplaying Tips subscribers. So your tips will be helping game masters have more fun at every game, too.

Email me your minis tips right now while you are thinking about it. Tips can be short as short as one sentence or as long you need to get your advice across.

Have a game-full week!


Johnn Four,

Campaign Mastery

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Taking The Initiative: 4 Methods 

By Curn Bounder

Amongst tabletop roleplayers, it is often said that nothing brings a halt to a suspenseful narrative better than "Roll for initiative."

However, there is little that can be done about it. Most games people play, including the controlled chaos of a football field (or pitch depending on how you just read football), require participants to take turns.

Following are four great ways for taking turns. They help the GM and players stay aware of the order. The most frustrating player is the one who, upon reaching his turn, acts shocked and is completely unprepared to act.

1. The Gamemastery Combat Pad (by Paizo)

This is the one I use (which is why it gets first billing). A simple dry erase board can work just the same, but hey, this screams "GAMER."

PROS: Easy to use. Write the names once on the dry erase magnets and then adjust them as needed for the rest of the session. It has a space to track your baddies' HPs and conditions, as well as a row of numbers to track the round.

CON: It is not easily made visible to the players. A dry erase mounted on the wall could do this for you, but the con to that is finding available space on the wall.

Gamemastery Combat Pad

2. Numbered Flip Charts - Index-Card Sized

Spiral bound paper with numbers 1-10 stenciled on them. One is given to each player and the GM. These then stand like tents. Once initiative is established, everyone flips the number on his or her chart to their rank in the order and proceed accordingly.

PROS: This keeps everyone, including the GM aware of who goes when. The numbers can be changed easily if someone delays.

CONS: Takes a bit of time to set up each round. The GM still needs to keep track of the round, specifically when the count starts over (though this too can be done with another flip chart that everyone can see).

3. Playing Cards

Used in the Savage Worlds system, this is a great way to establish and track initiative. Even if you don't deal the cards each round (as in the SW system), playing cards, lying face up, remind the players and the GM who's turn it is.

PROS: Simple to give GMs and players a visual way to keep track. Once a player acts, she turns her card over and the next highest card goes.

CONS: May require exchanging cards if someone delays. Also, cards lying flat on a table are not always openly visible to all the players.

4. Dice

Make sure everyone has the same die type (d8 or d10 are enough). The larger and more readable, the better (though don't go to extremes). It also might be beneficial to make them all the same color. Once initiative is established, everyone turns their designated initiative die to the number indicating their order in the initiative.

PROS: Easily changeable. Gives everyone access to the information. Who doesn't love dice?!

CONS: Requires a little bit of time to set up once initiative is established. It might be difficult to coordinate so that everyone has large, readable dice. Dice are sometimes too easy to knock around and once a die gets tipped, it might take some time to reestablish.

* * *

Sometimes the best way is the easiest way. One of the greatest GMs I've played with uses a spiral notebook where he scribbles everyone's name and order, using check marks to track who has acted and what round it is. But he always uses a scrap of paper with the order draped over his GM screen - and his combats are always smooth. It works for him and the players are all made aware of the order.

Still, not a combat goes by without someone saying, "Oh, is it my turn?" At that point, you might want to have an out of game roll for initiative. :)

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Reader Tips On Initiative 

1. Cut Gamemastery Combat Pad Magnets In Half

From Mark C.

Hi, Johnn. I use the Gamemastery Combat Pad (and love it). I've cut all of the PC and monster label magnets in half, length-wise, so I can get twice as many individual combatants in play.

I make init rolls using the PrismDice dice rolling application (PC). I've thrown over 20 different opponents at my players at once on occasion. While the bad guys might be all the same type (gnolls, drow, etc.), each one gets an individual initiative roll (so they don't all go at once). PrismDice lets me roll all this faster. (

The beauty of this app is that you can customize your dice. You have bad guys with a +4 initiative? Customize one of the dice to roll d20+4. After that, you roll initiatives as fast as you can click. Quickly transfer the values to the Combat Pad magnets, sort them into order among your PCs' initiative values, and you're ready to rumble.

I also have all my Combat Pad PC and NPC tags pre-labeled with computer-printed, easy-peel labels, so I don't have to write down the players or monsters each time I use it. Monsters are simply labeled "monster 1" through "monster 20."

2. Ranks, Quickdraw and Merit Methods

From Mark of the Pixie

For large groups of 12 or more players I tend to break initiative into 3 ranks: Front line, Ranged, Support.

I do all the Front line characters first, then Ranged characters, then Support characters. By breaking it up like this I can run 3 interrelated combats rather than one huge combat.

If I am doing a quickdraw duel or gunfight, I make rolling initiative the crucial step. Both sides roll initiative and attack (and if successful, damage) at the same time and in secret. They can repeat this as often as they want, stacking the damage from attacks that would succeed until one of the other calls "draw!"

They then compare their best initiative roll (the one who calls draw gets a +2 bonus) and dish out the stack of damage they have accumulated.

Basically, it's compressing the normal rolls of back and forth combat into one deadly blow.

Characters actions are ordered by how successful they are, from least to most. Each round starts low and ends on a high note, creating a small amount of tension in each round. Because the Big Bad doesn't fall till the end of the round, it also means they get dropped by the person who had the biggest, best and most spectacular attack that round.

My method is fast, as there is no separate roll for initiative, no extra notes, no extra questions. I ask what they are doing and what they rolled (all actions use the same roll) and that gives me everything I need (typically, my sheet has the character names and I just note down their roll this round for everyone, then describe the lowest result, cross it off, then describe the next lowest, etc.).

There is a bit of a trade off between doing well and going first, which spreads the spotlight nicely. This method also handles monsters and foes nicely; their attacks (or other actions) just drop into the same list as the PCs.

An occasional problem is PCs who want to use quick attacks or other effects to move up or down the initiative order. In my games this is rare enough that I just tend to move them if they ask to be moved, and leave them be otherwise.

So, a PC who wanted to grab something off the table before the bad guy does will succeed if he gets a higher roll, even though this means he would normally act afterwards (but he will fail to get the widget if he rolls low, even though this would normally mean he acts earlier).

3. Excel At Rolling

From Adam Crockett

Hi Johnn, I have some thoughts on managing initiative.

I use a rolling initiative system. With MS Excel as my friend, I load all the characters and monsters in one column (A) and their modifiers in the next (B). Then I use the =RANDBETWEEN(1,20) function next to each of those (Column C), and in the fourth column (D) I sum columns B and C (e.g., =B9+C9). Then each round I hit F9 to refresh, which generates a new round of numbers. You can also autosort from top to bottom.

Why use rolling initiative? Well, in D&D it makes high Dexterity and the Improved Initiative feat statistically more significant. Let's say you have four combat encounters in a night. That's four chances for the initiative modifier to be significant. But let's say each combat goes for an average seven rounds, now you have 28 times in that session for the initiative modifier to matter. That means your quicker players and monsters benefit from being quicker, and your heavy armor-wearing, greataxe-wielding giant takes more time to get his attacks off.

Talk about excitement! Players pay attention to the actions between their own when there's a chance they could go back- to-back. This also fits with the chaotic flow of battle. I'm always reminded of R.A. Salvatore's method of describing Drizzt's battles. One round Drizzt could be on his heels, reacting to his foe each round, but then The Hunter in him comes out and he pushes forward, onto the balls of his feet, and takes control of battle. The rolling initiative system enables this type of combat storytelling.

I also use an electronic timer set to one minute. Each player has one minute from the start of their round to decide what they do and begin doing it. If they take longer than that, they forfeit control of their character and I take over. I never do anything nefarious; I typically just make them do a full attack while standing still. This may seem mean, but after two years of doing it I've noticed that 100% of my players get the gist of it by session two, and they start taking as short as 5 seconds to perform their actions in combat. That tension, anxiety, and need for decisiveness really helps the players FEEL the battle!

4. Roll Initiative Every Five Rounds

From Paul Simmons

Hi Johnn,

One thing I have found when role-playing and initiative is that there is two main ideas on initiative. Initiative is determined once at the beginning of combat, or it is determined at the beginning of each round of combat.

Over time I have become a fan of neither. I now expect players to roll initiative every five combat rounds or so. To me, this allows a little more planing for the players on their actions. Let them take advantage of their good rolls and develop strategies of defense for bad. It also reduces the number of rolls per round.

I also let players forgo their action for a round to re-roll their initiative, thus trying to better position them self for the next round.

5. Chunk Your Initiative

From Mark L. Chance


Here are two tips for managing initiative regardless of group size:

  1. 1. Don't. Think about the combat system. In many cases, it simply doesn't matter who goes first. It does matter when:
    1. Someone suffers an effect that takes him/her/it out of the fight.
    2. Someone does something that potentially can disrupt an activity.
    When these situations pop up, do a quick initiative roll off between those involved. Otherwise, don't sweat it. I ran 1E and 2E this way for years, and it worked like a charm. It does, however, require some flexibility and the ability to adjudicate on the fly.
  2. Chunk Initiatives. What I do now with Pathfinder is chunk initiatives. Everyone rolls every round. Typically, the bad guys all act on the same initiative. I tell the players what the initiative to beat is.

    Everyone with a higher initiative acts in whatever order they want. Then the bad guys go. Then, everyone with a lower initiative acts in whatever order they want.

If a difference of opinion arises between players about who get to go when, you can always fall back on the initiative rolls or resort to paper/rock/scissors/lizard/Spock (my favorite solution).

From the ever-reliable Wikipedia:

"Spock" is signified with the Star Trek Vulcan salute, while "lizard" is shown by forming the hand into a sock-puppet- like mouth. Spock smashes scissors and vaporizes rock; he is poisoned by lizard and disproved by paper. Lizard poisons Spock and eats paper; it is crushed by rock and decapitated by scissors. Vulcan Salute

Paper, rock, and scissors work like normal against each other.

Visual aid

6. Roll Once, Write It Down

From Josh

When GMing 6 players, 4-5 NPCs, and around 10-15 enemies, including a few special foes or bosses, I sometimes just have everyone roll for initiative at the very beginning of the conflict. I take a piece of scratch paper and write down every number that is rolled next to the name of the person who rolled it. I do this for players, NPCS, and even low level enemies.

Then, I add initiative bonuses (if applicable). If there are any ties, I have them roll to see which of the tied rolls go first. Then I write the entire order down, in order, by name, starting with the person who won the initiative, all the way to the bottom of the list. I use this list for the entire battle.

At some point I may have them re-roll after reaching a certain point, but I usually stick with this order until a special point has been reached. It takes several minutes to get done, but once it is done it allows for pretty seamless gaming from there on out.

7. Only Use Init As Needed

From Norman Harman

Troll and Flame

Determine initiative in secret (computer/gadget aide would be required for many rule sets). No one is sure when they will get to act or if delaying will let the enemy have their action.

Only call for initiative when needed. Does elf get arrow off before wizard sneaks out backdoor? Roll initiative. Does thief grab Orb of Gor before necromancer can finish summoning? Roll initiative. Unless there are extraordinary circumstances, melee combat is considered simultaneous.

Trade to hit for init bonus. -2 to hit +4 on initiative.

I tend to group monsters for initiative, so the three orc archers have one initiative, the four charging berserkers another and their shaman leader his own.

This is also a way to manage large groups, especially large groups of players. Give them group initiative or a couple separate groups. Actual resolution (while simultaneous for a given group in game) is handled by going clockwise around the table. A bonus to group initiative is that it encourages players to work / strategize as a group, rather then a set of individuals.

8. Use Index Cards And Battlemat

From Mike K.

Hi Johnn!

My D&D group uses a simple method of determining initiative. On the side of our vinyl mat, I have the number 0 through 40 written in permanent ink. Every player has an index card with their character's name and Dex mod on it. They'll fold that card into a tent before play.

When combat breaks out, every player can roll initiative at the same time and then simply place their card on their initiative number. Ties are easily handled. I generally place monsters on the initiative tracker as their first turn comes up (having secretly rolled to break ties with monsters).

This way, combat starts in about 20 seconds and everyone can see when their turn is coming up. It also handles Readied and Delayed actions easily: have the player hold their initiative card. They aren't likely to forget about their turn that way.

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Game Master Tips & Tricks 

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

1. 20 Ideas For Inserting Legends And Myths Into Your Campaign 

From Derek Rawlings

Two farmers on opposite sides of a fence argue over which hero of legend was better as the characters come into town. Eyeing the heroes, the farmers call them over to settle the score.

A coffee table book sits on the magister's sitting room table. It details the history of an ancient war fought over the magister's territory.

Locked away in a dungeon, covered in cloth, is a 4'x8' wall painting that depicts a famous mythological moment (like Gruumsh losing an eye to Corellon).

A bard is in mid-song about a local hero when PCs walk into a pub. Exact words are not needed, just the gist of what's being sung about.

Have a living legend walk into town while the PCs are there. The locals gush about the legend's accomplishments in the presence of the PCs.

An NPC guide escorts PCs through a town or forest and mentions in passing that this alley or this rock formation was the very same place that a hero of yore did something of note.

At the beginning of each game session, give a brief synopsis of a legend from this world - some will have relevance to the chronicle, others will not, but all add flavour.

A collection of young children sit in a semi-circle in front of an older NPC. That NPC is telling the children an old wives' tale to scare them away from a certain area outside town.

A smith's brand on a newly found magic suit of armour reminds a PC of a hero (and that hero's deeds) who wore armour fashioned by that same smith.

A villain, while delivering his biting, villainous monologue, drops in a few lines about how she will be a far greater necromancer than X villain from antiquity.

While in town, PCs notice a group bringing flowers to an opulent grave site. There lies the body of an ancient hero, who died X years ago on this very day. The NPCs tell stories of the fallen hero's glory.

In honour of a hero's past deeds, an area of town has been named after that hero. The same could be used for historic events that occurred in a geographic area.

A creepy old man walks up to the PCs and insists on warning them about a myth regarding the location they are about to go to.

A disheveled looking map is marked with red pen. It marks out areas where epic battles once occurred. The map belonged to a treasure seeker bent on plundering the war sites.

On a certain day every year citizens celebrate the defeat of a mighty tyrant from a nigh-forgotten past. NPCs tell ludicrous stories of her cruelty and of the heroes who overcame her.

An artist is gathering art supplies at the general store while PCs are doing their shopping. The artist insists on keeping the shopkeeper away from the PCs by explaining the hero/legend that the artist intends on creating.

The PCs are stuck in a line-up behind two teenagers who are telling each other about legendary events and people, but they keep getting all of the facts wrong.

A neglected old statue in a dungeon depicts the bust of an aged arch-fiend. The statue has no magical properties, but why is it here?

A wandering peddler attempts to sell items to the PCs that are really just useless knick knacks. The peddler claims that the same kinds of items were used in historically important moments by long dead heroes.

The PCs take a captive from amongst the enemies slain for information. It turns out that the NPC captive was the group's bard, who knows a lot about local legends (from the bad guys' perspective).

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2. Source of Maps And Inspiration 

From Timothy Riley

Found a site with lots of cool maps and items:

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3. Use Wallpaper For Great Mapping 

From Ironchicken

Keep old wallpaper rolls. Whenever there is any decorating with wallpaper or lining paper there is often half a roll or more left over. This is cheap (effectively free) and great for rolling out and drawing quick battle-mats. I bet many of you have several odd rolls loitering in cupboards or up in the loft. They can be even saved across sessions. This works very well with FATE with its zones approach to maps.

[Comment from Johnn: great tip, Ironchicken, thanks! I'm counting this as an entry in the minis contest (see Brief Word section above). You might also try Gaming Paper, a past advertiser of the newsletter. It is durable but easy to flatten out, unlike wallpaper sometimes: ]

Also here's a related tip with some different info appeared in RPT#66:

From Martin B.

One tip we've found useful is to use a roll of wallpaper.

Seriously - I got the idea when I saw rolls of wallpaper on sale in the everything for £1 shop.

You can use it for maps, diagrams, making notes, everything. Then once you've finished with a particular encounter location, you just roll up the paper and you have a new fresh area to write on. The best thing about using wallpaper is that you have a canned history of your campaign in a nice easy to store format. You want to see just what happened last week, just roll back the wallpaper a little bit and take a look!

I am now on my third roll!

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4. Use Tarpaulin For Maps 

From Monstrim

My group's battlemat is a printed slip of tarpaulin, about 0.5 x 1.5 m. It has wooden rods on the shortest extremities, like a scroll, and is kept rolled. We had it printed with 1.5cm hexagons, but you could have squares.

We can write with water-based markers on it, but it takes awhile to wipe it out. We use cut pieces of styrofoam (long tetris-like black ones and small square green and yellow ones) to make our scenery. The coloured squares could be anything, depending on context. We also use them to mark minis.

[Johnn: This has also been entered into the contest. Thanks for the tip, Monstrim.]

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5. Generate Encounters Using Tarot Meets 5W2H Meets Maslow 

From Aki Halme

Three methods I use for generating encounter ideas:

I start with tarot cards #1-22, the Major Arcana cards. I use the card itself or the description for inspiration and then do some creative writing. Some are obvious enough, such as Magician or Lovers. A few others, like Temperance and Star, I consider the meaning in divinations, and base the plot on that. I could use any words for inspiration, but tarots are familiar.

Some random words: table, knife, spoon, fork, glass, plate.

Table; elevation, membership.

  • Party is denied information or access because they lack a crucial membership.
  • Red light district of the town is controlled by a guild of prostitutes that keeps prices up by controlling the supply of sex-for-pay. Seducing a PC becomes an entry exam. The PCs are not informed, and telling them means failing the test.
  • The latest success of the party opens them doors to a hidden group, which means some privileges such as access to special supplies, information and lodging. However, there are downsides too.

Knife; cutting, weapon.

  • The PCs get a fancy blade as an anonymous gift. It is literally an offer too good to be true - stolen, a murder weapon or cursed.
  • The PCs receive information about an assassination soon to happen; an assassin offers his services and seeks the PCs as patrons. The offer includes partial information of an assassination about to take place, such as the time. For the next work sample they might get place, or perhaps the victim's name.

Fork; choice, lightning, music.

  • The PCs end up in a situation where they antagonise a group while gaining the friendship of another.
  • Curiously, the PCs find that, in a crowded area of the city, there is a road no one seems to use. Locals just ignore it even when it seems to be an obvious shortcut, as if they weren't even aware of it.

For other encounter inspiration, I use Maslow's hierarchy of needs in terms of what I would find in a city, as everything corresponds to some need - otherwise, it would not exist. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Basic survival for food and such; security for housing, granaries, sewers, medical facilities, army, city watch; then taverns and churches, etc.

The list done, I add the 5W2H (who, what, where, when, why, how, how much?) next to it, coming up with a grid of combinations. Five levels by seven questions would immediately provide 35 possibilities, but as each level means a multitude of groups of facilities, it is simple enough to come up with hundreds.

For example: city sewers

  • Who used them to rob the home of a player character's girlfriend, stealing her valuables and leaving her bedroom smelling of excrement?
  • Why did the sewers flood to the roads in one area of the town?
  • Where does the stuff thrown in go, and where does it come from? Something the PCs would not normally be concerned about, but when the crucial item they need to recover is flushed down, or when the sewage starts emitting gas that is flammable or toxic, it becomes necessary.
  • When were they sewers built?
  • What is the threat underneath the town that accesses the sewers as an attack route?
  • How does one go about fighting a thieves' guild entrenched under the roads?
  • How much damage will fighting in the sewers do the town? What will the town think of that?

This works both for bigger plotlines and hundreds of two- liners without much trouble.

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6. Haunted Western Ideas 

From Aki Halme

re: Roleplaying Tips Issue #503

For Angela, the first thought that came to mind was a collectible card game called Deadlands: Doomtown. (It was fun to play too, as shootouts were in terms of playing a hand of poker.)

Anyhow, a number of power groups fight over control of a small town, called Gomorra, made vital when people discovered a substance named ghost rock. The townsfolk mined the rock without realising that doing so caused spirits to be released, the dead to come back to life.

The power groups included some law oriented groups (Pinkertons, sheriff), a family with occult traits, bandits, Chinese pirates, mad scientists using the ghost rock for steam based technology and the army.

For a one-shot, it might be good to keep it fairly simple. A party rolls into town and gradually realises things are not as they are supposed to be, with doomtown giving inspiration for how off everything is.

Any western flick would give a whole lot of plotlines to work with:

  • A rancher taking control of the land by hook or crook while stubborn farmers keep building barbed wire to protect their fields.
  • Saloon scenes with card sharks and dancing girls.
  • An undertaker taking measurements of PCs to have the coffins ready.
  • Priests either nice or fire-and-brimstone.
  • Bad guy in jail-under-siege.
  • High noon duel with an unstoppable gunslinger.
  • Hangings of bad guys.
  • Mail carriages and train robberies.
  • Wanted! posters.
  • Gold rush.
  • Someone standing on an old wooden cross, with a noose around the neck.

For props, sixshots from a toy store, a Stetson, boots and those spiky things that some use when riding. Poker chips for keeping tally of various game things like hit points. Country and western and other appropriate music for a moody soundtrack. Theme oriented backgrounds for all game material. Rope on a wall coiled as a lasso or noose.

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Gator Games FLGS

Gator Games is a friendly local gaming store operating in San Mateo, CA. If you're close enough to make them your FLGS, please go check them out in person.

If you're clear across the country, Gator Games has an online store full of used games, minis, and all sorts of goodies for ultra savings. Use coupon code "rpgsrule" for additional savings on non-discounted items.

You can also sign up for the weekly newsletter to get a quick review of all the new releases of the week.

Feel free to friend them on Facebook (Gator Games & Hobby), MySpace, or FriendFeed in addition to Twitter.

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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.

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