RPT#658: When Players Don’t Show Up – What Do You Do?

Brief Word From Johnn

Most Unusual Dungeon?

Roleplaying Tips helps organize the monthly RPG Blog Carnivals. And May’s carnival is all about Unusual Dungeons.

What’s been my most unusual dungeon?

I took the PCs to McDonald’s. I didn’t call it out that way at first. They had no idea. I just described golden arches, a weird, amorphous purple monster, and a sinister clown in some strange tavern. The PCs entered cautiously. They walked up to the counter. Then they ordered food and sat down.

It took about five minutes for my silly joke to get revealed. We were in the middle of a heavy, serious session with some high level PCs. The players were intensely in character, so the context helped the joke carry on that long.

I wouldn’t do something like that today though, lol. I treasure intense gameplay when it happens too much to disrupt it with +1 french fries. But, I think this would qualify as an unusual adventuring locale.

But on a more serious note, one of my favourite unusual dungeons was a spelljammer ship made from the skeleton of an ancient dragon.

The PCs discovered it buried. It was being used to house several monster micro-communities. Ribs jutting from the sandy ground offered perfect cover and support for building onto. And the carcass was so big the monsters could co-exist as warring factions and have enough room for bases and homes.

The party entered this dungeon and started clearing foes out and taking their stuff. However, as the group dug into a strange building and explored, they eventually found a control room. It was a throne made of more dragon bones, with cockpit-like appendages around it. An empty gem socket above the throne gave the players clues what to do next.

After a short quest, the party returned with a massive gem, plugged it into the socket, and the carcass started vibrating and rising into the air.

With experimentation, the group learned how to pilot the thing. However, one piece was still missing – the steering wheel. That turned out to be a gem-tipped cane hidden in a secret part of the ship. The party found the secret door entrance, explored some more, killed some monsters, and came back out cane in hand.

At first the PCs flew their new dragonship around the land. A couple adventures ensued from that. But then they realized they could venture into the astral plane with it.

Unfortunately, the campaign ended there, just as I was about to get into the Spelljammer Planescape phase. Drat!

That’s as close as I’ve ever come to my bucket list item of Spelljammer + Planescape.

Nevertheless, it was an unusual dungeon for sure (and much better than a dumb fast food prank).

 

Murder Hobos Campaign Finale

We left the Murder Hobos licking their wounds and preparing for a final assault on the undead mage, Mormesk, who is holed up in the forge of an old dwarven stronghold.

The wizard Six recovered memories about his past last session, and learned he was used as a template for a breed of dopplegangers. He seeks more clues to unlock more memories.

Malcor the mercenary, who is just looking for one last horde payout before retirement, hopes his big payoff will finally come from looting Mormesk’s lair.

Roscoe the rogue is just glad to be away from town where people are starting to connect the dots on the timing of certain crimes and Roscoe’s arrival in Phandelver….

Druid Vargulf is happy the Spider has finally been vanquished, but still seeks revenge on all orcs because of what those creatures did to his family.

Kriv the barbarian? Well, he still quests to find his mother who was taken by orc slavers, but right now he just wants to kill. Everything.

And Luther the warlock, who serves the Queen of Air & Darkness, wants to rediscover the Spell Forge, which must be within Mormesk’s lair.

After healing up, the party approaches Mormesk’s lair. The mage has deployed four golems outside to guard all points of entry. The party charges but soon realizes their normal weapons cannot harm these creatures. Hobos suffer wounds and it looks as if the party must give up on Mormesk and return to town empty handed.

However, before full retreat, they decide to explore the last dark pockets in the caverns. In a pool they discover a magic sword. Aha! Armed with a magic weapon, and a few other tactics, they charge the golems again.

As golems begin to fall, Mormesk the flaming skull emerges from his lair, ghouls and ghasts in tow. He deploys his “sweeties” and the party falls back under the heavy assault.

The group makes a stand at a choke point and starts throwing around balls of fire and radiant magic. Undead fall. The last of the golems fall. Mormesk retreats.

A few ghasts slip away. While some party members clean up and loot, others pursue the fleeing undead and mow them down.

The Hobos rest again.

During the rest, Luther sneaks out and approaches Mormesk in private. Unmolested, he gets right up to the door of the evil mage’s lair and negotiates. The over-confident Mormesk is interested. After their brief respite, the party joins Luther to hear the undead skull’s terms.

An agreement is reached.

Now, I’ll give you three guesses what happens when you shake hands with the Murder Hobos. Go ahead, guess.

That’s right. The party immediately attacks. “I’ll shake with my shield hand so I can lunge with my sword hand.”

Another battle ensues. Outnumbered and outgunned, Mormesk finally falls and the Hobos rejoice. Well-played, Hobos.

* * *

We end the session and pause the campaign there.

The group loots Mormesk’s chambers, finds the Spell Forge, and rests.

I’m calling this the end of Season One, but haven’t yet decided if there will be another. The main goals of the campaign have been achieved – playtesting D&D 5E, finding the Rockseeker brothers, discovering the Spell Forge, and finishing The Lost Mine of Phandelver module.

15 sessions, seven surviving PCs, two dead ones.

Many open plot threads still exist we could continue. Orc slavers, the weird Blue Diamond merchant coster, town politics, a green dragon the party wants desperately to slay, Six’s bizarre past, and more.

I’m going to take a break and mull over the summer.

As far as D&D 5E goes, I like it a lot. I’m not sure if it’s a long-term system for me though. It’s still got a lot of crunchy bitching, and in my old age – plus having GM’d rules-heavy games for the past two decades – I’m longing for a simpler game as a change of pace. I’ve been reading lots of OSR stuff in the past year and might try something rules light.

Also, I’m not sure I’m into characters who take a level in barbarian to max out some stats any more. That’s not a system fault though. I could, for example, house rule no multi-classing to get that effect.

I’ve ordered a copy of Whitehack 2.0, and have been flipping through Labyrinth Lord. Monsters with single line stat blocks? Where do I sign up? Heh.

For my gaming fix this summer, a player is stepping up to run a short campaign. I get to experience D&D 5E as a player now, and see what that’s like. We’re playing 9th level PCs, each with a different home plane that’s in some kind of dire jeopardy, and we’re the only hope to save the universe. Should be fun!

 

Hopefully you can get some gaming in yourself this week.

Cheers,

Johnn

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“I slip some into my hireling’s wineskin while he’s asleep. Then watch to see what happens after he drinks from it.” – Greg Gorgonmilk

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When Players Don’t Show Up – What Do You Do?

Johnn Four

I’ve had more players cancel in recent years than during any previous gaming stretch. Families and jobs demand more time as we get older. And we have more things tugging time away from us these days.

RPT#70 and RPT#76 offered several tips on dealing with absentee players. And this topic just came up as a Patron-voted request.

So what do you do when a players texts you to say he’s bailing? Do you cancel the session or game on?

You game on, of course! And here is a list of ideas and tips, combined from those two RPT newsletters plus some extras, on what to do with that #$?#%#@ player’s character.

 

Get Some Perspective On The Problem

Someone calls and tells you they won’t be showing up to the game. Your first reaction might be to take offense. It could feel like an insult that a player doesn’t show, especially if you’ve spent a lot of time in preparation.

Your second reaction might be worry. Are you a bad GM because players are cancelling?

Your third reaction might be to panic because the absent player controls a critical character or is key to your group.

The first thing to do is calm down. Deep breaths actually do work because they get the oxygen flowing to your brain again. 🙂 Next, get some perspective on the situation.

Chances are the offending player really does want to play, but life just got in the way. It’s nothing personal. If you were a bad GM, nobody would show up. So, don’t take offense, don’t get paranoid, and don’t worry.

And, here’s an opportunity to stretch your GMing skills and think on your feet. Consider this a challenge, not a problem. Consider all your options, make a decision, and move on.

I think the worst thing that can happen is to harbour resentment or personally attack the absent player. You might feel inclined to make negative comments about his no-show to the other players. Or, you might feel the need to take revenge out on his character. You might even want to take your frustration out on the other group members.

But, reacting out of hurt and anger will backfire on you every time. You will just end up alienating the players who did show up.

So, get some perspective. Consider yourself a professional and treat the situation in a professional manner. If you feel there are issues to work out with the absent player, do that in private, away from the game table. Make sure the players who did make it for the game get 100% from you. In the long run this is the best strategy for ensuring regular attendance.

 

Create A House Rule

Treat the person behind the player. Roleplaying is a game after all. It’s about having fun and being with friends.

The best way to deal with absenteeism is to develop some House Rules to get everyone’s agreement on what will happen to the absent player’s PC before the situation happens. If you’re starting a new campaign, you can put things in place right from the beginning. If you’re in an existing campaign, take a time-out to establish some guidelines for all future games. Clear communication prevents hurt feelings and misunderstanding in the future.

“Sorry Bob, we named your character Pit Finder and put him to work. We didn’t know a hundred foot drop would do so much damage!”

Ask your players how they want their PCs handled. Add your own ideas, and remove any you don’t like. For example, as GM I don’t want to run a player’s character because I have enough to do already.

Then choose the idea you like most and ask if there are any objections. If there are, discuss. Move to your next preferred idea if you can’t reach consensus on the first.

Once you’ve got group agreement, create a House Rules doc. It could be in a shared Evernote note, or on paper in your GM binder. Put it where you can access it during a session in case anyone wants to review the House Rules.

Here are some questions to consider when drafting up your House Rules:

  • How many players need to be absent before the game is called off and re-scheduled?
  • What happens to the missing player’s character?
  • How will you handle the character’s stats? (e.g., Do you want copies of character sheets refreshed every level?)
  • Can the character earn any rewards, experience points, skill points, and so on?
  • Can the character die? Can the character die if all the other PCs die?

 

Plan Ahead

Some players in my group are absent more often.

So I do not make their PCs linchpins of the plot.

Little planning touches like that can save you a lot of grief.

Here are some other things to consider:

  • Who will learn the special rules needed to run any particular character?
  • Is gaming location dependent on a player?
  • Does one player bring certain rule books no one else has?
  • Check your plot, hooks, and clues against each character. Does anything depend on one PC?
  • Does one player always give others rides?
  • Did you end last session on a cliffhanger that requires certain players to attend next time?

Think about your campaign and spot anything that is dependent on certain players. Plan workarounds so games don’t get cancelled when a player cancels.

 

Ways To Handle Characters of No-Show Players

Here are a few approaches based on my experiences and reader tips on what to do when a player can’t make a session.

Use these ideas when discussing your group’s house rule.

 

Have The Character Fade Into The Background

This was the most popular option based on 75 subscriber emails I received in response to the Tips Request from RPT#68. Most GMs prefer to shove the PC in a (hopefully) safe place at the back of the party to be forgotten for the rest of the session.

With this approach you don’t need a cover story for the PC’s sudden departure and reappearance, and no one is burdened with an NPC to play. If the PC is needed, then he is still there to cast that unlock spell or pull out that clue he found last game.

Some additional options to consider:

  • PC is immune to all damage and cannot die unless the entire party perishes
  • Character turns invisible
  • Character is allowed to use her abilities during key moments
  • Character earns no rewards
  • Character earns a reduced percentage of rewards

 

Make The Character Vanish

Many GMs also reported they simply have the PC vanish until the player returns. This may not suit some groups’ style, but it does have the advantage of eliminating all potential problems regarding PC control, potential abuse, and accidental death.

As long as your players go along with this, and it doesn’t break the group’s sense of disbelief or mood, then it’s a great option from an administration standpoint.

Absent players will have peace of mind too. 🙂

In general, this also means the vanishing PC receives no rewards or points, and does not change in any way. The PC is in stasis. If a player is going to be absent for more than one session, this might cause the PC to fall behind in ability compared to other party members, which might create a weak link for the party and make planning adventures more difficult. So, choose this option with care.

 

Another Player Takes Control Of The Character

If the PC is important to the adventure, he might need to take a more active role than just tagging along at the rear of the party. In this case, have another player play the character. This often results in more intelligent play on behalf of the character than if the multitasking GM tries running him, and the party benefits from the PC’s skills and abilities.

However, many players don’t want to play more than one PC. Also, some players are guarded about their character’s secrets, and the absent player might become upset when he learns another player has read and studied his character sheet. The PC might also be abused in another player’s hands, poorly handled, or just ignored.

Some options to consider:

  • Allow GM override. You can step in any time to override the absentee PC’s actions if you think there’s abuse going on.
  • Group override. You are willing to listen to other players’ complaints if they feel the absentee PC is being abused or under-played.
  • Player consent. The absent player must give consent about who his proxy will be.
  • Proxy player must be assigned. If a player is going to miss a session, then she must make arrangements before the game for another player to play her PC and notify you of the arrangement.
  • Roll for the burden. Lowest roll gets stuck with playing the PC.
  • Take turns and share the burden. A nice way to cross-train players on rules.
  • GM assigns the burden. You decide who can best play the PC. Turn it into a reward (two PCs = more spotlight time), give it to a quiet player to encourage more gameplay from them, or give the PC to more experienced players capable of multitasking to speed up gameplay.
  • Reward the player playing the NPC. One GM reported giving the absentee PC’s experience points to the player who roleplayed him that session. This might not be to your taste, but the concept of a reward of some kind could work for you.

 

GM Controls The Missing Player’s PC

While this could be just another burden, it could also be a great opportunity. A villain could take over the PC’s mind and turn the PC into a saboteur – the players will not suspect a missing player’s PC of treachery.

It also gives you a tool for helping the party during the adventure. For example, if something secret gets missed by everyone, you can make (and fudge) the absentee PC’s search check to ensure the secret gets discovered.

Another example is to have the PC hang back during battles, keeping her fresh and strong, and then have her lend a helping hand when needed as the party’s strength dwindles.

Unless you want to make a duplicate character sheet with “on a need to know basis” type of information to protect an absentee PC’s secrets, just playing the PC yourself can save a lot of headaches as well.

 

PC Falls Under Group Control

This method lets anyone in the party step-up and declare the PC’s actions, and the GM settles any disputes. Often, this means less important characters might get lost in the shuffle, while important characters always get included – a perfect situation for some groups.

Group control relieves individual responsibility for the absentee PC, though potential for abuse is greater.

During roleplaying encounters, town and city visits, and wilderness travel, I’ve found group control works well. The absentee PC fades into the background until needed, and I can worry about other GMing duties. Then, during action scenes when all PCs are needed, a player gets assigned and the PC gets added to initiative.

I’ve also recruited visiting friends and family members of the group to fill-in for the absent player. This is a great way to introduce new people to the hobby too. 🙂

 

Use The Player’s Absence To Add Something Interesting To The Game

As mentioned above, you can view the missing player as a chance to enhance your game.

For example, think of an intriguing reason for the character’s absence and use it as a plot hook. Or turn the excuse that removes the character from that session’s play into a fun and interesting short story that develops your campaign or sets up an important future event.

For example, in my Murder Hobos campaign Roscoe the rogue was gone for a couple sessions. I had an NPC recruit him for a short mission, and on that mission the rogue discovered a secret entrance to an underground city. This was all revealed in a narrative flashback when the player showed up next session, and the whole group got to hear the plot hook.

You could also use missing players to add humour. At the beginning of the session you announce the absentee player’s PC had to leave and would return soon. Later on in the session, after a grim turn of events where the party is badly outfoxed by the villain yet again, the PCs spot a “Wanted Dead Or Alive” poster with the PC’s face on it. However, his name has been changed to something hilarious, his crimes are completely out of character, and his picture has been vandalised in a humorous way. That’s sure to drain some of the pent-up tension in the party and add further mystery to the PC’s story.

The point is to turn a negative into a positive by looking for ways to use the PC’s absence to benefit the adventure, plot, or campaign in some way. Without the player there, you have narrative control to do flashbacks and cut scenes.

 

Stall Or Sidetrack The Party

Sometimes a key player doesn’t show up or is late, and you want to continue playing. But, you don’t want the party to get to the main event just yet. Feel free to stall or sidetrack the party until the time is right for you to continue on.

  • Add in padded encounters, ones that aren’t critical to the story but add colour, background, or flavour to the game.
  • Take the PCs on a short diversionary adventure, such as rescuing, finding, or healing the absentee PC.
  • Take care of administration.
  • Have a “get things together” session for those who can craft things, train, make some money, buy things or have them made, create spells, and so on.
  • If you have multiple story hooks or plots going on, make some of them more urgent so that the party pursues them instead for awhile.

 

Host A One-Shot Game

If more than one player fails to show up, or if the missing PC is just too critical to your scheduled game, then consider running a different roleplaying game for the evening.

Ideas to consider:

  • Let another player GM. This lets you sit on the other side of the screen, for a change, and lets another player enjoy the power, control, and fame that comes from being a GM.
  • Try that game system you’ve read and always wanted to play. Playing different games will treat you and your players to new experiences to help stir up your creative juices.
  • Experiment with alternate rules. For example, in the D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide there’s a number of optional rules. Turn the evening into a play-test to see if you like those rules better without risking the players’ well-developed characters.

 

Host An Alternate Campaign

If it’s the same one or two players who need to miss the odd game, then consider having an alternate campaign you can play for when they don’t show. Keep the same rules, and even the same campaign area if you wish, and continue to develop your game world and important stories through a different group of PCs.

Here are some ideas on how you could integrate a second group of PCs into the same campaign area as your first group’s characters:

 

Competitors

The two parties pursue the same goal and indirectly interfere with each other’s plans.

 

Villain’s Minions

The group plays evil characters who take their orders from the main party’s villain.

Or the party fights different minions so the villain gets weakened from both groups of PCs over time.

 

Monsters

Have the players take on the role of the monsters their other PCs fight. This could help you develop better monsters by watching what the players do in their monstrous roles.

 

Historical

Turn back the clock and explore a historical event important to the main party.

 

Create Irony

Reveal something to the alternate PCs the main party could not know. It will create some good tension when the regular campaign resumes and the players cannot use the knowledge they gained from the alternate group.

 

Back-Up PCs

By keeping a second party of PCs in the area, each player has a backup character in the wings in case his character dies in the session. Perhaps the alternate PCs are servants of the PCs (Ars Magica style), or a PC in one party is a relative to a PC in the other party. Use any way you can think of to link the two parties and have them communicate with each other for easy future substitution.

 

Try A New Genre

Let the alternate party play horror, mystery, espionage. If your campaign universe permits it, switch to opposite genres like fantasy to sci-fi (using the D&D Spelljammer rules, for example).

 

Higher Level Adventure

Let the players play more powerful characters for a change. This is a perfect way to overlap campaigns, because it’s unlikely the high level PCs will have the same goals and tasks as the low level PCs. For other groups, this is your chance to let players play nobles, politicians, corporate executives, wealthy individuals, and PCs who could start out with a large amount of power and/or authority.

 

Lower Level Adventure

Remind players who have built-up powerful characters during a long running campaign what it feels like to start all over again. This can be a great cure for boredom or lackluster creativity.

 

Simulate An Event For Research

Run some background events in your campaign to see “how they really happened.” Set the event up and take PCs through the scenario to see how it all unfolds.

Then, during your regular game, reveal the events with their now-know details through news, libraries, treasure lore, and so on.

 

Dive Into Alternate Reality

Exercise the “weird” muscle in your brain. Run a bizarre, alternate reality story for the session and resume regular play when you have a full group again.

The nice thing about running an alternate reality story is you can warp time and location to suit your short term story needs. If the party is camping and needs a full group of PCs in the morning to face a tough adversary, you can instead flip into a shared dream sequence side adventure that lasts 14 dream-days, but only lasts a few hours in game time, so the whole group can wake up and be ready to go next session.

Alternate reality suggestions:

  • A dream
  • Alternate dimension
  • Divine intervention
  • Worm hole
  • Alien abduction
  • Bizarre phenomena and supernatural weather (watch Twilight Zone for inspiration)
  • Hallucinations brought on by drugs, magic, poison.

If you can get your hands on some old D&D modules, these are excellent alternate reality adventures:

  • EX1 Dungeonland: Alice In Wonderland theme
  • EX2 The Land Beyond The Magic Mirror: Part 2 to EX1
  • X2 Castle Amber: a strange castle appears out of the mists
  • X12 Skarda’s Mirror: another dimension behind a magic mirror
  • I6 Ravenloft: the master of Ravenloft is having guests for dinner, and you are invited…

 

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GM Tip Exchange

Quest Card Creations From the RPT Community

Juan Roddez

You wanted some quest cards? Here they are! I made a generic fantasy version, as well as a sci-fi one suitable for Shadowrun, Star Wars, or the like. Hope you enjoy them.

Fantasy Quest Card
Click for larger size

Scifi Quest Card
Click for larger size

 

Michelle

I love the idea of the quest cards and wish the idea came out when I was still doing pen and paper. My group has moved to the electronic age and we use Realm Works from Lone Wolf to track what is going on. I did, however, think of an idea I might try.

I have repeat NPCs and Realm Works is still developing so it doesn’t have the ability for players to make notes. My idea is to print the NPC’s portrait and name on an index card. When the PCs first meet the NPC I can hand them the index card. They now know what the NPC looks like and they can make notes on the card. For GMs looking for images of their NPCs I always use Google Images.

 

Aleksandar Vjestica

These quest cards are excellent! I know that because I’m using a similar thing and developing a personal or story goal generator for my closed rpg system and setting.

Quest and goal cards may even be used for improvised game sessions.

Here’s a sample. Steps are actually mini quests for goal completion. They also help characters acquire more awards or even hindrances if the outcomes are ‘negative’. Rewards are tied to character’s advancement in all aspects (stats, items, contacts, wealth, reputation).

Quest Card
Click for larger size

 

Devin Parker

I really liked the Quest Card idea. It’s a nice, clean way to keep track of everything your characters get involved in, reminiscent of the Quest Logs in a Bethesda video game (Fallout, Skyrim, etc).

Since you asked, I threw together a Quest Card template for printing. I made a 3×5 version which can be printed, cut out, and pasted onto index cards or used as-is.

I used a font which I felt would be harmonious with any genre (Oregon LDO, the classic Traveller RPG title font). I also tried to go with a design that wouldn’t use too much printer ink. The Quest Chain circle in the corner should accommodate small stickers as well as drawn symbols.

I hope you find it to your liking!

Quest Card
Click for larger size

 

Jason Lee Kennedy

Regarding dry erase flashcards.

I have been doing something like this with wet erase markers by laminating 3×5 or 4×6 cards. Items can be acquired wherever office supplies are sold.

Doing this will also allow you to have custom templates on the card as you can put the template on the card before laminating it.

 

Paul Baldowski

Hi Johnn,

I wanted to draw your attention to the wipeable cards available from All Rolled Up – a company run by my wife.

We do 70mm x 100mm and 54mm x 86mm wipeable cards.

As well as a range of pens, a wipeable box, and dice bags.

 

More Two Player Board Game Suggestions

Karen

Guillotine

Guillotine is a card game where each player is a Headsman in the French Revolution trying to get the most prestigious collection of heads. It’s a pretty grim theme with gallows humor to be sure.

Strategy revolves around shuffling the order of the line of nobles and officials with action cards so you can stick the other player with a bad head or position yourself for a good one.

Some heads have traits that change how they are collected, or how many points they’re worth in your collection. Like most games not specifically designed for two (Carcassonne is one) it can be really swingy (I steal from you, I gain and you lose, bigger gap to overcome), but it’s still fun for all that.

Lord of the Rings: Confrontation

I unreservedly recommend this game. Designed to be a 2-player game, it’s a beautiful mix of Lord of the Rings lore and Stratego. Asymmetrical goals and abilities on characters and cards make it interesting to play both sides.

The Fellowship is slippery. Their goal is to get Frodo across the board to Mordor (the enemy starting tile). The Forces of Sauron are stronger in combat (so if they catch a hapless Fellowship player, yeek) and trying to do one thing: Kill Frodo. Good times.

 

Jeremy Brown

Dominion can be played well with two people.

Age of Mythology can be a lot of fun with two.

The Lord of the Rings game is fun with two as there is less competition over life tokens.

 

Action-Driven Magic Items

Jessey Wright

In the last session of the D&D 5e adventure, Lost Mines of Phandelver, I’ve been running, I decided to spruce up the magic loot a bit. The group found a few of the items described in the adventure, but hasn’t really used them because they didn’t fit with any of the characters or builds (there’s a +1 longsword in the Ranger’s backpack because no one wants it, but they don’t want to sell it because it’s magic).

I looked ahead and, as one can expect from a pre-made adventure, none of the upcoming loot really fits with the characters. They’ll use some of it, but it’s not going to leave a memory. I should also add that this group is mostly-new to RPG, so I wanted to give them magic items as memories. Thinking about this led to the following idea which I started implementing last session: Action-Driven Magic Items.

 

Start With Cards & Attributes

I sat down with a stack of recipe cards and wrote each character’s name on the top of a card.

On each character’s card I listed everything about the character I could remember (and noted why it stood out in my memory).

When I was done, I was looking at a record of the character’s defining achievements, actions, and characteristics. From this, I designed magic items that naturally amplified one or more of the listed characteristics.

Here’s an example:

The party Dwarf Cleric is well known for being clumsy, tough, determined, and protective. He always leads the party in marching order, so always triggers traps on paths and in tunnels (he’s hit almost every trap in the adventure so far). About once per session he falls unconscious in the last rounds of a battle protecting the many weaker characters in the party. These are things that the party always reminds the Dwarf of, and that the Dwarf often jokes about.

It’s important to make these items interesting (more interesting than a +1 modifier to their signature weapon, and different from magic items available in the rules).

So, I designed the following item:

Symbol of Divine Protection

You may activate the symbol once per session. If you would fall unconscious you may activate the symbol to gain temporary hit points equal to twice your Cleric level and apply damage that would reduce your hit points below 1 to these temporary hit points.

If you would trigger a trap or be surprised, you may activate the symbol to make a Knowledge (Religion) check against a moderate DC. On a success you are not affected by the trap (or are not surprised).

The nice thing about this item is it can continue to grow with the character by developing new trigger conditions and effects.

 

Awarding the Items

The final step of the process was giving the magic items out in an interesting and memorable way. Instead of having the characters just find them as loot, or beat a monster with them, I wanted them to be more meaningful. They were designed based on the characters’ actions, so I decided the characters’ actions should lead to the items.

I’ve noted the items (and picked items they carry – heirlooms from their backstory, trinkets they’ve picked up as treasure and decided not to sell) and now I watch during the session for an opportunity to have the item develop magic properties.

Here’s an example:

The Halfling Fighter (who dual wields throwing axes) is noteworthy for the sheer number of goblins she has dispatched since the adventure began. Her kill count is easily double the next most lethal character (everyone contributes, but she always gets the kill, and frequently downs 2 goblins each round with well placed thrown axes).

I decided to make her bracelet (an item given to her by siblings) magical and grant her the title Goblin Slayer (which comes with +1 Attack/Damage vs Goblinoids and an aura that deals 1 Damage to all goblinoids adjacent to her at the end of her turn).

During the last session the party was attacking a castle filled with goblins, and a tactical error led to a prolonged and tough battle against the whole host. Midway through, I described her bracelet feeling warm around her wrist and a tangible fear in the aura of the goblins standing near her.

I track damage by placing dice on the monster tokens, and when I started quietly placing 1 damage on all goblins near her every round the party got excited at what was happening. Her aura damage killed a goblin near the end of the battle, and unknown to her the attack bonus helped her hit one of the hobgoblins shortly after the item activated. When the battle was over, during the next short rest, I told her the magic power bestowed upon her bracelet by her actions and gave her the opportunity to name it.

It was a memorable experience. What they others don’t know is they all have a magic item waiting to be awakened and all they have to do is keep having the same fun that they’ve been having all game.

To Sum Up the Process

  • Identify what actions and attitudes make each character unique, special, and memorable
  • Design custom magic items that emphasize one or more of those actions or attitudes
  • Choose a mundane object the character has (but that is important to the character in some way) to inherit the powers
  • Watch for an opportunity in game for the item to ‘awaken’ (and try to set up circumstances for that opportunity to arise)
  • When the player learns about the item’s power, let them name it

 

Dealing With Inspiration Mechanic in D&D 5E

In email, an RPT reader wrote:

I try to incentivize gameplay over number crunching with 5E’s Inspiration mechanic. But I actually find that mechanic great in theory but cumbersome as a GM when I’m already managing the adventure, the encounter, and the demands of 5 players. It’s difficult to also be attentive to good opportunities to give players Inspiration.

I had this suggestion in response:

I wonder if you could ask players to watch out for Inspiration for you?

For example, use one token per player (a die, playing card, poker chip). When a player spots another doing something that would give Inspiration, he grabs that player’s token and awards it to him (subject to GM approval).

When Inspiration is used, the player returns his token, ready to roleplay for inspiration once more.

 

My GM Rule #1

Bob Peterson

Run the game like you have to answer to a boss.

I have an imaginary committee that oversees my GM decisions. They decide on issues that arise out of risky or unusual choices, such as character deaths, insanely hard monsters, and puzzles.

The committee ‘decides’ if the action is appropriate ( I got the idea from the novel Dream Park).

 

One-Player Game Tips

James Makula

Firstly, thank you for your time. I get so much good content from the newsletter. I love it.

Secondly, do you have any tips or links to adventures where combat is minimal? My long-distance player has never played a role-playing game, so I was hoping to do something without dice or combat.

Johnn’s response:

Hi James,

Here are some tips for you:

  • Pick a game whose rules are not geared towards combat. Fudge and FATE come to mind, both free. When rules favour combat, you’ll be inclined to run fights, or the social and skill rules will be second seat and not meet your needs.
  • Prepare a plotless or sandbox style game. Fill it full of NPCs. Think of the game like it’s a discussion instead of a plot.
  • Ask the player to give you a detailed backstory. With only one character to play, you want it fleshed out as much as possible. You can create backstories through questionnaires, but for one-on-one games, turn it into a discussion. Now you’re playing the game and fleshing out the PC at the same time.
  • Play a GM NPC. Make it a sidekick, like a pet or friend. Ensure the NPC does not overshadow the PC. Use this to roleplay conversation in-game, to bail the PC out in case of bad luck, or to be the GM’s voice in-game as needed. Again though, just play a supporting character.
  • Ask the player to give you three clear PC objectives. Mine the backstory for these. Make the objectives NPC-based and non-combat based. “Find my missing brother. Find out who is doing these terrible things to my family. Discover the secret project my grandfather was involved in.”
  • If you missed it, check out Tony Medeiros’ tips in RPT#657: How to Create Great Non-Combat Encounters.

Hope these help!

 

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Twenty Ways To Temporarily Remove A PC

On-theme for dealing with missing players, here are some ideas for how to remove a character from the party for awhile.

  1. PC charges first into battle and gets hit, knocking him out for the rest of the battle or session.
  2. PC charges first into battle and suffers the effects of a special ability of his foe (poison, stun, petrification), knocking him out for the rest of the session.
  3. Character is arrested based on his previous actions, adventure deeds, addictions, or bad habits.
  4. PC goes on a personal quest to tie up a loose end.
  5. PC becomes the thrall of a seductive NPC or monster.
  6. Character becomes lost or separated.
  7. Character falls into a chute or teleportation trap.
  8. PC becomes ill and must be carried (flu, disease, food poisoning).
  9. Character is kidnapped.
  10. PC is summoned by her family, ally, or employer for assistance.
  11. PC has an obligation and must leave (knightly duties, receive an award, the family business).
  12. Character takes a break to tend something that’s important in his life but neglected while adventuring (hobbies, old friends, romance).
  13. PC spots something everyone else has missed and takes immediate action. For example, the character spies an advance scout of the enemy and goes off to deal with him alone without telling anyone in fear of alerting the scout.
  14. PC slips, hits head, and goes unconsciousness or into a coma.
  15. PC has an argument with the party and storms out.
  16. PC stays behind to watch the horses or guard the camp (somebody’s got to do it).
  17. Character is sent back to town for more supplies or to run errands for the party.
  18. PC meets an old friend and takes off to party and reminisce.
  19. PC takes off to aid an NPC in a cause that will help the party.
  20. PC oversleeps or is too hung-over to be useful.

 

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That’s it for today’s issue.

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Have more fun at every game!

Johnn Four
roleplayingtips.com

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