RPT#98 – A Bunch More Tips From Your Fellow Readers
A Brief Word From Johnn
I apologize for the lack of warning in last week’s issue about mailing out #98 a few days early. I’m going away for the weekend (a non-roleplaying trip, I’m afraid) and figured it would be better to get these tips into your hands early rather than late. It’s a long weekend here in Canada, which means I’ll respond to your emails early next week.
Johnn Four email@example.com
- World Building Tips
From: Dwayne T.
You haven’t had a tips request in your last couple of issues and my GMing ego is beginning to slip. Funny it should slip when my group is doing something we have never done in one of my campaigns before: returning to a world and characters we had long given up. I have been amazed at all the great stuff that has been going on in returning to this world, so I wanted to share it with you and the rest of your readers.
I have been in a GMing slump for a couple of years. My last few campaigns have died out and my GMing ego, like I said, is slipping. My friends and players have noticed this and together we came up with an idea: return to a previous success.
Though the campaign we’re returning to was never finished, it was a huge success because the players had a great time, all the time. So we decided to return to those characters and switch things over from GURPS to our current system, D&D3E.
It has been this trip down memory lane that caused me to remember the one detail that had always set me apart from the other GMs in our group: my campaign world.
So, as a GM, the best thing you can spend your time on in creating a campaign is its setting. And I have provided a few tips from a resurrected pro:
- Research Other Worlds
The best thing to do initially is to look at other worlds. The easiest one to find info on is our own. Study maps of all scales, from continental to city level. Learn about the history of our cultures, study our religions.
My best advice for a newbie to any historical period is to look at children’s books first. They give you the information in a simple, to-the-point manner, with plenty of illustrations to help you visualize things. Libraries are a great source for these kinds of books.
It’s also a great idea to look at fictional worlds. Some of the best are those created for games. My favorites are GURPS Fantasy (which may be hard to find), Harnworld, and the new Forgotten Realms for 3E D&D. GURPS fantasy isn’t a very creative world but it goes into great descriptions about medieval cultures. Harnworld is good because it gives you a detailed history and goes EVEN MORE into medieval culture. Don’t let it bog you down with the amount of information it provides. You don’t have to compete with it.
Worlds in fiction books are also great but you usually have to read the whole book or series to get at all of the info. They’re still a great ride though! My favorites are George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, as well as Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series and…of course…the father of them all…Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I urge you to carefully study Tolkien’s world, it is crawling with originality.
If you’re a sci-fi person…I can’t help you much for your exclusive needs except for the obvious choice…I’ll let you use the force to figure that out. I would still urge you to check out those other worlds I mentioned though. The elements of a good world, no matter what genre, remain the same.
- Create Your Own
Once you’ve done a good portion of research you’re ready to create your own world. Here’s some advice on this too…
- Draw A Map
You may decide this is not the best starting point, but it has worked for me pretty well, so give it a try. Go to Office Max (or your local equivalent stationery store) and buy one of those big pads of easel paper, the ones with the big blue squares. Then go home and use the first page to experiment with very small maps of sample continents.
When you’ve filled that giant page with little maps, pick the one whose shape appeals to you the most, then rip off that first page and draw your selected continent to full size on a new sheet. Always draw lightly with pencil so you can make easy corrections.
When you’re done, start putting in mountains, lakes, major rivers, and so on. It’s good to have some other maps around for reference. After some practice and a little attention, you’ll begin to understand how mountains “work” and how rivers are shaped and where swamps are generally found.
Drawing that first continental map is like an ancient religious ritual. I always pick out my favorite music or book on tape, have two litres of pop ready, and have all my favorite maps pegged to the walls. Make your surroundings full of creative energy!
- Think Cultures Not Countries
The best thing to do from here is get yourself a notebook or loose leaf binder. Think about the kinds of people that would settle on the areas of your map. Don’t start drawing lines yet, though. Think clans and tribes, the root of many civilizations. Where would they go to grow crops, where would they avoid?
- Think Diversity
Think diversity when designing your cultures. Look at our own world’s, for example. Some believe in many gods while some believe in one. Think about how art, architecture, music, and language are different around our globe.
How well life flows from your cultures into your game is dependant on how diverse they are. A single-culture world, even if by only a few details, like a common religion or language, can be a stale and impossible one.
- Think Religion, Not Gods
The flavor of many cultures and worlds stems from actions and behaviors derived from religious beliefs, not from the gods themselves. So, focus on creating beliefs and religious organizations, in addition to the gods. It’s also fun to think about things like:
- Do the religions allow belief in ghosts?
- Do they have demi-gods like angels and demons?
- What symbolism is predominantly used?
- How do magic and religion mix?
- How do politics and religion mix?
- Think History
Now is a good time to begin a basic history of your world. The best thing to do when beginning is to get a large piece of paper, make a separate column for each culture you’ve created, mark dates along the left-most column, and outline each culture’s history. Just write down basic things, like when the first nations grew, when the culture had its first contacts with other cultures, major wars, and so on.
Once you’ve finished a basic history, you may want to add another layer to your map. You can start to draw some national boundaries (still in pencil) and a few major sites. Some of those first places of interest that have popped up in your history should be noted on the map. Some may become cities or adventuring sites.
- Draw A Map
- Consolidate Your Facts
Is your world brimming with life now? Is your mind a blur of knowledge of it? Is it beginning to take on a life of its own? Good. If not, don’t worry. It will all come, eventually. The best thing to do now is make a more permanent and organized version of your notes. If you like to type, put it all into your computer. If not, use your binder or notebook with dividers and bookmarks.
Feel free to start coloring your map now (or giving it whatever finishing touches you want to add) and get ready to start over…well sort of. Now is the time to find a portion of your map you like, zoom in, and start the process over again on a smaller scale. You don’t have to do this to every area right now. Just one spot that would be a good place to start your campaign. And go back to step one and have fun with it.
Well…I’m sorry I wrote a novel but I feel mostly satisfied. I hope it was helpful and that you’re not asleep yet 🙂
- Research Other Worlds
- High Level Campaign Tips
From: Jason K.
- Develop a few organizations to start causing problems. PCs are pretty powerful at high levels (mine are 17th-18th, and windwalk everywhere), but they can only be in one place at a time (generally.) Having organizations means that you can have multiple actions going on at the same time, and if the PCs kill off one leader, there are still others to carry on the plans of the organization, so your adventure doesn’t end in the middle because they got a lucky shot or whatever.
- Think big! Work on a grander scale! These guys can travel a lot further a lot faster, so spread the wealth. They are working to save their lands, so put the nastier dungeons in extremely hazardous and remote locations. Now’s the chance to show off the world! 🙂
- Avoid throwing bigger, badder monsters. Start using tactics and unusual environments to make those combat encounters interesting. Combine monsters and classes in unique and interesting ways. (Try a Troll Monk, for example.) Use combinations of monsters that shore up each other’s weaknesses.
- Look for traps, attacks, spells, and special abilities that have effects even if the PCs fail their saves. [In D&D terms] avoid Reflex saves for half damage like the plague, since everyone and their dog probably has Evasion. Look for things that affect PC abilities directly, since those don’t change very much across levels, and lowering stats are much more effective in combat than lowering hit points.
- Setting Players Up To Role-Play
As a GM, I’ve found that even over several gaming sessions it is still hard to see the personalities of some of the PCs my players are running. One method I now use to bring out the personas of the characters is to put them in situations that don’t directly affect them.
If the characters are in a bar or at a market and a thief steals from them, they are going to try to kill or subdue the thief. It doesn’t matter if the PC is evil, good, chaotic, lawful or otherwise. Having someone steal from them is going to force a conflict. However, if your PCs are at a market and they see a thief steal from someone else, this leaves them open for a broader range of reactions. If a poor peasant boy is stealing from a rich noble’s coin purse, maybe they’ll just let it happen. If a merchant catches a poor peasant boy stealing bread from his stand, does the party help the boy escape? Do they pay for the bread? The point I’m trying to make is that by making the PCs onlookers, they are going to take an action that is far more unique to the characters.
My style of developing a story has changed drastically since I’ve used this method of GMing. I used to try to create a story by anticipating what the party will do from scene to scene. This caused me to try to force the party back to the same path every time they did something unexpected. This can be very frustrating to the players.
Now I try to think of a scenario, think of the motivations of the main NPCs (like the evil villain), and drop the PCs in the middle somewhere. For example, during a campaign I was running, the party needed to travel from one area of the country to another. At one point they had been traveling a whole day through the woods. It was getting dark and they were still several hours from the next town. When they came across a cottage they decided to ask the owner if they could stay in the barn for the night. And when they approached the cottage I casually mentioned that through a window they could see a man and a woman eating dinner. The woman answered the door and apprehensively let the party stay in the barn.
What the PCs didn’t know is that the man in the cottage was not her husband, but someone she’s having an affair with. The husband, a big burly man, went to town to sell the pelts of the animals he trapped. To save money, he decided to come back home the same day instead of staying at an inn like he normally does. The fun part starts when he enters the barn in the middle of the night to stable his horse. When he demands to know what they are doing in his barn does the party figure things out right away? Do they try to save the life of the man in the cottage? Do they try to stay out of it? Do they try to save the life of the wife as the trapper chases her around the barn with an axe? It really doesn’t matter what they do. Your players get to role-play, and you get to watch them react.
Another example deals with a staple role-playing ploy. Many PCs have run into the NPC that joins the party and turns out to be the bad guy that tries to kill off the party. Try putting a bad guy in the party that isn’t trying to kill them.
In the campaign I am running I put in an NPC who is a nobleman. He looks the part of a hero: handsome, shiny full- plate armor, riding into to town on his white war-horse. He comes across as self-centered and it’s obvious he feels superior to most, but aside from these character flaws he treats the PCs very well. I introduced him to the party when they needed help completing the mission they were on. In return for his help they would help him kill the band of gnolls who killed much of his family. Now what they don’t know is he hired the gnolls to kill his family.
Killing his kin gets him much closer to the crown. Now he wants to tie up loose ends and make a show of revenge. Hopefully, the characters will slowly see how callous he can be. He may kill a beggar in cold blood because “he’s a drain on society,” but the nobleman sees the value of the party he is now in and will not harm them without a very good reason.
This puts the ball in the PCs’ court. How long will they adventure with this evil man? Will they ask him to leave when they find out his nature or will they try to kill him? Maybe the party is willing to put up with him as long as they stay on good terms. There is nothing wrong with putting an NPC in the party who tries to kill them off, but if you put the PCs outside of the evil behavior of the NPC, it gives them more opportunity to role-play. It goes back to not forcing a conflict.
A man at a bar who picks a fight with the PCs will get an obvious reaction. A man at a bar that picks a fight with another NPC will get a somewhat more varied reaction from PCs.
If you want to threaten the life of the PCs, put them on a sinking ship. If you want see the morals of the PCs, put them on a ship near a sinking ship.
Along the same lines, you could have trolls attack the party to cause a fight. Or, you could have trolls attack a group ahead of them — your PCs may end up changing routes.
Another similar concept that achieves the same goal of getting players to role-play is to make a world that is not black and white. Maybe your PCs are hired to protect a caravan. The PCs may find out that the caravan is moving goods for an “evil villain.” Maybe they find that the teamster who is being paid to move the goods is not an evil man, he’s just trying to make a living.
These are more like plot twists than anything else, but what they do is get the PCs to do more than just kill off the bandits attacking the caravan or destroy the caravan. It forces characters to make decisions as to whether it is alright to trash goods of an evil villain if it means putting the teamster in hardship and doing the opposite of what they were paid to do in the first place.
Timmy fell in the well? What the PCs learn is that Timmy was thrown in the well. What they later learn is that Timmy was thrown in the well because he’s a werewolf, and occasionally killed the neighbor kids during full moons. Now what do you do with Timmy? Is that a little more fun than just finding out who’s the best climber in the party?
Are savage barbarians attacking the outskirts of town? Sure the party can kill them for the townsfolk. What if the barbarians know that the town is growing to a point where it is building over an ancient evil crypt? If the evil is disturbed it will surely destroy everything in the area. The PCs only find this out when they have the last of the barbarians on the run. Do they still want to mop the floor with them for burning down a building or two?
Mysterious lizardmen raiding villages on an island for slaves? What if the slaves are manning underground mechanical devices that keep the island from sinking into the ocean? I know it’s mean to put a party in this kind of dilemma, but putting a pit trap between the party and some kobold archers is pretty mean too, and that’s not frowned on.
Bugbears demanding a toll on a well-traveled bridge? Is the paladin PC still going to kill them if they built the bridge? The bugbears are still really mean, and they are charging obscene amounts, but it is their bridge. Do the PCs know the bugbears destroyed the bridges nearby to make theirs more popular?
Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with straightforward stories and killing bad guys that are truly bad guys. However, if you want your players to develop personalities for their characters, one way to help them is to give them choices with a range of “right” answers.
- Roleplaying Paranoia
From: Ed B.
I’ve had a problem with players not roleplaying things well when they knew out-of-character information. For example, their characters showing little to no emotion or excitement when they find out that another character has something they need desperately, mainly because the players themselves knew about that item. It leads to poor roleplaying (if you are playing with poor roleplayers, that is).
So when my group was screwing around trying to identify an artifact, and they kept failing (because the artifact was not for them), I decided the next ‘Identify’ spell would cause insanity. Needless to say, a PC tried the spell. Ok, lets roll on the chart. Paranoia. Cool. Hmm… if I tell him he’s paranoid though, it’ll never be played well. Let’s play with his head.
So I started passing the paranoid player notes, telling him he was seeing and hearing things that didn’t really happen. That glance from the bartender to acknowledge entrance to his bar, then him going in the back to get another keg, turned into, “When you enter, the bartender gives you a wary glance, looks nervous, and darts off into the back.” I started passing blank notes to the other players, and they would write gibberish and pass it back (they were in on it, and thought the whole thing was hilarious). I’d take them outside and talk about the sports scores for a moment. After a while the guy playing the paranoid player was playing his part perfectly. He WAS paranoid.
It all ended when the paranoid guy, POSITIVE he was fine, told the priest to heal him. See! Nothing! I told you I’m fine! Wait a second… huh? And then we all hit the floor laughing as I told him he was cured, and the last 3 gaming sessions of notes and sneaking about was just his paranoia.
If you have a party member who’s insane, charmed, or might not otherwise be able to play a situation well… don’t tell him about it. It might work out even better than you planned.
- Adventurer Bookies
From: David B.
In the D&D campaign I am running, my players decided to actually do some research about the dungeon they were headed into, quite a deviation from their usual “charge in and kill” mindset. While I was going over the background material, which usually sat gathering dust at the beginning of my notes, I hit upon the idea for “adventurer bookies” as a fun way to share information with the characters.
Since the Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, and most other high fantasy worlds have an entire subculture of adventurers, tomb raiders, etc., it isn’t that big a leap to envision a group of local barflies who one day decide to bet on whether that bunch of brightly-armored “heroes” would actually get back from the Dread Pit of the Flame Lord, or whatever local dungeon attracted adventurers. In some of the larger cities, especially those on the fringe of civilization that act as jump-off points to many different adventuring sites, these informal bets could quite easily evolve into large operations, with professional or semi- professional bookies setting odds, holding bets, and maintaining records of bets won and lost.
Watching heroes ride out to fame and fortune is an uplifting sight, but nothing quite matches the feeling of satisfaction a farmer or shopkeeper gets when he sees those same adventurers limp back into town beaten, bloodied, and empty- handed. Add to that the fun of clearing a few copper or silver pieces, and it would be a sure-fire hit among the innkeepers, stable boys, and other townsfolk who don’t lead the glamorous life of an adventurer.
The adventure bookmaking could also serve several useful purposes in a fantasy campaign. First and foremost, a good bookie always has a keen eye for laying odds, and would be a great help for players to assess their ability to take on a given adventure, as well as a great source of stories and history about adventuring groups and dungeons in the area. If the players are at loose ends, they could be handed a plot-hook with a simple “Interested in a small wager, my friend?” Finally, they can be a source of cash for the PCs if they want to bet on themselves.
Bookie: “Oh, yer gonna go after the fabled Tomb of the Wizard-King, eh? Yep, the Company of the Silver Scepter headed out there last year, came back 3 men short and white as ghosts. Y’know, they’d beaten the great dragon of the Smoke Mountains, single-handedly turned back the Orcish Horde of Death, and beat Loki in a riddle contest. What have you done, again?”
PC: “Well, we killed two kobolds and their pet dire skunk. Umm, you got any leads on something more in our league?”
Of course, the benefits of adventure-betting to a campaign go beyond mere information brokering and profit.
- Consistently successful parties may start gaining fans, as well as the wrath of the losers.
- Unscrupulous bookies or other unsavory types may take it upon themselves to fix the odds, using means as subtle as sending a warning to the guardians of the PCs goal, or as blatant as ambushing them on their return.
- Thieves’ guilds could try to move in and get a piece of the action, bribing or blackmailing heroes to take a dive.
- Rival adventurers could start taking the group’s success as a challenge and start trash-talking them or calling them out.
- A particularly wealthy bookie could start arranging competitions, either offering an open prize for the recovery of some legendary treasure, or setting up contests between specific rival companies.
- For the more light-hearted GM who appreciates Survivor, a wizard could provide the group with a talisman which allows them to be scried upon with his crystal ball, which would be displayed at the local pub.
- Information about potential rivals or evil foes could quite easily exist in the books. “Well, once I had a guy bet he -wouldn’t- come back alive. Worst bet I ever made in my life. Yep, Anders the Wizard went off to the Tower of Eldritch Necromancy, come back Anders the Lich. I don’t take bets like that anymore, not after what he did to my dog when I told him I couldn’t pay up…”
Of course, the depth of the gambling scene is up to each GM, whether it’s a few old-timers putting a couple of coppers on that strapping lad headed for the goblin caves, or a complex system of odds based on correctly guessing which specific members of the party will return alive. Wagering on other people’s luck and pain is an almost inherent part of human culture, so why not turn it to a use in your fantasy campaign as well. I hope this device proves useful to whoever decides to use it.
- Battlemat Follow-Up
From: Todd R. [re: https://www.roleplayingtips.com/issue97.asp#r3 ]
Ryan W.’s battle map suggestion is excellent, but BEWARE. Not all poster frames are compatible dry erase markers. Test the dry erase ink first by making a small mark then erasing it. If it does not erase, use water-based overhead projector pens instead. (I learned this the hard way.)