Category Archives: Games

Make The Mundane Tasks In Gaming Fun And Playable

Before I had a lot of GM experience I would sometimes encounter game sessions that did not go so well. Sometimes sessions were spectacular…but there were always those sessions where it seemed like the players were not as interested, the adventures were not as fun, and the challenges just didn’t do it. It just wasn’t entertaining!

As I got better, I realized a few things about these game sessions:

  • When I got bored, the players got bored.
  • The best sessions were the ones where something memorable happened. For example, a boss battle, some kind of confrontation, a mystery developed.
  • The sessions where everything seemed to drop out of the middle were usually the ones in the in-between stages of the story.

For example, the battle at the castle would go great, but when it came time for the PCs to travel to the capitol (one week’s travel away), game play would get tedious.

The problem was these in-between sessions usually went too fast. In an effort to get the players to the next scheduled confrontation, I would shuffle them from place to place quickly. This left the game play boring and caused us to miss out on a lot of detail.

A lot of GMs focus on the intense, big things: the battles, the clanging of the swords, the fire coming out of the dragon’s nostrils. But these quiet sessions, when there are not hordes of orcs to fight, are the ones that give you the opportunity to explore detail in a finer and grittier sense.

In a recent session in our game, the players had just gone through several roadblocks to find some treasure they sought. In addition to traveling several days through the mountains on horseback, they also:

  • Fought a horde of goblins.
  • Raided the goblin cave, finding an even bigger horde of goblins.
  • Got stalked and attacked by a pack of large, magical wolves.
  • Found the treasure cave, swam through a murky stream to find a hidden passage, and crawled through the mud into the cavernous treasure room.
  • Upon entering the room, they were greeted by a wall of spider web…and were attacked by two giant spiders who could wield moderate-level magic. One of the players got caught in the web, and the others had to save her from being spun up and eaten!
  • Fell off the cliff they were trying to climb down on their way home. If it were not for the party druid and her magical healing spells, they might have had a rough time of it!

Well, the high point was over. The treasure was found (a magical sword that held the presence of a once powerful wizard). But now what?

Back when I was an inexperienced GM, I might have asked “what do you want to do now?” However, having been here before, and seeing how game play can go downhill fast after an adventure, I explained some of the following. All of them were facts, but they were facts the players would probably not have noticed on their own.

  • The PCs had killed a lot of goblins, and the goblin blood all over their clothes was starting to smell like rotten food.
  • The characters were full of mud, their clothes were in tatters, and they had worse body odor than an orc in a blacksmith shop.
  • Neither they, nor their horses, had eaten or drank water in about 24 hours, so they were on the verge of falling over from fatigue.
  • I pointed out the party ranger was almost out of arrows, the druid was almost out of darts, and the entire party needed new clothing. Theirs was completely ruined.

All of these things were true, but they are sometimes not the first things we think about while running a campaign.

Well, there was a small trading village about a day’s ride from the PCs’ location, and they decided to head that way for new clothing, weapon upgrades and possibly a bath!

Once the characters entered the city, I again tried to take a mundane task and turn it into something interesting. When the ranger went to the general trading post to sell wolf pelts he had taken from their battle with the wolves, the shop owner was utterly repulsed and half angry the ranger even dared to come in! Why? Take your pick:

  • The ranger had not bathed in a week.
  • He was wearing smelly, dirty, foul smelling leather armor over tattered, blood stained, muddy clothing.
  • He was trading un-tanned pelts. He just skinned the animals. Therefore, the pelts reeked of dead animal flesh. The store owner told him “You should pay ME, just to dispose of these nasty pelts for you!”

Here is another example. When the half-orc barbarian sought out the inn to try and scrounge up a bath the woman behind the inn counter was utterly repulsed at the sight of him and ordered him out of her establishment. He proceeded to buy clothes and a bar of soap at the trading post, and made his way to the river to bathe. Well, this was another mundane task, so I decided to throw something interesting in.

When he rounded the corner, he spotted a female halfling sitting on a rock, dangling her feet in the water. She did not even come up to his waist, and she was dressed like a rogue. She struck up a conversation with him that went something like this…

Halfling: “So, you taking a bath in the river?”

Half-orc: “Ya”

Halfling: “Why don’t you take a bath in the inn?”

Half-orc: “Uh, the inn keeper told me to leave.”

Halfling turns up her nose. “You are going to smell like fish after bathing in this river.”

Half-orc: “Well, I smell like death right now…I figure fish is something to aspire to!”

Halfling: “Well, don’t mind me. But since you mentioned you are headed south, I was wondering if you might be interested in hiring someone with my talents?”

The players got a good laugh out of this, and after a meeting, they decided to hire the halfling. They now have an NPC with them who has talents no-one else in the group possesses. Something positive came out of it, and it was not even planned. Just spur of the moment.

To finish off my article, here are some tips to make mundane tasks memorable and interesting.

* Take your time. Do not rush through the session. Add realism and detail. Make sure you are completely done with a task before rushing onto the next thing.

* Take a moment, at least once per session, to point out some obvious things the group might not notice. For example, do they smell bad? Are they out of gun powder? Is the fighter’s shield damaged from that troll’s club? Do they need food? Do they need a haircut?

  • Introduce a new and interesting NPC at least once per session. This could be an old guy sitting in the tavern, a halfling rogue by the river or a mysterious wizard who asks them if they need any healing potions.

Sometimes they will just nod their head and go their separate ways, but you never know when you might be able to use this NPC to great effect. Perhaps the players will invite the character to join their party or do some sort of business with him?

  • Throw curve balls in there once in awhile. Make them easy to avoid, but make them tempting. For example, maybe the elven handmaiden takes a fancy to the group’s ranger, or maybe there is a cute wolf pup for sale outside a local trading store. The PCs might not even care…but maybe they will!
  • If there are NPCs traveling with the PCs, stir up some conversation. Perhaps the druid NPC did not approve of the way the wizard PC used a fireball to take out a helpless enemy after the battle. Perhaps the druid even begins insulting the wizard, and cursing his arcane magic, calling it a “bag of cheap tricks.”
  • Another provocative tactic is to make NPCs throw racial slurs at the PCs. Some examples might include an inn keeper that does not approve of them “half orc folk,” or how that human princess does not trust the “pointy eared ones.”
  • Explain things that happen in detail. Instead of the shopkeeper “taking the money and handing over the hardtack,” you might say, “the shop keeper, eyeing the ranger one more time, reluctantly took the money and half-tossed the hardtack back at the PC, murmuring something about how he needed a bath and a shave…”
  • When the party travels long distances by horseback, do not just fast forward to the next day. Throw some things in there. Maybe they come across an abandoned cabin, meet a group of fishermen or get stalked by a pack of wolves. Maybe a horse steps into a groundhog hole or bandits try to hold them up. Maybe they find an abandoned wagon beside the road, only to find a cursed necklace in it that (they learn later) brings bad luck.

Remember a few simple rules.

  • Slow down
  • Pay attention to detail
  • Enjoy every moment of the session
  • Do not miss a single opportunity to make the game memorable
  • Find epic gaming in the mundane. Use well-played normalness to make battles seem all the more intense and awesome. If the PCs are used to fishing and haggling with traders (and enjoying it) then having a group of evil paladins attacking them with katanas will seem intense!

Know More About Idle Hands are the DM’s Plaything

Recently at Necromancers Online, I wrote an article about DMs who don’t have enough time to do their DM work, and what sorts of steps they can take to improve their game.

Today I’ll be approaching the opposite problem:

If you’re a DM with a lot of extra time, what can you do to take your game from good to great, and drop your players’ jaws to the floor?

1. Create Unique Mechanical Effects For Your PCs (And Villains)

Everyone likes to feel special, and nothing says special more than having some power or ability that no one else has. Further, many players have ideas for things they would like their characters to be able to do, but which don’t translate directly into the rules.

For example, I once had a player who wanted to tweak their druid PC’s normal ability to change his shape into that of animals. In exchange for having the potential to transform into slightly better shapes than normally allowed, all his transformations would be determined randomly – he might be a woolly mammoth, or he might be a dormouse.

It took a fair amount of work. I scoured sourcebooks for appropriate monsters to fill out the list; balanced the distribution of good shapes versus bad ones; and created some additional fine print to keep the ability from being too abusable, mostly by also having a random chance he couldn’t change back for a certain duration.

Eventually, I had the whole thing rigged up in an Excel table, and with the push of a button I could determine randomly what he changed into and how long he was stuck that way (if at all).

In a smaller-scale example, another player played a gloura (a kind of Underdark moth fey) ice mage. He thought that, between the ice and the moth angle, it’d be cool if she was afraid of fire, so he wanted to have the cold subtype for free.

If you have time to put the effort into it, sit down with each player and talk about their characters from a flavor perspective. Find out what makes the character tick, and what sorts of things the player would like to see happen with that character.

This is a great way to get plot hooks and other adventure themes based on that player’s character. You can also use it to look into giving special benefits, such as providing mechanics for the character’s existing flavor, or expanding on that flavor by granting the character some kind of new power. Perhaps a paladin receives a magical blade that passes harmlessly through anyone with an innocent heart, or a wizard receives a custom spell allowing her to do something that no other spell can do.

Also give a few special and unique powers to your villains to make them stand out on the battlefield as something to watch out for, especially if those powers are interesting or different enough from the sorts of things you already see a lot of.

2. Add Embellishments To People, Places And Things

If you have the time, you should consider adding some extra details and flavor to your existing NPCs, treasure items, and locations. A +2 flaming sword is basically just a bunch of numbers. A magic sword carved with mystic runes is cool. A magic sword with a golden eagle for the crossguard and an engraving along the blade which reads “Unos Salos Victus” (which I’m told means “The Last Hope of the Doomed”) is even cooler. That same sword is cooler still if a successful Knowledge (history) check can identify that such swords belong to the Brotherhood of Pillars, an ancient and secret order of knights who are sworn to protect the kingdom from the shadows, appearing whenever a great crisis threatens the land, only to disappear again once the dust clears.

By the same token, a fat innkeeper is a placeholder, and the players will most likely pay him little mind (and be in the right to do so). A retired adventurer who opened his own inn is better, especially if he has a few scars and maybe an unusual monster head mounted on the wall somewhere. But when he has a few adventuring stories to tell over a round or two of drinks near closing time, whether simply entertaining stories about his triumphs or potential plot-hooks about treasures that got away, he starts to become a more interesting and well-rounded character. Perhaps he’ll even get the itch to go out and do some more adventuring, and the tavern will be handed over to his cousin or niece for a few adventures while he’s gone. These sorts of little details allow your campaign to feel more like a living, breathing, organic entity than a cardboard backdrop stage for your PCs to wave prop-swords around on.

3. Create Mini-Adventures That Reward PCs Who Take An Interest In Them

This is definitely an “above and beyond” sort of DM work, as there’s a good chance that your PCs may never even notice this happening. Suppose the PCs come across a giant pile of coins. These coins are ancient, and are minted with strange symbols the PCs have never seen before. Now, the PCs can use them just like any other gold pieces, and if they do, that’s the end of that. On the other hand, if they take the trouble to track down the right collector (not necessarily an easy task), maybe they can get some more value for them. Alternatively, perhaps the coins all have strange markings on the back, and by putting them together like a puzzle, the PCs can create a treasure map to an even greater hoard. If the symbol were evocative enough, the PCs might be able to determine from it that the coins are extraplanar, and may even be able to use one in place of the “tuning fork” required to cast plane shift, allowing them to travel directly to the City of Brass, or wherever strikes your fancy.

Similarly, the man staying next door to the PCs in the inn room might have some secret agenda, which the PCs can get involved in if it piques their curiosity, or can ignore if they don’t. They might get invitations to dances, balls, and other social gatherings, where they can have some fun with political intrigue.

Ultimately, the sorts of things that I’m talking about here are “side-quests” of a very small scale, which simply provide your players with optional diversions. Not only can this make for some fun gameplay, and allow for some breaks from the “main plot” (which, by the way, is important and helps enhance the plot. That’s why so many TV shows these days will have two separate, unrelated plots in a single episode), but it also helps to further flesh out your world and help give it depth, as with Tip #2.

4. Create Fun And Interesting Terrain Features For Each Encounter

I don’t know about you, but personally, I read about a lot more interesting terrain feature ideas than I ever see in play. This has nothing to do with being a game designer–to the best of my knowledge, Necromancers of the Northwest has never really done anything with interesting terrain features (with the possible exception of a couple in The War of the Goblin King), and my knowledge is pretty extensive when it comes to NNW–but simply from the fact that I just don’t see terrain features pop up that often in games I play (or, for that matter, run).

This is a shame, because terrain has a lot of potential to really spice up an otherwise so-so encounter, and because there are so many potentially cool ideas. I vividly remember reading about a suggestion for a battlefield comprised of a bunch of platforms on chains, which rise and fall in 5-foot increments each turn, and another involving blasts of steam in a maze of pipes, etc. You could also go full-on magical about it, with a chessboard (or similar) where each “square” (possibly more than 5 feet) has a different magical effect, or a hall of mirrors where the mirrors reflect spells, or serve as portals to navigate the maze, or create illusory combatants, etc.

The main problem with terrain, I think, is that it usually requires relatively complex rules, and always feels like a secondary threat when compared to the opponent, so it mostly feels like a nuisance. With a good deal of forethought, a DM can help cut down on the amount of trouble the terrain causes at the table by being sure he has mastered its mechanics, and can make sure that it’s both fun for players and a convincing threat for their characters.

Becoming a Pro Video Game Shooter

Shooters are quite possibly the most popular genre among games, and you don’t have to know every detail about each game to play like a pro. There are some simple tips that apply to almost every shooter game, whether the game revolves around first person shooters, third person shooters, tactical shooters, or a combination of these shooter types.

Using these tips will help you be the best at your game.

Game Options: Optimize Them to Your Tastes
One of the easiest ways to become better at a game, without ever playing it, is to adjust the game settings to something to which you are familiar. Most shooter games come with a few standard areas that can be tweaked to your liking, such as brightness, X and Y axis sensitivity and inverted look.

Did you say adjust the brightness? Some games are so dark at the default settings that you’ll miss many of the details. Adjusting the brightness to a higher level will help you spot those details more easily; once you’ve become more familiar with the game, you can re-adjust the brightness back down to the default level, for a more realistic gameplay experience.

Inverted look and the X and Y axis sensitivity fall under a similar category. If you find yourself looking up when you are trying to look down, chances are you need to invert the look.

 The same goes for the axis settings: If turning to the left or right seems too slow, then the X axis should be adjusted up a bit so your character moves more quickly (same for up and down, and adjusting the Y axis will resolve the problem). This is a setting that needs to be continually adjusted as you become more familiar with the game.

Targeting – If You Can’t Hit ’em – You’re Toast

General Tips to Meet Your Mark
One of the most basic principles is to make your shots count. Firing aimlessly towards enemies does little for your game unless it is specifically meant as suppression fire. One common mistake many people make is firing too soon. However, you should never fire until you have a clear shot. If the enemies don’t know you are there, they won’t fire at you, so you’re somewhat safe as long as you are undiscovered. This is much more common in stealth shooters, where the main objective is to go through the game primarily unnoticed.

I Was ‘Dead On’ Target, But Missed, Why?
If you were on target and still missed, there are several factors that could be hindering your effective targeting. One of the most obvious is weapon selection. Different weapons react in different ways, it is a possibility that the recoil from the weapon is changing the exact point of impact, or it could be that the game you’re playing is so realistic that you will need to lead your target.

Get To Know the Weapons and the Maps

Your Weapon Is Your Partner – Choose Wisely
As stated earlier, choosing the right weapon can have a drastic impact on your results, and this varies quite a bit from game to game. In the next example, I’ll refer to a couple of weapons in Rainbow Six 3, a tactical shooter available on PC and most consoles. Many people recommend using the G3A3 rifle for use in RS3, and for good reason; it is the most powerful rifle, bullet for bullet, in the game.

However, it also has some major drawbacks. First off, it only holds 21 rounds per clip, where other weapons will hold over 30. It also has a significant recoil, enough to make you miss more often than not. For these two reasons, I actually prefer the TAR-21, which has a 31 round clip and much less of a recoil. While it may not have the 3.5x scope, it does have a 2.0x scope, and I can get double the kills with this gun by using the methods described in this article.

Know and Use the Maps to Your Advantage
Knowing the maps extremely well will only be helpful in multiplayer games, but knowing the terrain on any given map will serve more than one purpose. Single player and multiplayer games use the environment to avoid enemy fire. Use every outlet the map and environment give you, ducking behind barrels, hiding behind walls, whatever it takes to stay safe.

One key tip during times when taking heavy fire from enemies is to stay behind cover until you hear them reload, then come out from your safe haven and start shooting.

Practice Makes Perfect

Practice as Often as Possible and Reap the Rewards
Sure it is an old cliche, but it holds true in the case of Video Game Strategies. Of course, your first experience with a shooter game likely won’t be perfect, and you’ll likely find yourself dead more times than alive. As time goes on, building up your skills in one particular shooter will help you across all games in the shooter genre

Important Tips For New PC Gamers

If you are thinking of joining the PC gaming community exclusively or broadening your horizons from being a console game to a multi-platform gamer, there are some things you should know about PC gaming. Here are 20 of the most important tips every PC gamer should know.

Thanks Gameranx for the awesome video which you can watch at the bottom of this article.

1. Download Steam

In many people’s eyes, Steam is the best way to play video games. It is a digital distribution platform that ensures you always get everything as soon as it comes out. Steam keeps all of your software, automatically updates your games, has community features such as groups, instant messaging and in-game voice chat to name a few.

2. Always check Reddit

If you missed a Steam sale or you are just looking for some excellent PC game deals, you should always check out /r/gamedeals. There are always some awesome CD-key deals as well as discounts from various sites you might not have found otherwise.

3. Don’t rush into buying a game

If you don’t absolutely need to play a game right now, you should wait for Steam sales (for example the Winter Sale going on right now) are an excellent way to get games even if you are broke; but watch out, there are some terrible games on Steam you should avoid buying even at a discount.

4. Use the Refund option

Earlier this year Steam introduced a new feature called “Steam Refunds”. If you are unhappy with a game or it does not perform well on your PC (for example Batman: Arkham Knight). Please keep in mind that if you play a game for more than two hours (or request a refund after 30 days), it is much harder to get a refund, so check it out and request a refund if it’s not the game for you.

5. Broaden your horizons

PC gamers aren’t just stuck with Steam when it comes to amazing deals and purchasing your games online. For example, Good Old Games (owned by CD Projekt who also owns CD Projekt RED, the makers of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt) is one of the best sites out there, selling DRM free games.

6. Grab a bundle

Online Bundle stores are also an excellent way to grab games at a discount. For example, sites like Humble Bundle (you also help a charity by purchasing from this store) and Bundle Stars sell games in bulk and sometimes have some excellent deals to explore.

7. Clean PC, happy gaming

To keep your PC running at its maximum potential (and low heat), you have to keep your PC’s “insides” clean from dust, hair and anything else that could have gotten into your case. The best way to keep your PC clean is to blow the dirt out with a can of compressed air. Don’t use a vacuum as it creates static and don’t blow on your PC’s components with your mouth, as your breath contains moisture.

Recommended reading: Game Smarter – 4 House Cleaning Tips to Improve Performance

8. Don’t bother with a Steam Controller

The Steam Controller “might look futuristic and cool, but it is not as effective as you might think it is”, even though it is built entirely by robots. For games you want to use a controller on, rather use the Xbox One or PS4 controller.

9. Nvidia GPU user experience

If you are running an Nvidia graphics card, go to their website and download the GeForce Experience software. The software will keep your GPU’s drivers up to date at all times. You can also optimize individual games within the software so that your games can run at the optimal graphics setting for your GPU.

10. Get up from time to time

Playing games on your PC is glorious and enthralling to say the least. However, you should always remember to get up and move around from time to time. “It is legitimately unhealthy to sit for long periods of time without moving your body. It can result in heart disease and even limbs that don’t function properly due to blood circulation loss”.

11. Play with your settings

Regardless of which hardware you use, for example AMD or Nvidia GPU’s, don’t be afraid to play around with your in-game settings to get the best possible performance out of your hardware.

12. Install mods

Some games are just better on the PC due to high quality mods and a brilliant modding community. For example, Fallout 4 gets better by the day with new mods you can use to add cool features to the game or even increase graphical quality. Read my colleague Han Cilliers’ article posted earlier today entitled “A look at 2015’s Top 10 Mod Of The Year Winners”.

13. Get yourself a gaming mouse

A decent mouse will reduce input latency so your actions will register faster. It might not be that important for a single-player game, but for multiplayer games such as CS:GO where success or failure rests heavily on twitch reactions, a good gaming mouse will make all the difference. Further, you “should always disable the Mouse Acceleration” option in the game you are playing.

14. Open your mind to different genres

You will notice that PC games span a wider variety than consoles. For example, MOBAs and strategy games which are almost exclusively on the PC. The reason being that a mouse and a keyboard is just so much better when it comes to these two genres. Don’t be afraid to check out a genre you are unfamiliar with, it might just become your new favorite game type to play.

15. Check out

It can be a lot of fun just watching professional eSports players or gaming personalities play on However, you can also stream your gameplay sessions yourself, which can be pretty satisfying as viewers can comment and give you feedback. If you do manage to get a lot of followers, you can also make a large sum of money just by playing games! For our local audience, I would also suggest backing South African streamers.

16. Don’t bother with “gamebooster apps”

Actually, stay away from them altogether. For one, they don’t work. You can do more by just using your windows task manager and “ending” some unnecessary processes that take up a lot of resources. “In some cases, gamebooster apps can even get you banned from Steam, as they can be interpreted as a hostile program”.

17. PC Exclusives

There is always a lot of talk surrounding exclusives when an argument arises about which console is best. You should know that PC gaming also has a plethora of exclusive titles, for example Dota 2, World of Warcraft and League of Legends, played by millions of gamers worldwide.

18. Watch out for the ports

Some PC gamers detest console ports and rightly so. Some ports are well done (check Steam reviews before buying) while others make the news as some of the biggest failures on the PC, for example the Batman: Arkham Knight debacle.

19. Groups and message board

I mentioned earlier that Steam has great community features such as groups. Use those groups and message boards to find more people to play with and friends to share your experiences with. Not only will you become part of a game’s community, but you can also find guides to help you through difficult aspects of a specific game. For our local readers, check out our article entitled: “Where to find SA Steam Communities”

20. PC gaming isn’t all that expensive

One argument that comes up a lot from console gamers is that PC gaming is very expensive. Yes, it is true that you can spend a lot of money on a gaming rig, for example a GTX 980 Ti will set you back around R15,000. However, you do not need a GPU like that to enjoy games on the PC, as entry level budget cards can reach the same performance as a console.  “You can spend around the same amount of money (as a console would cost) on building a PC that is better than a console.”

If you take all the amazing bargains on games into account, you might even save money in the long run. Further, you have to pay a subscription to play online on a console, while with PC gaming you can play online for free. Read our article entitled “Affordable SA PC builds to play 2015’s AAA games” to find some great ideas for a PC build

Make the Boring Stuff Fun

Taking the advice from past issues, I have switched sides of the screen. I will still be gaming twice a month, once as GM and now once as player.

We had our first session two weeks ago. It is a D&D 4E game and I am playing a wizard. Our characters are members of a special guard force called the Red Sashes, and we operate in an eastern setting based on Turkey.

The game opened with us getting sent to the city of Rask and assigned to an agent there. Upon arriving he greeted us with hostility, telling us to go back and leave the city alone.

We were steadfast though (it was a cool roleplaying challenge) and we squeezed an assignment from our reluctant handler. He told us to investigate reports of tentacled creatures near a town about two days away. Well played, GM, as it got us to leave the city anyway. 🙂

We journey to the town and roleplay some info gathering from residents. We learn a few things, choose a direction and head out. Our destination is the crash zone of a Far Realm object (meteor).

At the site we spot a hole in the earth the object made when it impacted. Cautiously we enter and encounter numerous chaos creatures. The battle is a good one, with the creatures using crystal growths to recharge and a deep stream for physical separation and tactics.

Our new group learned a few ways to work together, and we finished the session with victory over the warped creatures. Great pacing.

A side quest we picked up along the way was to discover the fate of an elven lady’s father, a merchant who had gone missing en route to this area. Unfortunately, we discover his body in the cave, half eaten by the creatures. We give the body a proper burial and then head back to town.

It was great to be playing again. The one thing I noticed was how much players are willing to meet a GM halfway (or more) on details when those details are still uncertain.

As a first session using a game system we haven’t played in a year in a new homebrew setting, the GM did a great job thinking on his feet. Especially when we did some investigation. As a player, I was content with meta answers like, “I do not know, but your character receives a few facts that are not pertinent to his quest.” And at other times, I was pleased to offer details and have the GM decide to use some of them.

So GMs, I think we should give our players more credit and give them honest answers instead of blocking answers. We should also be good listeners and take what players offer us, instead of bearing the tough burden of having to create everything ourselves all the time.


“The trees before you are impenetrable. There’s no way you can travel further in this direction. And to the north is a tall mountain range – do not even think about going there.”


“I do not know, but your character receives a few facts that are not pertinent to his quest.”


“I do not know, but your character receives a few facts that are not pertinent to his quest. Please write a few ideas for me on this index card.”

Know More About Game Master Tips & Tricks

I am doing more planning than I have for years. Over the decades that I’ve been running games, I’ve become more comfortable with improvisation. I know my settings and stories well, and this has always resulted in fun games.

Two factors have changed my thinking. First and most important, several other GMs have emerged to run games, so we now rotate our stories. This pushes me to use my time well as the storyteller. It also regularly exposes me to other GMs’ stories and techniques, much more than I’ve ever had in my gaming experience.

Second, I’ve prepared some of my game’s material for publication, and this pushes me to be clear, brief and engaging in my development and writing.

All of this improves my game in countless ways, and I’m having more fun than ever!

Mistakes Are Not The End Of The World

From Tristan Knight


2010 marked my return to PNP gaming after a 15 year absence (and several aborted attempts in the interim). Despite having previously tried to get involved, I’d never managed to get a campaign up and running, either as a player or GM. Finally, my girlfriend decided she wanted to learn D&D, and I took the opportunity to dive into 4th Edition D&D.

I started thinking where I wanted the new game to go. With a small group (just my girlfriend and me at the outset) I decided we’d need some more characters, so I create a DMPC to help increase the party size.

A bit of work laid things out as thoroughly as I felt was possible, and I threw together a quick encounter to teach my girlfriend the rules of the game. She picked the rules up quickly, got a handle on tactical play in a matter of three rounds of combat, and pulled off a fantastically deft use of her eladrin ranger’s Fey Step power (though she botched the follow-up attack – the dice were not friendly that evening). And she was instantly hooked.

The next week brought another session and the creation of a major NPC. The week after, a second player joined the game. She had heard about my campaign concepts and I convinced her to play.

I made a few mistakes along the way: bungling rules, screwing up initiative, misinterpreting the use of powers and generally making a hash of the game. And yet the players loved it. They rarely caught my slip-ups without my mentioning it. They never knew until after the fact how I’d improvised parts of the game sessions. I’d spent hours kicking myself for making mistakes when none of it mattered.

So that’s the biggest lesson I learned: it’s okay to screw up. As long as the players enjoy themselves (and you don’t make too many mistakes) that’s the important thing. Even if you inadvertently make an encounter a little too tough and a PC nearly dies, you can turn a corner and make that former enemy into an interesting ally.

Now I’ve got about three hours before tonight’s session, so it’s time to prepare for our first game in three weeks…and remind myself that mistakes aren’t the end of the game – sometimes they can be a beginning.

Thanks for all the advice in RPT, and enjoy your games and the New Year.

From RND(axe)


The best thing I learned about GMing this year is to go big and let things happen. I think other GMs in your newsletter have described it as “don’t say no.” In other words, I don’t let my initial idea or written chapters of an adventure get in the way of the real adventure. And I don’t let the rules details get in the way of a great story effect.

To illustrate, I was GMing d6 Star Wars and the climax of the campaign came down to a retelling of the battle over Endor. I was pleased to say I fixed the canon of Lucas’ Xwing fighters jumping through hyperspace on their own without an aircraft carrier (the silliest mistake I ever saw) and all the players had no problem with the various fixes I made to the classic storyline.

The characters had duped the Emperor into his own doom over Korriban, and then set out to impersonate him on the new Death Star, thus setting up the DS2’s own weaknesses, which led to its destruction (and the saving of many worker slaves’ lives in the process).

Then, to my surprise, they invaded the Executor and confronted Darth Vader and the recently-fully-turned-Dark Luke Skywalker, slaying both of them and saving the Republic for its rebirth.

Grand heroism and great story were the watchwords those days. “You can’t do that” never passed my lips.

Allow heroism to take place and don’t let the rules or the mechanics get in the way of a great storytelling and a great night of play.

Return to Contents


2. Creating Emergent Stories

From Mark of the Pixie via the GMMastery Yahoo! Group

I tend to set a detailed starting scene, and have a few rough ideas of possible milestones and a handful of vague types of endings.

I find this focuses on the PC actions and choices – they determine the ending – but it helps make it a story worth telling. (I find some overly PC driven stories end up getting repetitive, devolving into long and dull shopping trips. Or they get dominated by the loudest player. But that might just be due to a minority of my players skewing things.)

The session might start with the kidnapping of the PCs’ secretary by a detailed NPC villain for a well reasoned purpose (the $500,000 ransom demand is a ruse to cover the blackmail of her scientist father to provide a military prototype weapon).

This is probably done in medias res with the PCs shooting it out with the hired thugs as the black sedan drives off with her in the boot. (About a paragraph of notes.)

I will then have a few possible milestones, whether NPCs or events (about one sentence each). NPCs may include a criminal snitch who owes the PCs a favour, a cop who is looking for any reason to arrest them, a PC’s ex-lover who is now an FBI profiler on the case, the victim’s oddly secretive father.

Events might be a ransom call, a ransom drop, confrontation with the father, a chase scene (with a helicopter), the gunfight at the R&D testing range.

Endings are vague and range from “money, gun and secretary gone” to “money, gun and secretary safe” with lots of options in between (just a few dot points or keywords).

The PCs might work out the villain’s plot and foil it. Or they might not. They might be happy to get the girl back safe and not find out about the gun till later.

The end of the story is up to them, but having thought about likely endings, I can quickly and easily tailor the one they end up with to be more dramatic. If I do get blind sided, (you put out a contract on the kidnapper?) I can take 5 minutes and work it through.

Having this sort of framework helps me do that faster. (He might decide it is a bluff and continue with his plan, only to get a rude surprise in a later session.)

Because I haven’t put a lot of emotion into the story going any one way, it’s easier for me to avoid railroading (I actually find it helps me encourage the PCs to take different options). By having a rough framework with multiple endings I can adapt quickly to changes in direction.

I also have a safety net in case the players are having a brain dead night, as I can suggest the next move, introduce an NPC or instigate an event. For example, if they flag and don’t know what to do next, rather than leave them bored I can have the FBI profiler call.

I also have a rough worse case scenario in mind (lose money and secretary, villain gets money and gun). I know a TPK or destruction of the world is unlikely, so I can plot future games safely.

I can also see the bleeding edges (unresolved things) that can be used for future plots. Maybe the cop gets some evidence on one PC and will later pressure them to become an informant. Perhaps the father sees them work and decides to recommend them for future jobs. Maybe the embers of the lovers’ relationship rekindle.

These help ensure a continuing game. For example, the next session starts with the PCs being called to a crime scene where a presidential candidate has been assassinated, but the police are stumped because no known gun can possibly shoot like this….

I do a similar thing for campaigns. Lots of work up front, then a bit of work in the middle bits, and vague handwavy bits for the possible endings. The work up front tends to be collaborative for PC backgrounds. I give them a general starting position, any limits imposed by setting and starting position (i.e. no mages, if it is a no magic world), then incorporate and intertwine their backgrounds and the setting.

I find it works well.

Return to Contents


3. Use Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs To Create Cultures

From Rikard Molander

The Pyramid of Needs has been mentioned in Roleplaying Tips before as a tool for designing NPCs. In brief, the hierarchy describes what needs people have, and in what order they seek to fulfill them. If people are hungry, they won’t bother so much about safety, for instance, because food has a more important place in the hierarchy.

Since this pyramid describes universal needs, it can be used for designing cultures and places just as well as it can people. If anything in the hierarchy is unavailable or hard to get to the locals, that should have a huge impact on the culture. For example, a shortage of water should have a huge impact on how a given culture behaves.

I find it’s especially good for designing exotic locations. Just take something from the hierarchy and consider how to fulfill that need in some unusual or exotic fashion. Below, I’ll list some considerations each step suggests.

Physiological Needs

Food and health usually fall on this list. Particularly, food is interesting. What do people in this culture, or on this location, eat?

Mundane examples include bread or rice, whereas a twist towards the exotic or strange might involve pieces of giant mushroom, or slime molds that grow inside eerie glowing caves.

Health is less applicable, but might bear consideration – are there hospitals, clerics, wise women?


How do people live and shelter themselves? What kind of protection do they enjoy? Is there a guard force, a group of mercenaries, must everyone fend for themselves?

Housing offers a great consideration to add cultural feeling. It gives a much different impression if locals live in mud huts, lumber cottages or houses on poles.

You can twist this for an exotic feeling – the most typical example being the elven city in the trees, where the elves have solved their need for safety and protection by elevating themselves above the ground.


What brings the community together? Is it a religion? A love for music or alcohol? A war-leaders’ banner?

Overall, this asks the question, “What do the people of this culture have in common, that outsiders don’t have?”

Turn this into a great plot device by marking PCs as complete outsiders, or give one PC the spotlight by having him blend in well (such as a bard in a culture that loves music) or poorly (such as a teetotaler in a culture proud of its taverns and fine wines).

To design exotic cultures, have people bond over something unusual. Perhaps locals are unusually fond of clothes and fashion, and even street beggars wear dyed clothes of good make. Or perhaps they are all addicted to a fashionable drug, and scoff at (or worse) anyone who doesn’t take it.


Similar to the belonging category above, but different in that this doesn’t ask what the people flock around, but what they admire and look up to, as well as what they strive for.

Sometimes, they can be the same. In a country fond of music, everyone seeks to write the next popular tune.

They can be different things, as well. A culture brought together by a religion that preaches peace and brotherhood might still have fondly admired war heroes. A culture of savage warriors might admire the best poets even more than they admire the strongest warriors.

For an exotic spin, pick something unusual that people admire and look up to. Perhaps wizards are viewed as sacred and worthy of great respect, or people with red hair are seen as marked by the gods.


This is a tricky category, as it’s highly individual and addresses spiritual satisfaction. It can be seen as a philosophy or a way of life.

In practice, though, you probably shouldn’t involve cultures who allow for self-actualization on a broad basis. Why? Because you want your cultures to be sites of adventure, places with problems that must be solved, ideally based on one of the previous four categories.

Perhaps the water supply is running out (physiological), the community is threatened by bandits (safety), there’s ideological or racial conflict (belonging), and so on.

If you find yourself looking at the previous four steps and not finding any problems there, reconsider involving the location in your adventure – there’s a high risk it won’t be very interesting.


4. Another Way To Make Plots For Your Game

From Logan Horsford

Grab a pen and 100 3″x5″ lined index cards.

Anytime you come across an idea – whether large or small, write it onto a card. The ideas can vary from part of a plot to a name or manner of an NPC. The ideas you have can be more specific to your campaign.

The more time you spend writing these cards, the more ideas come to you. Don’t forget the professional writers saying “write crap.” See:

Once you’ve gotten a whole bunch (say 100, though it can be done with less) of cards filled out with these notes, shuffle well and deal yourself a few.

Let’s try five. I am going to use my deck here to see what we can come up with.

  1. Advertising – strange dancing pandas.
  2. Situation – social class disparity.
  3. Corpse – come across a dead or dying man. He may say something useful before dying or his pockets may contain useful stuff. Good foreshadowing.
  4. Contact/Bad Guy – Mr. Wei (pronounced “way”); stupid bowl shaped haircut. Maybe he commands tcho-tchos in space!
  5. Hidden secrets.

Last step: begin to brainstorm how these things can be connected. Before reading on, try to figure out what you can make out of these five things. . . . . (I know you didn’t pause to think about it – nobody ever does – but I thought I’d give it a try.)

Perhaps the PCs come across a dead guy in a panda suit. Doing research on the suit can bring it eventually back to the commercial. Perhaps the weird pandas are advertising a new restaurant chain (owned by Mr. Wei) that serves the tcho-tcho ‘other other white meat’. (For those of you that haven’t played Call of Cthulhu, that’s human.)

From there, you have to answer several questions. Why was he killed? Why was he killed wearing the panda suit? Why do the PCs care if some restaurant is serving up human? Could that be where a buddy of theirs disappeared to? From whence are they collecting up the humans? Instead of just rounding up homeless people (too stringy), maybe there is some other way in which they get humans. If you want to prod the PCs some more, maybe they are going for the equivalent of veal.

We have moved from a few random ideas jotted on index cards to an idea for an entire plot, perhaps even an entire campaign depending on how big the whole plot is. The quality of your plot will depend upon the quality of questions you ask while writing it up.

That was a thirty second think for me to come up with that. I’m sure I could do better if I began playing with it and revising it a few times.

Unlike adventure seeds in modules and such the things you would make notes of were things that struck you as interesting enough to jot down. Believe me, the more stuff you write down on the cards (one idea per card!) the more cards you’ll quickly go through.

This idea can also be used (by especially crafty GMs) to GM on the fly. I don’t think I’m that slick myself, but I have heard of others who can do it

How To Run A Treasure Hunt

There is the type of game where you go to dangerous site, talk to the appropriate people, wander around, fight the monsters and come home with the treasure that’s just laying there. However, such games can be so much more than that. What I’m talking about is making the game more exciting, more thrilling. A treasure hunt can be an investigation – a hunt for information – for actual treasure or something intangible.

What key points should a good treasure hunt have?

1. A Good Treasure Hunt Should Have Multiple Parties Wanting What You’re After

These parties could be different political or religious points of view, different people wanting whatever the treasure is for whatever reason, or people who do not want the information to come out.

Each party should have their own viewpoints and reasons for wanting to find the treasure or keep it hidden.

For example, what would happen if, as in Dan Brown’s Novel The Da Vinci Code, it was proven there actually was a divine blood line of Jesus? What if aliens visited the earth and the gods are aliens that gave us technology and knowledge? What if the various conspiracy theories found in the Zeitgeist movie are true?

2. A Good Treasure Hunt Should Be Geographically Diverse

Look at the National Treasure movies, and Dan Brown’s multiple works, and look at the History Channel Cities of the Underworld. Each offers different geographical ideas and how to connect diverse things hat might not at first glance have any apparent connection.

You can hide treasure hints in statues, remote geographic locations, cities, books or even art for those who know what to look for and how to find it.

Such places might be guarded by physical, magical, technological or psychic means.

It is then up to the players to find a way around the obstacles faced to get what they need to get.

3. The Treasure Should Not Be Easy To Find, Understand Or Decipher

Clues should be available, but not readily known or noticed. If they’re widely known and others have all the pieces, why hasn’t the treasure (whatever it may be) have been retrieved by now?

It should take special knowledge or skills to decipher clues because they are so scattered. Players may go to a specialist or sage, only to be told incomplete or wrong information, or that someone else may have the knowledge they need.

Going to specialists might alert those that who also seek the treasure of its whereabouts and increase the danger. Furthermore, the specialists themselves or their families might be in danger.

4. A Good Treasure Hunt Should Have Wide-Reaching Consequences

Can you imagine how history would be different if Nixon was able to silence or prevent the Watergate scandal? Could you imagine the ripples of consequences if aliens were proven to have interfered with human history? What happens if the evil overlord gets the crown of divinity? What happens if the scepter of undead control ends up wrong hands?

5. A Good Treasure Hunt Should Be Dangerous

But there always should be a way out if the participants think about it long and hard enough

This danger can be:

Social – failure to find treasure makes you to look like a fool, or defame you or your family’s name

Emotional – failure makes you feel very bad, lowers your confidence or even causes psychosis

Physical – guards and traps.

There should be time to think and adjust to get everyone out alive if a plan is enacted fast. The forces that wish to get it before you, or wish to prevent its discovery, can also be dangerous. They might do anything to prevent the PCs from completing their quest.

6. A Good Treasure Hunt Should Be Rewarding

Even if the treasure isn’t quite what you expected, it should be valuable and worth the adventure, if not materially, then in terms of character growth and development.

7. A Good Treasure Hunt Should Be Fun

Anything you should do for a game should increase the player’s enjoyment

Know 5 Non Epic Prophecies

Mystery, magic, the swirling of smoke above the oracular fire. Everyone loves prophecies, so why not throw a few into your games?

They can be anything from a bit of local color to the focal point of a story arc. And it’s this former function most people forget – not every word that passes your prophet’s lips must be the fulcrum on which fates are turned.

Here are five prophecies that range from the mild to the moderate, without ever setting foot in epic territory. You can use them in your campaign, or just use them as inspiration.

1. The nameless huntress will thrive during a rainstorm

The words came down from the oracle on a cold winter day. This was good news and bad, for rain wouldn’t come to the small village of Ordin for another two months. They had that long to figure out the prophecy, and that long to labor under its shadow. Few boons follow epithets like “nameless huntress.”

The elders debated, wondering what the words might mean. Fishers and farmers huddled around fires while the village hunters – all properly named – laid in extra stocks of meat against the uncertainty of the coming thaw. The first winds of spring were greeted with more anxiety than joy.

Finally, it happened. The spring rain began – and did not end. The storms raged for days, and the river overflowed its banks. The muddy waters carried fish, flotsam – and disease. The tainted water seeped into basements and wells, fouling food and water alike. One villager after another succumbed to the sickness.

By the time the rainy season passed, not one house was unmarked with grief. The nameless huntress had come.

2. The compassionate duchess must not profit

He’d been against going to a seer for political advice from the start. Sure, sometimes they came up with catchy slogans, but mostly they confused everyone to the point where the peasants rioted and the nobility all stayed home and refused to vote. How was a person to win a council seat in an environment like that?

But no, his sister – his older sister, who’d worked on the consul’s campaign, and don’t you forget it – had insisted. He’d tried to argue for a private reading at least, but no, she’d said, the people will be suspicious of anything you say after that. What if they got a bad prophecy in public? Nothing’s so bad that you can’t spin it, she’d said.

And now he was stuck with “The compassionate duchess must not profit.” Having their candidate described as compassionate was great. That’s what the people wanted. Always an attribute that polled well. Except in wartime, of course, but the lands had been at peace for some time now. It was the “must not profit” bit that was the problem.

Did that mean no campaign contributions? Or just that she should spend them all? Did that mean it would be the worse for them all if she got elected? Or just that she’d have to restrain herself from kickbacks while in office? The latter interpretation was almost worse – no one voted for an honest noble. Too suspicious. Everyone knows, if they’re not taking bribes, they’re probably sacrificing babies to demons.

The compassionate duchess must not profit. How was he supposed to win an election with that?

3. The mad duke shall lope in the mountains

Some prophecies are opaque. Some are obscure. Some aren’t obvious until retrospect, and some, not even then. This was none of those.

My great-uncle was a werewolf. My grandfather was a werewolf. My father is a renowned trophy hunter with exotic pelts all over his walls who goes into offended coughing fits at the mere mention of the supernatural and is, unfortunately for all of us, the current duke.

Not that I think this prophecy means he’s a werewolf. Oh no. He’s one good illness away from being on permanent bed rest. At which point I, his eldest son, assume the title.

I guess I’d better start working on my howl.

4. She shall not return with the green lord on a journey

Hiking up the mountain is a dark, sweaty, dirty adventure. It’s dangerous, it’s uncomfortable, and it pays better than anything else this side of honest work.

Here’s how it works: the high priestess believes her wisdom is an ethereal, celestial thing. It should only be dispensed to those brave of heart and pure of soul, those who are willing to travel to the ends of the earth in pursuit of noble truths.

Here’s how it also works: the merchant caravans believe prophecies are handy things, and so they’ll pay silver to get them and gold to bring them back. Silver, if you undertake the risk and promise that they’ll have first shot at hearing whatever you find out. Gold, if you tell it to them exclusively. Never decide beforehand, because you never know what you’ll get. So lucky for us all that the high priestess is not also an empath.

Silver and gold there’s been before, but this prophecy is the one. This prophecy is platinum. “She shall not return with the green lord on a journey.” Does that mean the untested scion who is wooing the heiress? The queen who even now accompanies the young prince on a tour of his lands? Or could it be an obscure reference to the grain merchants, the chief of which is said to be looking for a partner in a new venture?

Either way, it’s important news. Platinum important.

5. The heliotrope skeleton will never yawn during winter

Dust. Dust, with tracks in it. But old tracks, older than the boots on my feet, boots passed down by my grandfather. Tracks so old they made you realize the dust must be older still. Layers of it.

It didn’t smell, didn’t make me sneeze. The biting cold drove all smell out of the mountain caverns, even the scents of moss and underground rivers. The moss was crumbling and black at this temperature, and I could almost imagine that even the hidden streams were frozen solid. I certainly was.

No one had traveled this way since my grandfather’s grandfather’s time. No one was sure the passage still existed. But the news I was bringing was important, and it couldn’t wait until spring.

We should have been able to cross through the mountain pass in our carts, like we usually did. Skeleton pass was named for the remains of the bandits who’d hung there in my father’s time. Before that, it had another name. Something to do with the flowers that dotted the mountain’s sides – violets, daisies and heliotrope.

That’s how we knew the ice and snow wouldn’t clear out in time this winter. Those fateful words might’ve befuddled the traveling gypsy fortune teller who’d traded a reading for a night’s board at the inn, but it was plain as day to us mountain folk. No one was getting through that pass until spring.

And that’s why I’m forging my way through ancient caverns by the light of a guttering lantern, following the boot prints into the depths.

Use Body Language For Better Storytelling

Anyone Use Hero Lab For Pathfinder?

I am using this great software to make NPCs for my Pathfinder game. And I am wondering if anyone else is using it for Pathfinder and if you wanted to trade NPCs? I’m not sure yet how to export and import characters, but there must be a way.

If interested, drop me an email. I only have a few NPCs crafted so far, but they are yours if we can figure out how to trade.

Seven Nations Session #2

Last Thursday, my Riddleport campaign was delayed due to player availability, so we got in a session of the 4E Seven Nations campaign my friend is running instead.

Players present: Dave, Jason, Johnn. GM: Colin.

We had just returned victorious from defeating chaos creatures at a comet crash site while questing for the lost arms merchant father of an elven lady. We cash in and decide to go back for more. We purchase a cart to haul back some big crystals and other potentially valuable items. Jason dubs this the Loot Sled. Soon after, it was renamed the Toro 5000 and it works by running it over treasure that then gets sucked up through the loot shoot into a catcher at the back. I guess we were giddy about playing, but we settled down after that.

A big battle ensues after going deeper into the comet site. It is a close battle. I receive pocket points for good tactics. Jason receives none. I suggest we hold back and weaken the enemy with ranged attacks, but Jason’s character Tryn charges in and manages to get teleported before the Stage Boss’s feet. We have to compromise our tactical advantage to save his hide. We get to Tryn, who is drowning in a pool of water, just in time. Pity. We Toro 5000 some crystals and leave.

On the way back to town we encounter an NPC we have been wanting to talk with: Ivian the Unpredictable. We tried to find him before but he was strangely not where he was supposed to be.

Ivian helps us with clues about the nature of the crystals and pays us a small amount of gold for selling him some.

Last session we hired a guide, Adnin. She costs 1 gold per day and does not fight, but it’s worth not getting lost and having a native help us work over the locals. (We’re a Good party, but we serve a higher purpose.) We convince Adnin to return with us to our headquarters for ongoing guiding services.

In case you missed the background on this campaign in RPT#511, we are members of The Red Sashes, a group part MI5, part FBI. We were sent to the city of Rask to help out a Red Sash leader – Bishan Sing – with some local problems. The first thing he said to us was he wanted us to leave. He hates our guts or our presence or both. Sounds to me like he’s got something to hide. I’m keeping my ears open. And that’s where Adnin comes in. She’s not a Red Sash, so she’ll have more freedoms and access to information sources than we will, as we have a pesky code to follow and all.

Our business in this smelly town done, we hightail it back to Rask and report to our handler, Bishan Sing. We’re instead greeted by his guard who starts pumping us for information. We say we only report to Bishan. He says he speaks for Bishan. I let him know he can speak to the back of my hand if he does not stop lying. He keeps trying, so we leave.

I’m curious where Bishan is. Before I can sniff around we get a new assignment. We’re to head to the elven forest of Sarabask. Raiders are attacking settlements but not stealing anything. Strange. I figure it’s a territorial or resource dispute. Looks like Bishan is safe from my prying….for now.

We equip ourselves, shedding desert gear and donning forest apparel. We swap camels for horses and leave, Adnin guiding.

Within a few days we reach a large settlement near the forest. We report to the local Red Sashes and ask for news about the raids. No useful information there, so we head into the thick forest.

As we enter one particular clearing we’re attacked by snipers using the forest edge for cover. Before I can say let’s target one sniper nest at a time, the group splits up. Trynn goes left, Bront the dragonborn warrior goes right. Adnin hits reverse. That leaves me in the middle holding my staff.

The battle is another close one. Divide and conquer works both ways, and once we’re able to close with our respective opponents and make them get into hand-to-hand it becomes a contest of stamina. Fortunately, my spells help delay my foes long enough from slitting my throat and my comrades arrive to finish them off.

We ended the session with one prisoner and a good idea of what we’re facing: some power or effect is giving elves in the forest brain blenders, making them crazy and aggressive.

It seems simple to me: next session we interrogate the prisoner, find the source, confront and destroy it. Then we can return to Rask so I can find out what Bishan’s been up to.

Quote of the session: “The best armor class is someone else’s armor class.” – Dave.

Get some RPG played this week!

Johnn Four


If you GM with props and aids that represent in-game content, then start with your most restricted design element and grow your design around that.

For example, if you like to have NPC portraits or graphics, then instead of designing the NPC first and questing everywhere for the perfect picture, start with the picture and create the NPC around that.

This works for all kinds of design inspiration:

  • Sound effects
  • Theme songs for villains
  • Maps
  • Pictures of scenes
  • Pictures of locations
  • Monsters

I do the last one often. I start by flipping through the monster book until I land on a critter that catches my interest. Then I design in-game encounters based on the monster entry.

My preference is to start with the fluff. That brings the good work of monster designers to full fruition in my campaigns. Environment, groupings, lair preferences, treasure type – all this can feed into world building, adventure design and encounter formation. Legends, events and rumours based on this information feed plot hooks and encounter hooks, or just fun campaign background noise.

Sometimes I do need a straight-up combat encounter, and unless I know the time and location, I will pick a monster of sufficient difficulty at random and start forming the encounter around that.

The spirit of this tip advises you to begin designs with your biggest restriction and work outwards from that. It makes things faster and easier for you.


By Scott J. Compton

Body language helps tell the story. It paints the picture in your mind’s eye about the non-verbals occurring in a scene alongside the five senses.

Good storytellers often talk about an event with a grimace on their face, the raising of an eyebrow or a cold stare. These theatrics sell the story. They create a compelling visual.

One of the most effective methods we have at our arsenal is emotional expression via non-verbals. If you go into a scene thinking about what emotion is desired, it can be helpful to know what non-verbals go along with it. For gameplay situations, it can be helpful to hide an emotion until a key moment appears, so that a plot point can be revealed when a player asks the correct question or causes an NPC to react.

Luckily, we game masters don’t need to think too much about our non-verbals because they just happen. If we are more aware of our non-verbals, we can make great improvements telling our story or being involved in the story as a player.

Gestures are more effective for players to gauge the truth about a role-played situation. Words often mislead, so the great storyteller uses non-verbals to drop hints and reveal things on a subtle basis without outright saying them.

This is rewarding to players. They saw through the deception of words, and understood how to tackle a situation by the non-verbals expressed. I encourage you to go to a place like Youtube and search for specific communication techniques to see how you can be effective with the type of character’s attitude you are trying to portray.

It can also be helpful to write down a few common non-verbals in each category below to keep the character non-verbally in-character when you roleplay.

Eye Responses

The cliché rings true, “the eyes do look into the soul of the person” – or in this case – the PC or NPC. The eyes alone can be the most powerful of all non-verbals.

  • Gazing is a common technique to stare-down a character to gain a dominant position by burning a hole through the player, or showing hatred – good for evil NPCs just before a battle. Likewise, shifting the eyes away or putting something over the eyes to shy away from a character shows dishonesty or the desire to get away from another.
  • If you want a PC to befriend an NPC, start by shying away at first, then increasing eye contact over time to make the player feel something meaningful was created.
  • Roll your eyes to show arrogance, boredom or disapproval.
  • Demonstrate amazement by widening the eye-lids quickly (usually along with a body flinch).
  • Raise your eyebrow to show curiosity.
  • Raise both eyebrows to indicate confusion or bewilderment.
  • Droop your eyes to indicate tiredness or sickness.
  • Look down when roleplaying sorrow.

In some video games and animated cartoon series, animators have created eye charts that show positions of the eyes to communicate an emotion. Google “facial expression chart” to see examples.

Facial Gestures

Many facial gestures primarily use the mouth, lips, cheeks and forehead to gauge emotion and truth. (I consider the eyebrows and eyelids as part of the eye-gesture category).

Facial gestures have a wide range and can be too subtle to be used alone (without other non-verbal or verbal support) to drop a hint to players. Typically, a facial gesture is used along with an eye-gesture, hand or body gesture.

A good movie scene that comes to mind that uses lip gestures is Hal watching a conversation between two astronauts in 2001: A Space Odyssey. If you scrunch your mouth, jaw and face into different positions as you read this, you’ll discover forgotten expressions instantaneously because you are thinking about what you’re doing.

Consider what expressions you want to communicate on behalf of your PCs or NPCs.

Neck Responses

Many overlook tilting of the neck as a means of communication.

  • Push the neck to one side to indicate a character is hearing something secretive from another.
  • Shake and nod your head to show approval or disapproval with different degrees.
  • Nod too much to show that a character is so convinced and won-over it does not really matter at all what a character is saying.

Hand and Arm Gestures

This category is a language of itself that is commonplace among animators. Think of these non-verbals as poses, motions and transitions from one motion to the next. For instance, let’s say a character is angry but doesn’t want to show it. The GM could have a conversation with the players with a fake smile while gripping both hands together tightly in disgust and then wringing them as the conversation continues.

You can communicate many things with your hands. Here are three major signs:

  • Fold your arms around your body to shield away others.
  • Open arms for happiness and welcoming.
  • Touch your face for many types of distance-responses such as signaling it’s okay to come forward, stay put or back up.
  • In Fantasy RPGs, you can make use of casting magic spells too, which adds to the unique flavor.

Body Gestures

Posture is a primary focus in this category to show the overall mood of a person. Like a marionette, the game master can act out how an NPC appears as characters approach.

From a distance, it can also provide interesting strategic information such as:

  • Pacing in front of a gate
  • Looking to and from
  • Sleeping
  • Slumping down over something
  • Looking up into the sky
  • Dodging left or right
  • Walking then sprinting repeatedly to indicate fleeing away

You might even want to try something new by acting out an entire scene without saying a word. This often creates unique role-played experiences by having players guess why the NPC is not speaking.

Distance Proximity

Many GMs like to sit behind their screens, but moving in and out of spaces can be a very effective means of communication. It’s easy to back away or hide around a corner to indicate what you wish.

However, approaching another player at the table can be intimidating, though if players know it’s all in good fun and told in advance, then it can be allowed. It’s easier to do this when you are good friends with the players at the table, but it needs to be clear to them that you’re acting in character so they won’t feel weird about it.


Obviously, it’s easy to impersonate verbally, but most of us forget that we impersonate many objects, special effects and events non-verbally. It can be helpful for players to gauge the size of things by using non-verbal impersonations.

Imagine describing a column of smoke rising into the air. If the GM opens up his arms and then stands up from the table, it can be a helpful way to paint in a player’s mind the magnitude and importance of the smoke.

Similarly, pulling the hands together into a tiny ball can help to show that something is being concealed or something is contracting inwardly.

One of my favorite impersonations is that of murals or statues in game settings to show meaningful poses. Often, the GM uses a mural as part of a gameplay puzzle when players just are not getting the hint. However, when the GM actually shows the pose, such as an outstretched arm pointing to something else, it can be an effective hint for players to look at what the painting is pointing at.

Tone Differences

The pitch and volume of speech changes as a conversation unfolds. It can be helpful in situations to know if a character is winning or losing, or what has changed. It can also be effective to hear if a person is out of breath, whispering or shouting.

Tone Cadence and Pauses

The speed of speech often indicates meaning and intelligence behind the words. Play around with speaking faster or slower, or putting in meaningful pauses to drive home a point.

Sound Effects

My friends tell me that I use sound effects all of the time. I do not need to go into depth here because most of us who play RPGs have a culture of using sound effects from our childhood and bringing them into the game.

Aside from thruster sounds, laser strikes, sword clashes, thuds and other bangs, it can be easy to forget about other effective, more basic sounds to express emotion.

  • An occasional nose sniff or sigh shows sadness
  • Clearing of the throat or a whistle can be a cue to start a combat attack
  • A rising or falling tone can describe many in-game events such as an incoming arrow from above or something lifting out a dark chasm

Clothing Props

Slinging on clothing helps enhance what is desired. Having a long piece of scrap clothing at a game is effective as a sash, veil, hat, cap or belt.

You can also use it to demonstrate tying rope or in rogue-like situations when hiding behind around a corner or even coming up behind to choke with a cord.

In my years of GMing, I don’t ask too much of my players in regards to their acting styles and non-verbals. Each personality is different and the last thing you want to do is intimidate a player by making him or her feel uncomfortable.

Tell your players you will use non-verbals at times to make them feel more comfortable if you act out something they might not expect. As a campaign unfolds after each adventure, players that stick around often warm-up to the gaming group and might even start character acting without knowing it.

As long as the GM and players do not expect everyone at the table to role-play, the weight is lifted so each player can enjoy their characters the ways they want for every situation. Putting players on the spot can kill games because a shy player who sees it happen might think, “Oh no, when is the GM going to turn to me and put me on the spot?”

By far, the table top role-playing game offers the most imaginative way to tell an interactive story. Because everything expressed can be written and mentally conveyed with imagination, I have recently rediscovered PBEMs.

Even though we cannot see the game master’s face or hear the tone differences, a PBEM offers the ability to write a story that paints expressions in our mind’s eye. The written language can cover these aspects if the GM considers non-verbals in his or her email posts

Players Do not Care About Your NPC

I don’t care what my players think about an NPC as long as there is some kind of emotion. Whether my group hates an NPC, laughs at or with them, is saddened by them, or gets irritated by them, there’s at least an emotional connection.

The worst case is an NPC gets met with apathy. No emotion. Like a cure light wounds roll when you’re just down one hit point.

So forming an emotional connection between players and NPC is important.

To that end, here are 10 common GM mistakes and reasons why your players don’t care about your NPC.

  1. NPC can’t be killed. The NPC who escapes harm every time isn’t worth caring about.
  2. NPC is just a skill personified. They are a one-trick goblin pony only regarded for their utility.
  3. NPC shows no vulnerability. Stress, loss, wounds, break-ups. Those without vulnerability are shunned.
  4. NPC gets more GM love than the PCs. Avoid having pet NPCs who drive the action and get the spotlight.
  5. No reaction. The NPC is scripted and doesn’t change or react to the PCs. Example, a cardboard NPC that’s always just a pompous paladin.
  6. Alien. The NPC is too hard to figure out. There’s no common values, relatable traits, or anything to bond with.
  7. Just a plot hook. You can’t see the golden exclamation mark floating over their head, but it’s there and the players know it.
  8. NPC doesn’t roleplay. As GM, you run them third person, meta. The players can’t interact with them in-game, in first person.
  9. NPC is a cartoon. Every barkeep is burly, quiet, and cleaning a mug. A quick skill check should knock a hook out of him and then the players can be on their way.
  10. One touch. The NPC is a throwaway character. He’s just filler and not even worth whacking for the XP.