Law enforcement in fantasy games presents GMs with a dilemma.
a) Do you let the guards do their jobs, which means most PCs will soon get into trouble and must duck and cover or fight the guard at every turn?
b) Do you let the PCs run rampant, causing murder and mayhem, and risk breaking sense of disbelief (and your hopes and plans) because there are no consequences for breaking the law?
Spending every campaign in prison or on the run is the type of gameplay sentence you want to avoid. Here are the best ways I know how to factor in town guards while still giving PCs freedom to play their style of game.
1. Incompetent And Corrupt
The guard is unable to do their job effectively because they have no training or skill, or because they have a selfish agenda of abusing their authority to achieve personal gains.
PCs get away with most of their actions because the guards are too busy serving their own ends. Alternatively, PCs escape notice or capture because the guards are so incompetent.
There is great gaming potential in such an environment!
Leader hires incompetent guards for his own evil purposesA blend of corruption and bumbling, someone has the ability to only hire those who will not interfere with their larger agenda. The leader figure could be the head of the whole city, the head of the guard, or just a bureaucrat who screens candidates.
This option gives you an instant plot hook too, should you choose: save the city from the corrupt leader. First step would be finding out where the corruption lies. Next step would be to learn how the leader is doing it and how he is getting away with it. Third step would be getting proof, catching the leader red handed, or removing the leader from power.
Such steps fit into the three act structure nicely, if you choose. Should the PCs confront the leader without ending things immediately, they just tip him off. This creates great encounters and scenes, and puts new roadblocks in the PCs’ way.
Before launching this situation, figure out:
Who is the corrupt leader?
How do they manage to fill the ranks with bumbling fools?
What other authority figures must be involved to make this happen? (e.g. politicians, high-ranking guards, other guild leaders)
Why is the leader doing this? There must be some greater goal or plot afoot.
Captain Bennett, head of recruitment
Interviews candidates himself; only hires the weak and stupid; ensures the trainers themselves are unskilled; shortened training to two days; pushes reports upwards that only the poor, stupid and unwilling ever apply to be guards, so the pool of choices is always limited.
So far, the Captain has had little trouble convincing his bosses that only poor candidates ever apply to become guards. The head of the merchants guild filed so many complaints about the law enforcement incompetence, it was getting hard intercepting her each time. Plus, she has made several astute guesses. So, he offered her a monthly cut in exchange for greater access to merchant guild resources.
The Captain works for the campaign villain, who would find it much more difficult carrying out dark plots if the guard were capable of detecting and interfering with them.
Pockets of honesty and competenceYou have the option to make key NPCs, guard units or sections within guard head quarters skilled and uncorrupt. You might do this to provide a bit of resistance to PC activities. The threat of some guard retaliation might keep players from burning the whole city down in the first session. 🙂
In addition, lots more plot and encounter potential opens up if there is conflict within the law enforcement establishment.
Guards are disorganized, under-funded and under-staffedA great setup if you just want a quick method to knock the guards out of your campaign so the PCs can do their thing without much interference, while still offering a logical reason why the guards have not locked them up yet.
Bureaucracy, budgets, leadership priorities, health of the economy and government, and cultural factors can supply you reasons why the guards do not get better equipment, training and support.
For example, the city of Riddleport in my campaign is a gentrified pirate city that has carried on a tradition of contempt for central authority. Despite the danger, older families and guilds prefer a lawless environment so they can carry on the way they’ve always done under the philosophy of “might makes right.”
Guards are cowardsAnother type of incompetence, this option could explain why the PCs can wage fights in the streets, break into places without recourse, and intimidate the locals. Who will stand up to them?
It’s not believable every guard in the city hasn’t the backbone to do their job and arrest the PCs, but this reason could work in the district the characters tend to operate in, leaving the party free to act like typical PCs.
PCs can bribe guards easilyAn excellent option that gives the excuse you need to prevent the campaign from turning into an ongoing PC manhunt. If the PCs get into trouble, they can just open their purse strings and buy their way out of an arrest, sentence, or in the worst case, jail.
This option gives you the bonus of siphoning away PC treasure. It becomes a new expense for them. The great thing is the PCs choose to commit the crimes, so bribing guards becomes a choice as well, if not a deliberate strategy.
Consider creating a list of crimes, and instead of the usual table of punishments, note the expected bribe amounts instead. Whether you choose to share this with the players or not, it will help you keep bribes consistent.
You might also create individual guards who charge more or less and who are more or less reliable. This gives you variation on bribe rates, seeds for new NPCs and potential plot hooks. For example, perhaps the guard who takes smaller bribes to look the other way also reports the characters’ activities to a senior officer for a bonus.
2. Get Player Agreement Up Front
Before the campaign begins and characters are made, have a discussion with your group. Decide how law enforcement will work in the setting and how it will affect gameplay. Let the players help you create this aspect of the game. Hopefully this produces a result the group can live by and play by when the campaign starts.
What kind of adventures do you want to DM?
What kind of adventures do they want to play?
What kind of adventurers do they want to play?
Be sure to represent the world-building point of view, that the players are unlikely to have, where the setting will be full of people who need to live by the decisions the group makes.
Sure, it is fun and easy to want to play heroes who can do what they want without any consequences. But what has stopped others from doing the same in the past, causing strife, misery and tragedy? Surely a society would take actions to prevent this from happening again.
By having this discussion at the beginning of the campaign you can formulate a world around the desires of the group.
For example, the players remain adamant they want to be unhindered by law enforcement. Two options of many come to mind:
Option #1: Create a warlord environment with an unsophisticated legal system. There are no guards, just agents of the warlord, and the warlord decides punishments. The PCs are safe unless they commit some major crime.
Option #2: Give the characters law enforcement powers. This solves many small game issues handily, and gives you a handy campaign platform as a bonus.
As you can see, both options have a profound impact on a campaign.
In addition, deciding this up front helps inform players what kind of characters they should create. I think this is where most campaigns fall down in terms of handling guards. The group creates PCs near the beginning of the process, which is like putting the cart before the horse. Or worse, players create characters outside the process, and they just show up to the first session with no idea of your plan, and everyone hopes things magically gel together. Either way, characters will be at odds with the setting, campaign and adventurers the game master has planned.
The solution is to discuss law enforcement before characters are created, as part of campaign planning from the beginning.
If you are mid-campaign there is still hope. If guards are a current headache for you, have a group chat immediately. Discuss the situation to get the group’s preferences. Once everyone agrees on the law enforcement style they would like, you need to make some changes.
Start with the characters. Continuing the discussion, ask the players how their characters will adapt to the group decision. This might require character personality tweaking, background changes, and motive changes. Players might need to reframe their character’s point of view a bit so they are in sync with what everyone decided they wanted gameplay to be like.
Next, tackle the setting. Make necessary changes so the law enforcement style and presence matches what everyone’s new expectations are. With character and setting changes planned out, you will need to update your adventure.
Make quick and seamless changes right away. Make bigger changes that can be done without requiring retroactive gameplay. Players will not care if you change game world history that they have not learned yet, for example, though you might need to update NPC backgrounds and motives as a result.
For changes that are big and visible I suggest running encounters to play them out. For example, the PCs stumble into a deadly fight between guards and the villain’s minions. If the PCs help the minions, then the guards who had a grudge, proof, or pending charges against the PCs are slain. Assuming no witnesses, problem solved. If the PCs help the guards, then out of gratitude the guards become friendly to them, drop the charges, and tend to look the other way in the future.
3. Make Them Allies
Guards friendly and sympathetic to the PCs make many of your headaches go away. This is one of my favourite campaign options. If the guards are friendly, likely the PCs will be more law abiding, or at least more cooperative.
Have the guards offer an olive branch. They must make the first step as the PCs likely will not. This is understandable because the players do not know what to expect from the game world, so the characters will be cautious or even hostile. Perhaps the guards summoned to the aftermath of an encounter chat with the PCs in a professional and objective manner. Instead of arrests, they might offer warnings, or better yet, offer to help.
Not all law enforcement needs to be heavy-handed. From your perspective, you might want to curtail fireballs and slaughter in the streets from the start. You may be inclined to summon a company of competent guards to smack the PCs around a bit and teach them a lesson. As we know from experience, this never works.
Instead, try making the guards sympathetic to the PCs’ situation. They are just doing their job. They want what is best for the PCs, the town, and all the other citizens. “How can we make this work so you can continue fighting against Lord Maldor without burning the town down or putting anyone at risk?”
Such an approach makes the characters sympathetic to the guards, in turn. Often after such an encounter, the characters will factor more lawful thinking into their plans. If they do not, you have not lost anything. The guards can still respond in force in the future.
However, the opposite is far more difficult to accomplish. Guards that come off as hostile or jerks will get the PCs’ backs up. Future olive branches will get rebuffed. Chances for the PCs to behave better because they have a friendly and productive relationship with law enforcement are zero.
We come now to my favourite option for handling guards in campaigns: factions. While not suitable for every campaign or setting, Balkanised law enforcement gives you the greatest range of options. There is no central authority, or if there is it is no more powerful than other factions. Instead, the environment is such that might makes right.
Regional leaders dictate the law. Enforcement style is based on the philosophy and resources of each faction. Characters can get away with a lot in such a setting, yet there can still be consequences for running amok.
If PCs do get into trouble with a faction, they can just change locations so they are out of arm’s reach. Incursions into a hostile faction’s territory offer exciting and dramatic gameplay, but the PCs do not have to be on the run for the whole campaign this time. They just need to return to neutral or friendly territory, and this territory could be as large as one side of town or a small as a neighbourhood block.
This type of setting also gives you a chance to learn more about your players. You can offer up a number of different types of law enforcement and see what works and what does not.
Players also get more strategic options, should they choose to exercise them. They can play factions off against each other, form alliances and ruin relations between factions to make areas easier to adventure in.
Faction play requires more work on your behalf, but it could be just the thing to solve your guard problems.
1. Create Events And Timeline
Designing a campaign can be so overwhelming that GMs prefer to make it up as they go and hope they can somehow hold it all together. I have found simple tricks to make a light, simple campaign that is elegantly flexible but fleshed out just enough to maintain cohesion. Even when your players take the long way by making random choices or throwing out odd-ball suggestions, you’ll be ready.
Start by laying the groundwork for your game sessions with this checklist:
What major events happened in the past? What major figures – real, legendary or mythical – exist?
Example: There was a peaceful kingdom, ruled by a generous Queen, loved by all her people. One day, the kingdom came under attack and was taken over by a tyrant and his armies. Some say the Queen still exists, somewhere. Others say she is a ghost. Still others claim she has become some sort of enchantress: part human part wylde thing.
What major events are happening presently – and how might that affect or hook the PCs?
Example: Some say there is a rebellion and rebels plan to cast down the tyrant and the lawless, bloodthirsty people who follow him. Mayhap the PCs can join this rebellion and help. If they do, over time, they can progress through the ranks to lead and possibly become advisors to the new monarch.
Offer them a choice to join the rebellion. They can fight for freedom against tyranny, try to stay safe without taking sides while still looking out for themselves, or join the bad guys and fight the rebellion. Once the PCs decide, new choices emerge for you, such as helping, hindering, traveling to distant lands to escape this tortured kingdom.
What impact might the PCs have on the future of their world – and what choices does that mean you will have to give them as GM?
Example: The PCs can save the kingdom, become adventurers or mercenaries working for whoever pays them top-dollar,- or become part of the evil horde and work to take over the world.
Define the political system. This is critical. Is the country a monarchy, democracy, republic, anarchy, federation, feudatory? What is the judicial system and system of law and police like?
Example: Political System: Monarchy. Martial Law dictated by Dark Knights and the Corrupt Lords and Ladies.
Types of stories: Skirmishes, ambushes, rescues, and so on. In my example, the PCs could hunt rebels to take away their caches and resources. If they pick the evil side, they will also vie for power and struggle for survival. If they stay neutral, either type of story can work, possibly leading them out of the kingdom, bringing new adventures.
What is the terrain like? Desert, grass, charted, uncharted, mixed?
Example: This is the only known kingdom. It is surrounded by an almost impenetrable wilderness on the north and desert and glacier on the remaining three sides.
What is the time span of the campaign? This is critical. Sometimes we forget that things like travel and getting things to progress will take time. So it’s possible that weeks, months, seasons or years can go by while required background events happen off-screen. The PCs come on when the interesting bits happen.
Example Campaign Time Span: 5-10 years, either the tyrant is unseated, or not.
2. Design The Campaign Plot
Now you know the basics of what has happened, what is happening and where it could potentially go.
You know the most important choices you will give players, and you are still open to possibilities players may offer for how to explore this world and its story, and you can still keep your campaign on track. Right now you have just a few rough notes. You have to craft them into a vehicle for an actual campaign. I suggest you keep these as short as possible, and let the detail come in during actual session play. I break this campaign plan down into five steps. More gets too detailed, less isn’t detailed enough.
Step 1: The PCs either enter into this kingdom, or get the offer to join the rebels, because they’ve got enough of a reputation or are perhaps related to someone and are considered to be a potentially viable asset. They make friends and enemies depending upon which side they choose. What groups and leader they deal with is based on their choice.
The PCs do some light legwork, which lets them get a feel for the world and the people in it. They learn about the problems that it faces – shortages, violence, thieving, oppression, festivals, or whatever you want to populate it with as GM. Experiencing the world in play through adventuring will ground the PCs in the game world reality, and give them a bias for or against different things based on their characters’ reactions to what they experience and witness.
Step 2: While the PCs are pursuing their agenda, the resistance is ticking off the tyrant, who is hunting anyone who might be related to them or helping them. There is a rumor of underground smuggling of those who have their faces up and have been identified by the police/Lords/Ladies. This underground helps any who seek escape.
The kingdom is falling into a shambles. There are refugees appearing in other untamed and uncharted lands. Leaders are needed in those areas: people like guides, explorers, and hunters. Yet those who choose to stay in or are unable to leave the kingdom still suffer.
Step 3: Someone in the outlands comes back and says they have found an almost magical stone that will make weapons unbreakable, and almost always strike critical areas. Others claim there are riches, but the animals are too wild or the lands too hostile. They want to come back to the kingdom and help the resistance. This has mixed results, because many are untrained peasants. And yet someone else comes back and says there is a kingdom far to the north over a dangerous sea and that maybe diplomats should go and ask for help from this kingdom. A third party comes back and clams there is a desert fortress, empty except for the singing of its warrior ghosts. If they can but find a magician or some means to entice these ghosts to join the fight against the tyrant….
Step 4: News comes that the tyrant and his people came from the east and there are more of these barbarians there, and they plan to rule the world. With this new information, will the kingdom to the north help? People claim there are places where magic exists, and that some become magic when they go there, almost as if they drink it in. They claim a person can be magical for a while, but then they run out of magic and must return to these magical areas and refill their power. If this is true, this secret and these sacred sites must be hidden and protected from the tyrant and his people! Many say they have seen the Queen in the city and in various places all around the world. Is it true that her spirit lives on?
Step 5: This is where push comes to shove. By this time, the PCs have something to gain or lose, because the whole world is going to be at war. The barbarians are making their move. The northern kingdom may also fall under the reign of terror just like the southern kingdom. The rebels may help the north by attacking the barbarian’s eastern stronghold. They may fight the barbarians in the south because the barbarians can’t get any backup and they will be spread too thin. The PCs may add to the equation of these or any number of plans.
And the end? Well, you don’t write the end to the campaign, because it ends in play. Successes, losses, loves, hates, friends and enemies all have progressed through dynamic interplay. We do not outline what the PCs do. We outline what’s going on in the world, that which the PCs may interact with, or that which will affect them, give them opportunities, or maybe take opportunities away.
3. Outline The Most Important Groups
Finally, you outline the most important groups and their leaders.
The tyrant king of the southern city and his most favorite lords and ladies, generals/admirals, police and knights.
The rebels: members the PCs will interact with, and possibly even the leader if that information is shared with the PCs.
At least one enemy group of the PCs who will last throughout the entire campaign. Maybe they help the tyrant or the rebels, depending on the PCs’ choice of associates. Possibly both, if the PCs are free operatives. In this case, it could be a rival group of mercenaries.
And that’s really all you need to start.
Leaders and other people in these groups may disappear, be jailed, dethroned or killed, with the structure remaining in place. Perhaps the tyrant is poisoned by his horrible niece, and upon his death she takes his place on the throne. The barbarians are still in charge of the city.
Or the rebel leader is arrested. There is a huge capture operation based on information he gives up under torture, and many rebels flee the city, but the rebellion goes on.
Or the mercenary enemies take heavy casualties, and for some reason blame the PCs. Now the survivors are gunning for the PCs.
Make your cast dynamic. Characters may come and go for any number of reasons – they get lame, go insane, quit, and so on. In all likelihood, the groups will last long. Cast members may come and go, but if you introduce a group, you can reused it time and time again.
Be careful when introducing groups because they may help your campaign or work against it. Consider the five steps of your plot, what group will compliment your campaign, and when to bring in that group. You may need to drop a group at a certain step because it’s redundant at that point.
During play, don’t be afraid to change or drop a group if it’s not working. You can always introduce a new group or reintroduce an old one that works well.
Special individuals should be considered valuable or dangerous because of their unique status. They may belong to a group, be targets for assassination or capture, or be feted to join a group because of who they are, what they can do, what they know, who they know, or what they represent. Even if this person dies or disappears, their memory, teachings, lessons and influence may live on, for better or worse.
I hope these ideas help in your campaign.
For Your Game: 10 Unsettling Moment
Although Benjy the grey cat likes everyone else in the tavern, it hisses whenever a certain PC passes by.
The children start to sing a song about beheading whenever a certain PC enters the vicinity.
A strange smell follows one PC throughout the month, a pervasive graveyard stink that is commented upon behind his or her back by others.
Throughout the week, the same scarecrow seems to turn up in fields the PCs walk past.
How come the children’s nursery rhyme keeps referring to one of the PCs by name? And worse, why is the rhyme about eating slugs, bugs, and thugs?
The same face keeps appearing in crowds everywhere — a rotund, somewhat ruddy complexioned fellow with a huge, flat, red nose. Chug Hoppwell is actually the PC’s biggest fan, and takes great joy in following their exploits — he’s merely admiring them and has given up his job and home to see them in action as much as possible.
In the graveyard, the PCs each find a grave with their name upon it, most dating from the same year a century ago.
A seventh daughter of a seventh daughter claims she has seen one of the PCs in two distinct dreams she’s had. In the first dream, three things happen: he meets her, avoids her, and is then eaten by a huge six-headed crocodile at midnight. In the second dream, he meets her, marries her, and they live happily ever after. After telling her tale, she smiles toothlessly up at him.
The wicker men, whose numbers match those of the heroes, are “merely ornamentation” the locals claim…
The man in the ancient portrait in the Lord’s House does indeed look exactly like the character. His name? Deathly Lord Rache the Slayer of Innocents, the devil who swore to return.
Mythic Gods & Monsters Guide Coming Soon
Today’s tips celebrate a new guidebook I’m putting out soon for you called Mythic Gods & Monsters. You’ve seen excerpts in recent issues with the Mythic God Generator and Mythic Monster Generator.
I wanted a quick and easy way to create gods for the new sword & sorcery world I’m building, and to populate it with new, unique monsters that have great backstories. Thus, the Mythic Gods & Monsters Guide was born.
I’ll be sending you an email about how to purchase the guide in the next couple of days. Keep an eye out for it in your inbox.
Phandelver Campaign Reaches Climax
What do you do when you’re the last man standing, bleeding and nearly out of spells, and a floating green skull gives you a do-or-die one-time offer? That’s what happened to the Murder Hobos last night. Let’s find out what they decided to do.
I’ve GM’d two sessions of my Murder Hobos 5E campaign since you and I talked last. The PCs have been working through the introductory adventure, Lost Mine of Phandelver, since 5E was released. And I’ve added my own sandbox elements, factions, and quests to the campaign.
Session One had the characters hired to bring mining supplies to the town of Phandalin for the dwarven Rockseeker Brothers. But just outside town the party discovered the Rockseekers had been kidnapped by the adventure’s villain, the Spider.
From that session onward, the party has been cursed by a god, stalked by a green dragon, harassed by goblins, and assaulted by drunken miners. It’s been a tough slog to finally trap the Spider in his lair at Wave Echo Cave, but the PCs have done it.
And so sessions 13 and 14 have been a dungeon crawl. The party triggered traps, fought undead dwarven miners who used to call Wave Echo Cave home, and spelunked their way to the penultimate encounter with a flaming skull named Mormesk and his ghast and zombie horde.
The battle against Mormesk starts simple enough. The barbarian recklessly attacks a pair of ochre jellies. But then dead miners in a gully nearby get up and join as a second wave. The party steps things up but maintains the upper hand. It isn’t until Mormesk and his wights charge in as wave three that PCs start to go down.
Ghasts paralyze victims for a minute. Mormesk the floating green skull divides them into squads and deploys them for maximum carnage. Meantime, he casts fireballs to soften the party up.
Malcor the fighter goes down and starts to bleed out. Then the barbarian. Then the druid. It’s just Six the wizard left, and his big spells are spent. Looks like a TPK in Johnn’s wife’s basement!
But then Mormesk demands Six to surrender. He then says he’ll let the Murder Hobos go if they agree to storm the Temple of Demothoin deeper in the dungeon where Mormesk’s hated enemy lives. If the party tracks down and attacks Nezznar the Spider, Mormesk will call off his “sweeties” and let the PCs go.
Six agrees and starts handing out healing potions. Soon the party is ready to go, though they are still battered and bruised.
Using a map drawn by a ghast, the party tromps through caves and tunnels until they spy a group of bugbears ahead. As per Mormesk’s information, they creatures must be the Spider’s advance guard keeping an eye on the main tunnel to the temple.
A fireball takes care of the poor bugbears, and the Hobos charge into Demothoin’s shrine. There the party is just in time to see Spider go invisible while a drow rogue and a long-hated enemy Glasstaff run behind a statue and open a secret door. The only one left in the room is Roscoe, the party’s rogue who was captured at the beginning of the session (due to the player being absent), who is tied and gagged in a corner.
The Hobos chase after their enemy down a long tunnel. The clever wizard stays behind, casts See invisibility, scans the temple, and spots Spider in the corner holding a knife to Roscoe’s neck.
Mayhem ensues. Glasstaff eventually drops. Then the Spider goes down. Six catches up to the female drow in the tunnel with magically enhanced speed. Then, at last, the drow goes down. The party is victorious!
Something weird happens, though. As Six catches his breath, the dead drow changes shape. She turns into Six! Then the ghost of Six floats through the wall. It’s Six, Six, Six! This triggers memories locked away until now by the traumatized wizard. Six remembers being part of an experiment. He was being cloned, used as the template. He was part of an evil program to create dopplegangers.
As the wizard reels from these revelations, the ghost of Six moans, “Break the chain, break the chain!” and fades back into the wall. Six flees. The party rests.
Busy GMs need help prepping for games faster. And you can create fantastic magic items in just three minutes using my stat block.
Magic treasure is critical in most fantasy games because it does so much:
- Creates campaign balance, especially if combats are often difficult
- Adds to campaign mood, atmosphere and wonderment
- Beefs up weak characters in parties where more knowledgeable gamers build more effective PCs
- Gives players creative options during gameplay
- ives game masters fun design opportunities
Fun! Who doesn’t love a magical reward?
- It’s easy to create a +1 dagger, but that’s boring, as we’ve chatted about in Roleplaying
- Tips before. You want your treasure to entertain, feel like a reward and add depth to your campaign.
With my fast design system, you turn magical rewards into plot hooks, world development tools and campaign enhancements all at the same time. Oh yeah, and your players will love them, too.
My stat block has just six elements, all focused on making gameplay more interesting. I think that’s the key to anything you design – make gameplay more fun, then worry about world building and plotting.
There are other things you can add to this stat block, such as cost to construct, creation process, market value, and so on. You can also take a deep dive into any element of the stat block, such as lore, and write up pages worth of information.
But I wanted a tool that let me generate a great reward, whether it’s in a pile of treasure or being worn by an NPC, in just three minutes. In a half hour you can have an adventure’s worth of key magic items designed!
Let’s dive in.
The Stat Block
Use this stat block to create three minute magic items. The numbers represent the time you should give to each part of the block to meet our three minute goal.
Awesome Name – 30 seconds
Appearance – 30 seconds
Benefit – 30 seconds
Drawback – 30 seconds
Lore – 60 seconds
Twist – 0 seconds (yup 0 – not a typo!)
The item’s name is its hook. The test of a great name is players’ ears perk up when they hear it. If you get your group’s attention just with the name of something, you’ve done a fantastic job.
You want to then drop the item name into conversation, histories, clues and everywhere else you can think of in your campaign. Tease your players first. Then supply the way to acquire the now must-have object of character lust.
I give 30 seconds to this because you should try out several different names. Then pick the best. Usually our first name idea is not the best, and a little brainstorming helps generate a better result.
What does the item look like? A one-liner here should be enough to work from when introducing the item during a session.
Turn this into a 5 second task by using an image and just showing it to your players.
Tip: create one interesting visual feature or quirk. Bonus points if it ties into a PC’s personality or theme. This helps firmly hook the item in your players’ minds. An item with distinct appearance gives the owning player fodder for roleplaying, identification and value.
For example, a +1 dagger that looks like a finely crafted dagger is pretty boring. When in use, the player is not likely to play it up or celebrate the item in any way. However, make the dagger look like an exotic creature’s fang, and you’ll get a little more excitement for it.
What does the item do for a character? A great benefit offers choice. If an item enters player conversation (and better yet, NPC and PC conversation) a few times each session, you’ve done a great job.
I split benefits into three types:
These to be always-on. A +1 attack, for example.
I do not like these much, though I currently do hand out a lot of this kind. Passive items add little to gameplay. They are not interactive. They offer no choices or tactical considerations. They offer no roleplaying opportunities.
These offer specific effects for a limited time. With these you can create any kind of cool and interactive operation, effect or event. Pick just about any spell effect, for example, and make that the reusable benefit of a magic item.
Aim for active benefits with your item designs. Feel free to add in passive benefits as well, because the PCs will need parity with challenges they face. But focus on creating active benefits PCs will swoon over.
These come in two flavours:
Emergent benefits come from clever players figuring out great uses and synergies between the item and other game elements.
Hidden benefits foil typical detection and identification means so you can surprise and delight players at some future point.
I like adding hidden benefits, especially to the most beloved items. Because the benefits are secret, you can add these after the fact, once you know an item isn’t going to be sold or stuffed in a sack.
Picking just the best or most interesting items for this treatment is like putting chocolate sauce and sprinkles on ice cream. Your players will be ecstatic.
This is perhaps the trickiest element of the stat block because it requires the most thoughtful design.
A drawback creates gameplay at its finest where players must pay a small price to receive the benefits of the item.
This is not meant to be a penalty. Nor is it meant to negate the benefit. It’s meant to add more fun by weaving more texture into your games.
The design skill comes in where you want a drawback that actually creates fun, or at least more interest or depth, so the PC opts not to toss the item and actually wants to use it despite the drawback.
A great example is the artefacts system in the 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. (If you own the book, crack open those tables for drawback inspiration. By the way, did you know the book placed #1 recently on Wired’s 9 Essential Geek Books You Must Read Right Now?)
Examples of the types of drawbacks to consider:
Trade-offs (one thing improves, one thing worsens)
Chance of occasional interesting failure
I suggest creating a swipe file, as they call it, of drawback ideas you find while reading RPG stuff in books and online.
You can mine a rich background throughout an entire campaign. The trap we fall into is lengthy histories. If you’re like me, by the time we’re done one history for one thing it’s game day already.
So get into the habit of point form histories that cover just the highlights. Do this for enough game elements and you build an awesome scaffold for your game.
A great history focuses on just one thing: notable events relevant to your campaign.
Break that down further, and we see an event only needs a time, place, location and NPCs.
For our magic item design, then, we just need three or so one-liners, one event per line, that follows a Mad Libs style formula like this:
On [DATE] an [NPC] [TOOK THIS ACTION WITH THE ITEM] that caused [THESE CONSEQUENCES].
There are other approaches, and I’ll cover at least one in an upcoming newsletter. But, the gist is to keep it short and simple, and to proliferate your histories with people, places and things, because that’s what your adventures are all about.
Put another way, when you create adventure backgrounds, NPC backgrounds, plot hooks and encounters, you want to tie things together to make your campaign feel integrated and immersive. To do this easily, you want your notes to be clear and simple. Pages of history result in tons of great information getting buried. One-liners present the most important information front and centre, available for instant use.
For your item’s history, create three one line entries that involve at least one NPC, a place and a situation.
You want to break the pattern of “just another +1 dagger” that saps wonderment out of your sessions. A twist offers one of the best ways to do this. The unexpected always creates interest and excitement, and sometimes a little drama.
Best case scenario, which only comes with practice at creating magic items in this fashion, is you create a neat twist in one of the other stat block elements. Then this step takes no extra time!
For example, an interesting drawback creates a natural twist. So does a secret in the form of a juicy Lore entry. A surprise benefit makes a neat twist sometimes, too.
On occasion, you can make a twist out of the item’s appearance, such as when form does not follow function. For example, a magic dagger that does d4 damage and d12 healing when it hits. Attacking to heal is a fun twist, and on the rare occasion when damage exceeds healing but only by a minor amount, you’ll get laughs and groans at the table. Practice Required
You will not likely make your first item using this system in the time it takes to boil an egg. It requires a bit of practice. You might need to create 10 items or 25 or more before you get fast at it. The great news is practicing is fun.
What could be better than whipping out an index card when you’ve got three minutes to spare and creating a magic item for your campaign? Repeat as often as possible until you get fast.
It’s not like designing a game world. Those take a long time to work through the entire process. Weeks, months or even years.
But with our magic item stat block, you can cycle through the entire creation process from start to finish in minutes. That means you can repeat often, and therefore become great at it fast. Cheat Like I Do
Use all the tools and resources at your disposal to help you out. Following my template ensures you will generate something interesting. That gets taken care of all by itself. You just need to put in the time and effort.
First thing you might do if stuck is grab a magic item book off your shelf. Or an adventure. Steal parts liberally. Mix and match.
Websites are another great source of ideas.
Second, use generators. Suck at names? Google some name gens and hit F5 to get that design part taken care of for you.
From Mark of the Pixie
SHIFT COMBAT FOCUS
Most RPGs focus a lot on combat (it’s fun and exciting), but with zombies it’s different. Killing mindless corpse after mindless corpse gets boring fast, so don’t use traditional RPG combat, use zombie movie horror combat. With horror movie zombies, defeat is inevitable, you can’t win, you can only delay your defeat.
So I suggest replacing your combat stat by the number of zombies you can face alone, unarmed, before you go down (your Zombie Ratio). For a normal person this may have a ZR of 0 or 1. A fit navy seal combat veteran it may have a ZR of 10 or even 15.
Adjust this to show how scary you want your zombies to be. Weapons add to this number (a baseball bat may add +2, an axe may add +4). Guns also add, but only while you have Ammo (see below). A revolver may be +4, a shotgun +6.
When you get in a fight with zombies your Zombie Ratio drops by 1 for each zombie you take out. When it gets to 0, you get bitten, but may still escape. If it goes lower, you are bitten and dragged off to be eaten (returning later to eat your old friends).
Feel free to add a secret randomiser (ZR+d6-1d6) to keep your players on their toes. Food and rest help to slowly restore your Zombie Ratio.
This simple mechanic encourages players to avoid combat with hordes of zombies (they know they will die if they do), but allows them to take isolated zombies without much difficulty (the navy seal would have no problem taking out 4 isolated zombies). This more closely matches what we see in the movies.
Note: One of the big advantages of guns is you can kill zombies from a distance. You can do this without putting yourself at risk, picking off zombies from a safe position (Shelter). Guns do not affect your ZR, they just reduce your Ammo (see below).
Resources are limited. You ARE going to run out of stuff.
So rate the following from what they have Least of to what they have Most of:
(Change as needed for your game.)
At any one time the PC group will be Out of the first of these, and Low in the second.
As they make runs to resupply their food, it gets bumped back up to somewhere on the list, and next session the new lowest runs out, and the second lowest is low.
Out means you just don’t have it. Low means you might run out at any time, but you still have some left.
If the PCs are well organised and set up in a good position, then instead of Out/Low, you can have Low/Low. Likewise, if they are on the run without many supplies you can have Out/Out.
Food = obvious, without it everyone’s ZR starts to drop as they start to starve to death. If it is Low, you can’t recover ZR with rest.
Shelter = fortified buildings, good exits, defensible, isolated, etc. Without Shelter you are at the mercy of the elements as well as wandering zombies. From Shelter you can pick off zombies with ranged weapons, but this reduces the Shelter as it attracts more undead. If your Shelter is Low, zombies may get in undetected.
Ammo = e.g., bullets, arrows, grenades. When you run Out, your guns are expensive clubs. Picking off zombies from Shelter reduces Ammo. If your ammo is Low you may run Out mid-combat.
Transport = cars trucks, bikes, whatever. With Transport you can move your group to new locations (reduces Transport). Without it you’re walking. While you can outrun a zombie in the short term, they don’t get tired, they don’t sleep and they will get you in the end. If your transport is Low, your vehicle might break down mid-trip.
Survivors = people with your group. If your Food or Shelter is Low, they may die (reduce stat). Survivors are a skill bank. They can fix cars, cook food, keep lookout, treat wounds, etc. They are also friends, lovers, family. People you care about.
If the PCs need something done and they don’t have the skill, one of the Survivors does. But when Survivors is Low it means either you are running Out of them (they died) or they are getting internal conflicts, which may lead to them splitting off and going it alone.
If it is Out, the PCs are alone. Survivors can also be pre- PCs, so a player who loses a PC can take a named Survivor as their new PC. Look at Ars Magica’s troupe style play for examples.
Other = everything else. Want a CB radio, first aid kit, rope, medicine, wrench, compass, or even guns (but not bullets)? This is where you find it. If it is Low, one of the other categories is treated as Low (random or GM whim). If you are Out, then medicine, repairs, communications and so on are all gone.
TYPES OF ZOMBIES
Variety is the spice of life. Try mixing up a few different types of zombies.
Pinata zombies (decomposition gas under pressure, hit = pop and goo goes everywhere)
Maybe try animal zombies; zombie dogs, zombie rats, zombie ravens, zombie bears, etc. Makes the zoo a dangerous place to be.
Zombies that get surprise or have weapons or unusual size or are on fire may count as two or even three zombies when subtracting from your ZR.
ZOMBIES = FORCE OF NATURE
You can no more beat the endless hordes of zombies than you can turn back the tides or stop the sun setting. Individual zombies can be stopped easily enough, but the six billion others….
In some ways, it helps to think of zombies as weather – mindless and destructive, but also unstoppable and unrelenting.
The zombies you are killing were once people. That’s horrible.
But have one of your PCs notice that another PC is bleeding….is it a bite? Just a cut? Hard to tell. Do we tie you up? kill you? Wait for you to turn? What if it is just a cut?
One of the survivors sees her child (a zombie) in the street. How do you stop her running out to save her. She is too emotional for reason to work. Do you let her go? Tie her up? Kill her so she doesn’t reveal your hiding place? How will the other survivors respond?
The real horror in zombie movies is often not the undead outside: it is the things the survivors do to each other.
From Aki Halme
What makes a good zombie movie? Or a good game?
Not the case exclusively for zombie campaigns of course, this goes for everything. Decisions made with limited information, for long-term consequences.
Should one make noise to inform possible survivors – or stay silent to avoid alerting zombies? Radio ahead for help and advice, risking getting betrayed by those who wish to conserve limited supplies? Keep to moral high ground and lose friends when supplies run out, or scavenge everything, saving friends while dooming others? Not use a light and not see, or use a light and be seen?
2. LIMITATIONS ON VISIBILITY AND MOBILITY
Blind alleys, obstacles, darkness, smoke, broken constructions that might fall to pieces if one runs (to avoid a fight) or fights (to avoid to run).
3. MORAL AMBIGUITIES
Is it always ok to terminate a zombie? What if some of them are not mindless undead flesh eaters, but something closer to humanity – with manners.
A zombie that crunches skulls to get to the brain but uses a napkin to wipe its mouth afterwards? Identifying marks, past history with a PC, some memories or intelligence?
Will the PCs eliminate a half-crushed, helpless zombie as mercy kill? What if doing so has a cost, such as ammo or risk? How to deal with the zombie menace? Cure them, wipe them out, nuke them out?
4. NOT JUST US VS. THEM
They can be potential allies, but ones with different goals.
Nice-mannered scientists that are doing human experiments?
Docile zombies that fly into homicidal rage only when they smell living flesh, which is why they have nose plugs?
Survivor groups that are not so keen to share their resources – or ones that ARE out to save everyone, but lacks the means to do so, sharing of what little they have, effectively dooming themselves if the PCs accept their help?
High-morale groups that are out save the world and are dismayed the PCs are not – and may or may not have the capacity to do more than get killed?
People who taste bad to zombies and go about their lives as best they can?
What about the animals? Perhaps the worst danger out there is not a zombie, but other people.
5. LIMITATIONS ON EQUIPMENT
Never enough of it – and not just ammo, but food and light and shelter as well. Safe locations are rare, fresh water not always available, and some food does not come as rations but something more suspect.
Batteries may be full, or not, and carrying capacity is finite. In addition, weapons may break, as can everything else. A knife does not run out of bullets, but where to stab – and does one really want to get in melee range? At some point, improvised weapons can become preferable.
Petrol stations are perfectly fine as weapons sources. They have gallons of stuff to kill with, and used right they explode too. Might take a bit of chemistry skill to get the most out of it. For example, homemade napalm, fertiliser nailbombs, molotov cocktails.
6. THE FOUR HORSEMEN
Famine, plague, war and death. The shortages cause strife, and death is rampant in all its bleakness. There will be corpses, there will be wounded. Being a zombie can be contagious, and it need not be the only disease around, giving another kind of special resource that is in short supply.
As for famine, the world can only more or less feed the people due to mass production. The anarchy of a zombie apocalypse would cause a breakdown of the society. A lot less order, a lot less food, and a lot less of everything the first world provides. What happens when the lights go out for the last time and there is no electricity or telecommunications? How about oil and fuel? How about heating? Roads? Currency?
Electricity needn’t go out everywhere. A dam can provide immense water power. It’s maintenance that is the issue, especially over long distances. How much of a society can exist under such conditions? Can the players help sustain it? Or will there be war amongst the last remaining pockets of civilisation?
7. RUNNING ZOMBIE COMBATS
In combat encounters, the strengths and weaknesses of zombie hordes need be stressed. For example:
Hard to destroy, save by special means
Zombiism might be contagious
Might not need to breathe
Can wait in ambush for ages
Usually zombies are shown to be slow, but that does not need to be so. They might be unable to wield equipment, but that too could change. Military zombies could be armored and might also remember enough to operate their weapons.
Zombies are often sees as victims to their instincts and predictable. Predictable is good as it requires the PCs play smart. As for instincts, such as the need to feed, perhaps zombies could have some intelligence until they come in close quarters with prey. Whether the players can use that to their advantage would be up to them. Lose some blood to drive the opposition to unthinking frenzy?
This might also add a few plot ideas: hunting game, there might be more than one breed of zombies, a sample is needed for research or cure. A zombie might wear something vital, such as keys or a uniform required for access, or a grenade. Alternatively, a story might require the PCs to be the hunted, in a Mad Max meets the colosseum sort of extended execution.
On campaign level, perhaps the PCs are human-zombie crossbreeds – people who have been exposed to whatever turns a person from human to zombie, but also to an experimental cure.
On the upside, that gives the PCs the best of both worlds – thinking like humans, with the physique of zombies.
On the downside, zombies hunt them and so do humans, as they need human blood and flesh for sustenance, are carriers of zombiism by blood contact, and are valuable research subjects. Some might also want to cover up the existence of such creatures, and simply want the PCs gone without a trace.
From Da’ Vane
All great zombie campaigns come down to three main themes, and the best advice is to focus on these themes above all else, and work on trying to make these fun. Many campaigns take these themes for granted, so normal rules often fall short or result in a massive grind, so it’s often best to throw out the rules and wing it.
The themes are:
ZOMBIES! LOTS AND LOTS OF ZOMBIES!
Forget encounter rules. They won’t work well because they are designed for balanced enemies that give PCs a challenge. This is never the case in a zombie campaign. Besides one or two uber-zombies, like former comrades or high-ranking fallen characters, most of the zombies are weak but numerous. So numerous that they are more like moving hostile scenery than actual encounters.
Fighting them just depletes the PCs’ supplies until they are on their last hit points, low level abilities, and using their fists or the bodies of enemies for defence.
Be sure to wave the PCs with numerous weenies, use all their kickass abilities, generally show off, and then prepare for the horror when there are still waves more zombies approaching.
LOW RESOURCES AND IMPROVISATION
The PCs need to use anything and everything to survive. The zombies don’t stop coming, so opportunities for resting and resupplying will be limited. The PCs will have to make these opportunities for themselves by running away from the zombie horde, since they can normally outrun them, and spending a few rounds scavenging for useful items before they turn up.
Players should take care to record their supplies, but you should keep scavenging light and fun, and part of the action. Improvisation is good, and this can often be aided by a GM who is more than willing to say yes to the player’s cool ideas.
You might want to spice things up by throwing in reasons why the PCs need to give up their tried and true trusted weapons in favour of hunting for new ones. Otherwise, the PCs will likely go towards acquiring their favourite weapons and simply wailing at the zombies, which can get boring fast.
The key to the campaign is survival. Even the most basic necessities become a matter of life and death in the campaign. Food, water and medical supplies will all need to be secured – zombies don’t need these, but PCs do!
If the Zombies can infect the PCs or dead PCs return as zombies, there’s another problem. PC losses equal enemy gains and present critical vulnerabilities in what might otherwise be secure strongholds.
Time is often critical, as is reaching certain points and achieving certain objectives, and these should be the primary focus of adventures. It may be possible to stop the zombies, but this normally requires finding the source, or some other overly complex objective, rather than just defeating them all.
I highly recommend the Savage Worlds adventure Zombie Run. It’s one of the best adventures I’ve seen, and it could easily be adapted to other systems (you’d need stats for zombies, plus about 5 boss NPCs and 2-3 human minion types).
It covers many tropes of the genre, such as scavenging for items, trying to find fuel and ammo, and encountering other survivors, some of whom are worse than the zombies!
The adventure also has good advice about setting the tone. While it’s written as a linear sequence of events, the authors put in copious advice on what to do if the PCs wander off-track, rather than forcing the GM to railroad. It took my group 8 sessions to get through and we had a blast playing it.
War of the Dead from Daring Entertainment is also highly regarded, although I have not played or read it. It’s an episodic campaign where they release an adventure each week for a year; I think they’re on Week 20 or so. A lot of people seem to like it.
My general advice is to familiarize yourself with the zombie genre tropes and embrace them. Players eat that stuff up. When the zombie apocalypse occurs, people expect certain things to happen and want to be a part of that.
Part of the appeal is justified violence in a context that is closer-to-home than the dungeon. Everybody likes to let loose and issue a beat-down, but some of us have trouble bringing ourselves to hurt human NPCs. There’s no such hesitation when facing rotting, shambling corpses.
It’s also a genre where life is cheap, so if you’re a softie GM like me and want to kill a few PCs for a change, a horde of infectious undead might be just the thing. (The zombies need to be a credible threat or else the PCs get complacent. You want them struggling to survive, not setting up camp and kicking back.)
Another interesting aspect is that the game is set in the modern world, so you can have your guns and explosives and use your real-world knowledge, but there’s no police to worry about or cell phone network to help you out of a jam. This makes it easy for the GM to improvise, because the setting is basically “Everytown, USA, but wrecked.” You know what to expect of the environment and the enemies should your players go exploring.
So if you want to run a sandbox or improv game, but are afraid of the effort involved, a world ravaged by zombies is a good place to start. My players went off the rails numerous times during Zombie Run, always to good effect. The things they enjoyed most were coming up with clever ways to deal with the zombies, who were numerous and deadly but stupid.
For example, they eventually got a roll of chain-link fence and carried it around with them in their truck to use to seal off choke points and destroy small groups of zombies using melee weapons. Ahh, good times.
For me, running horror themed games, whether zombie, Cthulhu Mythos or other, the best part is the psychological aspects and presenting situations that enhance or place stress on the psychology of the characters.
An example would be to present moral dilemmas: relatives of the characters have been turned into zombies. The moral conundrum is whether it is more humane to kill the zombies and put them out of their miserable undead existence, or to let them live.
This assumes that the undead relatives still retain aspects of their humanity. Perhaps it’s children who still cling to prized stuffed animals, blankets or other fetters.
I would turn the scenario of gathering ammo into one where the characters go to visit a relative’s home to get ammo from Uncle Bob, only to discover that Uncle Bob, his spouse and the children have all been infected with the zombie plague.
The zombies attack, of course. But make it a roleplaying scene where the players are exposed to the humanity that clings ever so slightly within the undead relatives.
You could then throw in a situation where the player character’s escape vehicle is low on gas and won’t “turn over” when needed.
From Sean S.
In response to reader Josh’s request for helpful zombie tips, I ran my Wastelanders campaign for nearly two years and have some suggestions.
Though not purely a zombie campaign (I did have a lot of minions of evil!), it did offer a lot of insight into the survival genre, which is the baseline for a good zombie game.
Keep track of players commodities
Bullets, gas, food and water. If they can run out of it, write down who has it and keep track of when they use it.
When a player knows you are keeping track of something, they tend to be much more cautious about wasting it.
Anyone who has played Left 4 Dead knows how important multiple types of zombies are. I tend to pick one statistic (Str, Con, etc.) and model a specific breed of zombie emphasizing that trait.
An intelligent and charismatic zombie would take the party off guard and make a possible NPC ally. Just as a hulking zombie, or a putrid puking zombie would make them think twice before getting too close.
Abuse the environment
Q: How many zombie movies have dark hallways? A: all of them.
Use blind fighting rules, make them carry torches. Depending on your flavor of apocalypse, you might need radiation gear (my group needed it a lot). I even had one chase sequence where the PCs were trying to escape the big bad guy’s fortress on top of a volcano while the volcano was trying to erupt.
Imagine the tension when you aren’t being chased by a mere enemy, but the ground itself as it gives way to lava. Suffice to say, they still talk about how awesome that fight ended.
Rolling 1’s are just as critical as rolling 20’s. Have a malfunction table and don’t be afraid to use it. If they roll a 1 and confirm less than 5 or 10 (be reasonable), have their gun jam, or a bullet get stuck in the chamber/clip. They break the stock or lose grip on the gun and it flies out of their hand.
Each malfunction imposes a simple problem in the weapon that can be fixed. A chip in a sword, -1 damage; a bullet jammed in the barrel, -1 ammo; broken trigger or stock, -1 to-hit.
Make a lot of the weapons they find already damaged. This gives those repair skills more purpose and lends credence to the environment being a harsh place. Same goes for armor.
Bullets are expensive; so is food. In my world 1 dollar would only buy a single bullet, a single meal of preserved food, or a pound of raw produce (depending on availability). Remember that consumables are in much higher demand when trading with NPCs. A farmer might sell produce cheap but highly value a handful of bullets.
Don’t be afraid to gross out your players a bit, and remember to lead the tension. The first time the party encounters ghouls is much more terrifying if they hear the murmurs of conversation while crunching and slurping of bones and marrow before they encounter the monsters.
Giving a monster the appropriate feeling of terror is more important than making a enemy statistically capable of killing the party.
A final demon boss in my game was a lvl 10 NPC, but by the time the group reached him, they were already afraid of what he could do. A little piano theme music (Phantom of the Opera anyone?) and the encounter was scary.
After they defeated him, he and his minions were sucked into a magical vortex. Then the real bad guy emerged and thrashed the party as expected. Once the big bad had fallen, the volcano chase scene ensued. they players were on their toes that session!
SAFETY IN NUMBERS APPLIES BOTH WAYS
Play Dead Rising 2 or just google some videos. HORDES of zombies aimlessly wandering the streets. Even at low level. Take a cue from 4th Ed. D&D here. Throw a horde of +0 to-hit zombies with 10 AC and 1hp at the party; have them all do 1- 2 or 1-3 damage.
A party of 4 lvl 1’s should be able to take out 10+ “zombie minions” like these, but the encounter will scare the party with just numbers alone. Throw in a few tough zombies or altered zombies for flavor and to shake things up a bit.
Another Dead Rising 2 cue here (you can tell what I’ve been playing lately). Allow players to modify and use the environment. An improvised weapon might have a -4 to hit, but a custom weapon created out of improvised materials is another story. A classic Nail-Bat fills in the role of a spiked club any day.
Maybe not every game (snicker), but if a player gets overly confident, make sure to take him down to negative hit points in the next few sessions. If you have a group that trusts you, you can even have a total party kill turn into a role playing opportunity.
Say the party majorly wipes out and awakes a few hours later to find out they have been moved to the zombies’ hideout. Or possibly have them awake in the streets having been gnawed on and now infected (if you are using a transmitted version of zombiism).
DON’T LET PLAYERS TRACK THEIR OWN HIT POINTS
I would describe how the impact hurt and how badly injured they felt and keep track of their HP on my DM sheet. This made the players treat the situation with much more caution, along the lines one would expect in a real situation.
It’s easy to see a number written down and think “I’ve got X number of HP left, I’m fine!” But when you hear the description of how you have three broken ribs, a serious concussion, and bleeding from several cuts and gashes, you start to realize what the lower half of your HP means in terms of your character’s resolve and well being. (For descriptive purpose, I treat the top 50% of HP as “endurance” and the lower 50% as physical trauma.)
All things considered, the most important and veteran tip I can offer is not to get hung up on the stats and numbers. The PCs’ *perception* of the bad guy and their situation is more important than how much in danger they actually are.
A simple circular saw isn’t scary, but placed in the hands of a lunatic chasing you and it’s perceived much differently.
From Ed Smith
I’ve run a couple zombie games and the best thing you can do is don’t let the players breathe until they get themselves into a safe place (boarding up in a room and such). The idea is not to give the players a chance to think.
I use a one minute game timer for this but I don’t let the players know then when it comes to their turn. I run each person as a combat by themselves using the go-to-the-scene technique. If they pause to think, they miss their turn and the zombies move up or attack.
By way of introduction, my name is John, I’m in my thirties, I live in Germany and I’ve been a thankful reader of this newsletter for quite some time now. I started role-playing at the age of 14, and my preferred system is the Palladium Fantasy Role Playing Game.
As with probably some of you, my typical role-playing session has changed over the years due to work, family and increased geographical distance to my group members. Therefore, we have adapted to more event-like sessions once or twice a year where we agree on a gaming weekend several months in advance. I tell you this because some of the tips described hereafter reflect this style and the fact that I have lots of preparation and thinking time.
First, I’d like to explain my understanding of what an epic campaign is. I’m sure many of you have experienced that kind of game mastering approach where the group has to reach a certain goal to prevent the entire world from going down every session (which also poses a comfortable means for the GM to motivate the group to follow his adventure idea).
Even worse, they are given an epic task too difficult for their experience level to complete, and in the end the “gods” or some other higher entity has to save them and finally solve the quest.
That’s not the kind of epic I am talking about. It is more that the goal has a deeper personal meaning for every PC involved, as well as substantial effects on the game world they are playing in.
Another aspect is a certain long-term perspective in which several quests form a greater story arc that slowly unfolds with every new adventure completed.
Yes, you need good gaming atmosphere, heroic music, props, an epic game setting and a dynamic campaign world (political, cultural, social change). But these aspects have already been covered before. The following are some tips that, in my opinion, take a more psychological approach to make the campaign feel more epic and predestined.
1. Interlink Their Background Stories
Because we plan our sessions long in advance, I have players send me an electronic version of the player character they intend to use via email about a month before our session starts. Compelling background stories receive bonus experience points.
Once I receive the PCs, I start to think of ways how these background stories could possibly be interlinked. Sometimes I ask the players for further relevant details to complete these links, or I have some or all of them run mini-solo- adventures per play-by-mail before we actually meet.
This has given some spice to most of our campaigns when these unknown interlinks slowly unfold during the campaign, and players realize that fate has brought them together to complete the task ahead.
Just recently I had a player actually turn pale as he realized his character had caused the assassination of another character’s brother, and the other player, still unaware of this, is on a quest to avenge the brother’s death. Well GM, lean back and enjoy!
Some more examples:
Politics: One of the characters is a traitor from the Western Empire who fled with important military intelligence in his backpack. Another PC is a Western Empire spy sent out to prevent a traitor from handing over secret military information to the enemy and the spy has to find out who the traitor is.
Family: Two characters are actually brothers who have been separated at birth. Alternatively, one PC is the father of another (works great with long-lived races such as elves or dwarves, but it may be a bit awkward for the players).
Revenge: Two or more PCs are on a quest to take revenge on the same villain without knowing it.
Loot: All PCs have a secret motivation to retrieve a certain item from a treasure vault (e.g., commanded by a deity to destroy it, needed to save a beloved one, lust for power). Who will get it in the end?
Occupation: One PC is secretly a witch, another is secretly a witch hunter. Who discovers the other’s occupation first and how will the PC react? Are the adventures passed together stronger than their sworn mission?
Shape changers: I once had two players separately approach me in secret and tell me they wanted to play a changeling in disguise. Changeling is a race that, due to public hysteria, is usually killed on sight due to the common understanding they kill the persons they impersonate. I then thought it would be funny to also talk the two remaining players into secretly playing a changeling. So I had four players trying to hide the fact they are a changeling from each other.
[Off-record. You have to have a good poker face for that. I remember one conversation when they passed by a bar in a town (Changelings have no tolerance for alcohol):
GM: There is a nice little bar in front of you.
Player 1: Well folks, I think we should not go in and rather go to bed early.
Player 2: I agree, the place looks too expensive anyways.
Player 3: Right, I have some errands to run and no time to go to a bar.
Player 4: Yeah, I wanted to practice my cooking skill anyways.]
And now my all-time favorite: The Backwards Adventure. In this scenario, I started the campaign with the PCs all waking up on a river bank, dressed in nothing more than a linen shirt and complete loss of memory.
In reality, I had the players start with a blank sheet of paper and they had to rediscover their entire PC by role- playing (e.g., lift rocks to find out how strong they are, try out skills if they have any proficiency in them, talk to NPCs if they have met before, etc.). So, the only one who actually knew their background was me.
After several quests they found out they had been under the effect of an item called “Mind Wipe Mirror,” and upon destroying it they regained their full memories. So I handed each of them a sheet of paper with their individual background story.
Just imagine the tension around the table when they discovered they were all sworn arch-enemies before they fell under the spell.
The scene at the gaming table was the following: They silently read their background. Halfway through they start to peek at the players next to them. They all silently put the sheet down. And almost simultaneously they grabbed for their dice, shouted “Initiative!” and battled each other for almost two hours real time until the last man was standing.
So, with all the pranks I play to my players, you can imagine I’m pretty good by now at dodging dice and pencils thrown at me. But I ask them for feedback regularly and they seem to enjoy it a lot.
2. The “Squirrel Tactic” or “Hide Nuts for Later Use”!
It can be quite helpful if you place random items (magic or not) for which you have not yet developed a purpose in your running campaign.
For example, in one quest they subdue a demon and find a small wooden stick in its treasure hoard that registers as magic. Nobody knows what it is and no alchemist can identify it or wants to buy it. Due to the fact that it is magic, they usually carry this item along for the next couple of quests.
When you as GM finally have an idea what this item could be (such as the key to a long forgotten treasure vault or the cross piece of a magic wooden sword) the fact that they found it so early on in the campaign will lead to the impression that all that has happened followed a greater plan the whole time.
3.The Ever-Recurring Item
This is a variation of the Squirrel Tactic I have kept going for almost seven years now. In one of the first adventures of my current group, I placed a small clay statue of a screaming humanoid that seems to be indestructible in an ancient temple they explored.
Unfortunately, the whole group of PCs got killed some sessions after they found it. In another adventure with the same player group but different PCs, I had them stumble over the same statue again. Over the last years of playing, this has developed into some sort of a running gag, as sooner or later one of the current player characters stumbles across “Besescaba’s Final Scream” as they have decided to name it. Also they have put the little thing to various uses throughout the campaigns, such as to block traps with it, break crests, lock in a giant and many more.
I haven’t quite decided on a way to finally use it yet, but the fact alone they have known the artifact for such a long time will make the adventure special when they finally discover its purpose. I know, that’d better be spectacular, such as to resurrect all PCs that ever possessed it and send them on a glorious final mission or the like. Suggestions welcome.
4.The (Almost) Never-Ending Story
Continuously extrapolate the story. For example, have the PCs find a golden scepter in one adventure. In the next they discover this is the handle of an ancient battle axe that has been lost long ago. Have them search for the other pieces.
Then they find out this battle axe is one of five weapons that were forged by greater power to achieve_______. And if the weapons should ever be united again _______ happens. And so on.
This has to come to an end some day. But by that time it looks as if the entire campaign has followed a grater purpose all along.
Another variation is to combine the quests of different player groups to one greater epic campaign. This idea was born when I sat together with a friend who is also a game master in another group. We decided to have our groups run several adventures to retrieve two ancient artifacts on which we agreed.
On a predetermined weekend the other GM – without a word of explanation – got up from his chair when his group had gathered and asked them to follow him out of the house and into his car. He then drove over to my place where my (also unsuspecting) group was waiting.
We had the two groups play the final adventure of our campaigns together, as each group possessed one of the necessary artifacts to complete the quest. It was a priceless moment when the PCs got to know each other, because the players did not know each other before either.
5. Use Former PCs As NPCs
I am a big fan of developing campaign worlds. Therefore, every new adventure chronologically takes place after the last one. So the campaign world we play in has constantly developed in the last 17 years.
A great way to get the players personally involved in the story is to have them encounter their earlier selves in the form of former PCs who have grown old and settled down, as ghosts, visions, etc. The now NPCs then could ask them to complete the quests they themselves have not succeeded at (or hand over a small clay statue of a screaming humanoid that they feel should be passed on to the next PC crossing their path).
What is a Critical Path Walkthrough?
Wikipedia says a critical path is “the longest necessary path through a network of activities.” In game terms, it’s the longest path through your game a player needs to take to complete your game. However, I like to look at it another way: what’s the shortest route your player can take to see the end screen?
Before you leave the planning stages of your game, take a few minutes to plot its shortest course. This surfaces important information about your design and gives you a chance to make course corrections before investing time in coding and game assets.
Why Create a Critical Path Walkthrough?
Walkthroughs help you understand your own game better from a player’s point of view. It’s an objective look at your creation – normally tough to do – and so a valuable tool in your dev tool belt.
Use your walkthrough to play your game on paper from just a progression point of view to see the experience you’re about to unleash. For example, does your walkthrough tell a great story? Or is it disjointed, boring, or maybe incomplete?
A walkthrough works like a map. Travel your game with your map in hand to see what you’re putting your players through. Does gameplay progress smoothly, or does it feel a bit random and confusing? Are there spots of friction, no fun zones, and WTF moments?
Look for gaps. Why would players leave the planet by buying the worst ship when their coffers brim from the previous encounter? With the optional sliced away like cellulite, can players meet a stage boss too soon? Walkthroughs show you the minimum route, which means players might not have the prereqs they need to progress, or they might have too much power too soon and play unchallenged.
DISCOVER DEADS ENDS
Discover dead ends, infinite loops, and cul de sacs. Your map will reveal these game killers and more. Even on paper, you can spot grinding or loops. I recently played Steve Jackson’s CYA book, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. After crossing the river I got stuck in a loop, was hitting the same four-way intersection, and couldn’t penetrate deeper, even though I tried every exit. Frustrating.
Something underrated in games is transitions. These are subtle, but so important. A great transition frames upcoming gameplay. It sets the right expectations by the signals it sends. If your game fails to deliver, or serves up something else, players will bail. Your design might seem logical with a smooth progression. Your cut scenes all make sense. But test this against your critical path to see if players can do things in the wrong order, miss transitions, or fork the wrong way after great transitions.
FIND DESIGN BUGS
Bugs where players can make not one more step in your game without restarting will kill. They kill the fun. And they kill your game. Walk your map and test each progression. Do players have the info and motivation they need to continue? Do their toons have the equipment, abilities, and power to progress? Or do surprise shortcuts put people too far into your game too early, unprepared?
Something a bit more prosaic, a critical path walkthrough gives you an estimate of minimum game play time. It also gives you time per stage, letting you know if there are uneven or bizarre pacing moments.
And something not often thought of, a walkthrough helps promote your game. Don’t wait to see if a fan creates one. Do it yourself and spread the word it exists. This will help stuck players, add credibility to your title, and give you more content online for people to find and discover your game.
How to Create a Critical Path
Only document gameplay essential to finishing the game. What’s mandatory to reach the end screen? Cut away the optional.
Divide your game into sections. Acts, chapters, levels, screens, whatever logical way you’ve chunked out your game.
Draw the sections. Make a map.
Start with your opening encounter or screen. Then draw circles for each new major game section, in order of critical path play. Connect circle with lines where players can move from one section to another.
Now, walkthrough your game at this 10,000 foot level.
Are all essential acts, chapters, levels, and screens on the critical path? If so, what does the progression look like?
Anything missing? Look for gaps, bypasses, and stuff buried in optional play that needs to migrate into the critical path.
Any waste? Needless excess also kills fun.
Any loops or frustrating dead ends?
What’s the story like? Grab an empty doc and write the terse story of the critical path. Then decide if it’s complete and interesting, or if you need to add or subtract to improve it.
How’s the pacing feel?
At this most simple view, you can fix a lot with your design before wasting resources fiddling with the smaller bits.
For each step in your map, note dependencies. What does the player and toon need to progress?
Also top line what players must do in each scene or screen. Step back and see how this sits with you. Look for repetitive play, such as two similar quests back-to-back.
Now we get granular. Break sections and levels into their distinct screens, locations, events. It might be room-by-room, or a more abstract screen or encounter series. Use your map, and break its areas into their atomic gameplay scenes.
Step back again. Do a quick walkthrough of each section. Repeat the checks in step 3 to spot bad gameplay.
Also check logical end points such as milestones, quest completions, level-ups, and achievements. You’re looking for logic problems, dependency issues, and pacing. For example, does an important quest happen too fast while a minor quest goes on for too long? Does the player reach a milestone in gameplay that’s out of synch with story or toon advancement?
Are there multiple or parallel paths through your game? If so, challenge the design of each. Would your game be better if you merged sub-critical or non-critical paths? Would your game improve if you cleaved a certain part into optional gameplay?
Now we’re getting closer to the traditional walkthroughs you see posted online or written in books. Plot out the specific actions players must take to walkthrough each screen, location, scene, encounter, or event.
In sandbox situations, run through the basic actions players can take. For example:
Use skill or ability
Test these core actions against expected current toon states. Look for problems and fix. Also look for repetitive tasks, grinding, and dull gameplay.
Estimate the time each encounter will take to complete. Add times up to get an estimated critical path total. How do you feel about that time? Give it the Goldilocks treatment: too much, too little, or just right? View this through player experience and game dev and resource requirements lenses.
Tip: When you build and run your game, time play again to see how accurate your initial estimates were. Use this feedback to improve your next estimates.
Build Walkthroughs Before Graphics & Coding
A critical path walkthrough of your game, whether done on paper or in charting software, helps you see your game more objectively, from an experiential perspective. Focusing on what’s essential to see your end screen gives you feedback on how your game flows, how your story matches up to toon and gameplay advancement, and if the minimum sequence of play creates gaps or dead ends.
This diagnostic tool will save you time and money because you can spot problems in moments and fix them before digging into coding and asset pipelines.
If you update your critical path walkthrough again just before you ship, as a final check, you can also publish the walkthrough online as another marketing tactic to draw more attention to your game.
RPT Reader Fitz asked for tips on making PCs great:
I’m struggling a bit with my player character. Would love a bit of guidance on how to take a boring or underwhelming PC and turn it up to eleven, as Spinal Tap would say.
Here are six ideas on hitting that 11. You can coach your players on these, or you can nab them for use on your NPCs.
GIVE YOUR PC A PERSONALITY TRIGGER
When I first started GMing, my players would stock their PCs to the gills with various tools and items. They’d spend all but their last gold piece, which was saved for one night at the inn when the game started, to pick up hooks.
They’d buy chalk to stop from getting lost in dungeons. They’d purchase marbles to make footing difficult for foes. They’d get fishing line and lures so they wouldn’t starve. All this important stuff that then never got used in the campaign. Because when kobolds and skeletons are making eraser holes in the hit points spot on your character sheet, you’re not thinking about going fishing. Well, maybe you are. But by then it’s too late.
And like others, they’d also buy 10 foot poles. The poles were never used and never remembered, even while turning corners.
As with all this first level equipment, character qualities often get forgotten too.
It’s sometimes not enough to have an interesting quality rolled up or assigned during char gen. You’ve got to put it into play often. That’s one way to get +1 crank.
And here’s a simple system to do that.
Make a list of special qualities PCs have.
Personality traits, feats, abilities, powers.
And don’t forget those ability scores. Note those low scores and high ones.
Beside each, think up an anecdote.
Some interesting time the PC used it, fumbled it, or learned it.
The first time Mordengaxian learned of his incredible intelligence was when he won his village’s Nine Men’s Morris competition at the age of six, defeating even Lord Godfrey, in the final match.
The first time Mordengaxian learned of his physical weakness was when he won his village’s Nine Men’s Morris competition at the age of six and later suffered a beating by Godfrey’s jealous youngest son.
For each quality, create a trigger.
State your trigger like this:
When _________ happens in the game, my PC reacts by _________.
The trick here is to pick your triggering event well so your reaction comes up in interesting situations every two or three sessions. When you have several events chosen, you are guaranteed to have at least a couple triggers fire every session, giving you prompts and opportunities to roleplay.
Also pick good reactions that open up gameplay and suit the theme of the campaign. Slapstick reactions in a gritty game, for example, would be inappropriate.
Likewise, tie triggers and reactions to the game’s setting. Do everything you can to create integration with PCs, setting, campaign, adventure, and mechanics.
When Mordengaxian sees any kind of game being played, he reacts by joining the game or telling everyone playing the best strategies.
When Mordengaxian sees a bully at work, he gets angry and launches a magic missile in some kind of warning trick shot.
This technique works because of the triggers. You only need to make note of the triggers. Put them on a Post-It on your character sheet. Or make some playing cards, one trigger per card. When one fires, check the reaction and roleplay it.
It’s an active system, as opposed to passive. Try it out.
MAKE EACH MOVE OPEN UP MORE MOVES
Best book I’ve read for gaming in recent times has been Finite vs. Infinite Games.
Finite games like Monopoly, poker, and hockey are designed to end. There’s a winner and everyone else is a loser. The best move you can make in the game is that which gets you closer to the condition where everyone else is a loser.
Treat RPGs like Infinite games. Like the horizon, you have a clear destination but there’s no end. Infinite games are designed to live forever. The game fails if it ends, if someone makes an ending move. The best move you can make is one that opens up great new moves for everyone. Infinite games flourish under choices and moves that improve or benefit other players.
I’ve been treated to gaming with many people over the years who played to benefit others. Their generous natures and lack of ego meant sessions were better for their gameplay. They set other players and characters up for success.
They offered praise, coaching, or just friendship without judgement. They offered me all kinds of help, including taking session notes, drawing maps, showing up with armfuls of pop and snacks, and offering rides.
Their roleplay was generous. They could play the straight man and not feel the need to hog the spotlight. They picked out features of other PCs and roleplayed with that, creating great openings for players to join the roleplay.
They tried to keep the party together. They accepted ideas and plans gracefully even if they thought their ideas were better. They offered rules corrections and clarifications as suggestions and not remonstrations.
They created character backgrounds brimming with hooks. They made others feel welcome and encouraged shy players to speak up.
Have more fun at every game by being fun yourself and playing an infinite game.
CREATE A FOREIGN WORLD VIEW
I was listening to the radio one day driving home from work. A caller asked why he never gets thank you waves from taxi drivers. The caller always waved thanks in his rear view mirror when someone let him into their lane. Why don’t cabbies have the same courtesy?
The radio guy said it was because cab drivers don’t think like the caller. They have a different world view. Cabbies feel they’ve EARNED it. Meaning, through great driving like it was a video game or competition, they make those tricky lane changes and get into their desired spots because they’re pros. They’re paid drivers. They earn their lane changes, and don’t feel it’s because someone gave them the room. They carved that room out themselves.
That blew me away. I can totally see it. I feel like I’ve earned a lane change sometimes too. I can relate.
And this opened up my eyes to the whole concept of world views. One person thinks they’ve earned it and don’t wave, another feels grateful and give a friendly wave.
To crank your character up a notch, create a different world view like this and play it out. You get to roleplay something different and interesting, and you create an entertaining PC sure to surprise your group as you see things through the PC’s eyes and play in accordance with an alien world view.
The PC sympathizes with monsters, even the evil ones, and thinks each can be redeemed.
NPCs must earn the right to speak with the PC. Until respect is shown, earned, and given, the PC ignores NPCs.
Death is holy. The PC only kills as a reward, and they perform a small ritual before any anticipated killing blow. All other times they strike to subdue.
The player thinks the campaign is going so well because they’re such a great player. The GM thinks the campaign is going well because they are such a great GM. 😉
Spirit beings govern the world. Gods, angels, devils, and elementals are the real reason behind natural events. Supplicate to the spirits for success.
There is no good or evil. Just magic.
CREATE AN ELEVATOR PITCH
Jot down a one or three sentence description of the character’s identity and plot or purpose.
This gets you clarity fast on who the PC is and potential gameplay opportunities.
You can add a mission, personality, beliefs, or anything you like that solidifies in your mind who the character is and what they’re about.
Be generous with adjectives. Use descriptors, tags, aspects. Your elevator pitch won’t win writing contests, but using lots of adjectives gives you more inspiration and guidance for gameplay.
Also create a pitch that makes the character want to take action. What drives the PC onward through dark passages and miles of monster intestines? What does your PC stand for or stand against? What can’t they abide? What’s the void in their soul they’re trying to fill with the campaign premise?
A great and fast way to create character pitches is 3 Line NPCs => Appearance, Portrayal, Hook.
GET SOME CHARACTER ART
Find a fantastic image for your PC. Then study the image.
Make notes of details that catch your eye.
Use these details in descriptions and for roleplaying cues.
Show the art to the group from time to time to remind them.
Use the art for your desktop wallpaper and contemplate on it once in awhile.
THE SEVEN RULES OF CHARACTER CREATION
Awhile ago I saved an article from the Blackshield Gaming website, which appears to be just a shell site now.
The article offered these great tips on making characters:
The art of building characters is not as simple as one might think. Every rulebook has the steps. Many of those rulebooks even talk about meta-gaming issues, background, personality, or whatever other pet theories the authors happen to have about what makes good characters.
But let me simplify it just a little bit. Good characters are those characters that are fun to play. Not just for the player, but for the whole group (including the GM). This may sound like just a trademark of a good player, but really, what great player does not always come up with good characters? Even things that seem simple or sketchy just seem to come to life in these players. They know how to make good characters.
Here are the basics: the seven rules of creating characters in a campaign setting.
The character must work in a group
The character must be fun for the player and the rest of the party
The character must be good at heart
The character must have a reason to go adventuring
The character must fit the campaign style
The character must have long term goals
The player must be able to actually play the character
The seven rules represent the most common (and most disastrous) mistakes players make when designing characters. Sometimes these are just overlooked, or missed in the heat of character creation, but if the GM and the player can apply these rules to a character (and agree that they are applicable to the character) then any subsequent problems lie on the shoulders of the player and the GM, not on the character.
“But that’s what my character would do…” is no longer an excuse for destroying party chemistry or backstabbing a fellow party member. The rules have been set.
Today I have a mega-long issue for you. It started out with a simple reader tip request. I wrote my tip, and then remembered an old article at the website with more ideas on the topic. I decided to merge the two and didn’t realize the website article was 14,000 words, lol.
But I went ahead anyway, because the article was just languishing as a txt file buried in the article archives.
Here now are all the tips, new and old resurrected. Let’s start with the request I received for help making minor magic items interesting:
I just wanted to send you a quick note of thanks for the excellent resources you are putting out. Thanks to you I have tons of great ideas for my own campaign.
I run a campaign for my family. I hadn’t had a chance to play for about 20 years, but my daughter and wife both expressed an interest, so I dug my old books out of the basement and we are having a blast. My wife and daughter love to shop and they want shopping to be a more prominent part of the game.
Specifically, they want to shop for magic items whenever the PCs are in large cities. What I need help with is generating a large list of minor but still interesting items that they can find as they shop. The trick is coming up with items genuinely useful and interesting, but don’t change game balance. I am used to running a more “magic items are rare” type campaign, but I want to keep my family happy and interested so now I need to stock the shelves. I would welcome any ideas or advice you might have.
Thanks for the request, Kevin! I’d like to share with you a technique I learned from marketing. This technique will not only help you stock the shelves faster, but it’ll add depth to your world, provide great roleplaying opportunities, and add a cool shorthand for gameplay.
The technique is called branding. Create brands for your magic wares to make them feel special, different, and interesting. Then use brands to create choices that are effectively duplicates without seeming that way, so you have far less prep work to do.
I’m using modern jargon here. So first I’ll explain the “branding” technique and what it is. Then I’ll get into how to add it to your campaign without breaking theme or immersion.
CREATE BRANDS TO GIVE PLAYERS INTERESTING CHOICES AND YOUR WORLD MORE DEPTH
Shoppers know their brands. They know what brands mean to price, quality, and aesthetic. Create brands in your world and attach them to magic items. The best benefit to this is you turn a Broach of Shielding – just one lonely option – into many choices, one per brand. This is a big win for you because you give players more choices without having to create new crunch or skew campaign balance.
Instead of one Broach of Shielding, you can have five:
Seagram’s Broach of Shielding – a utility brand, what you see is what you get, functional
Trimark’s Broach of Shielding – a luxury brand, expensive, posh, religious
Nine Eye’s Broach of Shielding – an arcane brand, comes with surprises – not always pleasant, sometimes creepy
Stonefist Brothers’ Broach of Shielding – a quality brand, the best quality out there, beautiful and detailed work
Snorg’s Broach of Shielding – a cheap brand, you get what you pay for, rumoured to use sand material instead of gold
Five choices, five interesting world details, but just one thing to prep rules-wise.
When you build your next store inventory, you can save time and energy by branding your items. Instead of having to come up with 20 different items to select from, you can select 10 with mixed branded options.
Further, the brands serve as a shorthand. If you had two broaches, one from Snorg and one from Trimark, do you get any ideas on how you might describe them differently? This will save you a lot of prep time, because once you get a clear idea on the traits you’ve given each brand, and you can contrast and describe in distinct fashion on-the-fly.
For example, how would you describe an Apple computer versus a Dell computer? If you are an Apple fan, you talk about design, ease of use, slick form factor. If you hate Apple, you talk about high prices and your opinion of Apple fans. It doesn’t matter which camp you’re in, you have something to say without thinking about it.
Build brands in your game world for the same great benefit.
And by brands, I’m just talking about simple identity and flavour. Not corporations who crank out assembly line baubles. Give your magic item crafters the same treatment you give to other world elements so they fit into your campaign theme. I’m just using brand as a technical term.
How to Create a Brand
Step 1: Choose the Source
Your brand will inherit traits from their source, so start with the crafter, creator, or creation process.
Who or what makes magic items in your world?
Mix up source types to create further depth. For example, a brand doesn’t always have to be associated with an NPC.
For example, you might give a certain kind of ghost in your game the ability to transform normal items into magic items. Legends tell of the Moroi turning their victims’ possessions into magic items:
A Moroi is an infant murdered before baptism. They are pale phantoms who never stop crying. They attack any who fail to soothe their pain (roleplay to stop their crying for awhile). The magic items they create through transformation are pale and beautiful, never aging or tarnishing, but quite brittle. Only items and materials without flaws survive the transformation.
Any Moroi magic items the PCs acquire will be rare, and expensive if purchased. Give them a sad, tragic feel.
Another example, a quick one, is a divine event. Two armies fought. The gods got involved in the final, epic battle. The god of good won by sending blue lightning bolts down, killing the enemy leader and many of his generals. The divine lightning turned many of the items struck into magic items. As the enemy fled, these items were looted, and have since spread throughout the land. This was a one-time event, so no more such items will ever be created.
What will picky shoppers go for now? A +1 longsword from the Player’s Handbook, or a Sword of Kos – still +1 but it’s ancient, rare, and special. Or maybe they want thay Moroi blade. Slim, pale, beautiful, tragic.
Step 2: Creation Traits
Once you know the origin for a batch, series, or ongoing source of magic items, define some traits to give the brand a consistent personality.
An NPC offers a typical source. Jot down a quick 3 Line NPC with an eye toward the NPC’s work inheriting their personality and appearance traits.
A cool feature of the 3 Line NPC template is you can apply it to any source. Treat a guild like an NPC and give it appearance traits (uniforms, signs, visual cues), portrayal and personality traits, and a hook or secret. You can do this for any source, no matter how abstract.
Then use your NPC writeup to create the following key brand type traits:
Appearance – Oft-used materials or signs of their unique creation process. “See those fine engravings? Nobody gets crisp, deep, steady marks like Stonefist. It’s because they use adamantine fine point chisels.”
Style – Everybody does things their own way. Choice of ingredients, design themes, motifs. Seagram’s is always squarish, Snorg’s is chaotic with strange angles.
Quality and Durability – Strength, purity, special touches, no manufacture defects, design.
Price – Keep it simple and make four tiers => cheap, commoner/normal/game-rules pricing, expensive, kingly.
Side Effects or Quirks – “The magic items they create through transformation are pale and beautiful, never aging or tarnishing, but quite brittle.”
You can give branded items an unexpected trait once in awhile to switch things up, but otherwise stay consistent with brand traits so the players identify and remember what the standard qualities are. It’s like learning a new language, and it adds fun to gameplay when the group can speak in shorthand with each other.
“Oh, pretty! How much?”
“Hey Seraphina, don’t buy that. It’s Moroi.”
“Well, I’ll take good care of it then so it won’t break.”
“I don’t like it. It’s creepy. Dead babies? [Shudder].”
“You’re jealous because yours is just a Snorg!”
Step 3: Create a Cool Naming Pattern
Cool names add flavour, no doubt about it.
So make the naming convention part of the brand, and have it reflect the brand.
This adds fun to roleplaying, assists with the shorthand, and creates those great gaming moments when players figure something out through putting together world facts and using deduction.
“Miss, this lovely broach would only enhance your beauty.”
“Hey look, there’s an engraving. ‘Ecranare’.”
“Yes, the kindly wizard who sold this to me said it was a Ecranare Broach. It will protect you from magical attacks.”
“That sounds familiar. [GM, you said it was pale white in colour and delicate?]”
“It’s Moroi! How much for it?”
A good example is Mordenkainen items and spells from old D&D. Those often had names with long or flavourful words to go with the fancy, long wizard name.
Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium
Mordenkainen’s Faithful Hound
Step 4: Create a Reputation
Turn traits and brand qualities into a reputation. This adds flavour and fun to shopping.
“Nine Eyes’ stuff is potent, but it’s cursed half the time!”
If you are clear on what each brand is about, then you can wing this during play.
Better yet, sprinkle branded items into your game so reputations build themselves.
NPC roleplay can help this along.
“Is that a Moroi broach?”
“Yes, it’s called Ecranare.” [“EK-ra-NAR-ay”]
“Ah, that means shield, doesn’t it? Beautiful. Delicate though. My friend at the college had a Moroi quill. Broke right in half when he dropped it!”
Make branded items part of quest and hook information. Give such items to NPCs and have other NPCs comment and gossip. Go through the usual channels to spread a reputation to cement a brand’s identity in your players’ minds.
The Princess Bride has become a great romantic-comedy cult classic. This is because the film has all the necessary ingredients of a great movie: action, comedy, memorable characters and dialogue, and “true love”. Because the movie has these needed ingredients, The Princess Bride can also serve as a wonderful tutorial on how to run a roleplaying game that includes humor, and also as a treasure trove of basic roleplaying tips for almost any game your group wishes to play.
The Princess Bride offers excellent lessons on how to include humor in roleplaying, without having to resort to horrible puns that gain only nervous chuckles and confused looks (such as the old “your character kicks the bucket” joke).
For example, look at the names used in The Princess Bride. The large man’s name is Fezzik, playing off of the term ‘physique’ because he is big and strong. The lead heroine’s name is Buttercup, not necessarily funny, but not serious. Then, of course, there is Prince Humperdinck, Miracle Max, and a fellow referred to as simply ‘The Albino’. None of these individuals can be taken seriously because of their name, and using names like this in your campaign will almost certainly bring constant grins to your players’ faces. Of course, character names aren’t the only things that can be humorous: monster names can cause grins, too (Rodents of Unusual Size ring a bell?)
PERSONALITY AND SPEECH
For another example of humor which can be taken from The Princess Bride, one need only to look at the characters’ personalities and speech patterns. We have a farm boy named Westley who starts the movie out saying nothing but “as you wish” to conceal his real love for the lead heroine. Then there is a six-fingered count who relishes pain dished out in his secret torture chamber. Let’s not forget the priest who talks with an odd accent which cannot, for some reason, include the letters ‘R’ or ‘L’. The most memorable is, of course, the Spaniard who seeks only to avenge his father’s death, who has an entire statement ready for the one who killed him. If you include off-the-wall characters such as these in your campaign, your players will be beating down your door from week to week, sitting on the edge of their seat to see who they will meet next.
You can also inject humor through simple dialogue between the characters and NPCs, as well. We will mention again the way Inigo repeats his “You Killed My Father” speech throughout the film. Vizzini uses the term ‘inconceivable’ numerous times, and it is pointed out that he might not be using the term correctly in some situations. Westley suggests that people think the Fire Swamp is not survivable only because “no one has done it before.” Tiny quips like this in NPC conversation will strike your players as masterful game mastering, and will add great enjoyment to your game.
The Princess Bride is full of action – sword fighting, wrestling, chases – and any self-respecting roleplaying game should be, as well. Typically, however, most action during a gaming session turns into nothing but rolling a die and moving a tiny plastic figurine around on a battle mat. This is just wrong.
One way to boost your action is to have your players plan out their actions a few turns at a time, make the needed rolls, and then use your storytelling ability to explain what happened in those turns. Make the fighting sound as exciting as possible. Use lots of detail – clanging of swords, shuffling of stones under the characters’ feet, grunts and moans of the dying. If one of your players uses a monk-type character, make sure you know the martial-arts moves that monk knows and describe every leap, punch, and kick.
Cater to Different Abilities
One of the mainstays of roleplaying games is a group of characters working together for a common goal. Each of these characters typically has their own place in the group, their own abilities that contribute to the success of the adventure or mission. The Princess Bride emphasizes this perfectly. Inigo is the sword fighter. Fezzik is the muscle, the strong man, the wrestler. Vizzini is the brains. Miracle Max (though not really part of a group) is the mystical miracle-maker.
Ensuring that your group includes different ability types, though, is not enough. Look at how The Princess Bride is able to highlight each character’s ability. Inigo is left alone on the cliff top to fight Westley with the sword. Fezzik is left in the rocky outcropping to wrestle Westley, again, on his own. Westley meets Vizzini to have a battle of the wit, just the two of them.
If you want your players coming back, you will need to highlight their characters’ abilities in much the same way. If your group includes a priest or cleric, make sure to offer plenty of chances for healing (of many different types) or turning undead. If you have a wizard, be sure to include something that only he can do; you will, of course, have to keep in mind what spells that wizard knows. If a player wishes to play a bard, why not allow the group to spend the night at a well-known inn or tavern, and why not have a flustered innkeeper who needs a replacement story teller? Remember, not every talent needs to be used in a combat situation. The name of the game is “roleplaying”, after all.
(Robert’s note: Spotlighting a PC doesn’t have to focus on special abilities and powers. Focus also on their contacts and specialized knowledge. Maybe the cleric can get them access to a church library, wherein the mage can help him do research and find the answer to a puzzle. Anything you can do to highlight what makes a PC special and different will do the job.)
Cater to Different Motivations
Characters are not only the sum of their abilities. Good player characters should have some sort of motivation, even a small one, and a good GM should be sure to cater to those motivations.
Inigo is motivated by his need for revenge against his father’s killer. Vizzini is motivated by his greed for money. Westley is motivated by “true love”. Even the NPC, Miracle Max, has his personal motivation to see Prince Humperdinck suffer.
Catering to character motivation is easy enough to accomplish, but doing it with flair may take a little hard work. If a character has the simple motivation of gathering great wealth, you could simply put them on the path to mounds of gold (anyone want to raid a dragon lair?). Let’s be a bit more creative, though. Perhaps the character finds gems, and golden mirrors and hair combs. Then you have something to describe with greater detail, and the player can have more fun roleplaying his character while haggling over the sell price when he sells the treasures he finds. An even greater end to finding such treasures would be if the character uses these things to furnish his home.
Perhaps the character wishes to avenge the deaths of his parents at the hands of goblins or orcs. Of course, the easiest way to do this is to offer the character plenty of goblins and orcs to kill. Why not leave a breadcrumb trail to the actual goblin or orc that killed the character’s parents? Allow the character and his companions to track down the creature, spending a few weeks hunting it, meeting a variety of NPC’s along the way, and perhaps helping a few downtrodden when they can. Turn a mundane motivation into the plot for an entire campaign that shows your entire game world to the players.
(Robert’s note: This is a great idea! Give this goblin or orc a name and personality. Make him a person of interest among his tribe, famous for his savagery, combat skill, or as a rising leader. Making him stand out in some way will make the PC’s revenge all the sweeter!)
How to Run the NPCs
The Princess Bride relies on strong tags for consistent NPC behavior and personality. Here are some GM notes for running them:
Prince: Arrogant, cares little for others, takes what he wants when he wants it, seems to be full of hot air.
Count: Deceitful, conniving, just plain mean.
Inigo: Not really “evil”, just fell in with bad people. Has a great joy for life and for what he does. Fair and honorable.
Draw Players into Roleplaying by Roleplaying NPC’s Who Are Their Friends
Even small lines or pieces of conversation help. This doesn’t take up a lot of time, but encourages players to interact with NPC’s and each other.
NPC as Group Leader? It’s Possible
Vizzini leads, but leaves everything to everyone else. He just tells them what to do and where to meet afterward. Sometimes he offers suggestions on how to do it, but generally leaves it up to the characters.
Do your homework and add in real terms for the actions and descriptions. For example, they used real terms for the sword fighting techniques and styles. Little details help the players visualize what you are describing, whether it’s a gun, a vehicle, or an animal breed.
Leave the Romance Out of It
Rather than roleplay the romance and kissy stuff, they left it all off camera. It was sufficient to say that Westley and Buttercup were in love.
MAKING UNDEAD COOL AGAIN
Earlier this month, Roleplaying Tips kicked off the RPG Blog Carnival with the article Making Undead Cool Again. Featured in both the Roleplaying Tips Newsletter on October 6th, you can find the article here.
Remember that if you want to get the earliest access to the Roleplaying Tips Newsletter, as well as RPT’s Friday Gems, be sure to sign up here.
SHOW, DON’T TELL
Thank you for the link to “How To Be A Better Player”. I’ve be GM’ing a group of guys who only liked hack n slash. Absolutely no role playing whatsoever on their part, only on mine. A couple of guys actually said role playing was “kinda weird”, but was okay because it was different. I had, and still have, no response to that.
I had gotten to where I didn’t really plan our games anymore since all they wanted to do was to fight. I’ve been playing for 30 years so I know how to provide fun things to do, but if the party doesn’t want to do them, doesn’t take the bait, or worse yet, completely ignores the bait, what can I do? I’ve hated hack n slash forever and here I was doing it.
Anyway, one of the main role-playing haters was tired of my once-a-month game, so he decided he was going to try running his own game, which he promised would be more often than mine. I didn’t have a problem with that.
Step 1: The new GM is a huge Christian, and has never allowed an evil PC in the game….ever. He’s been playing 25+ years, so it took quite a bit of convincing on my part, but he eventually allowed me to roll up a neutral evil sorcerer. I instructed him that I would never turn on my fellow PC’s. That’s not how you have fun!!
Step 2: The first time we sat down, and he began role-playing as GM, 30 seconds into the session I did the same exact thing he has always done to me. “Naw!! Don’t care! Nope! I don’t care what he says. I’m Not Role-Playing” Everybody else at the table laughed because they remembered him doing those things, only he didn’t. He actually denied that he had said such things. That went on for about 30-45 seconds, then I showed them fools how role-playing was done. Including him
Step 3: Right off the bat we were employed by a casino owner who had us try to collect from some people who owned him money, which we did, but boy were they tough. Almost too tough!! While we were fighting the bad guys I made it a point to role play my attacks and trash talk. On our way back to the casino I began telling the party that the casino owner set us up!! He was trying to kill us by having us go against people who weren’t playing. Well we weren’t going to play that either!! We confronted the casino owner by threatening him and telling him that if this was going to be amateur hour then he’d need to double our pay, and pay us up front. The GM and I role played that entire conversation which took about 5 minutes. The rest of the party just watched in awe, and were grateful for the money.
Step 4: Our next mission took us to the docks, which we promptly got into a fight with some folks who didn’t think they owed the casino anything. The last enemy standing was kicking our butts. We weren’t taking him down. Only one other enemy was alive, but he was on the ground and bleeding out. When it became my turn I grabbed the last enemy’s attention by yelling at him, and when he looked my way, I punched my dagger through his dying friend’s head. Then I told the enemy to lay down his weapon, which he did. My group still did nothing but watch.
Step 5: We tied up the last guy, and after questioning him, I sliced open his face, and instructed him to tell others there is a new group handling collections for the casino.
Step 6: We instituted a no weapon policy in the casino, which everyone minded except for a couple of members of the City Watch. We role-played the “Don’t wear your weapon in here ever again” conversation, which was pretty tense, but they got the message. We spoke to their boss, and we instructed him that if any of his men wore their weapons into the casino ever again there’s going to be problems. Official business or not. That conversation took about 10 minutes, and one other player actually joined in.
Step 7: One night, immediately after closing, some thugs attacked us by kicking open the doors, and breaking through the windows. While the fight was going on, during my turn I was yelling about how much those doors and windows were going to cost, and that they were going to repay us with their blood. We won the fight, and cut off the head of the boss thug. One of the other party members suggested we load the dead bodies onto a wagon, and leave it in front of the compound the thugs were associated with. Finally the group was learning how to role play.
During my games there is a LOT of conversation about all kinds of stuff which has nothing to do with the game. There was so much action that they weren’t playing video games on their laptops, (because the fights are fun), but now that they’re learning how to role play maybe that trend will end. We’ll see.
We haven’t played my game yet, but so far, three of the players want to change their alignments from good to evil, including Mr Christian. They now know how to make D&D fun, but unfortunately, I couldn’t properly voice how that should be done. I could only show them. The website you’ve shared explains more succinctly then I ever could. I have passed the link onto my group.
I love your blog, but the thing I love most is your game summations. I love reading those. Thanks Johnn. No matter what, you’ve made my game better in more ways than you can possibly imagine.