Monthly Archives: July 2016

Best 5 Tips For Running Long Term Epic Campaigns

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).

Tips To Design A Campaign

images-451. 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.

For example:

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.

Steps to Create a Critical Path Walk Through

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 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.


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.

Best Ways to Crank A Character Up To 11

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.


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.


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.


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.

For example:

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.

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.


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.


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.

Steps to Make An Awesome Magic Items

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:

Hi Johnn,

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.

Kevin Geedey
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.


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.

Some ideas:

Supernatural events
Magic zones
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 Disjunction
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.