Roleplaying Tips Weekly #486

Roll-Play And Role-Play

Readers respond to a tips request on how to add panache
to dice rolls and results.


This Week's Tips Summarized 

Roll-Play And Role-Play

Roll-Play And Role-Play

For Your Game: 10 Cool Inn Themes

Johnn Four's GM Guide Books

Grab a brain for your campaign

Personal Brain is the best tool for managing NPC relationships. It's also great as a campaign organizer.

More powerful than mind mapping, this software lets you go from the big picture of your campaign to a specific note in moments. Perfect for world building, campaign tracking, and GMing.

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A Brief Word From Johnn 

Would you climb a four storey ladder to get to a gaming session?

These links come from WJ Walton via the CAR-PGa email list. If you have trouble getting your game logistics figured out, just see what U.S. Navy RPGers have to go through.

"Finding people to play with, and places to play was the most interesting aspect of playing on board ship. For a while we played up in the mezzanine of the hangar deck...we had to climb a ladder 4 stories or so, and doing so while carrying our bags/briefcases full of manuals/dice/character sheets. We looked like a geek Special Forces team moving to higher ground positions!" Gaming In Remote Locations: The U.S. Navy

"When we first deployed, we didn't have anywhere to play. Finding a storage room three decks down from where we worked, we would sit on boxes of paper and roll dice into box lids, playing Kobolds Ate my Baby, as well as a few sessions of Ravenloft."

The Blade Itself a great book

Taking RPT reader Pat up on his review of this book, I devoured The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie this week. It was just the type of fantasy I was looking for, with a bit more grit than the grander stuff I'm seeing on bookshelves these days. Thanks Pat!

I think I'll be scooping a couple ideas from the book for my campaign, as well. Named NPCs, for example. If you are Named in Abercrombie's world, you have a deadly reputation, are often a leader, and command respect and fear in others. I'm looking for ways to include this in my Pathfinder campaign in a way that merges rules and descriptive aspects. Just like the theme of this week's tips.

Perhaps Named NPCs gain +2 on social rolls and are the only ones qualified to be lieutenants for the crime lords who rule the PCs' city. Maybe they also receive 1 fate dice, which is a re-roll at any time, likely when facing death. It's a small thing, but enough to hook more flavour on as the campaign develops, perhaps.

What do you think? If you had Named NPCs in your game, what benefits would they receive?

Riddleport campaign surges on

Speaking of my Pathfinder game, we just played session #4 two days ago, and the campaign is going strong.

In this campaign, the neutral and evil NPCs are tricky. They all have an angle. For example, one PC is a pit fighter who wants to make it into the big leagues someday. He acquired an agent - rather, the agent acquired him - to arrange matches.

The first match, agent Halcos ordered the Crixus the PC to take a fall. What a dilemma. Money or glory? Crixus ended up crushing his opponent in 12 seconds. Halcos was none too happy, so he hatched a new plan.

In pit fight number two, last session, Halcos unexpectedly announced during the fighter introductions in the ring that the winner gets to keep all the loser's equipment. This was after two jerk GM moves.

First was allowing full equipment in this particular fight. Second was hiding the opponent, known as The Executioner (based on his day job, not his ring persona, oddly enough) until seconds before the fight started. Turns out The Executioner fights with loin cloth, hood and a mundane spiked club. Crixus was fully equipped, including magic items. The stakes were high.

It took Crixus twelve seconds to crush The Executioner, unfortunately. So the PC is now the proud owner of a loin cloth, hood and spiked club. At least he bet on himself and won a few gold guilders.

For the pit fighting we've set up as a side plot in the campaign, there are three leagues: The Rounds - dirty street fighting, The Pits - a serious league of professionals, and The Arena - where epic battles against monsters and heroes take place. Crixus someday hopes to fight in The Arena.

To that end, he fired Halcos and has a new manager. A snag might be the manager is a powerful devil. We'll see if this propels Crixus into great conflicts.

Have a game-full week!


Johnn Four,

Campaign Mastery

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Advanced Adventures #13 Now Available!

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Roll-Play And Role-Play  

Thanks to everyone who responded to the Reader Tip Request in Issue #471. Roleplaying Tips asked:

How do you use ROLL-playing to add to the fun of the ROLE- playing aspect of your game? Let players describe critical hits in detail? Ask players to explain why their character failed when they botch a skill check?

On the flip side, how do you use ROLE-playing to affect your ROLL-playing? Bonuses to attacks that are especially cinematic? Free background skills if it fits the character's backstory?

And here is what your fellow readers had to say:

Plan For And Reward Roleplaying From Maggie Smith

Hey, Johnn. This is a topic especially close to my heart, so I figured I'd weigh in. With a group of almost entirely new tabletop players, I found there was an over-emphasis on ROLL playing in the first couple of sessions.

The players didn't seem as interested in the non-encounter parts of the story. During combat they focused entirely on the powers and numbers. It was especially important to me to flesh this out because my only experienced player is one of those who keeps repeating the mantra that 4th edition is like a video game, and I wanted to prove otherwise.

The first thing I did was plan a session with a lot of ROLEplaying. It was a combination of clean-up from one adventure and exposition from another, and I let them know I wanted more flavor than usual.

I think it's hard to get away from the stereotype of casting magic missile into the darkness, so they had been reluctant to do anything that might be too literal. As a rule, we're not a very serious group. Lots of drinking and metajoking and tomfoolery.

They surprised me with how they embraced it, though. As a somewhat new DM, the players put me through my paces, asking for elaborate descriptions of NPCs' actions (including a raise dead ritual) and making me ad lib a lot more than I'm used to.

They were equally committed, spending a lot of time interacting with the environment and developing their characters. When the session wrapped up, we realized there had been no combat and only one skill challenge in the 8 or so hours we'd been playing. That was a huge change.

The second thing I did was take tips you've published previously and incorporated them into my game. I made a deck of instant reward cards (using with an emphasis on combat roleplaying. An attack bonus for describing the way you line up an arrow, a damage bonus for describing the force with which you swing your axe, combat advantage for the whole party because of the inspiring words you use to rally your allies.

I also have other little bonuses, like if they take time to describe setting up camp and foraging a meal, I might give a small skill bonus for being exceptionally rested and nourished. I have one that gives a diplomacy bonus for the next entire day if a player does something selfless in combat to help another player. I brainstormed situations that might come up and what a logical reward would be, and put it on a card.

I bought color coded popsicle sticks (I wasn't committed enough for the weighted foam tokens) and let them pass those out to reward each other for roleplaying, offering a bonus in the next session to the person with the most sticks at the end. This was a great tip, because it took a lot of the burden off me and empowered the players.

Another tip, that I took from Gabe over at Penny Arcade, ended up having an unexpected bonus for roleplaying. I made a deck of random treasure, including about half wish list items and half trash loot. Things like rat skulls, goblin fingers, exotic feathers, toy wands, etc.

The players took these items and put them to good use. In the last session, the party was fighting a dire rat and the rogue took out the rat skull and crushed it in his hand to intimidate the creature. It was one of those great moments when I realized that they finally figured out that balance, and that you don't have to take yourself too seriously to get into the game.

Character Development Through Actions From Adrian Young

We found that as we played less frequently (once a week fortnightly has become four to five hours once a month) the players became more interested in advancing the story and mission ahead of fleshing out the scene. The sense of "we accomplished heaps tonite" meant the character was developed in terms of his actions.

PC actions, or the way characters behaved (and the results they achieved through rolling dice), had become the role- playing component of the game.

The same still applies in our current fantasy campaign.

When PCs are created, we have one line for a Descriptive Profile ("= Role"). Aside from class and race, the rest of the two page character sheet is for Traits, Skills, Experience, Notes, and Equipment ("=Roll"). Notes includes an adventure log for role-playing recall.

For better or worse, it works for us. Perhaps this is just the natural order of things for the time poor and "I want it now" RPG groups out there.

Look For Win-Win Conditions From Anthony Hart-Jones

As a DM, this was always one of the topics that got to me; I have always been a roleplayer, coming from a theatre background and storytelling, while my group was more keen on the mechanics and the numbers.

They were not min-maxing for the best statistics, but they did make it clear that my idiosyncrasies, such as dying monologues, were just delaying the looting and the XP.

Since they were a Dungeons & Dragons group, the system let me add elements of both, but it often seemed like I was giving them combat to stop them getting bored, and that they were sitting through my ill-advised character dialogue and fluff just because they knew that combat would follow later. True concordance came from changing the system, though.

I picked up an out of print system called 7th Sea and started to see the use of situational bonuses. Quite simply, reckless heroism gave them bonuses, and so they started thinking of their characters' character rather than statistics.

They leapt from windows onto moving carriages and slid down bannister-rails into combat. Where even XP bribes had failed, I found that combat modifiers excited them.

In some ways it is a little heavy-handed, but I found that offering a bonus for throwing themselves into their characters made a difference; characterisation was quantifiable and so it was fun even to a roll-player.

I think the key is in balance. As a GM, my enjoyment has always been from telling a story well, but that means making it fun for the players. For a while, we compromised, then we found the win-win conditions where we could all have fun.

Seek Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering From Dave Schaefer

I was going to say that the canonical advice here is "Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering" by Robin Laws, but RPT is no stranger to that book.

Previous callouts to Robin Laws:

Make Roll Results Cinematic From Andrew Glenn

How do you use roll-playing to add to the fun of your game?

I use the players to roll for random encounters in dungeons and the wilderness, and once even got someone to roll for the number of wolves that a vampire summoned. That adds to the pressure and makes everyone groan or cheer when the dice stops moving. In the case of the vampire, the player had to roll 3d6 and managed to bring in 15 wolves against the party. They still go on about that dice roll.

Also, although I don't have a formalised fumble system, if a player (or monster) makes an attack roll and gets a 1 or a 2 then they have to roll again. If it's low again, say 1 to 5, then bad things happen. Nothing too serious, just enough to make them shake their heads and give everyone a laugh. We had a barbarian in the party who kept throwing his greatswords away purely because of this. The one he lost in the marsh was my favourite.

Use Interpretation From Kyle Berger

I've seen players and GMs do exactly what you are describing, usually without even being conscious they are doing it. One awesome way of dealing with natural 1s on something such as a knowledge check is to give the player the correct factual information, but interpreted incorrectly.

This was the rule for one campaign I was a part of, and it made for interesting role-playing. One time a knowledge history check was failed and the player learned about an important historical figure that was as nasty as Hitler in many ways, but the player was convinced initially that this figure was someone to be looked up to. This lead to interesting conversations amongst the local population, who vilified this individual.

In ways like this, roll-playing can add a layer of uncertainty that doesn't derail one's plans entirely; if you fail, you still get the information you need, just in a more interesting way that adds color instead of frustration.

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Fast and Easy Interactive Maps for Your Campaign

Never forget a location detail again. Get your game organized and under control with this simple and effective free online mapping system.

Upload your maps and start adding encounter, adventure and game world entries in seconds.

Record all your location notes to plan things out fast ahead of time. Note locations you make up as you GM.

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1. For Your Game: 10 Cool Inn Themes 

  1. Tree house. The place is inside or on top of a large, ancient tree. Think Dragonlance or of various movies that have featured this theme.
  2. Famous chef. The business's reputation for fine food is overshadowed only by the fame of its chef. Perhaps the chef is incredibly rude, which amuses patrons, or maybe the chef is of unusual race or has a legendary history.
  3. Jungle. Boiling water pumps perpetual steam and heat into the common area. Vines and creepers, small trees, strange birds, and exotic animals bring the jungle to patrons.
  4. Monsters on the menu. If adventurers can kill it and bring it back, this place will cook it and serve it up.
  5. A tent. Everything in the place can be packed up and ready to travel within two hours. Nothing is permanent or fixed in place, which sometimes makes it hard to keep the weather out. Perhaps the owner moves on when business slows, he follows a circuit of annual fairs and festivals, or he is a fugitive just trying to make an honest gold piece.
  6. Birds. The business is themed after birds and flying creatures of all kinds, and even allows wild birds to nest in the rafters and fly around patrons. Some birds are in cages, but none are ever on the menu. An employee runs a nice side business supplying quality and unusual quills to scribes.
  7. Horror. Unless pressed, most locals won't tell strangers the business is known as the last stop before people disappear. They figure if travelers and visitors keep the supply up, then they'll be safe in their homes. In truth, maybe the owner is part of an underground escape network who prefers locals don't stick their noses in his business, or perhaps the owner has a curse or horrific need for bodies.
  8. End of the line. The place is a slum. It's infested with vermin, smells horrible, and serves putrid food and drink. Yet, all know only those without hope go there, probably to die, and that it is the end of the line.
  9. Good. Only those with good alignment are welcome. Perhaps magical detection is employed, in secret or out in the open, to weed out evil. The reputation alone keeps most evil- aligned folk away. This premise sets up some interesting plots and encounters with those who can mask their alignment or are powerful enough they don't care.
  10. Sex appeal. The business is popular these days because word is spreading of a voluptuous dancer who does five shows a night. Men from all over the community are falling in love with her. Angry wives and girl friends claim she uses magic to entrap her male audiences. Regardless, while the owner rakes in the money, there is growing unrest and tension as men begin to fight over her and spouses begin to plot.

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Johnn Four's GM Guide Books 

In addition to writing and publishing this e-zine, I have written several GM tips and advice books to inspire your games and to make GMing easier and fun:

Inns, Taverns, and Restaurants - new

How to design, map, and GM fresh encounters for RPG's most popular locales. Includes campaign and NPC advice as well, plus several generators and tables

Adventure Essentials: Holidays

Advice and tips for designing compelling holidays that not only expand your game world but provide endless natural encounter, adventure, and campaign hooks.

GM Mastery: NPC Essentials

Critically acclaimed and multiple award-winning guide to crafting, roleplaying, and GMing three dimensional NPCs for any game system and genre. This book will make a difference to your GMing.

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Turn Watcher™. Let it Roll.