Roleplaying Tips Weekly #492

In this issue:

  • 4 Best Ways To Handle Town Guards
  • Character Development Template
  • Johnn Four's GM Guide Books

Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #492

4 Best Ways To Handle Town Guards


This Week's Tips Summarized 

4 Best Ways To Handle Town Guards

4 Best Ways To Handle Town Guards

Character Development Template

Johnn Four's GM Guide Books

The Kobold Guide to Game Design Vol. 3

Our best-selling series continues! The Kobold Guide to Game Design Volume III: Tools & Techniques offers more than 15 essays by an all-star lineup of industry veterans including Wolfgang Baur, Rob Heinsoo, Monte Cook and Ed Greenwood.

The Kobold Guide to Game Design series is a great resource for budding designers and GMs who want to take their campaigns to the next level. Get yours today and start designing!

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A Brief Word From Johnn 

500 Coming Upon Us - What Should We Do?

Long-time subscribers will probably have figured out I'm not big on celebrations. At least, not for the ezine. To do a special issue to celebrate a milestone like Issue #500 often takes more work than a regular issue, and the content in this type of thing often isn't nearly as useful for your GMing.

So, I put the question to you. I'm leaning toward #500 being a regular issue. Bah humbug. But, what do _you_ want to see in Issue #500?

Contest Winners Picked Soon

Thanks to everyone who entered the Pick Pockets contest. I'm away for a week starting tomorrow - headed to a web content conference. I'll organize entries and select random winners when I get back, and will announce in the ezine. Stay tuned.

Oh, and what do you think the next contest should be about?

Get at least one game played this week!


Johnn Four,

Campaign Mastery

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4 Best Ways To Handle Town Guards  

By Johnn Four

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 purposes

    A 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:
    1. Who is the corrupt leader?
    2. How do they manage to fill the ranks with bumbling fools?
    3. What other authority figures must be involved to make this happen? (e.g. politicians, high-ranking guards, other guild leaders)
    4. Why is the leader doing this? There must be some greater goal or plot afoot.

    For example:
    1. Captain Bennett, head of recruitment
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. 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 competence

    You 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-staffed

    A 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 cowards

    Another 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 easily

    An 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.

4. Balkanized

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.

More tips on factions:

5. Take Care Of This First

Communicate the rules of engagement early on, before any crimes are made. Once the PCs commit their first serious crime, a line gets drawn in the sand. The players await your response; perhaps they even dare you to respond.

Avoid brinkmanship with a chat before session one. Describe typical guard response. Ask players how they feel about that. Work it out. Once the first crime is made it's too late to have an objective discussion because the characters already have something at stake.

6. Creative Penalties

Set boundaries the players can live with and the characters can play by. Not all crimes need to be met by combat with guards or jail time. Create penalties that motivate the PCs to obey the law, as PCs will always play to the edge and sometimes over it.

Fines are a good penalty. They let the PCs continue on without fear of confronting guards because they have paid for their crimes. Assuming fines are reasonable, the punishment is brief, fair and endurable.

Innocent bystanders. The first time, one innocent person is affected by the characters' illegal actions. The next time three. The next time a dozen. If the PCs do not care, then the fourth time a friend a relative gets caught up.


  • Loss of property. The vendor's cart is destroyed and tears roll down his face as he tells the PCs how his family will go hungry tonight.
  • Complaint. An NPC gets the PCs in trouble with a complaint to the cleric's church, the fighter's guild, or the party's enemy who now knows what they are up to.
  • Death. This could be an alignment changer if it occurs enough. Killing a contact or the person who was supposed to pay the PCs is painful. The accidental killing of an ally should drive your point home.
  • Confiscation. The master hears of his apprentice's crime and takes away the PC's spell book for a day or longer. The warrior's magic sword is locked up for a few days by his trainer. The rogue's masterwork tools and sewer access are removed for a week by the Thieves' Guild.
  • Divine retribution. Clerics are easy to punish - spells and powers are withdrawn or nerfed. Gods can target all the PCs too. Blue lightning bolts are a classic example, lol. Healing services may be withdrawn. Curses or Geas might be cast. Followers might be instructed to make life difficult for the PCs.
  • Privileges and rights. Exit and entry to the town may be restricted. Temporary exile imposed. Goods and services cost double.

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For more tips on law enforcement, check out Logan Horsford's article, Police in a Modern Campaign.

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Character Development - Profile Template 

By Ylanne Sorrows,

This character profile template is provided on the resources page of my writer's website, linked above. I have posted this character profile here to aid in character development. The purpose of using a character profile is to flesh out a character who is little more than a sketch, or who has not had much thought put into him or her.

This profile was written primarily for literary purposes and not roleplay purposes; however, it is easily adapted for roleplay purposes.

If you wish to use this profile, or portions of it copied and pasted directly, as the standard skeleton in a roleplay of yours, please credit me as the profile creator with my name clearly visible. No one likes to see their work stolen. You may also download a copy in Word 2007 format from my website, which may be reproduced for personal or classroom use only. (It's on the bottom right hand side of the page).

Another note upon the use of character profiles: ninety-nine chances out of a hundred that your readers will never read or see, or need to see, your completed character profiles. They may not know the vast majority of the information you will write and create about your characters. In fact, it is probably best if they do not.

Nevertheless, the use of the profile as a resource for you as the writer cannot be understated. It is an aid for you when you have writer's block and must wonder what the character would do, say, or think in any given situation or moment - as one's history and beliefs will always be a significant influence in one's decisions - or when something comes up where you need an answer from the character's point of view.

It may also be best to fill out the profile as if you are the character himself...or as if you are some sort of investigator or psychiatrist called upon to complete a thorough dossier on the character, leaving no metaphorical stone unturned.

Without further ado, I here present the character profile which I myself have created and refined, with instructions and prompts throughout, over the past year and a half.

Role: For example, general role or story-specific role. The former, things such as main character, main character's best friend, bad guy, mentor to protagonist, etc. might be used. The latter, things such as detective, older wizard, disgruntled ex-boyfriend, lieutenant, etc. may be used.

Full Name: The character's full, complete, and legal name.

Name at birth: Same thing, but only if it was different when the character was born, i.e. if s/he changed name because of marriage, adoption, religious conversion, or other reason.

Aliases/Nicknames (if any): Any aliases or nicknames that the character is addressed by, referred to as, or uses for whatever purpose on any regular basis.

Title(s): Any title, such as Dr., Master, Special Agent or Venerable.

Preferred name: What name the character prefers to be addressed by. For example, foreign exchange student Yeonggwang goes by Paul, or Nicholas goes by Nicky. It may also be that someone is referred to primarily by their surname, or by their complete, unabbreviated forename.

Age/Date of Birth: Both the character's age at the start of the story, or 'canon', as well as the date of birth with the appropriate calendar.

Sex: Male or female.

Sexual Orientation/Gender Identity: How does the character identify his or her gender? What is his or her sexual orientation?

Race/Ethnicity: What is the character's race? It may include nationality or ethnic group.

Skin Tone: What is the character's skin tone? This may be 'dark brown', 'light brown', 'olive', 'pale', 'albino', or perhaps even some fantastical hue for a non-realistic character.

Height: The character's height.

Weight: The character's weight.

Build: Slender, athletic, frail, sturdy, stocky, muscular, or plump may be some of the adjectives that come to mind.

Eyes: What is the character's eye color? Be specific without using purple prose. For instance, light brown, hazel, black or pale blue would be acceptable. If the character wears contacts that change the natural eye color, both colors should be noted and explained.

Hair: What is the character's hair color? Be specific without using purple prose. Also describe the texture, thickness, length, style, and any other significant attributes, such as whether it is oily or shiny. If it is dyed, has highlights, or otherwise has unnatural alterations, those should be noted and explained.

Clothes Style: What style of clothes does the character wear? With very few exceptions (such as a story that takes place over one day, or in a prison or boarding school where students wear uniforms), your character will not be wearing the same outfit throughout the story. Does your character follow fashion trends? What materials, colors, and type of clothes does the character wear? Where does he or she obtain the clothes? Are they ethnic or traditional clothes? Is the character promiscuous or modest?

Tattoos, Piercings, Marks, Scars: Describe the location, size, and appearance of any tattoos, piercings, marks (such as moles or birthmarks), scars, or other notable or significant physical traits not already discussed.

Appearance: Describe the character's appearance without reiterating anything already said. This is physical appearance only. Equipment and such will follow later.

Religion: Does the character have a religious affiliation or sense of spirituality? Has the character ever converted to or from a religion or spiritual outlook? Describe in detail the character's religious or spiritual beliefs or experiences.

Political Affiliation: What sort of politics does the character have? Has the character ever changed parties, affiliations, beliefs, or public platforms? Describe in detail the character's political platform and activities.

Education: How educated is the character? Is he or she literate? Does he or she have a secondary school diploma (or equivalent)? What about higher education? Is he or she still in school? Describe in detail the sort of education the character has, noting and explaining any degrees or academic honors or awards.

Languages spoken: What languages does the character speak, including his or her native language(s)? Specifically, what dialect of each language does he or she speak? When, how, and why did the character learn any secondary languages?

Weapons (if any): Does the character have any weapons or other sorts of equipment? What are they, how did he or she obtain them, and why does he or she keep them? Has the character ever lost or had confiscated any weapons or equipment? What were they, and why did this happen?

Occupation(s): What is the character's occupation? Does he or she have multiple concurrent occupations or jobs? When did he or she start? How high up on the ladder is the character?

Past Occupation(s): What past occupation(s) has the character had? Did he or she have multiple concurrent occupations or jobs? How long did each last, and when was the character employed? By whom? And how far did the character advance? Most importantly, why is the character no longer employed in these former positions?

Special Abilities/Skills: Does the character have any other special abilities or skills, whether highly desirable or not? Talents, learned skills, and such may all be listed here.

Activities/Organizations: What sorts of activities does the character engage in? What organizations is he or she actively supporting or participating in, and what organizations is the character loosely affiliated with? What sorts of activities and affiliations has the character had in the past and why are they no longer current?

Hobbies: What sorts of hobbies does the character engage in? Anything such as knitting, collecting money, or listening to music may be listed here.

Interests: Any other interests that the character has or has had, such as philosophy, economics, or weaponry.

Serious Problems, Flaws, Addictions, Disorders, Disabilities: What are the character's most significant problems or flaws? Does he or she have any addictions or bad habits? What about criminal history? Does the character have any disabilities or psychological disorders? If so, what are they, when and how did they onset, and when were they diagnosed? To what degree is the character affected, and what is being done about it? Most importantly, what is the character's attitude toward his or her flaws or disabilities?

Citizenship: In what nation or nations does the character have citizenship rights?

Place of Birth: Where, city and province or state, was the character born?

Now lives: Where does the character now live?

Lives with: With whom does the character live? This may be spouse, cohabitant, child(ren), roommate(s), pet(s), parent(s), sibling(s), etc.

Current Relationship Status: Is the character currently in a romantic relationship? With whom? When did it start? Is the relationship healthy or unhealthy?

Relationship History: What sorts of romantic relationships has the character had in the past? With whom? When did they start, how long did they last, and why and how did they end? Were they healthy or unhealthy?

Family: Who is in the character's family? Immediate? Siblings? Children? With whom is the character in contact? How are the relationships? Healthy or unhealthy? Why? Also, describe both the current family relationships and childhood relationships with family.

Other Biographical Remarks: Write the rest of the character's biographical information. Anything that was missed, or not expounded on already.

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Related links:

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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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