It’s a Trap!

Grimtooth's TrapsGrimtooth’s used to invoke fears in players. I don’t know if it does anymore. A copy of Grimtooth’s Traps needed to just be seen in a pile of books the DM might be using or over on a counter with a book mark or sticking out. The very idea the DM might be using the book and the deadly contraptions inside was usually enough to keep players overly cautious and paranoid. Perhaps in the history of gaming only Tomb of Horrors can invoke such a response from the players.

Grimtooth eventually became a series of seven books. Six were generic to fit into any system. The last one they made recycles some of the classics for the d20 system. I only have the first three books and considering how little they ever got used I doubt I would buy the others if given the chance. The books are fun reads to think of the ridiculous deadly nature of the overly complex traps. Most of them though are just there to kill the PCs without giving them a fair chance to do anything about it. I understand their use and the reason they exist. Most traps are pretty lame and barely a challenge. The games made it too easy for them to detect and avoid. Even if one sets them off they rarely do anything more than a few points of damage. But Grimtooth takes it too far. They make it so the traps are near impossible to find and disable and are so complex that it is impossible to predict what setting off the trap will do. Others need to be described in a specific way to confuse the players as if they were described normally it would reveal what the trap is. Going back through the books I am surprised to see how many traps were designed by Michael Stackpole.

The biggest improvement Grimtooth’s and other trap books can use is more pictures and possibly even including some player handouts. Many of the rooms, corridors, and other devices are just described with text and do not always make the most sense. These are complex devices and sometimes having multiple moving parts. A picture really can help one understand how all the pieces fit together and work to make mincemeat of most of the player characters.

Grimtooth’s Traps might be the most famous and most deadly, but it is not the only collection of traps and tricks. Fantasy Flight Games produced Traps and Treachery 1 and 2 in the d20 era. These hardbound books are filled with traps and deadly mechanisms but has the benefit of improved writing and layout. They are much easier books to read and I like how they are organized. There is a wider variety within the books as they have some game mechanics and character options in them. The first book really concentrates on the Rogue and giving them options as well as traps. It has information on thieves’ guilds, though Canting Crew and Den of Thieves are much better books on those guilds. Traps and Treachery also have puzzles in them that are pretty well done. I find I get more use out of the puzzles as they can be more difficult to create on one’s own.

Traps and Treachery suffers from some of the same problems as Grimtooth’s does. It doesn’t have enough pictures, though the descriptions are better. Some of the rules are not well done but at least there is something to use as a baseline. The books are more usable because of their versatility in including other things besides just traps.

Book of ChallengesThe most useful book of this type for me was put out by Wizards of the Coast in 2002. The Book of Challenges is an overlooked book that does not just present traps and puzzles but it combines them into encounters. As a DM this is the great as they are rooms or places easily inserted into a dungeon or building. It has monsters as well as traps and puzzles and many times they are combined to really take advantage of something more complex. There are also almost thirty sidebars of DMing advice that is well thought out and useful. The encounters are organized by encounter level with something for each encounter level one through twenty and with one that is encounter level 22. I’m not sure the higher end ones are really as challenging as they should be but they are still good for mid to higher level groups. Of course if one is using this with Pathfinder or 3e D&D one must take into account that sheer amount of new options that were not available when this was written. The power level of say a fifth level character has risen noticeably within the game in the past ten years.

This of course does not cover all the books on traps that have been published. Goodman Games has an interesting one called Lethal Legacies: Traps of the World Before. What is great about that book is there is background information that gives reasons for the traps presented in the books and so it also has adventure hooks and mystery. So what are your favorite books on traps and puzzles? Do you find them easy to use or a waste of paper? Does Grimtooth’s Traps still hold its power to scare players?

Chris Gath.  I’ve been gaming since 1980 playing all kinds of games since then.  In the past year I’ve run Pathfinder, Dungeon Crawl Classic, Paranoia, and Mini d6.  My current campaign is mini d6 and we are using that for a modern supernatural conspiracy investigative game.  On some forums I’m known as Crothian and I’ve written a few hundred reviews though I took a sabbatical from reviewing for a few years as it burnt me out.  I was also an judge for the Gen Con awards (ENnies) six times.  Jeff, the owner of this blog, is one of my players and a good friend.

Reflections of a Non Player Character

Lords of Gossamer & Shadow CoverOf recent times I have been spending a good deal of my blogging time creating non player character (NPC) profiles for the Lords of Gossamer and Shadow RPG over on my blog. Due to this I have had a lot of comments from people regarding the way I make these NPC’s from the rules and how I have applied them right through to the themes I have used to create them. One comment in particular caught my eye this weekend and got me to thinking a little more in depth about the process I use to create all NPC’s in all of the games I run.

The comment was made to the FATE Core community on Google Plus and mentioned as an aside that the work I had been doing on my NPC’s had highlighted the importance of gear, magic items, allies and all surrounding material as a reflection on the NPC itself. This obviously was not a new concept to me as it is true, I was making the items, creatures, domains etc. all be reflective of the NPC as a whole. This is an important concept when building an NPC. If you want the players to accurately demise the archetype of the character, you use all of the character, not just their personality to reflect this. If I am after a big bruiser barbarian in Pathfinder I am unlikely to dress him in ceremonial robes of a peace god and arm him with a rapier. It is more likely that he will appear in the hide armor of a T-Rex (that he killed) and wield a massive two handed vorpal battle axe or something similar that evokes the reaction of the big bruiser barbarian with the players.

It sounds simple enough. Some might even say it is really a no-brainer that you use this method to create flavor and evoke feelings from players. But it is not in actuality all that easy when you are working with a complex system such as Pathfinder for example. The reason this becomes a much more complex problem is based on the complexity of the system. Let me take the big bruiser barbarian from above and explore the idea a little further.

Let us suggest our players are around 7th level and the big bruiser barbarian (henceforth known as Bob) is going to be their nemesis from say their current level through to around about when they are level 12. Bob is the mid-range foe in an adventure of Cthulhu worshippers the players are trying to shut down. If we take that description and think about our mate Bob for a moment I would suggest that we put him at 13th or 14th level as a Barbarian class, or CR 12 to 13 for GM speakers. From a simple building of the class perspective we find this is going to involve 3 ability score increases (easy – Strength or Con depending on starting stats), 8 feats (8 because Bob is a human. All the best monsters are human. This is a tricky one though because feats are very complex) and 6 rage powers (also not a simple solution based on the number of powers available).

pathfinder_core_coverWe are really just dealing with the core build of the character here and we are already frowning and reaching for multiple rulebooks. Stats are an easy decision because any good Barbarian needs to be hale and healthy as well as capable of lifting a small moon should the need arise. But then we move on to feats and the complexity involved in those decisions can be a bit overwhelming. If you look at the core books alone (Core Rulebook, Advanced Players Guide, Ultimate Magic, Ultimate Combat, Ultimate Campaign, Advanced Race Guide, Mythic Adventures, Inner Sea World Guide) you can easily be overwhelmed by the number and complexity of Feat choices that you need to make. Of course as a fighter class we would expect to see Improved Initiative and Toughness as well as some weapon specific things like Weapon Focus, Improved Weapon Critical etc. but really there are thousands of options here and even more combinations that could be used so it really is up to personal knowledge and choice here.

Once we are past that we are then faced with a similar customization problem with barbarian rage powers. You could take an archetype suggestion and build Bob from that perspective or do you try to customize him yourself. Certainly there are far less options than feats in this regard but getting the right balance can be a difficult thing entirely. The good news is that once we are at this point we have a naked Bob with all of his personal functions dealt with. This is Bob when he wakes up of a morning and Bob when he goes to bed at night. But we need to look at the external things to Bob and how they reflect Bob to the external world.

What I am speaking about specifically is Bob’s equipment, allies, pets, magical items etc. This is what anyone wandering down the street who runs into Bob has to look at and reflect on to decide how they view Bob. Although most of the material that we have covered is how good Bob is, this is the stuff that we can flavor Bob with for the true purpose of role playing him in our adventures. We want the players to fear Bob (rightfully so when they first encounter him) and have him a recurring threat to the players for a good portion of the campaign.

But of course we are back to the same problem here as we were with feats. There is soooo much to choose from. If we want normal equipment we have the Ultimate Equipment guide, if it is magical then we are staring again at multiple (at least 4) books for the information. But each piece that we add to the character builds him up. A GM with a photographic memory will do this very well as they will remember the precise items they need but this search can take a long time for those of us that start to read magic items one at a time to get the right match.

From the above six paragraphs I have given you a basic understanding of the complexity that can come of making a simple NPC for a game. The larger the ruleset the more likely you are to find the complexity shoots through the roof. I actually intend to do a series of Pathfinder NPC’s for my blog in the near future and I already know that I will be spending a lot more time on them because of the complexity of the system. Believe me, complexity of a system does not necessarily mean that you will end up with better NPC’s overall either. The NPC’s that I have worked up for the Lords of Gossamer and Shadow have such a small rule base to choose from but the rules are really aimed at storytelling conventions and thus each is very different from one another, even those that have a similar focus.

brigandineSo back to how we make our NPC reflective of what we want. The very first thing is have the concept. We have Bob the big barbarian bruiser and we want players to be fearful of him. Why are they afraid of him? Is it because he is deadly, or just intimidating? I want to go with an intimidation style for him so I think about how that looks. T-Rex armor mentioned before would be cool, but what is cooler and scarier looking is a suit of magical bone armor! Perhaps the bones of a T-Rex instead. His weapon needs to be large and differentiate him. When I want a weapon that stands out I normally choose a flail, and in this case I think that is what I will do. A big double headed flail with spiked heads that has some kind of magical enchantment. I would like an amulet of bone or something similar, but he already has the bone armor, so perhaps we work on a magical amulet (probably natural armor or something similar) fashioned from the shriveled T-Rex’s heart? Take the above three items and apply them to a mental image right now. He is an intimidating guy. Now, just for flavor add the crisscrossing of many scars to his exposed body and a scar that starts at his right brow and marks its way all the way down to his left cheekbone. Nice.

By considering the character first and what you want to achieve you can peel away some of the complexity. Make the weapons and armor be custom magic items and you can build them how you want. Decide what you want in a magical item (such as the amulet) and then backwards fashion it. An amulet of natural armor is normally made from bone or beast scales. I don’t care, lets make it a T-Rex heart, it is all good!

Regular equipment is normally not that flavorable. Of course you can make it a little more intense with description but this tends to delude the player into thinking things are magical (if it has a description it is magical to a player) so it is best not to be too descriptive of other material. But then consider if they ride a dragon (Bob doesn’t but wouldn’t it be cool if he did!) or have a troll hound as a pet. What about his generals that surround him? What are they like? Are they strong and confident or sniveling and scared? All of these factors build up an impression for the players.

The next thing to do is to plan how the players come across Bob. It is much better to layer an NPC onto the players. The first time they meet Bob have him making off with a magical treasure they were sent to collect. He is by himself and he fights and defeats them making off with the treasure. Then the players do some surveillance and to their surprise they find him at the heart of the enemy camp, seemingly surrounded by sniveling lieutenants, suggesting he may be of importance.

This layering of the NPC builds the tension and the sweet success the players will feel as they finally defeat him after a string of interrelated adventures. You use other NPC’s and the NPC’s gear to be reflective of the character as a whole. That way they do not necessarily need to talk to Bob to realize he is the big bruiser barbarian. Of course it is nice to work against archetype once in a while (e.g. Bob actually sympathizes with the players and becomes an ally in the long run) but these twists should be used rarely or otherwise the players will always expect the unexpected from your NPC’s and rightfully so.

Crafting an NPC is an important role and I hope the points above help you to consider a few things you may not have in the past. Simply getting the class and stats right is only one half of the job, if that. Players will judge based on how the NPC looks and how they act. They rarely know that Bob has Strength 22 but they do know he just cleaved that Hobgoblin right in two with one hit. Consider your NPC’s from every angle and make sure they accurately fit the bill that you need for your game on game night. Keep rolling!

Mark Knights is  39 year old guy living in a small rural town called Elliott in Tasmania, Australia.  I have been role playing since I was 11 years old playing the original versions of Dungeons and Dragons, MERP, Elric, Dragon Warriors and the like amongst other genre games.  I played D&D 2nd Edition through the 90′s but I ran Earthdawn for my fantasy setting and loved it as a GM.  When 3rd Edition came out for D&D I tried it but found it too heavy on rules.  I ignored the 3.5 edition of DnD in favour of Earthdawn (big mistake) as I thought it was just a money spinner.  When 4th Edition DnD came on my players and I gave it a red hot go but hated what it had dumbed the game down to be.  On a trip to Melbourne to buy some 4E stuff from a hobby store an old mate of mine pointed me at Pathfinder and in a Fantasy setting I have never looked back.

Handling Social Awkwardness

con_tableIf your games are designed anything like mine your players will face the reality of having to do social interactions to find out key pieces of information. Even if the Barbarian beats the NPC to an inch of his life and then intimidates him it is still a social interaction right? Now I do not want to tar everyone with the same brush but it is true that there are a lot of socially awkward people that exist in our hobby.

Take me for example. I am a good writer (great when I can be bothered editing what I write), intelligent, a good teacher and trainer and great public speaker. BUT put me in a party where I have to talk about my self or about socially acceptable things and I clam up. I can’t stand large social gatherings. I get angry and upset at myself which turns into a brusqueness that people mistake for me being a complete and utter ass. I also am recovering from depression so mixing alcohol with that mix is a recipe for social awkwardness at best.

In game though I expect, and am expected to, run characters with social confidence. I can do this because it is a hat that I can put on that is not me but others may struggle to do this because of their issues. So, as a GM how do we handle a player’s ability to handle social interactions. Nearly every game has a social mechanic added to it and suggestions on how to handle that social nature of the game.

Inside each of these games there are suggestions on how to handle this material. Some games suggest if the players are comfortable then role-play it out. Others suggest players may not be as charismatic as their own characters and that is why the mechanic exists as it acts as an equalizer for the party. Of course there are a number of options that exist in between in many games and I think I have tried most of them over my gaming career. But which works the best.

It may or may not surprise you that it depends on two things. The first is the makeup of the party and the other is you, as the GM and your capabilities. The first thing you really need to look at is yourself. This is the one thing you have the most control over and hopefully the most understanding of. You need to do some self reflection and work out why you want to run a game that is at its heart a social game. It is all about the to and fro interaction between yourself and the group and how that dynamic works.

I do not want to scare you, especially if you are a new GM. But you must know your limitations. If you know you are going to struggle with social interaction, or more importantly, the roleplaying of social interaction look to the system you are using and get familiar with the system. Because it is the great equalizer. You can say to the players “The guard asks you for your identification again even though you have told him you don’t have any. This is going to need a bluff roll to get past.” That is all great. It equalizes things, especially if you have really experienced players who are trying to hog the limelight and railroad you into letting their honeyed words convince you.

The second piece of advice I have for you is this. Being a GM is wearing another hat. It is a role you can inhabit. NPC’s are other people you can play to. As a GM it is expected that you will act in these roles and it is your time to be able to inhabit the mind of someone else. Ham it up. Use this time to build your confidence and know that the longer you do this role the easier it gets. Sure it is demanding and people will look to you as an authority but you are also human and it is OK to muck up as well.

The second thing you need to look at is your group and the mix of players. There are a bunch of different player types that I don’t want to confuse you with here (but if you want, read my post about it at the Pathfinder Chronicles) but I need to say you will have players that enjoy a different style of play. Some of these players may be more socially capable than others so look to their characters as well. If a player is roleplaying their half-orc barbarian with a charisma of 3 as a fluent, socially capable character trying to convince a princess to give up some information, something is wrong.

This is also where the system can act as a great equalizer. With a mechanic then all players are equal. That said, though your group may roleplay to the character and you may be comfortable enough to run the roleplaying freeform. It is likely to cause you quite a bit of trouble over your career as a GM before you work out where that line exists in your game. The longer you run games, the quicker you will adapt to situations and be able to run game with different groups successfully, but you really need to know all the different styles out there for this type of material.

So, in short, my best advice is take a look at yourself, at your players and experiment. It can be daunting and it can also be fun but get in and give it a try. Put the hat on and GM like a demon and listen to your players. You will soon work out what they like and don’t. Keep rolling!

Mark Knights is  39 year old guy living in a small rural town called Elliott in Tasmania, Australia.  I have been role playing since I was 11 years old playing the original versions of Dungeons and Dragons, MERP, Elric, Dragon Warriors and the like amongst other genre games.  I played D&D 2nd Edition through the 90′s but I ran Earthdawn for my fantasy setting and loved it as a GM.  When 3rd Edition came out for D&D I tried it but found it too heavy on rules.  I ignored the 3.5 edition of DnD in favour of Earthdawn (big mistake) as I thought it was just a money spinner.  When 4th Edition DnD came on my players and I gave it a red hot go but hated what it had dumbed the game down to be.  On a trip to Melbourne to buy some 4E stuff from a hobby store an old mate of mine pointed me at Pathfinder and in a Fantasy setting I have never looked back.

Dungeon Crawl Classic Campaigns

DCC RPG Limited Edition CoverI have seen various comments and questions about campaign play in Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. DCC takes its inspiration from Appendix N books and stories. And really, a lot of the Appendix N stories originate from short stories written for fantasy periodicals of the era. Short stories lend themselves to minimal periods of travel and whisking the reader from point of adventure to point of adventure. And sometimes there are unknown gaps of time between stories that are not connected in any one way.

Appendix N Foundation

For example, Conan stories cover very little travel. Conan is just in the country or situation the story merits. The action moves quickly and he is quickly embroiled in the core elements of the story with just enough setup to get the reader up to speed. In addition, going from one story to the next the reader is left not knowing what events have transpired between each story. This works very well for stories that used to appear in magazines over the course of several months.

Another component I have noted with Appendix N literature is that even when the book is a novel, things move quickly. In one 200 page book one can be taken from arriving at a new city, journeying off across the sea, getting stranded on an island with a gigantic creature, to getting rescued to learning more about the first city, to a daring raid on that city. All in 200 pages. Appendix N stories move fast, very fast. More major events can happen in one book than happen in some trilogies.

DCC Adventures

Back in the land of Dungeon Crawl Classics. A lot of the adventures that have been released are also self-contained (for the most part) adventures that setup the plot, and get the characters into it quickly. Compared to the favoring of Adventure Paths that are popular today, that seems a bit unusual to players and judges who have not formed their roots on joining disparate adventures or their own crafted adventures together to for longer running campaigns.

The nature of many of the DCC adventures seems to lead a lot of people to being curious about how DCC works for a longer based campaign. We’ve all heard the roaring success of DCC in a one-shot – either at cons or perhaps as a break for established gaming groups. But just how does a campaign work in DCC?

My Experience

I have been running a DCC RPG campaign online for well over a year now. Same core group of players and a continuing campaign. I have run almost exclusively published adventures. We have a mix of levels in the campaign now, 5th level being the highest and we had some hirelings level up to 1st level (I think one of the characters is amassing an army for an as of yet undisclosed reason).

I started with Purple Sorcerer’s The Perils of the Sunken City to kick the campaign off. It gave me a city to work with if the campaign stuck and a unique way to include a variety of adventures that might not otherwise fit together (for those unaware, the Sunken City has an interesting mechanism to facilitate quick and sometimes random travel).

Since then we’ve explored more portions of the Sunken City, the Great City proper, mountains off to the east and northeast and into the sea waters west of the city. I have not really had a specific path in mind, I’ve been letting the characters sort of take me where they want to go. Then I try to work in a lead-in to certain modules or look for modules that sort of fit what the group is up to at the moment. It seems to have worked out pretty well for us so far.

From my time judging I think the key thing to keep in mind going into it is – expect the unexpected. Trying to plot out a lengthy campaign arc all ahead of time is quite difficult in DCC. There is just so much randomness built into the system that trying to predict what your game will look like in three months is an exercise in futility. Embrace that and you are ready to run a DCC RPG campaign.

Spell corruptions, vengeful patrons, curses, and other afflictions all start influencing the characters from day one of the campaign. Even players that thought they knew how they wanted to see their character progress are thrown loops from the randomness of these events.

Bend your game to fit these random events and you will find yourself able to piece together a successful DCC campaign. Just don’t expect to go into it with the Adventure Path mentality (not meant in the negative, I’ve run and played in  my share of adventure paths!) and think you have the next 12 months of gaming figured out. You don’t.

By trying to remain flexible, saying yes to the character’s ideas, and molding the hooks for published adventures to the current state of the game it does not take much to weave a campaign together. Just some duct tape and baling wire!

Props: Building Maps and Letters

Ever played in one of those games where the GM lays out a prop that it is obvious they have spent hours on?  Well sometimes GM’s know a few tricks on how to make something look terribly cool in a fraction of the time it looks like it took to make.

I have decided to do a bit of foreshadowing in the Skull and Shackles Pathfinder campaign I am running for my group.  A part of doing this is actually going to be giving them a treasure map that they will find in some creatures loot somewhere or on board one of the ships that they pirate away for later use!

A good map has the old crisp aged parchment feel.  It has a slightly off look and of course for a pirate map it has to look like it has been through the wringer.  All of this is achievable in a little under half an hour including drawing the map and I am here to walk you through the steps!

Editors Note: This process requires the use of an oven. Do so at your own risk – The Iron Tavern is not responsible for fires!

  1. Things you will need
    1. Piece of paper
    2. Lemon cut in half
    3. Bowl
    4. Pastry/Paint Brush
    5. Oven
    6. Something to write with and a lighter if you want it to look like my final product!
  2. Lemon and an oven.  Basic chemistry! Set the oven to 160 degrees celsius (that is 320 Fahrenheit for others).  If it is a fan forced oven we do NOT want the fan on or the paper will blow about everywhere.
  3. After the oven is set you need to do is squeeze the lemon juice out of those halves.  You don’t need to strain the pips 🙂  If the lemon is very dry you may need a couple to get enough juice.
  4. Once the lemon is dry use the pastry brush to cover your piece of paper.  I generally do both sides but one side should be OK.
  5. Place your sheet of paper in the oven and watch it.  Mine took around 7 minutes to get a light off white colour and a nice crispy antiqueness to the sheet.  I also picked up some nice fat stains on the sheet from my last roast which is cool because it makes it look like it has lived!  The longer you leave it in, the darker it will get but it may catch alight so keep an eye on it.
  6. Once the sheet is done, do your writing.  If it is a letter or whatever go for it.  You can see I am a tragic and actually use a quill and ink for this phase which layers that little bit more on to the authenticness.
  7. The next step is optional and should be done outside or over a sink.  For my map I took a lighter to the edges of my page, a little bit at a time.  Let it burn a bit, blow it out.  Repeat until you are all the way round.
  8. Final step is presentation.  For my pirate map I rolled it in to a tube, tied a bit of twine around it in true piratical style.  If yours is a love letter, place some ribbon around it.  If it is a secret message and you have wax and a seal, go for it.

Finally, take it to the table and lay it out for the players.  they will think it is cool and wonder how much spare time you have.  For the pirate map it took me a little over 20 minutes, all up to make, including the photos!

Hopefully this helps you bring a few props to the table!  Keep rolling 🙂

Mark Knights is  39 year old guy living in a small rural town called Elliott in Tasmania, Australia.  I have been role playing since I was 11 years old playing the original versions of Dungeons and Dragons, MERP, Elric, Dragon Warriors and the like amongst other genre games.  I played D&D 2nd Edition through the 90′s but I ran Earthdawn for my fantasy setting and loved it as a GM.  When 3rd Edition came out for D&D I tried it but found it too heavy on rules.  I ignored the 3.5 edition of DnD in favour of Earthdawn (big mistake) as I thought it was just a money spinner.  When 4th Edition DnD came on my players and I gave it a red hot go but hated what it had dumbed the game down to be.  On a trip to Melbourne to buy some 4E stuff from a hobby store an old mate of mine pointed me at Pathfinder and in a Fantasy setting I have never looked back.

Ending a Campaign

Reign of Winter Player's GuideEnding a campaign is a curious problem. First you have to consider at what point is the right time to bring things to a close. Once that is decided you need to deal with the fallout of the decision with the players of the game. Many campaigns end just by petering interest, or real life stepping in and causing an issue and that is not the ending of the campaign that I will be talking to. The end to a campaign that I am talking of is where you are at the point where the campaign is done. Solidly done and anything further would just be new material that would detract from the original.

It will come to you as no surprise that I write to this topic as a GM. I largely run nearly every game I play in as the GM, so my mind goes to that viewpoint automatically. It is interesting to note there is a completely different subset of topics to this issue as a player that I will write to in the future.

In my experience though, this decision is always made by the GM, though I have heard of collaborative efforts between a player and a GM to reach a certain point in a game and call it quits as that is the game material that they wanted to explore. For example, a cool looking module comes out for 8th Circle adepts in Earthdawn and your players are already 10th circle, you might run the module over a few weeks with fresh characters, or do a flashback and pretend the actual characters did it. This may not really constitute a campaign but say it was a few linked modules.

I am an explorer as a GM. I like to run games that each have something different to offer. I will detail the games I am running at the moment and the reasons I run them:

  1. I’ll start with the non fantasy and hope Jeffrey doesn’t throw anything at me. Traveller. I run this game as an exploration of sandbox environments and also to get that space feel in a game once again.

  2. The quasi-could be fantasy FATE Demolished Ones is a game I run as it is a perfect mind blowing style adventure. Think of any movie you have seen with a twist at the end. This game is that movie but the twists happen once or twice a session. Running a game like this is an effort in preparation and delivery which I revel in.

  3. I run Reign of Winter the Pathfinder adventure path as it occurs in extremes. Extreme cold, later on extreme extra planetary regions in a fantasy setting. Also it is populated by witches which is a class up until now that I was not all that familiar with so it gives me an opportunity to explore that class thoroughly.

  4. Finally there is the Skull and Shackles adventure path for Pathfinder that I run in person. It is my only in-person game and I run this game because the modules work in a very encouraging way. I have not played a game where each module offers truly tangible rewards to characters at the end for the struggle they have been through. In my opinion I think all game rewards should be run this way as the payoff at the end make the characters think it has all been worthwhile.

I give you the above to illustrate the point that I have something that I want from each game. Sure, they are all role playing and part of it is that I enjoy it but I would not be comfortable running four parallel games of the same adventure path with different groups. The monotony would drive me insane.

For each of those games though I have to consider an end point though. Some of you will snort and giggle at this point and say that three of the above (the last three) are a no brainer as it is pre-made adventures and have a natural end. Well, it is not that clear in all actuality. I will grant you that I intend that the Reign of Winter game will end at the conclusion of the sixth module The Witch Queen’s Revenge will be the conclusion of the campaign. Thankfully for my players that is a long way off yet.

But other campaigns take on a different life. The players become invested in their characters and if there is a sniff of adventure left in the game they will be keen to continue on with the game. I had run the Serpent’s Skull adventure path and it leaves things quite wide open at the end of the final module. I had bought the adventure path in the hopes of showing off a complete campaign cycle. Because of the open ending though I am left a little disappointed as it did not meet what I was looking for (a complete story) and the players are keen to finish it as they invested the time. When we closed (not ended) the play in that game for a while it was always with a mind to come back to it after I had designed some material which I am doing at the moment.

Skull and Shackles Player's GuideI think the time to consider ending a campaign is actually at the start of the campaign. Perhaps at the first session you should discuss with the players what it is you want to see happen with the campaign. I have told each of the Reign of Winter players that the end of the game is the end of the final module. The Skull and Shackles actually only goes to about 14th level so there is plenty of scope for the players to continue on their pirating ways after. Of course they will have some serious clout by that time in the Shackles and they may be happy to call it a day.

Being up front with the players allows them to be ready for the end of the campaign as well. They may be ready to turn it all in and retire or have something for their characters to move in that is a satisfactory finish for them. Of course players can get sentimental about their characters (and rightfully so) as they spend game after game inhabiting the one role and you have to take this factor into consideration when you think about when to end the campaign.

Remind the players of the decision often as well. Make them aware that when the big Demon boss has been defeated and the holy grenade of Antioch is back in the vault of the Thanes (or whatever the end point may be) that the campaign will end and it will be time to try something new, or perhaps someone new in the GM chair. Perhaps even a new game system!

Campaigns do die out naturally and the ability to end a campaign can be a weird time for the GM. From the details above it would seem that you have to have a good plan set up from the outset to do this, or use pre printed materials. This is not the case of course. If it is a homebrew campaign you of course will not have everything planned out to their 19th level final battle! Having a game at a time prepared can be a challenge so you don’t want that kind of pressure hanging over you. What you do want to do is a have a think of where you want to complete it. If it is not a sandbox then you probably have a seed of an idea in you that you want to explore and also an idea of where it will go. Talk to the players and say that they will face a big threat in this campaign and that the campaign and adventures for this game will end when the threat is defeated. Negotiate with the players because this is also a good time to get out of them what they are considering for the game and their characters.

It pays to think ahead. RPG’s are often described as open ended games in which no one wins or loses, but it is important to consider what the end point will be. In a sandbox game, there need not be one but when you are investigating a specific topic or campaign then it pays to be prepared for it to end. Of course it can be great to bring the characters out of retirement for a one off bash every now and again, but know the days of playing the same roles time and again are over. This is a disappointing and exciting time. Disappointing because you say goodbye to an old friend but exciting because you say hello to new ones and new stories to fire your imagination with. Have a great week and keep rolling!

Mark Knights is  39 year old guy living in a small rural town called Elliott in Tasmania, Australia.  I have been role playing since I was 11 years old playing the original versions of Dungeons and Dragons, MERP, Elric, Dragon Warriors and the like amongst other genre games.  I played D&D 2nd Edition through the 90′s but I ran Earthdawn for my fantasy setting and loved it as a GM.  When 3rd Edition came out for D&D I tried it but found it too heavy on rules.  I ignored the 3.5 edition of DnD in favour of Earthdawn (big mistake) as I thought it was just a money spinner.  When 4th Edition DnD came on my players and I gave it a red hot go but hated what it had dumbed the game down to be.  On a trip to Melbourne to buy some 4E stuff from a hobby store an old mate of mine pointed me at Pathfinder and in a Fantasy setting I have never looked back.

Instant NPCs – Part II

SmithyLast time we came up with some resources to create NPCs quickly on the fly. We generated a list of names, found a list of traits, and located a list of motivations. Why don’t we use those resources to generate some NPCs?

Like with everything else, context is important. So knowing where these characters are going to appear is the first part of the puzzle. But usually I won’t know which path the characters might take, so I may create a few NPCs ahead of time and leave some random elements to do them on the fly if necessary.

For instance, if my PCs are exploring an urban setting and go visit a general store, they may want to chat with the shopkeeper.

First I’ll roll a d12 (or use to select a name from the list I created earlier. I rolled a 7, which is… Blizzard. Not one of my favorites on the list, but we’ll go with it to see where it leads.

Next, I’ll try and use the Fiction Writer’s Mentor list of traits and (works just as well as randomly picking something by hand or via dice) to come up with a random number between 1 and 447. I get 360, which is… Sensitive.

And lastly I’ll roll another d24 on the list of motivations from Alric, which is… Honesty.

Somehow from that combination of properties I see Blizzard as a younger, sensitive girl working on the shop and being brutally honest with customers. And voila, I have a NPC I can work with.

Let’s try another one. Maybe our PCs are on the road and run across a traveling caravan going the other direction. They decide to ask if they hit any trouble on the road ahead. So I’ll need a caravan guard to materialize…

  • Name: (roll a 6) Tai’sul
  • Trait: (roll a 331) Religious
  • Motivation: (roll a 21) Service

I can definitely work with that. Our man Tai’sul is a religious man in the service of his faith escorting a high-ranking church member from one location to another. Perhaps the high-ranking priest is on a tour of temples and churches in the area making sure they’re being held to the standards of their faith. But a personality for our churchly guard is easy to come up with and helped me come up with a reason for the caravan as well.

Let’s do one more for good measure… Perhaps our PCs want to talk to the religious figure being escorted by our friend Tai’sul.

  • Name: (roll a 3) Gwilherm
  • Trait: (roll a 419) Unconcerned
  • Motivation: (roll a 1) Achievement (doesn’t really work, so I roll again) (roll a 20) Religion/Faith

When Tai’sul goes to speak with his master in the wagon, he comes back quickly asking if any of the PCs are among the faithful of their gods. If so, Father Gwilherm will speak with the PCs and express that it was his guards’ duty to protect him from any incidents that may have occurred on the road. If they should die, their spirits will be well taken care of by their creators. Why should he care for any trouble? What is ordained is ordained… And if there are no faithful among the PCs, he declines to speak with them at all and urges his retinue to continue on their journey.

Again, the name, trait, and motivation came together not only to help define the NPC but guide the parameters of the encounter.

Brian “Fitz” Fitzpatrick is a Software Engineer who manages (or is that mangles) Game Knight Reviews and tinkers with writing game materials via his Moebius Adventures imprint. When he’s not writing about gaming, he’s actually gaming or at least thinking about gaming in some capacity. During the non-writing, non-gaming time he’s likely trying to keep up with his wife and two daughters or wrangling code for a living!

Review: Odyssey: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Campaign Management

Odyssey CoverAuthor:  Phil Vecchione, Walt Ciechanowski
Publisher:  Engine Publishing
Art Director: John Arcadian
Price: Print & PDF $24.95 / PDF $11.95 / PDF @ RPGNow ($11.95)
Pages: 212

Odyssey: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Campaign Management is the most recent release from Engine Publishing in print and PDF form, plus bonus EPUB, MOBI and text versions. The book is written by Phil Vecchione (also author of Never Unprepared from Engine Publishing) and Walt Ciechanowski, with art by Avery Liell-Kok, Matt Morrow, Christopher Reach, and Daniel Wood.

Odyssey is a guide to managing campaigns. With that in mind the book covers three major topic areas – starting a campaign, managing a campaign, and ending a campaign. A shorter section defining campaigns starts the book. The book aims to be an in-depth guide to helping a GM guide a campaign from the time it is just an idea, starting the campaign, running the campaign and making it past obstacles that can occur, to wrapping up your campaign.

The book weaves a fictional gaming group amongst the advice to help show how situations can work out better using the advice in the book. The technique works well for this purpose.

Let’s take a look at the book section by section.

On Campaigns

Before the book gets too far into helping you manage a campaign it defines a campaign. Four elements are noted that make up a campaign – characters, gaming sessions, a series of events, and continuity.

Working from there the book moves into why one would want to manage a campaign. Here the book briefly goes into the phases of the campaign, a closer look at the layers of the campaign, and the constant tides of risk and change and their impact on the campaign. This all helps make the case as to why a campaign can benefit from management.

This section is short, but serves well to set the stage for the rest of the book.

Starting a Campaign

The first part of a campaign is starting a campaign. This chapter begins by defining four main phases of starting a campaign. This includes coming up with the campaign concept, the framework, creation, and the first session. The first chapter in this section defines the role of GM and of the players that make up the gaming group as well as key skills for people starting a campaign.

This takes us to the Campaign Concept chapter. This chapter breaks down the elements of forming the concept for the game. The ground rules or blocks that are going to form the foundation of the campaign. Methods of coming up with these ideas as a group or GM are included, along with advantages and disadvantages of each method.

Next we move into the Campaign Framework chapter. This section goes over what I would call the “meta” of the campaign. What system are you going to use, setting, what supplements are allowed, house rules, and even social contracts at the table. The chapter goes into more depth on choosing a setting and what other factors to consider as part of the framework – like roles of the PCs, power level, etc.

Campaign creation gets a short chapter. This chapter aims to help a GM organize his material and consider several elements that go into campaign creation from the GM’s side of the screen.

And finally, this section wraps up with a section on the First Session. This chapter tackles how to handle that first session. I always think the first session of any campaign is one of the hardest. Getting the characters involved in the new world always seems tricky to me, no matter how excited I am for the new campaign. There were several good tips on here on how to get the most out of that first session.

Managing a Campaign

This section jumps right in with the first chapter titled Campaign Management. The chapter is an overview of what is to come, noting five areas of focus. Story, player characters, people, risk, and change. The chapter goes on to talk about being agile and flexible with the areas of focus and avoiding a strict railroad in running a game.

Engine Publishing LogoStory management dives into several good bits of information. Everything from story arcs to ways to hook players into the arc. There is also a section on story structure and touches on the three-act and five-act models plays as something to mimic. The chapter also touches on pacing, the importance of interesting NPCs, and other story related elements that need managed.

Player Character Management comes up next. The authors touch on different character types, growing a character during a campaign both in character and mechanically. There are also tips on how to showcase this growth during sessions.

People Management covers a multitude of real life people scenarios that can impact your game and frequently need some management. Everything from scheduling issues, to problem player types that can disrupt a campaign. The chapter closes with tips on keeping interest in the campaign – both the GM’s and the player’s.

Risk Management is a short chapter that helps a GM use a four step process for managing risks. These steps help determine what risks might be, how likely they are to occur (to help determine how much time to spend on them), and how to mitigate the risk. This was a handy chapter and helps drive home that there is always risk, but not all risk warrants time spent on detailed plans to mitigate, while others might.

The final chapter in this section is Change Management. This chapter also covers four steps to use to address change that might occur in your campaign. This change could be anything from a new player joining the group to a long term player leaving the group.

Ending a Campaign

The first chapter in this section is titled When It Is Time To End Your Campaign. Several warning signs that it is time to consider ending your campaign are listed. The authors also note that ending a campaign is not necessarily a bad thing.

Killing a Campaign comes next as one of the ways to end a campaign. Four common approaches to this method are mentioned and how to implement each of those in your own campaign. And even if a campaign must be killed, the chapter reminds you to look at why the campaign failed and learn from it.

The next chapter covers methods to Suspend a Campaign. The first topic addresses determine whether a campaign should be killed rather than suspended. If interest exists to continue at a later date, then suspending the campaign might be an option. The chapter covers how to suspend it and how to bring it back when the time has come to do so.

The final option mentioned is the Managed Ending. This is where the campaign simply has loose ends tied up because the campaign has run its course. This is a chance to explore final areas players have been desperate to do so or tie up any other loose ends that might exist. The grand finale!


Odyssey: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Campaign Management is another excellent offering from Engine Publishing. Campaign management is an often overlooked component of RPG books. Very few RPG publishers give the topic an in-depth look. Campaigns are what keep people playing and successful campaigns are what keep people coming back to the table. The practical advice included in Odyssey is a methodical look at managing a successful campaign and avoiding common pitfalls, a welcome resource to both new GMs and seasoned GMs alike. The fact it is system neutral helps further its usefulness to an even greater number of GMs.

In addition to the usefulness of the subject matter, the book flowed well making reading about such management techniques of a campaign enjoyable. The mixing of the fictional gaming group stories applying the techniques were useful examples further illustrating the relevance of the techniques.

Pairing Odyssey with Never Unprepared and a new or seasoned GM is well on their way to smooth running sessions and campaigns.

Instant NPCs – Part I

Soldier NPCIn any campaign, sandbox or not, the world has to be filled with people coming and going to give it life. Otherwise our PCs are just wandering around talking to themselves or a bunch of monsters. And yes, monsters can be fun (I love a good dungeon crawl), but the roleplaying aspect of our hobby comes from more than combat.

So are NPCs a dime a dozen? It wouldn’t seem so. When I was GMing regularly I had a list of names that I could grab something from when my players decided they needed to visit with someone. But a name isn’t usually enough. After all, who is “Bob” really? He works at the blacksmith down on the corner, but what does he do? What’s his personality like? How does he dress? And that’s when I always got a bit drowned in details. We could go into detail on each and every character in the “world” the characters inhabit, but what does that mean?

Details it turns out are sometimes unnecessary. I find I really like the “One Sentence NPC” approach that Johnn Four pioneered at the Roleplaying Tips site (you can see the issue with the article here), but I want to streamline it a little.

All I really need is a name, a personality trait, and a motivation. The rest sort of handles itself in the process of roleplaying the NPC.

Let’s start with the names. I prefer to have a list prepared that I can just randomly select from, cross off so I don’t use it again, and move on. So let’s generate a list. There are a number of terrific random generators I use regularly:

  • Behind the Name offers all sorts of categories to help guide your name generation. You could specify the “Breton” and “Hillbilly” categories, select “Masculine” as the gender, click “Generate a Name” and instantly have one pop up. I got Corentin, Yanick, and Gwilherm, which are all fun.
  • The Fantasy Name Generator from Samuel Stoddard at Rinkworks is one I use the most. It has two options – Simple and Advanced. I usually just go with Simple and click “Generate Names” to create a block I can pull from. The Advanced side requires a bit of ramp-up to learn how to use, but you have a ton of customizable options available. We’ll grab three “simple” names here – Denad, Alet, and Tai’sul.
  • Seventh Sanctum has a huge number of available options for names (and many many other things). In this case, I like the “Fantasy Name Extreme Generator”, which definitely offers some over-the-top names for your list. After generating 25 names, I’ll grab Blizzard, Flora, and Zeal.
  • And last but not least there’s the Fantasy Name generator at Chaotic Shiny. Like Seventh Sanctum, Chaotic Shiny has a ton of fun generators to play with, but the name tool works great. Tell it how many you want and what gender and it chugs away giving me Kad, Traska, and Kailin.

Thief NPCObviously there are many more out there. Use your Google-fu to find a few and let me know if you find any other cool ones. 🙂

Editor’s Note: And don’t forget Brian’s own License Plates as Name Generators article here for great name ideas.

So here’s the name list we’ve put together. It works well for a random d12 roll at first or just the random stab with a finger:

  • Corentin
  • Yanick
  • Gwilherm
  • Denad
  • Alet
  • Tai’sul
  • Blizzard
  • Flora
  • Zeal
  • Kad
  • Traska
  • Kailin

Once we have our names, we need to find some traits. Again, there are quite a few online references to choose from or existing supplements to pick up.

Luckily Johnn Four’s 3 Line PCs book offers just such a list. There’s 1000 traits in the list to choose from. Randomly roll a d1000 or use the phonebook method of scrolling to a page and putting your finger down. Everything from Able & Brutish to Young & Zany. Just pick one.

Or if you are looking for a list on the web, here are a few I found:

And lastly we need some form of motivation. Why drives these characters to do whatever it is they do or behave the way they do? Here again are a few resources on the web with lists of motivations…

So with these three broad, random lists in hand why don’t we create a few NPCs? Next time we’ll do just that. 🙂

Brian “Fitz” Fitzpatrick is a Software Engineer who manages (or is that mangles) Game Knight Reviews and tinkers with writing game materials via his Moebius Adventures imprint. When he’s not writing about gaming, he’s actually gaming or at least thinking about gaming in some capacity. During the non-writing, non-gaming time he’s likely trying to keep up with his wife and two daughters or wrangling code for a living!

En Route Encounters

En Route IIt has been a while since I ran a good sandbox fantasy campaign.  I like the adventure paths and enjoy going through them, but they are linear and it can be tough to really have the feeling of go anywhere and try to do anything.  Even though I haven’t run that kind of campaign lately I still hold on to and seek out books that aid in that kind of campaign.  There are not a lot out there that are easily adaptable and portable into different fantasy games and worlds.  This week I am going to look at three books of the En Route series by Atlas Games for their Penumbra line.  These books offer a variety of different encounters that can easily be dropped into almost any fantasy campaign.

The En Route series of books boasts some impressive writers.  We have author credits by Keith Baker, Brannon Hollingsworth, Chris Aylott, Spike Jones, Justin Achilli, and many other familiar names.  The first two are written for 3e and the third is written for 3.5 ed D&D using the OGL, but these are very mechanics light products making them very easy to port into any other fantasy game.  Since the books are older it should be easy to find them relatively cheap.  A quick look on shows they can be purchased for around $5 a piece.

En Route IIThe En Route series are books featuring simple encounters designed to be used when the PCs are traveling from one place to another.  Some are for on the road, in a city, a tavern, in a forest, on the sea, and other places.  There is a variety of different locations with some unusual ones like in a goblin encampment or whenever the party teleports.  Each encounter is a bit more in depth with great plot ideas that a DM can carry forward.  This is one of the great things I like about the books, the encounters can be throw away encounters the PCs run into and then can forget about.  But I like encounters that might originally feel like that but a DM can cleverly use something established there and showcase it later in the campaign.  I think it helps tie different adventures together and helps the players remember what is happening in the campaign because they know something that is happening now can come back and help or hinder them in the future.

Between the three books there are approximately 50 different encounters.  Each covers about four to eight pages.  There are simple ones like the Door.  It is designed for second level characters and while wandering a road they encounter signs that say something like “Are you Worthy?” and “Do you think you have what it takes?”.  Ahead off to the side of the road is a small trail that leads to a door in the side of a rock facing covered in mystical runes and animal carvings.  The door is locked and trapped.  What lies behind the door will be remembered by the party.

En Route IIIThere is the Haunting Place, which says it is for level 10 but I would reduce it to lower level.  The magic of a level 10 party could easily make this encounter too easy or they could kill the creature they are trying to help.  It is built on the idea of a summoned monster trying to get home but there is a communication problem between it and anyone it tries to get to help it.  It can really set the scene for a spooky encounter as the players are trying to figure out exactly what is going on.

Many of the encounters are not combat encounters.  Some use illusions or tricks to set up situations that are not quite apparent to the players at first. One of my favorites is the Glass House by Keith Baker.  It is a simple situation in which a magical experiment inside in Inn turns the place and everyone inside invisible.  The PCs are assumed to be outside and witness the Inn and everyone vanish.  There is a mystery of what happened and how to undo it all but it sets up for some fun and different kind of encounter.

The En Route series is perfect for DMs looking for something a little extra to help out a gaming session or serve as a small distraction.  None of them will take a full session or even a half of session but all of them could if the DM wants to put in a little work to add additional levels of complexity.  I like these for a sandbox campaign as it would be easy to just have the books handy and grab them when needed.  There are a few that could be used in Adventure Paths to just put in something different and not directly connected to the AP.  Most of them are for lower level groups and any of these that say they are for higher ones like level 10 and up I would pay close attention to, as most of them I feel would work better for lower level characters.  There is a lot of creativity and cleverness in these books coming from authors who were not as well-known as they are today.

Chris Gath.  I’ve been gaming since 1980 playing all kinds of games since then.  In the past year I’ve run Pathfinder, Dungeon Crawl Classic, Paranoia, and Mini d6.  My current campaign is mini d6 and we are using that for a modern supernatural conspiracy investigative game.  On some forums I’m known as Crothian and I’ve written a few hundred reviews though I took a sabbatical from reviewing for a few years as it burnt me out.  I was also an judge for the Gen Con awards (ENnies) six times.  Jeff, the owner of this blog, is one of my players and a good friend.