Tag: advice

Designing Single-Session Adventures part 2

In part 1 of this series on single-session adventures, Michael gave the broad strokes of adventure design, from the desired playstyle to decisions on system and settings. Now we move into more specific adventure construction advice.

If you missed the previous article, find it here:

Designing the Adventure part 1


Consider Multiple Environments

George Lucas explained that when making his original three Star Wars movies, he wanted three very different environments in each film. This practice conveys to the viewer three very different moods in a single movie (in just a few hours), and it also lends a slightly epic feel to the story. In the original Star Wars, we have the barren desert of Tatooine, then the cold and colorless interior of the Death Star, and finally the black vacuum of space as the rebel ships try to destroy the Death Star. In The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas gave us the frozen wastes of Hoth, the humid swamps of Dagobah, and the ethereal cloud city of Bespin. In Return of the Jedi, we start in the lifeless desert of Tatooine, move to the lush forest moon of Endor, and end inside the colorless reconstructed Death Star. Gary Gygax, consciously or not, used the same approach in G1: Against the Giants. The PCs first infiltrate the timber-framed steading of the hill giant chief, then invade the glacial rift of the frost giant jarl, and conclude in the volcanic halls of the fire giant king. Read more

RPG-ology #32: Doing Something

This is RPG-ology #32:  Doing Something, for July 2020.


Although this is actually about a gaming referee technique, I’m starting with an example from a book, my novel Verse Three, Chapter One, freely accessible on the web.  It also begins with magic items, but moves beyond that to objects in other settings and genres.

As the story unfolded I needed to have one character, effectively a support character or non-player character, give one of my main characters a specific small magic object in a magically-shielded bag, but had to do it in a way that would not make it seem obvious that this was my intention.  The easy way to do that was to put several other small magical objects in the same bag, so that the immediately important one would be just one of several.  That’s one trick you should note.  Somewhere in the Harry Potter books, probably in The Half-Blood Prince, Harry enters the Room of Requirement in its guise as the place to hide things so no one can find them, and Rowling mentions several objects as examples of the mass collection of junk.  One of them is a tiara, I think sitting incongruously on the head of a bust of a man, if memory serves.  Then in the final book, The Deathly Hallows, we come to a place where he has to find the Diadem of Ravenclaw, and neither he nor we know where it is–but in fact he and we have seen it already, and just didn’t realize it was important because it was hiding amidst all the other junk.  I had already done the same thing with my important object, dropping it into a bag with four other objects.  My five objects were a paper clip, a coin, a six-sided die, a cat’s eye marble, and an acorn. Read more

Designing Single-Session Adventures part 1

Part one of a four-article series on designing and running a one-shot, single-session adventure. See the end of the article for links to the rest of the series.


Unfortunately, I’ve never been to a gaming convention, but for years I have been intrigued by the early tournament adventures of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

At Origins II in 1976, several DMs ran Gary Gygax’s new science-fiction/fantasy crossover, later called S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. This stand-alone adventure was a simple one-round affair, in which various gaming groups competed. A uniform scoring system allowed DMs to give each group a score (and perhaps each player—I’m not sure).

Later, Gygax expanded the scope of his idea to a series of linked adventures. At Origins IV in 1978, over the course of two days, DMs ran dozens of groups through Gygax’s new, three-part adventure, later titled G1-3: Against the Giants. The groups that did best with the first adventure in the first round got to play the subsequent adventures in the second and third rounds, either later that day or on the following day. The sequel, D1: Descent into the Depths of the Earth, was not used in a tournament, but at GenCon XI that same year, DMs ran two follow-up adventures in the series, namely D2: Shrine of the Koa-Toa and D3: Vault of the Drow. Two years later, at GenCon XIII in 1980, DMs ran players through the entirety of Gygax’s new Slaver series, including A1: Slave Pits of the Undercity, A2: Secret of the Slavers’ Stockade, A3: Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords, and A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords. Sometime after each convention, Gygax published the adventures. Generations of gamers have rated several of these series as their favorites of all time.

An experienced DM that tries their hand at writing a single-session adventure, whether for their personal gaming group or for strangers at a convention—whether as a scored tournament or not—will quickly find that it requires a very specific design. You simply cannot plan it in the same way that you would a long-term campaign or even a stand-alone adventure that will take many gaming sessions. What are the required differences? What tips can we use to produce successful single-session adventures? Let’s take a look. Read more

Sewers and Such

Someone once wrote that good Game Masters seem to know a little bit about everything. If it’s not obvious, this is because they need to know how the world works so they can make their own game settings seem real. I know this first-hand from years of running fantasy campaigns. At one point or another, I found myself digging into the details of agriculture, mining, free diving, sailing, carpentry, sheep breeding, the wool trade, and a dozen other subjects that I never imagined I would research. Of course, this is not limited to fantasy role-playing. When running Gamma World or some other apocalyptic game, a good GM probably needs to know a little about modern firearms, lasers, nuclear radiation, mutation, the ecology of a wasteland, etc. Running Traveller or another sci-fi game, the GM should probably know something about the vacuum of space, space travel, planets, stars, asteroids, comets, gravity, etc. You get the idea.

Not long ago, M.J. Young of the Christian Gamers Guild penned a few short articles on very generic topics, like waterways, country roads, and cities. Though at face value they seem too generic to be helpful, the articles can be surprisingly useful to GMs. Great GMs might know a little about everything, but they don’t start off like that. Everyone needs to pick up basics from someplace, and MJ’s articles were great for anyone not already knowledgeable about those topics. Even veterans can glean some points that they had never considered.

In this brief article, I‘ll touch on another topic that seems like it could be useful to many GMs—sewers. I cannot count the times that I’ve seen modules or homemade adventures with wererats skulking through labyrinthine sewers. Strangely, though I’ve been playing for over thirty-five years, I never played in or ran such an adventure. I recently decided to add a sewer setting to an ongoing campaign, but I realized that I had to find out something about sewers first. As with most things, one topic connects to many others. In this case, I found it tough to examine sewer systems without simultaneously looking at water supplies and plumbing. Read more

Manage Your Factions with Mind Mapping

I was in a conversation recently about how Game Masters manage factions—how do you track their activities and relationships? I use a technique of mind mapping. If you’ve never heard this term, a mind map is a drawing that abstracts the relationships between people, organizations, nations, etc into a spatial diagram. It can look similar to a flowchart, but it doesn’t necessarily progress to an end point. Here’s a sample of a map I used for planning a long-ago Unknown Armies campaign:

Read more

RPG-ology #5: Country Roads

This is RPG-ology #5: Country Roads, for April 2018.


Of course, role playing game referees almost always have maps, and many of us make most of our own maps. The fact is that you don’t really necessarily need maps, and we’ll probably eventually talk about running games without them, but for most of the kinds of games most of us play, maps are an important part. I even belong to a Facebook group dedicated entirely to game referees making and sharing their maps. Honestly some of them look more like aerial photography, but that’s useful too. Questions often arise about how to make maps, and having been a Boy Scout and having taught Cub Scouts a few Scout skills over the years, I’m pretty good at maps. So we’ll probably return to them from time to time. One of the questions I often hear, though, is how do you design the roads on your maps. If you don’t understand how roads work, you can do some pretty silly things with them.

This article is going to talk about what we’re dubbing “country roads”, with apologies to John Denver, but we’re including wilderness roads, desert roads, pretty much any road that is outside the confines of a city—the long roads that take you from one major place to another in your adventure setting, the road on which your adventurers set out when they began that took them somewhere else. Some of what we’ll talk about applies to city streets as well, but they have their own complications and issues, so maybe we’ll come back to them in another article. Read more

RPG-ology #4: The Big Game

This is RPG-ology #4: The Big Game, for March 2018.


I’m going to begin by apologizing to the Christian Gamers Guild President, Reverend Rodney Barnes. It seems we often find ourselves arguing opposite ends of a question. Years ago (maybe decades) we both participated in the Magic Symposium in The Way, the Truth, and the Dice, and his contribution, Magic as Part of Creation, suggested handling the issue in exactly the way that my contribution, Magic: Essential to Faith, Essential to Fantasy, said was the wrong way. Now a year ago he wrote The Numbers Game, in which he suggested keeping a strict limit on the number of players in your game, and it seems that I am writing to contradict him once again.

Let me say that this is not really my intention, and I do understand his point. When I run Multiverser games, even at conventions, I try to keep the game to four players at a time, and if it stretches beyond six I usually try to get someone at the table to work with me as a second referee to run some of the players. But E. R. Jones and I had the experience of being two of maybe half a dozen known Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™ Dungeon Masters in our small county, and when we ran the game the rule was always that anyone who wants to play is welcome at the table as long as someone already there will vouch for him. I sometimes ran thirty players in my living room/dining room; he sometimes ran fifty in cafeterias and snack shops.

So I’m writing to tell you how to do it, or at least how I did it, and what I know of how he did it, having watched him from the player’s seat. Read more

Faith in Play #4: Bad Friends

This is Faith in Play #4: Bad Friends, for March 2018.


This started with a bit of silliness that over the course of a few hours became considerably more serious.

It was a morning drive, and on the radio someone was talking about how Jesus had saved her marriage. She said that now her husband was her “best friend”.

I know it was sincere, and it was undoubtedly truly meaningful, but I’m afraid it is so cliché that I immediately noted to my wife, “You know, no one ever talks about their worst friend.” We laughed. I said that there must be a way I can use that for something, and we pondered how you would identify your “worst friend.”

A few hours later I shared the joke with my youngest son, who did not laugh but instead said that he knew exactly who his worst friend was.

There is something of an attitude in gaming groups that says we must be friends because we’re all gamers who get together to play. It’s like thinking that you must be friends with everyone who goes to the same bowling matches or bridge games or cocktail parties. I have talked about that before, in Faith and Gaming: Friends. I have also written in mark Joseph “young” web log post #93: What is a Friend? about two distinct concepts of friendship. I hold the word to a rather high bar. I think most of the people who think themselves my friends probably are only acquaintances who like playing games with me. That’s fine; it’s good to have acquaintances of that sort. You could even call them friends.

My son’s choice for “worst friend,” though, was enlightening. He named the high school friend who, after serving in Afghanistan, became a homeless drug addict. This boy seems impossible to help—give him shelter and food, and he takes advantage of the situation to steal from the house to buy drugs.

We have a short list of people who are not allowed inside the house. They are welcome to sit on the front deck and talk with people, and we will help them as we can, but the doorway is the boundary. I always explain it to them very simply: People who live here believe that you have stolen from them and that you will do so again. As long as you are never inside the house, no one can accuse you of having stolen anything from inside the house. Thus the rule protects you from being accused. It happens that it also protects them from the temptation of stealing from us. This friend is on that list.

As I considered this, I realized that there have been many people whom we treated as friends over the years who abused that status. More than once we had to discontinue having gaming groups play in our home because someone, never identified, stole things from us, and rebuilding a gaming group after something like that is not simple. If the people we entertain in our home are our friends, we have had some bad friends. What do we do about these people?

Love your enemies, and pray for those who mistreat you, so that you may become sons of your Father in heaven. For He makes His sun shine on the good and the bad, and gives the blessing of rain to the righteous and the unrighteous.

Let me be clear. I do not mean that you necessarily have to give your bad friends free rein of your home; I do not mean that you do not report theft or other crimes to the police. Sometimes the most loving thing you can do is put someone in jail—if indeed you are doing it as the best way to help them. We have had to do that at least once. What is expected, though, is that we continue to love the bad friends, even the worst friend, and to look for the best way to help them. We were never promised that showing love wouldn’t result in pain or injury to ourselves. We were promised that God would recognize His own image in us when we did so.

There is a footnote to this story. This was written about a year before it was published here, and in the intervening months my wife and I were both hospitalized and released with some severe restrictions on our activities. During this time that “worst friend” appeared, clean and sober, and stayed with us for an extended time, cooking and cleaning and otherwise making life possible for us while we were recuperating. No one is irredeemable, and a little love and grace and kindness can go a long way.

So show love to your friends, even the worst friend.


Previous article: Javan’s Feast.
Next article: Fear.

Keeping Their Heads Down

Trickles of sweat stung his eyes and slowly worked down his back. This jungle wasn’t anything like the New Jersey Pine Barrens he grew up in. He viewed the dark with the special night vision goggles that made everything look like some bizarre green seascape. Ten years as a city cop had not prepared him for humping through a tropical rain forest. “Pepsi, check, over…” He was supposed to observe radio silence but hearing a friendly voice helped take the edge off. ‘Pepsi’ Kohler was a lifelong friend and a former Marine, a comforting companion for his first night on patrol.

“Check, Woody, wait one…,” came the reply. There was an edge to the brief transmission. Woody Marks quickly turned and began scanning in the direction of his teammate. Still a novice with the NVGs, he suffered a temporary green out of his vision as he scanned right over the team’s campfire. With a muffled curse, he pushed the goggles onto his forehead and searched the night with his naked eyes. He spotted Kohler on one knee, 40 meters away, SMG at the ready. Woody followed Pepsi’s line of sight, trying to see what had spooked him. A hint of movement in his peripheral vision brought his attention back around behind Pepsi. The biggest, meanest looking Bengal tiger Woody had ever seen was stalking his friend! Read more

The Numbers Game

CGG President Rodney Barnes begins a series about how a Gamemaster can be a Servant to their roleplaying group. 


Too many personalities to handle?

How big should your RPG group be?

There is not a set answer to the question of how big your group should be. But here are some helpful guidelines to help you in establishing a group size. Read more