Tag: tips

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

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

RPG-ology #27: Cures for Dropping Dice

This is RPG-ology #27:  Cures for Dropping Dice, for February 2020.

If you play real role playing games, the dice can be a bit of a problem.  No matter how careful you are, sometimes they roll off the table–and players are not always terribly careful.  My first role playing game–Basic Dungeons & Dragons first edition, what they call the “Holmes Edition”–did not have dice in the box, but came with chits.  Chits were probably 3/8″ plastic squares with numbers printed on one side, and you put them in a cup and then drew from the cup.  If you’ve never played with chits, it is an experience you don’t need.  On the other hand, if you’re ever trying to run a game and somehow forgot your dice, but you do have paper, scissors, and a pen, you can make your own chits, and let’s just say that will be a game you remember.  We promptly went out and bought dice.

In the earliest days, if a die rolled off the table, the person who rolled it got down and searched for it.  We actually were friends–we had been playing other games together before we discovered role playing games, and still played pinochle and board games–so if the die wasn’t found immediately we generally all got involved in looking.  This, though, took time away from play, and we needed a better solution.

The first solution was simple:  buy more dice.  If a die hit the floor, just take another and roll it.  Hopefully we’ll find the dropped dice during post-game clean-up, or if it rolled under the fish tank stand or the hutch or something we would get it when we did more serious house cleaning (right).  This was adequate for a group of older, calmer players who only occasionally dropped a die on the floor.  My second group, mostly teenagers, made it a bit more problematic.

I have in the years since heard house rules used to discourage reckless dice throwing.  Perhaps the most dramatic is that any die that falls on the floor is presumed to be the worst possible roll.  Although that appeals to me, my experience with my first group tells me that dice are unpredictable, and careful rolls sometimes wind up going over the edge.  It may be a harsh punishment for an unavoidable infraction.  Still, in-game penalties for dropped dice might discourage the wild throws.

A better solution was found by my second group.  One of the players was an amateur woodworker who put together something–well, I often say “A thing of beauty was made by someone else,” and this was a thing of beauty.  We called it a dice box, but since at one time I kept all my dice in a metal Band-Aid® box, that really understates what this was.

Let’s start with the base.  I’m guessing, but it must have been about fifteen by twelve inches.  It was partitioned into two sections which, allowing for the thickness of the edges and the partition, were probably about ten inches square and three by ten.  (As I say, I’m working from memory to give the approximations.)  It was all stained hardwood, but the sections were floored with dark blue velvet.  The larger section had sides about two inches or so high, and the smaller was probably about one inch.  The function of this section was that you put the dice in the side section and rolled them in the larger section.  Rolls rarely if ever went over the sides.

As I say, that was only one part.  There was also a separate square piece designed to slide into the large section and to stick above it perhaps half an inch.  This had a sliding removeable lid and wooden crosspieces that interlocked to create nine compartments inside.  When the game was over, the dice got sorted into those compartments, the lid secured, and the case inserted into the base.  It was a beautiful and effective solution to a lot of problems.  (Let me credit Bill Friant for this.)

I have more recently been told of something identified as a “dice tower”.  The person who described it said he only ever used it with Shadowrun™, but doesn’t know if it is actually associated with that game.  The tower sits on the table and the player doesn’t roll the die but drops it in the top, whence it tumbles out the bottom to display the result.  I have never seen one, but it sounds like an elegant solution.

The problem recurs.  With advancing technology I found myself rolling dice at my office desk more and more frequently–that would be the very cluttered desk in my very cluttered office.  I was once again dropping dice and not always able to find them easily.  Crawling on the floor was not really a good option.

One solution was the use of a stopwatch.  Someone with even a bit of geek math can fairly easily convert seconds or hundredths into standard die rolls.  When my last electronic watch died, one of my online players sent me an electronic stopwatch which survived several years before I wore out the buttons (thanks here to John Cross).  To guard against it becoming lost, I set its alarm for eleven at night, and I still hear it somewhere in the office at around ten-forty.

When I have to do massive identical rolls, such as creating a horde of goblins, I usually use the “random” function in an Excel® spreadsheet.  This has proven quite useful to create creatures with hit points, weapon choice, and pocket change all at once.

For most things, though, I still prefer to roll dice, and I have found a solution that keeps the dice contained and the rolls random.  I call it a “dice cube”, and it probably owes something to the Pop-O-Matic Bubble® of decades back.  I obtained a clear, or mostly clear, food container, such as a one pound deli container.  My current one came with dark chocolate covered almonds, which I dutifully ate.  Into the container goes one of each die type needed for play, and extras of those for which I am frequently rolling more than one.  When it’s time to roll, I flip it upright and then put it down on the lid; the dice fall onto the flat interior of the lid, and I can read them through the upturned bottom and sides.  For those die types that have multiple representatives, I usually just use the first one I find, although sometimes I name what the die looks like before rolling.  Obviously they never leave the box, so I never have to find them on the floor.  I am currently considering creating a similar box for the players, although the temptation to cheat by selecting the best roll from among the dice would probably be pretty strong.

I hope some of these ideas help you solve your fallen dice problem, and if you have other solutions, please offer them in the comments section below.

Previous article:  Monster Design.
Next article:  Character Death.

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

Treasure Division: A Case Study From Northumbria

This scene takes place between part 2 and part 3 of “Terror in the Tower.”


The session began with the PCs back in the village of Lakesend, in between forays to the ruined temple of Pholtus. At some point, the PCs had an interesting discussion on treasure division, and I, as DM, played the various NPCs in the party. It was an interesting rebirth of an age-old dilemma, namely ‘How should treasure be divided?’ I submit that by letting players grab whatever they want without forcing them to think, you miss some good role-playing opportunities.

Cast of Characters

Most party members are part of one large extended family—the noble Beckett family. A few are retainers.

Granny Beckett: Witch, eccentric matriarch of the family
Jade Cormallen: Half-elf ranger, distant relative to most
Lord Roger Beckett: Ranger, new family head
Acolyte Denston Beckett: Cleric of Pholtus, grumpy and dour
Daniel Beckett: Assassin, passionate and protective
Sir Callum Beckett: Cavalier, burly and jovial
Sir William Beckett: Cavalier, sarcastic and brave
Brother Lewie: Cleric of St. Cuthbert, erratic but insightful
Sven Ragnarsson: Barbarian, bastard of Granny, Bjorn’s twin
Bjorn Ragnarsson: Barbarian, bastard of Granny, Sven’s twin
Brother Liam: Cleric of St. Cuthbert, comrade of Brother Lewie
Sir Raynard: Cavalier, handsome and witty
Raymond: NPC (Fighter 1), stoic and responsible
Owen: NPC (Ranger 1), introverted and self-sufficient
Kieran: NPC (Magic User 1), gentle and intelligent
Sergeant Blaine: NPC Fighter, porter to the Beckett family
Dagis: NPC (Fighter 0), new squire to Sir Callum


Day 25, Eighth Moon

That evening after supper, the family casually discussed treasure division. Here are some bits of the conversation:

KIERAN BECKETT: “We are a family, and we have always worked as a team. Some of us perform very basic and very boring duties so that others are free to perform tasks for Lord Balin or to further the family’s interests. Owen has led a few of our kin on hunting expeditions almost every single day. Elwood and I have been gathering food, fishing, and caring for the shepherd’s sheep every single day—part of our agreement with Lord Balin. Since we share duties—exciting or otherwise—perhaps we should share spoils to some degree. Personally, I am less concerned with spending money than I am with restoring our family’s wealth by discovering the secret to those Cimbrian blades that we captured. Perhaps, each time we come into some wealth, we can put a very small percentage aside for those efforts? There is so much that I need to purchase or to acquire for proper research.”

SERGEANT BLAINE FORESTER (from his sick bed): “The Becketts will always have my loyalty and my halberd. I need no fancy trinkets, but some coin to buy a beer each day would be welcome. That is all. I used to serve for pay when you had your estate. Of course, when we were displaced, I did not expect you to pay me a wage. Now that we are coming into some coin though, perhaps a few coins each month would be possible. It is a small matter at the end of the day though.”

OWEN BECKETT: “Granny has kept us all on our feet more times than we can count. All those herbs and strange concoctions must cost something. Something tells me that we shall need her services many times in the future. It might be wise to take a small percentage of whatever we gain and put it towards restocking her stash of elixirs and such. Elwood and I could probably find all of her herbs for free, but feeding the family every day has consumed all of our time and energy. I am exhausted, by the way.”

RAYMOND BECKETT: “Along similar lines, it would not hurt to make small regular donations to both the Temple of St. Cuthbert, here in the village, and the shrine in the Keep. Sooner or later, we may need more than Granny’s healing, and the clerics will have to ask themselves why they should help us. Sure, Brother Lewie has connections with the curate and Brother Liam has ties to the vicar, but do not forget that we are newcomers here. They barely know us, and they are preparing for a major siege. Healing us with anything beyond minor salves and poultices may not be very high on their priority list.”

ACOLYTE DENSTON BECKETT: “From experience, I do not expect you heathens to worship the one true God (Pholtus), but it is only fitting that you allot me the same amount of coin that you dedicate to your temple or shrine. I must have something to donate on our behalf.”

DAGIS: “I require no coins. Sir Callum… and you all… have provided me with meals; a warm, dry place to sleep; and protection; as well as some armor and a weapon. I need little else.”

SIR RAYNARD BECKETT (throwing a handful of walnuts at Dagis): “That’s because you are a squire! We are supposed to provide for you, and you are supposed to be poor until you make something of yourself some day… maybe… if you live. The rest of us are not squires. I’m not greedy, but I like gold as much as the next man. I shall happily accompany or lead the next expedition. I need a break from hunting anyway. As a sport, it is good fun. As an occupation, it is drudgery.”

KENRICK THE KENNELMAN: “I have felt rather useless as a kennelman since we lost our pack of hounds back home. On your advice, I found employment with Lord Balin, assisting his kennelman and caring for his hounds. I need little else, but I agree with Blaine that a few silver moons to buy a drink would be nice. As much as my employer treats me well, I am still your man as long as you would have me. Say the word and I shall return to your active service.”

FINN THE FARRIER: “I too am working each day for Lord Balin, on your orders. Though I sought employment with the armorer, seeking to learn some of his trade, they had need of my skills with horses so I work each day in the baronial stables. There is no pay, but I have shelter, food, and drink. They even offered me permanent employment, but I told them that I remain in the service of the Becketts. A wage of some sort would be nice though. I leave the details to you.”

MARIN THE PILOT: “I will take whatever you give me. I am grateful that you tried to save my pa. For that, you have my service. As long as I have food, drink, a place to sleep, and some protection, I am yours. I never had no armor or more than a staff or sling, but I get by just fine. I can ferry your anywhere on the lake, run errands, and find out many things from the locals. I am a decent cook too.”

ELWOOD BECKETT: “I have been talking with some of the locals, and I heard of a few people that live together in the forest, sharing all of their food, clothing, and equipment. Each person contributes what he can, depending on his skills, and takes whatever he really needs. When they get donations or gifts from new members, they divide it equally among them all. When they need coin for something, they all decide what to do.”

RAYNARD BECKETT (throwing walnuts at Elwood this time): “Like that would ever work. Be quiet.”

KIERAN BECKETT: “My good cousin is correct in that we cannot go leaderless. The idea of equality is silly, but we might learn something useful from even these strange forest denizens.”

RAYNARD BECKETT (picking up more walnuts): “Forest what?”

KIERAN BECKETT (his hands raised to shield his face): “People that live in the forest, cousin. We could learn even from them. We might take a small percentage of each windfall and divide that equally so that all have at least a few coppers to spend in the village. In this village, we may need to make it a few silvers, as everything is so overpriced. With a small percentage going to spending money and a small percentage going to research, Lord Roger could divide the rest as he sees fit, paying for training, buying supplies, or awarding more coin to those that deserve it most. ”

Sir Raynard put down his handful of walnuts, but discussion continued for some time…

GRANNY: “While we have just come into considerable coin it has been spent on debt and training. We are barely out of the red. Though once the family is once again profiting, the whole family will profit as well as those who have served us and become as family in our darkest hour. No one’s loyalty will go unrewarded. As for tithing to the churches, the gods are always generous, but their clergy still needs to eat. We will remember them as well once the income we are receiving exceeds the debts we are incurring. The family will prosper again, our reputation will shine once more, we will be restored.”

JADE (playing with her arrows): “As much as I like gold in my pocket, I agree to share the wealth. Our debt is still there, but we have paid off a large portion of it already. Training should be a focus. Plus, I am quite curious to see how the rest of you handle a battlefield.”

BJORN: “I share the coin, but never the glory! The glory and accolades belong to me! Okay, maybe me and Sven. Yeah, the glory all belong to me and Sven! Well… and some of the good weapons and armor. Okay… All the glory belongs to me and Sven and some good weapons and armor! Oh… and some coin for new boat. Okay…  All the glory belongs to me and Sven and some good weapons and armor and some coin for new boat. Oh… and the good booze! Okay…  All the glory belong to me and Sven and some good weapons and armor and some coin for new boat and the booze. Oh… never mind! Bjorn share some of the loot. Let us go smash something interesting!”

SVEN: “And pie! I like pie… And maybe some private time with the bear cub that we saved… once she gets older that is. I’m not some sort of a freak you know! We make strong kids!”

Sir Raynard threw a handful of walnuts at the grinning Varangian.

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

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

Hitting Them Where it HURTS

This article by Charles Franklin originally appeared in The Way, the Truth & the Dice issue 1 in the spring of 1999. It is reposted here with permission from the author.

I was watching a classic science fiction film this weekend with my four-year-old son and one scene in particular emphasized the way combat is portrayed in movies and in our games. In this particular scene an alien, accompanied by a starship pilot and a teenager, wander into a detention zone where a firefight erupts with the evil military police. Now granted, the threesome had the element of surprise, but when the shooting starts they calmly go about their business, zapping security cameras and bad guys with amazing accuracy. Meanwhile the trained military police can’t seem to hit anything. Common sense tells us that this is a less than accurate portrayal of how this firefight would occur, and I think everyone realizes that Hollywood takes great liberty with reality in their action movies. This cinematic liberty carries over into RPGs that for the most part seek to model movies, not reality.

The purpose of this series of articles is not to open a debate about the glorification of violence in popular movies and role playing games. I do believe, however, that adding a dose or two of reality to our game mechanics will reduce the quantity of violence and increase the quality of role playing. I see this as a win-win adjustment.

Read more

Experience Talks: Good Campaigns

Now that we have good players, heroes, and villains, we have to put them to work. A campaign is an ongoing series of adventures in a game world, made up of several ingredients. First, the campaign’s premise must be sound. Good campaigns are consistent with the world you adventure in and have clear and worthy objectives. A good campaign is built from a good premise. “What if” questions are good starting points for finding a good premise. What if aliens secretly contacted Earth governments during the Wild West era? What if superheroes were all created by a single time-traveler? What if the barriers between dimensions begin to break down? Take the basic premise, and follow it through in as much detail as desired. Read more