Archive for the 'Creative Gamemaster’s Workshop' Category

Creative Gamemaster’s Workshop: Painting the Big Picture

(Originally published on

It’s been awhile since I opened the door to the Creative Gamemaster’s Workshop, so I thought I’d take care of some suggestions I’ve gotten since last year. The most popular question I’ve received asks about how to create campaign plots and multi-adventure arcs to bring another layer of interest to a campaign.

There are certainly challenges in creating a compelling gaming session for your players. More challenges exist to weave multiple sessions together into an adventure. But the Everest of Gamemaster challenges is pulling off a campaign that your players will love and not want to end. While I suppose this can happen accidentally, it usually requires a Campaign Plan to avoid wandering aimlessly until the players get tired of it or the characters reach the pinnacles of power simply through longevity.

Defining Your Campaign Theme

Start with an overall genre, then create a Campaign Theme. For me, this is often the twist or inspiration that made me want to start the campaign in the first place. For my multi-year Atalban campaign, it was the concept that the players would be among the last survivors of Man, raised in an isolated village with little memory of ‘the time before’, and face reclaiming their conquered kingdom. For my Serenity campaign, beyond embracing the fun theme of going job to job when things don’t go smooth, there was the model of the Oklahome Land Run of 1889, an event that evokes the ‘Western, post-Civil War’ flavor and involves a new planet.

Here are a couple examples.


Living peacefully between deep jungle and booming seas is the settlement of Freehold, the only living humans. Life has gone on for ten generations since the exodus, the fall of the Old Kingdom of Atalban under the conquering Selani armies. While the old times are remembered in stories and songs, life has adapted to the fishing and hunting realities of life in a semi-tropical cliff-side colony.

But all that is about to change. The colony will be discovered by the Selani by accident. A set of young men and women (our player characters) have been chosen to hold the fate of Freehold in their hands. Two characters are siblings and are heirs to the throne.

The challenge is overwhelming, a handful against an empire, but the need to avenge the defeat of the Old Kingdom and raise it again upon the ashes of the Selani drives our heroes.

Getting away from classic (“boring”) fantasy of Forgotten Realms, the campaign will support different presentations of other races, different races. Orcs will be known as “tribals” and follow totem animals. The Crow Tribe was the original inspiration (orc spelled backward). Elves are the Selani and bring an “evil” to the world in the form of almost Nazi-like belief in their own racial superiority. Dwarves are generally reclusive and reluctant to get involved in wars (drawing some flavor from Jews).


Reach for the Sky

The war is barely over in the ‘Verse. Thousands of Browncoat veterans are sent home and must find their way. Our players aspire to having their own transport ship so they can earn a living and live as free as they can.

Season One: Surviving the war and finding a ship

Season Two: Earning, Winning, or Stealing the ship and living to tell the tale

Season Three: To Be Determined.

The whole idea is to play the campaign from the earliest interesting moment, the dying days of the war, and cover the interesting story about how a particular group of people met, created a bond of loyalty, and got their ship. The title symbolizes the characters’ need to have the freedom of flying as well as playing on a cliche’ phrase from old Westerns, meaning “put your hands in the air where I can see them.”

“Reach for the Sky” is an under-development series of adventures for the Serenity RPG. The title and all concepts discussed on this website are copyright 2006, 2007 Dragonlaird Gaming. Use approved only for personal and not for commercial use.

Developing the Theme

The campaign theme is where you will return time and time again as the campaign develops to remind yourself of the big picture, the underlying plots that you might otherwise start to ignore as you focus on the short-term adventures at hand. But how do you decide on your theme? Inspiration isn’t bottled and I’m not sure where my ideas come from, but I think the following habits help:

  • Consider the genre itself. Are there iconic themes in the genre that you want to provide your own version of? Do you want to combine two typical themes to develop something different?
  • Read material generally related to the genre. You’re not there to steal ideas wholesale, but some combination of details might spark your own ideas.
  • Listen to music which puts you in the mood for the genre. Barbaric, warlike fantasy campaign? Slip in the Conan soundtracks. Serenity? The Firefly and Serenity soundtracks are available, as well as other suggestions.
  • Start a brainstorming notebook (paper, computer, format is up to you) and just jot down thoughts each day. Let your subconscious chew on it a few days and then try to find something new out of your ideas or a combination of them.
  • If the genre has some actual or metaphorical ties to the real world (like Serenity’s thematic ties to the post-Civil War United States of America), browse some of those real world facts, periods of history, people, settings, memorable flavors.
  • Watch a movie or TV show with a similar theme or genre to get your brain cooking at the right wavelength.
  • Keep an open, inquisitive mind. Something from the world around you or fiction of an unrelated genre might spark an idea for you.


    Once you have the theme settled, consider what rules system best supports the genre and your theme. An intense future/modern ground combat theme might better served by a system that focuses on detailed combat than one which supports cinematic role-playing. Keep in mind if your gaming group are the kind who relish trying out a new system or are more dependent on rules they are familiar with. This may limit your options of game system.

    Along with the basic game system, you’ll need to make some choices regarding house rules, supplemental rules, and campaign restrictions. Will you allow any d20 supplement into your fantasy campaign? Do you have rules your gaming group prefers for handling specific situations? Will the players have the opportunity to create any character they like (within the genre) or will there be some choices that are off limits?

    Atalban Rules

    The Atalban campaign will utilize Monte Cook’s Arcana Unearthed D20 fantasy variant system. Several factors play in its favor including: no alignment crutch, still fantasy but different classes, more flexible magic system, thematic use of ceremonies, no pantheon of gods. Since the source material is limited, any available rule supplements are fair game (with GM review). Monte Cook’s races will not be used, or at least will not appear in any real numbers in the campaign.

    Starting characters will all be human. (Discovery of “now mythical” other races is a key element of the campaign theme and provides an opportunity to establish the races as more interesting than the classic stereotypes.) Some classes are not supported in the “Freehold” starting community but might be obtainable later in the campaign: Oathsworn, for example.

    Story Summary

    While the actions of the PCs will always dicate that exact course of a campaign, if you don’t have a story of the campaign in mind already, it will likely wander around and lose plot momentum. The Campaign Summary refines your vision and gives you a chance to think of major events, climactic scenes, and moments of interest which you think will be especially important to the campaign feel and success.

    Atalban Summary

    Life begins idyllically in Freehold. Characters get their first couple levels dealing with natural/local dangers/threats. Clues are uncovered.

    A crow tribesman (orc) stumbles into Freehold, near exhaustion, shocked to find humans living there. Hot in pursuit is a mounted Selani, who is also as shocked as the Crow is. The PCs are the ones to witness this and react to it. Will they attack or befriend the Crow tribal? The Selani will wheel his horse around and charge back the way he came, desperate to tell the rest of his people that humans still live. Freehold leaders will send the PCs after him if the players don’t do it themselves.

    Departure from Freehold is a big moment, drawing the PCs away from their home, to discover and survive dangers they didn’t know existed. The Selani leads them to a mountain pass and the location of an Old Kingdom outpost (more clues uncovered). A way to jump from the outpost back into the heart of the old kingdom is discovered (magic), drawing the characters square into the old lands.

    Gaining strength (and levels) along the way, they discover more of the truth about the Old Kingdom and the current Selani rulers. A means to hurt or defeat the Selani will be sought and discovered as well as a means to bring back hundreds of thousands of ‘disappeared’ humans (repopulating the lands so the Selani can be driven out and the PCs will have a kingdom to rule.) Greater and greater obstacles will be in their way to reaching the means to defeat the Selani.

    A final battle in Shanalar, the royal seat of the Old Kingdom, will be the climax of the campaign, hopefully followed by crowning a ruler and the joy and adulation of the saved human race/kingdom.

    Here is a sample campaign plan document: Atalban Campaign Plan


    Spending time working out a campaign plan in the beginning of a new campaign can reap you benefits down the line, especially when a lot of real-time has passed and you’re trying to remember what the point of the campaign was! :)

  • Creative Gamemaster’s Workshop: A Ship You Can Love

    (Originally published on

    I love a good ship. My favorite stories, movies, and games involve a ship, most often beloved, at times despised. We can all think of the easy examples: Han Solo’s Millenium Falcon, Jack Aubrey’s HMS Surprise, or Humanity’s Battlestar Galactica. Sure there are lots of other beloved kinds of ships if we stray into X-wings and Vipers, but today I’m focusing on ships that promote community and can support more than one character at a time. The kind of ships a GM would be blessed to have their players grab hold of and fall in love with.

    So what makes a ship a labor of love and not just a glorified Greyhound bus? Here are a few thoughts I present for your consideration…

    Give it Character: While I had some hand in creating Serenity RPG, I will admit that I had no hand in the ship section but I still love how it turned out. Not only are the created using the same concept of strong and weak basic attributes, the same assets and complications concept that gives a player character such, well, character is also used for ships! The rules system supports different flavors for the ship like: “Gas Guzzler”, “Dull Sense”, “Everybody has One”, and “Ugly as Sin”. Of course, if your flavor is missing, it just takes a few minutes to determine the game consequences of your new Trait and away you go!

    Know Her Inside and Out: It’s hard to love something that you don’t know anything about. It’s in the details where characters can feel like they know the ship well and know what she can do. Start with the basics of layout and capabilities (for speed of travel, defense, etc.) That’s good enough for when they first step on the boat, but if they’ve been on it awhile, they should be able to answer these questions without asking you. I’ll use the Firefly-class ship from Serenity RPG as my example.

  • What can the pilot control from the bridge? (ports, cargo door, communications, lighting, inner doors, life support, etc.)
  • What can the engineer control from the engine room? (same list)
  • The ship has an intercom system. Where are the intercoms located (one in every room?)? Can someone shut down the intercoms? Can you call from one room to another (doubtful) or is every transmission in effect a broadcast to all intercom speakers?
  • What’s on the outside of the ship? Are there cameras to watch for badguys/thieves? Are there floodlights to make a murky situation clearer? If yes to either, where are they and where are the ship’s blind spots? And again, where are these controlled from? Who can see the camera feeds?
  • Computerized or Old school controls? Much of Serenity appears to have an old-school mechanism behind them, much like a WWII submarine than a Star Trek cruiser. Inner doors don’t close without someone hauling on them. They can lock the door but its a mechanical solution (dropbar) not a “hackable” electronic lock. The cargo doors are opened by a hanging control box or by large buttons on the wall, which makes me suspect that the bridge doesn’t have remote control of them.

    Make Her Pretty… Ugly: Remember when your parents let you paint your room for the first time (or at least help pick the color)? That might have been your first taste of really owning a space. People move out of apartments and buy houses to have the privilege of sweating their butts off in maintenance because they want to decide what color to paint things, metaphorically. How a ship looks isn’t just a matter of a paint job, but a coat or two can do wonders. It all depends on what you want people thinking when they see you. Do they want you appearing as a slovenly whaler or a right man of war? Do you want to excite no comment or gather everyone’s attention?

    What’s in a Name?: Names are tough, I’ll tell you that right now. They are like nicknames. If they don’t capture the moment and everyone’s imagination, the best you can hope for is adequate. Mostly I try to avoid names that will divert players from the game at hand with obvious puns and humorous tangents (there is plenty of humor at my table, I don’t need another source breaking the mood all the time). This same problem affects player character names, but that’s another story. You can always start out giving the ship an existing name which they can either adopt or replace. You can leave it completely in the players’ hands what the new name should be. If they aren’t up to the challenge, facilitating a brainstorming session might be the best solution. Whatever name is picked, it will gather weight and personality from the adventures that follow.

    Where’s she been?: Just as character becomes more interesting when you discover their history, ships can become more interesting too. Its rare that a group of characters will get a ship straight out of the naval yard with nothing to her name but an invoice. Was the ship captured from the enemy’s fleet? Did it have owners before you? What was she used for then? Is she one of thousands of that model flying or is she unique?

    Know her Spirit: I had a chance to attend the touring Star Wars exhibition here in Columbus, Ohio this summer. (A must see for any Star Wars fan…) One of the many behind-the-scenes comments I heard there was that George Lucas imagined the Falcon as a sort of hot rod. Solo was the kind of guy who was always tinkering with it here and there, trying out new parts, new ideas. All in the name of going fast. Even the fairly pompous name of the Millenium Falcon fits neatly into the high octane, high ego racing set of southern california where Lucas grew up (building and racing his own fast cars…). Amateur hot rod racing gave the Falcon and Solo much of their personality. In Firefly, Serenity is much more of a classic tramp freighter. She’s nothing special for speed but she hangs together when it counts. She’s not clean or flashy, but then the strangers who come on board her for passage ‘elsewhere’ rarely are either. Find the spirit behind the ship: racer, experimental, family-friendly, grimy freighter, rich yacht, rag-tag combat fighter, exploratory/scientific vessel… and you’ll find a lot of her personality.

    I hope you’ve gotten some ideas on how to include a ship in your current or next campaign. To read more on this, visit my Design Diary pages.

  • Creative Gamemaster’s Workshop: Keeping Magic Special

    In almost any fantasy campaign, the presence of magic is a given. Usually the heroes are slinging spells, finding magical weapons, loading up with enchanted camping gear, or finding ensorcelled puzzles. But how often does magic become mundane, a character’s possessions read more like a shopping list than a collection of wonders? Does every town have a Walmart of Magic where people can pick up a +1 Dagger and six pack of Diet Coke? Are clerics just well-dressed medics and wizards a walking toolbox? That’s not the campaign I like to run.

    Let’s tackle these cases one at a time.

    Making Spells Interesting: My favorite method of making spells interesting is to draw on where the spellcaster learned the spells. If the caster was raised and taught in the sweltering heat of equatorial jungles, the forms of her spells will be drastically different than a caster raised in the northern ice wastes. Note, I’m not suggesting changing the game effects of the spells, just how they are presented. Its an easy way to bring some flair and character to your spell-casters and keeps the magic from becoming boring.

    Example, our jungle mage casts magic missile. Well, instead of jets of magical fire, hers appear as glowing snakes that spring to strike at their targets, the wounds feeling like bites instead of burns. The sleep spell might feel like drowsing due to sweltering heat. Even the mount spell might summon a creature more logical for the jungles than a horse.

    Giving Weapons Some Zing: While you could take time and develop interesting histories for every magic weapon they find, from who forged it and everyone who has owned it before, that likely won’t enhance the game experience. Think of its appearance. Does it glow? Does it have an unusual sheen? Is the blade inscribed? Is the style of the weapon old-fashioned or from a time forgot?

    And when the weapon is used, it should display its pedigree. Perhaps it flashes when it strikes another sword or shield. Or it sings as it flies through the air. The wielder may feel strength coming from its handle. The blade may slice through armor like it was cloth. These sort of descriptions can remind everyone that a magic weapon is in play.

    What about the +2 Soup ladle?: As players get more experienced, more wealthy, and more ambitious, they’ll want to pick up lots of handy little items from the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Most popular are your varities of Bags of Holding, followed closely by skill enhancers like a Hat of Disguise. Many of these items aren’t made to be flashy or reveal their nature to the uninformed. So how can you keep that hint of magic to otherwise utilitarian tools? Perhaps its less what others see but what the user feels? Maybe that soup ladle gives the user the feelings of home. The Hat of Disguise gives a heightened feeling of confidence. The Bag of Holding might impart some very strange sensations when you slip your hand inside.

    Environmental Magic: Magic places should definitely impart palpable feelings to those who enter them. Sure, evil places offer foreboding, good places calm and warmth, but many places will be more ambiguous than that. Does their hair stand up on end? Does the temperature change? Is there a distinctive scent that is out of place? Do the colors around them seem different? Are the tones of things heard different, more musical? How has the magic affected other things like plants and animals in the area? Are there strange substances appearing in corners? Has it attracted unusual creatures?

    I hope these have given you some new ideas for making magic as special as it deserves to be in your campaign.

    Creative Gamemaster’s Workshop: It’s Poetry and Math

    (Originally posted on


    What is it that makes movies so magical? The immersion, the suspension of disbelief, the power of the sights and sounds, often of things never seen or heard before. Roleplaying is all that and you take the reins. No longer the passive observer tied to the fate of a scripted hero, you have control. There is still the fire-breathing dragon and the gloomy dungeon, but you’re deciding to face it down or enter its stony interior. You decide what sort of person you are. It’s the ultimate casting call.

    So what can a Gamemaster do to make roleplaying a special experience? Well, until we get thought-driven holo-decks ala Star Trek we have to work with what we have: friends, a table, cheetos, books, dice and little figurines. But that doesn’t mean that role-playing is just another kind of wargame where each player marks down hits and misses and moves their pieces around the game board. For those willing to invest their time and their imagination, a GM can create another world with sights, sounds, smells, tears and laughter, and people as real as any hero on the silver screen.

    It all comes down to descriptions. Unless we’re a closet
    Phil Foglio
    , words are what we have to work with. And it doesn’t take very much to change the tone of a game from numbers to ideas and images. My initial series of Creative Gamemaster’s Workshops will examine different aspects of a typical fantasy campaign and where the Gamemaster can transform it into something really special.

    May 16, 2006 – Saving Combat

    Combat is the one place where a game of D&D (or most other games of similar complexity) can grind down to a mind-numbing series of dice-rolls, momentum killing searching through rulebooks, and flavorless drudgery of a game of Battleship. Here are a few suggestions that have livened up my table.

    Speed Things Up 1: The 30 Second Rule: Nothing is more critical to maintaining momentum and capturing the rush of battle is speed. From rule lookups to indecision, each second without action is a game-killer. So what’s a GM to do? Well, start by enforcing a little discipline around the table. 30 seconds for your declaration is a very long time, especially since you’ve had every one else’s turn to think about what to do next. But the thought of being on the clock should hurry some folks up. Once you get rolling, you should find that no one gets near 30 seconds anymore since they’ll develop more discipline. The other advantage to this is that it simulates, in a way, the rush of combat. Warriors don’t have five minutes between actions to contemplate the universe.

    Speed Things Up 2: Wizards know thy Spells: This is a hard area, especially when a player doesn’t naturally memorize the spell descriptions or doesn’t play often. But looking up a spell at the table during your turn must be avoided at all costs. The player has plenty of time while others are acting to check things, but if the others are quick (see rule 1) they’ll need to have the information at their fingertips. Use of one of the many spreadsheets out there that provides simple summaries of spell lists is a good start, reducing the need to reference the book. But perhaps the best thing you can do is have any spellcaster players do a little preparation, either right before the session or out-of-hours. Just a read-through of the descriptions of their available spells would get many spellcasting players far ahead. For complex or rare spells, the player should be able to explain the spell during their declaration, alleviating the Gamemaster from having to remember if the spell effect is 30′ radius or 40′ radius.

    Crits and Fumbles: Critical Hits and Fumbles are the glory and tragedy of combat. While I don’t let description go too far in taking fate out of the dice, I do take advantage of Critical Hits and Fumbles as momentous or ignominious moments, the real highlights of a combat. For a critical hit, I can’t leave it as extra damage. The enemy must make a serious gut check and perhaps break morale. The blow should be spectacular and apt to leave a scar should the recipient survive it. The attacker’s style should gain the spotlight, be it the whirling attack of the nimble swordsman to the smashing assault of a maul-toting dwarf. Fumbles are never auto-kill but they put the fumbler in a bad way, losing her footing, his sword, giving up key ground, interfering with the attack of their comrade next to them.

    Fight to the Pain: Is there anything more boring than fighting yet another foe to the death. In too many D&D campaigns, everything fights to the death: orcs, guards, muskrats. Sure its easier to be clear that a foe was defeated to award experience, and it gives the PCs a chance at loot, but it often doesn’t make sense. And I firmly believe that every bit of metagaming (allowing something to happen because it makes gaming-sense but sense in the reality of the campaign world) hurts the campaign. In every conflict, the Gamemaster should consider these things: Does the opponent want to fight at all? Will the opponent parley instead of fighting? Would the opponent run rather than assume the En Garde position? If the opponent is willing or needs to fight, how long will they do so? Until the first blood? Until they realize that the cause is lost? Until they see the skill and power of their opponents? Even with the greatest devotion, there are some things that will break anyone. Only a psychopath or a crazed animal will fight when all is lost. Well, a zealot might too, or, if in the greatest cause, a hero…

    Break the Silence: While combat is grim, hot work, not everything is silent. There are certainly the groans and cries of the wounded, the panting of tired warriors, the calls to gods for aid and succor, encouragement of ones friends and discouragement of ones enemies. And, of course, the witty taunts. The players should be encouraged to play this up, but its most important for the Gamemaster to lead the way. Take a few minutes and prepare for expected battles. Make up some orcan insults. Know who the castle guards would call to in the heavens as they lay with mortal wound. Decide if the monsters would call to allies for help or bolster the ones beside them with words of leadership.

    They don’t call it magic for nothing: For spells cast in combat, they should be well described and thought given to how they affect those who see them occur. Unless your campaign world is dripping with magic, it should still be impressive when someone calls fire from the air or the wizard’s hands crackle with eldritch fire of casting. To some opponents, simply realizing they face a wizard might be enough to cause surrender or flight.

    In my next article, I’ll discuss some of the ways to keep magic from becoming mundane.