Archive for the 'Creative Gamemaster’s Workshop' Category

Serenity Edges and Hindrances

In support of the Savaged Serenity characters I’ll be posting soon, I created some new Edges and Hindrances compatible with Savage Worlds. Check them out here: New Edges and Hindrances.

Savaged Serenity Characters!

About a month ago I ran a six hour Serenity adventure for some friends of mine at an annual gathering we call “The Ohio Game”. I play almost exclusively Savage Worlds these days so that’s what I ran the adventure under. I’m intending to run that adventure again at Origins in 2012 so look for “Price of Success” in the game grids if you want to grab a seat at my table.

Anywho, I figured it was time to get some more goodies up on Dragonlaird Gaming so I’m posting the Serenity crew in the Savage Worlds rules system. These are free of charge (M*tant En*my please don’t sue) and using the Fan version of the Savage Worlds license. You will need the Savage Worlds rule book to use the characters (and hey, they have an awesome new deluxe edition out new this summer!)

So here’s the first installment: Captain Malcolm Reynolds.

Breaking the Mold: Keep Adventuring

Okay, so I just wrote about ending campaigns. Yes a big climax would be a notable piece of a campaign, but if you’ve really done it well, your players won’t want to leave their characters or even just the world they’ve become invested in. No fear! There are ways around the finality of a campaign.

1. The literary character rule: Many characters were created in a canon of stories created out of any particular chronology (Conan, Sherlock Holmes, the Shadow). They were akin to truly episodic television where the core cast of characters and premise did not change from story to story. Conan walked alone in the ancient lands seeking glory and his own kingdom. Using these concepts, why not weave an adventure into the history of the player characters? Take them back to when they were mid-way through their adventuring careers (dig out the old character sheets) and construct a “Never Told Tale of the Untouchable Trio+1!” as Knights of the Dinner Table would put it. It could be a side adventure with no relevance to their overall story, or it might even weave in foreshadowing of the campaign climax that they would enjoy with their knowledge of the future.

2. Now that you’re King rule: If there is enough support for it, you could start a new era of the campaign with the character’s beginning at the height they achieved with the first climax. (Don’t talk about this with them unless they lobby to keep the campaign going… you don’t want to diminish the satisfaction and accomplishment if they just want to let the campaign stand as is.) Rethink the campaign from the point of view of their new positions in the world. Is one now king with all the attendant responsibilities, perks, and dangers? Are there evils in the world far more menacing that old Lord Bone and his skeleton-men? It would be a rare occasion that the king, the high priest of the church, and the Lord Mistress of Rangers need to step together to journey and adventure. (Well, in any other genre it would be ridiculous, but in fantasy, you can pull that sort of thing off.)

3. And that’s their story rule: The campaign ended and the original PCs were made legend. They are now the background for a new campaign set in those lands. Perhaps a lowly soldier on the line against Lord Bone witnessed the victory of the king and was inspired to follow his footsteps. The original PCs could have children, some of whom might take up their parent’s path to glory with sword, spell, or voice. Whether the characters are tied to the first PCs or wholly original, take advantage of the player knowledge of this campaign world and build on it. And when the bard in the tavern begins to sing the tale of King Roger and Lord Bone, they know all the words.

Breaking the Mold: Ends to RPG Campaigns

“Where do you see yourself in five years?”

It’s a classic job interview question and there’s a reason for it. How ambitious are you? How high does your vision go? How long are you going to be satisfied sticking around here? Is this even something you like to do?

The same principle can be applied to RPG characters. In my campaigns at least, they begin well with no real defined goal state, characters satisfied with having some fun and getting some coin for the ale and wenches. It is hardly surprising that we rarely get to a grand climax of plot, action, heroism, and tragedy. My games are like TV series which may be enjoyable and run a long time, but always get their plug pulled before any wrap-up episode because I or my players or both are ready for something different.

My suggestion is to plan the ending of the campaign. You can start with it being fairly loose in details, but decide if a final massive confrontation with Lord Bone and his army of undead will be the campaign climax and take a shot at what the PCs will look like then. Will the simple farmer driven to adventure by rampaging orc raiders have become the noble knight? Will the scholarly priest now command holy warriors or be responsible for a city of souls? Will the long-lost heir have become king or is that the reward for defeating Lord Bone?

Once you have a concept of the end, other things fall into place. Undead will be a theme of the campaign and Lord Bone should be built slowly yet consistently as their great nemesis. Adventure after adventure should challenge the PCs in ever more dangerous and evil situations as they and Lord Bone grow in power. Lord Bone might strike at them by killing family members, anything to ratchet up the hatred between them and make the climax all that more powerful.

Lay the groundwork and then make the end the best it can be. If you’re skilled at it, craft some terrain for the final fight to make the board memorable (or take advantage of your locale convention to get some at a good deal). Paint the final battle in epic scope with hordes of undead rushing a smaller line of soldiers depending on the PCs to defeat Lord Bone and send the undead back to ash and dust. Pick the time of day (dead of night, climax at dawn).

And let that battle end the campaign. Don’t overstay your welcome and leave them wanting more.

Music to Set the Mood

Nothing sets the mood of an adventure or scene more than music.  Swelling violins for an achingly beautiful elven glade… happy dance music for the tavern… drums of warning in the jungle… dark tones of haunting.  But why be too generic?

Give your most important places their own theme music.  It works for TV shows and heroes in movies, why not your campaign?  Consider ethnic flavors of music to provide differences between different cultures, countries, and cities. Imagine a smoky rural town with the sounds of Celtic reels escaping from the local pub compared to a densely populated cosmopolitan warren of streets with klezmer dance echoing down dank alleyways.  Consider Arabic or Asian music to emphasize a city whose culture is markedly different than the characters’ home area.

Mining for strong heroic themes in soundtracks is also likely to be fruitful.  Don’t be ashamed to steal obvious ones (Raiders Theme for pulp 1930s adventures, Superman theme for four-color super hero campaigns).  Here is a list of some of my favorites: Unbreakable, Hercules, Last Samurai, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, any collection of Gregorian Chants, Deadwood, Air Force One, Gladiator, Punisher, Open Range, Reign of Fire, Hidalgo, Blackhawk Down, Ocean’s 11, Italian Job, Master and Commander.

And it would not be a proper list without the grandaddy of them all: The Conan movies (Barbarian and Destroyer).

Just using genre soundtracks in a game is a well known bit of gamemastery.  The point is to pick a theme and assign it to a particular city, town, or region of your game world.  Use it every time they come to that place from somewhere else (don’t overuse it) and you’ll establish a flavor in the mind of the your characters.

Using your computer to organize these cuts and label them with the place they represent will make it easier to keep up the technique.

Creative Gamemaster’s Workshop: Plot-boarding

Watch almost any cop show on TV in the last forty years and you’ve seen it.  Corkboard, chalkboard, or whiteboard, they all assemble the clues to the murder, pinning up photos of suspects, adding ?s where they know there are connections, keeping the case up to date for all involved.  Makes sense in real life and makes added sense for a TV show where you’re trying to keep sometimes inattentive viewers up-to-speed on things in the episode.  All these same factors work for ANY RPG game.  I guess I call it plot-boarding.

You don’t have to be playing crime drama for plot-boarding to work.  The same value can be found in far future, swashbuckling, fantasy, and many more genres.  The players need to keep track of NPCs, try to understand what is happening around them, remember places and names, and keep key visuals in front of them.  If you don’t meet as often as you’d like, it is invaluable for reminding the players what the game is again.

What should go on a Plotboard?

Goals: Writing down the group’s goals is a good way to force them to agree on what exactly the goal is and to keep them focused on that goal during the sessions.

NPCs: They can log every NPC they meet or just the ones they think are important, allowing the GM the freedom to make things up more on the fly without taking his own notes… the players are doing it for him.  Names can be spelled right and phonetic notes made if they wish.  The GM can print pictures of NPCs for the players to stick on the board.

Places: Locations in the game can be logged along with a few key words of flavor: “Greyhawk, rich, cosmopolitan”, “Sanctuary: lots of gods, thieves”.  An important tavern in a city or location of a combat can be noted.

Things: Are the PCs given anything?  Stick that scrap of parchment from the beggar on the board.  Give them printouts of the elegant sword they found under the bed of an enemy.

Connections: Connect the people, places, and things together.  Who owns that thing?  Where was the thing?  Where can you find that person?

Motives: Even when not trying to solve a crime, plots are about figuring out what other powers are doing, what their goals are.  Use a different color for motives and note if the King seems desperate for money for the empty Treasury coffers or if the thief they catch is trying to save his sister.

In a semi or wholly virtual game, you’ll need an online whiteboard sort of solution.  Suggestions for good websites or software for this?

GMs can plotboard ahead of time to help work out what they need to create, if they want to introduce red herrings or false evidence, determine what ‘pictures’ they need to have on hand to give to the players for their plotboard.  It can be quite revealing to compare the players’ final plotboard with the GM’s initial one and see how different they can become.

Even if all you do is write things down on a sheet of paper and try to connect the dots that way, I think GMs and players will both benefit from plotboarding their games.

What’s in their Pockets? Part 2

I wanted to continue my article on “What’s in their Pockets?” based on some discussions and feedback from readers of my blog.  Here are some more thoughts:

  1. It’s Not For Everyone: If your heroes wade deep into battle and slay a troop of twenty orcs, you wouldn’t want to put different significant things on each of the dead.  Consider the dead to be an entity and they find much the same sort of thing on them all, be it the same unholy symbol, the same tattoos from the Spice Islands, or the same scarring from a specific plague that ravaged the orc tribes ten years before.  And sometimes minions are nothing more than faceless ‘stormtroopers’.  That’s okay as long as not every enemy is faceless.
  2. The Plot Clue Bat: One of the most important ways to use Pocket Items is to give our heroes an important clue.  Were the soldiers carrying elven gifts betraying an alliance with the elves?  Did one of them have a tactical map of what their group was assigned to do?  Perhaps not all of them were soldiers and you find evidence of other professions on some of the less well armed and trained: papers and books on a scribe or pleader, maps on a scout, etc.  It is an efficient and effective way to hit your players upside the head with the Plot Clue Bat.
  3. Red Herrings and Bad Fish: Sometimes the lead you plant in their personal effects is a distraction or actual false lead planted by the enemy.  Be very careful with this one.  If your group is very attentive and engaged in the campaign, a false trail once in awhile makes them more cautious about the clues they do get.  But if your group is more distracted, you may not want to confuse things with false information.  Sometimes it’s hard enough to get them to grasp the straight-forward clues.
  4. Filling in the Story: D&D is a game where advancement, acquisition of wealth and magic are core parts of the game part of it.  Other genres and other systems aren’t focused like that and either focus on characters (like Serenity RPG/Cortex Engine) or stories more than the mechanics of the Heroic Path.  Minor Pocket Items will have more significance in those latter games.  In D&D, if it isn’t money or magic, it had better clearly be a clue or it will be dismissed as dungeon dressing.  Of course, this is a generalization, but the point is valid.  What is the heart of the game you’re playing and are little clues given importance.
  5. Wink, Wink, Nudge, Nudge: When you start trying to add more Pocket Items, be pretty clear about what is important in what they find.  Help your players learn your style with this new information.  It’s fairly easy to breeze through descriptions of minor things but then pay more ‘screen time’ to the item that is the clue.  Think about it in a movie: the hero would spot the clue right away.
  6. Run With It: If the Pocket Items that you use are too interesting, your players might go off on a tangent trying to figure out the mystery of why an orc commander had a tattoo from the Angel Guard on his neck.  If you have a pretty open-ended game, run with it.  If you’re trying to keep them in a particular adventure that has a distinct direction (if not openly linear), then make sure your Pocket Items aren’t too juicy or you de-emphasize them in the descriptions.
  7. Not Just Items: To be clear, not all things in this category are actually items that fit in pockets or pouches.  They can be tattoos, missing digits or ears, brands, disease-scarring, and minor variances on racial telltales.  These can telegraph where the dead came from, who they swore allegiance to, or what their life experiences were.

Kudos to Jeff Rees and Jim Dugger for contributing to these suggestions.

What’s in their Pockets?

I think we’ve all seen the random tables here and there, lists of a hundred useless bits of junk that just slain foes might have in their pockets.  Pure flavor text, of course, so often disregarded by players who learn that there isn’t anything of importance except the coins and magic on a fallen foe.  I think we can do better than that.

The things PCs find in the pockets of their enemies can be useful to the campaign in several ways.  How much weight you give the items is up to you, though somewhere more important than random junk and less than the Key to the World would be best.

  1. Who is this? One or more items in their belongings describe what kind of person they were.  Did they carry a small hand-crafted holy symbol to an outlawed gawd hidden in their belts or was it a flashy though cheap holy symbol of the prevailing deity of the day?  Does that pouch contain a set of tools for a drafted soldiers true profession, perhaps carving knives or lockpicking tools?  Do they carry a touchstone of their home such as a rare dried plant or a very unusual stone, identifying them as natives of a far-off region?  Some of these things may still be trivia as far as your campaign plots are concerned, but they provide details about your campaign world. Perhaps the PCs didn’t know that outlawed gawds were still worshipped or why soldiers from far-off Bezika were fighting for the Dread Duke.  Some things might just be useful, like those lockpicks.
  2. Where have they been? People tend to pick up souvenirs of where they’ve been, out of curiosity or to show off to others.  A well-traveled mercenary might have scraps and bits from a variety of lands, attesting to their longevity and why they were so tough to defeat.  There might be stories behind some of the items, like the lover who gave him her silk scarf or the token of favor of a local noble.  More gruesome souvenirs might include small body parts of their kills, such as elven ears when elves live far away from here.
  3. How did they pass the time? Often, the enemies of our PCs have been stationed in a place for some time, either garrisoned in the Dread Duke’s fortress or assigned to guarding the entrance to the dungeon.  Vigilance only goes so far in terms of passing the time.  Did they play dice with the other guards?  Did they carve intricate animal totems?  Perhaps a well-worn pipe and pouch of pipeweed was enough to make the hours pass.  They might even have a small book, perhaps religious verses or a well-worn collection of lewd bard’s tales.  A person’s hobbies says something about their own intellectual level, giving our heroes an idea of what sort of enemies they are up against.  If they find all sorts of intricate machines made out of bird bones, grasses, stones, and wood, they might decide that watching for traps ahead would be prudent.
  4. Not Your Average… Why did this enemy not fit the PCs expectations?  Was the orc particularly young, a teenager perhaps without the bulk of muscle his elders had?  Why was one this young fighting here?  Trying to prove himself or are the orc numbers getting depleted?  Perhaps that tough fighter was actually a woman, hiding her gender to serve the Dread Duke and get those awesome dental benefits.  Drawing off their helm might reveal the all-too-familiar face of a simpleton, directed to fight by his family or tribe without knowing why.  Close examination might reveal a half-breed, weaker or stronger than the average tribe member.
  5. They were what??? It’s always good to throw in a twist every once in awhile to show that not every orc or every guard is from the same stereotype.  Did the killing stroke tear open their tunic, revealing the tattoo of the Knights of White Piety?  Was this man a fallen knight or was he “undercover”?  Did he have the signet ring of a wealthy noble family hidden on his person?  Was he a member of that family or just in their good graces?  Should the PCs return him to that family for burial or run from their guilt in his death?  Why does he have Letters of Credit from an elite banker in Port City?  Are they his or did he steal them from someone?

There are many ways to make the enemies less ‘faceless’ and more ‘human’, ways to paint in a bit more of your world for the players, or ways to add clues to the mysteries at the heart of your campaign.

Creative Gamemaster’s Workshop: Fantastic Cities

(Originally published on

Please accept these musings on cities in a fantasy campaign, inspired The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch.

I have always been fascinated by fantasy cities. Lankhmar, Haven, variations on Venice, Sanctuary, and many more. I was given The Lies of Locke Lamora by a friend and was introduced to another great city for adventuring, Camorr. Why is it so good? Gather ’round and let me tell you.

First, it is based on the familiar. There are canals and bridges, the nobility have a Venetian flavor, and most any fantasy adventure could fit here. There is a plague called the Black Whisper that returns from time to time. Glittering nobility with power over life and death walks alongside grinding, Dickensian poverty and social neglect. I love the flavor of Venice for fantasy cities with intrigue, thievery, chases along the canals, and much more. (One of my longest running campaign worlds is centered on my own version, a city called Ramal, which I may need to write up for DLG someday.)

Second, it also contains elements of the fantastic. Throughout the city are huge constructions of “Elderglass”, made by an ancient people long lost. Many of the bridges are Elderglass as well as several massive towers and other wonders around the city. After sundown the Elderglass glows for a few hours, providing a period of “false light” before real darkness. The glass appears in different colors and translucencies. Different pieces have other interesting properties. A city built around the ruins of something greater, something real, tangible and used every day, but whose secrets of construction are lost to time, is intriguing.

The author also introduces a pantheon of gods and goddesses that seem more like courtiers than divine beings. Each has their own order of priests executing prayers and blessings for their patron, notable in distinctive clothing and vows. Twelve are recognized openly, including Aza Guilla, The Lady of Long Silence, Dama Elliza, Mother of Rains and Reaping, and the Nameless Thirteenth, The Crooked Warden, patron of thieves.

Thieves fall in line to a mafia-style hierarchy, not the cliche “guild” system. Gangs run their small bits of the city, pay tribute to the boss who in turn keeps the authorities at bay.

There is a lot more flavor in the book that I won’t try to catalog here. Let’s just say that I hope the series takes off and I get to work on the RPG :). But flavor can be quickly lost as details. How do cities shape and effect game-play?

01. A city is a mass of people in a crowded place, giving the GM the ultimate flexibility of mixing all sorts of characters together and introducing just about anything. A diverse, fantasy city could even have humanoids walk freely, at least until they get into a brawl. Rich, poor, stupid, and wise are all there. The opportunity for gaining riches is high for those with the guts to take the chance.

02. There should be a lot of stimuli for the players. Even if they do nothing but float along, there should be festivals and gossip, crimes and punishments, thousands of stories going on without their intervention. Eventually, the city will hook the players with its claws, dragging them into adventures and intrigues. How you ask? Here are some examples:

  • The inn where the characters are staying is a friendly place. The PCs make some friends and then get asked by those friends to ‘help them out’. It could be a straight ‘gunslingers save innocent town’ type or these friendly innkeepers might be getting them embroiled into something much shadier.
  • The characters see how a local gang is taking over the neighborhood where they are staying. They can either resist the gang, avoid it, or join it. All three choices lead to interesting conclusions.
  • Wherever they spend money, earn money, or spend their time is the opportunity to make connections with people: friends, enemies, rivals, patrons, followers, even fans.
  • An event in the city applies to all of a certain race or class, selected to include at least one PC. The events could be internment on suspicion of espionage, a festival celebrating them, the arrival of a leader of their race/group, etc.

03. Be careful of the natural tendency for characters to want to split up in a city. By logic, splitting into two groups means getting twice as much done, but running them into threats which test them seriously should give them the idea that splitting the party isn’t always healthy. The degree of danger that simply walking the streets presents will also help them attune themselves. If you happen to be running a Play-by-Email game, you can handle character separation, but it compounds your work, so I’d use the same techniques to keep them together most of the time.

04. Every city should have a distinct personality. The last thing you want are cities that blur together and become a generic background for the player characters. Think of each city as its own personality, perhaps with mental problems. The character of the city will reflect the general population and its attitudes, view on life, etc. Here are a few examples.

  • The Stalwart Guardian: Set on the edge of the frontier, the city is serious business. Soldiers get respect and life can be a little harsh. Walls are well maintained and the garrison drills daily. There is little time for confections and frivolity, although hard drinking can be found. Not many visitors come to this city and those that do come are viewed with suspicion. Adventurers and opportunists abound so near the frontier
  • The Greedy Merchant: A trade city sitting on a fat trade route, everything here is about money. With coin, all things are possible. Its likely ruled by the commercial interests. The markets and bazaars are large and fascinating with goods from all ends of the trade routes. Military control of the city should always be in question, the threat of invasion real. There won’t be much kindness here, lots of thieves and people willing to swindle the wide-eyed new-comer.
  • The Dying Beggar: Many years ago, this place was a thriving city. Now it is shadows and emptiness, bordering on becoming a ruin… a beggar in the tattered coat of his once proud past. Perhaps the trade route moved or it became known for plague. Either way, there is little money here. The few people who are here are desperate. Humanoids might have moved in with no one strong enough to stop them.
  • The Happy Guildsman: A city growing on the crafts and exports of its artisans, perhaps beginning to be renown for its glasswork, weapons, magic, or other creations. Law and order are expected and while it is quiet, it just means that the darker things are behind closed shutters. Good place to learn a trade or hide.
  • The Devout Priest: This place is ruled by the gods, or at least by their hands on earth, the priests. Devotion and obedience are required through many laws and prohibitions. The sick and dying might come here seeking divine intervention. Others might flee desperate to escape the quiet human sacrifices.

05. Don’t make things too neat and tidy. Explain to the PCs how things are in the city when they get there, but keep the pace of change moving. The PCs shouldn’t feel like the only people making things happen in the city. But remember, the PCs are the heroes in their own tales so don’t overshadow them in the heart of their adventure.


Try running a city adventure sometime soon and see if you can get your players hooked on the ‘urban’ life.

Creative Gamemaster’s Workshop: An Interesting Combat Situation

(Originally published on

Time to visit the workshop again. This time I wanted to present an interesting environment to run a melee in, one to give the players some different challenges and opportunities. The environment was inspired by a grand book, Sharpe’s Escape by Bernard Cromwell.

Combat can all too often devolve into toe-to-toe battery, as exciting as accounting. A great way to mix things up is to present interesting “terrain”, i.e. environmental variables. The following description could be used in a fantasy campaign, Napoleonic, modern, future, or others.

The premise is that a warehouse exists filled with valuable goods (food, supplies, weapons, ammunition, or whatever will serve as ‘goods of interest’… likely contraband). Our heroes discover this warehouse and its contents where they don’t expect it. A good example is a warehouse of rations and supplies in the middle of a supposedly stripped town in the middle of a war zone.

Physical Description: The exterior of the warehouse is non-descript with two large doors for access and shuttered/blacked-out windows. Within, the light is dim (a few dirty skylights far above) so details take some time to emerge. It is cavernous, say 40′ in height and is filled with carefully stacked goods. Each stack measures 20′ square at the base and piles up anywhere from ten to thirty feet depending on what is being piled there. The stacks are arranged neatly with a wide access path cutting the warehouse in two leading from the doors, and narrower aisles between each stack. The air is musty and dusty, having been shuttered for weeks which makes the overall light dimmer.

The Threat: The warehouse is owned by someone and they won’t like people poking around in it or threatening to expose them (illegal goods, etc.). Soon after the PCs enter the warehouse to explore it or find what they are looking for, the owner and his thugs will fill the doorway. There should be enough thugs that straight-up battle will be a losing proposition for our heroes. The thugs have ranged weapons (bows, guns) that should drive the PCs into the stacks. They will also close the outer doors quickly to keep things private. The light will get far dimmer at this point, providing shadows and making combat more difficult.

Opportunities: The PCs can climb the stacks to get cover & the high ground. Darkness and dust can cover movement and make the enemy difficult to see. The condition of the floor could keep movement quiet or make it easy to tell when someone else moves. The goods in the warehouse might be useful themselves. Flammables could change the situation, as well as goo, slick stuff, choking dust, distractions and combat advantages (Finding a better gun).

Options: Is there another way out of the warehouse? Do the PCs have to get out the front door? Can the owners be bargained with or will they try to kill the PCs? Will the thugs sweep the place to find them or just trap them and wait for hunger/need drive the PCs to them? If the PCs show themselves to be dangerous, the thugs could bolt up the doors and come back with reinforcements. If there is another room, an office, a cellar, a utility closet, what happens if the PCs retreat there and get locked in? Are the PCs a well-oiled combat team, knowing how to attack the terrain or more of a rabble, with some freaking out and others trying to keep everyone alive?