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Rutskarn’s GMinars: Finally Answers

By Rutskarn
on Sunday Jul 24, 2016
Filed under:
Tabletop Games



At long last, my answers to some reader-submitted questions about GMing:


1. Where do you tend to fall on a scale of simulationist vs narrativist games? I used to prefer the former in my early years for their structure, but as I get older I find myself drawn more and more to narrative-focused games. Is this your experience as well?

2. When you set out to create a one-shot, campaign, etc do you start with the themes and craft a game around it or do you start with an idea or image and build the themes around it?

I have no straightforward answer to your first question–it’s like asking if I prefer apples or onions. What I seek out and what I recommend depends entirely on the other ingredients.

If I’ve got my STEM group, six hours, a six-pack, and a thick monster manual, I might choose a system that offers a high level of fiddly strategic detail. If I’ve got my looser humanities group and two hours, I might pick a system that’s low-maintenance and primarily narrative. If I’ve got my serious game-design people over, we might whip out something experimental and obscure that uses dreamcatchers instead of dice or some other nonsense. In RPGs, as in other things, my tastes run pretty eclectic–it’s all about the group I’m experiencing it with and what system compliments their strengths best.

Anything shorter than a long-term campaign I tend to improvise rather than design. When I do design a campaign world, the watchword is always tone. I tend to settle on sense of stakes, attitude, and pacing and create central elements that evoke it. I also find it helpful to think in terms of genre and pastiche. An office comedy fantasy game. Southern Gothic that feels like a Spaghetti Western. A post-apocalyptic LA Dusk Til Dawn rock opera. These glib summaries are useful to have on hand for when you start explaining the game to players, who (all being well) would like to make their characters fit into whatever you’ve been working on.


And my question: How to deal with a player who has a reasonable IC request that's infeasible for OOC reasons? In my current campaign the party rogue is deadset on casing and systematically robbing the city's noble quarters. Alone. The player is an RPG newbie who based his character on Garrett and would essentialy like to sort of reenact the Thief games. I'm concerned for two reasons: one, it'd be an opportunity for loot not shared with the others, eventually leading to imbalances. And two, it'd take too much of the party's shared time for just one player's adventures. What can I do to accomodate him without ruining the others' fun?

Of course, a perfectly satisfactory answer to this question is “remind the player that the reason we all showed up at the same time in the same place is to play a game together, regardless of the desires of this completely fictional person.” But that might not be strictly necessary. Anyhow, yours is a complex question, so I’ll try to answer in a way that’s helpful to you and to other GMs in similar positions:

You should reward your player for thinking and planning in-character.

You should not offer that reward at your group’s expense.

You should allow the unique personality and design of a player character to have long-term effects on how the campaign is conducted.

You should not do so in a way that cuts out other characters.

I’m going to assume a worst-case scenario: that nobody in the party wants anything to do with heists and that the Garret wannabe has no interest in partners. Given this assumption, and barring extreme measures such as running a separate game strictly for that player, here’s the absolute most I would do:

“Okay, you want to case a manor. Go ahead and give me a (relevant skill, stat, or class) check.”

A few rolls later, I say, “Okay, you think you have a good route. Now give me a stealth check for the actual burglary.”

Roll, roll–“It’s a profitable night. You come away with (relatively minor monetary loot), as well as (piece of treasure). It’s not worth much now, but your fence will look for a buyer. Might take a year, but you’ll get paid well when the time comes.”

Alternately, if the roll isn’t great–“You’re halfway through when alarms sound and guards start coming down. Not your best night, but it’s over now and at least you’re in one piece.”

Then, before long, a heist would go interestingly wrong. The thief gets in and finds out that instead of treasure, there’s (clues intrinsic to main quest). The player feels accomplished, the balance is preserved, the plot moves forward. This is the absolute best way this situation could be resolved, and believe me, there’s no guarantee it’ll work out nearly this well.

Or perhaps the party comes into a huge debt, or a pressing need for money, and these heists provide a way to fund them. Perhaps each party member could raise funds in a way central to their idiom. Again, this is assuming that Garret’s player has any interest in helping the party’s interest at all–which is absolutely, positively the the main obstacle here.

So I can suggest ways to bypass or delay or accommodate the player’s interest, but nine times out of ten this sort of thing is not a tricky gaming problem, it’s a straightforward if uncomfortable social one. Tabletop gaming is inherently cooperative. A GM can only do so much before responsibility falls on the players themselves to behave appropriately.

Heather B

My question for Ruts (and you fine people in this thread): Have you encountered game commitment issues as a GM, and if so, how to rekindle the romance? I tend to plan epic storylines, run them enthusiastically for six months to a year, and then lose interest in running the game long before the story is over or the players are done. Then comes a period of a few weeks to a few months where game gets canceled for lack of energy, until we finally give up and play something else. I usually have a sheepish epilogue session where I tell my players where I was going with things, and answer their questions about the world and the story. They like the games I start, and are always disappointed when it doesn't finish.

You’re in luck–no problem at all to solve this one. Every GM has a point beyond which they get burned out with a campaign. Fortunately, stories–even stories told cooperatively–can have any length at all. Run shorter games.

I recommend this exercise: sketch out an outline of your last campaign and cut out all the parts that dragged, got bogged down, or hastened your loss of interest. Failing at that, cut out anything that can be cut without a major rewrite. Chances are you’ll end up with the campaign you would have been happier running.

Six months to a year is plenty of time to be enthusiastically GMing interesting stories that your players care about. Knowing that’s your soft limit is half the battle.


I know it isn't easy starting out and I'm not expecting to find the next Shakespeare in my D&D group, but if at some point now or in the future they want to do more subtle roleplay how can I help them conceptualize a character in their head without it just being me deciding the character for them?

I’ve seen a lot of people get into roleplaying. Some of them have done a lot of theater or writing or other creative work and have an intuitive grasp of how to construct, personalize, and inhabit a character. Others–don’t. They have no idea where to start and are almost always nervous to try. But if they play long enough, create enough characters, watch enough people ham it up, and grow comfortable enough with their group, then some day–maybe a few months in, maybe a few years in–they’ll suddenly surprise you. For these players, practice is the main barrier to overcome.

I have two more immediate, helpful suggestions. Firstly, offer choices to players. Instead of asking “who do you want to be?” to someone who can’t answer that question, ask, “Do you want to be a good person? Do you want to be nimble? Do you want to be ugly?” They may seem like they’re answering randomly, or indifferently, but if they’re able to answer at all they’re taking their first steps. Secondly, whenever possible, allow characters to be generated or detailed randomly. Many of my players who used to struggle at the table still have difficulties creating characters, but have learned to make premade or unplanned characters their own.


What's the best way to get better at descriptions?

It’s certainly not about description quantity. Or at least, not about giving lots of description.

When players see a tavern, it doesn’t help them to know that it’s got a gabled roof, two wings, whitewash, leaded windows, straw on the floors, the sounds of laughter and some drunks singing, a pudgy innkeeper with hairy arms, and a young serving woman. They’ll either assume that stuff or won’t care one way or the other. Delivering a description like that teaches players not to bother listening to your descriptions. Old editions had a huge problem with over-descriptive modules that inevitably put players to sleep–players who needed to have been paying perfect attention, because anything less spelled trap-related death. Trust me on both accounts.

On the other hand, you want to give players details to focus on. Details provide tools to grow immersed and things to interact with. My principle is to come up with one or two unique things per scene, things that describe that tavern and no other tavern in a hundred miles, and let the rest go unsaid until it’s necessary.

You enter the tavern, nearly hitting your head on a mobile of reindeer antlers. The air in here smells minty.

For all we know, that’s the same tavern I so elaborately described before. I haven’t mentioned any of those other details, but that doesn’t mean they exist. When a player punches out the barman, you can mention how he staggers and slips on the old dirty straw. When the bard starts strumming, you can mention how all the singing and laughter stops. When the player yells “Pig!” mention that the bartender looks suspicious and offended.

Key, unusual details. That’s the ticket to making a space feel vivid.

Here’s an exercise: write down the word “guard” ten times. Now come up with one interesting detail for each one–this one’s got a waxed moustache. This one’s got a burn. This one’s got missing teeth. This one is sixty. Think about why that detail would be noticeable–the guard strokes his moustache a lot. The burn’s weeping. The missing teeth make a sucking sound. The old guard’s got saggy chicken arms. If you can pull this sort of thing off at the table, or at least plan it out beforehand, you’re all set.

Comments (40)

  1. Content Consumer says:

    It's certainly not about description quantity. Or at least, not about giving lots of description.


    I could swear there was one where the DM went into a long, drawn-out description of how the player killed an orc, lasting for several paragraphs… but I can’t find it.
    Might have been thinking of a different webcomic.

    • Joshua says:

      “In my current campaign the party rogue is deadset on casing and systematically robbing the city's noble quarters. ”

      This won’t impact the game imbalance of a player trying to take up all of the time themselves, but as far as the loot goes, a thief character can always be given loot that doesn’t impact game balance. Lots of things that are financially worth a lot, so now the PC has a private lair/mansion with the most exquisite paintings/jewelry/sculptures/etc., but the wealth is purely *abstract*, and cannot be liquidated for money that impacts the game. Kind of like the noble character that has a private hunting cabin in the X forest. It’s worth money, builds up your character, and could even show up for a story hook (see Hawkeye’s house in Avengers: Age of Ultron), but absolutely cannot be sold/liquidated/whatever to get extra magic items or similar game effects.

      Of course, if the player is determined to play the Thief in the Garett role where they’re always going off alone and taking game time to do so, suggest that they play a different game. Such as Thief, on the computer.

      “Old editions had a huge problem with over-descriptive modules that inevitably put players to sleep”

      Not just old editions. Adventures are always trying to over-describe scenery, like they’re trying to show off the author’s vocabulary. As a non-verbal learner, I especially have difficulty with this as a PC, as I tend to zone out whenever a description goes into more than just a few sentences.

      On a tangent and semi-related note, published adventures also tend to have a lot of problems with going into a lot of background story that the PCs are very unlikely to discover, which IMO is a waste of space.

      When I’m DMing, I’m always rolling my eyes and wanting to shake the author and saying “Stop trying to show off!”.

      • Nixitur says:

        I admit that I haven’t read many of those adventures, but I strongly disagree with your dismissal of excessive background story. There’s always the possibility that the PCs would find out much more than you anticipated and it’s good to have that information ready just in case. Sure, it’s unlikely to happen if all the PCs are murderhobos, but social- or lore-focused characters can dig really deep if they so wish.

        • Joshua says:

          I’m talking about excessive backstory that is very unlikely to be found out by PCs. Why write pages and pages of story that is only for the DM’s purview, and they have to explain to the PCs after the adventure? You can disagree all you want to, but I’ve read many, many adventures that contain backstory that would only become discovered if the PCs used some kind of higher level divination spell that allowed them to contact a higher level being.

          At best, it’s just a waste of space that *might* entertain the DM and *might* come in useful if the PCs are extra resourceful. At worst, it can be very confusing to the DM because the adventure makes perfect sense to them but they miss out on seeing what information is actually available to the PCs, and they might not see potential pitfalls where the PCs are lost due to a lack of knowledge about what to do.

          I can’t remember the name, but I read a 3.5 module one time that had loads of backstory about a particular mining town, the local wizard who ruled over it, his love-life, etc. I’d say that the adventure was a good ten pages long or so. The actual adventure itself consisted of being present when some worm-creatures broke through into the mines, and the PCs were sent to kill them. I think the whole thing was 1-2 encounters- you go in, you fight the worms, you fight their mother who attacks you once you kill her spawn. So, 8 pages of story for 1-2 encounters of play.

          I’d say beyond giving the players some information on how to interact with the adventure, extra detail should exist only to give the DM some ideas on how to respond if the players ask reasonable questions of the NPCs, or act in certain common ways (for PC adventurers, anyway). Anything beyond that where the PCs are getting into extra info-gathering territory, it’s maybe best if the DM just came up with something themselves.

          Along with this, extra information is not always “free”. The more information an author includes, the more you have to sift through to find the exact information that you are looking for. So, even if you were wanting some of this detail because your PCs were extra resourceful, sometimes including excess detail just makes *everything* that much harder to find.

          Of course, I think is also somewhat of a problem with the organization of the writer. I tend to find many D&D modules to be very non-repetitive in the sense that it seems like the writer was getting paid by the word, but only if they say something new. So, I end up repeatedly combing through a module to find the ONE place where an important detail was dropped, even if it should be useful in many places.

          • In the case of that mining town, the excess story could actually prove useful if you decide to write your own adventures that take place within the town; you’d probably need another 3 or 4 sessions to really work the history into the campaign as a whole, but it’d be possible to use it all outside the single module.

          • MrGuy says:

            I'm talking about excessive backstory that is very unlikely to be found out by PCs. Why write pages and pages of story that is only for the DM's purview, and they have to explain to the PCs after the adventure?

            I think this is really the art to DM’ing a module.

            The backstory is helpful for the DM to KNOW – it means there’s a lot about this world that’s already pre-thought-out that can be “at the ready” if it comes up in the course of play. It can guide decisions, descriptions, etc.

            But the backstory doesn’t necessarily be SHARED with the players. If it comes up or is impactful, fine. Use it. But if you’re just waiting with a few paragraphs of backstory and exposition to dump the moment it’s remotely relevant, you’re not doing the players any favors. You’re breaking the illusion, not making it (“We applied the cortical electrodes, but were unable to get a neural reaction from either patient!”)

            As Ruts has mentioned multiple times in this series, if you’re able to think on your feet as a GM, improvisation can take the place of meticulously crafted backstory. But if you’re not comfortable you can keep a consistent tone and world built, backstory helps.

            • Joshua says:

              Ability to improvise is irrelevant. The problem with unlikely backstory is that it tends to be ten pages of stuff you don’t need for every page that you might need. So, you have information there so that you don’t have to come up with something on the fly. However, instead of trying to improvise, you’re trying to locate the place in the module where it talked about the specific funereal or holiday traditions of this particular hamlet, or the vegetable preference of the locals. That is, unless you’re able to memorize pages and pages of this information for a single adventure. As I said, the more information that you include, the harder each individual piece of information is to find.

              My analogy is that your boss is having a meeting with people from XYZ company/city/etc. tomorrow. She asks you to do a little research on them so she doesn’t go in unprepared. If you type up a 30-page document full of random stuff about XYZ “just in case” it might be useful, you’re likely to find yourself with a very pissed off manager.

              I guess in the groups that I’ve played and DM’d, any player asking about this level of specificity would probably be told something to the effect of “I’m not sure of that detail at this particular moment, but I can look it up and/or come up with something for you by next session if that’s all right?”. Any player crying about the lack of immersion because you don’t know whether the guards use brass or bronze on their belt buckles upon immediate inquiry is just trolling you.

        • Matt Downie says:

          I’ve seen a lot of excess backstory. You get a character biography that goes on for about a page, but when the party actually meet him it says he attacks them immediately and fights to the death.

          There’s no end of things that might be useful to the GM – how does this character talk? What opening line will he use? What’s memorable about him that the PCs would notice? What would his dying words be? If you’re writing an adventure, you have limited page count. Use it for stuff that’s likely to be relevant.

          • Joshua says:

            I would emphasize the “There's no end of things that might be useful to the GM” part. I think the attitude on the writer is just throw everything and the kitchen sink in there just in case.

            As I said above though, the problem lies not just in the limited page count, but in the fact that the more information that’s included, the less likely the GM is going to be to remember any specific tidbit or find it quickly.

        • Bryan says:

          Murderhobos, or hobospy?

      • krellen says:

        I believe the excessive verbosity in descriptions has its roots in Tolkien. The professor was a very verbose man (who, as a linguist, had immense love for language), and as roleplaying games try hard to recreate his vision, his verbosity comes with it.

        • Matt Downie says:

          Lord of the Rings is a classic example of an adventure with masses of hidden backstory. Which is fine for a novel, but if you were printing Fellowship of the Ring as a gaming module, you wouldn’t try to cram the whole of the Silmarillion in there.

        • Joe Informatico says:

          A lot of D&D’s direct influences had a flair for archaic, esoteric, and verbose adjectives. Lovecraft was probably the most prone, but a lot of the 50s and 60s pulp writers Gygax liked were pretty guilty too. Phonebook-length epic fantasy of the 80s and 90s (the kind most D&D players and designers were reading) didn’t help either, and even though most modern fantasy is a lot more efficient in its prose, the books that all your players are likely to have read (A Song of Ice and Fire, The Kingkiller Chronicles, The Wheel of Time) are still guilty of it.

          • Btw, if you want to laugh, read Gygax’s original introduction to the Dungeon Master’s Guide. OMG. I still can’t read it without laughing. It is the most dry, academic, pretentious, verbose essay I’ve ever seen.

          • Mike S. says:

            Of course, if the style is popular with the writers and the audience, that raises the question of who’d be served by attempting spare, Hemingway-like prose. Obviously even if you’re going for lush description there’s better (Tolkien, Vance) and worse (R.A. Salvatore). But efficiency isn’t necessarily a virtue in imaginative works.

            • Dan Efran says:

              Who’d be served is tabletop RPG players. Gaming in a group and reading a novel are very different activities. Personally I love Tolkien’s prose, but communicating the relevant parts of an evolving situation to a handful of players in real time, out loud, really works better with an eye toward efficiency. The goal in both cases is to build a picture of the scene in the mind, but the medium is quite different.

              On the other hand, Hemingway is a straw man in all this. You can be clear and direct without being a self-parody of terseness.

              Try reading a few (good) movie scripts. Movies themselves are another matter entirely, but a good screenplay conveys scenes both vividly and with great efficiency.

              Also look at good storytelling performances, and good children’s books. Here too, vivid mind pictures are built up while word counts are kept low – without sacrificing poetic impact.

      • The term for this is “world-building for the sake of world-building”. It’s a mistake. If you don’t NEED a detail, don’t make it up. Heck, when my housemate runs he usually doesn’t even give his NPC’s NAMES–although I think part of this is just that he’s not really good at coming up with names quickly.

        I find that instead of coming up with DESCRIPTIVE details, it’s better to come up with PERSONALITY details (and not just for NPC’s–places can have personality, too). Anything you’d say to DESCRIBE something is going to be distant and abstract. You want something that conveys a visceral impression. You’re not rattling off a list, you’re composing a poem. You can even treat it like a little haiku if you like–having a word limitation can be really helpful.

        I try to focus on sensations. It’s not “damp”, that’s a description. It’s “clammy”. That’s a sensation. It’s not “a chiming sound” its “CHING CHING!” Use onomatopoeia constantly. Be as un-abstract as possible. It doesn’t “smell bad”. It “stinks of a dead cow lying in the sun, and you have to restrain an impulse to snap your mouth closed for fear of swallowing an imaginary fly”.

        • ehlijen says:

          I disagree that world building without specific need is always a bad idea.

          No, the content might not make it into the game. But then again, it might if the PCs are curious, or if you later come up with a story hook that uses it.

          Figuring out the way the world works behind the scenes, even if you don’t reveal it, helps in creating interesting events that in the end still fit into the world and thus create a coherent vision.
          As an example take FO:NV vs FO4. In both games, the player can easily complete the endgame without discovering the entire history of the place. But in New Vegas, every NPC still acts as though they were part of that history, and thus the game feels coherent, the player can see the shape of the gaps in their knowledge.
          Meanwhile in FO4, the more the player discovers, the less the world holds together because it wasn’t written with a unified vision behind it. This actively punishes lore interested players and characters.
          Also, if you don’t reveal your extra world building and you really need to later, you can always adjust it.

          That’s for GMs and NPCs. But it can even be fun for players. If the player never brings it up, it’s just some extra fun to write for them and some guidance for the GM to help predict the player and character and prepare content accordingly. Or it can actually lay the groundwork for a story that truly involves the party, instead of just happening to them.

          Admittedly, most dungeon crawlers don’t really need that, but more narrative driven games often rely on at least the PCs being that fleshed out.

          • You’re assuming that by “need” I meant “need this instant for a particular concrete purpose”. But long-term overarching goals are still goals, and if you need details for those, detail away. They don’t even *necessarily* have to be *specific*. I’m not saying “don’t do what Shamus calls a details-first story”. I’m saying, don’t make stuff up for no reason other than mental masturbation.

            This is a principle, not a commandment–the difference is, you have to actually THINK to apply it to any particular work. What’s a “necessary” detail in a drama-first sort of story vs. a more detail-oriented story is complex, and navigating those complexities is an art, not a science.

            The question I’ve always found useful to ask is “does this make any difference?” If you can’t come up with a case in which a particular tidbit makes any difference, it’s too much. Time to get back to the main thing.

            • One way I’ve found to learn this art is to read 19th century novels–quite a few of those novelists were paid BY THE WORD so the books are FILLED with all kinds of information–which may be very well written–that has NOTHING to do with ANYTHING that happens in the novel. It can be EXCRUCIATING. Read a few of those and you will never have a problem identifying when you’re going off into the weeds AGAIN.

            • Also, if some neat detail just occurs to you as you’re working on something, by all means note it down or throw it out there. It’s not that you should be actively AVOIDING the neat little serendipitous stuff that pops up. It’s that you don’t want to be wasting your time sweating over it.

              • ehlijen says:

                Then I think we disagree on what to consider ‘a waste of time’.

                I never truly predict what my PCs get up to. Having background material ready for unexpected new directions is always handy. And even if half the stuff I come up with doesn’t make it into the game and only serves to entertain me in making it up, that’s fine by me.
                But usually what it does is help me play the NPCs more consistently, giving the illusion that they do have lives outside of their screen time and thus feel more real. I like to believe that my players actually appreciate that.

            • Joshua says:

              Mental masturbation is pretty much the exact wording I’ve used in reference to this fluff.

              One other issue that I have with this excessive background detail is that the medium itself tends to be the wrong place for it. The point of all of these roleplaying games is to tell a story….where the PCs are protagonists. Any background detail should serve as a quick explanation for how to react to PC actions, or help the DM to understand NPC motives for playing them.

              Just ask yourself, does this detail serve to help the DM give more depth to the adventure, or exist only to amuse the author and the readers (the DMs)? If so, probably best to leave it out.

              I was running an otherwise great starter adventure a few months ago called Temple of the Nightbringers, when it was revealed at the end that the villain was someone that the PCs had already met back in town. The adventure then went on to explain the background story AND that the PCs would likely never find this information out. My thoughts were, why not write it in such a way that they DO find out?

              • ehlijen says:

                I have no problem with neat info being hidden from all but the nosiest PCs. Not every party will be the same level of interested as all others.

                The info being out there for Gather Info and Divination focused characters to seek out but not actively jump into the face of the door kicking barbarians is a good compromise for pre-written modules, I think.

                In concept, at least. I am not familiar with the specifics of this particular adventure.

                And yeah, I think mental masturbation is a good term. Something to enjoy but to not to share unless specifically requested.

                • Joshua says:

                  I think one key in having a little extra for nosy, inquisitive players would be an emphasis on the word “little”. I have seen this done in modules where there are little Easter Eggs that give a little extra bonus. But I’ve seen a lot more modules where the PCs just played the clueless, doorkicking barbarian not by choice but because the story was hard to find. It’s all subjective, but I posit that the reason for this is because the authors are trying to tell stories but are not doing it in the best way for the medium as opposed to deliberately trying to make the players work extra hard just to understand the story.

          • Taellosse says:

            I think both you and Jennifer are right – “descriptive” world-building – trying to nail down the sensory experience of particular locations or characters with specific language – is usually a waste of time for everyone. The players won’t care very much, and probably won’t retain the information being conveyed very well, and the GM should be focusing on other things anyway.

            But yes, structural world-building – understanding the rules that the setting operates under, the motives of the significant characters, and how the two fit together – is important to creating a coherent setting that feels convincing. But a lot of that really is behind-the-scenes stuff. You’ll seldom be reading much of that sort of preparation straight to the players – a lot of it they’re going to learn as they go along by interacting with the world, or simply never know directly at all. It’s probably really useful for the GM to know that the dastardly lord first began studying necromancy to find a way to restore his late beloved mother – the only person ever to show him kindness and love despite his odd habits – as opposed to because he’s terrified of death and sought a way to live forever. Both versions are going to look similar from the outside, and probably marshal similar sorts of abilities, but they’re likely to behave very differently, even if neither one will ever monologue at the heroes about why they are the way they are.

            Of course, because structural world-building is mostly going to sit behind-the-scenes, it doesn’t have to take a lot of time to write. It doesn’t even require complete sentences – just notations to keep it at hand for the GM to reference as needed. “Lord Nephares – Necromancer. Wants to bring dead mum back.” And keeping that information in mind can inform the GM whenever that character takes an action – this is what motivates this person, so what would a person driven by this do in this scenario?

            The same is true for setting details. The GM probably doesn’t need to read 12 paragraphs of historical cosmology in fanciful prose to the players at the start of the campaign to convey to them that magic in this setting follows the classical quartered elemental principle, or that it flows along ley lines and gathers in nodes at locations with strong affinity for one of the elements. It’s either clearly implied by the sorts of abilities magic-users can acquire, or it becomes evident as the game plays out. At worst it can be incorporated into the “sales pitch” for the setting in some brief fashion without worrying about couching it in too many words.

            • Mike S. says:

              Re “waste of time”, this is after all a hobby, not a job. I’ve had good GMs whose NPCs all seemed to be named “Walter” because they were working on the fly, and good GMs who could tell you who won every election from 1865 to the present (in both countries) in the world where the south won the Civil War. It’s very much a nine and sixty ways thing– there’s no one right way to do things, just many ways that each work for different people.

              (Tolkien spent his life developing an imaginary world primarily for his own amusement and happened to spin a classic children’s story and a fantasy masterpiece out of it. Arthur Conan Doyle couldn’t be bothered to keep track of Watson’s first name and the scope of Holmes’s knowledge would vary as the plot demanded, and the result was an iconic duo for the ages.)

              Even among those who’ve gone pro with RPGs, it’s still a creative form that’s open to as wide a variety of ways of pursuing it as there are fans who’ll buy the result. Runequest didn’t get forty years out of a small but fanatical fanbase by only including the details that were useful in play.

              As the field has matured, it’s true gaming books have probably become more efficient about primarily including details that are applicable to playing the game. (And in my experience players and GMs alike become more focused after leaving college and having jobs and family to occupy the free time previously spent figuring out a year by year chronology of the balkanization of North America, or the short, tragic story that led street gang member #3 to be the first criminal defeated by the PCs of the Justice Squad.)

              But even now, just about any random worldbuilding bit that really interests the author can still be dropped in as an “adventure hook” if they’re clever about it. And the solidity of a deeply-built world from a GM who enjoys that sort of thing can pay dividends even if 90% of it is forever beneath the surface. (In much the same way that even someone who never reads the ancillary material can still perceive that there’s more depth to Middle Earth than there is to Narnia.)

  2. Joshua says:

    As far as the Thief/Rogue characters are concerned, I’d say that the influence is a lot more based upon Conan and Fritz Leiber than Garrett-style master cat-burglars. If there’s a heist involved, it usually involved the whole party, and violence was sure to be included.

    On a related note, those books always had the protagonists constantly seeking and discovering new treasures, without a lot of tracking of the wealth between stories. The characters typically “drank and wenched” away their wealth between adventures.

    For a tabletop related question, what do people typically have their PCs spend money on in their campaigns (past the first couple of levels where they’re still seeking out basic supplies, and assuming games where there aren’t Magic Marts around every corner)?

    One problem I’m running into with D&D 5E (like 1st and 2nd AD&D), is that the PCs find all kinds of glorious treasure but there isn’t really a lot of stuff to spend it on by default. The GM has to come up with custom things for them to use their cash on.

    • Nonesuch says:

      It depends on what the game is like. If the players have base of operations, investing the money into it is always a good hook to offer. Whether that base is a whimsical pirate ship, a small farming community, their favourite tavern or a once-great fortress nestled in the mountains is beside the point. If you can give them an anchor to return to, that they can feel invested in between adventures, that anchor point itself can become the source of more adventures.

      Consider the farming community. Your adventurers want nothing to do with the day-to-day politics of this podunk town. What they do want is more resources than it can offer. They pay someone to bring more wares into town. The more money comes into the town, the more it needs to be protected. Farmers that are just sort of scraping by above the subsistance aren’t a target. A town with a bustling market is.

      So now you have local criminal elements to deal with. Maybe the adventurers knock over the bandits that were waylaying their supplies, but that doesn’t solve the long term problem that they’ve hung bandit bait out. So maybe the town needs walls, and guards. Maybe the players train some of those guards!

      Maybe the players are sick of sleeping on straw mattresses in a barn, so they put the money into land (the Hawkeye’s house comment above is spot on) or real-estate. Let them hang trophies, and be a little ostentatious and when there’s a problem too big for the villagers to handle they’ve got a building to go to!

      Maybe the village is built on something old and dangerous. Maybe maybe maybe. The point is that your players won’t invest in a single location if they aren’t already invested in it emotionally or in a narrative sense.

      If your players are wandering murderhobos, there’s another matter entirely for money sinks. You might want to consider less tangible things for them to spend money on. You’re a travelling adventurer in search of rare and arcane lore, you don’t have access to the time or resources to peruse for leads yourself, what you do have is a pile of money and a way to acquire more. Pay someone to look for it (and hey look MORE ADVENTURE HOOKS!).

      If the party has a reccurring villain, maybe they don’t want to be stuck reacting to his villanous schemes when they’re already three-quarters to fruition. So they start paying for information (again ADVENTURE HOOKS!)

      Maybe they need to get somewhere, bribes are always good. Titles are nice and they cost the GM nothing, can make even more trouble for the players down the road, and in some cases can be bought.

      What your travelling murderhobos are always in need of is more things to adventure to. You might also consider dishing out treasure in a way that doesn’t allow it to be liquid immediately. Art objects, gemstones and other things that have obvious value (material or otherwise) but aren’t themselves currency are great for this. They let you either put a cap on the players money (you can sell them today, but you won’t get the full value) or a cap on how fast it accrues (you leave it with a reputable merchant to sell on, he’ll split the profits with you but it will take time to find a buyer). In this way the players still feel like they’re making money, but they don’t have so much change jingling around making them feel like it’s worthless.

      Hope that helps!

      • Khizan says:

        I’ve always wanted a town with haunted cemetaries and goblin caves and such where the townsfolk had an agreement with the necromancer/goblin king/etc and the entire village was a scheme to lure adventurers in to their deaths and profit from their gear’s high resale value.

  3. One thing you can actually try with your wannabe Garrett fellow is to just offer to have him WRITE UP what happens. This doesn’t work with everyone as some are just not inclined that way, but it works WONDERFULLY with SOME players and it really gets them invested in the game. Instead of giving them an in-game reward, you can give them an abstract OOC reward like a small amount of bonus xp for putting work into the game. Plus, you never know, they may come up with hooks you can hang an adventure on.

    I’ve been doing this in my games for years. Some players’ investment begins and ends when the game session does. Some will basically write a whole novel of their adventures in between sessions.

    There are SOME players where you really can effectively run a solo adventure for them DURING the main session, but if this isn’t your pidgin and people look to be getting bored, don’t let them bully you into doing this.

    And if you want to be clever, you can always pass a bunch of NPC guards out to the other players and let them run AGAINST your would-be Thief. That way the players are active participants even if their characters aren’t. Give them bonus XP–in a lot of campaigns, XP is worth more than cash.

    Or, if you want to be EVIL and clever, have the nobles actually HIRE the rest of the party to foil this “famous thief” they’ve heard about.

    • Also in my groups, it’s generally been the thing that it becomes a running gag if one of the characters is constantly being foiled in their desire to do X by the other characters. We’ve had things like:

      The Character who always wants to Cook and Eat enemies/monsters
      The Character who always wants to capture monsters and make pets out of them
      The Character who Collects Enemy Ears
      The Character who Wants To Blow Everything Up With Explosives

      And so on and so forth. It’s always a fun day when the rest of the party is finally like “you know what, now’s the time to pull out your cooking gear”.

      • Plus, you as the GM can add to this by making sure temptation always comes their way. Maybe you don’t have time to run an entire heist, but you can sure present your thief with opportunities to pocket the silverware, and small opportunities help make up for the lack of as many important big ones as they might like.

      • Decius says:

        I had a ton of fun after an NPC tried to take credit for one of our kills. Once we got into the showdown of trying to convince everyone who actually did it, I just pulled out the preserved head and said “This is the guy you say you killed?”

        • I played in one game where whenever we’d come across an oddball problem with some such issue as “but where are we going to find a left-handed screw haft at this time of night?!”, I would just blithely announce “no problem, I know a guy who knows a guy”.

          The first time I did this, the GM gave me what can only be described as a . . . look. And I said “I have contacts. I spent points on them.” *look* “Do you want me to roll something?” *look* “I have streetwise!” “Yeah, okay, roll that.” *something absurdly high* “Okay. You know a guy who knows a guy.”

          • Decius says:

            LITERALLY the point of having contacts is to be able to quickly solve problems that can be quickly solved by people who aren’t you.

            Now that I see that I’m going to put that idea into games that don’t natively support it. Knowledge:Local now includes “which guy knows a guy and can be used for favors”.

      • Shoeboxjeddy says:


        During a campaign starting adventure, where our party was forced to form as a Gladiatorial Team, I decided my Rogue was this type of Thief. After several life or death battles, our next big match was watched over by a noble type in a massive golden chair. I (a Halfling thief of average Halfling height) declared that the chair “would be mine… oh yes… it WILL be mine” (in Wayne’s World impression mode).

        The way I swung this was when the breakout happened, it just so happened I was in the position to rescue the others. I agreed to save them IF they would help me infiltrate the lair of the noble guy and cart his chair out. I then split the proceeds with all who agreed to help with this.

        From then on, the DM could get my character to do stuff by dangling some stupid object near or in the Quest Hook. When we stopped playing for good, I was thinking about how to get an immense chandelier down and out without breaking it.

  4. Mortuorum says:

    I have occasionally found myself in the same position as Heather B. I have an idea for an epic campaign, but lose enthusiasm after a year or so. (My campaigns progress slowly due to player schedules.) During the last campaign I ran, I had a solid beginning and ending, but the middle wasn’t well defined. I had a good time winging it for a couple of years, but then realized I was running out of steam – I was ready to move on to a different setting and system, and didn’t really have enough ideas to keep the campaign going until the PC were at the level necessary for the endgame. So, I took my last good idea, figured out how to turn it into an adventure that could be completed in about 9-10 sessions and really piled on the XP and treasure. (If the players realized it was odd that they picked up a level every three encounters, they never let on.)

    Knowing we were that close to the big finale rekindled my excitement in the campaign and (as far as I can tell) everyone enjoyed the final adventure and campaign endgame.

  5. Khizan says:

    As for Heather B’s problem:

    One thing that I think helps with this is addressing your epic length campaign’s story with different parties from different viewpoints and areas. This lets you take breaks from a particular storyline while still advancing the campaign and furthering the overall story.

    If you’ve got a storyline where one nation is invading another, maybe you start with a group of spies infiltrating the enemy capital, to find out why this formerly peaceful nation has launched this offensive. You get a little bored of that? Pause that storyline and think up a little mini-campaign in the same campaign. Maybe soldiers on the frontline guarding an important supply caravan. and if they lose the caravan their war effort will suffer major setbacks. Maybe they’re city guards in the capital of their own city, rooting out a spy ring before they can pull off their assassination plot against your king. Or maybe you’ve got a Guns of Navarone situation where they’re an elite group of soldiers that has to take a critical border fortress to let your side’s offensive succeed.

    The change of pacing, characters, and situation can really be refreshing, both for you as a DM and for the players as a group.

  6. Blackbird71 says:

    “If I've got my looser humanities group and two hours, I might pick a system that's low-maintenance and primarily narrative.”

    I’m pretty sure there’s an extra “o” in there. ;)

    Seriously though, that’s how I read it the first time through. Until I read it a second time, I was thinking, “Ruts must not really like his humanities friends very much.”

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