Monday, 3 April 2017

Hints & Tips - Tips on Generating Sci-Fi Locations

On the first Monday of every month, read a new hint or tip from Jonathan Hicks, as featured on and available on Kindle as 'The Book of Roleplaying Hints, Tips and Ideas'.

We've all experienced the thrill of space exploration through science fiction movies, books and other media. We've seen some amazing things, from imagination and from deep- space pictures. How can you inject some of that wondrousness into your own Sci-Fi locations?

Flying through space and having adventures is fun, but there's another angle to the experience and that's discovering new things that really stick in your mind.

Take the following two examples, and see which description stands out more:

(a) The starship landing pad is made of slabs of metal, overlooked by several domed hangars and a small tower-topped control tower.

(b) The starship landing pad is a huge circular affair with a great roof that opens like flower petals when ships approach. The surrounding hangars are domed, covered in blue-grey vines. The control tower hovers above the hangars, continually moving on its jets to watch over the area. Great cliffs surround the location, and green waterfalls cascade into the crystal clear waters that surround the site. Lizards hop from tree to tree.

Example (a) could be any landing pad on any world, whereas example (b) is defined by the technology, the foliage and the terrain, adding not only an identity but an atmosphere.

Make It Big

Why make a location normal when you can make it huge? The greatest way to inspire a player is make something large. If the PCs are going to meet a contact on a world, then don't have them meet in a small copse of trees next to a stream - that sounds too much like Earth. If they are to meet in such a place, then make it big! The trees are three hundred feet high, fifty feet thick. The leaves are the size of men. The ground is covered in huge four-foot fern-like growths, red in colour. The clouds roll overhead at great speed.

Simply taking what would be a normal location and making it larger than life increases the spectacle of it all.

Make It Better

Why have a car when you can have a jet-powered hover vehicle? Why live in a building when you can live in a pre- fabricated geo-dome? Why fly your spaceship to a satellite when you can fly it to an orbital sat-habitat, two miles long and housing a hundred thousand people?

Increase the concept of the visuals of the location you are trying to describe. To do this, just take an everyday object - such as a car, a toaster or an elevator - and add a bit of pizzazz. A car can be an air vehicle, zapping between the towers of a future city; a toaster can be a small hand-held unit that you just wave over bread and, hey presto - toast! An elevator can be an anti-gravity tube - just step in it and float to the next floor. Adding these details into a location can add a dimension of difference to increase the atmosphere.

Make It Different

Let's say the PCs have crash-landed their shuttle on a jungle world. It could be easy to simply say that they're in a moist tropical environment, like the jungles of Earth, and that would most likely describe the location well. At least, well enough if the PCs actually were on Earth! If they're on another planet you want to add some details so that they feel they're interacting with something fantastic. For example, let's take two places: natural and man-made:

To get across the idea of a different natural locale, you could add details such as:

The trees have translucent leaves, and the sap is visibly coursing through them.
They grow so high they bend under their own weight, so the top of tree touches the ground and takes root, creating strange half-hoops.
The hills are almost uniformly high, with the strongest trees growing straight up on top of them.
The ground is covered in dead leaves and foliage, a grey- blue mass of wet grime.
There is very little sound except for the soft hum of the wind, and a weird hooting call that echoes through the trees.
Lizard-like creatures with six limbs and bright pearlescent feathers on their backs leap from branch to branch and chitter noisily.
Long smears of cloud stretch from horizon to horizon.
The ringed sister planet hangs in the pink sky.

Why talk of a simple jungle when your players can have a go at visualising that?

As for the man-made setting, you could go something like this:

The building is nestled into the side of the mountain as if it grows from it, the sheer face of he rock blemished by the ugly, six-tiered, ninety-floor construct.
Its face is glass and steel so the rest of the landscape is reflected in its surface.
The waterfall that cascades from the top of the cliff pours down half the building to the wide river below, the only access to the place is across a single, raisable suspension bridge.
On each tier sits observation domes for the security personnel, and on the third tier is an extended platform for incoming starships.
Vehicles swoop and hover about the whole scene like angry bees. Cars swarm across the bridge continuously.
Great floodlights illuminate the building, so from far off it appears as a blinking crystal in the mountains.

Take something normal and place it in a location where it shouldn't be, surrounded by things that shouldn't exist. This creates a great visual for your players and also helps define the alien, otherworldly quality of the place. Science fiction deals with things that can be considered archetypes, such as wheel-shaped space stations and dome-covered moonbases. And all these things are good but can become stagnant with continuous use. Add some flair, take some risks; it doesn't matter if the place you create is a bit strange and that the things you describe shouldn't work or even exist in the natural order of things. That's what makes a great science fiction setting.

Monday, 6 March 2017


On the first Monday of every month, read a new hint or tip from Jonathan Hicks, as featured on and available on Kindle as 'The Book of Roleplaying Hints, Tips and Ideas'.

Want to make your fantastic locations more memorable to the players?

When, at first, I played roleplaying games I wanted it to be like the movies - big, explosive, action-packed. But after saving planets and rescuing whole races in distress, blowing up super weapons and defeating new terrible threats, the galaxy into which my character had been born was growing stale. It was the same with many of the other players. The clatter of dice had lost its music.

One day a group of gamers (who shall remain nameless) sat down to do a game and the Gamesmaster really hadn’t anything ready to run, just a few plot ideas he had and a couple of notes, so he just looked at his players and asked ‘so, what are you going to do?’ The players were stunned; here they were, docked in a space station in the middle of nowhere with free reign to go where they wanted, and they didn’t know what to do. Without Gamesmaster guidance they were stuck.

Until one of the players said ‘do you remember that corporation boss whose daughter we rescued on that planet with those two asteroids as moons? Perhaps we could go and pay him a visit. He did say come back anytime’.

It’s decided. The players decide to head for the planet where the boss is. They know where it is - they’ve been there a few times. Or they could have gone and visited the tribesman whose people were saved from the renegade demolition crew. Or they could pop back to that bar they visited on the second moon of the last system, see what was going on. Call old NPC’s they had befriended to see how they were, get a job and call other NPC’s who owe them a favour who are skilled enough to help. Pay off old debts.

The players were able to travel the sector of space and decide where they would go. The sector was alive to them, it wasn’t a painted black and white setting laid out by a Gamesmaster and helped along by action and explosions. They could interact with it. An entire new perspective was born within the galaxy.

If this kind of roleplaying appeals to you then read on - this little piece may help, or at least point you in the right direction.


Have you ever noticed how easy it is to run a game set on a planet known within an official licensed movie roleplaying setting? If you run a game on Tatooine from Star Wars, say, in Mos Espa, then the players are going to be able to feel comfortable and part of the setting because they know the place. They know that there is Pod Racing there, that they can get parts from Watto’s junkyard. If they go to Mos Eisley they can get a drink at the cantina from Wuher, that they can catch a ship to the other side of the galaxy, and if they’ve read the books or the source material then they can ask about for certain personalities that can aid them.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could run a game set on your own worlds, your own locations filled with your own characters that the players can get used to, visualise and interact with as naturally as the ones in the films and books.


First of all, you’ve got to create a place that is going to be instantly recognisable by the players. If you’re an artist, so much the better, but it’s just as easy to put the visualisation into the players mind by graphically describing the location. Some people say that long-winded description is dull, but I believe that the GM can use that description to initially describe setting. Planet log sheets are good but they lack depth. The look of the place can be imprinted on the players and then brief descriptions on return journeys are all that’ll be needed in later games.

We’ll use an example planet, which we’ll call Nebrassa to illustrate my meaning. The examples will be in italics.

Now, the initial location must be communicated to the players. Instead of giving them a standard description of the planet, narrate the approach to the world, taking in any other spatial matter around the system. Make it good - if you’re a GM then you’ve probably got a flair for the dramatic and can roll this kind of stuff off. For you’re initial description, write it down. Spend a little time writing up a narrative to read to the players as they approach the world. It can be split up to include any roleplaying or action scenes that may occur.

For example, let’s say that the players are approaching the world of Nebrassa where they are to meet a contact that will introduce them to a gunrunner. In orbit, the game dictates that they will be stopped by a navy warship, and, if they don’t react sharpish, may even be boarded.

So you could start the first paragraph like this:

The hyperspace tunnel collapses, turning the stars from streaks into points of light. The planet of Nebrassa rolls into view. It is a muddy-brown world, with thick cloud cover over the equator and wide reflective oceans. The navigation computer tells you it is a swampy world, but you don’t need a databank to tell you that. All you have to do is look at the world. Two large grey moons orbit closely at either pole, with several smaller bodies further out. A thin ring of dust encircles the planet, reflecting a rainbow of colours from it’s crystalline content. Your ship approaches for orbital insertion.

It’s at this point the players are allowed to interact with this, the first view of their planet. Extra notes about tiny details may be necessary just in case your players are exceptionally perceptive.
This is also where the players will get a feel for what kind of world they are over when the naval warship approaches. If the players are going to be coming here often it helps to make the initial NPC contact a memorable one. There are far too many instances where the players land, a custom officer says ‘one hundred credits, please’ and then walks off. That’s it. Quite unremarkable. Generalising characters are fine for background painting, but make sure you’ve got several stock characters for the odd Joe Public off the street the players may ask for directions or advice from. For more information, see the chapter ‘Creating Interesting NPCs’.

So, the players meet up with the customs frigate. If this is going to play a major part in the scenario then make sure the stats and personalities are laid out for the officer of the ship. It’s through this character the players may learn a little of the planet.

‘It’s very simple,’ says the customs officer, his bushy eyebrows constantly twitching, ‘you can carry light weapons but nothing heavy. There are fines for infractions, set terms for major ones. There’ll be zones on the surface marked red on your sensors - these are no-fly areas. If you stray into them you’ll get shot down or arrested with no appeal, got it?? Landing costs 100 credits plus 50 every day after. Ask the Portmaster for rules and regs. Now, your ship’s clean. Beat it’.

This little encounter, brief or long depending on what the players do, say or have in their hold, sets up what the planet will be like. The customs officer may have been polite, explaining the law of the world and handing out any data chips with maps and instructions. He could simply have boarded, searched, and sent them on their way. A world is usually governed by a simple attitude that is present in its denizens. If the world is oppressive then the inhabitants could be cynical and unfriendly. A world covered in clubs and nightspots might be friendly and warm, an industrial world would most likely be indifferent to the presence of the PC’s (‘we get hundreds like you through here every day’). Setting the feel of a world is not done through a simple description of the globe. It’s also done through the attitude of its inhabitants.


The next part of the introduction is getting the players down to the surface. If you have filled out a planet log then take the atmosphere into consideration. Is the world wet and damp? Then when they hit the atmosphere they’ll be flying into thick cloud, maybe even a little lightning. Dry and warm? Then describe the land spiralling out before them, no cloud cover to obscure their vision. The details of the land become more defined as they approach the surface.

Nebrassa, it’s clouds seemingly still, starts to grow in the window. As the ship starts to vibrate slightly during atmospheric entry you see that the clouds are actually heaving with activity. They roll and pulsate like something alive, the violent storms below them churning them up. Flashes of light streak through the moisture as lightning touches down on the surface. Then you’re enveloped by the cloud, thick oppressive cloud that forces you to fly by instrumentation alone. Bursting out from beneath that cloud is almost a relief.

Give the planet character. Give it a sense of realism. Give it a quirk or a feature that defines its originality. Nebrassa appears to wear a belt of cloud whilst its poles are apparently clear. This is what makes a planet different from the rest.


There will be a place on the surface where the players will first touch down, where the landing bays are, where the population resides. If the reason the players are there does not concern the main city (or cities) then fine - they can either hear about the city or do a fly-over, and then you can go into a separate description of the other location. For now, though, lets concentrate on the one place.

Most cities are built the same. Sprawling urban areas surrounding a central ‘hub’ that enables the residents to congregate and trade. This usually consists of buildings of varying heights depending on function and ownership. Look at the world around you. No matter where you go this is the general layout of a city.

You have to make your city a distinct place that dominates the view. If the planet is covered in small settlements then fine - concentrate on what these little places look like but give them something that no other place has. In many cases, cities and towns are built to complement their surroundings, so the surface of the planet must be taken into consideration before anything else.

The capital city of Nebrassa, Nebro, is a strange sight to behold. The misty belt of the planet creates huge banks of fog and incredibly sodden ground, making direct surface dwellings difficult. Therefore, Nebro has been built on huge legs. As your ship approaches, you see that the city is a collection of several platforms of varying heights, rising from the fog below on thick, durable stilts. Each platform is covered in tall buildings that are rounded off at the top, some open like flower petals to serve as landing platforms. Walkways and speederlanes intersect each platform and wind around the buildings. All in all, you’d guess that the city was large enough to contain over two million citizens.

Why was Star Wars’ Cloud City such a wonderful city? Was it wonderful because it mined Tibanna gas and had Lando Calrissian as an administrator? Of course not. You don’t find out these details until after the characters touch down. Cloud city is wonderful because it floats among the clouds, because it is so huge and yet looks so delicate as it hovers in the sky. That is what amazes the characters when they first see it, which is what stays in their minds. That is what you have to create - a location that is remarkable and unforgettable.


When the players walk down the ramp of their ship they’ll want to see, hear and smell their surroundings. That first impression of the world they are going to explore is what will dominate their senses.

First of all, what will the characters see? Landing on a desert planet is simple - sand and more sand, or sandy walls if they touch down in a landing pit. On more temperate worlds they’d see rolling greenery, maybe covered in patchy swampland or deep pools. Make sure you have a visual worked out to describe to the players. Their first view of the new world will pretty much dictate how they view the rest of the planet or location they are in.

The landing platform hangs over the city’s edge, allowing wisps of thick fog to creep over the edges. It is well worn and obviously used constantly - burn marks from retro thrusters and patches of grime denote frequent landings and take-offs. The streets and buildings at the edge of the platform are bustling with activity, with beings from all walks of life and dozens of different worlds go about their business. Thick pipes seem to protrude from every wall and several places in the ground, making it seem as though a network of tubes runs throughout the city. It makes it appear strangely organic. Dull grey metal stands proud on every building - the place was obviously built for practicality and not to serve any architect’s whimsies.

Now come the sounds they will hear. Out of the way places with little to no activity will be sullen and quiet, with the odd whoosh of a starship and humming generator. Heavily populated planets will contain multitudes of sound, from screaming vehicles to the murmur of crowds to the blare of sirens and the cacophony of trade halls.

The city is strangely quiet as beings keep themselves to themselves. The sounds of the place are muted as the fog creeps silently over the view. Every now and then a travel tube roars as a pod shoots down it or there’s a drone as a vehicle passes by. The main noise comes from the Aircars and starships criss-crossing the skies above - this far up in the city is where many of the landing pads are.

With a new location come new sights, sounds and lastly smells. The smell of location doesn’t play a huge part in its description (after all, it’s very difficult to imagine a smell) but nonetheless adds a little more depth.

The strange odours forced up your nose are peculiar to say the least. Like a mixture of rotting vegetation and grease. As you head into the crowds this is replaced by purified air as huge atmosphere regulators keep most of the fog at bay. This smells almost metallic, with false chemicals added to make the majority of beings comfortable, like chlorine and white spirit mixed.


After that, it’s up to you, the GM, to add the little bits and bobs that will bring the setting to life. As stated before, take a look at the NPC creation tips on this part of the site. They’ll help you create personalities that will inhabit the setting you’ve created. Its all well and good having the location laid out, but if there’s buildings there’s life (usually).

Remember the golden rule - no two places are alike. If the players touch down in a city that you haven’t made any decent notes for, the chances are your description is going to be lame and uninspiring. This will mean the players will be at a location that won’t stick in there minds.

If you want your players to visit your creations, then don’t let that happen. The galaxy is alive if you say it is.

Monday, 6 February 2017


On the first Monday of every month, read a new hint or tip from Jonathan Hicks, as featured on and available on Kindle as 'The Book of Roleplaying Hints, Tips and Ideas'.

Getting ready for that all important game

Preparation. Concentration. Deep breaths, now… this is it. The game is ready to go and several faces are waiting for your first words.

Are you ready?

Well, are you? Have you got everything ready? All those maps prepared, the story outlined, the characters designed and poised for action. There’s nothing worse than starting a game and then realising that you may or may not have everything to hand that you’ll need to run a successful session.

So here are a few tips to help you through those stages of preparation. There are many things to consider before sitting down to play. This doesn’t include actual scenario design or detail creation, but lists the simple things that you might need – even things that you may not think are important – for the game. Just make a note of each heading and keep it as a checklist. It’s not a great sign of confidence for the players when you sit at the table and click your fingers, saying for example ‘blast, I forgot the crazy ‘droid stats’. Hmm. That won’t help the game.

Make sure you have the scenario details to hand

Goes without saying, really. This is, after all, the most important part of the game. No details – no story – no game.

Be sure you have the Player and Non-Player Character stats

The second most important part of an evenings play. No character stats – no game. This can be overcome by guessing games or re-creation but that’s not the point, is it? It may be a god idea for the GM of the game to keep hold of all the stat sheets, PC and NPC alike, so that none go astray. This will mean that the GM will have to remember them every game but that’s the purpose of this list. Having the players keep hold of their own stat sheets might be a bad idea – it only takes one person to forget their sheet and things are messed up. NPC stat sheets are just as important.

Make sure any maps or locations are present 

Check your bag – have you got the maps and deck plans to hand? Then double check to make sure they’re applicable to the game! There are instances when the GM grabs the scenario, stat sheets and maps only to find that the drawings he has are for a previous adventure.

Stock up on pencils and extra paper of several styles 

Another important aspect – writing implements are an essential part of a game, especially an ongoing campaign, for note-taking and general bookkeeping. Make sure there’s enough for everyone. Also, make sure there’s spare paper for the actual notes to be put on. If you get several styles of print then you’ll cover the main aspects of the kind of notes that are taken – plain for sketches, lined for notes, squared for maps. It’s all very helpful.

Be sure you have the props in a safe place

That is, if you actually use them. Props can be fun to use if you want to hand something to the player you actually want them to look at in a 3D aspect. Keep them hidden, too, as you don’t want the players to get wind of what may be coming later as the game progresses.

Pick and choose the source books you may need, even if they don’t seem important

Having that kind of material to hand is essential. This way you won’t have to keep jumping up to sort out the books for certain stats or details. If possible, bookmark the pages you need and also take some generalised books in case the players ask for something you weren’t expecting.

Get your hoard in

And finally - sweets, drinks, vices – be sure you’re well stocked and, if possible, your players are well stocked also. Having to get up for a drink or anything else during play is a bit of a pain and slows continuity if it’s a trivial thing (‘Oh, I fancy a packet of crisps – I’m just popping to the shops’). Toilet breaks are unavoidable so don’t worry about that.

No doubt there are other things you may use in your games that are not covered, so simply make a list. The best thing to do is think about how the last games went, think of the things you forgot or whatever, and then add them to your notes. Check them off one by one and then you’re ready for gaming. There are certain things you can’t avoid – such as the toilet breaks or the interruptions during play – so don’t let them worry you. The key thing is that you make sure your prepared for that night’s gaming and that you have everything that you need.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Hints & Tips - MASS COMBAT

On the first Monday of every month, read a new hint or tip from Jonathan Hicks, as featured on and available on Kindle as 'The Book of Roleplaying Hints, Tips and Ideas'.

Dealing with Large Scale Battles in roleplaying games
“Commander! Spotters report three Storm-class warships touching down at reference three by seven, one kilometre out.” There was a pause as the man listened to his headphones intently. “They’re unloading Striker tanks,” he added.
Eric Davids looked down at his second officer and nodded. “Understood. Tell the group to stand by.”
As the eight tanks under Eric’s command and the legion of soldiers behind them crested the hill they saw the warships taking to the air again – leaving nine squat Striker tanks waiting for them. Behind the enemy tanks was a legion of soldiers, also.
Eric swallowed hard. The sides were almost evenly matched – the battle for this sector of the planet was going to be fierce.
“Lock on,” he instructed. “Let’s go!”

The heart of adventure roleplaying is just that – adventure. Explosions and blasters, diving headlong into trouble, saving the day and coming out smiling.
The nature of a roleplay session is what happens to the group of characters being portrayed by the players. They thwart plots and interact with personalities on a regular basis, but surely doing things on a ‘toned down’ scale becomes a little repetitive after a while? Surely these conflicts would escalate at some point, if not because of the player’s actions but because the game calls for it?

All around the player characters there are things happening – battles are fought and wars are lost and won. But you’ve been playing the characters as personalities for a long time – how can you integrate them into a war? How can they play important parts in a huge battle that rages about them? How do you even run that huge battle as it is fought?

This article is designed to give the GM a few ideas on how to run a large scale battle within their games but at the same time not lose the pace of a roleplaying session.


It may be dramatically appropriate that a certain side actually wins the battle automatically. Depending on the design of the campaign in question, it might not serve the GM to have a certain side win or lose. If that is the case then don’t worry about dice rolls or anything like that – just have the players zap about doing what they do best. Maybe throw in a couple of moments where the battle looks like it’s going in favour of the wrong side, then pull it back from the brink at the last moment. It might be a good idea to fudge a couple of rolls to make out that the battle really is in the balance. This may seem like cheating – and you’re right, it is, but if it’s at the end of the campaign and the players have fought hard and well it would be unfair to deny them a victory.


So then you come to the next method – making rolls to decide which side wins certain fights. The easiest way would be to just roll a D6 for each side and say ‘right, you/they lost’ for the highest roll, but this wouldn’t work at all, dramatically or practically. Battles are long drawn-out affairs where even minor victories in the lines can judge the outcome.

The better way to do it is to split up each side into groups – maybe a certain number of men/machines against their opposite number. Then roll for each side. Highest number wins and the enemy are defeated. Then the victorious group goes and helps another group and they get to roll 2D6 against the enemy’s 1D6, or take on another group. This isn’t entirely accurate, of course, but it does the job. You can decide what the characters are doing at this point – either commanding groups or just taking part, and deal with their scenes separately. Rolls for the opposing sides can be made every two to three rounds of character conflict. This will not only add an effective time scale but also suit the size of the battle being raged.


Now we come to a more detailed but more practical method. If you want the battle to be decided by chance but also have that speed of play then the following method is advisable. You may need a lot of D6’s for this, or at least be prepared to do a lot of bookkeeping.

The sides are given D6 scores depending on numbers. The totals are recorded and each side matched against the other. Of course, the sides will be numbered in multiples of six but this is the only requirement so that the dice rolls are kept easier. Then all you do is roll the amount of dice within a group and then deduct it from the enemy’s total. The enemy does this also, all in the same round.

If the numbers fall below the multiples of six then reduce the dice rolled accordingly. If you have between 12 and 18 troops left, roll 3D6. If it falls below 12 but is still higher than 6, roll 2D6. Anything lower than 6, then roll 1D6. It’s not entirely accurate, that much is obvious, but it gives a higher element of chance and even gives opportunities for sides to ‘turn the tide’ of the battle.

For example, Side A has a 2D6 side (eight troops) and side B has a 2D6 (nine troops) side. Each side rolls their 2D6. A rolls six, which is subtracted from B’s total of Nine, and B rolls five, which is subtracted from A’s total of eight. A now has 3 troops left (which drops his total dice to 1D6) and B has 3 troops (again, the total dice he can roll next round is 1D6) They roll again next round, or after two rounds depending on how long the GM wants the conflict to last. Using this method, it is possible for each side to ‘wipe each other out’ so that there is none left standing. Such is the price of war.

Fast and brutal – although this system is still flawed it gives an illusion of conflict that will serve the pace of the game. It can be used for characters and vehicles but does not take scales into account. This is for simple conflict that the GM wants to deal with at the same pace as the game, depending on how large the opposing side are.


There are separate games for miniature battles but, as I do not own or have ever played these games, this article does not take it into account. Again, it is GM preference. The battles systems are games in themselves and if the GM wants tactical accuracy then this is the thing to use. I can imagine it slows down play somewhat and requires the players to know the rules also, so in some respects it may not be advisable.


Large-scale battles play a large part in adventure games and should also be added for effect within a roleplaying campaign. Depending on how you play you should find the advice in this article helpful but at the end of the day it’ll be up to you, the GM, to portray that battle.

Details of explosions, blaster fire, screaming men, exploding equipment, confusion, fear, regret and shock. Don’t just roll the dice and say ‘group 3 are wiped out’ – describe their last stand, running for the hills or being cut down where they fight. Remember to get the players into the thick of it and have them thrown by the events. War is a terrible thing and is maybe treated with a little too much levity within the realms of the game, but, depending on how you run your game, it doesn’t hurt to remind the players of the futility of it all.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Hints & Tips - FUN IN GAMES

On the first Monday of every month, read a new hint or tip from Jonathan Hicks, as featured on and available on Kindle as 'The Book of Roleplaying Hints, Tips and Ideas'.

An article that asks the question ‘who gets the most enjoyment out of a roleplaying session?’

There are three sides in every roleplaying game. The first side is the source of the reality, the GM (Gamesmaster), who creates and presents the setting for the players to interact with. The second side is the players, who interact with the GM’s creations and try to overcome the obstacles and threats set for them.

Thirdly, there is the group side – where both GM and players combine their talents of storytelling and roleplaying to create a reality with both substance and soul. The suspension of disbelief is paramount to succeed in any roleplaying game and experiencing that is the mark of a good session.

That’s the theory, at any rate. It can’t be said that, even at the end of a lengthy campaign, everyone finishes with a smile on his or her face. The players may have failed several key missions; the GM may have botched several key moments with the wrong information or given away too much detail of the plot. A player may have actually lost their character; the GM may have lost an important NPC (Non-Player Characters) too early in the campaign. Can any GM or player honestly say that their game went 100 percent according to plan? It’s doubtful.

But it’s not really how well everyone did that makes a game – it’s how much enjoyment they got out of it that counts. You may have lost your character, you may have lost the plot, but if you come out of it the other side with a sense of well being then surely the game, with all its problems and pitfalls, was worth it.

So we come to our main point – who gets the most enjoyment out of a game?
There are many sources of fun that can be derived from a roleplaying game. Accomplishment, victory, pride, advancement of self and many more feelings can be experienced during and after a campaign. But who, after the last die has been rolled and the last line been said, comes out with the most joy?

Here are several examples of possible feelings a roleplayer may have after finishing a game, with the differences between what the player and the GM may get out of it.


Players: It’s obvious that, after fighting the forces of evil and casting down the bad guy/evil establishment the players are going to feel as though all their efforts, be they successful or not, were well worth it. Weeks of chasing, investigating and conflict all come to a head in an intended showdown that wraps the plot and ends the game. Accomplishing this, even if the opposition are simply delayed or upset in their plans, gives the player a sense of success. A satisfied smile is a welcome moment, with all the in-game rewards the victory brings. Players get a lot of enjoyment out of this.

GM: This is a difficult one for the GM. Basically, if the GM is victorious then that means that the players have failed or been wiped out – that doesn’t make for a good game. A GM sitting back with a smile on his face when he sees the last PC (Player Character) bite the dust may be pleasing for them, but the players will feel as though all their efforts were for nought. The idea is for the GM to gain satisfaction from seeing the players beam with pride at their accomplishments and provide a good, challenging game for friends who share the hobby.


Players: After all their ministrations and effort the players expect some kind of reward for their PC’s, in the form of experience points so that their characters can improve in skill or in-game rewards, such as money or new equipment, to aid the PC’s in their quest to better themselves. It could be said that the players should be rewarded enough with the fact that they succeeded; after all, it’s not as if the money they earn as PC’s is real money, is it? The reward should be in the gaming experience, not the additions to the character sheet. It could also be argued that, in true gaming tradition, that the PC’s should be rewarded with items because it is within the game’s own reality that they should, and that money and equipment will help improve the PC’s and help their position in the game. This is a source of pride for the players when they can show what they have earned with their efforts. All that is fair enough, but simply playing the game to reap the rewards makes for shallow gaming, and will soon turn the game into a set of rules and not a believable setting.

GM: Unless the players are paying rent to use the GM’s gaming table then there is very little for the GM to get from the rewards that are handed out. A GM’s reward is seeing the players pleased with their success and the benefits they reap. It makes the whole campaign worth it.


Players: There may be a time when the odds are so horribly stacked against the PC’s, through fault of their own or overkill from the GM, that simply getting out alive is enough to please the players. Losing well-developed PC’s can be quite distressing and being placed in a situation where they get out by the skin of their teeth can get a lot of sighs of relief from the players. Although it may sound a little strange (after all, if the PC’s have only just escaped with their lives then surely something must have gone wrong?) it is not necessarily so. Winning the day but only just getting away as the mothership explodes/bad guy’s base erupts/starship crashes to the ground can be as tense as actually fighting the final battle and makes for a great ending. A feeling of just getting through it all, added to the sense of victory, can be a great feeling.

GM: Well, this is something the GM will never get. They play so many of the NPC’s in the game that being upset or pleased when one is taken down or fails isn’t really something that is going to happen. Their characters getting out by the skin of their teeth and saving the day isn’t an option, either. It’s up to the players and their PC’s to save the day; it’s the very purpose of the game. The GM can derive pleasure from the fact that their players are happy with the outcome of the session and knowing their work was worth it.


Players: It’s sometimes assumed that the players are simply at the table to pit their PC’s against the trials and tribulations the GM has designed for them. Not so. The idea of a wargame is such a thing – the idea of a roleplaying game is for the players to interact with a story the GM has designed. If, after all the PC’s have been through, even if most or all of them have been killed or removed from play, the players can honestly sit and say ‘that was a damn good story’ then there is a certain amount of enjoyment to be had from that. In fact, looking back on the adventures of a character, be they the final battle or one of the conflicts during the campaign, can bring smiles to the faces of the players.

GM: It’s the same old story, I’m afraid. The GM will gain satisfaction that they designed a good game (sometimes, unfortunately, before the game is even run) but the true test of their design comes in the reaction of the players. If they appear surly or non-committal to the task at hand then the design has died in production. If the players respond well and enjoy taking part in the game to help tell a story, then it’s a job well done. The GM can gain satisfaction from a job well done, especially when, a few weeks or months down the line, a player says ‘do you remember when…?’ and refers to the game in question.


Players: Finally, we come to the true purpose of a roleplaying game. As a player, the knowledge that a PC has been created, built, nurtured and played well is a source of great accomplishment and pride, and what’s more there is a sense of deserving rewards and advancements when the PC has been portrayed the way it was designed within the parameters of the game. All players are improvisational actors at heart and being given rewards for their ability to bring the character to life will always be welcome. Extra points for solving a puzzle or defeating a bad guy is something every player is capable of earning, but gaining extra points for playing a character well is even more of a source of fun.

GM: If the players are improvisational actors, then the GM is a schizophrenic improvisational actor. With all the NPC’s they have to portray to keep the story flowing they are required to make sure each one has their quirk or signature to be recognisable and make sure the players react to them well. If the players do react to them well, be they help or hindrance, then the GM knows that the character has been well portrayed and they gain satisfaction from this.

So, what does all this tell you? Well, the enjoyment that is shared out in a campaign depends upon the reaction to the game by the players, the game being the GM’s responsibility to create and present. Now, this may sound as though it’s all up to the GM to provide an evenings entertainment and it’s all their fault/doing that the game failed/succeeded but that’s not it at all. That would put far too much pressure on the GM to get things right.

The final word is this – the players get the enjoyment from taking part in a well-designed game that they can express their desires within, be it for gaming, victory or rewards. The GM plays the game to see the players enjoy their creations and react to their words. If the players wanted to please the GM they’d be led about by the nose, lose one PC after another and lose interest. If the GM wanted to get continuous enjoyment out of providing linear adventures, killing of PC’s at regular intervals because they see the game as a form of competition then they’ll lose players.

It is up to every player and GM to inject something into a roleplay session – the GM cannot assume the players will carry the game when they are waiting for a cue from the GM, and vice versa. Only a team effort from every angle will create stimulating, enjoyable and fun games that will be remembered.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Hints & Tips - Fourteen Elements of Starship Design for Sci-Fi Gamers

On the first Monday of every month, read a new hint or tip from Jonathan Hicks, as featured on and available on Kindle as 'The Book of Roleplaying Hints, Tips and Ideas'.

Designing a starship that suits you, your gamers and your games.

Interstellar sci-fi games often revolve around one thing: starships. Many players of these types of games become quite passionate about starship design and starship capabilities and this can create various game related problems. Also, while most sci-fi roleplaying games have their own systems for starship design and implementation, the following tips might help further flesh out your game's starships and give them some added character.

1. Harness Player Passion

Players of the game, both GMs and attendees alike, love to tinker, modify, and list the abilities of their starships. The great space-battle type games cry out for such designs and players will want to ensure that if they get into any trouble they have the vessel to do the job. This can lead to all kinds of designs, even down to the smallest items, systems, and capabilities that the designer can squeeze in to cater for every eventuality. This is all fair and good--nothing brings a more genuine smile than when the starship successfully does something it was designed to do.

To make your job of campaign preparation easier, try to harness the enthusiasm and passion the players have for starship design and let them tackle as much of this game aspect as possible. This will include players at a higher level of game involvement and will greatly increase their campaign satisfaction.

2. Ensure The Starship Design Serves The Game

Player driven, detailed ship design can make things a little problematic for the GM. If the ship has a system or gadget for every eventuality, then the game is going to be a little predictable and adventure challenges too easily solved. The GM should ensure that he/she isn't giving into Player Pressure or the Cool Factor and that the design of the ship suits the game.

'Player Pressure' is when the players either continually badger the GM to allow them just 'one more addition' to the ship, or they gang up on the GM with tables of rules, costs, and dice rolls to get their own way. Don't fall for it! If you cave in and allow the modifications, then the players will think they can always get away with it and maybe with other rulings as well. If they want a great ship part make them work for it. A high price, lack of availability, or even a series of adventures earning the right to have the part will make them think twice before pressuring you again.
'Cool Factor' is the GM falling into the trap where they themselves think that the fast, sleek, manoeuvrable ship is a good idea and allows the modifications, but then regrets their decision later on. When the players get into trouble they easily get out of it, not once but many times, until the encounters become repetitive and predictable. It's easy to get caught up in the Cool Factor trap, but if you refrain from going overboard in your design then you'll appreciate the vessel later on in the game. It can make for a good game when the players get protective about their ship, even if it is a dilapidated old freighter, and it gives the vessel more character.

3. Vessel Purpose

What the vessel is designed for will decide many other factors of the design process. A simple hired transport will not be large and will have a limited crew and cargo capacity. A destroyer could be huge, with space for war machines and troops, serving a crew of hundreds. A survey vessel might be large and have a crew of varying scientific skills and abilities. Deciding what a vessel was originally built to do gives a sense of purpose and ability.

4. Size

Vessel size will determine the crew complement and capability and will influence many ship systems. A small freighter might have half a dozen crew with several different responsibilities divided between them. A great liner-type ship will have a crew of dozens, even hundreds, with whole teams of people dedicated to a single ship's operation, such as the engineering crew or attendees.

Size will also help determine where the ship can and cannot go. A smaller vessel could dock with a space station and land on a planet while a larger vessel might have to park next to a station or planet and ferry crew across in shuttles. A small ship will be able to manoeuvre through an asteroid belt whereas a larger ship might be a sitting duck.

Size can also be an indicator of strength. A small ship might take two hits and be destroyed whereas a larger vessel might need to be hit a hundred times before the damage is regarded as severe.

5. Control Systems

The command area of the vessel is the nerve centre of the whole construction. As in the TV/Movie series Star Trek, the bridge is the single most important part of the starship, so you'll have to design what's required in the cockpit/on the bridge.

If it's a small trading vessel, it might just be a pilot and co-pilot taking care of business. A huge exploratory ship might have a dozen or more workstations scattered about the bridge with several personnel on duty taking care of tactical, navigation, or sensors. Consider also, how much control does the bridge have over the rest of the vessel? Decide what systems tie directly into the bridge/cockpit and what systems will have to be travelled to directly to operate or influence.

6. Power Systems

The heart of the vessel is its power core. The core's job is to supply energy throughout the vessel so it's important to determine:

a) What is the vessel's power source?
b) How dangerous is it?

Perhaps it's a new form of clean fusion that presents very little danger, or maybe it's concentrated fusion that emits high levels of radiation that need to be heavily shielded to protect the crew.

The energy core, and the auxiliary systems in case things go wrong with the main power, should be designed with two things in mind:

a) What would happen to the ship if the core shut down?
b) What would happen if it leaked or got damaged?

Power is a requirement on starships, but the dangers of harnessing that power should be considered.

7. Life Support

Crew requirements need to be taken into consideration. Mainly, these requirements are the simple things in life, that of air to breath and an acceptable temperature to survive in. Gravity is also a necessity on long voyages to avoid muscle and bone degradation but may not be possible in your game's setting. Either way, the life support system will need to be considered to keep the crew alive.

Depending on the setting and on what species of crew you have on board, the life support ability may vary from one section of the ship to another. It's all fair and good taking on alien passengers, but if your atmosphere is lethal to them it's not going to be a very long stay.

8. Sensors/Communications

It's all very well going off on deep space adventures, but it makes things difficult when you don't know what's around you or not being able to let other people know what's going on.

Sensors come in varying packages. Either they have a long range and give you full details of what's around you, or they have a limited range and simply pre-warn you of any approaching objects.

The sensor ability will depend on the vessel's purpose. A warship will have multiple sensors that will identify threats and targets, with tactical details of the targets being presented to the viewer. Research vessels may have a broad spectrum of sensors that may be able to track and probe life forms, minerals and atmospheres. A smaller vessel may have a simple proximity-warning sensor that bleeps when something comes too close.

Communications may vary also, depending on the technology level you're gaming in. The signals sent by a starship may take weeks to get to their intended target, meaning the vessel really is alone in space. Alternately, the signal might get to the target instantaneously, using subspace/light speed technology to relay the message.

Communications will help determine risk. If the players get into a dangerous situation and a distress call will take two weeks to reach a friendly location, is it worth it?

9. Sublight/Supralight Drive System

Starship speed is an important game factor, especially during those exciting chase sequences, or cavalry type 'to the rescue' scenes. Speed takes two forms:

a) Sublight speed, which determines how fast a vessel can cover distances between planets within a solar system.
b) Supralight speed, which, if the vessel is capable of such a thing, determines how fast a vessel can travel between solar systems.

Sublight can take the form of thousands, even millions, of kilometres per hour depending on the capability of the ship. Smaller ships may get to certain places faster but have a limited fuel supply whereas larger vessels may have a longer range and a huge supply of energy to burn up.

Supralight is the speed that enables the vessel to get between stars. This can be any speed the GM wants, with a drive that enables the vessel to get to a star in weeks, or a drive that might enable the journey to be completed in days or even hours. There are also drives that could enable a vessel to instantly appear within a solar system, taking no time at all. It depends on the GM and what he/she thinks will work for their game. Long voyages can be adventures in themselves.

10. Crew Support

The crew can breathe and walk about your ship, but what do they eat? Where do they sleep? Is there anything for the crew to do to relax? Long journeys can be tiring, especially cooped up in a vessel, so the crew will want to be able to relax between shifts, especially if it's a large crew on a large ship.

A small ship may have a few music/video programs or games to keep the players entertained (like the holochess board on the Millennium Falcon in the original Star Wars movie), or entire decks may be put aside for rest and relaxation on larger vessels (as in the holodecks in the Star Trek TV/movie series).

Food is a concern, especially if more than one species is working on the ship. Does the vessel have a galley or do the crew quarters each have their own kitchen/dispenser? What do they eat? Concentrated food, tablets, or full meals from a stocked kitchen? When resupplying at a station you can top up fuel or get repairs, but food is also a necessity. Also decide how and where the crew has downtime for sleep and personal chores. They may all share dormitories, have their own quarters, or share with one or two other people. They may even be jammed in like sardines, like on a submarine.

 11. Extra Vehicular Support

Getting on and off the vessel is important in both duty and emergency. Duty involves the normal boarding/disembarking from a starship in various ways. Perhaps the crew is shuttled in on smaller vessels that are permanently stationed in a hanger in the starship on large vessels.

Shuttles and landing craft may be used to get to and from planets and stations, but perhaps the crew is 'beamed' to their destination by matter transporters instead.

What about an emergency? Does the vessel have enough lifepods or lifeboats to get everyone off? How long would it take? Smaller vessels may have one or two lifepods to cover the crew, whereas bigger vessels may utilise lifeboats so large that they are small starships in themselves. Decide on entry and exit points on your starship and what they are used for.

12. Offensive/Defensive Systems

So, the ship is flying about the cosmos when - gasp! - Pirates/Enemy Ships/unsociable aliens suddenly attack it. So, what is the starship you have designed capable of in a fight, and how well protected is it under fire?

Offensive weaponry can come in many forms, as in missiles and lasers, but what does your ship have to offer? Again, this goes back to the purpose of the vessel. Warships may be bristling with gun emplacements and torpedo tubes, a research ship may have a few weapons for defensive purposes, and a smaller trading vessel or a fighter may have one or two weapons suited to the kind of enemy it may encounter.

What can a ship do to protect itself? Does it have armour plating? Energy shields to block shots? Perhaps it can launch countermeasures to confuse targeting computers and missile guidance systems? It sometimes pays to think beyond what damage a ship can do and consider what damage a ship can take.

13. Ship History

To give the vessel some character, consider what other adventures and missions the vessel has been involved with before it appeared in your game. If the ship is brand new then this is not a consideration and the game itself will determine the ship's story.

Older vessels, either second-hand ones or ships the PCs have been stationed to, may have a long history however. Has there been many previous owners? What adventures has the original crew had in the ship?

The age and any modifications done to the ship since its launch date might be worth looking at as well. An old, dilapidated warship may be no match for a modern battleship, like matching a World War One frigate against a modern day aircraft carrier or destroyer. But the age of the ship, and what it's been involved in, makes for great character. If you give it the same kind of character history as you do for NPCs and PCs the ship takes on a life of its own.

14. Visual Design

Visual design can certainly vary, but take one thing into consideration - aerodynamics is not a problem! The vacuum of space means no friction, meaning any ship of any shape, no matter how outlandish, can travel the stars. Visuals can be determined by yourself (if you have artistic tendencies) or pictures can be utilised out of most science fiction books and even space science websites, such as

Again, that's GM discretion. If you want to take a jumbo jet, knock off the wings, and slap a great big cannon on top of it, then there's a spaceship straight away.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Hints & Tips - WING AND MILK

On the first Monday of every month, read a new hint or tip from Jonathan Hicks, as featured on and available on Kindle as 'The Book of Roleplaying Hints, Tips and Ideas'.

How to run a game without really trying

Before I go any further, can I please thank Andrew Curtis, a regular player of my games, for the title of this article.

We were sat in my living room on Monday 25th of June, 2001, about to start a roleplaying session (set in the universe of Buffy and Angel) and we were discussing where the characters were going to go from here.
I said I had a few things designed when Andrew suddenly said, ‘whatever happens your games are usually wing and milk, anyway’. I looked at him quizzically.
‘What do you mean by wing and milk?’ I asked.
Andrew shrugged. ‘This game. You’ll wing it and milk it’.
We laughed. ‘Top line’, I said. ‘I’ll have to write an article on that’.


There are plenty of articles already that concern preparation, design, ideas and atmosphere. They detail advice on how to get a game together and how to run it. Because there are a few things to consider before running a game the articles detailed most things you can do and, therefore, were quite long. That, in turn, might mean a lot of work.

But what if you simply don’t have the time to spend designing and preparing a game? You might have a busy work or social schedule, might be running more than one session for more than one group and can’t afford the energy and effort. What if you don’t want to prepare in detail? Hey, you might be laid back or easy-going and think ‘the hell with it, we’ll just see how the game goes’.

If this is the case, then ignore the other articles. They won’t help you now. What you want to do is get down to it, get the game on and just let roleplaying nature take its course. Isn’t this lazy? Hell, yes!

This will mean les work in preparation – unfortunately, it will mean more work when the game is actually running.


The usual thing is to get yourself a location. Make sure you have a place where the game can take place and then insert the PC’s. But surely this means you have to design a location, a planet, a city?

Not really, no. Just take a location you know or have seen and just change it. If the players go to a busy shopping station then take your local shopping centre or mall and jazz it up. Escalators become anti-gravity tubes, computer game shops become speeder showrooms, and clothes shops become multi-species clothing specialists. People don’t walk about; they zip along on rolling conveyor walks, or fly about with personal anti-gravity chairs. What’s more, you don’t even have to take the effort to describe in detail what the place is like – tell your players what location you’re basing it on.

GM: ‘So, you know the shopping centre down the road?’
GM: ‘Well, this place looks like that, except where the escalators are there’s two discs which send people floating to the next floor. The roof is polarised glass to keep the sun’s rays at bay and every species you can imagine is walking about. People fly overhead with jet belts and anti-grav chairs and the noise is deafening.’

Is this cheating? Hell, yes! What’s more it gives the players an instant visual and they can even interact with it better if they know the location, too, because they’ll tell you exactly where they want to go. All you have to do is decide what changes (if any) have happened.

The same goes with a city. Take New York, slap a few starships overhead and roads between the buildings and what do you get? A city suited for gaming. Need a small town? Grab a town local to you and stick a crashed starship in the middle, remove the second stories of all the buildings and replace them with glass domes and there you go – instant location. All you have to do is ignore real world references.

Need a Planet? Pick terrain. Rocky, icy, sandy, windswept, green fields, mountainous – just define the land and you’ve pretty much defined the planet. Throw in a couple of weird creatures (six-armed apes, two-headed gazelles, that kind of thing) and job done.


So, you’ve got the location, now for the people who will be there. I’m not even going to insult you GM’s out there by detailing how to do it, so I’ll just make it simple – what do you think character templates are for? Need an NPC who might need to make some rolls? Is he/she a smuggler? Take the template and there you go – instant stats. Need a bounty hunter? Same thing. Need a professional? Normal stats and then the extra dice for their profession – done.

That’s it. Unless you don’t have access to these details (which is highly unlikely, being a GM) then you’ll have to do that extra work.

But isn’t that cheating in character design? Hell, yes!


It’s all well and good describing these places, but what are they called?

Look around you. Take an average household item and do either one of these things – pronounce it backwards, remove a couple of letters or say it wrong.

What’s the planet called? Well, right now I’m looking at a calendar, so I’m calling it Calend or Radnelac. Or I could have looked at stapler, and called it Stapeel or Relpats. Or I could have looked at a picture on my wall, and called it Pikchoor.

Doesn’t just need to be a planet. A city could be called Pikchoor. An alien could be called Pikchoor. A bar could be called Pikchoor’s Place. It’s all the same market.

Isn’t this cheating a little, not putting much thought into the creation? Hell, yes!


This is probably the only part of the game where you’ll have to do at least a little work but even then you can get away with limiting how long you take designing stuff. It’s a simple case of this – watch some telly, or a movie or listen to the radio, or read a book, or a magazine.

As in the ‘Ping! What A Great Idea’ article in this book you can refresh games by taking ideas and plot threads from popular media. But, in this case to minimise work, you actually take the story and re-create it in your setting. All you have to do is change a couple of the plot threads (like who it was who actually committed the murder, or stole the jewel, or whatever the program deals with) and just change it all for your game. Fair enough, the players may have seen the same program but when you do introduce that plot change they won’t be able to second-guess you. Word of warning, though; don’t re-create the program scene-for-scene, changing the New York Cop for a Security Bureau agent or a London taxi driver for Starship taxi pilot. That would be dull. All you need is the elements of the story.

Is this theft of other people’s ideas? Hell, yes! But you’re not making money out of it and it’s for personal not public use, so it’s legal. I think.


Let’s face it – there’s not much to this article, is there? All I’ve done is make you all very lazy creators and GM’s, relaxing in front of the TV an hour before the game, looking at stuff in your room and twisting the words and thinking of someplace you’ve been to or know of and adding a couple of aliens. It’ll be game time soon but you’ll just take another sip of your drink, shrug, and say ‘I’m ready’.

How lazy of you.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Hints & Tips - PLAYED TO DEATH

On the first Monday of every month, read a new hint or tip from Jonathan Hicks, as featured on and available on Kindle as 'The Book of Roleplaying Hints, Tips and Ideas'.

Let’s take a look at the sobering subject of character death in roleplaying games

One of the worst things about being the all-powerful GM in a roleplaying game is looking across the gaming table and staring into the eyes of someone who just died. Not you’re friend actually keeling over at the table, of course, but the player’s character in question. After many games, actually biting the big one after being shot/ stabbed/ blown up/ dissolved/ vaporised/ minced/ spaced/ gassed/ strangled/ beaten/ sliced/ diced/ pushed/ made very depressed and left with only one drastic, stupid option.

The character is, to be blunt, dead.

Oh, dear. There is never a worse time in a game as when a carefully designed player character actually makes one too many mistakes, or one too many low dice rolls, to be allowed to survive. There are many things that you have to consider before, during and after a character being killed.


Oh, please. We’ve all sat down and designed the ‘mother of all deadly locations’ with pitfalls and lasernets and security systems to die for. Literally. What you’ve got to realise is that the players won’t take the risk if they think that it’s simply too difficult and then all your evil work has gone to waste.

You don’t want to get to the point where you’re saying ‘that’s Bill, Bob and Brenda out of the way. That just leaves you, Belinda'. So Belinda turns round, looks at her dead friends and says something along the lines of ‘screw that’. Oh, spending that two hours drawing the floor plans was worth it, eh? It’s not only that, what are your players going to think? ‘This evil b*****d is out to get us!’

There is nothing worse than losing a well-cultivated character to a simple throw of a dice, especially when you’re told ‘no, that’s not good enough, you’re dead’. You have to make sure that the players either have a) a logical way out or b) several sets of rolls they can make to limit the damage. Make sure that whatever you’ve designed has a weak spot or an escape route that is tangible. There’s no use the players battling a killer ‘droid for an hour only to get pasted, and then for you to say ‘People, you had to use a high-frequency signal to disrupt it’s carrier wave so that the defence screen drops’. If you hadn’t alluded to that earlier or given that option then it makes the deaths pointless. You want the player’s to go ‘Oh, of course, why didn’t we remember that?’ instead of ‘How the hell were we supposed to know that?’


But what do you care, right? You can’t hold the player’s hand through a scenario, all you’re doing is presenting the material and it’s up to the player to get through it. Hey, if they get vaped that’s their own fault, right?


It’s very true that you can’t direct the player on the path to success. It’s also true that part of the game is the fact that they are taking risks and giving them the obvious way out of every situation is a no-no because it destroys the illusion of risk.

You don’t want the players to walk away from a situation where they were blatantly doing things that were so dangerous, so reckless, that the chances of getting killed were high. You don’t want to tell them ‘Are you sure you want to do that?’ continuously because that makes them far too wary and not only makes them a lot more cautious, which slows the game down, but it also virtually guarantees them survival. What you want to do is allude to the fact that it is a dangerous situation. If the player is still on a road to destruction then quickly throw in a reminder of their predicament. If they continue then it’s the final jump for them if they fail. At least you can’t be held responsible for the death of the character. Don’t remind them all the time, just when the encounter begins and maybe a quick mention at variable points.

Also, the biggest no-no, is when the player states their actions and you have to make the response. Don’t look at them with a smile and an evil twinkle in your eye and say ‘Are you sure that’s what you want to do?’ What an evil, egotistical thing to do! If the character does die then the player is going to think it was pre-ordained by the GM. Oh, that’ll bring them back for more.


No, I don't mean blow them up (unless it's called for), I mean make sure that their deaths mean something. Make sure, after twenty games battling the evil enemy, after saving worlds and thwarting plots and being generally pleasant, that they don't simply die in a corridor after getting blasted by a lucky shot.

‘Luke Skywalker. You destroyed the Death Star, fought a rearguard action to defend Hoth and defeated Vader and the Emperor - oh, dear, you've died a stupid pointless death. Ah, well, that's life, eh?’

Yes, it may be life but it's not very high adventure, is it? Don't listen to those people who say, 'Well, anyone can trip over a root and break their neck, just like in real life'. It's not real life! It's a game of exploding starships and laser fights, of bright shining swords and dashing heroes. Compare these two facts:
(a) Real Life.
(b) Faster than light travel, lasers and magic.
Oh, please. If you wanted real life you'd go to the shops or something and then get skill points. 'Oh, that's a high skill in grass cutting, now...' Get the point?

When a roleplaying character makes a last gasp you've got to make sure it means something. Maybe they get to pilot a starship into a marauding warship to save a planet - fair enough, the character may not have survived a hit but you can just say - 'look, you've got a few rounds to live, what do you want to do?' Then that'll give them time to throw defiance at their enemy, gasp their last, poignant words or save a life. Of course, knowing that they're going to die, some players might take the mickey and say 'I'll shoot the other player characters' or 'I'll tapdance and shout “don't fight, dance”!' At this point you should just say 'too late, you're dead.' If they're going to mess about with what should be a dramatic moment then they probably won't have minded simply dying, anyway.

Character death can be annoying - it can be a little upsetting to the player if the character is a well-cultivated one - but it should never be trivial. After the game there should be a few moments to reflect on the character and whatever they attained in their career. Remind the player what they played and why so that they will try to emulate or rekindle what they lost. Players should be able to create their next character with the knowledge that they will get a fair deal at a game and that they can create a personality that will have a beginning and an end. It all makes good roleplaying.

Monday, 1 August 2016


On the first Monday of every month, read a new hint or tip from Jonathan Hicks, as featured on and available on Kindle as 'The Book of Roleplaying Hints, Tips and Ideas'.

Have you ever had those times when, during a game, you just want to go mad because of what your players are doing?

PLAYER 1 : I’m not going in there. I’ve been in enough crashed spaceships to know there’s always something dangerous going on.
PLAYER 2 : I’m not interested in the ship. I just want to steal the fuel cells from it and get out of here.
PLAYER 3 : Let’s just blow it up!
GM : But what about the distress signal from the dignitary you picked up from the vessel?
PLAYER 3 : It’s a decoy. I bet it’s a trap!
PLAYER 2 : Yeah, we’ve been playing these characters too long to let them get nailed now.
GM : But... (gets exasperated) What else is there to do?
PLAYER 3 : I’ve got some explosives here! Three placements should do it!
PLAYER 1: It’s got nothing to do with us, anyway. We’re just on this planet for some R and R.
GM : Nothing to do with you? (Starts to go red) But what are you playing this for? It’s supposed to be about action, adventure... it’s a roleplaying game, for f...
PLAYER 2 : I’ve been playing this mercenary for weeks now. I don’t want her getting killed over something that has nothing to do with her.
GM : (Head starts to swell) But... but I spent ages designing this game! How can you just throw it away on a whim?
PLAYER 3 : I’ve got fuses, too...
PLAYER 1 : You show me the money, I’ll show you the heroism.
PLAYER 2 : I’m not going to get embroiled in something that has nothing to do with my character.
GM : (Head swells with frustration into huge proportions) Aaaargh! (head explodes all over the room)
PLAYER 2 : What a drama queen.

It can be frustrating. You’ve just spent the last few hours designing a game and now your players are:
Ignoring what you have done to follow their own agenda
Want to mess about,
Won’t do anything unless they get something out of it
Are more concerned about their characters welfare than they are with the game.

It’s important to keep cool during gaming sessions and try to emanate an air of indifference with what the players are doing. You should get dramatic at certain points to try and get across the situation you are emulating, of course, in the form of NPC characterisation and fast, action-orientated narrative but that goes as read. What you have to do is try to appear unfazed by the PC decisions. If you put on a face at a certain juncture when the players have decided to go down a completely different route then two things will happen. Firstly, the players will continue down that route because they see that you haven’t allowed for it, and the more safety-conscious players will go down that path because they stand a better chance of survival. Secondly, they’ll lose that sense of free will. They’ve obviously made the wrong choice of direction and seeing that the GM isn’t prepared for this will make them think that if they did take the path shown to them then they’ve been railroaded into it. The prime enjoyment of play is thinking that you’re playing in a world where anything is possible and being expected to travel down the road shown is a little linear.

Losing control of yourself is disastrous. If you get irate, angry, frustrated, annoyed - basically, if you get emotional about what the players are doing out of the context of the game – then that will obviously reduce the players enjoyment. Watching you pull faces, clench your fist, mutter under your breath about ‘damnable players’ and basically lose your edge will more or less stop the game dead and also lessen the tone of future games as the players wait for the carrot on the stick and your angry reactions to their decisions.

So let’s address each of the major game problems one by one.

(A) Ignoring what you have done to follow their own agenda

It can be annoying when the players turn left instead of right. What you’ve got to remember is that designing a game that basically signposts the players through an adventure (as is the case with many published adventures) can be dangerous to the atmosphere. Many players, especially those with long experience and well-played characters, will not respond as eagerly to the next step of a scenario as they used to. They’ll be more willing to go off on their own and try to get what they can from the game. This is one of the problems with creating a setting with depth that the players have interacted with for a long time. They’ll take their time recruiting old NPC’s they met, or travelling to far-off locations to get items they might need for the adventure. A scenario designed for a few hours can suddenly double in length.

It’s quite simple. You can’t just say ‘you can’t do that’ or simply say that the starship has broken down for the umpteenth time to keep the players in one place. All you have to do is make sure that the situation is urgent, and flying about the galaxy getting help or advice will reduce their chances of getting the job done. You could run a couple of games where the players do go for help, and when they get back it’s too late; the bad guy has had time to fortify defences or carry out their nefarious scheme. Or they could get back and the difficulty of the game has increased over the time they’ve been away. As a drastic measure, any NPC’s they recruited could get seriously hurt, even killed, over what the players had planned. This will make them wary next time they decide to drag someone or something else in to help them. Don’t get annoyed. It won’t be the fact that they’ll feel that their path has been predestined, it’ll be because they’ll think you’re being childish with them and that runs the risk of stopping the games altogether.

(B) Want to mess about

You’ve spent ages designing and drawing and speculating, and when it comes down to it, the players are just flicking paper at each other and making jokes.

First, make sure it’s not something you’ve done wrong. Could the game be unoriginal, repetitive or just plain boring? Take a long hard look at what you are doing and be honest with yourself; would you play the game you’ve designed? There are other articles in this book about games becoming dull and a little stagnant, so take a look at them to see if you can change that.

Secondly, simply make a note of what players are enjoying it and concentrate on them. The players who are ruining it will either get bored or leave you to it, or they’ll try to take a little more interest and get involved again.

Losing your temper over this will not just ruin the game, it may ruin any friendships you have. Playing the role of dictator and telling the players what they can and can’t do in the context of real life (which is how they’ll see it) will make them look at you in a different light. It can be stressful, so be diplomatic; even join in a little to help defuse the situation and get the messing about out of their system.

(C) Won’t do anything unless they get something out of it

This one is simple. All you have to do is ask them, what do they want out of it? If they say enjoyment and adventure then they’ve answered your question and they’ll be more willing to take part in the game for the purposes of adventure. If they say they want as many credits or gadgets as possible then ask them this; what do they intend to do with them after the game is over? What do you remember from the games you enjoyed; was it the fact that you made thousands of credits or was it because you foiled the schemes of the bad guy in a cool and heroic way? Making all that money in the game is good but it’s ultimately false; you can’t spend them when the game is over! The fun from the game is the adventure, not the reward.

Getting upset over this will only make the players feel that they are expected to do something for nothing (as strange as that may sound) and they’ll be less willing to take the scenario or campaign to its conclusion. Keep calm and give them their reward, doing it one of two ways. One, you could give them a reward which is the best they could get from the location they are in but, in reality, isn’t much. Or give it to them and then take it all away! That may sound a little drastic, but it could lead into a game where the players try to get it back. You’ll be surprised how strongly they get involved then!

(D) Are more concerned with their character’s welfare than they are with the actual game

This one is simple, too. If the players won’t get involved with an action adventure because they are worried about what will happen to the personality they have nurtured, then ask them, what the hell are you playing this for?

Roleplaying games are usually about heroes, action adventure, dramatic melodrama and personal strength. It’s not about skulking out of harm’s way, making sure there’s no danger to the character and basically spending the game fretting about what might happen.

Don’t just ball your fists and shout, for God’s sake, do something! Just make sure the players have to do something risky to complete the game. If they don’t, they fail, and to compound the problem those who stood to lose a lot from the game’s failure look them upon with some distaste. This can seriously motivate a player to do the right thing. Getting upset will only communicate to the player that they are not doing what you want them to do and the sense of free will goes out the window and lands in a passing garbage scow.

In many respects it has a lot to do with the players and GM’s feelings towards how seriously they want to take the games and just what the individual participants hope to gain. Make sure you take into account everyone’s involvement with what you think is going on. Some of those present will only feel that they are being unjustifiably included in your plots, and, in extreme cases, your frustration.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Hints & Tips - ON LOCATION

On the first Monday of every month, read a new hint or tip from Jonathan Hicks, as featured on and available on Kindle as 'The Book of Roleplaying Hints, Tips and Ideas'.

Improving the gaming atmosphere

The hour has arrived. You, the Gamesmaster, have spent the last few days preparing a new campaign for your players to get involved in. It concerns a plot where an ex-military officer has taken over a weapons lab and is building his own war machine. The players have to track him down across their sector of space and stop him, meeting several beings and visiting several locations as they travel. Each planet and non-player character has been designed, with narrative and descriptions of them laid out on sheets ready to grab at a moments notice.
The dining room had been prepared, and one by one the players arrive. They sit and talk amiably for the first half-hour, going over what’s been going on since they last met, tales of real life and the imaginary. The game begins.
The characters meet their foe and learn of his plans. He escapes. A battle, a starship attack. They meet another NPC who agrees to help them, puts them in touch with another who might help further. They’re double-crossed. More fights and you look at your watch and decide that that’s enough for one week. You wind things down and the players relax, going over what’s happened and leaving.

The next week arrives. You’re ready with the notes from the last game and the repercussions of the player’s actions. They seat themselves and prepare. Just as you’re about to start, one of them asks:
“Sorry, but what happened in the last game again?”

You stare at him, dumbfounded. How can he not remember? Didn’t he enjoy it?

“Yeah, I enjoyed it, but you know, it’s been a week.”

But why didn’t he remember what happened?

“I’ve been busy since then. It didn’t really stick in my mind.”

But if that happens you’re going to have to make notes during the game every week to re-appraise the players of what’s been going on. It’s hard enough work GM’ing.

“Why can’t one of us write it down?”

Because that’ll still slow your game down. You’ll all be waiting for the writing player to finish sentences or making sure details are correct.

“I get it. What can we do?”

You said that it didn’t really stick in you’re mind. Why was that? Are you sure you enjoyed it?

“Yeah, I did, but this room has become the normal thing every week and I forget sometimes what game we played when.”

Maybe you should change locations. Ask your friends if you can hold the game somewhere different.

“It’s possible we can do it at my house,” says one of the others, “but it’ll have to be in my bedroom. There’s not a lot of space.”

“We could do it at my place but my younger brother would probably keep interrupting. It’ll ruin the atmosphere.”

So, the option of locations is a problem, and, as stated before, the normal thing to do is to congregate at your house. Is there something you can do to improve the location you’re in at the moment, try to make the atmosphere right to make the games more memorable?
If you do choose to change playing locations you could start by making sure there are no distractions, which will interrupt play and ruin the continuity of the game. If there are others in the house you live in then make sure they know that this night is you’re gaming night and that you’ll need a couple of hours to yourself. The last thing you want is for people to wander into the room and start a conversation as they ‘pass through’. Where exactly is the room you are holding you’re games? If it’s a dining room, which is the only access to the kitchen, then you’ll get people wandering through at regular intervals and spoiling the moment. If there are things in this room that others in the house may need then they’ll be popping in to get it and that will generate the same problem. If that’s the case and you’re limited on options as to other locations in the house then you will have to make do as best you can. Warn the others living there that if they need something then they should get it before play begins. If they have to pass through then make sure they understand that they should pass through with minimum fuss. Not everyone understands the necessity of atmosphere during a roleplaying game, may not even understand the hobby itself, and carry on regardless. Explain it to them politely, asking them if they wouldn’t mind taking you’re group into consideration before doing anything. Getting upset or impatient about it won’t help, and they live there too, after all.

“But its okay here, we don’t get interruptions. It sounds as though moving the game to another place might be more trouble than it sounds. What can we do to make things better here?”

Take a look around you, you’re usual roleplaying area. What’s in the room? If the room is filled with a simple table, chairs and minimum decoration then you’re already half way to a decent place. If there are too many things in the room then the players may get distracted. That may come in the form of books that are to hand, magazines lying around and anything else that a player might turn to whilst they are waiting for their turn.

“But when someone else is doing an action that takes a while then I get bored.”

That’s fair enough. You’ll have to try and divide you’re attention between the players equally, make sure they don’t feel left out or ignored. Spending a maximum of three minutes per player, as far as independent actions go, is about right. It’s difficult to judge but try to keep the time you spend on a player consistent between everyone at the table. Keep an eye on the other players and if you see one of them looking a little bored or start reaching for something to read then switch you’re attention to them. Get them into it again, it doesn’t matter what you want them to do. In fact, ask them what they want to do.

“I’m not sure. This doesn’t really concern me, does it?”

Doesn’t concern him? Why is he here then? Look at your game design and make sure that what you have written down has enough in there so that the players, no matter what they do for a living or what they’re skilled at, will have some hand in the game. It can be difficult to allow for every player character, that much is true, but the players should feel as though they’re involved even when another player is performing an action. You should make sure that the players around the table take notice of what’s going on around them. If you turn to a player and ask them for their action and they basically tell you that they weren’t really paying attention, then just shrug. You can’t tell them, the other players will have to. Make sure they understand that if they don’t take any notice then their characters don’t take any notice. You can’t spend precious gaming time re-explaining what happened five minutes ago. Have the other players tell them in character if possible to keep the atmosphere going, maybe even chide them for not paying attention. This way the player won’t feel left out, especially if they’re being told that they’re not paying enough attention through their character. Now, is there anything else you can do?

“The games seem to be getting pretty run-of-the-mill. They’re fun but...”

That’s understandable. Maybe one of them should try GM’ing for a change?

“I’ve never done it before.”

Then start. Every GM has to start somewhere. You can’t be expected to continually create and execute games on a week in, week out basis. That well of creativity needs to be refreshed from time to time. The players may respond well to another perspective, increasing the enjoyment and making the games more memorable. What else can you do?

“There’s nothing in this room that makes me feel I’m in the game’s setting. Its all romance novels on the shelves and pictures of flowers on the walls.”

Well, you can’t re-decorate the room just to make your games better can you? Unless the place belongs to you, which in this particular instance it doesn’t, there’s not a lot you can do. Having a location you can change to suit your own tastes is a gamer’s dream, which is not always attainable. If you can move the odd bit of furniture or the odd fixture, which is easily replaceable, to help out then so much the better. Going the whole hog and filling the room with roleplaying items may have opposite the desired effect; there’ll be more things for the players to be distracted by.

So, you’ve got a few ideas on how to change the room and how to get the players more involved. Films are a good start. What else makes a movie?

“The sound effects. They’re good.”

Bit of a problem, that one. How can you generate a blaster bolt with every shot, a starship roar with every manoeuvre, a clash with every sword strike? You can’t. Unless you’re a pretty good mimic there’s not a lot you can do, apart from getting hold of a special effects recording and choosing those certain sounds that sound like a busy bar or resemble a starship yard. That’s one thing that’ll be down to the player’s imaginations.

“What about music?”

That’s easier. Most movies release their soundtrack on CD, so why not put that on in the background? Fair enough, the music that plays may not suit the scene you’re in at the moment but the idea’s there. That’s why CD’s are excellent. With a flick of a button you can go straight to a track, even repeat it if the scene goes on longer than the music. Don’t reach for the CD player until you’ve started the scene, mind you; if the players see you reaching for the button as they sneak into the next scene then they’ll figure out that something’s going to happen. Let the scene begin before jumping tracks. If it’s a tape player you’ve got then you’ll have to either let the music play quietly in the background so that it’s not intrusive but audible, or pre-record the tracks you’ll need to follow the games planned progress.

“How about props?”

Player handouts are always a good thing. If the players can get hold of the item or a photocopy of information they need then they’ll respond to it better.

“Let’s start this week’s game, then, shall we? I can’t wait to see who was in that starship we boarded.”

“I want to see what Gerrat’s going to do with that parcel I gave him.”

“C’mon, GM, its time. Get going. What happened about the ship? Is Gerrat on there?”

Ahh. Now that’s what you wanted to hear.