Category Archives: Improve Your Game

Carrot on a stick! Rewarding players for creating character background.

Motivating characters to create a background for their characters has always been a goal for me as a Game Master. I typically reward extra experience before the adventure begins for creating different details of a character’s background. So much so that I mentioned it as my favorite house rule in Day 24 of #RPGaDay2015.

As I prepare for our upcoming D&D 5t edition campaign I began to look at possible ways to reward players’ efforts. However, the experience points needed to go from 1st to 2nd level are so low, that I could very well have players start at level 2. This wouldn’t usually be a problem, but I want to test the system at all levels, including 1st, even if for just one session. So I began to look for other rewards and came up with the following ideas. I’m reproducing the text just as I would had in out to the players.

This will be something I include in a larger player handout including notes on classes and races for the campaign, list of NPCS, maps and the history and details of the region where the campaign will take place.

I’d love some feedback… Do you think it’s too little or too much? Are the ideas presented game breaking? Would this motivate you as a player? Let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading!


Character Background Rewards

A well rounded character with an interesting background is not only easier and more engaging to play for a player, but far more interesting to his or her fellow players. A background helps the Dungeon Master (DM) create plots and stories that integrate your characters’ history, desires and hopes. But you don’t need me to tell you this; you are all seasoned players that create wonderful characters for many games. What you really want to know is what rewards I’ll be handing out for creating your background and adding other details about your characters to the game.

Rewards will be unlocked and become available for your characters according to how many of the following background categories you unlock. To unlock them you must fulfill the requirements of each category to the satisfaction of the DM. The categories are:

  • Image – Provide an image of your character in a digital file to the DM
  • Story – Write down your character’s story, it doesn’t have to be a short story, a series of bullet points would suffice.
  • NPC – Create an NPC related to your character. This cannot be an existing NPC from the campaign that you tie to your character’s story, but a brand new original NPC. Describe the character separate from your story; it should either have a stat block, an image to represent it, a list of motivations and flaws, or some other detail that can be useful during the game. It can certainly have more than one of the previous details, but for the purpose of unlocking this reward you need just one. The DM will be the final arbiter of the usefulness of the NPC to the plot and how it is integrated into the story, and while the idea is to incorporate your concept into the game, the DM reserves the right to make some changes to the NPC.
  • Miniature – Find a miniature, metal, plastic or a paper, for your character. I have plenty of miniatures you can pick from including pre-painted D&D minis and the Reaper Bones Kickstarter miniatures; we can coordinate for you to check them out. Also it could be a paper mini, or a Pathfinder Pawn.
  • The List of 12! – This is a simple exercise, make a list 3 plots you’d like to encounter, 3 enemies you’d like to face, 3 items (mundane or magical) you’d like your character to have, and 3 goals for your character to achieve, during the camping. Be as specific or general as you want. The DM will interpret your list with the details you provide.

You can unlock some categories and not others, or go for all five, that’s up you. For each background category you unlock you receive one of the following rewards in order, from the 1st reward if you complete only one category, to the 5th reward if you complete all five.

  • 1st Reward – Earn 75 Experience Points1
  • 2nd Reward – Earn 1 Inspiration Token2
  • 3rd Reward – Earn 75 Experience Points1
  • 4th Reward – Earn 2 Inspiration Tokens2
  • 5th Reward – Earn 2 extra point for customizing ability scores3

Rewards notes:

Note 1- The experience point total needed for gaining level 2 is 300 XP, so if you unlock the 1st and 3rd reward you’ll be half-way to 2nd level before the adventure begins.

Note 2- Inspiration Tokens function just like regular inspiration (PHB p. 125), you can use it yourself or give it to another player, except that unlike regular inspiration, you can have Inspiration Tokens and earn regular inspiration, thus breaking the rule of only having one inspiration at a time. You cannot use inspiration and the Inspiration Token on the same roll. Once you use an Inspiration Token it is permanently spent.

Note 3- You receive 2 extra points for customizing ability scores, your new point total to spend on your ability scores is 29. All the other rules for customizing ability (PHB p. 12) scores apply, ability score point cost, 15 being the highest ability score before applying racial increases, etc.

All the background categories you wish to unlock must be completed BEFORE the first game session. Once the campaign has begun no rewards will be awarded for completing any remaining background category.

Mental Health in Roleplaying Games

Because of my personal and professional experience I know quite a lot about mental health issues. As you may well know I suffer from depression and anxiety disorder myself and since I work in a psychosomatic medicine department , I learned a lot about all kinds of psychological and psychosomatic disorders over the years. What sometimes bothers me, is how roleplaying games use mental health issues.

There are a lot of games which have rules for psychic disorders. The most prominent example is probably Call of Cthulhu. In most of these games your character gets a random disorder when he or she has lost a certain amount of mental health points. Most games don’t even bother to distinguish between different causes. Being confronted by unspeakable horrors from beyond has the same effect as seeing a loved one die or being close to death yourself. In one case my character in a Palladium Fantasy game was on the brink of death and got traumatized by that. What was the result? He suddenly had a phobia against fey creatures – no kidding!

This of course doesn’t make any sense. It might have, if the almost mortal wound had been caused by fey, but it was because of drowning. One other common mistake is that neuroses and psychoses are randomly thrown together – which doesn’t make any sense. Playing out a psychological disorder might be a very interesting and intense roleplaying experience. But in most games it’s handled so badly that it just becomes an excuse to play “crazy”.

I don’t expect total realism. But I would prefer it if game designers took these matters more seriously. Suffering from mental health issues is no laughing matter. And while some roleplayers can have lengthy discussions about how realisticly guns are simulated by roleplaying games, almost noone bats an eye when it comes to unrealistic “insanity” rules.

I have to admit I haven’t had the time yet to do some more research on the matter. I am sure there are a couple of games who treat the subject with respect. I faintly remember that the Trail of Cthulhu rules did a slightly better job when it came to insanity and mental stability than most games. But I have to double-check.

What is your stance on the matter? Are you bothered by the portrayal of mental health issues in RPGs, too, or do you just not mind? Do you know a couple of laudable examples you want to share? Feel free to post your thoughts below!

Planning ahead

For quite a long time I started new campaign on a whim with an extremely short prep period. This works out well enough if you’re at the top of your game, creative, able to think on your toes. But if you are stressed from work and other things, perhaps even feeling a bit under the weather, this just doesn’t work out anymore. My friend Roberto has a different approach to GMing. He usually plans his campaigns way ahead. I think he’s already planning the campaign he wants to run in 2015. I don’t think I’ll ever plan ahead that early, but I’ve decided to change the way I prepare for my games.

At the moment I am running two games: a mini-campaign freely based on the XCOM series of computer games and a campaign based on the Fallout 1 computer game. Both games use Fudge rules, for the Fallout one I even wrote a pretty extensive conversion document. The XCOM game will probably be over two weeks time, so I am already planning for the game that will follow.

My players have asked me to run Shadowrun, so I started reading 5th Edition. Alas reading 5th Edition felt like gnawing off my own foot, so I decided to look for alternatives. At first I thought just tossing the Shadowrun rules would be best, but in the end I settled on Shadowrun 4th Edition. For some reason I find the game much more approachable. I’ll still think the same after I’ve finished reading the book.

But I will not stop there. As soon as we start playing Shadowrun I’ll think about what I could prepare next. Currently I am very interested in the Hero System. I picked up the current Bundle of Holding, and already started leafing through the various PDFs. I always wanted to run a superhero game, and Champions Complete may be the perfect game for this. If the Hero System turns out too much of a hassle after all, I still have a couple of alternatives up my sleeves. BASH Ultimate Edition looks like a more rules-lite approach to super hero gaming for example.

Do you usually plan way ahead for your games? Do you have several projects brewing at the same time, or do you prefer to focus on only one game at a time? Please share your thoughts below.