Playing Card Treasure Generator

I talked about why I started using playing cards as a random generator in the previous post. In short, as a young gamer I didn’t have the spare cash to pick up every new gaming aid that came out, so I improvised with what I had. And like any gamer, what I had were decks of regular playing cards. Thus was born an entire series of Game Master generators that I used for several years. Today I’m going to talk about my treasure generator. Note that I’ve adjusted it for use with 5e D&D, but it’s just as useful for Pathfinder and other fantasy systems. With a few adjustments you could also use it in a modern setting.

As with all these generators, the treasure generator gives you the framework of a treasure hoard (general value, types of items) and allows you to add the specific details that fit your campaign. So the generator can tell you the characters found jewelry, for instance, but you have to decide if it’s a Third Dynasty Dwarven necklace or a platinum Gnomish puzzle ring.  Or both.

To start, decide what type of treasure hoard you are generating. For a small, personal stash I’ll deal out a blackjack hand (two cards); if I’m going for the Big Boss’s treasure I’ll deal out a five- or seven-card stud hand (but keep all seven). For a dragon hoard or similar big treasure, I’ll do the full Texas Holdem of ten cards (five card hand, five card river). There are ways to adjust the values of these cards to better tune the amount of treasure as well, which we’ll touch on in a bit.

Once you’ve decided how many cards you’re drawing, draw them and look at the suits. The suits tell you the type of treasure present, as follows:

  • Diamonds: Money, Gems, or Jewelry (anything where the primary value comes from its gold-piece value)
  • Clubs: Mundane Items or Trade Goods (anything from the equipment section of the PHB, or bulk trade goods like bolts of fabric or barrels of pickles)
  • Hearts: Crafted Items or Objects of Art (chalices, paintings, tapestries, statues and so on)
  • Spades: Magic Items

Then look at the value of each card. The numbered cards give you a gold piece value based on the card’s number x10. The Jack is worth 150gp, Queen is 250gp, King is 500gp, and the Ace is 750gp. For Spades, the card value gives you the commonality of the magic item: 2-10 is Common, Jack and Queen is Uncommon, King is Rare, Ace is Very Rare.  I purposely left Legendary out of the generator, as I feel it’s the GM’s perogative to add those items to her campaign.

If you want to adjust the overall value of the treasure found, you can do that in one of two ways. Either change the multiplier up or down, anywhere between x2 (for very pitiful treasure) to x100 (stumbled into an efreeti’s vault). Alternatively, change the monetary base up or down. Gold is the standard, but you could change the values of everything to be in silver pieces or even copper if you want very small value treasures, or up to electrum or platimum to raise the overall value. I tend to adjust the multiplier only, but you can experiment to find the amount of fine-tuning that works for you.

That brings us to the Jokers. Drawing a Red Joker indicates the characters have found something of extreme benefit to them, whether they realize it or not. This could be a magical artifact, a signet which identifies them as allies to the right people, or a scroll with information or a spell they will need later. A Black Joker, on the other hand, means the characters have found something of detriment. This could be a cursed item, a signet which identifies them as allies to the wrong people, or information which leads them into a trap. Either way, the joker tells the GM it’s time to get creative and allows her to add in some plot specific items if she chooses.

Let’s look at a few examples:

  • Goblin Raiding Party: 4 of Hearts, 9 of Hearts, Jack of Spades. The raiding party was on it’s way home from robbing a small roadside chapel, and so is carrying candlesticks and other temple finery worth 130gp, plus the sacred waters of St. Fluvius (potion of Hill Giant Strength).
  • Ogre Lair: 9 of Diamonds, 4 of Clubs, Queen of Hearts, Ace of Spades, Black Joker. The ogre has been accosting travelers and merchants for a few weeks, but it wasn’t until it snatched the Baron’s son that the party was called in. After a hard-fought battle they’ve found the creature’s treasure, consisting of assorted coinage (90gp value), some barrels of cheap wine worth 40gp total, an assortment of gold filigree, silver wire and other artisan supplies worth 250gp, and the Baron’s son’s sword (a Dancing Sword). Sadly, they also find the body of the freshly deceased and partially eaten Baron’s son. Despite it not technically being their fault, the Baron is unlikely to ever forgive them for returning his son to him dead.

As you can see from the examples, while you get the bare bones of a treasure there is plenty of room for you to adjust the details to better fit your campaign. And much with the GPC generator, you could use the treasure generator ahead of time to have a stock list of treasures ready to go. You could even use it as a very rough method of generating some random encounters, by generating a treasure and then fitting a monster or monsters to that treasure.

If you give it a whir, let me know what you think. Do you have some tweaks or suggestions to make it better? Drop me a line in the comments.

Playing Card GPC Generator

I didn’t always have the budget for gaming that I have now. I’m certainly not complaining, it’s nice to be able to pick up a supplement if I want to, without having to decide to go without groceries or maybe hold off paying the phone bill for a bit. But I did have to get creative with my gamemastering supplements. Most of the time I resorted to using items I already had laying around from other games. And more often than not that meant a deck of cards.

Back then I was also a much more improvisational GM than I am now. It was for the best of reasons; I was running many more games than I am now. So many, in fact, that it ate into my prep time. So I adapted a simple deck of cards to cover a multitude of sins, serving as a random generator for many campaign needs. I used playing cards to generate GPCs on the fly, generate treasure as needed, figure out random monster encounters, and even help build and stock dungeons quickly. I’m going to outline the first below, saving the other uses for future posts.

These generators give you a framework to build on, as opposed to detailing everything for you. That suits my style of GMing, as I prefer to modify and customize NPCs and treasure to fit the campaign. Your mileage may vary but I hope you’ll find these at least somewhat useful. For each, I use a standard deck of playing cards with the Jokers left in, giving me 54 cards. I refer to the red and black Jokers, as the decks I have make that distinction. If your’s does not, simply mark one Joker so you can tell it from the other.

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Gamemaster Character Generation

It happens to every GM at some point. Your players have ignored the careful trail you’ve laid for them and strayed into an area you haven’t prepped. Now they want to talk to that innkeeper or wainwright you haven’t fleshed out. This generator allows you to give that GPC a quick bit of personality to hold you in the moment, and a framework to build on if the characters are likely to keep interacting with those GPCs down the line. Combine this with a list of character names and you’ll be able to generate GPCs on the fly whenever you need them. Alternatively, you can sit down for an hour and generate a list of 27 generic GPCs to slot in without needing the cards during play.

Take a deck of playing cards with the Jokers still in. Draw two cards for each GPC. The first card signifies the dominant trait of that GPC, based on the suit of that card:

Diamonds – Appearance (facial features, dress, overall demeanor)

Clubs – Physical (height, weight, body shapes)

Hearts – Personality (first impressions of the GPC’s attitude)

Spades – Secrets (the GPC is wrapped up in keeping a secret. Note this, then draw another card ignoring

The second card gives you an approximate rating for that trait, from 2 to Ace. Roughly, numbered cards describe a range of below average to average, Jack to King is above average, and Ace is exceptional in some fashion.

If you draw a Joker as the first card, that denotes either a potential ally to the party (Red Joker) or a staunch enemy (Black Joker). Draw a second card to get the actual trait and a third card for the intensity. If you draw a Joker as your second card, ignore and draw another card. Some examples:

  • Jack of Hearts (personality), 5 of Diamonds: GPC is annoyingly friendly, to the point of unwanted familiarity and contact.
  • Ace of Spades (Secret), Queen of Diamonds (appearance), Queen of Clubs – The GPC is immaculately handsome and finely dressed, and gives the impression of some sort of nobility. It is all a sham, however. All the GPC has is the (mostly faux) finery on their back and is desperate to keep anyone from finding that out.
  • Black Joker (Enemy), King of Clubs (Physical), 3 of Clubs – The GPC was painfully crippled during some altercation the party was involved in. Now the GPC is doing all they can to make the character’s lives miserable and working towards their ultimate revenge.

As you can see, the method still requires you to interpret the results, but I’ve found it to be a great way of generating quick GPCs. Slap a name on them and it’s enough to play them for a session, before fleshing them out later.
Do you use playing cards to aid your game-mastering? Have you taken this GPC generator for a spin, and did it work for you? Let me know in the comments.

Encounter Locations – Part 2

Last time we talked about what inspires encounter location design, and how to start the cropped-cropped-brent-chibi-96.jpgprocess. Inspiration for an encounter location can really come from anywhere, so when you have an idea make sure to record it. You may not get to it right away, but it’s great to have a list of ideas on hand. If you’ve ever been faced with needing to run something for your players on the fly, you’ll find such a list invaluable.

But that’s not you right now. Right now you have your brilliant encounter locale idea, and you want to flesh it out. So let’s look at next steps. These steps don’t have to be followed in any particular order. And in fact, you will likely find yourself tweaking and adjusting each area as you go, based on something you come up with in another step. That’s good. Nothing is set in stone until the players get there, and even then it’s less stone and more a really solid but malleable clay.

The Environment

Think about the details of the setting’s environment. How is it going to impact the characters? Is interacting in the environment difficult, or is the locale outright hostile to people? Many of these details will have a mechanical impact on the characters, either damaging, debilitating, or in some cases even enhancing them. For instance, if your locale is an underground magma flow you may have to look up your game’s rules for high-temperature environments.

Not everything in your setting will have, or needs to have, a mechanical effect. Sometimes it’s just as useful for the setting to evoke a particular feeling or mood. I’ve definitely tailored my abandoned crossroads station around a particular mood, dread. The area around the crossroads is very open and bare, so the man-made features, like the gallows and the tower, stand out. But while those might be the most noticeable things from a distance, there are also features revealed as the characters draw closer. If you look at the map from the previous article you’ll see what appears to be an empty field in the northern corner of the crossroads. That field is anything but empty, but the players won’t know that until their characters get closer. Then it will become apparent that the empty, grassy field is packed with a series of small mounds, not unlike unmarked graves. None of them look like they’ve been disturbed (for now). But imagine describing this field of mounds, the wind rustling through the grass (almost sounds like whispering…), and across the field, ropes dancing in the wind, stands a gallows. Yep, can’t wait for my group to go there.

What Lives There?

Once you’ve filled out some of the details of your location’s environment, it’s time to think about what might live there. Looking at the magma cavern example again, fire elementals and fire giants would be really obvious ones (nothing wrong with obvious, by the way, as long as your players have fun). But there could also be creatures that just enjoy being warm, that have taken advantage of the magma flow to take up residence in side caverns close by. Duergar (or even just a group of regular dwarves) could have set up shop, taking advantage of the flow to aid in smithing or ore processing. Maybe the local goblins use the location for ceremonies, and the rare occasions they want to cook meat quickly.

Also take a moment to consider whether what lives in your location might have predators. I don’t know what might hunt fire elementals regularly, but if there was something, they’d likely be keeping an eye on local magma flows. If dwarves are using the location maybe orcs want to take it from them; the characters could arrive in the middle of such an attack. Conflict is always exciting, so think of ways such conflict might exist at your location.

Conversely, who is allied with the creatures in your encounter? If Duergar have set up shop at the magma flow, can drow seeking trade be far behind? Any number of subterranean races could trade with the grey dwarves in this situation, and it might be the perfect way to introduce your players to some creature they might not encounter without weeks of underground travel. Or if goblins are using the location for ceremonies, maybe there is a fire elemental smart enough to pretend to be a god, demanding tribute from the goblins in return for favours.

The more layers of creatures you can add to the environment, the more “lived-in” it will feel. That doesn’t mean you have to force something to be there if it doesn’t fit. And sometimes the environment is so hostile that your creature pool is limited. But do give some thought to the creatures you place in your locale beyond their stats and treasure.

Speaking of Treasure…

You’ve created a location interesting enough for the players to send their characters to investigate. You’ve given them cool creatures and challenges to overcome when they arrive. Now what do they get out of it? Sure, sometimes killing monsters is its own reward, but is doesn’t buy you a round back at the inn.

The most obvious sources of treasure are, of course, the creatures you’ve placed there. Duergar or dwarves will have items they’ve created, as well as the raw materials for making those items. Heck, the smithy itself is treasure, when looked at from a certain point of view. The goblins will have whatever they’ve been giving to their fire elemental god, as well as whatever they’ve been holding back from their fire elemental god. If creatures have lived in the location long enough, they’ll have likely collected a number of interesting and potentially valuable items.

Maybe your group of adventurers weren’t the first to find and explore the location, they’re just the first to do it casualty-free. Bodies of previous explorers are a time-honoured way to get loot into the hands of the next generation of adventurers (especially if that loot is cursed, or has a mind of its own). Who knows, somewhere down the line your player’s characters might continue that tradition.

This is a good time to think about what might have been in the location before the current creatures. Maybe there are items hidden away by the previous inhabitants, as yet undiscovered. May the current inhabitants have only just recently discovered hidden items or treasures, and the adventurers arrive just in time to take them away. Maybe the hidden item is why the characters journeyed there in the first place, only to find your creatures in the way. Hilarity ensues.

Is the location itself a treasure? Does, the burbling fountain in the corner, once part of an ancient temple, bestow some type of benefit if drank from? Is the magma actually the molten form of a very rare metal, and can it be harvested? If you spend the night in the haunted mansion, do you actually get to make a wish like the local rumours say? Never be afraid to make your location, or even just a part of it, something wonderful and precious. Then make the players work to earn the benefit.

That’s it for this post. Next time we’ll look in a bit more detail at how I’ve combined some of these elements in my abandoned crossroads station. And I may even have a nicer map to show you! Until then, feel free to leave a comment below and share your encounter thoughts and ideas.

Encounter Locations – Part 1

One of the things I’m enjoying about running a D&D 5e campaign is a return to setting creation. I talked a bit in an earlier post about the world I created for the campaign, and what a welcome change that was after years of pre-written material. As a busy GM I’m not knocking published material by any means; I’m not certain I could have run as much Pathfinder as I did without it. But to use Paizo as an example, their material is of such good quality that, except for adjustments I made to better suit my party and their specific narrative, I didn’t have to change the much of anything. So I was getting to check the box on the performer side of GMing, but I wasn’t getting to create much of anything.

Enter D&D 5e, and my creator itch is getting soundly scratched. Not only world creation, but locations in that world, and monsters, and magic items, and…let’s just say my group is in for some excitement in the weeks and months to come.

Today I wanted to focus a bit on encounter location creation, some of the steps I took (and take) when creating an adventure locale, and give a real example from my campaign. The example I’m going to use is an abandoned crossroads watchtower, something the group will come across as they explore the lands around the town they are currently in. I’ll be talking about this location over several posts, so I’m going to save the “big reveal” about what’s really there until after the group has explored the location. I know at least one of my players reads my blog so I don’t want to spoil anything (hi, Crystal et al!).

Getting Started

Location design can start in many different ways. Maybe you have a cool idea for a trap, and you build the location around that. Or you’ve designed a monster or NPC, and now you’re building its lair. In my case, I was doodling a map on some graph paper, just a tower at a crossroads, when I started to get ideas about what was going to live there. The ideas took further shape when I drew in a gallows on one corner of the crossroads. That little addition pretty much set the tone for what my players will encounter.

Abandoned Crossroads Tower

The map that started it all. Eventually I’ll fill in terrain details, but I usually start with a simple line map. The gallows (built for four) are on the eastern corner of the crossroads.

Try to figure out early on the defining feature of your encounter location. Usually that will be whatever inspired your location choice in the first place, but that may also evolve as you flesh-out the details. But there should ideally be one dramatic feature which sets the tone for the site. Is your location near magma? Maybe the cave is near deafening with the sound of ocean surf constantly crashing through the tunnels. Or your villain could lair in an abandoned knackery (slaughterhouse), and the smell is the first thing the characters notice. Pick one memorable detail to set the location in the players’ minds. In my case, one of the first things the characters will see is a lonely gallows set on a crossroad, drawing the eye even though there is a 50’ tall watchtower on another corner. Despite the wear and obvious age of the tower and outbuildings, the gallows seems oddly well-preserved in comparison…

As the examples above show, don’t be afraid to engage other senses besides sight. Yes, we want to tell our players what they’re seeing. But throw in details about notable sounds and smells, or describe the temperature. Though technically a visual description, give them an idea of texture as well. Is the wood worn and cracked, or new and freshly varnished? Is the stonework freshly fitted, or crumbling with age? Clean or dusty? Did the character get a face full of cobwebs when they walked in the door? If so, better get ready for possible vermin, hefty size or not. Don’t be afraid to use real world examples to help the players understand the environment you’ve created. In the case of the knackery example above, ask the players if they’ve ever smelled spoiled food, especially meat. Smell is one of our strongest sense memories, so if even one of them has you’ve just made that encounter a little more vivid for that player.

One note: Be careful in describing particularly gory scenes in your games. Not everyone has the same tolerance for gore, or descriptions of disease and so on. Be mindful, and check with your players ahead of time if you aren’t sure of their tolerances.

Next post, we’ll look at filling in the details around your initial idea to bring your new location to life. Meanwhile, feel free to share any tips or ideas you have in the comments.

Getting Back in the GM’s Chair

cropped-chibi-brent.jpgTonight my Thursday Knights convene after our annual summer hiatus. We’re diving back in to the Jade Regent Adventure Path, just a smidge of the way into the first book. It can be tough coming back to your regular game after some time away, so I thought I’d share three tips to make the transition from unsightly mob of civilians to crack team of tabletop pros easier.

1) Manage Your Expectations – The first session back, you aren’t going to get as much of the story done as you would during a regular session. Hopefully you’re friends as well as gamers, so there will be more than the usual bit of socializing and catching up, since you’ve all been apart for so long. Go with the flow on this. Gaming is a social event, after all, and you want your group to enjoy their time together. Don’t ruin the fun by cracking down too hard on first-session kibitzing. But…

2) Start as You Mean to Go On – …do start getting the group back in the table habits and house rules you’ve used. After a break some of those habits will have been lost, so be gentle. But if you had specific ways of doing things (working out initiative, how each player’s round works, and so on) or house rules you were following, make sure you draw your player’s attention back to those things. And of course, if you had habits or house rules that weren’t working for you, now is the perfect time to let them fall by the wayside.

3) Hang That Sucker! – If it is at all possible, end the session on a cliffhanger. Your first session back after a break, you want to get your players excited about coming back for session two. And three, and four…you get the idea. So I trick I’ve used is to end the first session on a cliffhanger. It’s great if that can be a big story moment for the players, because that will really grab their attention. But I have, when a good story point wasn’t in sight, just stopped the game with, “Okay [insert character name], the [insert suitably horrific creature] swings at you with its [flaming tentacle/acid-spewing greatclub/halfling corpse]…and that’s where we’ll end it for tonight.” At the very least, you have one player extremely interested in what’s happening next week.

What tips do you have for getting the band back together? Share them in the comments below!

RPGaDay, Day 2: First RPG GMed

Since Dungeons & Dragons was my first game played, you might think it was the first game I game mastered. But that ‘honour’ goes to another TSR product, Gamma World. For those not in the know, Gamma World was set in a grim, post-apocalyptic world full of strange technology and irradiated mutant creatures. Some of those last included the player characters, who could be normal humans (rarely), mutants, or anthropomorphic animals and/or plants. You were explorers in a landscape that was familiar and horribly broken.

Now, I say it was grim, but I don’t remember any session being particularly serious. The only real context any of us had for the setting was what we saw in film and TV at the time, so our games were laden with every cliché we could find. One guy played nothing but variations on Mad Max. Another insisted on playing the post-apocalyptic version of Ewoks at every opportunity, making them way more cannibalistic than I remember from Return of the Jedi. We basically did everything that any campaign creation or game mastering resource will tell you not to do. Which was okay because, a) we were in junior high, and b) we had metric butt-loads of fun.

In fact, I sort of feel sorry for the current generation of young minds entering the hobby. There is such a wealth of well-meaning and sophisticated advice and instruction on how to game master and play RPGs, that I think many new young players miss out on the, in my opinion, crucial phase of gaming: the ‘As Long As You’re Having Fun You’re Doing It Right’ phase. It’s the phase where your Big Bad isn’t inspired by Ash, it is Ash down to his S-Mart boomstick. Where you unapologetically play a post-apocalyptic Wolverine, because hey, if anyone was going to survive a nuclear holocaust it would be him, right? I think we sometimes cut that phase of unrestricted play short, and we do young players and GMs a disservice.

What was the first game you GMed? Leave it in the comments!

GM Resources: One Page Dungeon Contest

There is such a wealth of Game Master resources on-line, I often find something extremely useful and then lose track of it. The One Page Dungeon contest is one of those resources, and I’m indescribably happy to have found it again.

The contest idea makes it cool enough: design an interesting dungeon (including map) which fits on a single side of a standard sheet of paper. This limitation forces the entrants to strip away any extraneous elements and focus on the essentials of their dungeon design. You might think this would lead to a lot of 1 or 2 room , simple dungeon sites. And luckily you’d be wrong. Every year the contest draws page upon page of amazing and imaginative designs, both in the content of the dungeon and the design of the page layout. Many of the entries, while great encounters, are also stunning to look at; fitting the maximum amount of dungeon on a single page leads to some incredible examples of cunning art and design. If you’d like to challenge yourself as a designer, I highly recommend entering the contest. This year it ends on April 30 and complete rules can be found here.

Now it sounds fun and worth a look. But what makes this a particularly good resource for GMs is the contest has been running since 2009, and all entries in the contest must publish themselves under the Creative Commons license. These two things make this site a veritable toy box for the busy Game Master. There are literally hundreds of excellent dungeon sites available, all of them perfect to print and play. Many of the entries are system neutral, or are at least rules/setting light, so time spent adapting to your game will be minimal. I’ve already grabbed a few to use in one of my current Pathfinder campaigns, and my total time spent working them up was 10 minutes, including print time.

A great contest and a great resource. If you have time I highly recommend just scrolling through the gallery. For me the tour was worth it just to come across a one-page dungeon set inside a certain demon idol familiar to 1st Ed. D&D players. I’ll be running that one soon…