Monday, 3 July 2017

Hints & Tips - 6 Tips For Creating Aliens For Sci-Fi 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'.

Aliens. When you think of these you immediately think of two things - Star Trek-type rubber faces, or movie-type dark killing machines. But the ecology and personality of aliens are as diverse as the worlds they herald from. Here are a few pointers on how to give your aliens a little more depth than having them look like a man with pointed ears saying 'what is this human emotion called love?'


For ease of use, many aliens have a humanoid form, which is handy in the great scheme of things. You don't have to worry how they'll interact with the technology and setting.

But they don't have to be like that. Environment and location dictate the appearance of a living being, not the make-up artist.

Take a few examples from our own world. In the deserts of the equator, creatures have developed a metabolism and appearance that protect them from the searing sun. In the depths of the ocean, fish have developed a physique that helps them glide through the water and breathe its limited oxygen. Birds have developed their form and abilities to exist in the most inaccessible places of the world. Even the human race walks on two legs, which reflects their origins in the tall grasses of the African plains. The world the alien heralds from should reflect their physique.

So, for example, let's say that the planet is a desert world with very few locations where there is water. A single great ocean surrounds the planet's equator like a belt. The aliens would have built their civilisation about this water. Physically, they may be insectoid, with huge carapaces that bend over their heads to protect them from the searing sun. They may be long-legged for ease of moving over the dunes, and have large sack-like growths on their backs to store water, like a camel. Their eyes have multiple eyelids to protect from the UV glare, and they have tendrils over their mouths and nose to protect them from the sand storms. Alternatively, the aliens could be lizards, piscine, bird-like, or invertebrates. They could even be huge gas- filled floating jellyfish!

So, there's the first phase of the creation process: Environment equals physical appearance.


In many respects, people think that to reflect an alien language the aliens just speak differently, as different as English from Japanese, or Russian from Spanish. But this does not need to be the case.

Many creatures on this earth communicate in different ways. Insects use both touch and scent, mammals use growls and calls (like dolphins), birds use a variety of whistles and hoots. Some creatures even use colour to communicate their intentions.

So this could translate into the alien world. How about if the aliens didn't communicate through speech but through a series of clicks and whistles at different pitches. Or they communicate through sign language. They could even be telepathic. This will make them exceptionally different.

This works well on different levels. If the players encounter them for the first time, talking will be difficult, and will make for an excellent roleplaying opportunity.


As mentioned before, the world the alien heralds from may dictate their appearance, but how will that affect their interaction with other species? Perhaps the alien needs to be segregated from other species and kept in a room where the atmosphere and pressure suits their biological makeup. Perhaps they have to wear environment suits to traverse other places. Perhaps they simply need a face mask so that they get a quota of gases that can only be found on their own world.

Aliens that walk, talk, and interact normally in any environment are just men with strange appearances. Limiting, or even increasing, their abilities and function due to their biology adds an extra dimension.


Not all aliens have to be a race of super-beings, far beyond the capabilities of the human race. They also don't have to be evil two-dimensional killing machines either.

Intelligence has a large bearing on the function of the alien. A creature of bestial intelligence cannot be considered evil, it is simply doing what it must do to survive or procreate. So, when you land on that planet and a bunch of razor-sharp ripperlizards come bounding out of the purple trees, they don't want to kill you because they're evil, but because it is in their nature to do so.

It's a simple matter of discerning two things: their diet and their timidity. A vegetarian creature of a timid nature will not be much of a threat to the PCs, but then a vegetarian with an aggressive nature might be. The same goes for meat-eaters.

Intelligence in an alien should not dictate their attitude and feelings towards outsiders. Higher intelligence does not necessarily mean infallibility or greater moral standing. The aliens will have several different levels of intelligence, ranging from the neanderthal to the super- brain, but this doesn't reflect their morals.

Take the Roman Empire, for example. They were the most civilised, artistic, and prolific race of the time in ancient world. Their Empire is the basis of modern society. Their mathematics and architecture outshone their neighbours' yet they still thought it perfectly alright to watch men slaughtering each other in an arena. And they found nothing wrong with it. Because they were greater and (allegedly) smarter, they thought this allowed them to do such things.

Intelligence will also affect communication with other species. Lesser intelligent aliens would have little to share or offer, whereas higher intelligence species may have plenty to talk about and discuss. Where species connect on an intellectual level may help determine the outcome of relations.

Morals And Attitude

Talking of morals, this is something that will make the alien far different from other species. They may see violence and death as a natural order and actively seek out species to kill. They may decide that all other species are greater than them and worship them as gods, or that other species are lesser beings and need to be exterminated. As far as the alien is concerned, their morals and attitudes regarding themselves, existence, and other species is completely justified. It is not just the views of individual aliens you must take into account, but the entire continent or world.

So, the aliens may revere life, or hate it, or are indifferent about it. They may have religious overtones or a completely different theory on evolution to suit their existence. Although there is always room for a little variance on the individual aliens, the broader belief system or attitude must be considered as a basic layout for the personality.


What are the aliens capable of with the knowledge and intelligence that they have? Do they exist in a permanent middle-age society or have they unlocked the secret to interstellar travel? When encountering new races, the PCs will be confronted by not only the sheer difference of an alien but also what help or hindrance they present. If they land on a medieval world and are treated as the enemy, then they won't be under much threat from bows and arrows as they take off in their starship.

Alternatively, if the aliens have nuclear power then getting whacked by a missile may cause more than a few problems.

Technology need not be limited to the physical boundaries of our own world. The technology of the aliens may be quite, quite different. What if they grew their technology, flew the spacelanes in huge creatures bred for spaceflight? They may even want to use the PCs as raw material! If the aliens have a greater technology to our own, they could be a great help to the future of mankind or possibly a great threat. If they have lesser technology than ours then perhaps mankind could help them grow and increase in ability, or perhaps not...

On a personal note, when I began sci-fi roleplaying I developed something that I called the 'Theory of Mirrored Evolution' that helped me through my first games. I didn't have to worry about the ecology of the aliens. I just assumed that because the Earth was created due to a galactic chance from the same star stuff that other suns are made of, then why couldn't the other worlds be similar to our own, with differences noticeable enough to make them alien? It was a simple matter then to utilise humanoids with different features and attitudes. This took the work out of alien design so that I could concentrate on the game and get used to the setting. Nowadays, I use the above guidelines and the games have more depth because of it.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Hints & Tips - Creating Basic Character Personalities

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'.

A very long time ago I had an unfortunate incident during a short fantasy campaign of my own design that I was GMing for my friends. I'd had a stereotypical age-old threat come along from the depths of time to threaten the stability and future of the land and it was up to the PCs to stop it.

After four games of slashing their way through the minions of the Shadow Lord, they finally managed to get into the lair of the threat and face him. Suddenly, in the lull just before the final battle, one of the PCs looked at the evil lord and asked, and I quote, "Why have you done all this? What the hell is wrong with you?" I was gob smacked. Reeling, I stammered for a few moments and blurted out something to do with prophecies and revenge, but this didn't stop the PC from then asking, "But why? What do you hope to gain? You'll slaughter and blast and defile until there is nothing left for you to rule. There must be more to life than this." Clearly, the player had not realized that motivation was not forefront in my mind when I designed the game but it certainly gave me something to think about.

I had always concentrated on the plot and the action, basically running the game as a sequence of encounters and situations, but had never really gone over the reason why certain people did certain things and what drives them to act the way they do.

In this article, I hope to give you some ideas on motivation based on upbringing, and give a few ideas on what to consider before deciding why a character, NPC and PC, is disposed to act a certain way. It may help to add more depth to the game as whole personalities are revealed, and it helps open up more role-playing opportunities as players start to question their own motives.

What a child is exposed to can have an effect on their personality and perceptions at an older age as incidents throughout childhood mould their character. Their childhood will, in general terms, depend on the environment they were bought up in, with different ideas on how their position in life affected them, both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’.

A ‘positive’ influence is an indication of how events can improve a character's personality, whereas a ‘negative’ influence details how events can transpire to make a character a danger to society. All these can be chopped, changed and added together.

Poor/Lower Class Family Background

Social Background
Positive: Perhaps the father of the character was a poor man, but he had pride that made him work hard to improve his situation. Although the family had little, the mother was satisfied to have the love of her family and did not need anything material to make her happy. An upbringing like this might make a character less greedy than most, more patient, or able to weather hardship.

Negative: The father is angry at the ruling body who have allowed him to end up on the bottom rung of the social ladder. He spends his time drinking and working, creating dissent, and taking out his anger on his family. The mother cares very little for children she did not want and sends them out to work and thieve so that the little they earn can go into her pockets. An upbringing like this may make the character violent, angry at peers and institutions, and learning skills that are generally regarded as anti-social.

Peer Teachings
Positive: The friends of the character are enjoyable, well- rounded people with good hearts and friendly attitudes to everyone. They frequently go on trips and small adventures together, and bonds are formed and honoured as the group shares what little they have to improve their lot in life.

Negative: The people the character knows are cheats, liars, and unfriendly. The small social group the character falls in with have a reputation for cruel or anti-social behaviour, and the only way they can get their kicks is by preying on those weaker than them. This often leads to in- fighting and distrust.

Positive: The location the character hails from is wide open and spacious with plenty of places to lose themselves in and appreciate what they have. Alternatively, it is a well cared for part of a larger town which, even though it has very little in the way of wealth, makes do with what it does have and appreciates its existence. This creates a community spirit.

Negative: The location the character is forced to endure is a dangerous place, with creatures or individuals a constant threat to the people who work and live there. Neighbours distrust and, frankly, hate each other. It's dirty, grimy, and has the atmosphere that if you say or do the wrong thing you'll be found in a shallow grave.

Positive: The character is taught that all things are equal, that good virtues are always a benefit to the individual and those about them. Their religion may take the form of a passive or defensive stance on violence, and they may also believe that, whilst they do not have much in the way of belongings or wealth, money and material goods are no substitute for a good heart and health.

Negative: The character is bought up to believe in 'survival of the fittest.' Those willing to do what they can to get what they want are all that matters because life is one huge battle for supremacy. Friends, family, neighbours, guests - they are all usable, disposable, and crushable. Their religion may revolve around intolerance of other beliefs or cultures, and violence is the only true solution.

Comfortable/Middle Class Family Background

Social Background
Positive: The father of the character is a generous man and he has a pride that makes him work hard and share his fortunes. Alternatively, the mother had the love of her family and acquired material goods for them to make them happy. An upbringing like this might make a character less greedy than most, appreciate what they have and the value of it, and be willing to help those less fortunate.

Negative: The father is angry at the fact that he only has so much. Perhaps he has progressed up from a lower social standing but still wants more. He spends his time working (although he shirks his responsibilities), creating problems for those around him, and taking out his anger on neighbours and family. The mother cares very little for the children who are a drain on what she has, so she does all she can to get them to leave home as soon as possible. An upbringing like this may make the character angry at and distrusting of others and create abandonment issues.

Peer Teachings
Positive: The friends of the character are good people with their own lives but with friendly dispositions. They frequently gather at social venues, share trusts and stories, and great friendships are honoured as the group gathers to appreciate each other’s company and personalities.

Negative: The people the character knows are shady and always know 'someone' with a finger in the larger pot of trouble. The social group the character joins has a penchant for anti-social behaviour and this often leads to infighting and distrust of others in the group and outsiders to the group. Perhaps the 'gang' builds a reputation that leaves a lasting impression.

Positive: The location the character comes from is a beautiful, natural place, or a whole estate/quarter of a city that has good security and wealth. This creates a community that enjoys gatherings, social activities and a general atmosphere of well being and safety.

Negative: The character is forced to handle themselves in a dangerous place, with dangers a constant threat to the community who lives there. Because of this danger, maybe in the form of crime or gang problems, neighbours distrust and feud with each other. It's an unsanitary, lawless, and uncared for place. The atmosphere is one of continuous, oppressive danger.

Positive: The character is taught that although all things are equal, hard work and commitment reaps its own rewards. Their religion may be a way of bringing together the community and preaching their non-aggressive stance on life and, whilst they have a comfortable existence, money and material goods are a way of defining your success.

Negative: The character is bought up to believe in 'if you want it, take it.' Those who want to better themselves had better be prepared to fight, cheat, and tread on others to reign supreme. Their religion may incite distrust of other religions and encourage closed ears to other opinions and conflict.

Rich/Noble Family Background

Social Background
Positive: The friends of the character are of their social class and they mix frequently at expensive restaurants and venues. They share their leisure time doing exciting activities and traveling to far places, always under the protection of the security the family needs. Friendships are solid as they all appreciate the lives they lead.

Negative: The people the character mix with are always trying to throw off the 'leash' of their superiors, trying to do things that are the opposite of their position, such as dangerous sports or 'slumming it.' Even though they oppose the rules set by their peers or security, they still use their position as a retreat or an excuse. This makes them spoiled and ignorant of the consequences of their actions.

Peer Teachings
Positive: The father of the character is a hard-working honourable man and his main aim in life is to make sure his family has everything they need to grow up to be good people. Perhaps their mother acquires tutors and materials to help them to grow. An upbringing like this might make a character appreciate their lofty position and the value of helping others less fortunate.

Negative: The father has so much that he become a selfish, uncaring miser. Perhaps he has fallen from a higher standing and hates the fact, or risen from a lower class and still wants more. He might spend his time playing and squandering his money, ignoring his family in pursuit of other distractions. The mother cares little for the welfare of her children and leaves them with nannies and caretakers for the most part. A childhood like this may make the character unemotional and selfish in his actions.

Positive: The character comes from a beautiful estate that has been taken care of by the family past and present, and the cities they invest in or govern have good security and wealth. This creates a community of good feeling and safety, and so the character appreciates their lot in life and is sympathetic to lesser-privileged people.

Negative: The area the character hails from is a dangerous place, with violence a threat to the ruling, higher- privileged families who live there due to their lack of concern for those less fortunate. This danger causes civil unrest and riot problems. It's an oppressive place, and the family regards the lower classes as misfits and miscreants.

Positive: The character is taught that hard work and responsibility is the way, no matter how much you have or how much you can delegate. Religious ceremony may be a way of showing the community that the family is not all-powerful and even they answer to a higher power. Whilst they have a comfortable existence, more so than those above them, this brings the higher families and the lower classes together and promotes solidarity.

Negative: The family ideal is ‘the power is yours, so you can do what you want.’ Those without power or money are good for nothing but service to the richer or ruling elite. Their religion may incite hoarding and selfish acts, and encourage violence to take whatever makes the family or estate more powerful.

Monday, 1 May 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'.

Simple things to remember so that your games run smoother.

Everyone relies on the GM to provide a solid, enjoyable adventure with memorable NPCs and fantastic settings. What can players and GMs do to make the game better? What responsibilities can a GM and player have other than simply sitting at the table and playing that game?

The tips below are for GMs and players to identify potential problems and nip them in the bud. With all the new-fangled technology, silicon chips, and such, a roleplayer's problems can only get bigger. Of course, not all these tips apply to every group, but there are always exceptions and if you game with a lot of people in a lot of groups then the chances of coming across these incidents are higher.

(All the tips are references to personal incidents that were probably some of the worst times I ever had as a GM or player during my long tenure as a roleplayer. I've included some of the worst ones I remember in italics. Names have been omitted to protect the innocent. Just call me Jonathan "axe to grind" Hicks).

1. Punctuality Is Politeness And Consideration In One

The GM may have a limited amount of time to play the game or have a set sequence of events he/she wants to play out before the night is over. To aid this, be punctual. If the GM says 7:00, then try your best to get there for 7:00. Arriving an hour late can be awkward for the GM and the other players, as time will be wasted with greetings and filling in the latecomer with game details and plot events.

It's understandable that certain occurrences may cause you to be late, and these incidents are well out of your control, but if there is no other reason to be late then try your best. There's more than one person at that gaming table to keep happy.

Case: I once ran a game in which the night's scenario was going to be the finale of the Warhammer campaign before friends returned to university. Only one player had the knowledge of how to progress and he was an hour and a half late getting there for no other reason than he was watching a film he had bought that day, which left me only an hour and a half to finish a Summer campaign. Hmmm...

2. Turn Off Phones And Pagers

I don't know how many games I've run where I got to the plot-bursting, emotionally dazzling finale and then someone's mobile phone or pager went off. Precious moments, even minutes, are wasted when a player is distracted by a call, and then the atmosphere is lost and cannot be reclaimed.

Switch off those mobiles unless there's a good reason why they should be on!

Case: Halfway through an intense MechWarrior game, just at the point when the bullets were flying and enemy 'Mechs were advancing on our position, the GM's mobile went off. He was gone for nearly half an hour. Frustrating or what? To compound the problem, when the GM came back and the game resumed, a player's mobile went off. It wouldn't have been so bad if it had been anything other than a social call.

3. The Items In The Room Are Not Always Part Of The Game

So, we got to a turning point in the game. Do the players turn north to the Eaglenest Range or do they head east to the Skaven Breeding Halls. What do they care? There's a PlayStation/Gameboy/PC in the room and they're having an ace time!

It may be up to the GM to remove or make unavailable anything in the room that may provide a distraction, but this is not always the case. A little self-control would be handy.

Case: Whilst running an enjoyable game set in the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we realised that two of the players, who had left the room for a secret discussion, had been gone for quite a while. Upon investigation, we found said players in the other room playing Metal Gear Solid on the Playstation which, whilst an enjoyable game, had absolutely nothing to do with the scenario.

4. Paying Attention Is The Core Of A Game

Well it is isn't it? How can you expect to progress if you've hardly listened to anything the players or the GM has said?

Let's say the last five minutes has seen the PCs decide on their tactics and strategy and declare their intentions, then they go flying into the demon's cave with swords high and plan ready. You're not going to be much use if you spent those five important minutes with your nose in a magazine, are you?

What if the GM has explained a vital clue or piece of information? What use is that to you or the group if you didn't give due attention? Prick up your ears when the GM is speaking to you and/or the group.

Case: Whilst running a Twilight 2000 game I spent a good while explaining in-character the PCs' covert requirements. Their mission was to meet the corrupt President of Sunken Madagascar, find out why he has increased his military output, and try to support a coup that had been growing. Upon arrival at the President's, two of the four players asked, "So, what are we doing here?" Much shaking of heads ensued.

5. Being Funny Is One Thing, Being Annoying Is Quite Another

We've all had those moments in games where something has happened that just had us rolling on the floor. There's always comments and events which illicit a laugh or a chuckle from the players and GM alike. These are good moments, especially during a non-serious game, and can be great fun. But let's not overdo it, eh?

Continuous jokes and remarks, especially during a serious game, can be a little annoying. Repeating the same joke over and over again to get the same laugh...can you imagine such a thing? Jokes and having fun are part of the game, but there is a time and a place for such things and, depending on what the game is being played for, players and GMs alike should realise their limits.

Case: A long time ago, in a Star Wars game far, far away, there were five players and a GM. One of the players would wait until a critical part of the game, pretend to drop his pencil, and then re-emerge from under the table with the wraparound sticker off a large Coca-Cola bottle over his face and declare "Coca-Cola Man has come to save the day". Every week, on cue. No, really, I’m not making this shit up.

6. Being Loud Does Not Mean You're Right

We've all got something to add to a game such as ideas, tactics, revelations, and character stuff. It's a sign of a good roleplayer when they can put forward their own opinions and thoughts, and deal with any arguments "in character", PC-to-PC instead of player-to-player.

Some gamers find it necessary to raise their voices however, talking over the other people at the table so that their opinions are heard and acted upon. With players it's annoying because it's as if the one viewpoint is the be-all and end-all of group decisions. With GMs it's annoying because constant interruptions and opinions can disrupt good roleplaying and make the game feel linear.

The answer is simple: don't do it! Have a little patience. The players haven't gathered about the table just for your benefit.

Case: During a game of Rolemaster, an excitable GM decided that the players were not going in the direction he wanted them to go, so he decided to usher them onto the right path. He'd talk over every decision made, raising his voice if the players decided on a certain course of action with phrases such as "Why do you want to do that?" and "Oh, that's a stupid idea". When asked to allow a little latitude he would simply talk over the players until they followed his pointers. Strangely, nobody turned up for his next game. I won’t even tell you about the time we tried to kill an evil wizard by setting fire to his doorless tower, only to find we’d failed because he was ‘out shopping’.

7. The Rules May Be Guidelines, But They're Still Rules

Roleplaying games have a set of rules to adjudicate actions and abilities and these are reflected, in most cases, in the use of dice. So why do some roleplayers feel it necessary to cheat? The idea of a high adventure game is to inject a little of the chance and danger inherent in such things. If a bad roll is made, it does not reflect badly on the player, it's just the way things turned out and it's a sign of good roleplaying to take the rough with the smooth.

There are five general types of cheaters:

1) The "Pooper Scooper" who will roll their dice and pick them up straight away before anyone else has a chance to see the result and claim they succeeded.
2) The "Ready-To-Rumble Roller" who will claim they succeeded with the dice that are already lying on decent numbers on the table, which were not actually rolled.
3) The "Bombardier" who will roll their dice one at a time, and every time a low dice comes up they will slam their next roll into the previous dice in the hope of knocking it onto a better number.
4) The "Houdini Skills" players who suddenly acquire a skill or increased ability to help them out of a situation, usually added to the character sheet secretly during play.
5) The "Phantom Equipment" player who will suddenly have an item or tool appear on their character sheet, again added during play.

There is no sure way to guard against these cheaters, especially in large group games where there is a lot to be aware of. There are some precautions you can take, however. Make sure that, before play starts, the group is aware that all rolls are to made in the open and watched by others. (The GM may be exempt from this, depending on their use of GM screens and wanting to have the chance to have more control over the game). Then the player/GM has no choice but to make the roll. Also, rolls must be made with all the required dice thrown at the same time. This way, the group is aware that rolls are being monitored and pre-warning them means that players don't feel picked on.

Don't worry too much about weighted dice. These little monsters are easy to spot as they don't roll naturally and have a tendency to spin when landing on their set number. You can check most of the dice before play, anyway. Have photocopies of the PC character sheets to hand to the GM, and make sure as a player that you've had a good look over other player's sheets (group style/policy permitting). This way you'll have an idea what each player is capable of and what they own, and have an insight into the possibility of cheating.

Case: During a strange game of Call of Cthulhu, the group was skulking about a sunken church in the Black Forest of the Rhine when they were suddenly attacked by ghouls. Single handed, one of the weakest characters in the group managed to hold off the ghouls with a machete and pistol while the others grabbed artefacts and made a run for it. He was hailed the hero of the encounter...until it was realised that no-one had actually seen any of the rolls made, and that the items "pistol" and "machete" were not actually on the player's character sheet equipment list.

8. Arguments May Be Healthy, But Stress Is A Killer

There can be many discussions during a game regarding the interpretation or application of rules, and this is a good thing in many respects. It clearly defines capabilities and limitations of PC and NPC alike, and it can result in well-conceived House Rules.

Unfortunately, there are situations that arise when disagreements on rules and capabilities grow from discussion to heated debate to full-blown shouting matches. Both players and GMs alike have their own idea how certain things should be utilised from the rulebook and how things should be played out.

The answer is simple: chill out! When playing a game remember two things:

1) It's a game.
2) The idea of the game is to socialise and have fun.

If you can't agree on an aspect then defer to the GM after making your point. After all, the GM's word should be final. If an honest mistake has been made, then make a note of the problem and carry on, backtrack if necessary then continue. Always be ready to have an opinion, but don't think that arguing the point will make it any better. Discuss the problem, come to a compromise, then make a note on the problem and how it can be solved.

Failing that, the GM's word is final, if that's the only way to stop it. And don't take the disagreement out of the confines of the game. Getting cranky afterwards or during other activities because of the argument is pointless because, as in the concept of the game, it has nothing to do with real life at all. Ask yourself the question is it really worth it? Raised voices make for raised blood pressure - not good.

Case: A player in a game of Cyberpunk decided to steal a car after a firefight at the local casino, but his hotwiring skill wasn't good enough. There was a long drawn out argument about the technicalities of stealing a car, but the GM basically said that regardless of what the player knew, the PC couldn't do it. After the argument (which got a little out of hand) the player sulked, made stupid comments, and generally disrupted the game. Towards the end of the night, the GM took the player's character sheet, crumpled it up and popped it in the garbage. "What was that?" asked the player. "Random psycho sniper in a church tower just took you out", said the GM. "Don't I get to roll?" asked the player. The GM just smiled. "He's a really good shot." The player got the point.

I hope these tips have given you some ideas and a few things to think about. Most of these are intended to help you deal with those incidents that crop up during the actual act of gaming and will hopefully help you to have a smoother, happier experience.

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.