It should be pretty obvious by now that I am a big sucker for any product that helps inspire creativity and improvisation, and generally makes the GM’s job easier – and I’ve been lucky enough to happen upon many in recent years.

Masks: 1,000 Memorable NPCs for Any Roleplaying Game could be a candidate for one of the best GM tools ever, at least in my book. It is a 300+ page collection of NPC personality sketches that is not just a list of characters, but a collection of tools to adapt them to your own campaign and use them to the best advantage. It’s not only a book of NPCs, it is a book on how to NPC.

The entire first chapter is devoted to GMing advice – making NPCs memorable, “re-skinning” NPCs from one genre to use them in another, polarizing elements of the character to make them unique – and most importantly, how to not overdo it (these are supporting characters after all, and should never steal the show from the real protagonists).  The lists of traits and “invisible keywords” at the end of this chapter, and the explanation of how they were used, will prime any imaginative GM to immediately begin customizing these NPCs before they even get to them.

After that comes the parade of NPCs, divided into three genre categories (fantasy, modern, and sci-fi), each of which are divided into sub-categories (villains, neutrals, and allies). Each NPC is fleshed out in an array of descriptors – Name, Capsule Description, Quote, Appearance, Roleplaying, Personality, Motivation, Background, and Traits. The descriptions are very concise, to keep the most important and functional elements of the character in the foreground. Many of the NPCs could easily be adapted to other genres with a bit of fiddling and tweaking (and advice for this is supplied in Chapter One).

If all of this wasn’t enough, the book contains a “name ribbon” running through it – a one-line list of names running along the bottom of most of the pages that a GM can quickly reference if a character name is needed on the fly.

While looking through this massive collection of character backgrounds, I found an additional use for it, as I caught myself coming up with story ideas to draw them into. I’m even tempted to challenge myself and choose some at random (they’re all numbered) and try to write a plot around them!

As a side note – I was pleased to discover that it was inspired by one of my favorite Dragon magazine articles of all time – “The 7 Sentence NPC,” by C.M. Cline. It appeared in the August 1992 issue, and I’ve kept a photocopy of it in my RPG binder for many, many years now.

I really can’t recommended this collection enough for any serious GM’s reference library. If I had to come up with a negative about Masks, it would be this – it’s entirely too big to fit into my RPG binder. I’m probably going to have to invest in a good tablet PC that can display PDFs.

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I’m not sure how I missed this on Gnome Stew when it was first posted, but I’m glad I caught it through a more recent post – John Arcadian explains The 3-3-3 Approach to Quick Game Prep. It sort of reminds me of Dr. Rotwang!’s  Adventure Funnel, another great tool for prepping adventures quickly.

Both are awesome, and you should definitely print them out and put them in your RPG binder for future reference, as I have done.

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WyshMaykers is a storytelling game about a special group of people who have the power to make wishes (sorry… “Wyshes”) come true.

The setting is rather open-ended – no time period is implied (though it seems to assume a contemporary one), so GMs could set their stories in almost any era they liked. Virtually no mention is given to the repercussions of this wanton WyshMayking. Do Wyshes cause any kind of karmic backlash? Are WyshMaykers only allowed to make Wyshes when the mundanes aren’t looking? If not, what would happen if a mundane witnessed a Wysh in action? None of these questions are answered, but the right group of players may have a good time making up their own.

The game uses -U-, a fairly rules-lite system.  Characters are detailed by three Attributes (Action, Thought, and X, which is sort of a catch-all attribute for things such as Will and Luck), a list of Studies (areas In which they have some level of expertise), and any Items that they possess. To create a character, players assign dots to these Attributes, Studies, and Items. Actions are resolved by rolling 3d6 for each dot in the appropriate Attribute (plus any dots in related Studies and/or Items). If any of the 3d6 rolls come up with a pair of matching numbers, the action is a success, while three matching numbers indicate a critical success. No matches denotes failure.

It’s a very freeform system – possibly too much so. The Wyshing ability allows a character to do pretty much anything they desire, with little in the way of limitation (a table of modifiers makes larger acts of Wyshing more difficult, but at the very worst, there’s still a 1 in 36 chance that a WyshMayker can topple a skyscraper). There is a large and powerful group – the Society of WyshMaykers – who work to keep any such activity in check, but even with them in place, I fear for any gamemaster who ends up with even a single powergamer in their group. Please choose your players responsibly if you decide to run a session of WyshMaykers.

The artwork is rough and sort of “scratchy,” and leaves a bit to be desired – thankfully, it is somewhat sparse and non-distracting. The crumpled paper background for the “World of WyshMaykers” section makes it a little more difficult to read, but is absent in the print version of the document.

WyshMaykers gets bonus points from me for the inclusion of the “Print 2 Play” pages at the end of the book. These include character record sheets, story outline cards, and cards to help players keep track of their points, as well as “Rules-at-a-glance” cards. These cards contain a simple synopsis of the rules so that the Story Referee and players can check them quickly, without having to reference the rulebook. They even have the page arranged in sections, so you can fold or cut it apart to make it pocket-sized. This is something that I wish every RPG publisher would do with their game (in fact, for those that don’t, I usually end up making one myself, the first time I run the game).

Check out WyshMaykers: The Game of Magical Stories at DriveThruRPG.

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There’s a book I’ve been working on that I keep tucked into the backpack that I carry with me where ever I go. It’s not something I’m writing myself – I’m more of the editor/compiler of it.

It’s one of those paper folders with bendy metal tabs in the spine to hold three-hole punched pages into place, and it’s full of various things that I have printed out or photocopied that I find helpful in brainstorming RPG ideas. Whenever I have a bit of free time (and don’t have a anything else to read at the moment), I pull it out and read something at random out of it.

Here is a list of what I keep in that book:

  • The Big List of RPG Plots by S. John Ross – A list of 30+ basic plots that you can use as springboards for an adventure. Includes tips on how to use them creatively – combine two, reverse the roles, etc.  This is great for those times when you have to come up with something fast, but it’s also good for laying down the basic foundation of your plot.
  • Yes, But… Part One and Yes, But… The Scenario (from “See Page XX”) by Robin Laws -Two great columns on how to answer player requests with “Yes, but…” instead of “No.”  In the second column, Laws suggests running a full-freeform game in which the PCs ask you questions that are all answered with “Yes, but…” (To get these two, you’ll have to purchase a PDF of the first 24 installments of this column, but there is a lot more good advice to be found among them, and the price is right.)
  • How to Play Role-Playing Games and How to Run Role-Playing Games by Greg Stolze – Two free PDF pamphlets by one of my favorite RPG designers. Both of these cover the basics of the hobby, but I always find myself reading them to remind myself what those basics are. “How to Play…” is also handy for giving to anyone who would like to understand the hobby (when you’re too pressed for time to explain it yourself).
  • Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering by Robin Laws – Tons of incredible GM advice packed into 33 pages – focus, mood, story structure, improvisation, and a lot more. It’s hard to crack this open to a random page and not get something from it that you’ll want to try in your next session. (Thankfully, Steve Jackson Games made this one available as a PDF – the original print run sold out quickly, and dead tree versions are going for ludicrous prices on eBay!)
  • The Seven Sentence NPC (from the August 1992 Dragon Magazine) by C.M. Cline – This one will be a little tougher to get than the others, unless you have access to back issues of Dragon or the CD-ROM archive of the first 250 issues that came out a while ago.  The basic idea is simple, however: when creating NPCs for your campaign, describe them in seven sentences, based on seven character qualities. The article gives specific qualities, but you could certainly come up with seven of your own, that would custom suit your campaign.
  • The Adventure Funnel by Dr Rotwang! – This was one of his posts from his blog I Waste the Buddha With My Crossbow on how to brainstorm the basic elements of a story on the fly. I liked it so much that I use it almost every time I’m coming up with a plot – but I usually need to remind myself how to do it.
  • A Quick Primer to Old School Gaming by Matthew J. Finch – A brief manifesto on the old school style of roleplaying. Debates on old- versus new-school roleplaying have been running rather hot lately, and I’m not interested in getting into any of them.  I can appreciate and enjoy both forms. What this doc does is to examine the freeform style of old-school play, and shows how creative and intuitive it can be.

And that’s my RPG inspiration book… for now, anyway. There is still room for more pages, and I’m always open to suggestions.  Have any? Leave them in comments!