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.