Interview: Johnn Four of Roleplaying Tips and Gamer Lifestyle

When I first made a list of the folks in the RPG industry I wanted to interview, Johnn Four of and fame was near the top. It’s hard to believe he started Roleplaying Tips more than a decade ago now and is well along to the 15th anniversary of the site. As a long-time reader, it’s obvious that he found a niche that needed to be filled… Every issue brings new insights from gamers around the world.

Johnn graciously agreed to answer a few questions for Game Knight Reviews, so without further ado…

Johnn, between Roleplaying Tips, Gamer
Lifestyle and book projects such as Filling the Empty Chair, do you still find time to run your bi-weekly D&D campaign? How’s that going?

Yes, definitely. Though this summer I hit a bump in the road and am taking a few weeks off DMing.

The campaign is quite interesting from a DMing perspective. It is a sandbox gritty fantasy urban campaign. The players run an inn and are part of a crime lord faction. They have lots of enemies. There is also a background plot slowly grinding away just to act as a catalyst in case gameplay gets dull – if the story stalls, kick down the door and shoot at somebody.

However, my group of seven years is struggling with their new freedom. We’ve always played modules or more structured adventures of my design. Now it’s sandboxy, freeform, do-what-you-want. They are getting frustrated by party conflicts, lack of cohesion, and lengthy decision-making about what to do next.

If I were to do a campaign like this again, I’d bake in a lot more interconnectedness into PC backgrounds. The characters should be heavily synced with the setting and each other to allow for smoother party decisions and motives.

In my opinion, in a campaign with such freedom, you are free as a player to cooperate with each other. You are free to gum up the works, but implicit is freedom to also build a team and work together. However, I take most the blame as I should be doing a better job of coaching and guiding.

To that end, after the summer I’m rolling out some changes to the campaign style where I provide more of the linear-type gameplay the group is used to and wants. I’ve chatted over lunches and coffees with players and think this is the best way to go.

However, everybody loves the campaign and I am certainly enjoying DMing it. So I’d consider this just a tweak to something already running great.

With more than 500 issues of Roleplaying Tips under your belt, do you think you’ll ever run out of ideas? What’s the secret to the success of RT?

RPG offers infinite topics because it is a game of imagination.

For example, somebody combos steam tech with wild west with vampires and we have a whole bunch of new things to talk about – great stories for such a genre, GMing tips for the genre, world building advice, and so on.

It is also wise to revisit the basics and core aspects of DMing – we can always improve and build upon those areas, just like it always pays to exercise your body’s core muscles even if you are healthy and strong.

The secret to Roleplaying Tips’ success is definitely the fans and subscribers. Their tips, advice and wisdom helps flesh out the newsletter and the website to offer game masters a ton of information to help them perfect their craft. The site offers over 7000 GMing tips now, and the newsletter hits inboxes regularly with new tips and great reader submissions.

Thanks to everyone who shares their valuable time and wisdom with fellow GMs!

Out of all of the topics you’ve covered, what has surprised you the most with the interest it generated?

Player Types. Those labels and definitions seem to strike a chord with gamers, as do all the similar articles about player classification in books and at websites.

How is the Gamer Lifestyle project going these days? I still chat regularly with Da’ Vane of DVOID Systems and occasionally with Swordgleam of Chaotic Shiny.

It is going very well. Yax and I are gearing up to open coaching again to a limited number of people who want to learn how to get their RPG work published, and want coaching to help them along the way. No eta yet on launch date, but if you subscribe to our newsletter, you’ll get the announcement.

We also have some new features to the program that gamers looking to earn income from RPG products will be excited about. It will make setting up an RPG business even easier and more profitable. We’re in testing phase right now, so I can’t say anything about the secret features just yet.

Our students are thriving. One is producing an online fiction series they will bundle into fantasy books for sale. Another is producing ebooks for D&D 4E and generator software. Another is releasing his entire game world online for sale. Check out our home page for links to various student projects.

You have an innovative service just launched too, don’t you Brian? You offer game publishers who struggle to find reliable and timely reviewers a review service guaranteed to be unbiased, fast and accountable? Where can companies find out more about that?

[Fitz] More about this exciting announcement will be coming out soon!

I’ve been blown away by some of the publishers I’ve reviewed work for over the last several months – Raging Swan Press, 6d6, Escape Velocity Gaming, Rite Publishing, Savage Mojo, Ennead Games, 3rd Supplement, and many more… Have any publishers caught your eye lately?

I agree – lots of awesome stuff coming out. Engine Publishing books are top tier. Chaotic Shiny‘s stuff is great. WH40k RPG books are gorgeous. Always love Open Design and Kobold Quarterly stuff.

It’s obvious you have experience with big companies such as Bioware on your resume. Did any of the skills you acquired in the corporate world help you when you dove into starting your various endeavors?

Absolutely. Every job gives me new knowledge I can apply to projects. And vice versa. The key is to keep trying stuff and doing things.

For example, I currently work in Corporate Communications, which is a new role for me. I have learned a lot about communicating on interpersonal, tactical and strategic levels. This has helped me coach Gamer Lifestyle Members better, write my Roleplaying Tips and stuff better, and even GM bettererly [sic].

You’re one of the people I’ve learned quite a bit from in the industry over the last few years. Who are your idols and why?

I draw inspiration from a lot of sources. Monte Cook inspires me with his numerous online endeavours, including his very cool

Seth Godin has a great 10,000 ft. level view of online publishing and business.

Tim Ferris breaks assumptions and showed me time spent does not equal results.

I wish my books were as hot as Engine Publishing‘s.

I love the work of Mike Shea over at, and the crew at

The E-Myth by Michael Gerber is critical for entrepreneurs.

Yax, formerly of and my biz partner at, inspires me daily.

Any new book (or other) projects underway you can talk about?

Got a problem with your combats? I’ve got a killer solution for you. I can’t say more about it just yet, but I’m working on something I do not think has ever been done before for game masters. It’ll blow socks off and screens away. Subscribers to my newsletter will get the first peak and a special deal when it’s ready, which will be soon.

With more than a decade of experience on the web, what web and other technological tools do you use on a daily basis? What techie toys do you use at your gaming table if any?

  • MyInfo for campaign organization
  • HeroLab for PFRPG NPC gen
  • Action Enforcer to literally get twice as much done in a day, every day
  • iPad for tons of stuff
  • Email, blog, and newsletter to communicate with fans and subscribers
  • PBWorks to manage my campaign with players
  • Yahoo Groups for campaign mailing list function
  • Twitter to give links to cool stuff I find or that readers send in (@johnnfour)
  • Laptop at the game table
  • PFSRD for game reference

I’ve blogged at about some of the tech I use and iPad apps for gaming I use.

How would you describe the perfect RPG supplement?

I mostly GM, so I’m coming at it from a GM’s point of view:

  • Helps me GM better
  • Offers online features, like a living index or folksonomy of content, or a digital map tool
  • Improves gameplay in some fashion (such as awesome handouts or cool gameplay design)

I just went through shelves and boxes of books recently for research on an upcoming blog post. I realized the thicker books will likely not ever get used.

I flipped through some 1st edition D&D modules. 32 pages max. Brief, usable, sleek. Love that style.

Too many of us fall into the trap of equating quantity with quality. If something has a high page count it must be good, right? And low page count means poor? Not so. I’d gladly pay for a one pager that solved some GMing problem for me over a 200 page rambling tome with all the nuggets, if any, buried in the middle.

If money and time were no object, how would you describe the perfect RPG session?

It would last 72 hours with a few cat naps. Projector for slick mapping. Game room decked out like a dungeon or castle room. No interruptions. Food is catered buffet style. Whole story arc played out. Characters change (not just stats, but some inner demon conquered or barrier broken). Everybody is a rules master so storytelling takes front and centre. Lots of action, roleplaying and events.

I’m not tied to playing D&D. So, if using another system, that description would change a bit, but the essence would stay the same: focused time spent gaming out character development and story with friends.

I have to thank Johnn for agreeing to answer these questions for the GKR audience and wish him the best of luck in all he does! I know I always look forward to the next issue of Roleplaying Tips!

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