Starting a New Campaign

Over at Patreon, one of my backers requested a post about starting a new campaign. I’m always happy to take requests from my noble backers, so here’s a step by step of what I do when I’m starting to set up a campaign or longer-form game. To give my bona fides, until 2020 I don’t think I’d ever run what I’d consider a successful campaign game – but the advent of lockdown, and a dive into online gaming, has changed that. I’m currently running an ongoing D&D game, a Star Trek Adventures game (where we are skirting around the Shackleton Expanse campaign), and in the process of pulling together a One Ring game. So – what do I do to start with, when I’m about to launch a campaign?

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

  1. Set the Scope

Firstly, think about how long the campaign is going to last, and agree with your group. I’d strongly recommend splitting a longer campaign into seasons of max 8-12 sessions in order to keep things fresh, and I’d consider starting with even fewer sessions than that. Having a defined end point will stop your campaign from fizzling out, and keep everyone in the game and focussed.

Based on how often your group meets, work out how long real-time this will last for – and make sure you’re up for that. If you meet once a month and want to run a 12-session campaign, that’s a year’s worth of gaming for the group! If you’re weekly, 12 sessions is still 3 months of play. Make sure that you – and your players – are clear about that commitment and happy with it.

Of course, you might have an in-game end in mind – for my D&D campaign, we’re running through Rime of the Frostmaiden; that campaign finishes when they’ve brought the sun back to Icewind Dale and defeated Auril the Frostmaiden. Even with that, I’ve worked out that with 2 sessions at each level of character, this is about 20 sessions. I’d planned a mid-season break after 10, but as it happens we ended up cancelling some sessions anyway, so we’re good to go with the second part of it.

  1. Get the Big Picture

The approach to this stage varies a little depending on whether you’re plotting your own campaign or running something pre-written. In either case, though, you will sketch out the broad picture of how you expect the campaign to play out.

If you’re rolling your own, a great tool to use (taken from Dungeon World) is Fronts. Consider your campaign’s big bad, and sketch out some steps that it might take. Sly Flourish also has a discussion of using this for D&D that streamlines the process a bit.

Having a campaign finale in mind helps – even if your Roll20 presentation isn’t up to much

If you’re using a published adventure, this is when you need to skim read the whole thing. If you’re running something popular (like a D&D campaign) it’s also well worth googling it to see if folks like Sly Flourish or Justin Alexander have notes on how to run it. There will be some of these on here soon as my ‘Deep Dive’ series extends – currently I’ve got Rime of the Frostmaiden Chapter 1, Shadows over Bogenhafen, and the first Vaesen adventure compendium A Wicked Secret to write up. 

Once you’ve got this, sketch out how the sessions might look – for instance, I expected for Rime we’d probably hit one of the Ten-Towns quests per session, along with some additional personal stuff, for the first 6 sessions before hitting Chapter 2 and the more open-ended part of the game. As it happens in a couple of sessions we doubled up adventures, but we were able to mesh some of the scenarios into the PC backstories anyway (for a session-by-session report written by one of my players – and ongoing – check out Fandomlife’s blog here).

Running published campaigns requires slightly different prep to rolling your own

If the start of your campaign is going to branch off and be more of a sandbox, think about how you’ll structure this. I’m a big fan of getting players to decide what they’ll do next time at the end of a session, so I can focus on those bits for the following session. Also, think about how long you’re prepared to let them play in the sandbox – is there an element in your Front, or a lead you can drop, that will force them to leave and stop them wanting to talk to every NPC and find every secret?

  1. Imagine Some Specifics

Once you’ve got your big picture, you could run right away, but now I like to start thinking about specific scenes, encounters, locations, and NPCs that might come up. These can be just sketches to start with, but by having a file ready to note these in before the session zero, you can add to it. For example, in a campaign of Legend of the Five Rings I ran a couple of years ago, I had a few scenes in mind before chargen started – but when one of the PCs had a morbid fear of dogs, of course the bandits were led by a dog-faced demon who took an instant dislike to them. 

With a published adventure, you might want to think about a few NPCs using the 7-3-1 technique if they are likely to recur or be important – I’ve got a wizard lined up for the next couple of sessions who I sketched out a personality for right at the start – or how some encounters might play out in the first few sessions. This isn’t unlike the Bag of Tricks prep technique I’ve used for one-shots – it gives you some go-to scenes and moments that you’ll be able to use later in the campaign.

  1. Session Zero

At this point, you’re ready to get the players involved. My personal agenda for a session zero covers Content / Chargen / Play, but sometimes fitting in all of these can be tricky. If character generation is something that will be dreary to all sit round and do together, get your players to come to the table with something lightly sketched out, and do a bit of in-character bonding in that first session instead. Absolutely would recommend the final part though – getting a bit of play in makes it all worthwhile!

For Content, you want to discuss any safety tools you’ll be using, as well as invite your players to contribute to Lines and Veils and Tone – again, The Gauntlet has an excellent blog on all of this. Alongside this, you want to cover housekeeping – how often you meet, who brings the snacks, what to do if you can’t make it, that sort of thing. For my games I generally have a hard rule that if 3 players and the GM can make it, we play – and we’ll work out a way for the others to catch up later. This does fall down a bit if I can’t make a session, but it gives a bit of insulation against having a run of cancellations.

For the Play bit, just a half-hour encounter is fine – but I’d go with something action-y that involves rolling the dice instead of something roleplay-focussed. Start them around a camp, and have some goblins attack, and then the goblins tell them about the problems in the area. Getting some dice rolled makes the session zero fun, and starts to build momentum for the game proper.

  1. Session-By-Session

Now you can run it! For me, I’m never more than a session ahead of where the party is up to, and I prep in between sessions – I can’t imagine doing it any other way. I’ve blogged before about session prep for campaigns being like for one-shots, but to summarise – I’d recommend making each session a coherent episode if you can, even going so far as to give it a name. 

6 sessions of prep files – complete with corny titles

In my prep, each session gets a Google doc, and follows a fairly similar format, which is either a scene-by-scene breakdown followed by NPC notes, or a Sly Flourish Lazy DM set of notes. I’ve found that for my own prep, I like a defined scene-by-scene breakdown, but for published games that I’m running the Sly Flourish technique works best. I think this helps me to break down components and be a bit more prepared for players going in different directions – whereas with my own games I’m already able to do that without any help.

I’m conscious of my own practice as well (or at least try to be) – and one of the things I’m trying to work on is more memorable NPCs – so at the moment I make sure there’s a few ‘tells’ for each one in my prep notes to make sure I put the effort in to try and do this.

Be sure at the end of each session to get some feedback – either as Stars and Wishes (now rebranded to Spangles and Wangles by my Friday group) or a more informal method, and be prepared to tweak where the campaign is going if needed. I’d also recommend having some ongoing contact with your players, whether about the game or not, between sessions – it helps to keep momentum, which is one of the main things you need to keep a campaign going.

So, step by step campaign planning! I’ll try and get a couple of examples down too, and as always happy to accept Patreon post requests! Let me know in the comments if you’d like to see more.

13th Age One-Shots, Revisited

It’s been a few years since I first wrote about 13th Age one-shots, and it’s a long time since I’ve run a system that used to be one of my trademarks. But, as I’ve been prepping Swords Against Owlbears for All Rolled Up’s Free RPG Day event, I’ve got more to say about how some specific aspects of 13A play can be made to work in one-shots.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

So, here goes:

One-Shot Unique Things

In 13th Age, each PC has a One Unique Thing (OUT) that sets them out from the rest of the populace. It’s the start of an expectation that players will help to define the world and setting. For one-shots, rather than being campaign-level (“I’m the last of the dwarves” “I’m half-dragon half-halfling”) these can just be specific to the session planned… guide the players when they’ve picked pregens to choose, for instance, why they personally have to track down the orc chieftain, or what the Priestess’s minions stole from them. 

I’ve previously been ambivalent about making players pick OUTs at the table, since sometimes they can just clam up, so have offered ready-made ones – but this links them to the play as well and helps to provide motivation for whatever gonzo plot you’ve got up your sleeve.

Dice Rolling Apps Are Your Friend

13th Age PCs are generally rolling their level number of damage dice – or more – each time they hit. Additional powers often add other dice to the mix, too – so unless you’re playing at 1st or 2nd level, encourage your players to use dice roller apps to do the arithmetic for them. Some players, of course, (the ones really quick with mental arithmetic) will want to add them up in their head – let them, but only if they really are quick enough for nobody else to get impatient. They will be the ones that thank you for it – it’s hard to resist adding up your neighbour’s totals for them if they’re struggling. 

Dice rollers unlock high level play for one-shots, which is (a) awesome, and (b) not all that complicated for players. A few more options emerge, but your barbarian and ranger characters are still going to be really accessible for players who don’t want to balance loads of options.

Pick Three Icons Each

In 13th Age, players have a set of Icon relationships that are rolled at the start of each session and interact with the play, bringing powerful setting NPCs into the game. 

Icon relationships in some of the published one-shots are left to be picked at the table. In my pregens, I’ve usually pre-populated them. Neither of these are really necessary. Just pick three Icons for each pregen that seem most likely for them – have the players do their icon rolls (either d6 for each of them, or just d3 for which Icon benefit they have if you want everyone to definitely have one – sometimes, I make sure they’ve all got one if somebody rolls none, sometimes I don’t.

Give them the icons on little cards to remind them to use them, too. And I’m fairly relaxed about them giving a system-based bonus in one-shots – they can

  • Allow an additional use of a Daily power
  • Punch up an auto-recovery if they drop to 0hp
  • Grant a cool magic item of the appropriate tier (+1 for Adventurer, +2 Champion, +3 Epic) – let the player design it and give it a quirk
  • Grant an extra turn in combat once

And so on. The best uses of Icon relationships are often in skill challenges or montages, but these give everyone a chance to own them and get some benefit from them, and the Icons interfering grounds the game in the world.

Campaign Losses – Limbs, Friends, or Items

Campaign Losses, generally, happen instead of Total Party Kills in 13th Age. The party can choose to retreat, lick its wounds, and try another way. In one-shots, this doesn’t make sense – and can mess with your pacing – so make them lose something important to them instead, and progress the story around the scene again. This might mean they still achieve the combat scene’s goal – so make sure what they lose is really big! You could even have an NPC captured, to set up a sequel one-shot! This comes directly from Swords Against Owlbears, where the titular battle in particular has some very nasty owlbear cub mooks (and a randomly-appearing owlbear mother) that could easily overwhelm players.

So, some more 13th Age tips – and a resolution from me to get 13A back on my circuit of convention games!

Don’t Just Have Fun – actually useful advice for new DMs/GMs

Over on twitter, there was some discussion recently about advice for people taking their first steps to DMing – on the lines that “just have fun!” is really terrible advice, advocating for an end product without giving any guidance on how to get there. So, putting my money where my mouth is, here are five actually useful tips for running your first game.

Because this post is probably not aimed at my patrons, this is going out to Patreon subscribers and regular blog readers at the same time. Of course the best way to become a better DM is to become a patreon backer – where you’ll instantly become much more skilled at every aspect of TTRPG play. For £2 a month you get access to (most) posts 7 days before release, and get to bask in the warm glow of supporting Burn After Running!

Run What You Know

Pick a system to run that you’ve already experienced as a player. If you’re in a D&D campaign, and think “I’d like to try running Cyberpunk Red” – or another game you haven’t played, then great! It’s good to diversify systems and settings – but run some D&D first. Knowing the rules (or feeling like you have to know them) takes up processing power at the table – if you’ve played before, a lot of these will be internalised already, so you can watch the table and worry about other stuff! So run what you know, at least to start with – whether that’s D&D or whatever system you’ve been introduced to.

Use Published Scenarios

Want to run D&D for the first time? You could do a lot worse than run through one of the Starter Sets or the Essentials Kit – and in any case, you’ll make it easier for a first time to use a published adventure. Both options are good, and there are some great starting short adventures for a few systems out there. Like getting your head around the rules, having the plot worked out for an adventure will give you one less thing to worry about. There are even some on this blog!

This book does contain some actually useful advice too!

Run for 2-4 sessions

Running one-shots is hard, as is maintaining (or committing) to a long campaign. Take away some of the time pressure by pitching to run for 3 sessions or so – you don’t have to worry as much about pacing, and you can take feedback and do any tweaking you need to between sessions. A lot of published adventures will run to this length anyway, so you can use them – but feel free to cut out stuff if you want to as well – you don’t have to run as the scenario author intended.

Don’t Bother With Character Creation

For a full campaign, you’ll want a session zero where you share expectations and the players create their characters. For your first time, you’ll find it easier at the table if you get some pregens together and just dive in. This means you’ll have a better idea of what the PCs can do, and also means you’ll be actually running the game straightaway. Of course, you still want to have some basic safety tools like an X-Card or trigger warnings for any potentially upsetting stuff at the start – but don’t spend a session making characters, just dive in.

Get Feedback

End each session with a quick stars and wishes session and ask your players what they want more or less of. Having a quick debrief like this will help you to zoom out and see what the session was like, and also allow your player to show you appreciation for running it. It’s easy when DMing to only notice when things go wrong, and your players should be able to help show you how much fun they had! (If your players are mean to you after you’ve just run a session for them, get new players. Seriously.)

So, some actually useful advice for new GMs… I mean, above all, do just have fun, but the above might make it easier to have it! Let me know in the comments if there’s anything I’ve missed!

Alternative Spelunking – Different Ways to Dungeoncrawl

Exploring a dungeon – whether it’s an actual cave filled with goblins, an abandoned space station, or a defunct arcology filled with deathtraps – is a staple of TTRPG games. The usual presentation is a map you can describe to your players, which offers choice  but not much in the way of a narrative arc. 

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

But are there other ways to cover dungeon crawling? Well, yes, with varying degrees of narrative freedom. Once you start to mush up location- and encounter-based play, you end up with plenty of options to make interesting and engaging one-shot structures. Here are three of them.

Point Crawl

Instead of thinking of your dungeon as a rigidly- defined series of rooms, think of it as set pieces separated by an assortment of corridors and interstitial areas. The Five-Room Dungeon is a good model for this, and it means the place doesn’t literally have five rooms, too. Or, for an even tighter design, draw up Three Places building to a climax.

Make the linking sections interesting by throwing in some optional, but interesting, flavour encounters that supply background or foreshadowing – carvings on the walls showing former inhabitants, wandering monsters or ghosts that can dispense clues, hidden stashes of treasure trapped. For a one-shot this also means you can choose which of these optional bits to include, helping with pacing.

Journey Challenge

Sometimes, we go into a dungeon with a clear goal and set piece to work towards – to disrupt the ritual, to slay the dragon, to rescue the princess. Having half-way set pieces doesn’t really work, and skipping straight to the end doesn’t make the location exciting or allow for any foreshadowing.

So, structure your dungeon like a skill challenge – use some of the variant rules here or here, or work out your own for the system you’re using. It pays to have definitive consequences for failure mapped out in advance, so there are some stakes for the skill rolls – and in a fantasy setting, think about what spells can do (auto-success? Require an Arcana roll? Grant permission to use an alternate skill?). Pace the journey through the dungeon using the skill challenge, and then finish with your big set-piece encounter.

Montage

Sometimes, the journey through the dungeon is even less important, or you want to hand over more narrative control to the players. A 13th Age-style montage is a great way to cover this – you decide on an obstacle facing the players, and the first player describes how it’s overcome and the next obstacle, until everyone has had their turn. This can lead to some truly epic explorations, and it works well with dungeons that have a really clear theme and concept that players can share and develop. 

Some groups are less keen on this player-led narration – although this is my default when I’m running 13th Age. You can build up their comfort level, if you want to, using some of the techniques listed here.

So, three ways to free dungeons from the restrictions of location-based play. Of course, these work just as well for space stations, or steampunk-era cities, or haunted forests – let me know if you use one or more of these techniques in the comments!

Seeing the Light – Running Illuminated by LUMEN one-shots

LUMEN, developed by Spencer Campbell of Gila RPGs, is a rules framework for action TTRPGs that’s inspired a veritable horde of games based on its core system. Well, strictly speaking, LIGHT was the first game, and the SRD came later, but you get what I mean. Its combination of fast-play action and easy-to-spin system make it a really fantastic convention game, and I thought I’d put down some tips for making sure a one-shot really hits the right buttons.
While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

I ran Gunfucks at North Star recently, and am planning on running LIGHT and Deathless soon. Gunfucks is a Borderlands-riffed shooter-looter (I’ll share my prep notes in the next post), while LIGHT feels sort-of-Destiny, and Deathless is a Highlander-style immortal warrior battles game. If all of these seem high-action and pretty frenetic, that’s the sort of play that LUMEN leans towards – and it’s useful in general to think of them emulating video games as their source material, as you’ll see later.

It’s All About the Fights

LUMEN isn’t quite a game with a combat system and nothing else (and that’s not a dig – I’m a huge fan of Sentinel Comics, Marvel Heroic, and even Feng Shui 2 that largely subsist on set piece action scenes) – but it is built towards big, powerful heroes fighting set piece battles, and most of the rules support this.

With this in mind, fight scenes with some attention and planning made to them pay off well. Make sure that your fights take place in Dangerous Places – so the battlefield has lots of things to interact with that either side can turn to their advantage. It’s also worth thinking of fights in terms of goals and victory conditions, rather than everyone fighting to the death.

Because the resolution mechanic is relatively simple, encourage and model your players to describe their actions cinematically – because success criteria (the highest dice rolled) is out in the open, they should be able to follow the start description -> roll dice -> describe success or failure pretty smoothly.

Gunfucks has a cool idea (which I’ll be stealing for other games) where in the GM’s turn there’s a battlefield shift – something changes each turn to make the fight interesting. Easy ways to do this in LUMEN games is to shift some range bands, or introduce some more hazards. It can also move some enemies or call in reinforcements – which you might need, as balancing combat isn’t as straightforward as you might think.

It’s Not All About the Fights

It’s easy to think that LUMEN games don’t really have a system for skill checks – but they absolutely do, with the Approaches rolls functioning just as well for investigative or social conflict. A simple skill challenge where the party need to get a total of 5 successes across the rolls will work fine, with them taking consequences for each 1-4 roll.

But, as combat can be pretty frenetic with dice-rolling and power-checking, it works just as well to have interludes between fights that are just free roleplaying. This will add depth to the game, and by prepping some interesting NPCs with conflicting goals (a good approach is the 7-3-1 method) you can have some good scenery-chewing interludes. In play, LUMEN often feels like a video game – and these are the cut scenes that provide a break from the relentless shooting and fighting.

In all of these games, PCs are high-powered badasses, so don’t be afraid to make the stakes big – the safety or otherwise of a country or a planet could rest on their shoulders. Enemies, likewise, should be dangerous, and give them plans and motivations the players can riff off. A pre-game relationship building exercise where you work out bonds between the PCs would help in a one-shot to encourage inter-PC dialogue, even if it’s a simple one like this

Practicalities

There’s a few practical tips at the table that can help prep and delivery. For starters, you can afford to really throw enemies at your players. For games with 5 or 6 players, you can be prepared to give lots of low-level enemies for them to defeat before they can get to the big bad, or you risk fights being over very quickly. As long as your mooks only do 1 or 2 Harm you’ll be fine – quite a few of the classes can resist 1 Harm anyway, and if they’ve got 1 Health they’ll go down in one hit anyway.

Many LUMEN games have both Health and some sort of power resource – in Gunfucks its Bullets, for instance. Having counters to represent this really helps at the table – I favour poker chips for health, as it’s pretty visible in one stack to you and the other players how much the other PCs have left.

I touched on it earlier, but these games also really benefit from getting PC narration in. They’re not just rules-light but very setting-light as well – a lot of depth will come from the table, and 5-6 imaginations are better than one for this. So use the techniques here to help develop player narration and give the setting – and scenes – some depth.

Have you played or run any LUMEN games? Any recommendations for what I should try next? Let me know in the comments.

Future Imperfect – Why Sci-Fi One-Shots are Hard, and What to Do About It

In a week’s time, I’ll be at North Star – a science fiction TTRPG convention. It fills an excellent role in the con calendar, because sci-fi is underrepresented in convention gaming – and it’s easy to see why. It’s got some issues that you just don’t get with fantasy, or even horror, gaming – and the lack of a clear industry leader to hang your expectations around (like D&D or Call of Cthulhu) is just one of them. Sci-fi one shots can be hard to get prepped – and hard to sell to players – here’s why, and what to do about it.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

What in the universe is the setting?

In fantasy, you’ve got an easily-referenced source material that everyone understands – a mixed group of ne’er do wells exploring underground areas for treasure. Even when a fantasy setting is quite different to this (e.g. Glorantha) it is easily explained by listing the differences between it and D&Desque fantasy (e.g. talking ducks, lots more cows).

Sci-fi doesn’t have this central reference point. It can be pulpy or gritty, lethal or safe – and it can literally mean anything. Communicating setting and tone is really important – if you’re running a sci-fi genre that isn’t well-known, you should be really explicit about this both in your con pitch and your prep. Go over it at the start of the session as well (briefly!) and cut it to the basic details. Players need to know if they can charge into a group of stormtroopers like in Star Wars, or if they’ll be shot to pieces, like in Traveller.

An alternative, of course, is to run in an established universe that you can expect players to relate to. If you do this, though, remember that not everyone will know all the references you do. At a con, I’d say you can rely on players knowing the broad brush strokes of Star Trek, Star Wars, Warhammer 40K, and maybe Doctor Who as key sci-fi tropes. Any more than that, you’d better be prepared to be explicit. I’ve had people try to explain Blake’s Seven to me more times than I care to remember, and I’m still none the wiser.

One approach is to use an IP you’d hope players are familiar with

Build Your Sandbox with Walls

The other challenge is the sheer scope of sci-fi play. In a one-shot, you want to decide early on in your prep what the geographical scope of play is – a single city, a single planet, a system, a cluster? This, again, needs to be really explicit – while you might want a picaresque jaunt across a few fantastic locations, consider how much depth you can provide to each of them. I’ve run effective one-shots on a single planet (although if you do this, stick some stuff in for the pilot PC to do), as well as in a single city. You might not need all the setting you have – just pick the good bits.

Plot is Still Plot

Similarly, the wide open nature of sci-fi themes can be daunting. Look back to your first step, and consider what kind of game your one-shot is, and how you can promote this. Daydreaming cool scenes and sticking them together works well – for example, for Snowblind, I knew I wanted a Wampa fight and a Tauntaun chase – so I fitted the rest of the plot around them. They also don’t need to be that complicated – exploring a “derelict” orbital structure that turns out to have a deadly alien / rogue AI in it is popular because it’s a good one-shot format – remember the adage (from I think Robin Laws) that in RPGs, cliché is a  good thing.

Adding NPCs to give background to the universe helps

In terms of structuring your adventure, point-crawls are often great ways to build sci-fi one-shots – 5 Room Non-Dungeons and Three Places are also good approaches. Remember to have engaging NPCs – and a good trick is to have the NPCs hint at the broader scope of the game. Your Star Trek one-shot might be all about the Neutral Zone and tangling with Romulans, so having a subplot NPC who’s an Orion pirate or a Klingon captain shows that there’s lots more going on in the universe.

So, three things that are hard about science fiction one-shots; if you’re reading this on the blog, I’ll just be setting off back from Sheffield after North Star – there’s a fair crack I’ll have more to say about this. What successes (or challenges) have you had with science fiction gaming? Be sure to let me know in the comments.

Fearless Defenders – a One-Shot Structure

Our heroes are at a remote location, filled with cheerful and innocent NPCs. An army approaches, sure to overrun said location – unless our heroes can stop them! From Seven Samurai to Zulu, it’s a classic plot for fiction – and a great plot for a one-shot. The mixture of fight scenes, roleplaying opportunities, and player agency make it a winner. Here’s how to prep it.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

The Place

The place needs to be remote enough that defending it falls to the heroes, not any conventional militia or army. Or, there is an army, but it won’t arrive for several days – if the PCs can hold off the attack until then, the place will be saved. Alternatively, perhaps help won’t come even if it could – the local lord has rebelled against the tyrannical king, or the planet is in a neutral zone stopping a fleet from arriving.

It needs to have enough NPCs to give it a face – make them sympathetic, and as always – three is a good number. Making one of them a sympathiser or a coward is a good move, as this will create complications later – try not to make it the obvious one.

Seven Samurai – well, six of them at least

The Enemy

Although the enemy should be implacable and overwhelming for the place, try and give it a human face that the PCs can interact with – even if it’s a sinister necromancer leading the army of zombies! Be specific about why they want to overrun this Place in particular – do they have a history here, or is it strategically important – why? 

Alternatively, make your enemy leader have beef with one or more of the PCs; a past enemy, or an ally of a past enemy, will add some drama to the situation. Look at Auntie Wu’s Tea House, a one-shot for Hearts of Wulin, for some examples of upping the melodrama in a wuxia setting.

Initial Scene – The Threat is Revealed

You want to start your game with an exciting scene where the threat, and the timeline, is revealed. Maybe an encounter with a wounded villager, or an attack by scouts of the enemy, happens – generally, I’d make this lead into a simple fight for a one-shot, particularly for a con game – you need the ‘training combat’ for players who haven’t played the system before so they get an idea of how the system works without too much jeopardy, so you can go harder later on.

Zulu is another classic model in film. Bonus points if you get your players to sing.

After this scene, they should know that the advancing force is coming – and they have a short period of time to prepare or retreat. Establish that the force is overwhelming, even if this combat is itself easy, and that retreat should not be an option.

Middle Scenes – Training Montages etc

Once the threat is revealed, the adventure can open out for the players – present them with a number of options to prepare for the attack, and be open to other suggestions.

  • They can attempt to negotiate allies or additional reinforcements. Having one or more neutral, and difficult-to-please factions around in the area helps with this – and the players can always split up to negotiate separately with them. Some might ask for a simple favour, while some might need some roleplaying to convince them to help – try to keep these short mini-quests, resolved with a few skill rolls, to keep things moving. Allies that refuse to help might join the opposition forces!
  • They can prepare defences. The usual problem solving advice of “any reasonable plan” applies here – a successful check can give a one-off bonus in the battle is how I’d play it unless you’ve got a system with a better approach embedded.
  • They can spy on the enemy. Sneaking into the enemy camp is totally a thing they can do – to find their attack plans or even disrupt their preparations. Again, this can be resolved by zooming out or using some infiltration system, especially if the whole party isn’t doing this.
  • They can rally the defenders. This includes training montages for the villagers, and can be handled as above. If you’ve planned a betrayal or retreat, they could try and win that NPC round as well, or you can use this scene to foreshadow their betrayal.
  • They can deal with the opposition doing any of the above! To keep the pace going and add to the sense of peril, the enemy may send a scout to attack – a mid-preparation combat can keep things interesting. Maybe they send goblins in with fire-pots to set some houses on fire. Or enrage a bear to storm the walls through magic. Or bribe some pirates to blockade the starport. Either way, this provides a good prelude for the final scene.

Final Scene – The Big Fight

Once the preparations are done – or not – and the enemy’s attack has been dealt with, it’s time for the big finale. You need to give some thought to how you’ll resolve this. While some games have excellent mass battle rules (Savage Worlds for instance has one that’s really good for this), you may also want to look at another meta-resolution method from here or here.

You can make this more epic by pacing sequences of challenges with individual challenges for the PCs – prep a few of these that you can throw in, and maybe they can influence the overall battle as well. Don’t shy away from having a relatively involved challenge here – this is meant to be the big finale – and equally have lots of stuff ready to throw into the mix to keep things moving.

If the betrayal hasn’t happened already, after the first round of fighting is a good time for it to kick in – zoom in on individual PCs and allow them to deal with this (or not) before it turns the tide. Make sure the interaction with the enemy’s human face is there as well – have him spit words at the PCs as he’s fighting to encourage some roleplay in the course of this.

There you have it. Have you used a similar structure in your one-shot games? Are there any published adventures you’ve seen that do this well? Let me know in the comments.

In Praise of the Supplement

I’ve just picked up (from kickstarter) Rowan Rook and Deckard’s SIN – a fantastic supplement for the SPIRE RPG, where every page seems to have plot hooks and gameable material leaping off it. It got me thinking about what a really good RPG supplement looks like. For these purposes, I think a supplement should have a bit of everything – some player-facing stuff, maybe new rules, new setting material and background – but most importantly, tons of stuff that can be dropped into an ongoing campaign or inspire a one-shot. 

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

SIN hits the jackpot on all of these – but I won’t be talking about it yet, in accordance with my review policy, because I haven’t actually used it in play yet. So instead, here are 4 supplements – I’ve tried to restrict myself to things nominally in print at least (although getting physical copies of one of these might be a challenge!) – that are top-drawer and have seen action at my table recently.

Strongholds of Resistance (for FFG’s Star Wars: Age of Rebellion)

This is the one you might struggle to find in print. It’s worth it though – a selection of planets, a selection of rebel bases (including, of course, Echo Base on Hoth), three new player species (including the squid-faced Quarren as featured in the Mandalorian) and some equipment and options. What makes this stand out are the planets and bases – they are all dripping with gameable content, and even include a “what if this base is discovered / falls” section. The bases all have maps which can be used here, or even transplanted to another setting or system.

This book entirely inspired Snowblind, a one-shot around Echo Base, which is linked here.

Book of Demons (for 13th Age)

This is absolute gold. It kicks off with the Demonologist class, which has three very different options (if you’re familiar with the 13th Age Druid, it’s similar to that in that the role in the party can be anything depending on what you pick). There’s a great section on gamemastering demons, and then “Six Hell Holes” – adventure locations at different levels of challenge full of demons. Explicitly designed to be dropped into the game anywhere, this would be useful for any kind of fantasy game. 13th Age products somehow manage to make even their fluff easily usable in other games, and this doesn’t disappoint.

I’ve thrown stuff from this into 13th Age one-shots (although not for a while – I haven’t run 13th Age for too long!), including adding a melee-focussed demonologist as a pregen. 

Beta Quadrant Sourcebook (for Star Trek Adventures)

For those with limited Star Trek knowledge, the Beta Quadrant is probably what you’re expecting if you think Trek – the baddies are Romulans and (depending on the era) Klingons, you’ve got Orions and (my favourite) Gorn rolling around – it’s a wild frontier region of space, ripe for exploration yet still bucking up against other civilisations in the form of the Romulan Neutral Zone. Apart from details of each of these civilisations and some new player species, there’s some extra starships, and some adventure locations. The Briar Patch and the Shackleton Expanse (although for the latter you might want to get the bigger – and more adventure-led – book of the same name) are full of danger and peril.

Overall it’s just a great starter region for Star Trek, where the core book is a bit limited by offering any era of play. If you’re running Original Series or Next Generation, this is your essential next purchase.

I used this a lot in the first season of my ongoing Star Trek Adventures campaign, where they tussled along the Neutral Zone with a recurring Romulan Captain.

Starter Set (for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4th edition)

Is it cheating to put a starter set in here? Not in this case. Apart from the usual pregens, dice and an excellent adventure (Doing the Rounds), the 64-page Guide to Ubersreik is what sets this apart. Full details of the city, with adventure hooks in every location, both dripping in flavour and instantly gameable. Add to this that fully half of the Adventure Book is given over to single-page short adventures, this is the perfect primer for both what WFRP is all about, and how to make a city breathe and sing.

My WFRP one-shots have all been set in and around Ubersreik – there’s just enough material in here to expand one or more of them into a satisfying game.

So, what fantastic supplements can you recommend? Link them in the comments.

Split the Party

“Don’t split the party!” is a classic refrain from the early days of D&D that still holds a surprising amount of traction. It’s also absolute rubbish; your games will be much more fun if the group separates and gets back together during the course of an adventure. This is especially true in investigative games like Vaesen or Call of Cthulhu – but even in your classic F20 game it can lead to much richer play. Here’s why.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

More Content!

If you’ve got two potential leads out from a scene, why go to each in turn? Send a couple of PCs to talk to the old woman, while the others poke around in the merchants’ quarter. By cutting between them, you get a nice contrast, and it’s easier to be an audience for the other pair when things are being resolved by the others. Things move quicker with fewer PCs on the scene, too.

In-party roleplaying in action

More (In-Party) Roleplaying!

Four PCs in the same place, talking to someone – they might talk to each other, but the focus of their investigation is going to get more of their time. Two PCs in the same place, it’s much more natural for them to talk to one another – and it will happen more. This is especially true online, where a conversation between more than two people needs structural help to avoid talking over each other. 

Mix up the pairings a few times, and you’ll soon get some neat character interactions going. If you’re doing this in a very trad game, or as a one-shot, you might want to lay the groundwork for this with some in-party setup questions.

More Verisimilitude!

Another cliche from the early days of roleplaying is the Cthulhu investigator team – six men with shotguns showing up in the suburban street to talk to the little old lady about her neighbours. In genre fiction, it’s very rare that the whole ensemble cast go together to resolve a problem – this is reserved for the finale (and maybe the start of the episode). 

If you’re looking at a one-shot structure like the Ur-Plot, it could be as simple as the middle bits are with the party separate – you’ll end up with a grabbier plot, that’ll move faster and cover more in-party chat – all for the good!

How To Make It Happen

First, let’s make sure we’ve got the conditions for this to happen. You need to banish any sort of adversarial “the-GM-is-out-to-get-us” mentality from your players – which means, try and not give them the obvious potential risks from splitting up. Eventually, you probably want to throw that ambush – and the subsequent rescue – but to start with you probably just want peril to be the consequences, not actual character death.

Keeping the PCs in contact – with cell phones or the fantasy equivalent – should also make them more comfortable splitting up. Eventually, you want to remove these and cut them off, but that will only be effective as a change from the norm, so keep that in reserve for the first couple of times.

You can also put a timer on it – if there’s only 3 hours until the next killing has been foretold, and there’s two temples to search for the anti-ritual, there’s a big incentive to split up and cover both places. 

Getting Into Trouble

I’m certainly not advocating that when the party is split up it should be peril-free; the scenes should be exciting and dangerous, or what’s the point of them. But the peril doesn’t have to be combat. Skill checks or challenges (even longer-term ones) work just as well with 2 players as with 5, so plan some of these for big payoffs. 

There’s a knack to getting spotlight right with this – you don’t want one group making a single Persuade check while the other has some multi-layered challenge to resolve their scene – but you can always give the successful Persuaders something else to do.

And, combat doesn’t have to be off the table. Balance it carefully, and make sure there’s an objective behind it – one group getting ambushed or captured and having to be rescued makes for great drama. In games with tight combat design (like D&D), 2-PC combat does some really interesting/weird things sometimes, which can make it exciting and dangerous even if you adjust the opposition’s level challenge.

For any action-based challenges while the PCs are split up, and even for investigative scenes, smash cut between the two groups frequently – try to aim for cliffhangers, even if minor ones. Techniques like this keep the momentum going, and help players be good audiences for their other group – which spares you having to do an awkward roleplaying scene later where they tell each other what they’ve just found out. It’s unnecessary – they already know – so encourage them to cut to the analysis of their discoveries, not the reporting.

Even in the Dungeon…

A lot of this advice has been focussed on investigative games, but I should say it all applies just as much to more traditional fantasy games. How often do parties in F20 games send the rogue first to scout out the next room, and how often do they actually get separated? Take that as the consequence of a failed perception or find traps roll, and you’ve got an extra layer to your dungeoneering.

Have you ever split the party? Are your players reluctant to do so, or do they just need a bit of a push? Let me know in the comments.

The Curse of Clearview Forest – a 1st-level D&D one-shot

I’ve got another 1st level D&D adventure for you here, ready-to-run, and this one is even playtested – at Go Play Leeds last year. It’s pretty rough-and-ready, and contains a collapsible set of scenes in the middle so you can expand or contract to fill the available time. I’d be generous with any alternative plans that the PCs make to get to the dryad’s grove – but all paths will eventually lead to the druid. 

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

If you want to toughen up the fight, add a few twigblights into the mix – although the big bad Garrett, designed using Matt Collville’s villain actions, is pretty effective as a solo boss. Villain Actions take place out of initiative order after a player’s action – usually one per round in the first three rounds, although feel free to tweak this if they’re needed in order to survive. He also has a Bonus Action and a Reaction that make him a bit more survivable – I’d recommend a watch of Matt’s youtube video for some good examples of building boss monsters with Villain Actions.

In terms of NPCs, I got a lot of mileage from making Prince Kyle a feckless loser convinced of his own heroism, and Mayor Goodbarrow as a somewhat sinister leader. I used regular 1st level characters, using my simplified character sheets, for this.

Background

Twenty years ago, Green Goodbarrow, mayor of Clearview, struck a deal with the fey of Clearview Forest. In return for Clearview’s continued prosperity and protection, he offered the services of his son to the dryad Qualan – confident that he would be well looked after, and his wife would bear more children for him.

A difficult birth followed, and Gwen Goodbarrow gave birth to twins. Rushing both dying mother and twins to Qualan’s glade, he begged for the deal to be cancelled – but he had already been elected mayor, and bargains with fey cannot be undone. The mayor’s son, Garrett, was taken by the dryad into the Feywild, to serve her as an apprentice and guardian of the forests. The daughter, Gynnie, was left to grow up with her father.

Time passed and Clearview prospered – the bandits and goblins that had troubled the other villages of the forest never troubled Clearview, and it became wealthy and prosperous. Garrett was comfortable enough serving the fey, and his druidic magics grew, even as he wished to return to his own, human world.

Clearview’s prosperity will be sealed now – for the great beauty of Gynnie Goodbarrow has attracted the attention of Prince Kyle, who has courted her and arranged a marriage. As he and his love walked in the forest, the talking trees of the forest saw them steal a kiss – and reported it back to the fey court – where Garrett heard of it.

Enraged to be reminded of all he has missed, and the life he could have lived, he turned on his former wards, capturing the dryad in a feywild prison and breaking the vows that protected Clearview. Even now, though, Prince Kyle and his Kingsguard yomp through the forest for their wedding, unaware of what has happened – with Garrett no longer serving them, the forest will demand the other child…

Prelude – The Forest Path

There is a wedding in Clearview, where Gynnie Goodbarrow, daughter of the town Mayor, is to be wed to Prince Kyle – youngest and least impressive of the King’s son, but a Prince nonetheless! You are making your way there…

  • Ask each player:

Why have you got an invite to, or are attending, this wedding?

As they round a turn in the road, they come across quite a scene. A mean, one-eyed bandit brandishes a crossbow from the trees at a well-dressed travelling group – surely the Prince and his Kingsguard. In a plummy, high-pitched voice, the Prince speaks –

You would challenge me? Fair know it, that I am a master with the sword, and in fact I insist that my guards stand down and allow me to slay you single-handedly!

A crossbow bolt flies from the woods and slays a Kingsguard, and combat ensues.

It is assumed the PCs will join in. They will face 5 bandits (AC 12, hp 11, +3 club for 1d4 or +3 crossbow for 1d8+1) plus One-Eyed Isaac (same but hp 18) – the bandits will engage the dangerous-looking Kingsguard first until they have been attacked.

The Kingsguard are utterly useless, and the Prince is worse.

Once they are vanquished, the Prince introduces himself – and tells you how lucky that his two Kingsguard, Erlin and Harlin, were there to save them – despite them doing almost nothing.

They can then proceed to the wedding – allow them a long rest as they are fed and watered at Clearview.

Scene One – The Wedding Party

Before the wedding, there is a great, drunken, feast, around the Clearview Oak, a huge tree in the centre of the village. During the festivities, they can attempt to find out about the wedding

  • Clearview is richer than it has ever been – it is said the forest is blessed, and even bandits don’t dare to interfere with Clearview’s prosperity
  • Green Goodbarrow is a good mayor, but he’s been more and more melancholy as the wedding day has approached – maybe memories of his late wife – who died giving birth to Gynnie – have been bothering him
  • The mayor has been taking many long walks in the woods of late – last time he returned looking like he’d seen a ghost!
  • Clearview is blessed by the forest – even the beer is the best in the forest! (as she says this, she takes a big swig, frowns a little as if it’s not as she expected it, and then returns to pretending it is good)

At the height of festivities – from the Clearview Oak burst 1 Needle Blight and 8 Twig Blights. A pair of Twig Blights grab Gynnie and pull her into the oak – immediately she is in the Feywild and captured again. As they do, the wise woman Ernestine shouts out

They come to take their prize! What is owed to them?! Where is the other child?!

Once they are defeated, Green Goodbarrow is extremely upset. He demands that people go after and rescue his daughter – of course, the Prince and his Kingsguard immediately volunteer. He also eyes up the heroes and asks them to go, but the Prince will have no truck with it – nevertheless, he promises at least 200gp of his considerable wealth if they can ensure the wedding goes smoothly. He suggests they travel to the dryad Qualan, the guardian of the forest – maybe something has happened to her that means the forest’s blessing may be ended.

Scene Two – Forest Exploration

Clearview’s forest paths are dim and oppressive.

There are a number of encounters the players can have, depending on time available, until they find the dryad’s grove – if you are short of time, feel free to skip ahead to that.

Talking Trees

The Trees used to be a source of wisdom, but are grumpy and angered now the curse has landed. They must be entertained – with a joke, a dance, or similar – a DC 13 Performance or similar check – from all the PCs (group check, needs half successes) to talk to them.

They can tell the whole legend of a boy taken as a price for the prosperity of Clearview, and that there was another child – a beautiful girl – and a dying mother. 

The Pool

You come across a tranquil pool, with lilies floating on it and an idyllic bridge tripping over it beyond thick, impassible forest. As you take the first steps over it, though, strange bubbles emerge from the pool, and a thick mist begins to cloud your vision.

The PCs must all make Con saves to remain awake, and then succeed on a group check (half successes needed) of Athletics or similar to cross the bridge – further failed Con saves inflict 1d4 hp damage. If all PCs fall asleep, they awaken in the dryad’s grove in the Feywild, and are awoken by the dryad by it’s dying breath after Garrett soliloquises the reason for his anger.

The Webs

They hear weak shouting ahead – from the Kingsguard, trapped in spider’s webs – a proper chance to save them! Luckily the Giant Spider who snared them is out hunting, but his three children – stats as Giant Wolf Spiders – stalk and will attack. After three rounds, their mother arrives – hope they have saved the Kingsguard by then!

Scene Three – The Dryad’s Pool

The Dryad’s Pool is clearly in trouble. The water is stagnant and stinking, and the tree looks to be dying on it. Arcane symbols scratched around it indicate a passage to the Feywild, recently used.

A DC 10 Arcana or Religion check will allow them to enter the Feywild and confront Garrett – they emerge on a scene of Qualan tied to a tree, and Garrett will tell them the history and why he feels aggrieved. Qualan tells them he is right – that for the blessing to continue Gynnie must be taken by the forest instead. Either way, Garrett attacks – Qualan using her last energy to Long Rest the PCs, if needed. If it looks sketchy, one of the Kingsguard tosses a PC a healing potion – they are much too terrified to join in the actual fight. 

Garratt – corrupted Druid (villain monster, CR 2+)

AC 11 or  16 (assume Barkskin), hp 52 (40 if just 4 PCs)
Speed 30ft
Multiattack 2 of –
–        make one shillelagh attack (+4 reach 5ft. damage 1d8)
–        make a sling attack (+4 range 30ft, damage 1d4)
–        cast a spell (Entangle, Thunder Wave, or Dust Devil)
Spells – Thunderwave (15ft cube, Con save or 2d8 damage and pushed 10 ft away – save for half and no push) – Entangle is a 20ft cube – Dust Devil is a movable 5ft square
Bonus action – get an additional save vs. an effect
Reaction – when struck by an attack, cast Barkskin to raise AC to 16
Villain Action Round 1 – Cast Entangle on all opponents within 50ft, Str save or restrained
Villain Action Round 2 – Immediately cast Longstrider on himself and move (no attacks of opp) up to 40 feet
Villain Action Round 3 – Summon a Dust Devil (Str save or 1d8 damage and pushed 10 feet away) against all opponents engaged with him

Scene Four – Return

The wedding is back on – or is it? Will the PCs tell the village the truth, or will they keep their counsel. Prince Kyle, in a rare show of bravery, is determined to marry Gynnie no matter what – and can be persuaded to reveal the secret or not by the PCs.

End with a montage of the next scenes in the PCs’ lives, showing how they move on from these heroics.