Shadow of the Demon Lord One-Shots

Rob Schwalb’s Shadow the Demon Lord (SOTDL) is an excellent system, and a great one for con games and one-shots. A grimdark fantasy world of demons and apocalypse a shade or two more gonzo than Warhammer and the like, it’s also the system for a post-apocalypse game, Punkapocalyptic. I’ve run several games of both of them as one-shots, and a full campaign of SODTL, and there’s a lot to recommend it.

It’s d20-adjacent with a Boon/Bane dice system that reduces the spread of numbers and keeps everything quick and easy, and has some really neat system tweaks that come into play. On a read through, you might think it’s a drifted d20 system game, but in play it feels very different – in a good way – and it’s built for pace. There’s plenty of examples of Rob running it on his podcast, and they are a great example of a fast-paced game. Here are five recommendations I’d made if you want to bring it to a con.

Start at the right level

Shadow has a great advancement system, where you start out at 0-level, then add a core class at 1st level, an expert class at 3rd, and a master class at 7th – making your character get gradually more defined and niched as you advance. For a one-shot, I’d start somewhere between 2nd and 4th level – 3rd level gives the Expert class, which creates some nice wedge issues between PCs, and will give players a few options in combat without being overwhelming.

In campaign play, PCs have a lot of options past 7th level, which would be a bit overwhelming in a one-shot, including options that break initiative order and allow them to make their allies make immediate attacks – I’d steer away from those as this will slow down a system that works best played at pace.

Watch balance

It would be easy to read the guidance on building encounters as gospel, and follow it rigorously for your players. But in truth, this isn’t a tightly-balanced game like D&D or Pathfinder – not all the classes are necessarily equally good in combat, for instance, and some of the monsters at a certain Threat Level can vary a lot in lethality. Use the guidance as a starting point (and, for one-shots, in all systems, you should have no medium-difficulty fights – it’s easy to let the players show off, or hard to make them sweat) and then have a careful read of the opponents powers. You might need to adjust up or down. I found running published adventures I quite often had to adjust, and often adjust up, the opposition, but that may have been informed by my group’s “play hard” approach to character building.

Reskin, reskin, reskin

The bestiary in SOTDL is generous – you have lots of easily adaptable monsters and NPCs that, as in any game, are easy to reskin to whatever you want. I made my Punkapocalyptic players fight an animatronic Owlbear that was just another stat block, and in SOTDL “Large Monster” stood in for an awful lot of opponents in my campaign. The system is sufficiently fast and loose that your players won’t know.

Fast Turns and Slow Turns

SODTL’s initiative system is weird, and took me a while to get used to. PCs take a Fast Turn or a Slow Turn; on a Slow Turn you can do two (different) actions, but Fast turns (from both the PCs and the opponents) go first. It took me a while to get this right, but in play, just shout “Fast Turns” – whichever player shouts first, they go first; then all the other player fast turns, then the opponents, then player Slow Turns, then opponent Slow Turns. If somebody takes too long to respond and doesn’t shout up for the Fast Turn, they must be taking a Slow Turn. Giving it this degree of pace really helps combat to flow fast.

I added a ‘house rule’ that I think is an actual rule in Punkapocalyptic that you could use an action to assist an ally, granting them a Boon on their next role. This worked really well and made Slow Turns worth taking, and the players narrated what they did to give their ally a bonus in the next round which was all good action scene stuff.

Steady with the dick jokes

The gonzo-ness of SOTDL, and especially Punkapocalyptic, does contain some references that you might want to shade over in convention play or in a one-shot with people that you don’t know. A PC starting the game with a gym bag full of sex toys, or a wizard losing his genitals due to Corruption, is all good clean fun if everyone at the table is up for that, but – even with safety tools in play – I’d suggest isn’t necessarily as fun for strangers.

As with every safety discussion, it’s not just how you react to it – it’s how all the players react to it that might make it an awkward situation. So in a one-shot, I’d reign in some of the more scatological aspects of the settings – it’s not as if there isn’t enough flavour there already – just to avoid any risk of this.

To conclude, SOTDL is a great one-shot, and deserves to be run more at conventions, either online or face to face. The Roll20 character sheet is a good implementation as well, and fairly straightforward for the players to use, although the system is such you could easily just use an A/V setup and have all the players roll their own dice. There’s an absolute pile of published material for it, as well, from adventures to entire campaigns and short supplements on parts of the setting – you’ll never run out of stuff for it. What have your experiences been with SOTDL / Punkapocalyptic? Let me know in the comments, or on twitter @milnermaths

“The Chest Appears to Not Be Trapped” – Fixing Perception, Part Two

In my previous post I talked about how Perception (or whatever your skill is called) is often disappointing, and made some suggestions to fix it. Since then, I’ve been very self-conscious of using perception in my own games, as you might imagine, and so have come up with a few more ideas to make perception less rubbish than it generally is.

You All Notice Different Things

I’ve found this a surprisingly decent way to fix everyone making a Perception check, which can’t always be avoided – if one player wants to make one, it’s expected all of them can make one. Just make every successful PC notice something different, ideally tied to their own specialism. You might want to plan these ahead of time, but once you know your players it’s fairly easy to just busk these as long as you’re happy to give out exposition this way.

“I inspect the battlefield” says the wizard, while the orc army charges

As an example, in a recent Shadow of the Demon Lord game, the players were accosted by Boneguards on the way up a cursed mountain. I’d reskinned them a bit to foreshadow the rest of the adventure, making them quartz-eyed and sleepwalking, as the next scene involved facing a nightmare monster that would invade their dreams.

Perception checks ensued as they rushed to battle them, and the wizard determined that, despite their quartz-for-eyes and non-decayed appearance, these were definitely undead, and likely vulnerable and immune to the regular undead stuff. The fighter noted that they appeared to be sleepwalking chaotically, making them possible to trick or evade, and the rogue noticed that their clothes were just like those of the pirates they’d seen earlier in Float Town. By spreading the information around, it made everyone’s roll feel important – and gave a mechanic to share exposition in a more interesting way than just doling it out (or, worse, the after-combat interrogation, which always bores me).

Let Perception Deliver Resolution

“I search the chest for traps” – rolls – success

“There’s a poison needle trap here, a good one, but you deftly reach in and disarm it, draining the poison reservoir and clicking the lock open.”

Consider why we have to roll to find, and then roll to disarm, a trap? Sometimes there’s even a roll to evade it in the middle as well. Fold it into one roll – the trap-disarmer is likely to be good at all the elements of it, so just roll once. Similarly, for an ambush, let the players roll to spot their ambushers, but have the consequences solid – either they’ve got a knife at their throat (or an arrow in their back) or they’ve got the drop on their attackers – with possibly different outcomes for different PCs. Make Perception lead directly into resolution, rather than being a separate information gathering check.

Perception in the Action Economy

Consider adding “assessing the battlefield” as a combat action. On a successful check, you can liberally dole out clues as to what’s going on in the scenario, along with something that will offer a mechanical benefit as well – which could be how to make a called shot to get through armour, or just something abstract like granting Advantage to the next attack.

There’s a whole other discussion about exposition through action scenes, and how much of the plot / investigation can be folded into a mid-combat revelation, but this is a good way to make your players appreciate the value of the skill – make sure it’s a generous benefit each time though – if it needs a skill check it should be more effective than, say, aiming for a round, if that grants an automatic bonus.

So, there are three more suggestions to try and “fix” Perception. I’m still moving towards just removing the skill, but these at least offer more options to make it interesting. If you’ve got other suggestions, or would like to suggest another type of skill check that needs fixing, let me know in the comments.

“You Don’t Notice Anything.” – Why Perception is Rubbish, and How To Make It Better

Over on his blog, @vinegarymink has posted about Failing Forward – ensuring that failed challenges are just as fun as successful ones. Half way through playing a game of Pendragon (played ‘straight’ and devoid of indie pretentions – and a fantastic game, don’t get me wrong) this week, a realisation came to me somewhere around our fifth Awareness check. Perception is a bit rubbish. It’s a ubiquitous skill in all trad systems, and one of the hardest to “fail forward” with. It’s usually quite hard to fail at all with it, which is why I think it often leaves me frustrated as a GM. I’m going to go through some of the issues with it, and then suggest some hacks that can overcome them.

Awareness 15: the essential Knightly skill
  • If it’s something the group could notice, only one player needs to notice, and they tell the others. Having everyone roll makes a group perception check trivially easy – the probabilities of just one person having to pass make them super generous. If you’ve got a 50% chance to pass the check, with the 4 players you’ve got a whopping 94% chance of at least somebody noticing – and with something harder, with a 25% chance to notice, its still at 68%.
  • Failure is usually crap. “You don’t notice anything” creates a disconnect, because by asking for the roll, the player most certainly knows there’s something to notice. D&D5e tries to solve that with Passive Perception scores, but that’s crap too – bounded accuracy means that they have a really tight range, and they concentrate the first problem – the cleric’s going to notice and tell everyone.
  • Clue restriction is rubbish. If there’s something to notice, we should want our players to notice it. When you’re negotiating with the Romulan Captain, I want my players to notice that she’s stalling for time – and even if they fail, because of the point above they know there’s something off about her.

So, how can we fix that? Here’s a few techniques.

Have Failure Consequences, or Don’t Roll

For every Perception check you call, have a clear idea of a non-restrictive consequence of failure. This is good advice for every skill check – see Alex’s blog post for more ideas – but especially important for Perception, because its failure consequences are so often not-fun. If you can’t think of a consequence for failure – don’t call for the check, and just tell them.

Have Success Benefits, or Don’t Roll

Equally, instead of just telling the players if you have a Perception check you can’t think of a cool failure condition, give them a benefit for passing instead. Maybe you accept that everyone is going to notice the bandits planning to ambush you – but if you make the check, you know which of them has decent armour under his grimy cloak, or also see the hidden archers in the trees covering the road, or you see a weak spot in the wyvern’s hide from a previous skirmish (maybe enough to make a called shot bypass some of it’s armour).

You Can’t Roll if You’re Talking/Acting

One way around the group check problem is to suggest that if you are taking action, you’re not as able to notice stuff. The players who aren’t active in the scene are the only ones that get to roll. This makes the check have closer to normal probabilities, and has the additional benefit of sharing the spotlight in a cool in-game way. Just ask any players who aren’t directly interacting with the events in play to make, as they hang back and observe.

Use it For Initiative

One of the issues with Perception checks to notice enemies trying to ambush you is that the consequences of a surprise round in most games can be enormous (notably, 13th Age avoids this, making them just inconvenient –but not entirely unbalancing). Instead, make Initiative the result of a Perception check in these circumstances. Maybe the ambushers get to roll Stealth instead, as well, for their score? There’s another blog post in my head about how initiative is also often rubbish, though, so I might come back to this.

Use it To Bank Resources

I’m running Star Trek Adventures, the 2d20 game from Modiphius at the moment, and it is (like Conan, which I posted about here) heavy on resource management. Players want to get as much Group Momentum banked early in the session, so they can spend it on extra dice for checks. The best way to get this in STA at the start of the session? Scan the planet from the ship. It’s probably low difficulty, so you can get some Momentum banked for future skill checks. In some ways, this is like designating a Success Benefit, but it fits nicely into the balance of the system. It’s accepted that there will be some easy skill checks, often for things like noticing stuff, but they have some game impact through the meta-currency of the system.

Likewise, in Fate, you can offer a Fate Point Compel to miss something – to not even make a check, and have a failure consequence ready for them. In my experience, most players will do anything for a Fate point, and it’s very likely they’ll have an Aspect you can use to get this. Other systems will have their own solutions, I’m sure.

Just Ditch It

One way to force yourself out of the habit of asking for Perception checks – just remove the skill. If it’s important enough that the players need to notice something, tell them. If it’s one of the few circumstances where failure or success can be interesting, just pick another skill relevant to the context. Ambush in the Forest? Roll Nature to notice the absence of usual sounds. Trap in an ancient tomb? Sounds like a History check, or maybe a Thieves’ Tools check to notice and disarm in one roll before it triggers.

So, a selection of ways to hack perception to make it less rubbish. Are there any more techniques that you’ve used to improve it? Any games that do it particularly well? Let me know in the comments, or get me on twitter @milnermaths.

2020: Year In Review

Okay, objectively, 2020 has been terrible, hasn’t it? Despite this, I’ve just had one of my best years in gaming – if not quite in blogging. Here are my greatest hits of 2020:

Statistics

Didn’t actually realise I’d played that much “fantasy” this year until I looked at this

At the start of the year, I started logging my games on a big Google Sheet. I’ve tried to do this in previous years, but always fallen away, but I’ve stuck to it this year and it’s been fascinating to look over and remember games that I’ve played across the year.

I’ve played a total of 161 sessions of games through the year, about 65% of them ongoing campaigns. This is a lot for me, and undoubtably was affected by lockdown giving me more time to play remotely – but it’s been great. If you haven’t tried online play yet, do it.

In terms of systems run, D&D is well in the lead with 25 sessions, mostly an ongoing Friday campaign I’ll talk more about later. The One Ring and Agon are tied in second place with 13 sessions – Agon as both a player and a GM – and similarly Blades in the Dark, 13th Age, and Shadow of the Demon Lord are tied on 11 sessions. Our Shadow campaign still has 3 more sessions left, too – but those will go into 2021’s figures – I’ve just set up the spreadsheet.

Gaming Highlights

2020 became, almost by accident, the year that I got a regular ‘home group’ – a call out on Twitter to try some One Ring became a regular group, and we’ve played all year nearly every Tuesday. One Ring led to Mutant Year Zero: Genlab Alpha, to Duty & Honour (2nd edition), Wrath & Glory, and now to Shadow of the Demon Lord.

Other groups have formed, and all of them have carried on after the original games finished – from Agon (Actual Plays available here) to Unknown Armies, from Legend of the 5 Rings to Pendragon, and from Blades in the Dark to Agon. I think once you get a good group of players, it’s well worth hanging on to them, especially when remote gaming means you can continue to meet from the comfort of your own homes.

I started a D&D campaign for mostly-newcomers to the hobby (there’s a whole host of posts about running D&D for newbs here, but this is the first time it’s been a campaign). And, they aren’t newcomers now – they’re 9th level now, and I’ve discovered that Artificer, Cleric, and Rogue is a pretty lethal combo even when you only have 3 players. I’ve been running them through the Oracle of War Eberron campaign, alternating published adventures with my own sessions (usually following up loose ends or backgrounds), levelling up every couple of sessions. It’s been a lot of fun – and I maintain that the majority of problems people have with D&D5e only appear if you let them.

Media Appearances and Other Celebrity

I’ve stretched my legs out on some other media this year. I continue to be grateful to everyone who reads, engages, and helps promote this blog (I’m extending out to cover campaign play as well from next year, as well as looking at other exciting developments) – but I’ve done a couple of podcasts with the Smart Party, and dipped my toes into appearing on streamed shows.

So thanks to JamesCORP and his channel, you can see me running 13th Age Glorantha, or playing Delta Green and HELLAS. I’m also on Youtube with the Smart Party again, running “top ten fittest game books” finalist Vaesen and then setting the world to rights about investigative games discussing the Vaesen game.

I’m keen to do more of this, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it – so let me know if you want someone to talk about one-shots, or play or run a game online.

One-Shots

With most conventions going online, I feel a bit disconnected from the one-shot calendar I’d normally be keeping. Go Play Leeds shifted online for a bit, but the balance between set-up and benefit of running monthly online meetups have put it on hiatus, and so it’s been left to online cons to give most of my one-shot games.

Highlights include an excellent game of Girl Underground run by Paul Baldowski at Revelation, a (gasps) face-to-face con in February – stunning Alice-in-Wonderland improvised gaming that Paul did brilliantly to pull out of thin air from our ideas. From the GMing side I ran a game of Punkapocalyptic last month at Furnace Online that went really well – a group of players that embraced the gonzo, brought their own ideas, and built on one anothers narrative to “play up” each other – I’ll be writing up the adventure on here.

Onwards to 2021

For next year, I’ve got a few plans bubbling away for this blog – but mainly my ambitions are around gaming. I’m looking forward to (eventually) getting back to face to face cons, and trying to keep up the online gaming schedule I’ve set for myself.

In terms of games, I’m looking forward to seeing the Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign come to an apocalyptic conclusion, and seeing what game we turn to after that. I’ve run the first session of a Star Trek Adventures campaign, with two players relatively new to TTRPGs and two more experienced players, and that is already starting to fizz.

I want to finally run some Savage Worlds this year (maybe the Pathfinder adaptation – big fan of Rise of the Runelords), and I want to get bit more handy with Modiphius’ 2d20 games – I’ve run one shots here and there, but want to see how they play in a longer form. Cortex Prime has got me wanting to run it, as has Righteous Blood Ruthless Blades – and I’ve just got hold of Eclipse Phase 2nd Edition. Eclipse Phase 1st ed was the first game I ran at a con – so in some ways it’s where this all got started – so I need to get that back to the table.

Oh, and health, and happiness, and all that. Alongside all the games!

The Campaign Game: A Shift in Prep Style – or Not?

So, with 2020 nearly over, I can see that my gaming radically changed during this year. I’ve kept a tally of my games this year, and a quick analysis shows me that only 31% of my game sessions have been one-shots – which is a huge shift for me. The majority of my gaming in 2020 has not only been online, but in multi-session “campaigns.”

And, in 2021 and beyond, I can’t see that changing. The online groups I’m in are unlikely to fade away when face-to-face gaming returns, so you can expect this blog to better reflect that – while there will still be plenty of posts on one-shots and adapting games to convention settings, there will also be content about GMing ongoing games. I’ve got some posts drafted already, and you can expect more – including some extra ways to engage with the blog.

So, thinking about campaign games (and for me that’s a game that’s 4 or more sessions, with recurring characters, the same players, and development between them) – what one-shot advice still applies to these games?

The biggest carry-over for me is session structure. I find myself still coming back to a lot of tricks that I’ve used in one-shots.

Start Big

Start with a bang each session – this could be a fight, a dramatic situation, or a revelation. Throw your players in the deep end a bit – let them know that something is happening. This is particularly important in online gaming where everyone is logging on from their own homes – you want to bring them together and get them into the game straightaway.

Example: I started session 2 of my Legend of the 5 Rings campaign with a river flooding the castle they were staying at. As servants rushed this way and that, each PC had a chance to try and help – by calming the river Kami, hefting the arms and armour out of the basement, or simply barking orders at inefficient courtiers to get on with it. Each of these was just a single skill check, and the pattern of successes and failures fed into the tone of their next mission – and it make the players immediately get ‘into character’ and think how they would respond to the flood.

End Big

Similarly, I plan for rising action leading to a big climax at the end – again, could be a fight, could be a skill challenge (see here or here for examples of how to do this). Giving the session a sense of finality helps to make it feel more like a structured series.

The final session of my L5R season – skill challenge gridiron borrowed from Unknown Armies and the friendly forces led by player recruitment and preparation.

What to do if you won’t get to the climax, or if your plot is going to take 2 or more sessions? For this, you can always end on a cliffhanger – just before they raid the orc village, or as the dragon awakes. Your big climax can fold into being the big opener of the next session, and you can kill two birds with one stone.

Example: Running the One Ring scenario Crossing of Celduin (from Tales from the Wilderland) we spent the first session discovering (through a lengthy festival-revelation) of an approaching army, travelling to the bridge they were attacking at, and preparing. The session ended with the first horns of the advancing army being sounded – as they began to see the army mass across the river.

Flexible Middle

In between these two points, you have to be a bit flexible. There’s excellent advice from Sly Flourish about thinking in terms of secrets, locations, and NPCs instead of scenes, and from The Alexandrian about node-based design. You probably want to have a mixture of (to borrow from D&D’s pillars) Exploration, Role-Play, and Combat in the scenes – for Exploration think “investigation” in a more grounded modern game. Think about how these scenes could be flexible in delivering the plot points or revelations that your game needs, and how you could expand or collapse the number of scenes if you’re running short of time.

An approach I often use is to have a sketch of what might happen completely planned – but then be prepared to go off-piste if the players choose. I’ve used a big range of ‘plot structures’ for campaign play – and find it works best if I switch between them each sessions – but my big three are the Sly Flourish method linked above, the node-based design, or the five-room dungeon. Now, the five-room dungeon is about as on-rails as it could be, so I prep like that and then hold onto it very lightly as I play – skipping rooms, make NPCs have different revelations, and so on to lead to the big finish.

PC-to-PC Interaction

One big difference in structure is that, with ongoing PCs, you want them to grow and develop as it happens. Inter-party RP and discussion is great when it happens in character naturally, but I’ll try and encourage it as much as I can in my prep – either by thinking of provocative questions to spur discussion, or linking to PC backstory.

If you’ve done a session Zero, your players have probably given you a veritable arsenal of Chekhov’s friends, enemies, and contacts – these are your stock NPCs, to be used at least as often as your own creations. In a campaign you can allow a little more time for this than in a one-shot, but be prepared to interject with a bit of plot to get things moving if needed.

Give Sessions a Name

This sounds like it won’t make a difference, but it will. Thinking in terms of session names will shift your campaign prep to make each session like an episode of a season, and make you think in terms of big-picture structure as well. While we’re on it, thinking in terms of a “season” rather than a campaign can be helpful to prep – play 4-12 sessions of one game, then set it aside, and either pass on to another GM or swap out another game. Thinking of what the structure will be in this season like it was a macro level of a session can help as well.

Example: In my L5R game above, I knew what the scope of the season would be – the samurai were summoned to a rotten province on the edge of the Shadowlands, and tasked with sorting it out. They’d discover worse and worse corruption, until they would face a terrifying opposition – which turned out (I hadn’t really planned in advance) to be an advancing shadowlands army.

So, just like a one-shot?

Well, pretty much, yes. I think all the advice about pace, prep, and flexibility is just as important for campaign play as it is for a one-shot, and well worth the investment and planning for. There are certain tweaks and approaches for using published adventures and campaigns that I’ll blog more about later (see this post for examples of doing this with one-shots), but overall my prep isn’t hugely different for campaigns than it is for one-shot games.

The Smallest Available Group: 1-on-1 one-shot gaming

I blogged about online gaming here, and I’ve certainly had a lot of that going on this year, but I’ve also run and played some 1-on-1 games; one GM, one player. With social restrictions likely to continue well into 2021, it’s never been a better time to embrace the smallest possible gaming group.

This makes quite a big difference to the gaming experience – it’s a different way to play than a more tradition gaming group, with it’s own advantages and foibles. I’m going to talk about the three systems I’ve used for it this year, and the pros and cons of each, as well as some general thoughts/advice about how I think it works best.

Gumshoe One-2-One

Pelgrane Press currently have two published games for 1-on-1 play – Cthulhu Confidential, a spin off of Trail of Cthulhu where a solo investigator encounters Lovecraftian horrors, and Nights Black Agents: Solo Ops, where an amnesiac vampire conspiracy survivor (or another PC – you can generate your own) uncovers a conspiracy of bloodsucking undead. It has a simple, small dice pool-ish system for resolving conflict and each conflict is a different table of results, potentially making writing your own mysteries time-consuming – but that probably isn’t a concern, and they have quite a bit of stuff out for it anyway.

I’ve run Cthulhu Confidential, guiding hard-boiled P.I. Dex Raymond through a mystery, and played NBA: Solo Ops, where my vampire escapee just about managed to survive and get the hell out of Budapest.

Pros: As with every Gumshoe game, this is amazingly good for investigative / clue-based games. Other styles of play work less well – although NBA:SO is good for pulse-pounding action, and my game of it was definitely intense and threatening. There’s a level of genuine peril in the system – you can’t die or go insane during the game, but you might at the end if you still have injuries or madnesses hanging over you, and the card-based consequences work really well.

Cons: It is prep-heavy, even if you use their pre-written mysteries. They are heavily scaffolded to make it easy to run, but reading then and keeping the stuff in my head was tricky, and playing online you’ll want the cards as handouts which will take some setup.

Ironsworn

Ironsworn is a PBTA-adjacent game of grimdark fantasy, and has a really good system for tracking quests and objectives – you Swear an Iron Vow when you get a quest, and then can attempt to resolve it when you’ve made some progress along its track. This track-based resolution works for every task in the game, and it’s a really clever system where the basics are simple, but your traits (available as cards) give you neat edges and advantages.

It’s full of oracle tables and random generators (it’s designed to also be playable solo, as well as with a group) and so it suits a more improvisational style of play. When I ran it, I had a loose idea of some raiders based in an ancient shipwreck, and the tables were enough to flesh that out with the usual PBTA player-input into conflicts. It has a supplement, Delve, that applies the same principles to location-based adventuring (fill the Delve’s track and try to resolve it) – I haven’t used this, but it looks excellent.

Pros: The setup and setting is explained well and quite intuitive if you follow the steps involved – the shared world-building really builds a unique dark fantasy setting. The system shines out as a genuinely original way of resolving stuff, and I’m planning on giving it a proper run-out as a group game soon.

Cons: The improv-heavy nature, while making setup easy, does sometimes feel like another thing to think about. I’m generally more comfortable with a ready-baked adventure for 1-on-1 play, despite being a bit more loosey-goosey in one-shots generally, so be aware you’ll have to think on your feet a bit and lean on the oracles.

D&D5e

Wait, what? Well, I discovered some excellent stuff from Sly Flourish, so I’ve run a couple of sessions of D&D 1-on-1. The post above has the guidance I used in it, but basically we played with a group of 2 PCs, one played by the GM during roleplaying scenes, but controlled by the player in combat or dice-based challenges. Fights take a bit of balancing, and I think being a few levels above what an adventure recommends and eyeballing using the rules in Xanathar’s Guide for CR helped to make the combats a sufficient challenge.

There’s loads of published stuff, obviously, for this, and it being a familiar system makes it feel easier than it is – despite D&D being quite crunchy compared to the previous posts. I’m guessing this system would work well for any ‘trad’ game – and the 2-PC 1-player thing seemed to be both manageable for the player and made it more fun for me as GM.

Pros: Loads of stuff available, easy to get into the swing of things because we all know what D&D is. D&D tropes feel familiar (to me at least) so this was the least stressful system to run.

Cons: There might be published stuff, but you do need to check the combat encounters and try to rebalance them, and maybe make some judgements on the fly. I found genuine peril a bit hard to get in these game – that’s D&D5e for you I guess – which may be more of an issue for you and your player.

General Tips

There are many other ways to run 1-on-1 games, and as I’ve said the D&D method above will work for any ‘trad’ system, but there are a few general tips that I’ve found useful:

  • Shorter sessions, or regular breaks, work best. 1-on-1 play is intense, and you won’t have time to catch you breath (as a player) in a regular game. Things move fast, so you might be able to get a 1H1S in, or at least have a pause each hour to check in and rest a little
  • Embrace side chatter. As above, with only two of you, the normal table chatter will be absent, so you can be a bit more relaxed about off-topic conversation and sidetracked roleplaying. This goes with the previous point, that you need some low intensity bits, and so be prepared to roleplay some shopkeepers or bystanders even if they aren’t plot-relevant
  • Consider published adventures. Normally I’m an advocate of either baking your own, or heavily adapting published material, but in 1-on-1 play it’s one less thing to worry about. Long campaigns can be tricky, but there’s so much stuff out there, you can do yourself a favour and pick something up and enjoy the ride as GM yourself.
  • Think about theatre of the mind. Again, with two of you have time to explore descriptions and share the action in your imagination – you’ll have less need of a combat map, too, with fewer PCs and fewer opponents. This can add to the immersion and intensity well.

So, I hope you get chance to try some 1-on-1 gaming over the holidays. There are plenty of other systems that support this explicitly, so please link them in the comments if they work well – along with what’s good (or bad) about them.

Cake Mix, Not Actual Cakes – Running Pre-Written Adventures

I’m currently running (and playing) far more campaign games than one-shots (perhaps that’s why posting here has slowed down a little). In many of the games I’m running, I’m using pre-published adventures, and I’ve done this for one-shots as well.

While it’s easy to think that this will make things easier, in practice I end up doing a similar amount of prep. Using a pre-written adventure gives you an easy lead-in or hook, and can showcases some good ideas (I ran a one-shot of Village of Homlett for 13th Age a few years ago, and it allowed me to show a ‘classic’ adventure in a new light). But often the structure of pre-published modules needs some work to make it one-shot ready. Below is some advice about adapting published materials for a one-shot.

Read the Thing

You need to not only read it, but read it closely enough to get the overall structure of the thing. I take the odd note as I read, and try to sketch out a likely structure of play, breaking it into scenes. Weirdly, this is much harder to do in a location/dungeon-based game, but I try to get an idea of the order things will be encountered in based on the map.

I’ll usually do a quick sketch of what the structure could look like – at this stage I’m probably already cutting out unnecessary scenes – so I’ve got some idea how it’ll play. In particular, I need to have the start of the session really clear in my mind; I’ll usually write notes down to where I talk about rules or safety tools, even planning out the pre-game conversations.

Start Big

In a one-shot (and in any game session, in my opinion) you need to start with an exciting, action-filled scene. If your adventure doesn’t have one, you’ll need to add one. It could be that you add an extra scene in at the start, but given you’ll probably be trying to cut things out, you could always just start the action later than the adventure assumes. I’ve said before that the door to the dungeon is the earliest your one-shot should start, and don’t be afraid to go further than that, for example…

You’ve broken into the crypt beneath the church, and bypassed the traps – fighting some giant rats along the way – that kept out the previous tomb raiders. As you click the pressure points into place, you see the dust swirl out of a much more ancient, much more deadly, crypt – serried ranks of hanging corpses line the sides of a corridor covered with ancient runes, and as the dust moves you see them begin to reach towards you, as the runes begin to shift and swirl before your eyes!

Cut What You Can – Add If You Must

In general, unless your adventure was written as a one-shot (and even if it was, depending on the time you have and your taste in pacing), you’ll have to cut out some of it. Using the example above, it’s perfectly fine to montage through some dungeoneering, and I don’t think a one-shot ever benefits from finding empty rooms – so cut them out ruthlessly.

Prep Notes - including a hastily-scribbled ship name I'd forgotten to prep!
Prep Notes Example

Start by thinking about what the key encounters you would have to have for it to still make sense as a story, and think about whether you need to add anything to that. The things to add could be:

  • existing threads of plot or scenes that back-up what you are running
  • additional encounters that aren’t in the adventure you’re prepping but help to bring it all together
  • scenes or encounters that help with versimilitude, to give some sense of place beyond the one-shot

I have a few ready-reckoners in my head for what makes a good one-shot – between 1 and 3 interesting NPCs (who could be allies or enemies), 2 or 3 challenging fights or similar action scenes, a maximum of 1 puzzle or moral quandary. Often it’s the NPCs that need to be added – alongside some less interesting NPCs being cut. In the past I’ve added sympathetic goblins to dungeons, or trapped tomb robbers, that the PCs could aid or hinder (and vice versa) – it gives you some chance for a bit of roleplaying amidst the one-shot pace.

Pace is Everything, Therefore Structure is Everything

The most important skill in delivery of a one-shot is consistent control of pace – when it’s high action, the pace should be fast and breezy, but with quieter moments so the players (and you) can catch breath. Running a published adventure can make this more of a challenge, as it’s not obvious (because you haven’t written it yourself) what you can cut or change without affecting the overall plot.

I’d recommend a quick scene/structure map of the one-shot as a really essential pre exercise, and something to have to hand as you run the one-shot. This structure will give you an idea of what I mean – note that often the middle scenes can take place in any order, but usually I have a good idea of the finale, and I always know how it’s going to start. Often if I’m running from a published adventure I don’t need very much detail within the scene (unless I’ve changed it) but how they fit together is key to keep the action moving.

What are your favourite published one-shots? Any that you can recommend, or that make running a one-shot easier? As always, comment below or get me on twitter @milnermaths.

Interfering Factions – A Technique to Improve Your One-Shot

Often, the plot of a one-shot is simple. Go into the forest and confront the bandits. Clear the demons out of the old temple. Find and destroy the Imperial signal base. As I’ve frequently written on here, a good rule of thumb for a one-shot is to start with a simple, straightforward plot and then twist it. Interfering Factions is one such twist that adds player agency, roleplaying opportunity, and time flexibility to your one-shot; in this sense, it will almost certainly improve it.

How do you do it?

Take your simple one-shot and add another faction. This faction’s motives need not be complex, but they do need to be orthogonal to both the players and the antagonists. You need to imagine a way in which they serve as allies, and a way in which they could serve as enemies – and let them move between these extremes.

It’s usually a good idea to drop hints as to their existence at the outset, or at least make their appearance be easily predictable, so they make sense in the one-shot; you can easily present them as a possible antagonist or friend, but be careful to not commit too hard to either,

Why does this help? Well, it gives the players genuine choice as to how they approach them – they are potential allies, if they can be persuaded or bribed, but they could also interfere. They give a stakes-attached scene which isn’t necessarily a fight (at least at first).

They also, crucially, help with timing if you are running a game at an organised convention or similar. Their introduction and interaction can be flexible – they can appear at a key point to rescue or help the PCs, or betray them at the end – they give flexibility to the GM as well as the players.

Examples

In my 13th Age Glorantha adventure The Beard of Lhankor Mhy, the PCs encounter a lost, injured squad of the hated Lunars as they near the big bad – can they put differences aside to rescue their friends? In the adventure as written, the Lunars have a good reason to want an alliance, but I have sometimes seen the PCs and them turn on one another after the main plot is concluded.

Or, to take one of the most obvious fantasy ur-plots,

Goblins are raiding the caravans on the forest road!

The basic adventure is to track them to their cave lair and defeat them via dungeon crawl. But add in a interfering faction – here are a few ideas

  • A rival goblin clan who the goblin chief betrayed to set out on his own
  • The feckless human guard who insist on solving the problem themselves
  • An arrogant noble merchant prince who seeks to monopolize safety along the road

Or, for a science fiction example,

Someone on Planet X has developed a bioweapon!

The basic adventure is that you find who has the one sample by skulduggery and intrigue, then raid them at their suspiciously-combat-prepared lab. But add in

  • Angry eco-terrorists who want the bioweapon for their own ends
  • A rival company who seek to destroy the weapon so their own can gain the patent
  • A disgruntled scientist (in an armored exoskeleton) who seeks to release it in the lab for revenge

You can, of course, add more than one interfering faction, and even build an entire one-shot out of three or more rival factions (for a great example of this communicated with Robin Laws’ customary ease-of-play, see The Strangling Sea for 13th Age). Have you used interfering factions in play? Be sure to comment and let me know.

Review: Mythic Odysseys of Theros

So, continuing on from reviews of Ravnica and Eberron, here’s D&D’s latest setting sourcebook. Theros, apparently, is a setting from Magic: The Gathering that’s a Mythic Greece style fantasy. I’ve written here before about how good this setting is for fantasy (see my review of Agon here), so it’s interesting to see how Wizards have transplanted this to D&D.

The Fluff

Theros map

Map of Theros from the MTG wiki

First up, I must admit I’m a fan of these Magic setting books. They carry their content in a much more manageable way – there aren’t bags and bags of setting history to digest, and the areas covered are more modest. For campaigns as well as one-shots, I like the focus that provides.

The key conceit of Theros is that the Gods take a great personal interest in the heroes and villains of the Mortal Realm – and indeed, travel beyond the Mortal Realm is relatively easy.

The Gods correspond to the Greek pantheon, although everything has been slightly changed – I’m not sure if I’d rather have the original group, although they’ve added some twists to make each one have potential as a patron and an antagonist and give them some flavorful hooks and details. Like Ravnica’s guilds, each God gets a section looking at potential adventures involving them, with a linked map of their temple that could be an encounter location. This is an excellent presentation decision – show don’t tell your setting to GMs! As I’ve said before, I’m also all in favor of D&D moving towards random tables for everything – it’s a neat presentation choice, even if you pick from them.

There’s a discussion of Omens as well, and some other similar background touches in the setting. Particularly interesting are the Returned, the dead who’ve escaped the Underworld, left with few memories of their previous lives, and no faces – they wear ornate golden masks to deal with mortals. It’s refreshing to find a new take on the undead, and – given their memories also haunt the world as Eidolons – a great opportunity for plot.

The Returned feature in the sample adventure, too – which is, I have to say, an absolute corker. A action-packed start, a range of encounters that could be solved by combat or roleplay in different interesting ways, and a hook for the next stage. A little tweaking would make it an excellent one-shot.

The Crunch

Mythic Odysseys of Theros coverFirst up, the new rules stuff – well, apart from humans you have centaurs, satyrs, tritons, minotaurs, and leonine (cat-people, like Tabaxi but significantly less annoying) – each gets the full treatment and goes a long way towards making Theros feel different, even though I’m pretty sure they could have snuck some dwarves in. There’s an extra Bard College (Eloquence), a Paladin Oath (Glory), and an additional Backgroun (Athlete) as well.

Each PC also has a Supernatural Gift, in addition to their Background, which shows how the god have touched them. These are great, and at 1st level give a significant boost to make players more heroic – they include the Anvilwrought – you were crafted in Purphoros’ (Hephaestus) Forge, so appear as a metallic creature, or the Unscarred – like Haktos (Achilles) you’re resistant to physical damage.

It’s assumed that heroes will follow one of the Gods, and there’s a system for them advancing in powers as they gain Piety – a measure which increases and decreases as they follow their God’s whims. I’m not quite as keen on this – it strays close to “good roleplaying” doggy biscuits, and leans a bit on DM judgement, and to not encourage difficult player behavior – this feels a bit looser than I’m used to from D&D.

The One-Shot

I think this is an excellent setting for a one-shot, and the heavy focus on heroes as devotees of the Gods provides keen hooks to motivate them. The Greek focus provides a good bank of tropes players can lean into, and the Gods’ attentions can lead them into all sorts of trouble, from a simple “slay the hydra” plot to more political machinations in the polis presented.

Crucially for D&D settings, it’s sufficiently distinct from Greyhawk / Forgotten Realms/ etc. to feel like a change of scenery. This would be an excellent setting for a break from your regular game or to offer at a game day (virtual or real) where there will be a lot of D&D-focused players there. As I mentioned before, the starter adventure provides an excellent structure for a one-shot, too, with multiple resolution methods for each encounter. If nothing else, I’ll be stealing the encounter with Broken King Antigonos – no spoilers, but he might be my favourite NPC in a published 1st level adventure.

So, I’d heartily recommend Theros, for high fantasy Greek-inspired derring-do. And while honestly I’d be happy with Dark Sun getting the 5e treatment, I’m really enjoying the MTG settings that are being put out by Wizards. Grognards need to stop bitching about Dragonlance and Birthright and embrace the new D&D settings coming out – they bring something genuinely different to the game.

Call of Cthulhu One-Shots

Call of Cthulhu coverAs befits a game with such a strong following, there’s no shortage of game advice for Call of Cthulhu. There’s a wealth of stuff in the Keeper’s Guide, and there’s some excellent advice in The Haunter of the Dark, a story-to-adventure how-to from Paul Baldowski for his own Cthulhu Hack system. Vaesen also has some excellent plot structure tips in its GM advice.

All of these are relevant to the plethora of Call of Cthulhu-style games (Cthulhu Hack, Trail of Cthulhu, Cthulhu Dark, Delta Green, etc, etc), and more generally supernatural horror investigation games (Vaesen, Fear Itself, etc, etc). As always these may not be to your taste – let’s have some agreeable banter in the comments if that’s the case.

Use Safety Tools

As a minimum, stick an X card in it. Explain what it is, and what it does, and be prepared to act on it. More nuanced (and more complex) tools are available – use those if you’d rather. You have no idea what the triggers are for your players, especially at a convention, and even if you think you do, having one in place will reassure you and your players that you take their concerns seriously.

If you’ve tried it and not used it, that’s great – having it there means you have some confidence that your players were comfortable in the game. If you don’t care for comfort, and your plan is to shock your players for real, to get a reaction – well then you shouldn’t be running games at all, and certainly not at a convention. Get a grip.

Signpost Clues. Un-Signpost Un-Clues

Haunter in the DarkIf the NPC they meet in the coffee shop is important, make her sound and look important; give her quirks and mannerisms, and have her drop clues pointing to sources of information. Offer skill checks and even more clear signs: she nervously grasps her handbag, glancing down to the corner of a book kept within. Justin Alexander explains it better than me when he talks about the Three Clue Rule – have multiple ways to move the investigation forward, and be prepared to have some of them come to the players as well if they don’t get them. Keep the pace.

As important as this, if an aspect of the scene isn’t important, don’t describe in it exacting detail so that the players think it is. Don’t plan any red herrings. The players will come up with these anyway – let them theorize, and gently head them off and back to the core. If they ignore the NPC above and begin looking into the rare coffee beans they serve, just circle them back round to the plot as soon as you can. Having antagonists that are active can help with this – if an investigation is stymied, have the clues come to them – maybe carried by men with guns.

Start with an Actual Scene

By an “actual scene,” I mean an in-game event with an element of risk and/or choice. Not a mission briefing, not a mysterious party invite, not waking up in the morning. Start at the party, at the scene of the crime, at the location of the Shoggoth attack, looking at the smear of blood that was once the victim.

Trail of CthulhuThere are variations, of course – in Delta Green, you’re likely to want a mission briefing at the start – but try starting with their first encounter of the mission and covering the briefing in flashback – it’s not as if they have an option to take it or not (especially in a one-shot). In Vaesen, often you’ll begin with a letter inviting you to investigate – but you get to pick your Advantages for that adventure – start in the carriage or on the train to the site of the investigation, and do this in flashback.

In any case you want your first scene to telegraph the PCs in the direction of your plot, making it impossible to ignore – and hopefully give them enough to do that they don’t start too much theorizing until they’ve found out more.

Make Investigation Scenes Worthwhile

Delta GreenInvestigation scenes should do one or two things – they should advance the plot, bringing the PCs closer to their ultimate adversary, or they should grant some advantage in that confrontation. “Advantage” is relative, of course – in Purist Cthulhu it might just be a good escape route.

By making investigation scenes reveal a weakness of the antagonist, a way in or out, or a key part of their backstory, you make these scenes valuable and keep the plot ticking along at pace. Scenes that look like investigation scenes, but reveal nothing and don’t move the plot forward, are just wasting everyone’s time. Flavour and atmosphere can be delivered during a useful scene, rather than being the focus of an entire scene.

Don’t Explain it Afterwards

Or rather, put it in the actual game. “What you didn’t find out was that…” is rubbish. Throw that information in, and resist the urge to gloat if the players haven’t solved your problems. Any reveal should take place in-game; not after it as a sort of “if you’d done better this would have happened.” Clever plots, NPCs and monsters are only clever if the players meet them.

So there you are – I’m indeed no expert on investigative or horror gaming, although I do know a thing or two about one-shots. You can also hear me and the Smart Party picking apart investigative games (specifically, the Vaesen introductory scenario) on their Youtube channel. What are your top tips for investigative gaming? Put them in the comments – or on twitter – and I’ll agree and/or argue with you about them!