Review: Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica (D&D5)

Let me begin with a disclaimer. I do not play, follow, or even really understand Magic: The Gathering. I understand that Ravnica is a setting in Magic, where some of their cards are set (?),  and that Wizards of the Coast own both properties, so it makes logical sense to bring a D&D supplement covering it as a game world. I had written this off as a game supplement I did not have to get into – that it would be much more useful to players in the intersect of the Venn diagram of RPG/Card gamers. And I’m not a massive fan of high-magic kitchen-sink setttings, so Ravnica probably wasn’t for me. (M:TG has got to be high-magic, yeah? It’s in the name).

GGRThen I browsed the book, and saw it had steampunk mad scientist goblins and anthro elephant men and centaurs and mushroom druids, and shrugged my shoulders and bought it. I’m glad I did. It’s a funky and original setting that shakes up some D&D expectations, and it’s also ideal for one-shot play.

The Fluff

Ravnica is a world-sized city; an entirely urban game world. What areas of ‘wilderness’ there are are rubble pits, ruined parts of the city, or ancient catacombs. It’s steampunky; there’s underground trains, bio-engineered human hybrids, and a scientific approach to magic from many of the guilds that bicker and fuel much of the conflict in the setting. There are ten guilds, each ostensibly running a part of the city’s functions, but also at each other’s throats. A tenuous Guildpact keeps them from open warfare, but it is currently manifested as an actual person, who keeps wandering off onto other plains, so it’s policed unreliably.

The guilds themselves are at the centre of play in Ravnica, and they range from the fairly vanilla (the Azorius Senate are the city watch, the Boros Legion are the army/mercenaries) to the interesting (the Cult of Radkos, led by an actual demon, provide performance and entertainment like bloodthirsty court jesters), to the brilliantly gonzo (the Simic Combine use bioengineering to augment evolution, the Orzhov Syndicate are a combination church/bank/thieves-guild led by a cabal of ghosts).

There’s a chapter covering in just the right amount of detail (for me at least) the Tenth District of the city, with lots of stuff for players to do and trouble for them to get into, and each guild gets a set of random mission tables, an iconic location mapped out, and a bunch of monsters and NPCs. The NPCs are great – the Izzet League, mad scientists and experimenters, have several NPCs who are basically flamethrower-wielding guards. D&D5 could use more NPC stat blocks, and this chapter is full of interesting ones, and they are easily adaptable to other settings.

The Crunch

You get six new races – Centaurs, Goblins, Loxodon (elephant-men), Minotaurs, Simic Hybrids (bioengineered humanoids), and Vedalkin (blue-skinned semi-aquatic humans). There’s an extra Cleric Domain (“Order,” yawn) and the Circle of Spores for druids, as well as detailed guidance for which classes and races would fit for each guild. Each guild also comes with a default Background option that links the PC into the Guild they serve.

There’s lots and lots of random tables. D&D5 has really embraced these and I think it’s a good thing. Where previous D&D settings sometimes left me feeling stifled at the weight of background needed to navigate it consistently (Forgotten Realms in particular), distilling implied setting into random tables is a much clearer way to set your imagination running. If you’re not convinced, you can listen the The Smart Party here use the DMG to create a random adventure, and see what I mean.

The One Shot

While there’s some discussion of how PCs from different guilds could work together, I can see lots of great one-shot play emerging with the PCs working for just one guild. The structure of the guild interactions, and the resources provided for each of them, mean it’s easy to think up some exciting scenarios – pick a Guild for the PCs, pick the Guild they are up against and a villain’s nefarious plan, and then throw in another Guild with perpendicular interests to get in the way and complicate matters.

There’s enough variety within each guild to make a sufficiently distinct group of PCs, and the mission-based structure works really well for a tight opening to your one-shot and an obvious climax. Conversely, the urban environment and the option to move around the city quickly make it easy to have multiple resolution options in the middle of your one-shot (the swell, which I talk about here). It even comes with a sample adventure, which is good (but not Great – I’d have preferred a more exciting enemy than a Goblin gang-lord, and you could fairly easily set most of the adventure in Waterdeep or Sharn), but it gives a good framework as an introduction to the setting. Of course, it’s written more as an intro to the setting than a one-shot, and so provides leads at the end for the PCs to follow up, but having an adventure as a matter of course in a setting book is a good thing generally.

In general, I’m really pleased with Ravnica as an addition to the D&D stable, and I think it’ll make for some excellent one-shot play. Now, how’s about Spelljammer and Dark Sun?

Breadcrumbing: Part 3 – After Action Report

In Part 1, I described an investigative adventure for Urban Jungle (UJ), an anthro noir game by Sanguine. In Part 2, I dug into why I’d planned it how I did. This is the final installment – for now – of my series of posts on running investigative games.

I got to run the game a couple of weeks ago at Go Play Leeds, the monthly one-shot meetup I run in Leeds, Yorkshire. Pleasingly I managed to get signups even with the slightly niche pitch (“It’s 1930s New Orleans gangsters… you’ll be investigating an underworld murder. Oh, and you’re all anthropomorphic animals.”) I had 5 players who threw themselves into the game. It all raced along at pace, and I got positive feedback at the end of it as well.

running urban jungleWhat Seemed to Work

The RDJ Sherlock Holmes method of clue discovery worked well – each scene and it’s main discovery had some action or roleplaying attached to it; along with the unfolding breadcrumbs the PCs also explored the city and came up with some good in-party japes. We managed a brawl, a car chase, and a couple of inventive uses of skills along the way to the big shootout at the end.

Getting player investment in character by asking them who they trust the most and least in the group worked as well as it has for the last few games, and is now going to be added (along with the introductory montage) firmly to my one-shot utility belt. Asking the players to define their link to the nightclub also helped, as they fleshed out their starting situation, and the nightclub, with every answer they gave.

The general structure seemed to work well, too, with a bang of an inciting incident and then a few options that all led (with clue-heavy links) to the finale in the hotel. I used my usual finale structure of “any reasonable plan works, but not as you expect it,” and they came up with an elaborate distraction by befriending the crocodile gang to deal with some of the guards, just leaving the villain and his henchmen to defeat.

The system! I was really impressed with UJ, especially how it handles non-combat characters. By making them hard to hit but giving them options to use social skills in combat (which, crucially, are balanced against regular combat), it really captured the feeling of a noir game where guns are a last resort. I’m stoked to try out Ironclaw and even their bonkers-looking anime sci-fi, Myriad Song, now.

What I Had to Tweak

A gap in my planning (obviously, the players are going to ask about the police, even if they don’t go to them) and I had to improvise a coyote policeman being paid off by their nightclub – he gave them 24 hours to fix the case themselves before he’d have to pass it up to the station. This was so obvious an omission that I just made him up, but I will add him to the adventure now. I can’t even remember what I called him – but he definitely needs to be rolled into the prep now.

One other thing that was certain was everything was very broad brush strokes – I think that some more definition in my descriptions (senses, feelings, weather) would have helped. These things are hard for me to improvise, despite always thinking I can do it on the fly. One of my descriptions might have showed my influence a bit strongly (the nightclub, with a private room viewing the dancefloor, prompted one player to say “I’m picturing Harlem’s Paradise in Luke Cage;” I had to admit that was what I was picturing in describing it.) But maybe that’s not a bad thing.

“Would Run Again”

So as one of my 2019 plans, I’m trying to repeat-run games I’ve prepped rather than run them once and consign them to history. This will definitely get a run-out again – it’s definitely a reserve game for Seven Hills, and I’ll look for opportunities to test my anthro noir pitch in future too. Maybe even online, if I get any interest – seen as that’s something I’m trying to do more of as well.

I’m also going to be developing some more investigative games, and I’ll share them in an occasional ongoing Breadcrumbing series, so watch this space.

Breadcrumbing: Part 2 – Design Principles

In Part 1, I introduced my plans to run more investigative games, and shared my notes for an Urban Jungle (UJ) adventure, Round About Midnight (RAM). In this part I’ll discuss the principles that informed that prep, and what I’m hoping to achieve with them.

magnifying glassIn general, I want all the usual stuff from good one-shot play to be present in an investigative scenario. I want pace, in-fiction investment from the players, and a tight start that force the players into action. In all of the disappointing investigative games of my past, these are what have been missing. I also want to avoid any clueless wandering. This isn’t restricted to investigative games, but it is a common trap to fall into in games like Call of Cthulhu – where a lack of obvious leads (or ones that the PCs have noticed) can leave the PCs aimlessly waiting for another NPC to die and hopefully supply them with clues. Here are the principles I’m applying to my investigative prep.

Clues are Obvious

In order to facilitate this, I want clues to be obvious and clear when the PCs find them. If they go to a location, they might find a challenge (either a social challenge, a puzzle, or a fight) but after that, I want the relevant information to appear to them clearly. Red herrings should be obvious too -and obviously false leads. In play, there will be plenty of time for the players to come up with their own theories without me needing to plan and encourage this.

In RAM, there are three obvious leads after the starting incident, I’ve tried to make it easy to deduce that the set up (that either the nightclub owner’s brother or his lover shot him) just doesn’t add up – the attack on the nightclub is an obvious distraction tactic, and there must be more behind that coincidence.

Player Character Investment

One thing I’m doing in all my games is building in some bonds-style world-building into the pregens. All the players need to have a link to the starting situation and each other, and it’s much more interesting to let them come up with those links themselves. In my adventure, I’ve put trigger questions (described in this post) onto the pregen sheets, but I’ll also be asking them to give three details about the nightclub and its patrons, and hoping that those patrons can reappear later in the adventure.

(As an aside, if you want to see examples of this light-touch player-led worldbuilding in play, the new Campaign podcast uses this in almost every episode – it’s also a great example of how a fairly trad game can be ‘indied up’ by giving players additional agency and responsibility for the plot.)

Action! Pace! Men with guns!

I think the main inspiration for my investigation games is the RDJ Sherlock Holmes movies. In these, for every clue discovered, there’s challenge – a chase, a tense negotiation, a fight – to be won. I’ve tried to mirror this approach in a few games – and a range of approaches is usually a good way to run it. There’s nothing to stop the PCs hitting the internet or the library to find out more about what’s going on, but I don’t consider that an actual scene in the adventure – that’s just an advantage gained for the following scene, or a final confirmation of the crime or perpetrator. Nothing gets solved without pounding the streets – or the faces of some thugs.

In UJ, this is fairly easy to enforce – it’s a lawless 1920s noir setting where the police are unlikely to help you if you have any ties to the underworld without favours and negotiation (and it’s during prohibition, so you could do without investigation from the police around a nightclub). I think I still need to develop what the police do / don’t do in RAM, but they are clearly set up as not being the main allies in the game, and searching the city archives is an unlikely course of action to take when there are clear suspects and leads to follow up in the city.

Everything Else Applies

Like any one-shots, I think the usual points about structure – a tight open, a loose middle and a tight finale usually suit this sort of game really well. I’m a big fan of “The Swell” as a one-shot structure, and I follow it for most of my one-shots with traditional prep structures.

In the next instalment I’ll talk about good examples of investigative one-shots I’ve seen and how they manage to structure play effectively. Anything to add? Comment below.

Breadcrumbing: Part I – Round About Midnight, an Adventure for Urban Jungle

New year, new GM, they say. One thing I’ve never really embraced is running investigative games; all that breadcrumb-laying, clue-ordering, never really floated my boat. I’ve also played in games in my past where these were a massive disappointment; PCs flailing around desperately to get to some sort of conclusion, to be informed gleefully by the GM of all the clues we’d missed, often due to something as straightforward as a failed skill roll or not being in the right place at the right time. Call of Cthulhu, I’m looking at you.

But I’ve played in some decent investigative games at conventions recently, so I’m going to give it a go. I’ve even drafted an investigative scenario into an almost-baked form (that is, it’s enough notes for me to run it, although your mileage may of course vary).

Urban Jungle gameAnd because I want to make things difficult for myself, I’m using a system I haven’t used before as well – Urban Jungle, which is a game of anthropomorphic noir from Sanguine Games. Anthro noir isn’t a genre I’m particularly keen on, but I’ve always thought Gangbusters needed something a bit more to it – magic, the occult, everyone being animals – and the system is neat and crunchy and has some interesting mechanics about avoiding combat or surrendering. For example, there’s a Gift, Coward, which many characters start with which gives a massive bonus to Dodge and to escape combat – as long as your character is Panicked, which means you’ve taken some damage and are unable to attack – you can also choose to become Panicked to get this bonus to Dodge – making Non-Combat characters significantly hardier in combat at the cost of not being able to directly attack enemies. I’ll give it a full review when I’ve seen it in play.

In this first instalment, I present to you the adventure itself – along with the attached beer mat synopsis of its structure. In my next post, as well as providing a .pdf version of this, I’ll try to dissect how I’ve tried to balance investigation with action. The setting, on the off chance you’re not familiar with UJ’s three city settings, is Bellegard, a pseudo-New Orleans, in 1930. The basic structure of these notes, as you’d expect, is like I mentioned here.

Round About Midnight

Introduction

As midnight falls across Bellegarde, creatures of the night make their move. An unprovoked attack on the Savanna Room nightclub ends with Vince Renoit, noted entrepreneur and the most successful rum-runner in the city, dead. Who could have done it? His jealous fiance Lorna Devin, jilted and neglected by the lion of Bellegard? Tubs L’Phant, jazz performer in too deep? His scheming brother Pierre? All the while the Bellegard Crime Syndicate waits to make their move, and up-and-coming rat Dollar Bill Mizzoni looks to light the powder keg beneath Bellegard.

In order to take Renoit out, Dollar Bill has paid the Swamp Gators Gang to hold up the Savanna Room. In the ensuing chaos, Vince has been shot – with clues left pointing to a few different suspects. As allies and associates of Renoit, the PCs must find the murderer before the city’s nightlife descends into all-out war.

Cast

Vince Renoit is a lion entrepreneur. He’s gregarious and friendly, and has built his speakeasy up from being honourable and keeping a clean reputation with everyone he deals with. If you’re using your own PCs or Pregens, each of them should have something to link them to Vince – and make it in their interests to bring his murderers to justice.

Dollar Bill Mizzoni is a mouse mobster. In a few years he’ll run half the city – unless the PCs take him out now. He’s quiet, thoughtful, and incredibly cruel – he’ll try to avoid even speaking directly to the PCs, and plays a role in the background of this adventure for the most part.

Lorna Devin is a cat femme fatale. She’s betrothed to Vince but with him being so occupied with the nightclub recently has taken to stepping out with Dollar Bill. She can’t deny that it’d be easier for her if one of her paramours was to be out of the picture, but she didn’t shoot Vince.

Tubs L’Phant is the hot draw in the Savanna Room, an elephant trumpet player. He’s deep into a spiralling booze and gambling addiction, and when Dollar Bill offered him big bucks to get a way into the Savanna Room, he couldn’t help but sell out his boss.

Pierre Renoit is a shifty lion accountant, and Vince’s brother. He manages the business side of the nightclub and suspects it could be an inside job – he’s thought about pulling one himself enough times. It’s possible that Pierre is a pregen – in which case his innocence is definite – but he should have close links to the PCs. He’s been rather obviously set up for the murder, and so the players should be discouraged from assuming his guilt.

Dime Store Danny is a mouse hit man and, along with Nickel Nitkowski, a shrew mobster, Dollar Bill’s right hand man. He shot Vince in the back room while the Savanna Room was being attacked.

Clay Cotton is a crocodile thug and leader of the Swamp Gators. Mizzoni paid him to attack the Savanna Room to create a distraction for Dime Store Danny to shoot Vince.

Plot

UJ adventure plot structureTo summarise – Dollar Bill is behind it all. He got a pass into the back room of the Savanna Rooms from Tubs L’Phant, offering to pay his gambling debt off for him. He gave the pass to Dime Store, then got the Crocodile Rocks to hold up the nightclub so that Dime Store could sneak into the back room and shoot Vince with Lorna Devin’s pistol, then plant the pistol in Pierre’s desk. He’s hoping that this will cause the whole Renoit crime empire to collapse, and he can move in on their turf. Unfortunately for him, he’s picked a night when the PCs are in the nightclub.

Scene One – The Savanna Rooms

It is nearing midnight at the turn of a sweltering Bellegard evening. The jazz is hot and the whisky sodas are ice cold as the Savanna Room parties on and on. The PCs will be various locations around the nightclub, drinking or fraternising. They should be in the main part of the nightclub – if one of them starts in the back rooms, as soon as the commotion starts Vince will insist they go and investigate.

The music shudders to a halt as a group of crocodiles come in –

“Nobody tries anything stupid, nobody has to get hurt. Jewelry, watches, cash, all in the holdalls, nice and easy…”

The speaker is an immense crocodile, and his gang circle the room clearing out cash from partygoers. Remind the players that they are in a speakeasy that’s technically illegal – it’s not exactly realistic to call for the cops. The crocodiles that circulate are thugs, but they aren’t covering the room very well – and apart from the leader don’t appear to be armed.

Assuming the PCs intervene, run a round or two of combat before they hear a shot fired from the back room followed by a scream. Anyone who moves to investigate immediately manages to see a shadowy figure running away. At the shot, there is one more round of combat before either the cops arrive, or the crocodiles flee.

Scene Two – The Back Room

Vince Renoit, the nightclub owner, lies in a pool of blood slumped against his leather sofa. He’s been shot through the head from somebody shooting from a lower vantage point to him – there doesn’t seem to be sounds of a struggle. Lorna is nowhere to be seen – she had a feeling this might be Dollar Bill and is worried she’ll be implicated. Pierre arrives straightaway, flustered and with a cut on his lip. Obviously if Pierre is a PC, he’ll arrive on the scene with the other PCs – he will notice that his desk has been disturbed.

A search of the crime scene reveals an engraved compact pistol that has been hastily stuffed in Pierre’s desk. The handle has been wiped down but the barrel is still warm. They have their murder weapon. Pierre or anyone associated with the club will reveal that the back room doors are usually kept locked, with only a few regulars having access to the keys – Pierre, Lorna, Tubs L’Phant (as a regular in the club he often takes drinks with Vince in the back room, although they had recently fallen out), and if appropriate one or two of the PCs.

Scene Three – The Streets of Bellegard

If they chase, or track, the fleeing figure, they can corner Dime Store Danny. He says he went to hide in the back room and found the door unlocked, but disturbed Lorna and Pierre having an argument, and when Vince intervened, he saw Lorna shoot Vince. He tells them that he knows Lorna used to hang around with the Swamp Gators Gang – maybe she set it up? – and will tell the PCs of their base in the Undercity. He’ll say anything and implicate anyone to avoid being captured – up to and above calling the cops and getting them to take him in (Dollar Bill can easily bail him out with his connections on the force) – and will also try to work out what the PCs already know.

Pacing the next three scenes

There are three scenes that will provide various clues to the murderer next, and you should aim to provide a range of play experiences in each one – broadly speaking it works for one to be a roleplaying challenge, one a fight, and one a chase – and you can select which one is most appropriate for each based on both the fiction and the level of energy at the table.

There are three clues for them to discover in these scenes – the default is that they find Dollar Bill’s involvement in each, and also rule out the Swamp Gators, Lorna Devin and Tubs L’Phant as actual murderers. It’s possible that they decide to go straight to Dollar Bill after finding out of his involvement – in order to do this they’ll need to learn that he’s based at the Phillips and get access to him – for which any one of the other scenes can get them – either Cotton, Tubs, or Lorna, can get them access to the suite by arranging to meet with Mizzoni.

Scene Four – The Undercity

The PCs find the headquarters of the Swamp Gators Gang in a partially-flooded warehouse in the Undercity. Clay Cotton, leader of the gang, sits in a beach chair sipping pina coladas surrounded by his lackeys.

The default is that this is a roleplaying scene – Cotton has little to gain by denying the source of his work, and either he or his lackeys can be easily persuaded to reveal that the raid was financed by Dollar Bill. He was paid a substantial sum to raid until the gunshot, and then get out of there – and given the password for the door as well (High Water Rising), which meant they could get in armed. A couple of days ago, Dollar Bill also got them to deliver a package to Tubs L’Phant, the jazz trumpeter regular at the club, which he thought was unusual – he doesn’t work for Dollar Bill.

If questioned about Lorna, he admits that he doted on her “half a lifetime ago,” but says that she’s moved up in the world now – and wouldn’t be seen dead with a two-bit thug like him. He can give them her address, a flat overlooking Spanish Park in an exclusive area of the nicest part of the city.

If they need a fight, have Cotton’s thugs be more belligerent and make them beat it out of them. Cotton will just watch, amused, before revealing the details. For a chase, have one of the crocs slip away obviously to tell Dollar Bill – he can reveal everything once caught.

Scene Five – Lorna Devin’s apartment

Lorna is terrified and has already called Dollar Bill, who has sent round Nickel and his mobsters to guard her. The default is that the PCs have to fight them to get to Lorna, who then reveals that she has been seeing Dollar Bill, and he knows about her gun, but that she lost it a couple of nights ago and hasn’t seen it since. She didn’t shoot Vince, but has grown apart from him and is also terrified of Dollar Bill – especially his two lackeys, Nickel and Dime. She tells them that the only other person that had access to the back room key was Tubs L’Phant – he’s a regular drinker with Vince and her, and the jazz-man hadn’t been the most reliable lately. Him and Vince had an argument after Vince implied that his performances had deteriorated, and challenged him about arriving to his spot late and drunk.

If they need a chase, have Lorna flee in her automobile (or on foot through a crowded department store if the PCs do not have a jalopy). For a roleplaying scene, have them stumble into Lorna outside her apartment – and have them both avoid the minders.

Scene Six – Tubs L’Phant

The PCs can find Tubs in the Greasy Parrot, a dive bar in the Finny Gramoo, drowning his sorrows. The default is that this is a chase scene – as the PCs approach, they see him ruefully looking at an envelope of money – before some of Dollar Bill’s thugs grab it off him and make off into the night. The washed up elephant can only scream “My money! Somebody help me! And hope the PCs give chase (on foot, or by car if they have a car).”

When questioned, he reveals he gave a copy of the keys to Dollar Bill – he was told they were going  to rob the register, not kill the owner. He is deeply in debt from gambling and just needed the money – he regrets what he has done. He shows them their (handwritten) agreement and is prepared to testify.

Scene Seven – Confrontation

Once the players have found out about this, they have enough evidence to confront Dollar Bill. He rents a suite at the Phillips Hotel. Either Tubs, Cotton, or Lorna can get them access to him. He’s sat in a plush leather chair, and tells them that a change is coming to this city, and that they have no chance but to follow him – he offers reasonable terms to them, and is prepared to forgive them for any of his minions they have knocked out of the picture. This is likely to be a fight, and Dime Store and Nickel are both there to back him up, along a group of other Normal NPCs to make up the numbers to one more than the number of PCs. At the first sign of trouble, Dollar Bill flees out to the back room and tries to get away and call the cops. If he does this, they arrive to see him flee the city, paying out of the Phillips, his designs on the Renoit family for the moment frustrated.

NPC Statistics

Swamp Gators Gang Members – normal crocodiles

All Common Traits d6, Swimming, Fighting d6
Punch 2d6 Dmg +1 / Baseball Bat 3d6 Dmg +2
Counter w/Baseball Bat 3d6 @ Close / Dodge d6 / Soak d6
Initiative d6, Panic Save -2

Clay Cotton – elite crocodile gangster

All Common Traits d8, Brawling, Danger Sense, Swimming, Endurance d8, Fighting d8
Pummel 3d8 Dmg +2
Dodge d8 / Soak 2d8
Initiative d8 d12, Panic Save -2, Injured Save -4

Lorna Devin – normal lion femme fatale

All Common Traits d6, Noncombatant, Stealth, Observation d6, Presence d6, Transport d6
Punch d6 Dmg +1
Dodge d6 (+d12 if nonviolent)/ Soak d6
Initiative 2d6, Panic Save -2

Tubs L’Phant – normal elephant jazzman

All Common Traits d6, Noncombatant, Singing (with trumpet), Academics d6, Evasion d6, Negotiation d6, Presence d6
Punch d6 Dmg +1
Dodge d6 (+d12 if nonviolent)/ Soak d6
Initiative d6, Panic Save -2

Mizzoni’s Minders – normal rodents

All Common Traits d6, Brawling, Evasion d6
Pummel 2d6 Dmg +2 / Pocket Knife 2d6 Dmg +1 Blade / Service Pistol d6 Ammo d4 Dmg +2
Dodge 2d6 / Soak d6
Initiative d6, Panic Save -2

Dime Store Danny – elite mouse hoodlum

All Common Traits d8, Endurance d8, Evasion d8, Fighting d8, Shooting d8, Coward, Veteran
Punch 2d8 Dmg +1 / Service Pistol 2d8 Ammo d4 Dmg +2
Dodge 2d8 (+ d12 when Panicked) / Soak 2d8
Initiative 2d8, Panic Save -2, Injury Save -4

Nickel Nitkowski – elite shrew hoodlum

All Common Traits d8, Veteran, Evasion d8, Fighting d8, Shooting d8,
Punch 2d8 Dmg +1 / Tommy Gun 3d8 Ammo d6 Dmg +2, Sweep (if you hit, attack another different target as well)
Dodge 2d8 / Soak 2d8
Initiative 2d8, Panic Save -2, Injury Save -4

Dollar Bill Mizzoni – superior mouse mobster

All Common Traits d10, Coward, Contortionist, Evasion d10, Shooting d10, Tactics d10
Magnum Pistol 2d10 Ammo d4 Dmg +3
Dodge 2d10 (+d12 if Panicked)/ Soak d10
Initiative d10 , Panic Save -2, Injury Save -4

2018: The Year in Review

I’d like to spend some time talking about my gaming year in review. It’s been great, and I’ve managed to not just get lots of gaming in, but also expand what I’ve done – try some new stuff, if you like. Big thanks to everyone I’ve gamed with, who’s run games for me, or with whom I’ve set the industry right with – never have I felt more part of a UK RPG community than this year.

Conventions – Running Games

Not counting Go Play Leeds, the monthly gaming meet-up I run locally, I think I’ve made it to seven conventions this year. Most of them have been documented through the year – although there were two conventions, Dragonmeet and UK Games Expo, that I didn’t run or play anything at.

At Revelation I ran a Dungeon World adaptation of Forest of Doom, and 24 Hour Party People, an Urban Shadows game set in Britpop Manchester. North Star’s first incarnation saw me finally run Tenra Bansho Zero, a white whale of gaming put to bed (for now – although I’m tempted to get it out again sometime this year). At Seven Hills I ran 7th Sea (which now, makes me realise how much I liked it – must get it out again in 2019) and 13th Age in Glorantha (13G). At Continuum I went with 13G again and Blades in the Dark, and at Furnace I ran three different games of 13G. At Grogmeet, I ran Twilight 2000, a fun game despite a very dated system. I had a lot of fun trying to make it more enjoyable for my own style of GMing – although it’s not a system I think I’ll be returning to any time in the future.

One thing I did at Furnace I’m going to do more of – to make sure when I’m running multiple games at a con (I usually do) they are the same system, even if not the same scenario. Carrying around just one set of rules in my head made the weekend much less stressful than even if I’d run two games with different systems. I’ve also taken Simon Burley‘s advice and re-run some con scenarios; I think Beard of Lhankhor Mhy has seen three outings at least, and I’ve just finished running Night of Blood for WFRP4e for the second time. Simon is dead right about the benefits of this in terms of producing quality game time and being much more relaxing for the GM, and I wish I’d listened to him sooner.

Conventions – Games Played

I’ll start this off by saying that there are very few bad convention games, that even if it’s a game that I haven’t enjoyed I’ve always found it useful, and I haven’t had any real stinkers this year. I try to play as much as I run at cons and I think I’ve achieved that.

That said, the mark of a great game played for me is often that I go off and want to run it myself, and I’ve had memorable games of Blades in the Dark (from Pete Atkinson) and Warhammer 4th Edition (from Evilgaz) that have made me do just that.

I’ve also managed to get some ongoing play this year, in the form of a game of D&D5e playing through Waterdeep Dragon Heist. Scheduling has become tricky for this game – my job means committing to a weekly evening difficult – but it’s been great to see our PCs develop, and remember the fondness you develop for characters that emerge with a history and backstory – a great group of players and a great DM help with this too.

Plans for 2019

Looking forwards to 2019, I feel like I’ve got a few things already in mind to achieve in the coming year. Continuing with this blog, which has settled down into a mixture of game commentary and actual game material; I started this thinking I’d never look at hits, but you can’t help but do it and it’s pleasing that the number of people reading my words has increased to a level where this feels worthwhile! As always, feel free to suggest topics or games to look at either here or on other internet ventures (I’m @milnermaths on twitter).

I’ve got some writing and editing to do early in the year, with the Liminal RPG being released early in the year – I’ve got some case files, some locations, and a book on vampires to get down. There’s also a little project for the Cthulhu Hack, some stuff for 13G with D101 Games, and I plan on getting more one-shots up on here for people to play with for other systems. One of these is appearing in Role-Play Relief, a charity project from Simon Burley and others.

In terms of gaming, I plan to get some more online games under my belt, both one-shots and short 3-session minicampaigns. Go Play Leeds continues to grow, and it’s now got to the point where I no longer worry about having enough players, but having enough GMs to accommodate them, and I’ve taken up the reins with helping to organise the 7 Hills convention in Sheffield. I play to go to Airecon and Expo properly this year, and actually run some games. Go Play Leeds has also spawned a sister event, Go Play Manchester, which launches in January – which I aim to get to when I can. I seem to have a pretty full schedule already.

So, more games, more writing, and more stuff in the new year. People used to talk about the decline of the hobby, but it’s surely in another golden age now, yeah? Hope everyone has a great new year, and any gaming-related (or other) resolutions are easy to stick to!

Review: Warhammer Fantasy Role Play (4e)

WarhammerFor a certain demographic of gamer, Warhammer Fantasy Role Play (WFRP) will always have a special place in their heart. The first edition was the very first RPG I owned, probably bought with some Christmas money, and first read sat on a crowded diesel train back from Leeds, rat-catchers, road wardens, and stevedores pressed up to my eager eyes.

If you’re not familiar with the hold WFRP has over gamers, you could do well to listen to the Grognard Files episodes about it. It’s history is storied; it was a lumpy, workable but odd (although it felt fine at the time) 1st Edition, and a tidied-up and well-supported (which also took some magic out of it) 2nd edition, before Fantasy Flight debuted the funky-dice shenanigans they would later scale down for Star Wars with a massive boxed set of 3rd edition. The system was completely different (although recognisable now with FFG Star Wars being a stripped-down variant) and the idea of £70 for a base game was sniffed at by many in the hobby. Oh, those innocent years, before slipcases and Invisible Sun and kickstarter add-ons (and postage) made such a price seem mainstream.

But, anyway, the 4th edition is out, from Cubicle 7, and it stays closer to the original system while tidying it up and making it work. A few key design tweaks make it a much better game, in my opinion, and it’s crawling with C7’s usual high presentation standards. But is it one-shot suitable? Let’s see…

The Fluff

This is proper grimdark fantasy. Late medieval pseudo-europe is great for a one-shot, and all the Germanic names give plenty opportunity for accents at the table (always a winner form me). Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, and an assortment of colourful Careers make characters easy to inhabit for players, and the setting is realistically grimy while still leaving plenty to do for erstwhile protagonists. The 1st edition supplements are now available in .pdf, which detail locations full of plot hooks, and there are rumours that the classic Enemy Within campaign is to be updated for 4th edition.

It’s a great example of system wedded to setting; it’s clear when you look at a WFRP pregen what kind of world they’ll be adventuring in. The Reikland (the default setting) is beset on all sides by skaven, orcs and goblins, and the insidious taint of chaos in the form of beastmen and chaos cultists, so there’s lots of obvious opportunities for adventure and low-down heroics. And, as you’d expect from C7, the book is a thing of beauty – the art is lovely and harks back to the old 1st edition illustrations.

The Crunch

WFRP has always been a percentile system; where it differs from other D100 games is that you roll against characteristics, with bonuses for skills, rather than skills themselves. Historically combat in particular could be a drag; when you’ve both got a 30% chance to hit and a 30% chance to parry it can take a while for somebody to score a blow. A small tweak has solved all of that and made combat much more exciting – it is now opposed rolls, so you only have to score a better success (or a less-worse miss) than your opponent to make contact. Degrees of success determine damage, so no extra dice roll, and damage takes from Wounds until those are used up and a set of amusingly lethal critical hit tables are rolled on.

Combat is lethal, and rightly so, but it plays out as giving plenty of options in the game. PCs have a Career rather than a Class, and these ground them very much in medieval society rather than setting them up for orcslaying (excepting the Slayer, of course). In contrast to previous editions, each Career is given 4 levels of expertise, so your Townsman can progress from a lowly Clerk to a powerful Burgomeister. Each level unlocks new Talents and Skills, and manages to capture a level of progression while still remaining very much low fantasy.

The One-Shot

There’s a few reasons why you might think is a long-form game rather than a one-shot; the richness of career progression, the wealth of lore about the world, and the prospect of the legendary Enemy Within campaign being some of them. But I’d urge you to try it as a one-shot too. I played it at Grogmeet run by Evilgaz of the Smart Party and it was an excellent game.

Firstly, the setting is so familiar and cosy to so many gamers it really does feel like slipping on a comfortable pair of slippers to adventure in the Old World. Having so much of the setting baked into the characters makes it easy for players to inhabit the setting, and the streamlined combat system of opposed rolls makes combat fun and fast. And never mind Enemy Within, C7 have released Night of Blood, a classic one-shot from the days of old White Dwarf, as a free download, with more to come.

So I’d heartily recommend a doom-laden adventure with WHFRP. It’s definitely something I’ll be bringing to the table soon at Go Play Leeds, and you should too.

One-Shot Prep: Structuring My Notes

I’ve spent quite a bit of time oscillating between different ways of presenting my prep for one-shots. Particularly at conventions, I like to have all my information to hand in an at-a-glance format, and so it helps to have a consistent structure – but it’s only in the last couple of months that I’ve settled on one. You can see this format in Gringle’s Pawn Shop, my 13G adventure, and I’ve used it for all of my recent ‘trad’ one-shot games. Here’s what it looks like

Introduction

Wizardstowera3 JOHNNY GREY

Wizards Tower by Johnny Gray

This starts with the ‘pitch,’ which is sometimes the game description that I sent off to the con / printed out on a sign-up sheet to advertise the game. I always begin my prep by pasting this across – sometimes I’ve written this text several months earlier and need to be reminded of what I said – it’s a useful creative constraint!

Then there’s overview of the background of the adventure in one paragraph maximum. I grew up on Dungeon Magazine adventures where you’d get a whole page of background explaining why the goblins settled in this particular tomb, what happened to the dwarf king who used to be buried here, but I don’t need – or care – about all that guff. Brevity is a strength, and by writing this first it helps to structure the game in my mind.

Cast

This section is a recent addition to my prep, and I’ve been surprised by how useful it is to have all my NPCs in one place. On one level, it’s useful to check there are a reasonable number of them – I think that 3-5 NPCs for a one-shot is about the sweet spot for the players to remember and interact with them all – and it’s very easy to prep a one-shot with more, or fewer, than these. Generally, fewer than 3 and the players don’t get enough chance to roleplay outside their own party, and more than 5 are too many for the players to remember and interact with meaningfully.

They get a really brief description of anything distinctive about them, and any roleplaying notes if I’m going to be doing a silly voice for them. It helps with all of these to have really simple physical notes on them – a blue dress, an eyepatch, a gravelly voice – just one thing that the players might remember about them.

Scenes

Then I list each scene out – each gets a description of what happens at the start, and any game stats / information needed. These aren’t always linear – as I’ve posted before, I like to have a set middle and end and be a bit more loosey-goosey in the middle (the ‘swell’ is described here), so often these scenes can proceed in any order. I like to get game stats here as well so it’s all in one place, which I usually snip from .pdfs – including any game mechanics that are likely to get used. Obviously the games shared on here won’t have the snipped game statistics, but it’s worked much better for me to have each scene with everything on it, so there is only one document that I need to flip at the table.

A tip that I picked up from the Smart Party is to add descriptors to any group of similar monsters – especially as I always run combat as ‘theatre of the mind’ without minis, it’s useful to be able to refer to ‘fat goblin’ and ‘eye patch goblin’ during the game.

Except for short scenes, these are often printed out one to a page, and then the whole document is stapled (and printed out single-sided – flipping sides of paper can be fiddly at the table in the heat of battle). Any information or clues that can be found in scenes is put in bullet points so it stands out from the rest of the information.

So that’s my current format for one-shot prep. Later this week I’ll post a fuller example – of a one-shot I’m prepping for Starfinder where you have to liberate android gladiators from the slave pits – but for now, what format do you use when prepping one-shots?