Race to Glory! – Review: Agon (2nd Edition)

Agon, from John Harper and Sean Nittner, has recently been delivered in its second edition from a successful Kickstarter. Its first edition was an excellent blend of storygaming sensibilities and hard-core gamism – it was explicitly competitive, and when I ran it at cons it was deliberately about who could amass the most Glory by the end of the session.

Agon headerThe second edition is a sleek, slimmed down version that is razor-focused on its setting and protagonists – pulling 1st ed. down, it’s surprised me how crunchy it was, with some aspects of the game – a skill list of a whole 16 skills – that I probably didn’t sniff at in 2006, but feels a huge number now! Second edition trims this – and everything – down, making a fantastic game for short- to medium-length campaigns that will also sing out in one-shots.

If you want to hear the game in action, there’s a series of Actual Plays here in which me and my fellow players tackle a series of its islands, ably provided with Strife by Gaz from The Smart Party.

The Fluff

You’re bronze-chested, thick-hewed Greek heroes and heroines on your way back from the wars. Along the way, you and your crew encounter various islands, and each one has some form of strife you must attempt to resolve – earning the favour and displeasure of various Greek gods along the way. The game comes with a total of 12 islands, as well as guidance for designing your own.

In terms of play, each island is a session, and there is a structured sequence of reflecting on the previous island, building bonds with fellow heroes, and sacrificing to the gods to earn their favour between islands. This tight episodic structure works is great in longer play, and makes the game well-suited for one-shots. It’s an easy setup in a mythic/historical setting that feels familiar and has baked-in an expectation of action from its protagonists.

The Crunch

Agon IconAgon has a unified system for conflict resolution – each challenge features on of your hero’s four domains (Arts & Oration, Blood & Valour, Craft & Reason, or Resolve & Spirit) and you then build a dice pool that will always include a die for your name, and might include other dice depending on whether they apply or whether you spend resources to narrate them in. You total the highest two dice, add any bonuses from Divine Favour (a limited resource you can choose to spend), and compare to the Strife Player (GM)’s total. Usually a few players will all roll against one target number (quite often, the whole party) and the resolution is about not just beating the GM’s roll, but getting the highest total – and thus the most glory.

By having everyone roll and compete, you introduce an interesting spotlight-sharing technique – it’s not just about how well you do, but whom is most impressive. It’s a technique I’d like to try in other games (see my post on Skill Challenges for examples of others) – the competitive roll where you don’t just want to succeed, but also be the best.

The One-Shot

Agon makes for a very satisfying one-shot. PCs are simple enough that character generation could be done at the table (you could even offer it as an option for some players, or allow some to generate them and some to pick from pregens) and they are distinct enough that they can feel very different in play without too many differences in dice.

In terms of structure, each island normally begins with a contest for Leader, who gets to choose the party’s approach at each stage of the island – for a one-shot, I’d keep the contest in as a sort of ‘training challenge,’ and keep the Leader role loose – the game is simple enough to support the party splitting and taking two different approaches, and the islands provided all lead inexorably to a final confrontation everyone can be a part of.

In a one-shot, I might make it more of an explicit glory race, too – maybe displaying current glory for each player – and perhaps offering a prize for the most glorious hero at the end – it pushes players to greater, more heroic deeds along the way. In one-shot play you shave off some of the subtleties of campaign play, but that’s a concession we make with one-shots all the time.

The Islands

The design of the islands in Agon is brilliant – and instructional in that it contains a structure that is applicable to other games. Each island begins with omens – the signs of the gods, symbolic indicators that give clues as to what is within, and then begins – usually as the crew make landfall on the beach – with two or more options to pursue. PCs  are free to follow their own third route, but two clear routes are offered into an antagonistic sandbox that get them embroiled in the plot immediately.

Sometimes, this is as simple as there being two conflicting factions on the island facing a common threat, and two NPCs representing them on either end of the beach – it sounds cliched, but in play it offers a chance to dive straight in to an interlocked situation. Often when presented with a sandbox puzzle, players will skirt around and only gingerly poke at the plot so as to avoid putting their eggs in one basket to start – with this approach they are pulled in onto one side – at least temporarily – and get to see the problem from one point of view immediately.

To summarize, Agon is a brilliant game, and offers excellent one-shot potential. If the setting doesn’t interest you, then first of all you’re mad – it’s mythic Greeks – and secondly the presentation and structure of the islands and the competitive challenges offer interesting models that can be ported into other games. I know what I want to do for D&D one-shots when Mythic Odysseys of Theros comes out.

Tower of the Stirge – a 1st level D&D One-Shot Adventure

Continuing a series which began with The Goblins and The Pie Shop, and continued with Rats of Rothsea (with a short interlude adapting Dyson Logos’ Goblin Gully), here’s another 1st level one-shot for D&D5e. This one is a bit grimmer and darker than the others, as befits the subject matter, and isn’t recommended for younger players like the previous two. There’s zombies, blood-sucking, and egg-laying flying beasts with proboscis in this one. Oh, and the plural of stirge is “stirge,” I’ve just decided. Apologies to any adventurers who assume this means the tower only contains one of the beasties.

In terms of structure, this was heavily modelled on Johnn Four’s 5 Room Dungeon model, which is a really good way to structure linear encounters for play (there’s probably a follow-up post on that. If you want a map for the tower, Dyson Logos’ Ashryn Spire is ideal.

Tower of the Stirge

Introduction

The tower at Halk Head used to be a mage’s tower – but for many years it lay dormant after a band of brave adventurers defeated and looted the wizard. Until, a few months ago, the hermit Gorthrix came to the village. Seeking a place to rest, he moved in and begun to explore the ruined tower. Noises and rumour brought children and explorers from the village, so to deter them Gorthrix attracted a nest of stirge and reactivated the wizard’s earth elemental bodyguard.

He meant the stirge to just deter visitors, but he find the beasts have now overtaken the entire top floor of the tower; although they don’t attack him, there’s was little he could do when they ambushed and killed a pair of children who came exploring, dragging the blood-drained bodies back to their nest. Panicking, he sent the elemental out to destroy the cliffside path to the tower, and now sits tight, hoping that the villagers will avoid the ruined tower as a place of ill omen. He hasn’t counted on the recklessness of adventurers.

Characters

Gorthrix is a mean-spirited, loner of a dwarf who wants nothing more than to be left alone, and is prepared to kill to ensure that happens. Finding the tower was the first step in him finding some space for himself, and he’s not going to let an accident with his new pets stop him.

Gorthrix has a tame baboon who helps him. He has named him Gorthrox, and Gorthrox is just as brutal and angry as the stirge.

Cliff is a bound earth elemental who used to serve the old wizard hundreds of years ago. When the adventurers came, he was locked in the tower basement, so he just slept. Now, he’s slow and confused, but Gorthrix doesn’t ask too much of him and he quite enjoys the company. What he really wants to do is properly rebuild the tower, but Gorthrix won’t led him near the bird-things on the roof.

The Stirge are horrible, bloodsucking flying rats with long proboscis that drip with blood. After a feed they are bloated and clumsy flyers, but when hungry they are fast and vicious. Gothrix feeds them treats, so they like him, but he’s still just walking food to them.

The Village

The village of Clifftop sits at the top of 80 feet of steep cliffs. At their foot is a small beach, with a pier and a few fishing boats, and a treacherous path carved into the rock. A small, rickety path leads out to the Tower – in the other direction, a more sturdy path offers a shortcut to the larger town of Endholme.

The PCs will be summonsed by the Village Elders and told the story – two local boys, Edric and Embry, were wandering out near the tower last week and now appear to have disappeared. The village sheriff, Robel, went out looking and found nothing, but the elders are sure that it’s something in the tower – strange lights have been seen in recent days coming from it – it is surely a place of ill omen. Robel assumes that the boys have just run away to the tower and are hoping to attract the attention of the villagers – but he will grudgingly point the adventurers in the direction of the tower.

The villagers beg the PCs to explore the tower – if nothing else, to see if they can bring the boys’ bodies back. They offer 20gp each for their troubles. Robel is keen to stay in the village to make sure no more trouble comes to the farmers’ herds, but he can point them towards the cliff-top path to the tower.

If they ask around, a successful DC 15 skill check gets them a true-ish rumour, a failed one gets them an almost-certainly-false one. If they fail the check, the character has a fair idea that the information they have is false.

True-ish Rumours (d6)

1 – The tower was built by an old sorcerer – they say that remnants of his magic can still be found there

2 – Huge crows have been seen circling the tower – this is surely an ill omen?

3 – Farmer Copley, whose clifftop farm isn’t far from the tower, has had several sheep disappear recently – without any of the usual marks of wolf attacks

4 – A few months ago a stinking dwarf clad in rags came to the town and asked lots of questions about the tower. He stole a loaf of bread, so Robel ran him out of town.

5 – The cliffside path has withstood storms and terrible weather for years – it can’t have just collapsed on its own

6 – Last month, a body was found by the cliffside path, drained entirely of blood. The villagers who found it went to get Robel, but by the time they returned, it was gone.

Almost Certainly False Rumours (d6)

1 – The sorcerer who used to rule the tower has returned, and he has taken the boys as sacrifices

2 – All who enter the tower are compelled to stay there by dark magic

3 – The two boys were always up to no good – I expect they’ve just run away to get shot of Robel spoiling their fun

4 – Two more children went missing a few weeks ago, that the PCs haven’t been told about (they did, but Robel brought them back and returned them – they had just got stranded on the beach)

5 – The strange birds that can be seen circling the tower can only be hurt by silvered or magical weapons

6 – The tower doesn’t even exist – it’s an illusion that lures explorers to the cliffs, where they fall and are eaten by the kraken. The kraken? Nobody’s told you about the kraken?

Scene One – Approach to the Tower

The path to the tower has been damaged and pulled apart by Cliff, but he didn’t do a very good job, because he much prefers building things to pulling them apart. A few of the ropes are still there where the path has crumbled, and where boulders cover the path, they can be -carefully- clambered over.

To get to the tower, each PC must make an Athletics check with DC10. On a failure, they stumble and slide down from the path – they take 1d6 damage, with a Dexterity save for half. If half or more of the PCs (round up) fail their skill checks, the stirges are alerted by the noise and ambush them while they are on the path – the path is difficult terrain, and anyone without a secure footing will fight with disadvantage.

Stirge by Jacob E Blackmon

Stirge by Jacob E. Blackmon

Stirge Attack!

Either as they approach the tower, or half way along the treacherous cliff path, a group of stirges will attack them. Seeing the PCs approaching, their Queen has sent them out to hunt.

There is one stirge for each PC, and they attempt to attack one each as well. They aren’t used to fighting creatures that fight back much, so they don’t gang up on opponents unless an obvious opportunity presents itself.

As the stirge wobble towards them, clever players might have their characters take cover, particularly if they heard the rumour in the village about them. Their passive Perception is only 9, and a successful Stealth check will let them hide behind a useful rock. If the whole party manage to hide from the Stirges, they fly around looking for them for a while, before flying off to feast on a nearby sheep.

Scene Two – The Tower

The Ground Floor and Basement

The ground floor is were the wizard used to welcome visitors. It’s now crumbled and full of rubble; the staircase up to the next level is crumbled and treacherous.

Cliff rests in the Ground Floor – he is an earth elemental, so will be a possible insurmountable challenge for the PCs to fight, but he’s very amenable to talking. As they enter, he steps away from the section of wall he was resting against and tries to whisper to them that they should go away, or the New Master will kill them. “He never wants visitors, not living ones anyway – you should go!”

Cliff just wants to be left alone to rebuild the tower – he’s not too bright, and pretty content with his lot. He’ll tell them about the New Master and about how he wants to help them, but the New Master would be mad at him if he did – and he doesn’t want to be shouted at. He doesn’t know much about the ‘funny birds’ at the top of the tower, and he certainly doesn’t know what happened to the kids who came to explore.

If the PCs talk to Cliff, allow them to make appropriate skill checks – once they have 3 successes – most likely Persuasion or Deception, although Intimidation is possible – the only wizard Cliff has seen for many years was a mighty sorcerer, so a flashy display of magic might trick him. If they fail 3 times in total, he loses his patience with them, and starts banging and shouting, alerting Gorthrix and his baboon from upstairs.

If they try to fight him, luckily for them Cliff is very reluctant to hurt anyone. He’ll try and Grapple the biggest looking opponent and then put them in some inaccessible part of the cliff below. Only if really enraged will he attack with his Slam. If he defeats the whole party, he carries them back and leaves them at the edge of the village – feeling terribly guilty that he might have hurt them.

The First Floor

The first floor contains the remnants of the wizard’s magical traps and tricks – and is probably the most deadly of the rooms – it’s also where Gorthrix will make his stand.

As they enter, a magic mouth trap challenges them to speak their name, and then casts a slow spell at them (save DC 13). Assuming some of the PCs are affected, Gorthrix then leaps out and attacks them – his stats are the same as a spy, and he begins the fight with his pet Gorthrox, a baboon, alongside him.

If they defeat him (and Gorthrix will surrender if the fight turns against him) – he warns them of what is on the roof. The boys are there, he says, but not like they were – he begs for forgiveness – he wanted to be left alone, but those beasts were just too much for him to handle – he never meant for them to kill the boys, or – what they have become.

Gorthrix’s room is here, and it has some of his treasure – although most of the shiny trinkets have been taken by the stirges. He carries 20gp on his person in a leather purse, and two potions of healing. He will offer the money as a bribe for them to spare them – but tries to keep the potions to recover his and Gorthrox’s wounds.

The Second Floor

Has a crumbling, uneven floor – as the PCs walk across it, they can hear it creaking and moaning. Each PC has to make a Stealth or Acrobatics check, DC 10, to cross without alerting the stirge nested above. Halflings and gnomes not wearing heavy armour can make this check with advantage. If half or more of the PCs fail the check, a creaking floorboard snaps, and the ceiling above collapses as the stirge fall about onto them.

Cautious testing, looking for footprints and dust, and a DC 15 Investigation roll can show where there has been movement and where there hasn’t on the floor, also granting advantage on the above roll.

If they spared Gorthrix, when he sees the PCs in combat with the stirge and zombies he will try and seize the opportunity to get his revenge on them by assisting the monsters in this fight.

The Third Floor

This is where the stirge nest, and a horrible sight it is. In the centre of the room lie the bloated bodies of the two boys killed exploring. The stirge around seem to be feeding them their own blood, and the boys have changed into something undead and horrific. As they move to attack, a fat, blood-drenched stirge with a bulbous belly sits on the ground – the Stirge Queen, who is laying her eggs in the boys. Beyond this scene, a nest full of shiny things beckons – see Rewards below.

The two boys have statistics as zombies, and move immediately to attack backed by two stirge. As the combat continues, another two stirge join the following round, and another two the round after – defending their nest, they fight alongside one another and attempt to attack the tastiest-looking (or fattest) adventurers – they are particularly fond of halfling and gnome.

If both of the boys are killed, the remaining stirge panic, as their eggs spill out from the bodies and they flee from the tower. At this point, the stirge queen (as a normal stirge but 10 hp from her fat, egg-filled belly) fights as the rest of them attempt to flee.

Rewards

In the stirge nest, the accumulated shiny things they have collected can be found. They one malachite gem per PC (each worth 10gp), plus a single bigger bloodstone gem (worth 50gp) mixed in a pile with 100 sp and 30 cp. The cp have been polished to a shine by stirge proboscises, and will need a good wash before any merchant will accept them.

D&D One-Shots Done Right – Review: Uncaged, volume 1

If there’s one thing that is like looking for a needle in a haystack, it’s decent one-shots for D&D 5th edition. There are hundreds of them out there on DMs Guild, but picking through them to find those with good quality and the style of play that I like is a challenge. After I spent last summer running D&D one-shots, I’ve kept D&D as a regular source of one-shot fun, particularly for newcomers to the hobby (read the posts linked above for my reasoning why I think D&D is right for this).

Uncaged CoverSo, there’s Uncaged (this review is of Volume 1 – there are now three more volumes). From it’s own product description, it’s a set of folklore-themed adventures that “subvert tropes around female mythological creatures.” If that sounds a bit complex, in layman’s terms each adventure is focused around a female creature of myth, and does interesting stuff with them.

So there’s a hag adventure, a lamia adventure, a banshee adventure, and so forth. RPGs have had, and continue to have, some issues with representation, so this is a great concept for a product – a book around female monsters produced by a team of female writers and artists.

In volume 1 there are a total of 26 adventures – 14 Tier 1, 7 Tier 2, 4 Tier 3 and a single Tier 1. I’m not surprised that there are more for lower tiers, and that suits me to be fair.

The Fluff

First out, these are proper one-shots. They’re each 2-4 hours of play, and contain just enough setting to make sense. The advantage of this is that they can be slotted in anywhere – I’d put some of these in to Ravnica or Eberron without any trouble at all – which makes them useful as drop-in adventures. In some cases, the setting is pretty integral to the adventure, so this makes them harder to drop into an ongoing campaign, but it’s great if you’re looking for one-shots.

Because of this, though, it helps when you run it to try and embed the PCs into the adventure and setting a bit deeper – I’ve used Backstory cards when I’ve run them to make sure the PCs feel like they have a shared past. It’s also a good opportunity to share out some of the fleshing out of the stuff that isn’t always in the adventures – in case they encounter some town guards, the PC who used to be in them can describe how the guards work in this city.

Each adventure comes with a featured piece of art, and the book is nicely laid out without being too fussy – there’s also a printer friendly version of each adventure you can print out individually to have at the table, and separate files for player maps. There’s a hardcopy POD option from Drivethru, but I haven’t explored that yet – I just downloaded the .pdf. Also worth noting that any content warnings are up front at the start of each adventure, again really useful if you’re running one-shots for people you don’t know.

The Crunch

First up, although the adventures are all by different authors, and there’s a refreshing diversity in their plot structure, they are generally excellent. None of these are dungeon-crawling adventures, and all involve investigation and roleplaying, presented in an easy-to-use way with skill DCs up-front and clear. The adventures aren’t long, either – and they have had a solid edit to take out any unnecessary waffle.

There is combat in them (this is D&D after all), but the conclusion of an adventure is as likely to be a negotiation or compromise, or discovering a secret, as a pitched battle. The combat encounters, in the ones that I’ve run (all Tier 1), have been balanced and fair for D&D5e – which is to say, I’d recommend running the CR numbers through the D&D system and beefing them up a bit. In most of the adventures there are, at most, 2-3 combat encounters, so you might want to make key battles more challenging. Likewise, some of the adventures have adjustments for different level parties, while some are just for the set level stated – all are easy enough to adjust up and down.

There’s also quite a few bits where skills are tested and investigations take place. This is an opportunity, if you’re inclined, to try out one of the skill challenge systems here – how they are presented in each adventure varies.

The One-Shot

This is a really good book if you want to run D&D one-shots. Particularly for new players, they showcase the social interaction aspect of play really well, in a way that can be missing in more ‘traditional’ D&D adventures – it is one of the three pillars of D&D play after all. Because they are tightly presented and edited, they are also easy to disassemble, rearrange, and adapt. In all honesty, many of these would be excellent run with different systems as well – and easy to adapt.

So far, I’ve run Maid in Waterdeep (level 1), Lai of the Sea Hag (level 2) – twice, and A Wild Hunt (level 2) – and all have been really satisfying. A Wild Hunt features the kumiho, shapeshifting fox-women from Korean folklore, and manages to make them both frightening and sympathetic.

Fully recommended – and I’m sure the other 3 anthologies are similar. These are also an excellent source of plots and explorations of creatures for systems other than D&D, which is testament to its quality. A great source of one-shot D&D adventures – and a great toolkit to pull apart and reuse in pieces too.

Perilous Tribulations – non-combat group challenges in One-Shots

Something that comes up a lot when I’m prepping one-shots is what I’ll call the Perilous Non-Combat Encounter. Whether the players are trekking through a dangerous wilderness, spelunking down a cave, hiding from orcs in the forest, or racing to find a vaccine for the alien mind-plague, these are non-combat situations that are big set-piece encounters, where the whole group are involved and working together to achieve a goal.

Often systems address one or more of these as specific subsystems – rules for Chases, or Social Combat, or Deathtraps – but I like to have some systems for these even when the rules set doesn’t directly do the heavy lifting for me.

There are a few ways to handle these, which I’ve stolen from a few different systems – I’ve used all of these at one point or another in my games, and I’ve tried to analyse which is best for which approach below. Things they have in common are, generally:

  • they are adaptable to a wide variety of situations. They aren’t a chase subsystem, or a mountaineering subsystem, or a mass combat subsystem – it can be used for all three of those at different times
  • they allow the whole group to make rolls. This isn’t Netrunning – where the one super-skilled PC gets all the fun while the rest of the group watch passively
  • there’s some flexibility in what skills can be used to tackle the obstacle. If they’re climbing a cliff, along Athletics checks to actually climb, maybe they use Sleight of Hand to check the knots in the rope, or Navigation to plot an easier route – or even Sing to raise the spirits of their companions
  • there are consequences to failure – normally group consequences, which might be in terms of plot, or might be in terms of system (everyone take 1d6 damage from the arctic winds) – although there’s one exception to this below in the Turn-Taking section

I’ve broken these down into four main approaches – although this is certainly a non-exhaustive list – below:

The Skill Challenge

Skill Challenges DMG 4eIn this approach, originating in 4e D&D, your group has to accumulate a number of successes before they make 3 failures. There’s an excellent post here about how that would work in D&D 5e, and a post here with lots of 4e examples. This caused some controversy when it first came out for 4th ed (not least because they had to swiftly issue errata changing some of the difficulty levels), but it’s a solid way to introduce a challenge while still making it perilous and having real chance of failure.

Be warned that you probably need to make each skill check easier than you might think, or have an exciting consequence for failure. Failure in these kinds of situations is often less fun in a one-shot as some of the consequences may take time up – and in a one-shot, time is a precious commodity. So if they fail the skill challenge to sneak around the forest and the consequence is they have to fight orcs, that’s time that could be spent fighting the green dragon at the end that they have to waste on the orcs. Better to make all the DCs lower (or whatever margin of success your system uses) and let them show how they overcome the problem like the heroes that they are.

The three failures thing can also be tweaked – there is a risk that the first three players all fail and the remaining players don’t get a chance to contribute. To avoid this, you can increase the failure threshold to four failures, which makes this much more unlikely to happen (or impossible, if you have four players). Or you can allow the remaining players a check to avert disaster at the last – although the skill challenge has been failed, perhaps they have a chance to mitigate some of the most deadly effects of it.

The Tolerance Test

Skill Challenges TORThis comes from The One Ring, which uses this to resolve social encounters. Each time you meet an NPC you set a Tolerance – this is usually related to the PC’s best Valour or Wisdom score, maybe with contextual bonuses or penalties. The players take turns trying to impress the NPC, with each failure taking one point of Tolerance away, until there is no Tolerance left. Then, the number of successes they have amassed gives the margin of success – so maybe the NPC grudgingly allows them to be on their way, or maybe they shower them with gifts or praise.

The Tolerance is usually around 3, so it’s as easy if you’re adapting this to another system to just set it at 3. The difference between this and the Skill Challenge is that there’s no specific “failure” condition – just a sliding scale of outcomes – which makes this a good approach if you’re more interested in how well they do. For instance, if they are climbing the peak to find the cloud giant castle atop it, we know they need to climb the peak – the question is whether they arrive bedraggled and fatigued, or fresh and ready for the fight to come.

In prepping this, you need to work out what different levels of success overall look like – so if the party get 0-2 successes, 3-4 successes, or 5 or more succeses, for instance. It’s also worth having an idea of what Critical successes look like –  in One Ring, great successes are worth 2 points, and extraordinary successes are worth 3, which gives more influence over some great rolls and also make spending any resources to boost rolls worthwhile.

The other advantage of this is that there is a defined end point – the challenge will be resolved one way or another and the players pointing where you want them to go at the end of it. Once they reach the best outcome you have planned on the outcome table, as long as everyone has had a go, you can cut it there and assume they have finished the challenge.

The First To Three

Skill Challenges Fate CoreI think this first came up in Fate Core as Contests, described in the Fate SRD here. Basically, you have two or more sides, and the first to accumulate three successes is the victor. This obviously works well if you are competing against something (say if you and the orcs are both racing up the peak to the cloud giant castle) but you can also make it work by rolling for the opposition (maybe the peak has a +5 bonus to try and thwart you and rolls each time).

One advantage here is that everyone rolls at once, which keeps everyone a bit more involved – although this will work better face to face than if you are running online, where better turn discipline is sometimes needed. This also works if there are multiple ‘teams’ acting – maybe the orcs, the peak, and the PCs are all competing for the cloud giant castle. You can either make everyone roll against a set difficulty, or allow opposed rolls in whatever way your system allows them – a simple D&D hack would be that everyone who rolls above DC 15 get to mark a success, and the team with the highest roller on it gets to mark two.

Turn Taking

This is the simplest way to look at a challenge, but it shouldn’t be overlooked. This is easy to add in if you want to respond to a new approach the players have tried, as it needs minimal prep beforehand. Basically, in turns each player rolls the skill that fits their approach to the situation, and suffer individual consequences for failure. Then once everyone has taken their rolls, you look at the successes and failures and give an overall picture of how successful they have been. So, while they climb the peak, each failure makes that individual take 1d6 damage (or something) and then after they have all rolled, you make a judgement on how successful overall they have been – again this works better if you need a successful outcome overall, and need to see how smoothly they achieve it.

This works well where there are ways players can support one another with successful rolls – so in FFG Star Wars / Genesys allow Advantage results to be converted into Boost dice for the other players, or the Momentum system that 2d20 uses. It is also quick and finite in terms of time required.

Alternative Approaches

If players want to use powers or spells instead of their skills, personally I’m really flexible about this – with the allowance that they have to expend a resource. So a daily spell, or a spell they can only cast 2 or 3 times in the scenario, will if it fits allow an automatic success. In 13th Age, Icons and Runes can certainly be used – if I’m feeling generous, I’ll even allow them to be spent after the roll to flip a failure to a success.

These can also, of course, be used to resolve combat as well. There’s a future post planned about handling mass combat in One-Shots, but one way to handle it is of course using one of these skill challenges.

What other methods have you used for non-combat resolution beyond a single skill check? Comment below, or let me know @milnermaths on twitter. In the next post, I’ll post with examples of each of these challenges – probably for D&D, but if you’ve a particular request for a system, let me know in the comments.

Headphones and Dice – playing One-Shots Online

OK, in the interesting times we’re living in now, there’s suddenly a lot of interest in online RPGs. For myself, I started doing some online gaming at the start of the year, and it’s become a fixture of my gaming schedule since then – even more so now we’re all in lockdown.

A chance twitter shout-out to play some One Ring led to a group, originally to play One-Shots, that have ended up playing through most of the adventure anthology Tales from the Wilderland. The One Ring deserves a whole post of its own – but one of the things that has helped to keep us together is the style of play that online roleplaying has led us into. In short 2-hour sessions, we’re all on it; serious and alert to play up the rest of the party. Every session has brought a moment of greatness, often emergent from TOR’s sometimes fiddly mechanics, and the PCs are now a well-loved fellowship. Next session, they’re probably going to meet Gandalf – and I’m reminding myself how nice it is to have ongoing games as well as One-Shots.

But, if you want to play or run one-shots, here’s a brief guide to it if you’re starting out

Online Packages

There’s a lot of discussion of virtual tabletops out there, Roll20, Fantasy Grounds, and Astral Tabletop all touted as decent products for different things. If you’re just starting, I’d ask that you ignore all that, though.

All you need is a stable set of video conferencing software.

My favoured setup is Google Hangouts (yes, it still exists) – but I’ve played with Zoom or Discord, and I know groups who play using Skype or even Facebook messenger. You need to be able to communicate with each other. As long as you trust each other (and if you don’t, you should find another group), it works just fine if everyone just rolls their own dice and lets you know what they are.

While you’re on these, you also need headphones – a mic you can do without, but without headphones your laptop microphone is likely to create an annoying echo every time another player speaks. It’ll be annoying to everyone else, not to you, so you won’t realise it’s happening – until someone has to awkwardly remind you.

I’d also say that laptops > tablets > phones for online gaming. On a laptop or a decent sized tablet, you can have your character sheet (or whatever neat piece of art the GM has shared on his tabletop) on the screen as well – my practice is to have the video call off to one side, or in the corner, so the screen isn’t dominated by the pixellated face of my fellow players.

Like this:

Roll20 Sample 2

The One Ring art by John Hodgson – the Dwimmerhorn looms out of the fog

The advantage of an online tabletop is the ability to share art and pictures initially – they also have inbuilt dice rollers, and if you want to get technical they can have all kinds of macros and stuff built in for different games. If you’re playing Pathfinder or a similar ‘griddy’ game, you can get a map up and track everything with player tokens.

But, to stress again, you don’t have to do this. Start simple with Hangouts. Eventually, like me, you’ll start to dip your toe into showing some pretty pictures.

Recruiting

Finding players for online games used to sometimes be a bit tricky – it’s easy to flake out of a game if you don’t have to leave the house for it, which made one-shots difficult to schedule unless you found yourself a regular group.

Every cloud, though – the current lockdown means there’s a lot of interest in online gaming again, and lots of people moving their own groups to online for social distancing. There are a number of virtual cons springing up now, too – Go Play Manchester and Go Play Leeds are both going virtual, and following the cancellation of Seven Hills and North Star conventions we’re looking at a virtual con in their stead. As with most things, playing in a game prior to running something virtually is a good idea, and most online cons have some more experienced GMs around to help.

In general, prior to lockdown my approach for recruitment seemed to work well – a twitter shout-out led to about 10 interested parties, and then setting an evening and schedule whittled that down to the 5 of us who could make it. Right now I’d have some confidence in posting something on twitter and getting a group together – although usual stuff applies.

“Who wants to play Savage Worlds Rifts on Monday at 7pm GMT?”

is more likely to work than

“Who wants to play some online games soon?”

It’s usually better to have a slightly smaller group than you might for a face-to-face game – 3 or 4 is ideal, while for me 5 is a hard maximum. You have to be much stricter with turn-taking and listening, and so it gets exponentially harder the more players you have.

Playing / Running

As I’ve said before, prior to running an online game I’d really recommend you play – even if you’re only using Hangouts or Zoom, it’s easier to not worry about the technical side if you’re the player instead of the GM. Prior to the game, the GM (or whoever is hosting) will send out a link – whatever the platform, you should be able to join in with that.

Don’t fret over technical difficulties – as long as everyone has headphones and is careful you’ll be fine. About every other session for me there’s something that crops up – lag on a virtual tabletop, audio interference on a player, or – a couple of sessions ago – me hanging up the whole Hangouts call (I was GMing) by accident while fiddling around with windows. As long as you’re all playing generously you can probably muddle through and fix it – usually the classic IT solution of logging out and then in again will fix most things.

Generally 2 hours, with maybe 30 minutes each way, is a good time limit for online play – you remove table chatter, so you’ll be surprised how much you can get through in that time. It’s a bit more intense, weirdly, as everyone is on the game, and one person having the spotlight at once adds to this. As a GM, it pays to be super-conscious of this spotlight – even out of combat, I try to invite players in turn – so if you’re roleplaying, try to take turns so one player doesn’t dominate too much.

And have fun! There’s tons of online gaming going on right now – and there’s loads of blog posts like this, from people who know their shizz like Paul Mitchener, Dom Mooney, and many more. There’s also a Smart Party podcast just landed about online play – which I’m off to listen to right now.

If you know more links, please share them below – and maybe I’ll see you across a web browser soon!

Pregen Power Levels

In this post I’m going to talk about how powerful your one-shot pregens should be. Designing pregens is often the first step to prepping a one-shot, and definitely needs to be done before your prep is finished (and then you can check there are relevant challenges for each PC to allow for spotlight spread), and it’s tempting to just throw together characters following the rules in the book – standard starting characters. This is sometimes the best case, but sometimes it’s worth beefing up your characters a bit.

This is obviously a topic that varies a lot from system to system, so I’m going to look at a few in turn.

D&D / 13th Age / F20 games

If you’re running a game for players that are completely new to TTRPGs, and you want to keep things simple (and you should) – start at 1st level. D&D 1st level pregens can be a bit squishy, so you might consider either making them 2nd level (which really are no more powerful apart from the extra hp and a few more spell slots) or even just giving them the 2nd level hit point boost. This is something I’d particularly recommend if you’re running for players who might not be too keen on their PCs being knocked out.

Of course, instead of beefing them up you might be tempted to knock down the opposition – but I’d caution against this. For one thing, several of the support roles in D&D are really unsatisfying if there isn’t proper opposition – I can remember playing a Life Cleric in a one-shot and being a bit disappointed that I didn’t get to use my awesome healing powers.

If you’ve got some experienced players, but still want to keep it straightforward, 3rd or 4th level is the way to go. At this point, there’s a bump in complexity that gives PCs a plethora of options in D&D (in 13th Age they have these options pretty much from 1st level), and a lot of scope for niche protection; two 3rd level human fighters can play very differently at the table depending on design choice.

If you want superhero-style high fantasy, you can use the Fireball Cutoff. This rule (which I’ve just invented) states that at the point where PCs acquire the spell Fireball, that’s when they become high fantasy superheroes instead of hardscrabble spelunkers. This happens in most F20 games at a lowly 5th level – from that point on, expect your players to be big damn heroes. Weirdly, this happens in almost every level-based fantasy game – it stands in D&D, 13th Age, Shadow of the Demon Lord. In other systems, feel free to locate Fireball in the spell list and work out where this level is

At this level or above, even if you’ve got experienced players, I’d recommend allowing them to use average damage for effects that require rolling a lot of dice (especially in 13th Age, where this is every weapon and spell attack) – if a player is going to take some time to add up the result of 6d10+12 it’s going to be boring for the rest of the table, and dull for them, so offer this as an option in advance. At the very least, have plenty of dice so they aren’t trying to roll their own single d10 six times. If you want more swing, just let players flip a coin for max/min damage – I’ve used this effectively in a 5th level 13th Age one-shot.

Fate / PBTA

In these games, generally the pregen they start with is fine. The one adjustment I like to make in PBTA games is give everyone two or three XP ticks, just so it’s very likely they’ll get an advance in the first couple of hours of play – giving them a chance to see their character grow during the game.

For Fate, the equivalent I’d recommend is leaving one or two aspects blank, and even (if Fate Core) a few mid-range skills. Players can fill these in before, or during, the game to allow a bit of input into their character. It’s possible to run Fate Core doing character generation entirely in-game, based on just a high concept aspect, but this is a bit of a risk unless you know your players will be up for this and won’t spend ages paralysed by decisions.

I’ve written in more detail about Forged in the Dark games like Blades here, but in general I’d resist boosting any of their starting abilities, tempting though it may be. It’s more enjoyable for PCs to fumble through a heist or job, as failure will drive more problems their way, than to have them patch everything up with some die rolls – this also makes them spend stress and have something to do in the Downtime phase. A similar approach works for Mouse Guard – don’t be afraid to force some of the Guardmice to roll skills they might not have – this forces them to tap Nature and risk it dropping, and work together even more. In these teamwork-driven games, niche protection is vital, so you need to be careful to not make the PCs able to succeed individually.

Cypher

Cypher (the system behind Numenera and The Strange, amongst other excellent setting books) is a really rules-light system that focuses a bit more on resource management than the rest of the ones discussed here – and boils most things down to a single d20 roll.

For Cypher, I’d recommend Tier 2 characters as a minimum, and I wouldn’t be afraid of Tier 3 or 4. As Cypher PCs advance, they don’t particularly get much more powerful – they just gain additional options to use. At Tier 1, their options are generally pretty limited – it’s only at higher tiers that the really cool Foci abilties kick in, and while the PCs get more badass, they don’t become anywhere near invincible. This is great in a campaign where they can watch their options grow, but in a one-shot they might as well have these options earlier. I’d also recommend using my hack for experience in Cypher games in one-shots, to avoid the spend-or-hoard XP mechanics.

Balancing Opposition

This is a big generalisation across the systems, but I prefer to beef up opposition beyond what it says in the book for low-level PCs, and taper this off as they get higher level. At low levels, you need challenges to be genuine challenges, and resource-depletion fights that are the bread-and-butter combat encounters of longer-term F20 games are generally unsatisfying. Mix it up, too – as here, it’s an idea to start off with a really underpowered fight as a training level for the players, but do what you can to make the difficulty ramp up through the one-shot to the climax.

If you’ve every played D&D or Pathfinder in a campaign, you’ll have realised that by 3rd level – if the group has stayed pretty consistent – your party has usually evolved into an efficient combat unit because you have some awareness of what other PCs abilities do. As you play through encounters, you become adept at knowing when to rage, when to hang back, how many heals your cleric has left, that sort of thing. In a one-shot, this knowledge is unlikely to develop in 3 hours, and it can make a massive difference to a party’s effectiveness.

So be prepared to tone it down and have some flexibility with challenges – this can include having terrain features that may or may not come into play, reinforcements that might or might not come, or even some killer tactics that might not be used, depending on how ruthless your players are being.

What are your tips for balancing pregens and encounters? Are there any other systems you’d like to see discussed?

This was meant to be the final post of 2019, but it’s ended up creeping out after a rewrite in 2020. So, if you can imagine this came out last year, thank you so much for your continued support and digestion of my words. In the last two years Burn After Running has grown into almost a ‘real blog,’ and as always I love to hear suggestions for what games to cover or review, new kinds of articles, and what you’d like more or less of. Catch me on twitter @milnermaths or comment below.

Day of the Octopus: Unpacking the One-Shot

MSH image

Day of the Octopus is the starter adventure included with Marvel Super Heroes basic set, first published in 1984. It’s a straightforward adventure that I remember liking when I first picked up Marvel (considerably later than 1984!), and it still stands up well. It’s got some lessons in it for prepping a one-shot, especially for convention play, and I think it bears a closer look. It’s also available as a download on the Classic Marvel Forever website, if you want to give it a closer look.

Specifically, it does a few things well

  • it demonstrates the expectations and structure of play
  • it’s designed to teach the rules as it goes
  • it gives a solid approximation to a dramatic arc

There’s a few things it does… less well, I guess

  • it’s almost entirely linear. There’s one branching point, but that’s only if the PCs get captured
  • it’s dramatic scenes all resolve around combat – even one where combat really isn’t the actual resolution still looks very combat-y to the players

Overview

It’s designed with specific heroes in mind – Spider-Man, The Thing, and Captains Marvel and America. In the first scene (or Chapter as they’re called in the adventure) this is important, as they start interacting with their day-to-day lives – Peter Parker is with Aunt May, The Thing is sulking in the park, Captain America is with his “gal.” It also demonstrates the classic superhero team structure in RPGs – that although the heroes are normally arranged into specific teams in the comics, in the game they can form a team of whatever heroes the players want to play.

It’s a 1984 adventure, so there’s boxed text – but it’s pretty decent boxed text though – no need to describe dungeon rooms makes it flow easily. Each chapter also starts with a short comic strip, where we see the start of the action, which is a nice touch – I particularly like the investigative scene where The Thing is a deerstalker, especially because it makes him look a bit like Bungle from Rainbow.

It’s designed to be used with the maps supplied – this book came in a boxed set, of course, and there’s a fair amount of tactical faffing about where to place various PCs and their opponents that was probably a lot more important back in the day than it is now. Maps for superhero games leave me cold – especially when there’s two characters that have fairly limited movement alongside two with massively fast movement – can’t Captain Marvel travel at the speed of light? Why does she need a map?

Structure

Overall, the plot looks like this:

day of the octopus structure1357830321..jpg

In Chapter 1, the PCs start separately, while still on the same map, and face one or two Thugs (normal humans) each. These are trivially easy fights, and this chapter shows up as a nice little training mission. In my one-shots I often have an easy fight as the first scene, and this approach (having a really, really easy fight)is something that I’d like to try. I’d expect both encounters to only take a round or so, so it’s a good stakes-free way to teach the basic rules.

No sooner are the thugs dealt with, Chapter 2 starts, where some actual supervillains (one per hero – another superhero RPG trope – and somewhat randomly assembled) appear and try to steal the same tech. It’s expected that they’ll be thwarted, and a Dr Octopus arm will get the tech anyway, but this is the first real fight of the adventure. It has detailed notes for how the villains will fight, which is a thing we don’t often see enough of these days I think – even if Radioactive Man’s first action is to blow a hole underneath The Thing so that he has to spend three turns climbing out, which feels a little bit mean on that player.

CSI: Marvel Super Heroes

In Chapter 3, they do some investigating, which is snappy and has multiple routes and ways of finding their way to Dr Ock’s hideout. There’s three places they can go to pick up clues – the site of the battle, the rental company they got the truck from, and a dive bar on the waterfront. It’s expected they’ll go through these places in order – if I was running this I’d add multiple clues to each location so they didn’t have to go to all three (or could split up), but it’s still presented as a pretty pacy segment, and isn’t reliant on dice rolls to move the plot forwards.

Chapter 4 is the hideout itself, where they fight Dr Octopus, any remaining supervillains from the previous battle, and several environmental effects. This is definitely mean to potentially be a tough one, as Chapter 5 is what happens if they lose, and begins with each hero being captured individually and them needing to escape.

Chapter 6 is the final scene, when they try to stop a gigantic Octobot as it rampages through New York. This fight is almost unwinnable, but it’s also much more of a problem solving challenge – the robot isn’t something they can take on directly, so they need to try and disable it using trickery. In game terms, this is almost a skill challenge compare to the fights beforehand – which is also a nice way to mix it up.

Unpacking the Plot

So, the structure looks roughly like the diagram above. We have 4 core scenes – a training level, a normal challenge scene, and two hard challenge scenes, with two of those being fights and one being more of a skill challenge. There’s a few different ways to move between what is basically a linear plot structure, and there’s a safety net in case they don’t get any further.

The safety net is a bit weak though – it’s Thor – who can either swoop in and save the day in a fight, or just tell them clues if they miss them. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this kind of contingency plan in a one-shot, but I prefer some immediate, tangible consequences to a failed scene – maybe Thor does offer the details of Dr Octopus’ hideout, but that means they have time to prepare themselves and the next fight will be tougher, or the robot starts rampaging sooner.

20191225_1515021068067650.jpg

For me, I like to have the final climax be a big, challenging battle (this also removes the need for a “contingency Thor” for that scene) and make the skill challenge be the middle scene. For skill challenge, it could be something different to an actual fight, but I think it needs to be an extended task that is supported by the system – in Fate this could be a Contest or a Cliffhanger (from Masters of Umdaar), it could be a Chase scene in Savage Worlds or Call of Cthulhu, a starship combat in a sci fi game, or a social conflict in a system which supports this. In all cases, it’s worth hanging some proper stakes on the scene, so it has tangible consequences to the folowing scenes.

I really like the first scene of this adventure – by introducing the players individually, and giving them a small interaction with the rules, they set up a low-stakes way of teaching both roleplaying and the basics of the rules. I’ve done this with individual skill checks before now, but not with really weak opponents, and I’d like to try it out with that – either with the heroes as individuals or with them together teaming up against a small obstacle.

I’ll definitely be re-skinning this structure and trying out some of the ideas here, and I’ll post on here and twitter about how it goes. I’m going to pull out some other ‘classic’ one-shots and do a similar unpacking of them – what should I look at next?