Do This, First – 5 ways to improve your one-shot during prep

In this post, I gave 5 things to do while running your one-shot to improve it. In this post, I’m going to give 5 tips to do before you play – during your prep, whether its for a convention, meetup, or just as a change of pace from your usual game. I’ve posted before about prep, where I tried to split it into three stages – the advice sits around all these stages, and is applicable if you’re taking a different approach.

Start With Pregens

Thugs by Jonny Gray

An evocative group of pregens can really make your game pop – art by Jonny Gray

Early on in your prep, if it’s a new game in particular, you should be thinking about the characters you’ll have in the game. If this is your first time with the system, you can use this to get your head around the rules as well – character generation usually gives some indication of what different skills and approaches are, and it’ll help when you come to plot out your game.

I wrote more about pregens here, if you want more advice on making strong pregenerated characters.

Get The Rules Right

If I’m running a game for the first time, for all but the simplest games I like to do a one-sheet of notes of the basic rules, just to help me internalize them. Running a one-shot, you’ll usually have to do some teaching of the rules unless you’re running a really popular game, so you need to know them well enough to explain them to your group. Making notes really helps.

If it’s a particularly complex game, I’ll often run myself through a mock-up conflict as well, just to familiarize myself with how combat (especially) flows. I’ll take two or three of the pregens I’ve just made, and try to run them through a quick battle to internalise the structure of actions.

Also, see here for more notes on running crunchy games.

Structure Your Notes

I’ve said it before, looking at published adventures for sample structures for one-shots isn’t a good idea. Preparing a game for publication and preparing it for play are two different things – in fact if I’m running a published adventure I’ll usually write down some bullet points even if I’m going to have the text in front of me.

I talked about a structure for notes here which I know some others have found useful, but really it’s as much as this

  • Have a well-prepared start and (potential) climax
  • Have a list of cool things that can happen between them
  • Have a list of NPCs with any brief notes you’ll need to differentiate them.

The last one is vital for me. I tend to lose track of NPCs when I’m running, and so I over-prep to make sure I know where they are and what their relationship to the plot is.

Check for Skill Matching

Nobody wants to play a game where their character sucks, so first of all, make sure that every pregen is at least broadly competent at the core activity of the adventure. In a Call of Cthulhu game, none of your pregens should have no ways to investigate and follow up leads, and in an F20 game it’s taken as read that everyone can fight well.

But look a bit closer at the secondary skills that your PCs have, and see if there are opportunities to put them into the game. Likewise, look at the challenges you’ve put into each scene and see if there’s an obvious pregen that can show their skills off in that challenge – you can adjust in either direction to help.

I posted about this – the “three-skill trick” here in more detail.

Check for Plot Matching

For one-shots, I’m a huge fan of having a heavy incentive on following the plot for the whole group, but look to make threads that tie individual pregens into the adventure as well. The fighter’s parents were kidnapped when they were a child? Make it the evil baron who did it, so when they meet him in the finale they’ve got a hook to hang on. A pregen has a long-lost sister? Make them a helpful  NPC they’ll meet along the way – or the evil sorceress serving the aforementioned baron.

As with skill matching, this can be done in either direction – but try to find a thread to link each pregen to the plot so that they get a good chance to advance their own personal story as well as that of the game. This helps to ground them in the setting, so things happen before and after the game, and make the one-shot feel more like a slice of something bigger.

Think and Dream

Alongside the 5 tips above, there’s the core activity of prep – thinking of scenes and challenges that make for an exciting game. Give yourself time to think of these – prep can just as well be done in the shower or while out running as you dream and percolate ideas in your head – just remember to write them down before you forget them!

With these, you’ve got a good chance at making any one-shot really sing. If you want tips to do during play, see this post. If you want to listen to me talking about some of these techniques, I was on the Smart Party podcast talking to Gaz about one-shots here.

I’m going to be doing some more system-specific posts over the next few weeks – as always, if there’s something you’d like to see more (or less) of, get in touch in comments here or on twitter (@milnermaths).

Everyone is Awesome – Review: Mythic D6

Mythic D6 is a game from Khepera Publishing, Jerry D. Grayson’s publishing house that also produces ATLANTIS: Second Age, HELLAS, and soon-to-be-kickstarted Godsend Agenda. All of his games are good-looking, action-adventure games, and quite a few of them use the Omni System, a straightforward D20-based resolution. Mythic D6 does not – it uses a dice pool system (of D6, as you’d expect), and comes as a “Multi-Genre” master book (which includes a sample setting) and an expanding series of campaign supplements .

The Fluff

Mythic D6 coverMythic’s central concept is that it’s a game for playing superheroes. In a snappy forward, it lays out the author’s view that action-adventure roleplaying is really all about telling stories of superheroes – that the PCs stand shoulders above normal men and women by virtue of extraordinary powers. The power level it seems to be pitched at is low/street-level superheroes, and this is relevant – most supers games aim a bit higher for PC power level, and add lower-level heroes as an option, which is usually a less than exciting option since, well, they aren’t as powerful. Mythic makes the default level fairly low, and centres itself solidly around this.

Apart from street-level supers, it’s spawned two supplementary campaign settings so far – Bastion, an afro-centric post-apocalypse sword and sorcery setting, and Terra Oblivion, an eco-activism steampunky pulp adventure (technically it’s probably either ecopunk or, well, fishpunk, but I’m going to resist taking the -punk nomenclature any further).

It also comes with a setting in the book, Project: Mythic, aimed at modern-day low-level supers, that stands out as a great set-up for one-shot play. Otherworldly creatures are invading the normal world through breaches or Shallowings, and PCs as agents of the Institute are dispatched to close these breaches and defeat whatever monsters have leaked forth from them. For a one-shot, it’s a nice tight mission structure, both different and familiar enough from similar genres to make for a good con game or one-shot.

The Crunch

At its heart Mythic is a D6 dice pool system, where you’re counting rolls of 4 and above as successes and hoping to beat a target number. One of your dice is a Wild Die, which can explode on a 6 and give you a critical failure on a 1, and the system is all unified around this dice pool rolling – there’s ‘pips’ that can be used to graduate between whole dice, and auto-successes that can be taken without rolling, but everything hangs around the dice pool. PCs have archetypes that grant them limited-use bonuses (which usually let them double a skill for a roll), and an array of powers from an extensive power list, including separate subsystems for magic and gadgeteering.

As far as complexity goes, the powers are relatively straightforward – they each have a number of options of Enhancements and Limitations that can add or subtract to them. From a cursory read, I’d say that if a player really wanted to make a game-breakingly powerful character, they could – this isn’t an interlocking cogs-and-bolts game, but it tries to model the powers with the minimum of fuss. I’m fine with that – for a one-shot, you’ll be using pregens anyway, and the selection in the book are a great mixture and (crucially) all look straightforward to play.

The rules have all the usual stuff for skills and combat, and two features that I’m becoming more and more attached to in games. The first is an Aggravation Pool, a resource the GM has that can be spent (like the Hero Points players have) to boost enemies and increase the challenge. Like in 2D20 with its Doom Pool, in play I’d have this pile of dice right out in front of me where everyone can see it. The second is rules for Events – non-combat skill challenges that are tackled in stages, like rescuing civilians from a burning building. These are excellently explained and presented, and will be great in one-shots for big, cinematic scenes and interesting use of powers. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking – and blogging– about these recently, and these rules are a great, flexible subsystem.

The One-Shot

There’s a lot to recommend Mythic as a one-shot. A system that’s simple to pick up but with enough depth and complexity to reward players who like to dig into it a bit, and that supports the genre it follows well. Settings that provide automatic hooks and are easy to grasp but with enough interest to hold attention.

In multi-genre books, the included setting is often a bit of an afterthought, but Project: Mythic is engaging, inspiring and deep. As well as an obvious mission structure to get the players involved, it’s got ready-made plot for any one-shot you might need (deal with this Shallowing) that still provides a big range of options for play. Mythic D6 (and Bastion and Terra Oblivion) are certainly going to see some play at cons, face to face or virtual, in the future.

Do This, Now – 5 Ways to Improve any One-Shot

In this post, I’m going to summarize a lot of things that are scattered around the blog, and share 5 things any GM can do to make their TTRPG one-shots rock, whatever the system. If you want examples of most of these (1 and 5 in particular) there’s a stream on YouTube of me running 13th Age Glorantha here (you’ll want Part 3 for the final scenes)

  1. Get your players to introduce their characters in a scene

Don’t ask your players to just describe who they are playing – it’s boring, open-ended (some will take forever, some will just read out their background and – in one “memorable” con game I played in – their equipment list) – ask them to show their characters in a scene. For pulpy, high-fantasy, I describe it as like the opening credits of an old TV show, where they used to show the best bits of the season at the start as the music played. So we might see the barbarian boldly vanquish an orc before downing a pint, or the bard wooing a fair princess. Hand this over to your players and it’ll both introduce them to each other, and set the scene for high action.

In more low-key settings, give a few more parameters. Maybe we see the PCs killing time during a star-system jump, or trudging across the woods on a journey, and zoom in on each one in turn – but ask the players to show, not tell, what their character is like, and you’ll help them to describe their characters’ action better for the rest of the one-shot.

  1. Do some bonds

As described here, get your players to describe links to other PCs – as simple as “who do you trust, and why?” or even describing in turn their previous quest. This really works in a one-shot as it sets the action you’re about to play through in a continuing narrative, making it feel like a episode in an ongoing series rather than a one-off activity.

  1. Have a training conflict

As early as possible in the game, have a skill check or combat for everyone where the stakes – although they are there – are relatively low. In a lot of fantasy games this can just be a combat, and it can be a pretty straightforward one, but it could also be one of the skill challenges described here. By engaging with the system straight away you can get players new to the game up to speed with the system and demonstrate how it works. A lot of running one-shot games at conventions with different systems is teaching the system itself, so don’t neglect this responsibility as GM.

  1. Take breaks

Seriously, take breaks, or they’ll happen anyway during play. Online, I recommend every hour or so, face to face, every 1.5-2 hours, even if only briefly. This helps to keep everyone on board during play and focused and prevent players’ attention wandering. Have them at opportune moments like the end of a scene/act, or even on a cliffhanger – you’ll keep your players (and yourself) fresh to keep your minds focused on the game.

  1. Have a ‘credits roll’ final scene

After the players have completed the one-shot, and they’ve rescued the princess, saved the galaxy, or stolen the jewels, have each player describe a scene from their PCs immediate future – they might be celebrating the recent victory, ruing missed chances, or picking up a loose thread. Like (2), this puts the one-shot into an ongoing narrative, and is a good way for players to sign off playing their PC from the session.

So, that’s my top 5 tips for improving one-shots during the game. Later on I’ll give you 5 things to do during prep that can improve any one-shot. What are your top tips for in-game awesomeness?

Even More Perilous Tribulations: Non-Combat Challenges Revisited

In the original post, I talked about skill challenges, and incorporating them into RPGs of all systems. In this post, I’m going to describe 4 more types of challenge, and give examples of how I’ve used them in my games recently.

The Group Check

This comes, believe it or not, from 5e D&D, although I think it is underused. In this, everyone in the party rolls a skill check (usually the same skill) and if at least half of the party succeed, the group check is successful. An interesting tweak of D&D is that this, like everything, is rounded down, so in a group of 3 PCs if one of them passes the check is passed.

The example I used this for was a group trying to navigate across the Mournland to a location – they all made Survival tests. It works where there is a clear, group-applicable success or failure – and there are consequences for failure. In the example, if they fail, they must spend another day wandering the wastes.

The Success per PC

In this challenge, everyone needs to pass, but there is a facility for very successful rolls to ‘donate’ successes to PCs that fail – as example might be use of Stealth to sneak into an enemy base. Everyone needs to make a check, but especially stealthy PCs can share some of their success to the less stealthy PCs – this avoids the paladin always triggering the guards.

This works well in a group success/failure situation where it doesn’t make sense for some players to fail and the group still to be successful – I’ve used it in the past for climbing a mountain, where the stronger climbers can support the weaker PCs. It does rely on your system having solid degrees of success though – in a d20 game where your skill result is more binary and pass/fail it won’t work.

One Roll with Help

Barely a sub-system, this just means one player makes the check and the others help in whatever way to system allows it. In a recent game of Genlab Alpha, the PCs had to impress the warlike rabbit general, so the group’s warrior rolled – we roleplayed how his allies all helped and gave him the extra dice. For extra flavour, in some systems you can track whether the help worked or not and work it into the narration.

This works when one player is clearly leading, with the others to back them up – often in social encounters with a single NPC or group one player will take the lead, and there is no individual success/failure impact.

The Engagement Roll

This is basically stolen from Blades in the Dark, where the planning and preparation for a job is folded into a single roll that shows how successful it has been. Each player makes a skill check in turn, and the number of successes or failures indicates how successful their engagement has been. Make the rolls in any logical order and with broad brush strokes, and you can get an idea of how well a plan has come off. I used this when running 13th Age Glorantha for a final assault on a Broo camp (the game was streamed; you can watch the skill challenge here, from the start of Part 3)

This is good when you need to montage into something bigger, and failure won’t be a problem – in the example above, if they had all failed we might have cut to them all captured by Broo and staging a daring escape – while if they had all been successful, I had another plan in mind (a Lunar betrayal!) to give the game a satisfying climax – but their raid on the Broo would have been successful.

So, four more kinds of skill challenges. I’ve been finding they really add to the game, particularly when we are playing online, where turn-taking needs to be strict and everyone should be hyper-focussed on plot. Are there any more I should add? What experiences have you had with them? (And make sure you follow JamesCORP on Twitch and YouTube for more streamed games – I’m playing Delta Green this Saturday and there are more one-shots lined up).

What Year Is It? – Running Historical RPG One-Shots

1066 calendar

1066 calendar from timeanddate.com – I’d maybe run it through Photoshop before using it in a game

Historical one-shots are something I’ve historically (ha) avoided playing (and running) at conventions. Too much risk of experts, or historical diversions, or putting accuracy ahead of fun. But recently (inspired by an excellent Mythic Babylon game from @thetweedmeister) I’ve begun dipping my toe into them again, helped by the realisation that Glorantha is to all intents and purposes a historical setting given the wealth of detail about its timeline.

 

I think at the outset I should say that historical gaming should emulate historical fiction, not actual history. History, inconveniently, doesn’t even fit into the pattern of an ongoing RPG campaign, much less a one-shot. It helps to think of each session as a TV series episode, with a tightly-defined arc in its 3-4 hour time-frame. Where historical games help with one-shots is that they can set your one-shot in something bigger – there’s stuff happening before and after the game, and it’s easy to see where the characters and plots go next when the game is over.

And while we’re on the subject, think carefully about how to handle the more problematic elements of historical settings. If you want to include the sexism, racism or homophobia of a historical setting in your game, I guess that’s your business, but please don’t do it anywhere near my table. Most historical periods were much more diverse and varied than some corners of the RPG hobby would have you believe, anyway.

Do Your – Minimum – Research

In no way do you need to be the smartest person in the room, but at a convention or other one-shot, if you know nothing about the period of history your game is set in, you’re going to come undone at some point. You are probably going to have to read the sourcebook before play – in a way that you probably don’t have to if you’re running a game in a fantastical setting.

Before getting too far into research, remember you really do only need broad brush strokes. Also, research doesn’t just mean boring old books. There are history podcasts you can listen to while doing other things, and TV series are often better for a feel of historical fiction than actual history. If you’re going to run Duty & Honour, watching a few episodes of Sharpe will help you much more than reading accounts of the Peninsula War. If you want to run Hunters of Alexandria, you’d do as well to play some Assassin’s Creed: Origins to get a feel for the city and its opportunities for adventure.

Additionally, it probably helps to own your inaccuracies – check at the start of the game if you have any period experts in (it’s likely you could have, if you’ve advertised the game for sign-ups at a con) and ask them to add flavour/colour, but not to go on historical divergences until after the game. I’ve heard of using an H-Card (as well as an X-Card) for historical off-game chat, which is an interesting idea – you need to remember that the game is the primary thing, not the history lesson.

Pick Your Game For The Genre You Want

There are lots of historical RPGs out there – make sure you pick a game where the system supports the kind of play you want. If you want to run a one-shot in the Dark Ages, then Age of Arthur, Mythic Britain, and Wolves of God will all give very different play experiences, even with the same basic scenario. There’s nothing to stop you, of course, using a generic system with a play style you enjoy, and adapting it – and there are some excellent historical setting books, the pick of which are the GURPS sourcebooks and Design Mechanism’s Mythic Earth series. Dark Ages Savage Worlds, anyone?

Points of Divergence

If you’re running a historical game on Earth, you probably do need to know what year it is. Those enormous timelines that setting books have – pick a year and find something interesting that the PCs can act around.

Think of this point as a point of divergence. Before that, history was as it is in the timeline described – scholars today would recognize the world. From the moment that play starts, though, that needs to change. Put the PCs right in the center of the action – they might not be working directly for the King or leading the armies, but their actions will certainly affect the outcomes of these events, and might leave the world looking very different.

Don’t Spectate

Along similar lines, the PCs should be actively doing things. Nobody wants to watch the pyramids being built – the PCs should be negotiating with laborers and work-gangs, protecting the site from evil spirits, and dealing with betrayal and uprisings. If the pyramids are already there, they should be dueling bandits on the slopes, or heading into the tombs to work out what has escaped from them and whether it needs banishing.

It can be tempting to site the one-shot a long way from recorded history, to protect the timeline, but I tend to think that if you’re running history you should put some history in it. So don’t be afraid to introduce historical figures (and don’t give them any plot protection – let your PCs kill Caesar and win the hand of the princess – just not in the same game).

With all that in mind, I’m thinking of stretching my games out into the historical waters for some of my one-shot offerings now. Thanks to everyone on Twitter who offered their advice on this, by the way – you’ll be first in line when I get some online one-shot offerings prepped up!

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!