Interfering Factions – A Technique to Improve Your One-Shot

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

How do you do it?

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

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

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

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

Examples

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

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

Goblins are raiding the caravans on the forest road!

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

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

Or, for a science fiction example,

Someone on Planet X has developed a bioweapon!

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

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

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

Review: Mythic Odysseys of Theros

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

The Fluff

Theros map

Map of Theros from the MTG wiki

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

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

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

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

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

The Crunch

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

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

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

The One-Shot

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

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

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

Call of Cthulhu One-Shots

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

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

Use Safety Tools

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

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

Signpost Clues. Un-Signpost Un-Clues

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

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

Start with an Actual Scene

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

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

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

Make Investigation Scenes Worthwhile

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

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

Don’t Explain it Afterwards

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

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

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.