Low Fantasy RPGs – Part Two

In the last post, we looked at some of the options for Low Fantasy gaming – here are three more if you want some one-shots where magic is awful and terrifying, and the players are rooted in mud.

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Wolves of God

Cleanse yourself of any lingering anti-Saxon sentiment from Pendragon with this Sine Nomine game from Kevin Crawford where you play brave Saxons exploring Roman ruins and skirmishing with the Welsh in England. With a system that’s sort of OSR-based, with some heavy shifting, it’s well grounded in the setting and you can feel the mud seep off it.

Pros: It’s a straightforward system, and the game comes with loads of tables and guidance for populating a low fantasy sandbox – applicable to any of the games we’ve talked about.

Cons: For the one-shot, Sandboxing is tricky – you want to add some structure and plan to the exploration to prevent any turtling or getting stuck in a rut. Get them rescue a lost herdsman from the Roman ruins, or parlay with the Wealh to defend your common lands from the undead. Kevin Crawford’s stuff deserves a future post about this, after I’ve run some one-shots with his system.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay

This is one of the originals, and a heavy touchstone for TTRPG gaming for any (especially British) gamers of a certain generation. With 4th ed, there’s a system that works well for one-shot play, and it’s a brilliantly realised world that manages to be quasi-European without being awful. There’s even a review of 4th edition on this very blog.

Pros: There’s loads for this – including loads of one-shots already done, some of which are awesome. Night of Blood is great, there’s a .pdf of One-Shots (soon to be reviewed here), and lots of resources even for previous editions that are easily adapted. Tons of art, rich lore and a rich history are all there to help you.

Cons: It’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness – it can be difficult to make a WFRP game feel new, when there are so many already out there. It can get a bit Monty Python, as well – such a commonly referenced touchstone can be hard to make serious. Personally, I’m not a fan of comedy *orcs or chaos cultist conspiracies, either (largely due to them being overdone in WFRP) – there’s plenty more to use here, so look a bit further away from the “classic” antagonists.

Wolf’s Head

This is a FATE World, set in feudal Britain with no magic in it as written – but it’s super easy (it’s FATE, after all) to add evil sorcerers and savage beasts roaming through Norman England alongside the oppressive authority the game is based around. Lean into this by making the Baron have all the cards where magic and weirdness is concerned, thus keeping to the theme of it being a terrifying and inaccessible practice.

Pros: It’s heroic and easily modded. I see this as a basis for a wide range of semi-Historical low fantasy games, and FATE is a great ruleset for mixing it up (see advice for running it as a one-shot here).

Cons: Alone, there’s not as much fluff as you might want – you’ll have to use other sources (or other games on this list) as sources if you run out of inspiration.

So, a selection of six RPGs you can use to bring the mud and guts into your games. Next week, we’ll look at low fantasy-ing a more traditional fantasy RPG, to bring some of the feel for this into a more high fantasy game, and the advantages that gives a one-shot. What have I missed off? Message me on Patreon, or on twitter @milnermaths, to make your suggestions!

Low Fantasy RPGs – Part One

In this previous post, I gave some general tips for making low-fantasy one-shots memorable and exciting. I’m going to begin some reviewing of the systems you can use for this sort of play now, beginning with a mixture of big hitters and lesser-known systems.

I’m sure that some of the ideas here will provoke cries of “that’s not low fantasy!” from commentators – I’m using a broad definition that basically just limits the PC access to fireball spells. For each game I’ve given a brief overview of how I think it’ll work for a one-shot, long with some pros and cons.

Pendragon

See my post on historical gaming here – in Pendragon, a game from the days of the grognards that has aged amazingly well, you’re Cymric knights gallivanting around England solving problems.

Pros – it’s a big touchstone, not just as a genre but as a game, and there are easy hooks to get the players involved (e.g. your Lord tells you to do it). Everyone playing knights is less of a problem than you might think, and there’s a funky Passions system that lets you do emotive stuff as well

Cons – a lot of the depth of Pendragon is in ongoing play, watching your Passions etc go up and down. While there’s a huge library of published material for it, most will take some solid adapting to make them really sing as a one-shot.

Romance of the Perilous Lands

A Black Hack-inspired romantic fantasy game, while there are playable wizards they’re much more embedded in the setting than in traditional D&D, and the quasi-historical setting means you’ll be getting muddier than you might expect.

Pros – simple, quick system that gives players plenty of options while remaining easy to grasp in a one-shot. Nice range of character options give some niche protection.

Cons – it might end up being a bit too heroic if you’re heart is set on full-on low fantasy.

Cthulhu: Dark Ages

A supplement for the classic horror game that takes you into the 12th Century, with all kinds of scary cultists, goat-headed hermits and stuff

Pros – a really straightforward system that still gives enough depth in resolution – the book also comes with great setting material and sample adventures that would be brilliant one-shots right out of the box.

Cons – I mean, really, it’s a horror game. Pick the right archetypes and I think you’ll have a lot of fun with this though, and there’s only a tentacle-width between grim fantasy and apocalyptic horror after all.

Next time, another 3 systems for low fantasy gaming – and after that, guidance on hacking D&D5e to make it a grim and gritty low fantasy system. Easier than you might think, I’d imagine.

What are your go-to systems for low fantasy gaming? Any you’d like to see my thoughts on? Let me know in comments.

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Burn After Running has a Patreon

Just a short blog post today to let you know –

I’ve got a Patreon. There’s currently one level of funding, £2 a month, and for that you get

  • Early access to all Burn After Running posts (you’ll get them a week prior to them landing on the actual blog)
  • The option to request articles (I’ve got a pile of topics to cover still, but nothing will go unconsidered)
  • The warm sense of accomplishment from supporting something you find interesting or useful

Why am I doing this? Well, at the moment BAR is entirely self-funded; I’d like to be able to recoup hosting costs, and get some logos and art to make it look a bit nicer – I sometimes feel like the content is let down by the presentation. At the moment, any playable materials are just thrown into the blog, with a .pdf made on word and whatever art I can scrounge up – this will give me some options to produce slightly more professional output.

In the future, I’d like to offer some online one-shots to Patreons as well – but that will depend on interest and online requests. There will be the occasional Patreon exclusive, but it’s not my intention to make anything too exclusive – the vast majority of posts will appear here as well as the Patreon.

So, if you like what I’m doing, would like to see it continue, and have a few spare copper pieces after your last expedition, please consider joining the horde of Patreon supporters here. The first post is already up – continuing the Low Fantasy One-Shots series – a week before it’ll hit this blog. As always, any feedback is welcome – are there any other special Patreon rewards you’d like to see offered? Let me know here or at @milnermaths – or, of course, on Patreon.

Mud, Blood, and Saxons – Low Fantasy One-Shots

If, like me, you’re an Assassin’s Creed fan, it’s likely you’ve been spending at least some time interfering in Mercia’s fortunes in AC: Valhalla over the past few months. With this in mind, and playing in a Pendragon campaign run by @the_smart_party, I’ve been hankering for some down-and-dirty low fantasy, with rare, dangerous magic that’s a long way away from the PC’s understanding.

There are lots of systems that support this – and soon, I’ll give you a run down of some of them – but there are some principles which I think are useful when running low fantasy games, no matter what rules you have. Without the constant threat of magic and monsters, and the comforting embrace of the D&D-style dungeon, you need a few different approaches to get the genre right…

Make Humanity Distinct

In D&D, you can get away with “the generic bandit” – there are orcs, goblins, and other beasts to be distinct enemies for you. In a low fantasy setting, you will end up with an awful lot of bandits, corrupt noblemen, aggressive Norsemen, and renegade constables. Make them distinct and interesting, so they can be recognised and different – maybe the Misty Woods Bandits have white runes painted on their faces, or the corrupt Lord’s marshalls all wear brilliant blue tunics, perfectly laundered. Brand your NPC groups, so they are distinct and interesting.

Make Humanity Horrible

“Start with the baddie” is good advice in any one-shot prep, but no more so than in low fantasy where the antagonist is likely to be another human just like the PCs. The seven deadly sins are a good starting point – maybe the Lord is determined to crush the peasants because of pure greed, or maybe it’s vengeance for when that farm boy disrespected him as a child. Make their motivations understandable (and, as always, prep them so the PCs can find out about them) and then make them prepared to do anything for it. Give your NPCs history, too – every village should have a dark secret, with consequences that come out in play, and difficult decisions to make.

Present Normality

In low fantasy games, life is often cheap, and so to make it meaningful, make sure that the general NPC populace have distinct personalities. When the Lord kills generic peasant #1 it doesn’t mean much, but if it’s Old Eckhert who gave you that healing potion the one time, it hits different. There’s a lot of day-to-day toil and strife in a low fantasy life, and so giving the common people some hobbies, interests, and quirks makes them feel a lot more real. The honest working man, oppressed by the corrupt noble class, is a good trope because it reflects life well, so use it.

Make Monsters Unknowable – and Possibly Unkillable

If you are going to have monsters, and you should, they need to be very much not human. There’s a few different ways to do this – have contradictory rumours about them show up, have their habits seem terrifying, and show the genuine terror they cause. One approach may be to simply make them unkillable unless certain conditions are met – the PCs must find these conditions, and achieve them, in order to defeat them.

The wyvern that’s stealing cattle cannot be harmed by mortal blades – so they need to find out from the wise woman how to craft a blade that can pierce its hide, and then trick it into emerging from its lair to be defeated. In general, “pacing” encounters along the way should be human – monsters should only be the boss fight of a one-shot, and indeed might be the focus of the entire one-shot.

Use Wilderness as an Enemy

The other unknowable about low fantasy that I like to use is the actual wilderness as an enemy. Long journeys may be challenges in themselves, and a storm or heavy snow can be in itself an enemy. You can use a skill challenge for these, or another subsystem your game has. Also, don’t neglect animals and beasts as challenges. An angry bear, hungry due to the wyvern taking its territory, can be a great challenge for the party.

So, five ways to look at low fantasy games, and keep them grim, bloody, but still heroic. I’ll review a few of these games next week, but in the meantime – what have you found to work well in low fantast settings?

Bad Luck in Luckyland – A Punkapocalyptic One-Shot

As a follow-up to my previous post about running Shadow of the Demon Lord one-shots, I thought I’d give you an example for SOTDL’s sister game of gonzo post-apoc mayhem that uses the same system. I ran this at Furnace 2020 online, and it was a lot of fun.

It’s presented here pretty raw, and isn’t in as much detail as some of my other ready-to-run one-shots; I found the system and setting was light enough to let players roll with ideas on the fly. I ran it for 2-Mission pregens, but I’ve given stats for Starting or 1-Mission characters too – I think starting at 2-Missions is a good move for one-shot survivability. Let me know if you run it – or if you get anything from it!

Cast

Landslide, elder of Scrapbridge. Looks about 112 years old but acts like a little kid. Hidebound, cowardly, quick to anger. Hates gangers, hates mutants, hates anything that might be dangerous for Scrapbridge

Owl Man, gifted cook. Depressed, filled with ennui, brilliant, dangerous. Left after he realised his mutation meant they would kill him.

Four-eyes, a mutant with six eyes. He got the name when he had four. Angry, stupid, sees everything

Gary, leader of the White Reavers. Thick glasses, white lab coat, cowardly and chews. Surprisingly chill that his gang is currently without a base of operations – hoping to find some mercs who can help him get Luckyland back.

Weeper, leader of the Blue Vegans. Mostly naked, skinny but powerful. Has some mental powers, but is currently too embarrassed by their disastrous Luckyland venture to use them effectively. Frightened, covered up by aggression.

The Horn-People, a mutant band with no fixed leader. Most of them have horns – goat, rhino, bull – as a mutation, and those that don’t wear clumsily-attached headpieces to show their loyalty. Speak about themselves as a collective in the third person “The Horn-People desire you to leave us alone,” in an attempt to show unity.

Scene 1 – The Beanz-Off

We begin in The Great American Beanz-Off, a cookery competition held every year in Scrapbridge, a dry-river-bed of a town most famous for its fighting pits.

The PCs have all competed –each player should describe their beans-based dish, make an appropriate test (Brains for an inventive dish, or Hands for one requiring dexterity – add an Asset for an appropriate speciality) – to see who has created the best dish. The winner is crowned by Landslide, but as they settled down for the beans-based feast, , something is troubling the assembled diners.

Owl Man, the best bean chef in Scrapbridge, is missing. Four-eyes, a mutant with six eyes, will volunteer that he was scouting out some new pantry staples in Luckyland last week – Luckyland is usually good hunting grounds, but come to think of it nobody has come back from there for the last few weeks.

Landslide quickly seizes control of the situation and offers the PCs free beans for life if they can find and return Owl Man to Scrapbridge.

To find out, or recall, facts around Luckyland, PCs can make an attribute roll with an attribute appropriate to their approach (Brains to remember something, or Mouth to ask around)

1 – it’s an old amusement park, long since ruined. There’s always one gang or another trying to get control over it – last thing it was the Blue Vegans, then the White Reapers. Who knows who controls it now?

2 – The White Reapers used to be in control around there, and there’s been lots of gang activity around the roads to it recently – maybe they are expanding their turf, or maybe someone kicked them out.

3 – The prizest prizes in Luckytown are hidden in the Runaway Mine Cart trail – if you can get a cart into the caves below there you are sure to find riches

4 – Luckytown’s main dangers are the animatronic guardians – some of their programming has degraded over time

5 – Owl Man did seem a bit distant recently, complaining that Landslide didn’t let him express himself as much as he could – and that he wished he had more spices

6 – The roads around Luckyland are usually crawling with mutants – these are best avoided by sneaking past

Scene 2 – Road to Luckyland

“Sorry about ambushing you again, man, we’ve just had bad vibes since those vegans came along. Can I get you a sandwich?” Gary, White Reavers leader

The road to Luckyland is rough and ready, and crosses detritus of civilisation – a huge caved-in elephant head, the ruins of a long-raided supermarket, a crumbling motel sign with no motel beneath it.

The roar of motorcycles comes up from in front, and a bike and a sidecar approaches – and several figures dressed in white roar up on a motorcycle with a sidecar. This White Reaver patrol attacks immediately, hoping to gather whatever salvage they can from the PCs here.

Starting – 3 scumbags (p163)
1-Mission – 4 scumbags (p163)
2-Missions – 3 scumbags and 1 ganger (p164)

They can tell, if questioned, their shame – they’ve been kicked out of Luckyland by the Horn-People, a band of mutants. They tried to convince the Blue Vegans to help them by joining forces, but then Gary – their leader – started eating a bacon sandwich and the BVs attacked. The Horn-People are strong and powerful, and have barricaded themselves in the D&D ride – good luck getting in there!

It’s possible that the PCs see the opportunity to enlist the White Reaver’s aid in recapturing Lucklyand, in which case they are taken to meet Gary, who quickly agrees to help.

Scene 3 – Exploring Luckyland

“Luckyland – gateway to the worlds of adventure. Come for the fun, stay for the food!” – Luckyland Animatronic Duck

Exploring Luckyland – the PCs arrive at a ruined, rough-shod amusement park. There’s a Critical Role/D&D section, an Indiana Jones section, a Samurai section, a twisted Disney section – plus whatever the players decide to make up.

They sneak around, trying to gain access and avoid the attentions of the animatronics – to cover this, they should complete a 13th-Age style Montage; have each player describe challenges and approaches in turn. For full details on using Montages, see this article from Pelgrane Press.

After such an exploration, they begin to be afflicted by Luckyland’s radiation. They gain 1 mutagen – remember to roll 1d6, and if it is equal or less than their new score they gain a new mutation (p87)

Scene 4 – The Blue Vegans

“You should leave, NOW – any minute now our plans will coalesce into action and I don’t even know what’s going to happen” Weeper, leader of the Blue Vegans

As they sneak up (or perhaps as a result of their activities in the montage) they come across a group of bearded, half-naked gangers reading and smoking around the staff area – the remains of the Blue Vegans.

There are a total of 8 Scumbags (p163), although they can call for help if needed. They are scouting out to try and regain Luckyland, but are on the point of giving up. The Horn-People come at night and patrol, and the smells they can smell of their cooking seem to be delicious. They will need to be convinced to help reconquer their territory – and they won’t be happy about any alliance with their old enemies the White Reavers.

They tell the players that the Horn-People have stripped Luckyland of most of its best assets and are hiding out in the D&D section below the old mine cart trail – and they certainly seem to be cooking beans a lot now!

Scene 5 – Showdown

“I just wanted to cook my beans, man. It was good at first – then they started getting me to feed the big guy.” – Owl-Man

Although the D&D section is well fortified, they could burst in using the old rollercoaster – a decent Brains roll could jury-rig it to build up enough speed to smash into the Horn-People camp, especially if they have the Blue Vegans or the White Reavers with them.

When they burst in, they will get the drop on a group of Mutants.

Starting: 4 Mutants (p168)
1-Mission: 6 Mutants (p168)
2-Missions: 8 Mutants (p168)

After a couple of rounds, however the combat is going, Owl Man appears and tells them his story. He can’t go back – he reveals his long, sinuous, taste-sensitive tongue. He’s a mutant! Will they take him back and try to persuade Landslide to let him be, or should they just take his secret recipe?

Either way, he tells them they’ve got him working on a secret recipe – they keep feeding his beans to just one mutant, a huge bearlike creature they named after him and are breeding for war they call the Owl-Man-Bear. He’s now a huge, semi-feral creature; whatever negotiations they are able to do with the rest of the Horn-People, the Owl-Man-Bear will not take kindly to his source of food being “rescued.”

Starting: The Owl-Man-Bear (stats as Mongrelmorph, p170) – in this scenario, I’d suggest they only need to survive 3 rounds against it before they escape, maybe with a break-neck race back across Luckyland laden with beans.
1-Mission: The Owl-Man-Bear (stats as Mongrelmorph, p170), 3 Mutants (p168)
2-Missions: The Owl-Man-Bear (stats as Mongrelmorph, p170), 3 Mutants (p168), 3 Addlers (p168)

Epilogue

With Owl-Man rescued, or left with his fellow mutants, the PCs can return to Scrapbridge and tell their tales to Landslide. If Owl-Man’s mutation is revealed, Landslide is initially disgusted, but can be persuaded with the aroma of one of Owl-Man’s delicious bean-pots.

Have each PC narrate a scene of them celebrating their victory (or otherwise) in scrapbridge to bring the one-shot to a satisfying close.

Shadow of the Demon Lord One-Shots

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

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

Start at the right level

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

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

Watch balance

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

Reskin, reskin, reskin

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

Fast Turns and Slow Turns

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

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

Steady with the dick jokes

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

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

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

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

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

You All Notice Different Things

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

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

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

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

Let Perception Deliver Resolution

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

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

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

Perception in the Action Economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have Failure Consequences, or Don’t Roll

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

Have Success Benefits, or Don’t Roll

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

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

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

Use it For Initiative

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

Use it To Bank Resources

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

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

Just Ditch It

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

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

2020: Year In Review

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

Statistics

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

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

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

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

Gaming Highlights

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

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

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

Media Appearances and Other Celebrity

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

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

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

One-Shots

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

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

Onwards to 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Start Big

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

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

End Big

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

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

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

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

Flexible Middle

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

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

PC-to-PC Interaction

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

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

Give Sessions a Name

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

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

So, just like a one-shot?

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