Thirsty Sword Vingans – a Gloranthan setup for Thirsty Sword Lesbians

Following on from my review of Thirsty Sword Lesbians, here’s an example setup to run a game set on the fringes of a drifted Glorantha. You’d be wise to check out that review, and/or the game itself, before deciding if this is for you – if Heroquest/ Questworlds will give you loose story-driven fun, Runequest gives you crunch and immersion, and 13th Age Glorantha gives you big damn heroes smashing chaos – this will give you flirtatious outcasts where the big bits of the Gloranthan setting are secondary to the lives (and loves) of the protagonists.

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These notes follow pretty closely to the campaign set-up advice in the TSL book, with the exception that I’ve provided THREE toxic powers – you can choose any of them to be a focus in your game. I wanted a rival clan, the Lunars, and of course the trolls to all feature.

There’s also an implicit deconstruction of Glorantha’s gender roles in this – while Glorantha has always been openly inclusive of differently-gendered folks – and this might be why your clan has been marginalised by traditionalist clans.

As with all my stuff on Glorantha, canon can get in the sea – some of this deliberately contradicts established Glorantha guidance, and some of it (due to my own limited knowledge of the setting) probably does so accidentally. Your Glorantha May Vary, people – change it back if you want to! Thanks to Newt Newport and Doc Cowie for helping to avoid the most glaring canon errors.

Genre And Tone

Genre: The story is bronze-age mythic fantasy; magic is everywhere and commonplace, as are brutal monsters and cruel Lunar empire guards

Tone: High fantasy, with a side of pulp – fast-talking fast-spearing heroes defending their tribe and slaying monsters. 

Palette: (TBC) by the players

Community

You all live in the Red Bison Tribe, a free-spirited community that has broken off from several other tribes in Dragon Pass

Scale: 50-60 adults live in makeshift huts, a small, isolated tribe who have to broker help from other, stronger, meaner tribes

Positive: The tribe is a welcoming place for any who have ‘offended’ the other tribes – they actively seek refugees. They usually get away with this, as a tribe that is useful for negotiation. They have no defined gender roles – Orlanth and Vinga are one, and Ernalda can have followers of any gender.

NPC: Sorlan, Priest of Ernalda. Spiritual leader of the tribe, they chuckle about how stuffy the free-thinking barbarian tribes are. They still hold such magical power that the other tribes respect them, and they will oversee any dispute. They want the PCs to bring honour and glory to the tribe – make them noticed among the others.

Serious Flaw: Gradually, the other tribes are wary of your spiritual practices. Without official contact with the spirit worlds and other shamans, your faith – and connection to magic – will fade.

NPC: Dorashal, a duck merchant who has turned in with them. She wants the PCs to broker peace with the other tribes, even if it means compromising their values and accepting traditional gender roles.

Location: Behind the village square, a vast Waterfall pours down into a (mostly) shallow pool with stepping-stone rocks across it.

Toxic Power 1: The White Hare Tribe

They threaten the Red Bison Tribe from within – they are an allied tribe, and were sponsors of Sorlan when they broke away from the tribe. They want order – for the Red Bison to conform, and follow the practices of the other Orlanthi tribes, who have already begun to see the Red Bison as a laughing stock. They are dangerous because they hold so much power in the region – politically and militarily – and are brilliant manipulators.

They appeal because they are the richest, most successful tribe – at best, the most Red Bison could aspire to is to be almost like them. Their village sits amidst rolling fields of tall wheat, where hidden hills and paths could trap the unwary swordsman.

Their representative is Parappos, a tall, white-haired beauty whose soft voice belies a ruthlessness.

Toxic Power 2: The Lunar Garrison

They threaten the Red Bison Tribe from without – while most of the Lunars have been pushed out of the Sartarite lands, a garrison remains in an uneasy peace – and they see the welcoming Red Bison as the ideal go-betweens to gain an advantage for their leaders back in Glamour. They are dangerous because their swords and spears are sharp and well-drilled, and they have mysterious moon sorcerers who can parlay with chaos beasts.

They appeal because they have rid themselves of many of the other clan’s superstitions and prejudices, and brought a peaceful civilisation to their cities back home. The garrison roves out from a tightly-built fort on the edge of a hillside, where thin wooden battlements and steep bluffs provide an excellent setting for a duel.

Their representative is Garlia, a stout-armed, shaven-headed warrior who commands respect from all who see it.

Toxic Power 3: The Bright-Eye Trolls

They threaten the Red Bison Tribe from without – their trollkin and man-trolls rove out from their caverns and eat their livestock – rumours are they’d eat the clan themselves if they had the chance! They seek peace – and to be left alone in the caverns – but the human clans are always rustling up trouble, the Red Bison included. They are dangerous because they are massively physically powerful, backed up by hundreds of trollkin, and able to command giant insects and spiders.

They appeal because they have an enlightened matriarchy, where those with spiritual power can divine the correct course of action. They live in natural caverns underground, with treacherous underground rivers and forests of glowing fungus.

Their representative is On-Mokk, a juvenile troll matriarch who often wanders the surface world and is chosen to parlay with humans.

On Chaos

Playing TSL in Glorantha presents a few challenges, key of which is what to do about the looming threat of chaos. Chaos isn’t really a toxic power in the traditional sense – rather, the ongoing fight against it is a backdrop to more interesting, and flirtatious, activities of the PCs. You and a Lunar patrol might end up battling a Gorp in Larnste’s Footprint in the course of your adventures, but the dramatic question isn’t whether you win, but if you catch the eye of that cute himbo moon sorcerer – particularly when you have to wash all the chaos goop off. Also, let’s just not Broo – the whole reproduction thing, along with worshipping the god of disease, makes them problematic.

Instead, see the ongoing fight against Chaos as a faceless backdrop to the more interesting human (and duck! and troll!) relationships that can develop over time.

There is a concept of Chaos as a manifestation of the breakdown of society – corruption and insidious wrongness that manifest through the evils men do. If you want to lean into this, you can make Chaos the outward effects of toxic masculinity – which helps to give your enemy a face, so while you’re fighting Broo with the lunars the real reason they’ve overrun the valley is the arrogant and corrupt tribal leader – you’ll have to convince him to give it up or the Broo will just keep coming back.

Playbook Ideas

The Beast

  • Storm Bull devotee
  • Telmori (werewolf) refugee

The Chosen

  • Ernaldan priestess
  • Tribal leader/orator

The Devoted

  • Chosen of Orlanth / Vinga – a mighty warrior
  • Tribal champion and protector
  • Refugee from a troll tribe

The Infamous

  • Lunar moon-sorcerer refugee
  • Veteran of tribal wars – on the other side

The Nature Witch

  • Speaker of Ernalda
  • Kolat Shaman
  • Centaur / Duck from Beast Valley

The Scoundrel

  • Spear-fighter of Orlanth Adventurous
  • Heretical follower of Yinkin

The Seeker

  • White Hare refugee
  • Disgraced Lhankhor Mhy scholar

The Spooky Witch

  • Conjurer of Ghosts / Spirit-Talker
  • Outcast Troll shaman

The Trickster

  • Chosen one of Eurmal
  • Trickster – maybe a Duck, maybe a human

Review: Are You Thirsty? – Thirsty Sword Lesbians

Thirsty Sword Lesbians (TSL) is a Powered By The Apocalypse (PBTA) game from Evil Hat, designed by April Kit Walsh, of swordplay, queer action hijinx and romance. While this genre might sound weirdly specific, it actually covers a really wide range of genres, while staying really consistent in the kind of adventures you can have in those genres.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

PBTA games really sing when the Moves and Playbooks can tightly support the genre they emulate – I don’t think there’s a better game for teenage superheroes than Masks, for instance, nor slice-of-life Coronation Street petty crime than The ‘Hood. TSL manages to tightly support the play style it shoots for, while still offering a wide range of options. This does potentially make it trickier to one-shot successfully – but I’ve offered some suggestions in the relevant section below about how to make it work.

The Fluff

The link above takes you to .pdf – but it is in print as well at retailers such as Bonhomie (UK)

Within the general style of “sword-fighting romance-seeking lesbians,” everything else is pretty flexible. There are six campaign settings ready-made in the book, from steampunk freedom-fighters to cyberpunk revolutionaries, and six scenarios – shorter-form, more “plotted” games. There’s also a guide to drawing up your own settings and ensuring they match the play style of the game.

Continue reading →

Get A Village – Embedding Setting in One-Shots

It’s easy to ditch the setting if you’re prepping a one-shot; but part of the joy of a #TTRPG is exploring a fantastic world, isn’t it? As to what extent can you get this feeling in a one-shot, there are a few approaches. You could spend the first half-hour explaining the setting and context for your players, but that would be rubbish. How can you show setting through play, without sacrificing pace? Well, here’s one method.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

You Need A Village

The Classic D&D village

Set up a small, coherent, manageable place for your one-shot. A village is the right size for this – give it an obvious theme, and link it to the plot. Show how your inciting incident affects it – the terrible plots of the big bad should have affected the villagers, and let the PCs witness this.

Continue reading →

Heard About The Dungeon? – A Rumour Tables Hack

A staple of the TTRPG adventures I grew up on (mostly from Dungeon magazine) was the rumour table. Before venturing out of the safety of the town to explore the dangerous area (usually a dungeon, obviously), PCs could ask around and get some useful clues about what was going on. Usually, this table contained a mixture of true, false, and almost-true rumours – and which rumour was heard was entirely random.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

I like this idea – a random table is a good way to abstract an evening spent asking around the tavern before the mission. It prevents over-preparation if you have a finite number of rolls on it – and I also like the jeopardy of potentially hearing a false rumour, and the confusion that could cause.

But I’m not as keen on it being entirely random, or the pay-off for a false rumour not being clear. If PCs expect every rumour to be true, they’ll feel cheated when they act on a false one – and similarly, once they realise some are false, they’ll be reluctant to act on actually true rumours in case they turn out to be incorrect.

So, here’s a proposed solution, which I came up with while messing around with my notes for the a potential DM’s Guild submission

The Rumour Check

When you ask around the town for details of the dangerous place, or research such a place in the town records, make a skill check for an appropriate social or research skill. On a success, roll 1d6 on the Rumour Table; on a failure, roll 1d12.

On the Rumour Table, entries 1-6 are filled with TRUE rumours about the place; entries 7-12 are filled with FALSE, HALF-TRUE, or USELESS rumours. It’s worth considering, particularly with the 7-12 entries, whether your rumours will at or subtract from the fun – dire warnings and instructions to, e.g., stay away from the pit traps – are likely to lead to over-cautious players. Try and make them a call to do things in the site rather than not do them.

Why is this an improvement? Well, on a failed roll, the player (and his PC) knows he hasn’t been successful. Maybe he’s chanced upon the town drunk who previously was claiming to be a high elf heir, or the book he’s found is full or lurid, unlikely, or patently false information. Nevertheless, the information gleaned might still be true – there’s a choice to be made as to whether to act on it, knowing it could be false. A successful roll gets rightly rewarded, and the players can be relatively confident that rumour is true.

Of course, you could always roll 1d4 or 1d8 on a 1-8 table, if you’re stuck for ideas – but coming up with 12 is an interesting thought exercise in grounding your dungeon in the rest of the world – what have people heard about it? What has happened before?

Here’s an example, for the freely-available Tomb of the Serpent Kings adventure (which is designed as an intro to OSR-style adventuring, and is excellent – well worth a read even if you never run it).

Result (d6/d12)Rumour
1Tombs of that age were often built with a false tomb to deter robbers – the real treasures lie deeper (true)
2Tombs like this often show mechanical traps near their entrance to deter robbers – in particular anywhere that people don’t travel down, so look out for locked doors and check them for traps (true)
3You might want to pack some holy water and symbols of St Cuthbert – or take a cleric with you – one thing you find in tombs is undead, and I’ve heard of them stalking around the tomb (true)
4Rumours are the serpent people who built the tomb had fell magics, and could even keep themselves alive beyond death – there might still be undead serpent people down there – and who knows what they would make of this world? (true)
5The caves near to the tomb had some raids a few years back – weird fungus-covered goblins, who disappeared as soon as some adventurers sorted them out (true)
6Some adventurers did come and plan to raid the tomb last year, and never returned – either they got too scared to come back to town, or there’s something or someone in those tombs (true)
7There’s an underground chasm near those ruins – who knows what monsters might haunt those depths? (while true, this is of no use)
8If there’s one thing serpent people were scared of, it was fire – they can’t approach a burning torch, so I’ve heard (false, and certainly dangerous)
9There’s a stone golem somewhere down there – disturb the tomb and it’ll wander the world and seek revenge for its snake-masters! (true-ish, but the stone guardian can’t escape)
10We ran an old wizard out of town twenty years ago for necromancy – no doubt he now lairs in the tomb in the hills (false)
11There’s snakes around the hills and in the tomb. Luckily, I’ve got some antidote here – 2gp for a bottle, it’ll sting a bit going down but should help to pass the poison (false, and of course the antidote is cheap liquor cut with boot polish)
12The whole tomb is cursed – if you stay in there on the full moon, you’ll see the snake-men walk out of it and never return (false)

I’ll be using this the next time I write up a dungeony adventure – let me know what you think in the comments or at @milnermaths.

Prep Techniques: The Con Pitch

Previously on this blog I’ve talked about 5-Room Dungeons, Three Places, and Sly Flourish’s Lazy Dungeon Master method. Today I’m going to showcase another technique, which is my starting point for convention one-shots, but can be applied easily to any TTRPG session. It’s more of a pre-drinks technique rather than the actual prep pub crawl, but it’s a good way to go from a blank slate to a sketched-out session – and then you can get the beers in.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

What’s a Con Pitch?

At a convention, you’d write a snappy pitch for your game to entice players to sign up for it; this is either printed out on a sign-up sheet (maybe with some nice art to draw punters in) or posted online so that prospective players know what to sign up for. Like the blurb on the back of a book, it should sell the session and promise excitement and fun! As an example, here’s my pitch for a game of Sentinel Comics at the Owlbear & Wizards Staff convention that’s coming up:

In this terrifying issue, Ray Manta has hatched a devious plan to hold Freedom City to ransom, by kidnapping the hapless Mayor Thomas at the opening of Freedom City Aqualand. After dealing with the aftermath of his kidnapping, the heroes have to track down Ray Manta to his secret underwater base, find him, and battle him and his aquatic friends to save the mayor.

I also include a bit about what the system is, if there’s any PVP, etc – but that’s not relevant here. Writing this pitch is almost the very first thing that I do to prep for a con game – before pregens or scenes. Why? Because it focusses my thoughts into a simple specification for the session. I write this, then come back to it and make a session out of it – starting from this makes prep much more manageable!

What Do You Want From This? – Start with Goals

To get your con pitch ready, start by working out what you want to get out of it. If it’s a con game, you might want to showcase a system or a setting – what are the elements of that that you’d like to foreground?

If it’s for an ongoing campaign game, you might already have an idea of the next logical session that will follow on (in a sandbox game, ask your players at the end of each session what they do next and work from that). Or you might want to highlight or introduce an enemy or setting element they haven’t seen yet. Or highlight a PC; in a recent series of Star Trek Adventures I loosely modelled the first four sessions on spotlighting each of the PCs in turn.

In either case, you might also want to use a cool monster – by starting with an opponent, the rest can be fitted around it. For the purpose of an example, I’m going to pitch a D&D adventure set in Theros – the Greek-ish Magic setting they’ve recently put out (if you’re interested in Theros, as well as my review, check out this character primer and this supplement from Tim Gray – the first one in particular is invaluable for character creation). There’s a bunch of cool new monsters in it, but I’d like to run a one-shot featuring the Hundred-Handed Ones – giants surrounded by floating arms that serve as artisans and have beef with the archons. So let’s start from that point – we want them to fight a Hundred-Handed One at the climax of the adventure.

Notes, Notes, Notes

Before you write your pitch, you might need to fill in some details. For instance, if you’re running D&D or 13th Age, what level the PCs are is important (I’m completely not above reskinning stats to balance against the PCs, as in the 1st-level owlbear antagonist here). For a one-shot, you might work backwards based on your antagonist to work out the level you want your PCs to be – and then you can fill in some more potential opponents. Look at this post about fight rosters for inspiration – and my mantra is that fights are always easy or hard, never medium.

If you have that decided, look at any advice the game has for balancing fights and think about appropriate antagonists, and also exciting action scenes and interesting NPCs. Hold lightly onto these ideas – not all of them will make it, and you certainly won’t put them in your pitch, but it’ll get you in the right brain space to begin to have an idea of the shape of the session.

Look at the setting as well – both in terms of history and events, and what sort of terrain the session will be set in. A useful technique for me is to write down ten components you could put into it – ten might seem like a lot, but it’s in the stretching and uncomfortable thinking that you’ll get your best ideas. Again, not all of these will actually be used, but they give you a good framework.

Thinking about our Theros one-shot, a Hundred-Handed One is CR 15, so a quick eyeball of levels indicates 5 heroes should be at about level 11 or so for a big climactic fight with one and some minions. It’s Theros, so the Gods are everywhere, so let’s have Purphoros, God of the Forge, involved as well – this giant has stolen part of his forge, and seeks to remake the Archons work (which, inconveniently for many heroes, includes many of the cities of Theros) by his own hand in revenge. He’s taken over a Volcano Temple (map in the Theros supplement) and corrupted the priests and guardians to worship him.

Theros contains suggested monsters for Purphoros, so let’s have some CR4 Oreads (fire nymphs) to trick the party, and maybe a pair of CR5 Fire Elementals that can be tricked or bypassed. I like the idea of a four-armed hill giant guarding the entrance, too – should be a nice easy warm-up fight with some terrified cultists to start the session with.  A bit more daydreaming, and my  list of 10 components looks like this:

  1. Battling a hundred-handed giant in the bowels of a volcano-forge
  2. Riddling with corrupted fire nymphs through the temple innards
  3. Geseros, the flame-haired priest of Purphoros with a brass arm who entreats the players for help
  4. A treacherous climb through lava floes to the temple
  5. The forge’s steam-filled cooling system flooding corridors with scalding water
  6. A six-armed hill giant and his four-armed ogre companion who guard the temple for the Hundred-Handed One
  7. Terrified smiths of Purphoros that must be rescured or calmed
  8. A volcano being stoked to erupt and flatten a city – allowing the giant to remake it in their image
  9. A pair of pun-obsessed satyrs, the last explorers to visit the temple, who can offer hints of the terrors within
  10. A reassuring/terrifying intervention by Purphoros if the giant is defeated.

Write Your Pitch

Now, in less than 100 words, pitch your scenario. Start with a grabby opener – say what the key idea of the session is, and make it exciting! Go big with what the stakes are and what the PCs might face. Using questions is a good idea as well – Can you survive the treacherous Akorosian Sea? Will you defeat the mighty Kraken?

Oh, and give it a title – even if it’s a session in an ongoing game, session titles make them exciting and episodic, and give a hook to. If in doubt, just name it after a location – (Adjective) (Exciting Place) of (Noun) is as good a model as any.

Here’s our finished pitch for our Theros one-shot

The Doom-Forge of Purphoros

Purphoros, God of the Forge, calls for aid! His volcano-temple has been desecrated by an ancient, hundred-handed giant, who seeks to reform the city below in his own deadly image. Can you race up the lava floes, battling the corrupted forge-creatures and evading their deadly traps, to prevent the eruption? Or will you fall to Alekto, the Hundred-Handed One, renegade smith of the Archons? A D&D one-shot for five 11th level PCs.

What Next?

Next, wait. Leave the pitch at least overnight – and possibly for much longer, conventions often need games to be confirmed well in advance – and then flesh out the adventure using whatever more detailed prep technique you have. Let me know if you want me to develop the Doom-Forge into a full adventure – and maybe even run it for patrons – in the comments or on twitter @milnermaths.

Making a Session Out Of It – Unsure Footing (Rime of the Frostmaiden)

Ages ago, I started blogging about One Hour One Shots – a chance to get the gist of what a TTRPG was in just an hour, rather than needing a whole session of 3-4. I reviewed some, and even had one published (for free) as a demo scenario for Hunters of Alexandria. My thinking has moved on a bit since then.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

These days, the proliferation of online gaming means most of us are getting used to 2-3 hour long sessions as the norm; and, to be frank, when I get back to face to face gaming I’d be happy sticking with this length as the norm. Good online play is tighter; you tend to get as much done in 2-3 hours as you do in 4-5 hours face to face by minimising cross-chat.

And, while this is going on, Wizards of the Coast appear to be embracing the idea. A lot of 1st level adventures being published now present a series of mini-quests – each taking about an hour to play through – and I’m all in favour of this. The Essentials Box has a series of mini-quests that the PCs pick up in whatever order they want, and Rime of the Frostmaiden begins with a short quest in each of the towns where the action starts.

I’m going to explore drawing these mini-plots out to a full one-shot length in the next few blog posts, coving pulling a one-shot out of a published adventure – starting with expanding a shorter scenario into a full one-shot session.

Rime of the Frostmaiden: Unsure Footing

We’ll start with Unsure Footing, available at the link here from Wizard’s Stay In And Game promotion (under the D&D Celebration 2020 Header). It’s a starter adventure for Rime of the Frostmaiden, so it’s all frozen cursed north, but it also has lots of talking animals in, which is right up my street. It’s actually designed to be four 1-hour adventures where the PCs can complete up to 4 of them, but for this example we’ll just look at Unsure Footing, the first mini-quest they can do.

Fig. 1 – Unsure Footing Basic Structure

Summarising the plot as written, it looks like Fig. 1. The PCs are rescued from an avalanche by some awakened animals, and introduced to a talking walrus called Mother Tusk, who asks them to help her by rescuing some otters who have not returned. They track the otters to find them in a cave full of ice slides pursued by wolves, who they fight. They then have to try to warm up and survive the frozen trek back to safety with the otters. It’s designed to take about an hour.

To begin with, let’s look at what can be fleshed out easily here – the Avalanche scene at the start is a very quick, and peril-free, encounter – let’s make a bit more of that. While it sounds like an exciting scene, an awakened muskrat appears immediately and guides them to safety – there’s no need for the dice to hit the table at all, much less any actual peril.

And an arctic survival challenge to return isn’t much of a finale for a one-shot; the wolves fight could be, but I’m not sure if even on ice slides a fight with a few wolves is big enough. When you rescue the otters, they mention that they were running away from an owlbear, so let’s have him appear at the exit to the caves and a final fight with him. One big bad in D&D is often swingy (and let’s not worry about owlbears being CR 3 for our 1st level party for now), so let’s give him some minions – maybe a flock of evil owls who herald him.

Hacking the avalanche, we can have the muskrat ride to the rescue after a few rounds of avalanche peril – firstly requiring Acrobatics, Athletics, or Survival checks from everybody (keep these relatively easy at DC 8 for now) to avoid taking 1d4 damage from the buffeting snow, and then have a warm-up fight on the shifting snows for a couple of rounds. To foreshadow the ‘big bad,’ we’ll have a flock of owls attack them – at CR 0 they won’t be too much of a threat, but the need to make a skill check each round to maintain footing will be the real challenge. Again, this is more of a warm-up fight, but let’s have 5 owls attack – they can only do 1hp damage a round, so the avalanche is more of a threat than them.

Have the muskrat appear and rescue them on the third round no matter what, and take them to Mother Tusk, where – it is a one-shot after all – they get a slap-up meal of whatever awakened animals can muster and have a Long Rest so they’re all ready for the adventure proper. Not only does the walrus tell them about her otters, but speaks of a terrifying owlbear who has been stalking them, in a pretty-obvious foreshadowing of the big bad. Maybe she even talks of the flock of owls as his heralds.

They can track the otters, find them, and fight the wolves as normal – this is a really cool scene – and let’s have some clues available – the wolves seek to sacrifice the otters to the owlbear to appease them, leaving room for them to join forces when the owlbear attacks.

The ‘getting warmed up in the cave’ bit, I can take or leave. I think the point is meant to be to reinforce how deadly the environment is, but it reads a bit attritional to me – and they’ve got to have a tough fight after this, so I’d be loathe to give my PCs any exhaustion at this stage. I think I’d probably have, depending on the group, one of the below options

  • The “Trad” Option – getting warmed up and out of the ice slide cave is a skill challenge, 5 successes before 3 failures on a DC 10 check of an appropriate skill. On a success they make it out and can compose themselves before the fight – give everyone inspiration. On a failure, they still make it out but are tired and drained – they’ll have disadvantage on all rolls for the first round (including initiative)
  • The “Story” Option – ask the players to montage how they escape – maybe finding another route through the ice caves, encountering other creatures, and making inventive ways to climb up and get warm. You can use the 13th Age Montage system, or just go round and ask for mini-scenes.

And then let’s add a fight with the “owlbear.” Let’s reskin the owlbear as a CR 1 Brown Bear, but with Beak instead of Bite and darkvision. A quick calculation shows that having 6 CR 0 Owls with him should make for an encounter just between Hard and Deadly for 5 PCs, and if they have the wolves helping them we could beef up the number of owls a bit.

And there you are – a con-length one-shot from a short mini-encounter. In the next post I’ll dig into ways to do this more generally from mini-adventures (including looking at one for WFRP instead of D&D) and how this can work.

Cut to the Chase Scene – 5 In Medias Res Starts for your One-Shot

I’ve blogged before about the importance of a strong start in your one-shots, and a good way to achieve that is to start in medias res – in the midst of the action.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

In Medias Res as a term was coined by Horace in his Ars Poetica, when he pointed out that Homer’s games of D&D he was running down the Parthenon didn’t start ab ovo – with the dragon hatching from the egg – but right in the middle of a pitched battle against orcs. Or something like that. What it means for us is a reliable way to get dice rolling within the first twenty minutes – and get the pace tripping along right from the start.

So, here are 5 In Medias Res’s to get your one-shots off to a bang.

The Previous-Quest-Maguffin

Gamma World’s famous flow-chart – more fun to look at than play through, in my experience

Begin at the end of the last adventure – where they find a fantastical item that spurs them on to the main quest. A good chance for an ‘easy’ section of dungeoning – a ‘training level’ – to get the item, and then some problem solving / roleplay to interpret the item and pick up the trail.

Credit to Dirk the Dice of The Grognard Files who did this in a memorable Gamma World one-shot that I’ve shamelessly stolen (both here, and in other con games) – in that game we used the infamous artifact flowchart to decipher the mission.

Trapped in the Tomb

Don’t just start at the door to the dungeon, have the party on the wrong side of it as the trap triggers and the door closes behind them. You might want to have another peril activate at the same time, just to lay it on thick that they need to find a way out – as well as whatever they came here for in the first place.

Note that if you’re doing this you’ll need some NPCs or other roleplaying opportunities in the tomb/dungeon/derelict space station in order to make this more interesting – so throw in a chatty mummy/off-message AI/reactivated golem for the PCs to interact with and help/hinder them as well.

The Contest

You don’t think just anyone gets to represent the king while plundering the treasures of the forgotten jungles? No, every year you must compete for the privilege against the nations most foolhardy heroes. Feel free to have some of the failed contestants travel over there anyway as a rival adventuring party – that the PCs will eventually have to save and/or fight.

In terms of pacing, don’t make the contest too long, or it might become the focal point of the whole session – a few skill checks or a simple combat should be enough. Last year I started a Legend of the 5 Rings campaign with each PC describing the gift they’d brought for the daimyo they’d appeared to serve, and then make a skill check for how successful their gift had been – and one bushi’s terrible sake became a recurring theme for the whole campaign.

In Medias Res-ervoir Dogs

The heist (dungeon crawl, assassination, saving the city, etc…) went wrong – or at least drew a lot of heat. Now they’re on the run, trying to escape and fix things. A good way to start with a chase scene – either using the RPGs chase mechanics or just some opposed skill checks or a fight.

This is a good example of a fight with a clear objective – and an opportunity to intersperse the scene with flashbacks of the actual job they’re running from. Note that in Reservoir Dogs they just lie low and chew scenery at each other – diverge from the film in your game and have them carry out the even bigger score that will make things right, hunt down the contact who betrayed them, or finally get the jewels back.

Zombies Attack!

Wherever the PCs are at the start (tavern, castle, space station, etc…) is suddenly subject to an invasion. A recent session of Deadlands I played in started with zombies crawling through the saloon floor, and it’s a well tested method for starting with a bang.

As with Trapped in the Tomb, you’ll need to make sure there’s a few NPCs for the PCs to interact with during the session so it’s not just a string of fights, but having the call to action be an actual invasion is a classic trope. See here for more ideas about managing invasions – you might want to think about what weakness of the attackers can be exploited, and how they can find it, for instance.

So, five ways to start your one-shot with a bang – what other ways have you seen a one-shot started? Let me know in the comments.

How to Play One-Shots

Looking on the horizon to the tentative return of in-person conventions, it’s worth talking about how to be a good player at a convention. As I’ve said before, in order to run good one-shots, the best thing you can do is play lots of them, and I certainly try to have a 50% running / 50% playing in my campaign and one-shot play (current 2021 figures show a 49%/51% running/playing split, which I can live with!)

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

A convention is a great opportunity to experience different GMing styles, see a system in action, and consider how you would run a similar game – and it’s great to try to be the best players we can be. So, here goes – my top 5 tips to be a great player in a one-shot TTRPG.

Be Prepared

Standard stuff here: arrive on time, talk to the other players, introduce yourself and them, try to make the start of the game as smooth as it can be. I know GMs should do this as well, but your GM has the next three hours to worry about as well, so cut them some slack if they don’t remember everything – pick up the slack.

An empty game table with lots of dice, notes, character sheets, card names, and D&D books
Don’t rely on the DM to bring all those dice!

Bring pencils, dice, that sort of thing. Be helpful about suggesting breaks – it can be difficult to read the energy of the table if you’re GMing. In terms of rules, if you’re familiar, feel free to suggest – but remember it’s the GMs game. If there’s a fumble for a ruling, or a need to look stuff up – volunteer to do it, or if you’ve a suggested fix, suggest it – you can help to keep the pace flowing. If you know the system, you can always volunteer to track initiative or do any of those little housekeeping things that come up sometimes.

Be a Good Plot-Hook Doggo

I went through a six month period of running a lot of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4e (WHFRP) at cons when it first came out. I always included a rat catcher in the pregens, as a nod to a classic WFRP trope – they begin play with a “small but vicious dog.” I didn’t realise until I started running, but that dog was a godsend. Any time the players needed a nudge in the direction of plot, their dog would run off – often after real or imagined sausages (lean into the tropes, everyone).

And as a player, you should be that dog. Tilt for likely plot hooks – don’t turtle, and pull your fellow PCs with you. Presented with a hook, your job is to wolf it down and try and swallow the fishing line, and don’t hold back. Pursue where you think the plot is aggressively, and you’ll help everyone at the table.

Play Up

“Playing Up” is a concept from LARP about supporting other players by giving them cool opportunities to shine. You ask the other character questions, try to give them opportunities to show their character off, make the spotlight time for them.

One of the hardest things to encourage as a con GM is speaking in character – take this on-board and help to encourage it. Rather than comment on what your character sees, ask another PC about it. Do the same in combat, too – speak while doing your action in-character to make your spotlight shine, and suggest tactics in-character (if it’s that sort of game).

Have A Shtick

Similar to this, it helps to have a “shtick” for your PC – pick up on a roleplaying quirk like you would an NPC and lean into it a little. It’s unlikely to be annoying over the three hours as long as you keep pointing towards the plot, and it will encourage everyone else to bring something to the game as well.

Standard improv advice says, incidentally, to always do the obvious thing unless you’ve got an obviously better idea – so do this. Orcs burst through the door – attack them! Your other players can be the voices of reason – be prepared to tilt at windmills.

Show You’re Having Fun

Listen actively – especially if online, smile and nod, and help to bring some energy to the table. Look, I know at F2F cons this can be difficult on the second or third day, when sleep deprivation and the energy of running games and drinking beer hits – but you’ve been there as a GM when the table looks back at you like they’d rather be asleep. Help you GM out by showing enthusiasm and responding positively to his ideas, especially at the start. GMing at cons is hard – the best of us get nervous about it at the time. So help them out by being the best player you can be.

There you go, five tips to be a better player. What would you add to this? Let me know in the comments or at @milnermaths.

Prep Techniques / Review – Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master

For the next of my series of Prep Techniques, which so far includes 5 Room Dungeons and Three Places, I’m going to multiclass into a review. Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, by SlyFlourish, is a 96-page guide to session, and campaign, prep – with lots more besides.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

It’s a great method for session prep – and it wouldn’t be fair for me to try and abbreviate it here. Mike talks a lot of sense, and I think I agree with him about almost everything (he’s not a fan of Skill Challenges, and that’s where we disagree!) You can hear him on the Smart Party interview here, or check out his YouTube channel (which has got some great walkthroughs of prep, including of D&D published adventures). He’s an active blogger, and the blog complements the book well with lots of examples of it in practice.

The Fluff

First up, the title is a little broader than it implies with the “Dungeon Master” term. While it’s true this method has its origins in D&D, and the examples through the book prep a D&D session, it’s broadly applicable to any RPG and genre. I ran a Legends of the 5 Rings campaign using this method for every session (and the campaign approaches here), and I’m sure it would be relevant to any genre or style.

In fact, a lot of the core ideas point towards running a more narrative game, and so this prep method is eminently suitable for this. In particular, the Secrets and Clues section is a great way to think about your game without holding onto ideas too tightly – his prep method gives a broad canvas for the session to take place on, which PBTA and FITD games need.

The Crunch

It presents an 8-step method for session prep, starting with considering the characters, and moving all the way towards magic item rewards. Further sections of the book dismantle this list, and trim it down as far as 3 steps, depending on time available and other ideas.

As a bare minimum, your 3-step prep is a Strong Start (an action or exciting scene – could be, but not always, a fight) – some Secrets and Clues (ten things that the PCs discover – not tied to locations, NPCs or scenes) – and three or more Fantastic Locations (exciting places that will feature in the adventure). Additional steps add more background and flavour, and all are designed to be efficient in terms of fun at the table compared to prep time.

There’s also guidance on building campaigns (using Dungeon World-style Fronts) and about linking ongoing sessions as well – but the Secrets and Clues sections really is the brilliant idea at the core of this. By separating knowledge discovery from specific encounters, the GM (DM?) can be liberal with information and have them appear where players want to go.

The One-Shot

The prep style described here is very suitable for a one-shot, although I’d adapt a few stages. The first step – where you consider the characters and their skills and abilities – is similar to starting with pregens, building them and having them in mind – and for me I like to have a clear idea of not just my starting scene but also what my ending will look like – for a one-shot I think it’s important to end on a high, too.

There’s great advice about improvising NPCs, and adding more narrative stuff to play, that are particularly relevant to one-shot play – having a good hook to hang your NPC portrayal on, and allowing players to own some of their triumphs, is a great technique for a con game.

In short, I can’t really recommend this enough – and I’d urge you to try it out for whatever system or game you’re running. I’ve not really looked at the previous book (the Lazy Dungeon Master) – but I think it is distinct, and this review has made me dig it out and take a look – so I’d recommend much of his work.

Fighting Talk, Part Two – Dangerous Places

In the previous post, I talked about planning your battles in terms of the enemies you face. I’m going to talk about the setting of the battle now – both in terms of where it fits into your plot and the actual battlefield.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

I’m going to talk about three things you can mix up to make your fights more dynamic – objectives, terrain, and traps – and give some options you can pick from for each of these. In most cases, less is more – you don’t need more than one or two of these options in each fight to make it interesting, and too many will slow the fight down. In lots of cases, these will make it a more challenging fight for the PCs, too – so you might need to bear that in mind when planning your opposition.

Objectives

Terrain (map from 2 Minute Tabletop) in full use in Vaesen

The default fight objective in TTRPGs can often be “kill all these monsters” – and while this is simple and has clear victory conditions, it’s not the most interesting in terms of interacting with your environment – optimal strategy is usually to just avoid dangerous areas of the map and engage you opponents as quickly as you can. Better to think about where the fight fits into the narrative of the game and pick from one of these for at least one of the fights in the session:

  • Escort an NPC to safety – you just need to get a trusted NPC across the map. Give them an action if you like, so they can draw trouble to the PCs by trying to ineffectively attack themselves.
  • Steal an item from an opponent. The caves may be crawling with goblins – but you just need to get the shaman’s headdress and get out again. If the players want to stealth through instead of fighting, I’d use a skill challenge.
  • Traverse the area – maybe all the PCs need to do is get across the map in one piece. Their opposition may be very numerous, but they don’t have to defeat them all.
  • Hold the line – the PCs need to defend a defensible position. Again, if there’s cover and support, they can survive a slightly tougher opposition. Of course, this can be inverted – have them assault a position themselves.

There are plenty more options – for more ideas, look to skirmish board/minis games scenarios, who are often really inventive with what the PCs have to do – and provide mechanical support which you can adapt for your game. Video games, too, often have interesting mission objectives you can use.

Terrain

How many fights in TTRPGs basically take place in featureless arenas? Or, worse, neat dungeon corridors? Mix it up by including some terrain types, and either force or encourage the PCs to interact with them

  • Strew the battlefield with “difficult” terrain that hampers movement. If you have a possible path or clearing in it, this gives a place for the opposition to defend – and of course missile combat will be more effective in this fight if the PCs can’t engage enemies as quickly as before
  • Provide cover in open spaces, and have enemies use it. Once the PCs notice that the goblins are hiding behind the columns, they’re likely to start using them too.
  • Choke points – bridges over rivers or chasms, or routes through otherwise impassable terrain – allow a part of the battlefield to become more important, and give some level of tactics to the fight
  • Higher and lower ground. Put archers on the top of inaccessible columns, forcing the players to climb them or try and snipe them from below. Place the NPC that needs rescuing at the foot of a pit so they have to fight their way back out. Height advantage makes your battles more dynamic and interesting.

You can check your rules system of choice for rules for each of these – most trad TTRPGs betray their wargaming origins in covering this pretty well – but feel free to just busk them for the scenario. A simple bonus or penalty to attacks or defence can go a long way to providing flavour.

Traps

I’m not a huge fan of the isolated trap, the random pit in a dungeon that is either a slight inconvenience or an arbitrary fatality – but put those traps in a dynamic environment like a battlefield and I’m much more interested.

  • Pit traps can, of course, litter the floor – and the opposition will usually know where they are. Arrow tripwires, too, can be used – make sure you allow players a chance to survey the battlefield once one triggers (maybe a good use for a Perception check?) so they can discover them, rather than have them at the mercy of these with nothing they can do about them.
  • Random terrain elements that are active – maybe that pit of lava belches poisonous gas at the end of every round, or one of the columns collapses at random as the temple shakes itself apart. Again, offer clues as to what their nature is and allow PCs to mitigate their effects through careful play.
  • Man-made terrain and traps – trenches and other siege defences – show that the opposition have been planning for this.

Sources of Inspiration

I’ve talked already about using board games and video games as inspiration sources, but there are a few TTRPG products that add to this.

  • A lot of D&D4e scenarios have excellent battle design, as you’d expect for a game that put a lot of effort into making fights fun. Lots of these adapt well, but in particular Dungeon Delve – a series of mini-adventures for a range of levels – has lots that can be stolen and adapted
  • For a less map-driven example, the 13th Age Battle Scenes offer a similar set of mini-adventures based around (usually) three fights, designed to offer a dynamic challenge.
  • If you want some sci-fi examples, the Wrath and Glory adventures Bloody Gates and On The Wings of Valkyries offer examples of how a battlefield-based adventure can be run and made less map-reliant. Presenting a battle as a sequence of linked scenes is a great approach – see in particular how clearing the minefield is presented in Bloody Gates.
  • For another genre approach, the encounter building advice in Sentinel Comics Roleplaying Game is excellent – thinking in terms of environments, challenges, and opponents – most of whom are Minions or Lieutenants – gives some excellent advice for building dynamic encounters, some of which inspired these posts.

I’m sure I’ve missed some off – so let me know what else you’d say is good battle-building advice.