A few weeks ago I ran a one-shot game of James Mullen’s The ‘Hood at Revelation in Sheffield, a convention devoted entirely to Powered by the Apocalypse (PBTA) games. Now, to read over the internet, PBTA games come with some very clear received wisdom about them – that they work best over a short to mid-length campaign, allowing for character development, deepening relationships, and a sense of engagement with some of the longer-term moves. I guess that’s why at cons you often see them in linked 2- or 3-slot mini-campaigns, rather than in stand-alone 4 hour slots.
Myself, I’ve struggled a bit with running these games before at conventions – the lack of prep and ‘play to see what happens’ left me on edge in a game of Monsterhearts that I ran a few years ago – it worked, I think, but I felt two steps away from a cliff of not knowing what would happen at all times, having to dance around on my feet to keep an interesting plot around the PCs. Running The ‘Hood (and some games in between), I modestly think I might have cracked some of these ‘myths’ about PBTA games, and about some of the ways they can work in a 3 hour slot.
Myth 1: A one-shot PBTA game will not be a satisfying experience – FALSE
You do need to do some legwork to make this happen, but there are a few straightforward tricks that work for this.
(a) Start the PCs on 3 experience. A couple of failed rolls / hitting triggers, and somebody is going to get an Advancement after about an hour, particularly if you’ve got XP on failure and they are rolling poorly. Advancement is a great feature of PBTA games, and really easy for players to do, and this brings it into the mix and makes it an actual feature of the game.
(b) Start the PCs with some ‘trouble’. In The ‘Hood, you have a Heat track that measures – I guess – social damage, how much trouble you’re in. When it hits 5, you’re in over your head and out of the game – arrested, killed, whatever. After seeing James Mullen do this in a game at Spaghetti Conjunction previously, I started everyone on 2 Heat. It meant that this was a credible threat, and somebody did get Burned by the end of the 3 Hour session. I know that the team behind Urban Shadows have given similar advice about Corruption moves – make sure the players start with some Corruption.
(c) Love Letters. These originated (in the heady days when the only PBTA game was, well, Apocalypse World) as letters to each player asking them about what they’d been doing previously, often with a move attached or some game choices to embed them in a situation. This seemed awkward in my game not knowing much about how the players had imagined their characters, so I went with a few scripted questions to cement them in some ongoing plots – you’ll see them on my prep sheet which I’ll be posting here next week. On the day I didn’t use all of them – but I had them ready to add more stuff.
Myth 2: You should do zero prep in advance of running a PBTA game, and “play to see what happens” – FALSE
I’m completely behind the idea that a plotted adventure will lead to a not-satisfying PBTA experience, and I’ve played in a few where this happened – games where we were playing a traditional game with a rules-light 2d6 system and a lot of handwavey stuff around initiative and other implicit elements of traditional games. But you can do situations, and lists, and stuff. Some games in advance of Revelation tried to get players to do pre-game setup, but I just went as far as getting them to pick playbooks. This was really useful for me, because I could then work out some ‘love letter’ type things and come up with a very basic plot – a dubious collection mission for some bailiffs with no questions asked – and a few NPCs.
I did all the Neighbourhood design stuff in The ‘Hood at the table – I put out a big piece of paper and we followed the game’s procedures to design the immediate setting and some juicy NPCs. Then as the loose plot set off – based from a hard-framed starting scene – I just used these NPCs whenever I could.
So, to put some detail on it, I had a patron / antagonist approach them and offer them the job – I imagined this would be in the PC’s local boozer, and had some idea what that would look like. By asking questions of the players and putting their NPCs (established in setup), this happened during the pub quiz that The Matriarch was running, where The Fallen (a corrupt policeman playbook) was out having an awkward drink with his do-gooding partner and her friend – a newly-working-in-the are social worker who was onto The Blur’s scam running at the old folks’ home down the road. I made sure they were all in the same location by just saying to the players that we were going to all start in the pub and letting them work out why and how they were there – from which it emerged that The Matriarch obviously ran the quiz every week.
Myth 3. PvP interactions are part and parcel of PBTA games – well, actually, TRUE
Unless maybe you’re playing Dungeon World, but even then there’s a lot of scope for ‘soft’ PVP where the party will end up making decisions that some players aren’t happy with. There are some ways to try and moderate the game from going full blood opera, though – mainly by having obviously antagonistic NPCs (to all or just some of the players) that mean the players will head for them first rather than immediately turning on each other.
On the subject of NPCs, I think that probably 2-3 per PC is probably enough – you won’t use them all, but it’s worth giving some options so you can see which ones are most interesting. All of my NPCs, apart from the antagonist, were created with the players – and this meant they were much more interesting than I could have created.
I do think that you’d do well to make it clear that PVP might happen at the start of (or even in advance of) the game – some players really don’t like it and will have a poor experience playing if it features – and it’s good to give players permission to do things like this to avoid any awkwardness if they think one of the players is just being annoying.
To finish up, a few other quick observations:
4. You need to print out enough Basic Moves sheets for everyone at the table to have one – including yourself. Sounds obvious, but you really really need to do this!
5. Restricting the playbooks is fine, and makes your prep easier if you don’t have the luxury of pre-booked players you can get to choose in advance, but I’d really recommend doing character generation at the table, as well as any procedural setup to do with relationships / bonds / other players – it’s worth spending a decent chunk of your play time on this, because it’ll make the rest of it better. In a 3 hour session, we spent about 50 minutes doing setup – then had a 10 minute break for me to look back and my prep and work out where their NPCs fitted in – and then played for 2 hours.
As I said, the game went well, and I’ll certainly be running it – and other PBTA games – at conventions again. What are your experiences of PBTA one-shot games, and is there any further advice I’ve missed? Next week, I’ll share my actual prep notes for the game – all 2 pages of them.