The 3-Session Campaign Part 2 – Build to the Finish!

In Part 1 of this series, I talked about setting up and planning a 3-session mini-campaign, with a focus on online play specifically (although most of the techniques are just as applicable to face-to-face play). Here, I’ll talk about what to put in Sessions 2 and 3, and where to shift focus.

Between 1 and 2 – Review, Check Focus, Get Feedback

After Session 1, you’ll have a good idea how well your drafted plot is going to fit into the group of players you have. It’s a good chance before the next session to look at your plans for Sessions 2 and 3 and see if they will fit. Also, if the players have established or given detail to any NPCs or parts of their backstory in Session 1, you should try and incorporate them into the coming sessions, to give them a sense of placement in the world.

I’m terrible (which GM isn’t?) at getting feedback from players, and now is a chance to check in with them if there’s anything they like or don’t like about the way the game seems to be going. If any want to tweak their characters, this is a point where I’d let them, after they’ve seen them in play. I’d also be quite generous with experience and rewards as PC development also makes the campaign feel more epic.

Session 2 – Walk Across Middle Earth and Have Some Fights

As the subtitle suggests, you’re looking at The Two Towers here; characters should be developed enough their personalities should be emerging through play, so this session should be a fast-paced series of challenges and activities that give context for character development and roleplay.

In terms of pacing this session, it’s likely that if you gave the characters multiple options at the end of Session 1 you have to make whichever solution they pick the most interesting, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this in this format of game (or, basically, ever – but I think that’s another discussion to have!). By the end of this session, the PCs should be in no doubt that they are approaching the climax of their quest – if your game calls for a climactic confrontation at the end, feel free to end Session 2 just before it – don’t feel you need to save extra content for Session 3.

Session 3 – Final Confrontation, then Jumping on Frodo’s Bed

By this stage, you probably have a fair idea of any subplots that your PCs have developed in advance of the final climactic battle, and it’s a good idea prior to this to have a look through this and try and re-incorporate any loose ends into the session. The majority of this session will be the final confrontation with the ‘enemy’ you have set up, and you should pull out all the stops for this. This is the stage at which you can, and should, put up the “death flag” and be prepared for PCs to make the ultimate sacrifice; leave the players in no doubt that this is the end of the campaign.

But leave enough time for a look at the world after the end of the campaign too, to set it in context and provide some finality for the characters that your players have invested in. It doesn’t have to be quite as corny as the scenes in Return of the King where they all visit Frodo, but short vignettes of each PC’s life immediately following, and perhaps further in the future from, the climax of the adventure help to set the game in context.


So, that’s my plan to get more online play into my life – although most of the plans are taken from running short campaigns in real life. What are your online gaming plans to make finite-length campaigns easy to schedule? Do you have any other preferred methods for online play, or have a favourite medium to use for it? Hope to see some of you at games in the future – either round a table or at the other end of a Hangouts screen!

The 3-Session Campaign Part 1 – stretching the One-Shot format

I’ve blogged before about making the one-shot RPG ultra-short, and also about how a one-shot can be slightly longer form. One of the things I’m pondering as we come to the new year is how I’m going to get more online gaming done next year (via Hangouts / Skype), and I’ve come across the crux of the dilemma (for me anyway, but I suspect a lot of gamers).

Thing is, I don’t have the time to commit to a weekly (or even fortnightly) game – either face to face or over G+ – and so an ongoing campaign seem unlikely. And my own limited experience suggests that one 2/3-hour online session doesn’t quite have the hit of a regular convention one-shot. The medium means you don’t get quite as much contact, even if you’re playing with folks you know in real life, and it takes a while for characters to develop and become enjoyable to play.

So, I’m going to propose myself a solution: the 3-session Campaign. Three 2-hour online sessions, preceded by a not-necessarily-concurrent chargen and setup session. I’m hoping that this format will let me get more online gaming done, and that it might work for people with similar scheduling difficulties to me. I should note that this is advice I’ve largely gathered from my experience running face-to-face for 3-sessions, but I’ve put it in the context of online play because I think it provides a useful solution to the scheduling difficulties above.

The Pre-Session: Chargen and Links

In this session, which I’d go over a chat app like Facebook Messenger or a private G+ community, I’d get my players to generate characters (or generate them myself with their guidance / support if they aren’t familiar with the system) and build links between the PCs. I’d try in generating characters to follow good examples from one-shot play to ensure, for instance, that there are sufficient differences between characters and the group fits together with some consistency, as there won’t really be scope for this to develop during play to iron it out.

While some games have structures for this (Dungeon World’s Bonds, Apocalypse World’s Hx splits) that require some turn taking, the order of these is mostly arbitrary, so there’s no real need for everyone to be online at once – or, if they are, they can be sat doing something else with the phone/tablet at their side carrying out the process.

For games without this process, I’d try and establish connections – maybe with focused questions, which could be as basic as “how do you know X?” or, for instance, “when was the last time you brought a PC back from the brink of death?” (for a cleric PC). While this is going on, I’ll scribble it all onto a relationship map that I’ll then share so everyone has an up-front picture of the rest of the party – it especially helps in online play to know who the face at the bottom of the screen is pretending to be. In terms of sharing resources, for online play I think it’s helpful to have a precis of the setting and access to at least the basic rules so that players can engage with these and be ready to go from the off.

Session 1 – Your Regular One-Shot

The structure I tend to use for 3-session play is the movies of The Lord Of The Rings; for this first section, you’ve already done a substantial chunk of the exposition in the pre-session prep chat. I’d follow the regular introductory one-shot format for this: a task set for them to do, a practice combat/action sequence (to clear out any rusty rules), some investigation, and a final conflict that can be a little harder and reveals the extent of the problem facing them.

Pacing is key here; although in my experience, while online play does demand more focus from the players, the interface encourages it – everyone really does have to listen to every other player speaking, because if you don’t pay attention, you’ll be lost. Any rules clarifications, pass them to another player to resolve in text chat – and feel free to make notes of anything in that chat as well. My best experiences of online play have been basic in terms of technical aptitude – there’s nothing wrong with letting players roll their own dice and telling you what they get, and I’ve enjoyed having that physical connection to the game rather than using a dice roller (until I have a run of bad luck – then I usually switch to the dice roller).

I’d also recommend Session 1 being fairly obvious in terms of what the PCs should do and what the campaign is about. Chekov’s Gun applies here as it does in all one-shots; if you introduce an NPC, a location, or a faction at play in Session 1, if the players are interested in it you should make sure it re-appears in Sessions 2 and 3.

Well, that’s how to set up and run the first session of a 3-session campaign; tomorrow I’ll look at Sessions 2 and 3 and the prep between them.

Xanathar’s Guide to Random Tables – adding story to D&D5e

D&D 5th edition is a bit of a gap in my gaming experience. While it’s hardly explicitly designed for one-shots (for me D&D hews pretty closer to the zero-to-demigod progression than any other levelled game), I’ve had great experiences playing it. It captures the sweet spot of nostalgia and actually working. I’ve never actually run it, but certainly intend to set that right in the new year. And, like Starfinder, it certainly can support one-shot play – a lot of its complexity is hidden in easily-parsed references to older editions!

Storifying D&D: it can / can’t / should / shouldn’t be done!

A common thread about ten years ago on various Indie game communities used to be how to add storygaming elements to ‘trad’ games like D&D. It was met with a range of responses, from the zealous “you shouldn’t bother, just play a game that will actually support what you want to do” to more helpful suggestions, like John Aegard’s excellent piece on making D&D 4th edition a player-led sandbox.

The foundation for story-based games lies in character (or pregen) generation – if you have characters with links to the world and NPCs in it, beliefs and motivations to act beyond money and orcslaying, everything else will come, and feel natural. So after a preorder of the new Xanathar’s Guide to Everything arrived and sparked a guilt about how little attention I’d given 5th edition, I decided to give it a run through.

Xanathar’s deserves a proper review on here when I’ve fully dissected it for one-shot play, because apart from a bunch of sub-classes, encounter design guidelines, additional uses for equipment, it also contains a few pages of shared campaign guidelines (which are absolutely golden if you want to design a one-shot, brief though they are). But what initially caught my eye were the piles of random tables.

A lot has been made of the random tables that have returned for D&D5e, and I can’t get enough of them. Right there, using the ones in the PHB alongside those in Xanathar’s, you can randomly generate characters with rich, punchy backstories. I tested them out by rolling up a 1st level human fighter, Robert (oh yeah, his name was random as well – there’s 18 pages of random name tables at the back of the book as well). The tables for family backstory, combined with the backgrounds from the PHB, have made my ‘standard issue peasant fighter’ into something much more exciting, an army deserter using adventuring to find his estranged father. Don’t believe me – here’s his rough character sheet, with the table results combined with a pre-written backstory (NB: I’ve kept any links to the background and location deliberately vague, with only a dubious-evil Baron for Robert to rage against)


Race: Human (5′ 7″, 154 lbs)

Class: Fighter

Background: Folk hero

Alignment: Neutral Good

S 16, D 15, C 15, I 11, W 14, Ch 11

Languages: Common, Orc

HP 12; AC 19

Proficiencies: All armour, shields; simple weapons, martial weapons; carpenter’s tools, vehicles (land)

Saving Throws: S +5, D +2, C +4, I +0, W +2, Ch +0

Skill Proficiencies: Animal Handling, Athletics, Perception, Persuasion

Fighting Style: Defense (+1 to AC when wearing armour)

Second Wind: Use a bonus action to regain 1d10+1 hp each short/long rest

Combat: Longsword +5; 1d8+3 slashing. Light crossbow +4; 1d8+2 piercing. Dagger +5; 1d4+3 piercing.

Equipment: Chain mail, longsword, shield, light crossbow (20 bolts), explorer’s pack, carpenter’s tools, shovel, iron pot, common clothes, belt pouch with 18gp, dagger.


Origin: Know who your parents are; born at home; no siblings. Raised by single mother (father was imprisoned); modest lifestyle with no permanent residence – you moved around a lot; others saw you as different and strange, so you had few companions

Background decision: A mad old hermit spoke a prophecy when I was born, saying I would accomplish great things

Fighter training: I joined the army and learned how to fight as a group

Defining Event: You broke into a tyrant’s castle and stole weapons to arm the people

Personality: If someone is in trouble, I’m always ready to lend help

Ideal: Sincerity – there’s no good in pretending to be something I’m not

Bond: I have a family, but I have no idea where they are. One day, I hope to see them again

Life Events: A relative bequeathed you a simple weapon, spent time working in a job’

Flaw: I have trouble trusting my allies


Born to simple carpenters, the prophecy that the mad gnome Oppleby spoke when Robert was born would prove to be his downfall. His father stayed at home from the work-gang to care for Robert following the prophecy, and though they tried to evade the Baron, Robert’s father was captured and imprisoned soon after by the Baron’s men. As Robert and his mother Emma moved from town to town, earning what little they could from odd jobs and the kindness of strangers, Robert’s heartbreak at seeing his father dragged away led to steely resolve to find his captors and bring them to justice.

Knowing he would need a strong sword arm to bring the Baron to justice, he joined the army, where he quickly became successful as a carpenter in the engineering division while his martial expertise grew. But seeing the lash of his sergeant’s whip on his comrades, Robert fled the army, defecting with his squad after stealing from the company supplies. In the escape his squad-mate Manfred was fatally injured, and he gave Robert the engraved dagger his own father had given him, begging Robert to continue his quest.

Robert found himself again moving from town to town, and making use of what carpentry skills he had, until the opportunity for adventure and making good on his prophecy came to him. He knows he will only bring danger to his mother if he returns to her, but still seeks to find his father, and free him from the Baron’s oppression.

See what I mean? It’s corny, and I guess a little obvious, but the table results just determined that juicy backstory naturally. Later I’ll be blogging here about adapting published adventures, but for a party including Robert you can bet that either (i) the Baron’s men are all over town getting in his way, and/or (ii) the adventure’s big bad has links to the Baron. Have you got any examples of how random tables can develop grabby character backgrounds?

An Xmas Mixtape (a Mixtape is like a Spotify Playlist from olden times)

This blog is now 8 months old. While I’ve not maintained it with as much regularity as I’d foolishly expected, I’ve spent a bit of time reviewing my content – and taken the step to actually shell out some cash to make this ad-free (sorry, those of you who were wanting the chance to win an iPhone 10 every time you clicked the link).

I’ve got big(ish) plans for the blog next year, and am planning to get serious about writing (and editing) RPGs more widely – while it’s only a tiny one-shot, seeing Bite of the Crocodile God get art and layout has convinced me to get my act together a bit more.

My plan in the new year is to continue with a mixture of different things, all through the lens of one-shot play. In the meantime, in case you’ve missed them, here’s a mixtape of what you can expect more of:

Reviews, with a particular focus on one-shot play – I started trying to do all of the Fate Worlds series, but I got a bit distracted – this is probably my favourite, of the frankly bonkers Masters of Umdaar

Prep and play advice, such as this post which I’ll be rereading before Revelation (the Powered-by-the-Apocalypse convention in Sheffield, UK) on prepping PBTA one-shot games

Rules tweaks, like this for making Cypher system (and other games’) experience system fun

And the occasional beard-stroking bit of sentimentality, like this post about the nature of the hobby, and why you shouldn’t feel guilty about all those game books on your shelves.

I’m hoping to get some actual ready-to-play one-shots on the blog as well, and have several percolating in various stages ready for editing and uploading. I haven’t forgotten about the #1H1S thing, either – so expect more about running 1 hour RPG sessions soon too.

And, in case I haven’t said before, thanks for reading. I hope you continue to enjoy it. Anything else you’d like to see, stick it in the comments!

Trains and Games

As I write this, I’m sat on a train just south of Doncaster, on my way to the Dragonmeet convention in London. I’ve been listening to The Smart Party podcast say that everyone who’s been a guest on their show will probably be there, and they’re probably right. I’m helping on the All Rolled Up stall selling gaming accessories and Cthulhu Hack goodies, but I’m most excited about the chance to catch up with lots of friends.

Indulge me while I talk about my dad. My dad liked trains. He liked traveling on them, he had lots of books about them, he built little model kits of them. He’d go to model railway exhibitions held in community centres and hotels and wander round stalls and buy models of locomotives he probably didn’t need. He had mates that he would go round to and look at their models and talk about obscure branch line developments. He had hundreds of train magazines, some in languages he couldn’t read. He had more model kits than he could hope to build, and had prized models of locomotives and carriages that he’d display on bookshelves next to his stacks of books about trains.

As a kid I remember traipsing across cities every holiday, in search of model shops he’d heard about. When he died, a specialist second hand bookstore held an advertised event to sell his railway books, “from the collection of an enthusiast.” It was a proper hobby, and he treated it as such. He must have spent a fortune on it, and I’ve no doubt it was all money well spent.

Does any of that sound familiar? Hobbies are ace. Don’t feel bad about investing time and money in games you might never play, or accessories you might never use at the table, or reading blog posts about the best ranger builds in Pathfinder. If it gives you pleasure it’s enough. You can always flog it on eBay. Treat it like a proper hobby, and cherish the friendships that you make over a cocked d20.

I’ll be on the All Rolled Up stall – pop by and say hello.