One-Hour One-Shots: Starfinder: Into the Unknown

SF into the unknown picI’ve blogged before here about trying to prep and deliver an effective one-hour introductory game (and attempted to use the #1H1S abbreviation!), so I was pleasantly surprised to find out about the Starfinder Quests packaged together as Into the Unknown (ITU). The link takes you to Paizo’s website, but it’s a free download, and it’s worth a look even if you’re not keen on Starfinder (although you shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it) – as we’ll talk about here (If you want to see another example of a #1H1S, written by yours truly, head to D101 games and download (also free) Bite of The Crocodile God, my 1-hour game for Hunters of Alexandria).

The product consists of five linked adventures (“Quests”) designed to take an hour of game time for five 1st-level characters (and of course there are pregens available separately – along with some useful guidance about what starship roles they will be most effective at in the ship combats.

The adventures are simple and straightforward – three are ground combats with a mixture of exploration/investigation, and two are starship battles. I can see why Starfinder wants to show off its space combat, but I’d imagine these are the weakest to run on their own – they do just consist of a battle against another starship with a bit of plot context (and it doesn’t sell me on Starfinder – although the system is I’m sure fun – that these will take an hour on their own!)

If I was to run a few of them in sequence, the first three, in which the PCs follow a trail of clues (and a starship battle) to discover a missing starship, is a great 3-hour set, and if you were to run one on its own as a one-hour game, the first one would work well – there’s a good opportunity for roleplay as well as an interesting but relatively simple (as in complexity, not challenge) combat. It’s a good, tight design, and I’ll be stealing the structure to plot out similar traditional games for #1H1S.

Stick to One Set-Piece – but Seed with Roleplaying

With any kind of crunchy system (and see this post for more generic advice), in an hour you will only tackle one rules-heavy scene. That probably means if you’re planning one #1H1S, it’ll be a combat, so try and make it challenging and interesting and build stuff around it. For instance, in ITU’s first quest Station, there’s a neat investigation with an NPC leading to the confrontation, and probably an interrogation afterwards – so the combat is set in a context that justifies it.

Highlight the Best Crunch of the Game

As above, this is likely to be combat, but if you’re allowing yourself the luxury of a set of #1H1S games to piece together, you might like to expand. For instance, if I was planning something with Modiphius’ Star Trek Adventures (and I really should, given the popularity of the franchise), I’d probably want to include some sort of Extended Task scientific challenge for one of the segments – my scenes probably have a starship combat, a science-y extended task, and a ground combat – and maybe another extended task which is a negotiation or similar.

Either way, think about the rules you are showcasing as you prep. I’m sure that the Starship combat is deliberately showcased in ITU, which is why 2 whole Quests consist of an extended space battle. In other games, you might want to show how great social conflict can be (Burning Wheel springs to mind) – so include it if you can.

Episode it up and embrace the railroad

There’s a lot of guff spoken about railroading, especially when it comes to one-shot play, and even more if you’ve only got an hour to play with. Yes, in an extended campaign, forcing your players’ hands either explicitly or on the sly is certainly not good practice, but it’s necessary – advantageous even – in a one-shot to guide the players towards the good bits.

Also, try and make each #1H1S a complete and distinct chapter. This isn’t always easy, and it’s a stretch for some of ITU’s sections (I’ll come back again to the starship combat sections – yes, starship combat is a neat system in Starfinder, but I can’t see why you wouldn’t just play X-Wing for an hour if that was your jam).

Go forth and #1H1S

I must admit, since posting about them last year, I was a bit stymied about the #1H1S project – but finding ITU has got me seriously thinking about them now. Watch this space for further developments – and probably ready-to-play modules – and feel free to comment or contact me to suggest or request systems. As I said, Star Trek Adventures feels like a good fit for it. And let me know if you’re doing anything with them yourselves!

Hillfolk One-Shots

Hillfolk_Cover_reduced1Hillfolk is an amazing RPG. I’ve normally got a bit of a problem with what can be seen as “stone soup” RPGs, where the mechanics are limited to almost nothing, but there are two exceptions I make. One is Fiasco, where the complete absence of a resolution mechanic forces players into a hard director stance – you’ve got to embrace the feel of the films you are emulating and push your protagonists into difficult situations. And the other is Hillfolk. Hillfolk is a quieter, more contemplative kind of game; every time I’ve run it we’ve hit pathos, character development, and difficult decisions. And it does that because you don’t have to think about hit points.


It’s also a game that, unusually, benefits from a larger player group than I’d normally pick (I think the sweet spot is 5-6), and is explicitly designed for campaign play. But, like every game designed for campaign play (see my series on Powered by the Apocalypse games), with a few tweaks and procedures you can get a satisfying one-shot experience from it.

Skip Character Generation

Character generation in Hillfolk is awesome. It’s a whole session of setting up your series, where you’ll develop themes, dramatic poles, and potential story arcs. It takes a full 3-4 hour session. It does not benefit from being shortened. Instead, I’d recommend skipping it and setting up a tight initial situation yourself. There’s loads of information in the Series Pitches supplied with the game to develop your own with a little research, or there are some great ones already done. If you’re looking to run your first Hillfolk one-shot, I can’t recommend enough picking up Jon Cole’s character packs from the Pelgrane website (here, towards the end of Forms). There’s also a set of playbooks for The Secret of Warlock Mountain on the same site. And tons of advice and support; seriously worth a read.

Start with the Ensemble

Begin with a scene where (much like my advice for Urban Shadows) all the protagonists are present, and a looming threat emerges. This helps to coalesce the players towards working in one direction, even if PvP develops naturally. The classic Hillfolk set-up is that a nearby village has burned down your grain store, or the ailing Chief seeks a successor, but you can pick your own for the Series Pitch of your design. For my Hollywoodland game, I start with a party with all the protagonists present and have a police chief (either Charles Sebastian, or, if he’s a PC, a rival cop) shut it down and state that with the mayoral run coming up they’ll be coming down hard on the drugs and booze excesses of the movie industry. Depending on their reaction, one or two of them could get arrested, and you’re good to go. My own Hollywoodland start-up is a bit less flexible than the two examples linked, but that’s in part because the players are portraying real(ish) historical figures.

Listen, Prompt, Be a Fan

Because scene calling happens in rotation, your players will need to be ready to call the next scene. Give them the time and space to do this, and try not to prompt them too hard – I try to repeat the classic improv mantra that the most obvious thing to do is usually the best thing, and that they needn’t try to be original or flashy – the awesome will come naturally. If other players aren’t convinced of this, model it – be a fan of everyone’s scenes, and if you have players who haven’t played before you’ll see them blossom before you as they grow into the system, even if they’ve never played before.

Sample Set-Up

Here’s my own set-up for a Hollywoodland one-shot. Hollywoodland is a series pitch by Jason Morningstar set in the incipient movie industry of 1914.

I hope it’s useful to you, either to run yourself (and let me know how it goes!) or as a model for how to develop a one-shot set of characters for Hillfolk. I’ve tried to include as much detail as I can while still leaving the overall plot and scenes up to the players – there are scene notes and ideas for what to do to further their interests, and enough imbalanced relationships to hopefully lead to some slow-burn confrontations.

Bear in mind that the set-up can go to some difficult places, particularly if the film Birth of a Nation ends up being a backdrop, so I’d strongly recommend using an X-Card with this game (and almost any game with shared narrative authority that has any chance of similar things happening).


I’ve got a few one-shot advice posts up now – for Dungeon WorldThe ‘Hood, Fate, Urban Shadows – as well as a piece on general “crunchy system” prep. I’ve got one-shot advice posts for 7th Sea (2nd edition) and 13th Age in the pipeline already, and I’m running Tenra Bansho Zero next month and will certainly blog about that, but I’m open to requests – what systems (even those that everybody says never work in a one-shot) would you like to hear about? Just tweet me or put it in the comments section.

Manchester, 1997 – An Urban Shadows City

As promised here, below is the city guide I used for my Manchester, 1997 game of Urban Shadows at Revelation. The inspiration was to use a not-quite-familiar city that could evoke a sense of nostalgia while still allowing some distance and oddness. I’ll confess that I did pretty minimal research for it other than my own experience – I lived in Manchester from 1999 when I went there to University, I’ve seen the excellent Steve Coogan vehicle 24 Hour Party People plenty of times, and a few wikipedia pages supplied the rest.

So, the dating is almost certainly off, and although the 1996 bombing really did have no direct fatalities, this should be credited to a substantial and quick response from emergency services rather than a gang of undead protectors. Similarly, Tony Wilson was never, to mine or anyone’s knowledge, a Chaos Magician seeking to harness the ley lines beneath the city. The best NPCs are of course those that the players themselves bring to the game, of course, but I couldn’t bring myself to include the demon-tainted Hazel Blears MP in the write-up.

The write up is below, or here in handy .pdf form. I’d say that it’s probably read-to-run if you pick some Playbooks and follow the procedures in my previous post.

The City

Manchester in 1997 is a city on the cusp of tomorrow; the music scene has exploded and is the envy of the North, if not London quite yet. The Hacienda nightclub and Factory records sound like they could last forever, and the punks and hipsters walk around like they own the place now. The city centre feels vibrant, edgy, as if the longed-for prosperity of the days when the Industrial Revolution built this city are just around the corner.

The city centre is also a maze of building sites and new developments; last year’s IRA bombing has left vast parts of the city straining to rebuild, and the shining bricks are a sign of the prosperity to come. Things really can only get better, in the words of Tony Blair’s successful election campaign.

Just outside the city lie some of the most dangerous parts of Britain. Moss Side, Rusholme, and Salford hold back-to-back terraces that have changed little since the Communist Manifesto was written in them by a shocked Marx and Engels. Trams run to Altrincham and Bury, linking both sides of the city but leaving vast areas at the mercy of crumbling buses.

South of the city, in Altrincham, Sale, and Didsbury, the wealthy middle classes – stayers-on from University or well-heeled Cheshire inheritors – carry on as they always have. These socialites and old money dealers have little truck with the regeneration of the city, unless there’s money in it for them.

To the North in Bury and Oldham the straining past of industry still stalks the streets – the dark satanic mills around here haven’t been made into flats or offices, and an older, deeper Manchester hides.

The largest population of students outside of London flood the streets of Fallowfield and Withington on the south side of the city, while the city’s four universities – Manchester, UMIST, Manchester Metropolitan, and Salford – tussle over long-held rivalries.

City Moves

  • Open a new development, bar, or shop
  • Reveal a deep industrial past
  • Shock the public with an unexpected display of violence
  • Discuss secrets on public transportation
  • Hold a powerful meeting in an aging bar or nightclub

Images and Hooks

A drunk staggers around Piccadilly, muttering something incomprehensible in an unknown language. Students flood the streets for a protest or festival. Groups of youths in tracksuits start trouble in a shop. A couple argue in the street. A cold pint of lager. A bag of drugs. A nice cup of tea.

Faction Mapping


The City Ghosts

Astonishingly, in a bomb attack causing £700 million of damage last year, there were no fatalities. None that were mortal, at least. The media credited the fast response of the emergency services, but in truth, below Piccadilly in the old water routes and storage containers of the city’s industrial path, the people that built Manchester still guard it.

The City Ghosts started as men and women who died during the city’s building, but as an open association of Spectres they were augmented in both wars. They have one goal – for Manchester to endure – and watch over them from their pits around Cornbrook. The cities’ tram lines – even those yet to be built – mostly use old railway lines, and these routes let the city ghosts traverse the whole of greater Manchester.

Their ‘interference’ in last year’s bombing has ruffled a few feathers, most notably of the City’s Fae, many of whom have sympathies with the mortal bombers, but nobody dares move against them yet as a group so obsessed with their own self-endurance.

Sample Night NPC: Dead Fred, a rogue City Ghost who acts as a go-between between the city’s mysterious spectral protectors and the other factions of the city.


The Seers of Affleck

A loose organisation of wizards, oracles, and hedge-mages, based from a sprawling tower of shops and cafes in the city’s Northern Quarter, the Seers of Affleck dream as they always have. They dream of a rebuilt Manchester, of Britain’s first city, of London and Leeds and Birmingham fading to insignificance as the hermetic patterns grow.

Manchester sits on a confluence of energy, they would tell you, making it like no other city on earth. They whisper in the ears of musicians and artists, architects and drug dealers and nudge them in the direction of their planned futures.

Students from the city’s universities follow them, particularly the city’s University of Manchester, who even designed their Mathematics Tower according to their own mystical geometries. Rumours abound about the latest influx of undergraduates, about how the Seers may have found their next great archmagi.

Sample Power NPC: Tony Wilson, CEO of Factory Records, a dangerous chaos mage channeling the life energy and forces of music to his own ends with scant regard for the safety of the city.


The Bridgewater Club

In the city centre, there are well-heeled gentleman’s clubs still, where new money up-and-comers can drink and read the Express and forget about the dirty city streets around them. The Bridgewater Club is not one of those. It maintains private rooms in several bars around the city, but its main base is in Sale, south of Manchester and nestled in Cheshire money.

The wealth of these socialites is tied up in ‘protecting’ the city from supernatural threats – and liberating those threats of any valuable assets to ensure the survival of the Club. Part monster hunting club, part relic collectors, part tomb robbers, their activities are tolerated by the other factions as long as they only target individuals and do not openly move against the factions.

The Bridgewater, for itself, recognises the benefit in the balance of power for the city – and for their continued existence – and recognise that the Vampires of London and the Scottish Wolves are unlikely to offer them as much freedom as they have here in Manchester. So they plan their heists, track the movements of the supernatural around the city, looking for any hints of instability, to strike and take just enough. Of course, individual members do not always share the organisations careful approach to supernatural politics.

Sample Mortality NPC: Jack Firness, established Bridgewater Club Veteran and collector of supernatural ephemera. Jack may be a bit long in the tooth now but he isn’t above dusting down the old crossbow and going to kill some vampires.


The Oldham Tinkers

They aren’t all from Oldham, of course. They aren’t all from anywhere in this world, or the next. But any city with such a high influx of Irish settlers is bound to have a high fae presence, and the Celtic spirits have formed an alliance with the spirits of the hills and bogs of Lancashire North of the City to ensure that the city’s growth doesn’t compromise the earth.

All these huge buildings being rebuilt now are sometimes covering up important Glamour sites, and the Tinkers are frustrated that the City Ghosts seem to be doing nothing to prevent this. The life that’s recently come to the city with the new music and nightclubs is a welcome source of energy, but it’s drug-fuelled and tainted – something about the rise of the city just isn’t right, and the Tinkers will do anything to slow it – or even perhaps to destroy it.

Sample Wild NPC: Feargal O’Shaugnessy, leader of the Monkey Town Boys, a group of Redcaps and violent fae operating out of Heywood, Lancashire. Feargal and his boys have recently been posted in Manchester to keep tabs on the current situation in the city.

Like what you see? Want a peculiarly British take on urban fantasy with a straightforward simple system and a great team of some of the best UK RPG game designers and writers, and me? The Liminal kickstarter is funding! Back it and make me write a supplement on vampires and more Case Files!

Urban Shadows One-Shots

Urban Shadows (US) is Magpie Games’ Powered by the Apocalypse (PBTA) game of urban fantasy; if political manoeuvrings with wizards, vampires, and demons is your jam, it’s a great game. It’s a great game whatever, actually, which is why I’ve developed a few tips  for one-shot play that should help you if you want to bring it to a one-shot table.

I’m going to present this in two stages – what you do before it hits the table, and what you do at the start of play. Note that the book does have some great advice for one-shots in it already, but I’ve extended some of the advice to hit my particular sweet spot between player-driven and GM-prepped narrative. If you’d like more details on running PBTA one-shots generally, there’s a post here, as well as specific advice for Dungeon World.

Before Play

Pre-select Playbooks

You can make things easier for yourself by restricting the playbook selection for your players. This has two advantages – one, you avoid any chance of selection paralysis at the table, and two, you can focus your prep towards the playbooks selected. One from each faction is ideal – and I’d go with The Aware, The Vamp, The Tainted, and The Wizard for my choices – the Hunter has potential for some nasty PvP that some of your players may find uncomfortable, and The Fae has to keep track of promises as well as Debt which can be fiddly. If you have players pre-signed or know who’s going to play, you can let them pick, of course – but this helps to focus your thoughts on where they will be relevant. If you haven’t got anyone playing the Vamp, for instance, you don’t need to think about complex vampire politics.

Pick a City

Either use one of the cities already developed in Dark Streets, the setting sourcebook for US, or come up with one yourself. All you need for this is a defined group for each of the factions – for instance, when I wrote up Manchester 1997 for the Revelation convention I had the City Ghosts as my Night faction – a group of industrial-age spectres that keep the city surviving, and The Bridgewater Club as a group of hunters and graverobbers who sought to maintain the status quo – and represented the Mortality faction. If you’re able to, you could share your city write-up with your players in advance of the session. It’s also useful to develop broad brush strokes of one NPC for each faction. You need to be careful about introducing too many NPCs in your one-shot, but it helps to have some to start with so the players can generate them. Resist the temptation to have more than one NPC for each faction! Your players will generally invent more of them, and you can always create more on the fly for them if you need to.

Think of a Bang to Start With

Before play starts, think about an unavoidable event that can be happening that will bring the PCs together. Maybe something that threatens the whole city, or something that you know the PCs will hold dear – a reason for them to stick together. In play, the start of session move will give them more stuff to do as well, so your incident might be a backdrop or might be the key action of the session, but it should be unavoidable and with clear consequences.

Good ideas are an important area or location in the city being under threat, a massive monster being released or summoned, or a deadly NPC arriving and tipping the status quo. Even if it ends up being a backdrop, it should be something that sets multiple events in motion – it’s OK to have a deadly vampire killer on the loose, but make sure that his murders trigger an all-out Vamp-Werewolf gang war in the city, and have the wizards summoning blood demons to take out the most dangerous Vamp threats to them.

As well as an inciting incident, have a few ideas about how this event will climax towards the end of the session – the battle / binding of the demon, the restoring of the status quo, the NPC being chased off. Clearly it’s a good idea to have this as loose as you can make it, but it should be a clear endgame where the threat gets resolved one way or another.

Start of Play

Do Character Generation by the book

Get the players to fill in their Playbooks as per the rules on them. Follow the book advice on one-shots (one extra advance, 3 points of Corruption, one Corruption advance). Get them to go around and briefly introduce their characters after you give a brief overview of the city and the four factions you created. For each NPC, write their name and faction onto an index card and throw them in the middle of the table.

Do Debt – and make it a massive deal

Get the players to take turns in deciding Debt, and make a big deal of it. The book does advise this, but it helps to explicitly refer to Debt a key currency in the game – this is a game of factional manipulation and politics, so who owes whom is really important. I like to stress that 2 Debt is a big deal – you owe them big time, and they can call in a suitably big favour for this – anyone who owes 2 Debt to someone has a ticking time bomb of something being called in. In play, remember to remind them when they ask for something that Debt is the way to leverage it – and that they can always refuse to help with the appropriate Debt Moves.

Start of Session Moves

It’s easy to think that the start of session move doesn’t work for one-shots, but it really sings, especially if somebody rolls a Miss. I avoid giving any hints of my inital scene before they have done the session move, so that the PCs already have a lot on their plate before their unavoidable event happens.

Don’t pull punches! If they roll a Miss, it’s entirely appropriate to start them in a terrible situation. PBTA games are really resilient at letting PCs go from tragedy to glory, and back again, in just a few Moves, so don’t feel bad about starting with your Wizard captured by a recalcitrant demon he was trying to summon. When they mark their Faction, explain how the Advancement system works and that they are just 3 interactions away from advancing – they should be actively hunting down other factions to get their ticks. In the course of the Session Move, the players might suggest additional NPCs. Write them on an index card with their faction and put them in the middle of the table.

Check your NPCs

Before you launch your starting scene, take a look at the NPCs on the table and see if you can ditch any of them. If there’s one without any debt who doesn’t seem to be of interest to the group, suggest to the players that they might not feature in the game. They might have future plans for them – which is fine – but otherwise try to trim your NPC list down as much as you can. If this means ditching all four of your starting NPCs, so be it! The players inevitably come up with much more interesting characters.


Often PBTA games suggest you take a break now and collate your notes, look at how factions interact, and check you are ready to play. My own experience is that after the start of session moves I’m often fizzing with ideas, and the players are ready to go, so it’s better to start with the inciting incident now and have a break straight after it.

One piece of pay advice I’m terrible at following myself – make your hard moves soon! In a one-shot, once that first miss gets rolled in a risky situation, it’s fine to hit the player with unavoidable consequences; the “warn someone of impending danger” move is often slow. I prefer, in a one-shot, to “put someone in danger.”

So that’s a quick write-up of how I do Urban Shadows one-shots. It’s a cracking game and a great urban fantasy experience to bring to conventions. I’ll be posting up my Manchester 1997 setting shortly, so watch out for that – and putting up more one-shot advice soon enough.

Oh, and if urban fantasy is your bag, you should check out the kickstarter for the Liminal RPG. I’m involved in editing and producing some Case Files (adventures) for the system, and possibly more content depending on how far the stretch goals go. It’s already funded, so any extra Backers just mean more stuff gets written and produced for everyone!