Prep Techniques: Three Places

Last time in this series, I talked about using 5-Room Dungeons to structure your sessions or one-shots. Today, I’m going to discuss something I’m calling 3 Places. I first read about this on The Alexandrian’s blog about Node-Based design, and it is also featured in a lot of Free League’s scenario advice for Tales from the Loop and Vaesen. I used it myself in The Goblins and the Pie Shop, my reimagining of the orc and pie “scenario” for 1st level D&D.

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This structure gives limited autonomy to the players while making prep manageable, and works well for investigative games where you want the players to uncover a mystery or secret before a final confrontation. It works less well if you’ve got a more straightforwardly linear plot in mind, or if you want the players to encounter set pieces in order.

Overview

In this structure, the PCs are investigating an area – a town, a wilderness region, even a dungeon – which has three key places relevant to the scenario. They can explore 1, 2, or all 3 of these to lead to a final confrontation.

Each of the three places contains clues not only to the final confrontation, but also to the other two places. At the start of the session, an inciting incident (an action scene) will point them towards one or more of these places. They can then be explored in whatever order the players want, before finally hitting the final confrontation.

In general, the more information they gather from the three places, the better an idea they have what’s going on and how to tackle it – but don’t worry too much about encouraging or planning for this. They might decide to explore all three, or after one or two they might decide they know enough to move to the finale.

Example

Let’s start with a classic fantasy example, and one that isn’t always easy to translate to play – a beast is stalking the farms hereabouts, and the players are asked to investigate it. I’m thinking a dire wolf or hell-touched bear or something, and I’ve decided it’s going to be normally immume to normal weapons – so that nearby inhabitants can’t just raise a militia to flush it out.

Inciting Incident – the players are ambushed by desperate bandits (a training fight – a way to learn the system while they are easily despatched). When questioned, they are trappers from the forest who’ve had to resort to banditry because a beast now stalks their lands. Their camp was attacked head-on by it, and they worry their wounded are still there in hiding – the abandoned trappers camp location. When they proceed to the nearest village, they are asked to investigate the beast – there is a old wise woman in the forest who might be able to help locate it

Place 1 – At the abandoned trappers camp they find desperate, wounded trappers who – once found in their hiding place, and suitably healed – can tell them the beast came out of nowhere, and they can find tracks leading to the perilous caves where it (presumably) lairs. The signs of its attack are all around – including a tree nearby where it rubbed some of its fur off, which glistens grey in the sunlight. Their weapons and arrows did not seem to harm it – maybe the old wise woman could help prepare a blessing?

Place 2 – At the old wise woman’s hut, they must first convince the suspicious hermit they mean her no harm. She will augur the ways of the forest, and identify the beast – a vast wolf, impervious to wood and steel. She can produce an ungeant meaning they can harm it, but she’ll need some of its fur. She can see it in the perilous caves as well and direct the PCs towards there.

Place 3 – At the perilous caves, they can sneak in and find enough fur to make the ungeant, but the area is guarded by lesson wolves who they must drive off.

Finale – Armed with the ungeant, they can track and ambush the beast – either in the perilous caves, or by laying a trap for it where they know it stalks. Although now they can injure it, it will still be a challenging fight to defeat the beast.

Notice that any of the three places can lead to any others, and that they players can take multiple routes through it. There are a few core clues – that its not able to be hurt by normal weapons, and that its fur can be used to make the ungeant – but these can be discovered in a few different ways.

Advantages of This Approach

One of the big advantages of this approach is that you can modify the pace to suit your time slot. Particularly in a convention game, this is really useful – I’ve blogged before about having a collapsible dungeon, but it’s even easier if you have these key places. It also makes setting an adventure in a city or town much easier – in the Goblins and the Pie Shop, the PCs wander between the town, the pie shop, and the forest pretty much at will – which is especially useful in a low-level scenario where one bad fight can knock some players out a bit.

I find this approach relatively easy to adjust on the fly, as well. If the players spend much longer than expected at the trappers camp, it’s easy to make the wise woman more helpful and volunteer her information sooner. If they show now interest at all in the wise woman, you can share the info about needing the ungeant from one of the trappers – or even have the beast attack, and show them they can’t harm it.

Things to Consider

It’s generally a good idea to have something exciting to do at each of the locations – either a fight, a social scene, or skill challenge / exploration (with skill checks and twists ready if they fail). In the example above, there’s one of each of these at each location. The wolf guardians are a floating encounter that can be dropped in wherever needed if the PCs need slowing down or reminding of the danger of the situation – likewise, having some genre-appropriate “men with guns” to appear if the pace is slowing is a good idea.

You also need to provide some motivation and time pressure for this. Whether this is by an actual countdown of what will happen if they dawdle, or just an obvious implication – that the beast will continue to attack cattle, and eventually the village itself – this will provide the motivation to decide quickly which locations to go to.

For more ideas, the whole of the Alexandrian’s node-based design posts are the foundational work on this. Have you used a similar technique to plot out adventures? Look out for more Prep Techniques later in June!

The Haunted Mill – An Introductory Mystery for Vaesen

Today, I’m going to share with you my prep notes for a complete Vaesen Mystery, “The Haunted Mill,” which I ran at the weekend. I’ve pondered converting it into the ‘official’ adventure format – but I thought I’d leave it as is and hope it’s playable enough for you to use, deconstruct, and look at.

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Vaesen is a Year Zero Engine game – as this was the first session with an established group, I did a combination Session Zero / First Session with an introduction/chargen session (most players drafted out their PCs ahead of time, but then we did Relationships and shared our histories with each other to get some hooks within the party). The “Session 0” bit was the CATS intro I did for the game, and the “Session 1” bit is the Mystery proper – all told it was a 3 hour session with 5 players, with about an hour for the Session 0 and 2 hours for the mystery – although we started with their arrival in Sandham.

One change I made on the fly – I’d expected one of the players to pick up a priest – essential for the solution to the Vaesen problem – and when they didn’t I had to introduce a wheezing vicar, Father Niklas, who could breathe into the bellows.

Session 0 – Preparations

CATS is an idea I first heard about on The Gauntlet and is a really good way to get everyone on the same page about genre and expectations.

Concept – In Vaesen you play investigators and monster hunters in 19th century Sweden. You’ve all got the Sight – meaning you can see Vaesen and their signs – and are known as Thursday’s Children. You’ve inherited a castle in Uppsala and receive letters inviting you to investigate strange goings on – almost always caused by Vaesen, evil spirits from folklore. As Sweden becomes industrialised, the old ways get forgotten, and the Vaesen become more desperate. Each episode you’ll venture into a town, investigate the goings-on, and hopefully defeat the Vaesen.

Aim – To play our characters investigating and solving problems, and explore the dichotomy of the old ways vs. the industrial revolution. Combat usually isn’t the solution – all Vaesen have a way to banish them, which you need to research and investigate – and also find out what’s going on. Each Mystery has a human element in it as well. We’ll run this as a pilot session and if we like it, commit to like 6 (?)

Tone – Generally serious, with moments of pathos. Our PCs will be playing it straight, although we may have moments of grim humour. Episodic – think of it as a TV series with each mystery one episode, although they might be multi-session as well.

Subject Matter – This is a horror game, and does have a fear mechanic, although no long-term psychological damage in particular. We’ll have an X Card, open Table, and Lines and Veils – feel free to share them now. Mine are sexual assault – on or off camera.

Go round and everyone introduce their PC

Go round and everyone do Relationships with other PCs – the three with their Archetype and one of their own invention.

Sandham Mill

Episode 1 – The Haunted Mill

Primary Conflict – Rolf Lunstrom has taken over the flour mill at Sandham. He’s renovated it extensively, including taking out the water wheel and building a steam engine to power it. The three fairies – Pippi, Kikki, and Mikki – who have lived in the mill and blessed the flour have not approved of this, and so have begun to menace the builders and workers by pretending it is haunted.

Secondary Conflict – Lundstrom has sacked most of the workers who used to work in the mill, bringing in his own men from Uppsala to carry out the renovations. The noisy steam engine had already angered many of the villagers, and now the mill is haunted most are refusing to work there

Misdeed – a carpenter, Pontuss Zweck, was disturbed by “ghosts” while working on the renovations and fell to his death. Aron, his brother, was with him and now the men are refusing to work on the mill until something is done.

Location – Sandham is a small, formerly idyllic village sitting amidst fields of wheat and corn. It is early spring, and the first shoots are visible – but there is a belch of steam and soot visible. It has one tavern – the Sheaf of Wheat – and an old, tumbledown church

Atmosphere – Sandham is an old, old town. It is quiet and beautiful, but whenever there are signs of industry, it is dirty and cursed.

Central Clues

  • The mill isn’t haunted. It’s fairies who have lived there for centuries. There are tiny footprints in the flour of the granary basement, and the vents of the window blinds show tiny handprints.
  • The three fairies live in the old water wheel, but range all under and about the mill. This can be found if the water wheel is investigated – but it is not obvious it is their lair, and they can only be banished when they are in it.
  • The fairies can be killed by consecrated air being blown into their lair while they are there. This can be researched in the Town Hall libraries, as a threat that was once made to them by Knut, the old mill owner
  • There are old bellows in the pub fire, and one of the regulars is a lay preacher if the PCs do not have a man of God among them.

Peripheral Clues

  • Rolf Lundstrom claims his grandparents lived here, but they only had a holiday home in the village. He’s hated by the townsfolk for bringing in his own labour to work on their mill (Investigation in the pub, or Manipulation with one of the NPCs)
  • The fairies have lived here for centuries – they claim to bless the flour, but really they meant that inspectors and others who sought to buy the mill would be put off (Learning in the records in the Town Hall, Investigation around the water wheel)
  • Old Tobias was meant to run the mill’s books – he now finds he can’t even work there, after Rolf wanted his wife to keep books (Manipulation with Tobias or Marta, Investigation/Learning at the mill records)
  • Tobias talks to the fairies (the “ghosts”) sometimes – they help him, and they know what’s right for Sandham (Manipulation after they have won his trust, Stealth to follow him to the mill wheel at night, Vigilance to notice the tiny glasses he carries around with him for whisky)
  • There have been several attempts to buy the mill since Knut Sandham passed away, but each potential purchaser pulled out after visiting the site (and being menaced by the Fairies). Rolf and his wife purchased it without even visiting the town, based on a recommendation from a friend.

Countdown

  1. Marta get ambushed by fairy dust while poking around in the mill (maybe trying to sort the paperwork out)  – she suffers terrible visions of  the mill burning down, and is hysterical
  2. Rolf begins to keep vigil around the mill after Marta’s fright. He is Enchanted – the mill shrouds itself in thick fog, and he is struck mute (Fear 1)
  3. Tobias tells the fairies about the characters. They are, one by one, cursed – the rats rush out of the basement and attack, while Christian symbols shatter in their wake

Catastrophe – Marta, driven mad by visions, attacks Rolf, and in defending himself he kills her. Driven mad by grief, he leaves Sandham, and the villagers take over the mill again.

Place 1 – The Old Mill

Dusty, sooty, floury – with half-completed refurbishments all around. There are footprints, but also tiny signs of scuffles – rats, maybe, although not moving in groups. The blinds blow and crack in the wind. The new engine has been placed and tested, and Rolf is keen to start it up again. The grain basement is behind locked doors, and the lock has been broken (by the fairies) to keep people out.

Force can open the basement door. Inside sacks of old grain, they can see tiny footprints around the old mill workings – of tiny people, not rats

Stealth if it is dark may let them fully investigate without being disturbed.

The offices are at the side of the mill workings. Learning can discover that the mill’s books are very profitable, and that in the past a number of purchasers have pulled out after having viewed the property – the mill appears to have been derelict for the last three years, although the mill wheel shows signs of being turned and there is flour in the basement. MARTA can be encountered here.

The minute that it is clear the PCs are poking around, a Pippi will blow Fairy Dust at the leader (7 vs. Observation or suffer terrifying Visions of the mill haunted by the dead mill workers of hundreds of years)

Place 2 – The Sheaf of Wheat

A warm, cozy place – the wood fire kept roasting by people taking turns blowing on the old bellows. Everyone is dour and sleepy, though, and many are drunk since they have no work at the mill yet.

ARON is drinking his cares away since he saw PONTUSS die before his eyes.  He will tell his story, but he’ll tell it loudly to the whole tavern, so that Tobias will creep away and tell the fairies to be ready for them unless they can Manipulate him to tell them quietly.

A sudden shadow fell on them – that must have been the ghost – and he fell from the scaffold. He doesn’t think it was the floor that killed him, but the terror in his eyes was real – Rolf Lundstrom called for a doctor straight away, and they took the body away for insurance purposes – he fears he will walk the mill again ‘ere the funeral is done properly!

TOBIAS may also be here. He is cagy about the mill, but will admit that they did turn it while it was vacant – the water wheel worked well enough, and until “that man” arrived they’ve always been a successful village. Now, the mill is just rewarding them for messing with it. He will tell them the mill records are in the Town Hall if pressed, but he’ll come with them to watch them.

Place 3 – The Town Hall

A crumbling building that mainly hides the records from hundreds of years of Sandham as a settlement.

Researching the mill’s history requires a Learning check – they learn that it has been almost supernaturally successful, and Knut Sandham, the last owner, kept it in his family for centuries. Only a terrible accident while visiting family in Uppsala meant that his estate had to sell it.

Once they have concluded that it is Fairies they need to research, it is easier to find. If they challenge Tobias about this, he will attempt to cosh them if appropriate, or go to get help from the fairies if they are not vulnerable. If he’s got their help, he’ll lure them into the town’s secret spaces in the basement, where a horde of rats will overwhelm them as he locks them in.

In the basement, they find the details of how to banish them – which Knut threatened them with several times (when they nearly burned down the tavern, for instance) – a bellows blown into their lair, while they are in it, that has been blessed by a holy man.

With further successes, they also discover papers that indicate the mill will pass into ownership of the common people of the town if it is left unoccupied by three years – explaining why Old Tobias is so keen to keep it empty.

Confrontation – Taking on the Fairies

Any reasonable plan, or just going and causing trouble at the mill, will lure out the Fairies, where they must engage them until they flee into their hiding place below the basement where the bellows can be engaged.

They must engage with all three of them if they are to get them to flee. Treat them as one opponent as they are a group. They get a Fast and a Slow action, and will dodge if they can.

PIPPI, KIKKI, and MIKKI, Fairies of the mill

Use the same stats as for Fairies in the Core Book – one stat block for all 3 of them,

OLD TOBIAS

Physique 3/ Precision 2 / Logic 2 / Empathy 3 / Physical 2/ Mental 2 / Ranged Combat 1, Close Combat 1, Agility 1, Vigilance 1

Cosh 1/0/+1 – Pistol 2/0-1/+2

The Edges of Sessions – Starting and Ending Sessions Well

In this post, I’m going to talk about starting and ending sessions, both for one-shots and ongoing games. While between them is where the play happens, a good start and end really help to make sure that the session hangs together – especially if you’re playing online. When you get together to game, you want everyone to focus on the game, and having a solid start gets everyone to focus on the game at hand, and engage fully with what’s happening in the session. Similarly, a good ending is useful to ensure that players leave the session engaged and enthused.

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.

Starting a One-Shot

If you’re at a convention, start with the obvious social stuff – introduce everyone, make sure the players know the length of the session, when you’ll have breaks, anything else they need to know about the physical game. Check people are comfortable where they’re sat / their online tech is working, and adjust if necessary.

At this stage you want to give an overview of the game. CATS is a great tool from the Gauntlet for this, but just an overview of the game and genre is helpful – don’t assume everyone has read the sign-up sheet. Key things to address include how deadly the game is, and how heroic you’re expecting the players to be. Some games have obvious genre confusions that can come up – for Vaesen, for instance, I like to stress that the PCs are on the side of industrialisation and humanity against the mythical beasts, and in a Glorantha game I make sure I usually cover why you hate the Lunars so much.

At this stage, cover your safety tools. An X is a your baseline minimum – explain it, check everyone understands, and give examples of its use. Allow players to identify any lines and veils, there and then or privately to you, and check that everyone is on board with them.

Choosing pregens can be tricky – I find at cons players are likely to be super-polite about picking them – saying unhelpfully “I don’t mind who I play” and hoping shyer players come forwards. Things you can do to make this less awkward:

  • Have the pregens out as everyone is arriving and encourage players to look through them. Spot if anyone is particularly keen on one and suggest they take them
  • Be explicit about system mastery required – e.g. in 13th  Age, Fighters and Wizards require a bit more engagement with the system than Rangers or Clerics – say this to help players make an informed choice
  • Deal the pregens out randomly, one to each player, and then encourage players to swap if they want.

Then, get the game going – a brief opening scene, and then I like to get the players to describe the opening titles for the game – each showing their PC doing something awesome, with as much – or as little – description as they like. Sometimes, players naturally join these scenes together, which is awesome. Sit back, listen, be an audience, and help everyone get their describing chops warmed up, ready for your opening scene – which will of course be pacy and actiony and exciting.

Starting an Ongoing Game

Obviously, a lot of the above doesn’t apply to an ongoing game. Often, the best way to begin is with a recap. This can be tricky – I’ve tried a few methods, with varying results

  • Just recap yourself. This can help you signpost threads or key moments that might be relevant in this session, but does mean you have to remember the last session just at the time  when your brain is probably full of the next one
  • Get a player to recap. This can be awkward, if it isn’t clear who is doing it, as other players chip in – I’ve tried rolling a d4 to decide who has to recap, which was fun but not as focussed a start as I’d always like
  • Do an opening montage just as above – get each player to describe their key scene from, e.g. “Previously on Vaesen” that they’d show at the start of the episode.

With all of these, I think the key message is to have a routine that works for your game and your players. After this, it helps to tie up any loose ends, and do any “start of session” system stuff that needs to be done – e.g. Star Wars/Genesys rolling Force Points, any start of session moves in PBTA. Again, a routine for these helps, as they are easy to forget.

Another start of game ritual is asking players what their PCs have done since the last session. More and more games have downtime systems, but it can be as simple as asking them what they’ve spent their XP on, or what new spells and abilities their new level grants them.

Ending a Session

Firstly, better to end early than late. Especially in a con slot, but even in an ongoing game – finish after a big challenge or scene, rather than adding an extra half hour of less interesting stuff. As above, a cut scene can be a good way to foreshadow the next session.

In an ongoing game, after the end of the session’s play, I like to check in what I think the next session might look like – in some cases this is up to the PCs (are you going to go after the bounty on Tatooine or try and find the missing droids on Cloud City?), sometimes the players (do you want a more low-key investigation session next week, after fighting all those giants?), and sometimes it comes from the GM (I think next session Gringle is finally going to come after you, and you’ll spend the session dealing with the fallout from that – how does that sound?).

At the end of any session, it’s really good to get feedback – especially online, where you miss the post-game social element out completely. A good structure is to ask for stars and wishes from the session – and if that sounds a bit corny, or a bit like marking your homework, just roll with it. It’s become part of my standard approach and it really helps to both improve future sessions and celebrate awesomeness. It also establishes a balance where everyone at the table is responsible for enjoyment, not just whoever is facilitating the game.

The first few times, you might have to lead or model this discussion, and expect to encourage everyone to chip in. I’d recommend persisting with it – this can be both a really powerful tool to improve your group’s play culture, and also a safety net for anything that was tricky or just annoying in the session. It’s especially good for online one-shots; often, at the end of a session you can feel a bit drained as a GM, as the session just ends – having a quick discussion about it helps to sign it off and appreciate it for the future.

So, lots of ideas for starts and ends of sessions routines. What do you do to begin or finish sessions? Let me know in the comments or on twitter.