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.

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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.