2022’s New Game Resolutions

As we come to the end of the year, I think it’s always worth reviewing how you’re getting on with the hobby, and thinking about where you’re heading with it. For me, 2021 was pretty similar to 2020 – a lot more online play, with the odd face to face game at conventions later in the year. But my gaming is still dominated by regular online groups, and this is all good – there’s lots of stuff I’m excited to continue with next year.

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.

Organisation / This Blog

I’m going to try and get more ad hoc games up – one-shots or 3 / 4 session mini-campaigns – with groups set up just for the one off. I started a Supers One-Shot club halfway through the year, and though we’ve hit some scheduling difficulties recently, it’s been great to try out some games with a supportive group.

Keep your eyes peeled in the new year for dates for Burn After Playing, which will (finally) start up – one-shots with Patreon priority on topics covered in the blog. Growing Patreon is also a priority so I can get some art and design stuff for the blog (maybe even…. T Shirts and Mugs? How stylish would we all look?!) – so feel free to spread the word. While I’m clear on wanting the blog to be publicly open – so the vast majority of core content will be just offered as early access to Patrons – I’ve got a few ideas for Patreon exclusives, including sharing my prep notes and pregens for con games ready-to-run. 

The other priority with the blog is to start some youtubing – I’ve not quite got this idea finalised in my head, but thinking of a mixture of recordings of one-shots (without some of the filler you often get in streamed RPGs – straight to the action, paced like a con one-shot), live prep sessions, and maybe even interviews with other con GMs. I’m open to ideas at the moment – what would be useful for you?

Gaming – Long-Form

There’s a few campaigns that I’ve got bubbling under I’d like to get run, and some of them are below

The Enemy Within – after spending a lot of 2021 running WFRP one-shots, I’d like to finally tackle this beast. Even with the remixed Cubicle 7 edition, I think I’d want to edit it a bit to keep the pace to my tastes, and I’m not sure if I’ve got a group for it yet, but I’d like to get another ‘classic’ campaign under my belt. Would definitely run in ‘seasons’ per each of the books.

The One Ring 2e – The One Ring was my entry drug into online GMing, and when the new edition hits print, I’ve the regular Tuesday group primed to play through some of 2nd ed. I ran a one-shot megamix of the starter set at Grogmeet recently, and the new rules really work from what I can see. Will probably take one of the 1st ed adventure cycles and run it through – I’m a bit unconvinced by The Darkening of Mirkwood as it might be a bit too long … and slow-build… for our tastes.

13th Age Glorantha – Amazingly, I haven’t run any 13th Age at all this year. I’d like to give 13G a proper run, 1st to 10th level, seeing our heroes grow to world-shaking power. The limiting factors are my lack of knowledge of Gloranthan lore, and my lack of enthusiasm to learn any Gloranthan lore. Glorantha will vary though, right? It’s mostly ducks and cows anyway.

D&D – I’ve got an itch to run some D&D, and maybe even one of the big hardback campaigns. I know Curse of Strahd gets all the praise, but I’ve currently torn between Rime of the Frostmaiden and Wild Beyond the Witchlight. This involves finding a group for it – although I’ve got one keen player already – and if I’m running D&D online I want players on the same page as me about what kind of fun we’re having – which I might elaborate on in a later post.

Gaming – Short-Form

My “bubble list” of games I want to run one-shots of includes Soulbound, Pathfinder 2 (that’s what reviewing a good adventure does to you), Trail of Cthulhu (I’ve somehow never run a Gumshoe game), and Wanderhome – or at least something using Belonging Outside Belonging, the diceless PBTA-adjacent collaborative system.

There’s a few other new games that I’d like a sampler of a one-shot before running any longer – from Lex Arcana (Roman occult investigators with a funky dice system that might be great) and Ironclaw (incredibly I’ve never run this anthropomorphic fantasy system) to Hearts of Wulin and some more PBTA games.

I’d also like to give Feng Shui 2’s new adventures published through the subscription system a good run out, and finally get some Heart and Spire one-shots to the table. There seems to be a lot of good stuff coming out of itch at the moment, and I should get some of them put on – maybe these are options for Burn After Playing as well.

As always, this list might well change before January ends, such is the hobby. What are your 2022 want-to-do’s in roleplaying? And, as above, let me know what sort of Patreon benefits you’d like to see – whether you’re a patron or not.

One-Shot Reviews: Threshold of Knowledge for Pathfinder 2nd Edition

It’s been a while since I’ve done a review of a product, but here we are. For a change, over the next few reviews I’m going to look at (ideally) freely-available one-shot adventures, with a focus on unpicking and adapting them for other settings and systems. 

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’m normally of the view that a review is much more valuable if you’ve played the product. With that in mind, I’ve neither run nor played Threshold of Knowledge – yet, and have only played Pathfinder 2nd Edition once in a playtest demo once. It’s available as a free download here, if you missed picking it up on Free RPG Day.

In these reviews, apart from an overview of the product, we’ll look at the structure, and how it works for a one-shot – with an eye towards running for new people. I’ve tried to keep this relatively spoiler-free in case you end up playing it – but I’ve not been too careful, so you might want to stop reading now if you plan on playing this.

The Product

Threshold of Knowledge is 16 pages, with a page of maps, and 5 pregenerated 1st-level characters. It’s set around the Magaambya magic school in Pathfinder’s Mwangi Expanse region, which makes it feel different and cool – Mwangi is a diverse and exciting land, and where a huge magic school is based – which features heavily. The art is, as you’d expect from Paizo, lovely.

You’ll need your PF2 books close to hand to run this – monsters aren’t given stats if they’re already in the Bestiary, and in one case you’ll need to flip between two pages of it (or, obviously, work out what Weak Sea Devil stats are in advance – it’s a shame the book doesn’t do this, although obviously it allows them to cram more in.)

In terms of the plot, there’s a bit of fetching-and-carrying and a chase across town before the PCs need to explore a mini-dungeon and rescue their teacher. The encounters in the dungeon are a good mix of straight-up fights and avoidable monsters, and I’d be happy to run this for a group – many of the adversaries can be negotiated with, tricked, or (in the case of the crocodile Jubo) snuck past while he dozes. Each individual encounter feels well-thought-out and flexible, which compensates for it being entirely linear.

The Structure

The structure of the adventure is, as I’ve said, a straight line. You chase a dwarf across town (sequence of skill checks), get sent to do some fishing (more open-ended skill checks), and then have a fight and a bit of puzzling to find the way to the dungeon. Once there, it’s a straight line of rooms – sort of a 5 room dungeon, although there are only actually 4 rooms and there’s not too much of a twist or trick in it. 

I’ve said before that I’ve got no problem with a linear series of scenes, and I think ToK manages to make each individual bit interesting enough to avoid it – although I’ll know more after I’ve run it. There’s also quite a lot in this – I can imagine this taking two session easily, especially accounting for PF2’s far-from-quick combat learning curve.

One thing stands out about the combat encounters as you run through them – every one has a different approach you can take. Even the first encounter, as much a training-level fight as anything, has a chance for a Nature check to pick up a clue that can help in the fight. Other encounters have different options – one can be negotiated with, another can be snuck past, and the final confrontation is really more about stopping a ritual than defeating the creature – so either approach will work. 

One thing that I was surprised at, doing the maths for the encounters, is how they were all Low- or Moderate-challenge in terms of PF2’s encounter building. When I run it I’d be tempted to beef up the final confrontation a bit to add a bit of jeopardy – I’ll resist sharing spoilers but an additional level 1 Creature (say, like the one two rooms earlier) will make that final fight a bit more dangerous.

The Fluff

I’m a big fan of what Paizo have done with the Pathfinder setting, and especially with the Mwangi expanse, and there’s a lot to like in the presentation of this adventure that grounds it in the setting. You’re students at a magical school, to begin with (which seems to be the current fantasy trend, and the adventure very much shines with the city of Nantambu – you get a real sense of the magical school’s influence around the city, and some neat mechanical things reinforce this.

To start, you get magical items right away here – a bubbling scale that lets you breathe water, and earn other rewards as you go on. This is something I need to put more of in my 1st-level one-shots, and fantasy one-shots generally – the reward factor of getting something useful and magical is great for players and brings them into the setting. 

The pregens are good in terms of roleplaying prep – they feel like actual con pregens for their fluff. There’s background on their life before joining the academy and how they feel about a couple of the other pregens (I might make these bonds questions, where they can decide who they trust most and worry about most from the group, and why, if I was running for an experienced group). In short, the ideal amount of backstory from a traditional game perspective. Their rules write-ups are okay, too, if not perfect – I’d want a handout for what e.g. the elixirs of life and alchemist’s fires that some of them carry do, as well as spell descriptions. There’s a couple of new spells to go with the three new minor magical items as well.

In Summary

I really like this as a one-shot, and as I get more curious about PF2 I’d like to get it to the table. The skill checks – training fight – puzzle – mini-dungeon structure works well, and I’ll certainly be borrowing that. Although a few branching points would be nice, the alternate-approaches for each encounter is textbook. I’d go so far as to say you could learn a lot about one-shot prep just by reading this.

Prep Techniques: A Bag of Tricks

In earlier prep technique posts, I’ve talked about 5 Room Dungeons, Sly Flourish’s method, using 3 Places, and starting with a con pitch. Most of those are focussed toward more traditional GM-prepped games – where you have a clear idea of the scenes and sequence of play the players will encounter in game. Today I’m going to share a technique I’ve been using to prep for Blades in the Dark, John Harper’s game of steampunk heists in a cursed city. 

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. In addition, for this post, Patrons have access to my prep notes for the two sessions of Blades play that inspired this post – so they can see it in action!

With Blades (and other less GM-led games, including a lot of PBTA games – although some of those have other prep processes) – you don’t really know where the PCs are going to go. You prep a score, and some things that might happen in it – and then roll with the punches and dice rolls of the players. This can be intimidating if you’re used to a more traditional setup – and indeed, I’ve shown here how a more traditional setup can work with Blades as a one-shot – but it can really sing if you’ve done your prep to be ready to respond to players in a few different ways.

The idea behind this technique is to produce a bag of stuff that can be used during the session to keep it ticking along, in systems that do some (but not all) of the improv heavy lifting for you.

What’s This For?

In the examples below, I’ll be talking about Blades, and this definitely works for mission-based Forged in the Dark games. Some PBTA games like Masks and Monster of the Week have similar approaches – MOTW has a mystery countdown and a monster, and Masks needs your Supervillain statted up – and I think it generally works for more directly-plotted PBTA games. 

If I was running, for example, Thirsty Sword Lesbians, Monsterhearts, or Apocalypse World as a one-shot, I’d definitely use this – because I’d want a strong inciting incident and a finite stage of locations for the action. In an ongoing campaign, I might be less constrained by the first step below, but I’d probably use the same process described below for Locations and Characters and Moments for each session.

Think About the Score

Disclaimer: in any post about how to prep a John Harper game, the first advice is – do what John Harper tells you to do. This is right there in the book, but it is a bit hidden away on p188 in the GM Actions section. Maybe it’s not hidden away – but I’d run Blades a few times before reading it.

In it, you need to consider the mission you’re offering the players – it has a structure of things to think about, like the target location, some secrets to be discovered, an obvious and non obvious approach vector – but nothing too concrete. Often the first scene – where a faction offers the score – is the only fully-prepped scene in the session, and this is where this tends to come out.

To tell the truth, sometimes I follow this process, and sometimes I just write a con pitch-style overview for the score. Generally the secrets and factions come out through the rest of the process.

One or Two Locations, Plenty of Characters

You’ll need to think about the main location where you expect play to take place, and you’ll need a cast of characters for the PCs to interact with. Generally I’ll try and prep more NPCs than I need so I can throw extra ones in when needed – and in an ongoing game those leftover characters will just reappear later. I use something like the Gauntlet’s 7-3-1 technique for this, and 7 is a good number total for these things.

In particular, having a way to portray NPCs at the table is really useful to make them more interesting – it’s only at the am-dram level, we’re not Critical Role – but it really helps to model a little bit of in-character dialogue from the players as well.

Moments

Moments are your Batman Utility-Belt of cool descriptions – including shark-repellant spray!

Moments is an idea lifted directly from Trophy – I think – although other Gauntlet games feature them now, and they’re a great idea. Basically, they’re background, system and setting neutral-ish things that happen to reinforce the tone and style of the game. If that sounds too fancy, these were what I had for an Infirmary raid score in Blades a few weeks ago:

  • A scream from a nearby room as a pair of drunken Billhooks play a deadly game of amateur surgery on one another and come running out
  • A covered body that appears to still be breathing
  • A neatly arranged table of surgical tools and chemicals
  • A panicked orderly desperately trying to ignore the chaos around them
  • Rows and rows of Bluecoats setting up to raid the Skovlanders

They don’t have to be amazingly original or interesting, but they help you to come up with something that gives the locations and setting more verisimilitude as you play without requiring boxed-text style prep.

So, with a score/opening scene, some locations and characters, and a few moments, you should be good to go. Extras to consider are – if you haven’t already covered them in the score prep – what sort of twists could arrive to complicate matters, and what secrets about their target could be revealed. Usually when I use this method, these come out organically from the locations and characters as I think about their motivations. What other prep techniques have you used for FITD / PBTA / other more loosely controlled systems?

Release The Trolls – How to Run Vaesen One-Shots (or Campaigns)

Vaesen is Free League’s game of folk horror investigation, where 19th century Scandinavian investigators explore the conflicts between humanity and the Vaesen – supernatural creatures like werewolves, ghosts, and fairies. It uses the Year Zero Engine, and for me this fits the game really well – and it has a structure to its investigations that make it great for one-shots or episodic campaigns. There’s even a follow-up Kickstarter running at the moment (well, depending on when you read this) to bring the game to Britain and Ireland.

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.

Each mission, you’re called out to somewhere, and travel there to try and resolve the conflict of the area. This gives a great Town-A-Week structure to Vaesen, and I really enjoy running it – even though investigative games aren’t always my bag. Here are my four top tips for making it sing:

Prep the Structure

Firstly, Vaesen has a whole chapter dedicated to Mystery design. This is absolute gold, and I’d recommend reading – or even following along – with this to create your first mystery. That’s what I followed when I designed the Haunted Mill introductory scenario, and it works well. Like Tales From The Loop, Vaesen assumes a Three Places style of prep – where players are free to explore nodes as a countdown continues, leading up to a final confrontation.

One word of warning – the published adventures (in the core book and A Wicked Secret – don’t always follow this structure. By all means run them as a way in, but they play around a bit with the prep advice – so don’t rely on them as models.

Nail Your Places

If you’re starting from scratch with your prep, you might be wise to think about your confrontation first – how can the conflict with the Vaesen be resolved? – and then think about where that could happen. From that, you can think of your core places in the town. I’d suggest that usually, you want something like this

  • A place where the regular townspeople meet and ill-informed gossip can be had (a PUB, if you like)
  • A place where the ‘traditional’/modern view of the Vaesen is represented (this is often a CHURCH, but it could be a factory or a work camp)
  • A place where the old ways are kept, and the Vaesen are respected (a SPOOKY PLACE, maybe on the outskirts of the town)

As long as you have those three, you’ll probably have enough to feed the players clues to lead to the confrontation. One thing I’ve noticed in play (at least among my group) is that a pub is expected – make sure to consider what excitement and clues visiting the tavern can bring, even if it’s not a major location. On a practical note, the investigators need somewhere to stay, and it’s usually best if this is a place of relative safety – several of the rules kick in to recover conditions here, and it lets you pull no punches in other confrontations. 

Add Friends, Enemies, and Frenemies

Your Vaesen will almost certainly need allies – either humans wrapped up in its worship like a cult, or actual products of the Vaesen – a confrontation against a lone monster is rarely exciting without some other parties to contend with. For most Vaesen it’s relatively easy to give them some agents in the town – and remember that any one with Enchant can Command Animal, so don’t rule out packs of wild dogs or the odd bear to contend with.

When I prep Mysteries, I think it’s good to have some actual conflict during the investigation – ideally fairly early – and often this will be with the Vaesen’s agents, rather than the Vaesen itself. Plan for this and put it into your Countdown, and throw it at them early.

In a town, you’ll likely have quite a few NPCs to detail – and portray at the table. Painting them with broad brush strokes, or just giving each of them one distinctive feature to portray, will help them to stand out to your players and make the investigation more role-play based. 

Countdown Fast And Early

Each mystery has at least one countdown which is the Vaesen’s (or another faction’s) reaction to the investigators showing up in the town. This is the device that adds urgency to the game and prevents turtling, so go hard and fast with this. I like to trigger the first countdown within half an hour (game time) of the PCs arrival, and often almost as soon as they pitch up. Starting with a bang forces investigation and exploration, and reinforces the danger the community is under.

So, my top tips for running Vaesen – either as a one-shot or an ongoing campaign. Have any of you tried it, as a player or GM? Anything you’d add?

Getting to 100 in 2021 – How To Play More

Earlier this week, with a session of Blades in the Dark in which the crew of Bravos almost managed to pull off a quiet score without burning anything down, I played my 100th game session of 2021 (I say ‘played’ for playing or running – the GM’s a player too). I’m pretty pleased with this, although my gaming hasn’t quite reached 2020’s pandemic-induced heights – by this time then I was on 133.

If you’re reading this and wish you got to play more, here are some hints I’ve picked up from 2 years of playing a lot.

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.

Online ftw

Playing RPGs online is easy and convenient. For me, it’s been the easiest way to keep a regular weeknight group together. Yes, you lose some of the camaraderie and banter from sitting round a table, but that isn’t always a bad thing, either – games can be much more focussed in a 2-3 hr online slot. A group with multiple potential GMs is the easiest way to keep it together and make it a regular thing. I’ve found online play to be much more resilient to the vicissitudes of work and real life – and there are lots of resources and advice available to help you set up. 

If you haven’t yet tried it – and, honestly, I’m amazed any gamer has made it through the pandemic without transitioning to online – you should. Online groups aren’t going anywhere.

My breakdown – D&D, Savage Worlds, and Star Trek Adventures making the medal places

Conventions, Meet-Ups, Game Days

There are lots of these springing up – from my own Go Play Leeds, Go Play Manchester, and various Meetups and groups offering games. If you want to play with new people and find players, a one-shot is a great way to try out their company and see if your styles are compatible.

Lots of these have transitioned to online and are currently offering a blended model – or staying as online presences – an online con is a really great way to get some games in with people you wouldn’t normally, without the time and expense of travelling and accommodation.

Balance GMing and Playing

I GM a lot, but I still aim for at least a 50/50 split of sessions where I run compared to playing (I’m at 44% GMing at the moment, which I’m very happy with). Playing and GMing are very different experiences in a lot of games, and one definitely feeds the other in terms of inspiration and ideas.

It’s also worth thinking of a campaign as having a finite length. 4-12 sessions of linked sessions is a reasonable length – by thinking about this at the start, you’re more likely to have a satisfying conclusion than letting it tail off. Also, be prepared to get one shots out of nowhere – a shout out on twitter for a given game, as long as you’ve prepped it, will help.

Have Some Back Pocket Prep

You know that game you’d like to run? What if 4 players showed up tonight and were up for playing? Could you offer them it? If you’re interested in GMing, prep a one-shot and have it ready. In every meetup, club, and games day I’ve seen, there’s dropouts, and having a chance to offer something will get picked up. 

“I’d like to run Werewolf – but I’ll need  few weeks to get it together,” is very unlikely to result in a game… “I’ve got a Werewolf one-shot, could be a campaign starter, ready to go – with pregens – fancy trying a session and seeing how it goes?” is very likely to result in a game.

Right now I’ve got Brancalonia, Heart, and Age of Sigmar Soulbound bubbling around in my brain, ready to run, and I need to get on it to get them ready to run. I’ve actually done some pregens for Soulbound, and I should commit to a session soon. So why not try some lonely fun (not Traveller) and get a session ready, without any con or group in mind?
So, 100 sessions and counting. I’m firmly of the belief that RPG experiences are improved by the Play > Prep > Read > Buy inequality chain – where do you stand on that? For the record, I’m much better at Play, Prep and Buy than I am at Read – not sure how that works – but I’m focussing on more play at the moment.