A Change Is As Good As A Rest – Reflections on 7 Hills 2023

Last weekend I was at 7 Hills, the TTRPG convention I co-run. It was, from my point of view anyway, excellent. Before the event both myself and Jag (my fellow organiser) had I think been musing over whether it was worthwhile continuing, and separately had decided that unless it was a “Hell, Yeah” we might need to lay the con down. It was emphatically a Hell Yeah from both of us, and we’ll be returning in 2024. In fact, we’re even looking at a Virtual Seven Hills in 2023 – all details on the website above.

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 of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

7 Hills is themed, with all games loosely (sometimes very loosely) linked to the theme, and this year’s was Change – which seemed to be suitably flexible to provide an inspiration push without holding GMs back. It’s also, like all conventions based in the Garrison Hotel, all about games – there isn’t anything to do apart from play games, and that’s by design. Each slot, everyone is playing – we have the odd trader (All Rolled Up were there this year, and we’re looking at some longer-term links with them too) but the main focus is, as it should be, play.

The first thing to reflect on is that running 2 games as well as organising the con is probably one too many. Or at least, I could have run 2 games using the same system – that would have made it more manageable. I went into the con with the least prep for my two games I’ve done for a while – and although they went well (more on that later) it wasn’t my best work. I’ll try to run both of them again, and post them on here, but they definitely need some fleshing out. So, here’s some things I learned from games run and played – a mixture of reflections and reviews

Urban Jungle is a Solid System

It’s an unusual setting, to be sure – anthropomorphic noir, where animals run around doing gangster stuff in a range of easily-recognisable American city parallels (I went for New Orleans-inspired Bellegarde for my game).The system does a clever trick of making non-combat characters effective, and the whole thing felt suitably dark and moody. As with everything, putting animals in makes it accessible – nobody worried about how to engage with noir or if their characters were doing the right thing in genre – hat tip to my player with the moody lion accountant!

I’ll be running this out at conventions in the future too, and if you want to see more of the system in action, check out Round About Midnight, a ready-made adventure for it from when I ran it before.

Soulbound is a Really Solid System

I’ve blogged before about Age of Sigmar: Soulbound, the high fantasy superhero opposite to WFRP, and I ran it again at Seven Hills with a self-penned adventure – and it really pops. A simple 3 fight structure, an investigation montage borrowed from 13th Age, and a straightforward plot made this a fun one-shot, and it’s certainly a game I’ll come back to again and again.

Ironsworn: Starforged Has More Potential Than I Thought

I’m a big fan of Shawn Tompkin’s Ironsworn, and although I backed Starforged, there seemed to be too much of it going on for me to wrap my head properly around it. It’s a solo-ish system that also allows for group collaborative or guided (with a GM) play, and its sandbox oracle creation stuff really sang in the game that we played. I need to get back to both Ironsworn and this game and give it a proper run out – there’s some balancing I need to get my head around about progress tracks, but I think I need to just suck it and see what happens. Either way, a nice game that fits into the “narratively crunchy” end just where I like it.

PBTA Games Need Tighter Sandboxing

I played Root (really excellent system, and, yes, more animals) – I really liked the gameplay, but some of the structure of the one-shot left me puzzled. In Root the default structure is that you come to a Clearing (the woodland settlements of the game) and encounter a number of multi-layered conflicts, which you can then interact with in a few different ways to resolve. Each Clearing has 3 or more conflicts, and multiple ways to interact with them. While this made for open, free-styling play, I’d have preferred a tighter sandbox for the one-shot. In our game, we went off in about three different directions, and met (or heard about) a wide array of NPCs that led to a bit of analysis paralysis from us. 

This wasn’t a fault of the GM, who was great at bringing action and building to a climax (and when we forced it to kick off a bit, ran with the punches well) – but a tweak to the structure would have helped, maybe by reducing the number of NPCs or the complexities of the Clearing’s conflicts, or starting with more of an implied focus on one of the conflicts. 

Ways to do this? Well, I’m a fan of Agon’s islands approach of “Do you do this, or this, or something else?” – and also the Apocalypse World one-shot starter of “You’re tied to a chair – who did this to you?”. Either way, starting with a bit more direct peril would have helped to get us on the same page from the start.

Pendragon Remains A Classic

I’ve yet to run Pendragon, somehow, at conventions, but have played more and more of it recently. It’s just a very easy game to get solid one-shot play out of – all the PCs have a means to adventure together and a clear mission, there’s lots of roleplaying juices to flow with your squires and the various other knights you find, and combat is brutal and swingy enough to have genuine peril in it. Our game ended in a near-TPK (with the survivors joining the evil fae spirits) and it was all genuine great fun. I need to get this to the table soon.

So, a successful convention – and if you’re up for Seven Hills 2024, or even Virtual Seven Hills, let me know and check out the website.

Target Rich Environments – Making Set Pieces Pop

Often, TTRPG one-shots or sessions coalesce around big set-piece scenes, where players need to achieve multiple goals and spend significant amounts of time – a party where they need to find the murderer, a train they need to rob, a castle they need to conquer or defend, an abandoned village they need to exorcise of ghosts. 

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 of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

These are often difficult to prep – you can over-think or over-simplify them, and either can be frustrating to run. Likewise, you can often end up railroading players if you try and prep thoroughly for one of these scenes, as you sketch out the various sub-scenes that could feature. I’ve got a technique that can help with that – design such scenes as a Target Rich Environment.

Be Clear About Goals

What are the PCs trying to do in this zone? They might need to accumulate clues (in which case write out a list of clues independent of sources as well as tying up likely ways they can get them), or they might just need to find somebody or something hidden. Think about where it is and why it is hard to find.

Big Open Spaces, Multiple NPCs

Give yourself an overview of the space the scene will take place in – even if it’s just with a map, it’ll give you an idea of how it can fit for the players. There should be multiple ‘zones’ within the scene, so that PCs can split up effectively (so at your party, you might have the bar, the dance floor, mingling with the guests, and backrooms with the staff) – and have a good number of NPCs lightly sketched who they can interact with. 

Lots of Targets

Give the players lots of options of stuff to do, and lots of plot-related hooks that can be pursued multiple ways. To paraphrase from The Alexandrian’s Three-Clue-Rule, work out at least three ways each vital piece of information or goal could be achieved, and sketch out what that might look like in-game: is it a social challenge, a skill check, or some sort of longer skill challenge?

Narrow Down The Start

As the PCs arrive in the environment, you want to spur them into action straight away – so give them at least two options that you explicitly present to them (do you mingle with the socialites at the bar and try and work out what the gossip is, or go straight to the dancefloor to try and ingratiate yourself with the princess and her party, or something else?) Giving concrete options helps prevent decision paralysis and keeps the pace up – and gives you the best of both worlds for sandbox/linear play.

Descriptions and Moments

Now that you’ve got a rough structure for the scene, add some pithy descriptive touches for each of the areas. I like to do this as bullet points, as they’re easy to scan and incorporate into descriptions without too much hassle. Moments – things that can be witnesses that serve as background flavour – also help to make the scene sing. Credit to Trophy as the first game I saw them in, although other Gauntlet publications like The Between also make use of them.

In summary, give your set pieces a little more thought  – and prep – than usual, and you can make truly memorable scenes for your one-shot or ongoing TTRPG game. Have you had any memorable target-rich environments in your games? Are there any good examples in published adventures? Let me know in the comments.