Unconventional Mysteries – One-Shot Carved From Brindlewood Games

I hope you’re all familiar with a new subset of PBTA games, the Carved From Brindlewood (CfB) stable. These, all from the Gauntlet, involve player-created clue interpretation and offer something genuinely different to investigative games. Through the game, you collect Clues (often open-ended and with multiple interpretations, like “a diary mentioning forbidden love,” or “a sequence of numbers in an unusual place.”) The players then try to interpret these to provide a previously-unknown solution to the Mystery. They’re fantastic games, if you enjoy that sort of premise, and offer a new perspective on the investigative genre. 

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!

There’s Brindlewood Bay, where you play elderly mavens in the titular town, investigating murders and gradually revealing a sinister cult. I reviewed Brindlewood Bay here, if you want to hear what I thought of it when I player the pre-kickstarter version. Following that The Between is a bit more baroque – you’re monster hunters in Victorian London solving cases and pursuing a mastermind. And most recently, Public Access, where your young investigators explore creepypasta urban legends on the trail of a vanished cable TV station. All of them are excellent, and all are hard-wired for campaign play of 4-8 sessions. 

But, as regular readers will know, I’m firmly of the opinion that you can run anything as a one-shot – and I’ve brought these to several conventions and run in single-sessions slots. They do take a bit of tweaking to get right – so here are my thoughts on running these as one-shots.

Be Up-Front About The Game

Firstly, you need to advertise carefully. In these games the mystery solution comes from the players, so you need to advertise that so that there are no surprised players who are expecting a more traditional experience. Some players butt up hard against creating their own solution to the mystery, and you need to make sure in the con pitch you’ve been explicit.

I’d also share that it’s a specifically one-shot experience, and it’ll likely feel like the pilot episode of a show – they shouldn’t expect everything to be resolved necessarily. Manage expectations and be clear that as much narration is in the hands of the players as you – and you should be fine.

Do the Regular Chargen and Prep

Even in a 3-hour slot, I’d advise going through the inter-player bits of character generation at the table. I get players to pick Playbooks (The Between) or Special Moves (Public Access or Brindlewood Bay) ahead of time if I can, but do the bits where they describe one another’s cosy place / corner of the house at the table. It can feel like this is eating into playing time, but it’ll mean you can hit the ground running well when you start. Think of it as time invested, and it’ll give your players lots to do with each other once you begin play.

Adjust Complexity

A mystery or question with Complexity 4 or 5, with one clear question to answer,  is about right for a one-shot session. It gives them a good shot at resolution and means they can gather enough clues quickly. If the mystery you’re running has a higher Complexity, just change it – you’ll alter the focus of it a little, but nothing will break. 

Think About Structure

In Brindlewood Bay, you can just play through a mystery as normal. For Public Access / The Between, I’d suggest the following:

short Day phase / Night phase / Day Phase (start by answering the question)

Start the first Day Phase in late afternoon and give the players just enough time to pursue a few leads before it’s dusk and they have to plan their Night phase. Assuming they aren’t watching an Odyssey tape (in Public Access), the Night phase can be primarily investigative, and should give them enough clues to try and answer the question the following Day – they might or might not be able to resolve it – if needed just montage them taking the action needed. If you have time for another Night Phase, by all means do it – but don’t try and squeeze it into ten minutes if that’s all the time you have.

As an aside, and even when you’re not running these as one-shots, I still like to pace the Day Phase pretty tightly. It’s up to the players to pursue leads and choose where they go, but that doesn’t mean they have unlimited time. About one short investigation / move for the morning and afternoon is about right, and as GM you can certainly cut to other scenes once a Clue is discovered. 

Use the Starter Mysteries – or Don’t

All the games come with a mystery that it’s recommended you start with. These provide a great intro into a short campaign and are nice and straightforward to run, but for a one-shot feel free to run different ones. You might need to think about how the players might split up or what approaches they might take to make it work, and some Mysteries have gated strings of Questions that won’t fit into a one-shot in a satisfactory way, but I’d be flexible with this after you’ve first run Dad Overboard / The House on Escondido Street / The St James’s Street Ghost. They’re all great ways to teach the game (and it’s very appreciated that the games offer these) but after you’ve tried them once you can always try something else.

Show Them All The Stuff – But Don’t Use All The Stuff

Mysteries have been designed to have plenty of NPCs to interact with. Try to bring these onto the stage fairly early on, but don’t worry if your players don’t end up interacting with them. The way the game works, they don’t need to talk to the nosy neighbour, or the families relative – all of them are just floating clue dispensers for the long list of options that you can dole out to solve the mystery. Aim instead to give a few exciting / obvious options for investigation, and make the players feel like whatever they pick they’ll find stuff out – which is, in fairness, exactly how the game works.

So, I’m still planning on bringing some more of these to conventions in the future – and there are more Carved From Brindlewood games in the works that look exciting. Have you tried running these games in a one-shot setting? What worked or didn’t work?

Bad Player Habits – And How To Avoid Them (Part 1)

Recently on twitter I posted about one of my gaming bugbears (not the furry kind) – players avoiding risk when the rest of the group is embracing it. This generated a lot of responses about similar play that can come up in one-shots, and make it harder as a GM to produce an enjoyable session for everyone. So, looking at some of these behaviours, I decided to think about what we, as GMs and fellow players, can do to discourage – or avoid – them. I’m going to look at my top three Bad Player Habits (BPH) – Risk Avoidance, Revisiting, and Un-Roleplaying. In this post, we’ll look at Risk Avoidance – one of the most common, and most problematic – particularly in one-shots.

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!

First, though, so you know I’m not a monster:

But maybe the players don’t know any better!

This was a response I got from several commenters – that I was unfairly victimising poor players who just preferred to play in a different way to me. To this, I say two things – firstly, in one-shots you really need to be explicit about expectations, and in almost all of the games I play at conventions, people are. And in any case, “This game is deadly and survival is more important than pace. So play carefully and check every room for traps,” is weak-sauce GMing – don’t do that.. 

Every time I’ve played and these have come up, of the n players at the table, n – 1 of them have had a very clear understanding of the game premise and the kinds of behaviours encouraged – it’s been clearly explained and understood by everyone except the player performing these things.

But what about new players? – I can categorically say that these are not behaviours that I see in gamers who are new to the hobby, but exclusively by old hands who really should know better. In all cases they’ve been oblivious to the annoyance that this has caused to the rest of the table, even when other players have directly challenged them about it.

Risk Avoidance

This is my top BPH. To be fair, I can see how it develops, sort of, if you’re used to an adversarial GM style where you need to check every door for traps and search every room in case you miss something. Careful play is fine – in some one-shot games that I run, it’s encouraged to an extent – in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, you want the players to see combat as dangerous and to avoid, say, fights with the city watch. But it’s when one player is doing this and the rest of the group are playing normally that it’s irritating.

“I’ll stay in the van while you explore the warehouse”

“I’ll stay in the control room and monitor the cameras”

“I’m not very good at combat, so I run away when the monsters attack”

All of this is poor because you’re caught as a GM between including them in the game – when they’ve opted out of the action – and letting them have the satisfaction of avoiding the danger that they clearly crave. They’re also leaving the rest of the group at higher risk from any danger that emerges – which is the real problem with this. When that player runs away, they make it harder for the other players who now have to fight with one fewer combatant. Add to this that very often these same players will back-seat drive the play from their position of safety, despite very clearly not being there.

So how to avoid this?

Well, first of all – and this goes for all of these – be explicit. Both at the start of the game, and during, make the level of risk-taking clear. If you’re running Mork Borg, it might just be to say:

“Look, this is a deadly game and the dice are going to fall where they may – some PCs might die, and that’s just fine – I’ve got a bunch of extra pregens and we’ll bring them in immediately. It’ll be more fun if we all just embrace this, rather than avoiding doing anything.”

Sometimes, you’ll find the whole group gets distracted by a perceived danger – sometimes what they perceive is even actually dangerous, but they can’t get past it and wind up in circular discussions about it. Here, it helps to have a friendly NPC who can drop in some clues as to the most fruitful route – having a local guide to point out that, while the deserts of Ja’darr are very dangerous, he’s pretty sure that heroes of the PC’s stature will be able to cope with them.

The other way is to demonstrate competence early. Begin with an action scene (often, although not always, a fight) where the PCs can win. An easy early scene lets the players learn the rules if they need to without too much peril, and also demonstrates that they can triumph in similar scenes.

Another prep technique is to have multiple options at each stage – if they are really hung up over the Deserts of Ja’darr, maybe there’s another way to cross them to the temple – they could try and hitch a ride on a passing roc to get them there. These alternative options are still dangerous, of course, but letting the players choose the one with less perceived risk satisfies some of the careful players’ needs.

So, there’s some techniques to counter risk avoidance and encourage all players to be on the same page about their approach to play – next time we’ll look at the other two.