Grand Theft Auto Sandboxing

I don’t really like “sandbox” play – where a setting or location is provided with NPCs, some interactions, and the players are left to wander around finding an emergent plot. I think it’s some youthful games of Traveller where my fellow players just traded and avoided any kind of danger, but they’ve always been slow, unwieldy things where the emergent plot hasn’t been satisfying. 

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!

But genuine choice is a real feature of one-shots, which can easily be railroaded affairs, so I’d like to get better at them. So, for one-shots or longer-form games, I present my solution – or at least, the solution to my problem with sandboxes – the Grand Theft Auto Sandbox.

I’ve named it after GTA as that’s the first video game I encountered that looked like this, but it’s generally how open world games are structured now, and I’m sure GTA3 wasn’t the first. In it, as the world opens up, you always have a few missions on your plate, that you can follow in whatever order, some main plot and some side quests. The choice and setting makes for an entertaining game where you really feel in charge of your characters destiny. 

As it’s been developed, in games like Red Dead Redemption you have side quests that turn out to be main quests, and a few branching storylines – all immersing you in the world, and making your characters choices feel important even though they aren’t always.

What’s Wrong With Sandboxes?

Well, there’s a few things, in my experience. Some of these, to some players, may be more feature than bug, but for me they do my head in:

  • PCs, faced with a dangerous and less dangerous option, will always choose the less dangerous first
  • The sandbox often doesn’t change. Whenever you go to the town, it’s often the same location they saw before
  • Side quests are either not present, or too independent of the main plot – they’re either too tempting or not tempting enough
  • The players disagree about what to do. With too many options, it’s hard to see what to do

Building Your Sandbox

  • Have a limited, bounded location. Give some interesting-sounding adventure sites – these can just be names for now
  • Imagine an antagonist, and the plot your PCs will work against. Sketch out some possible escalations of their plan that can happen during the sandbox
  • Add a couple of neutral/antagonistic factions that aren’t the main antagonist that the players can butt up against. Work out how they feel about the other factions, and what they want
  • Prep a straightforward, action-oriented first session that introduces the main factions and locations and sets up a the next two or three options for quests

Playing Your Sandbox

  • Give two or three missions at once. Missions that aren’t picked up may stay available, or may vanish as they pursue others.
  • Steal published adventures for quests – either with or without the serial numbers filed off
  • Have some side quests ready that the players can do at any time. Maybe these have a simple twist ready that link them to the main antagonist – or maybe they don’t
  • Ask the players what they do next time at the end of the session. This way, you only have to fully prep what they’re doing next, rather than the whole shebang.
  • Lay out tracks in front as you go. You might know where you’re heading, but you might also want to play to find out – especially if you’re running a more player-driven game.
  • Occasionally, interrupt and put them on rails – especially if the antagonist reacts. If they’ve been particularly successful against them (or another faction), have the trouble come to them and them have to deal with it

So, there’s my basic principles of GTA Sandboxing. I’m going to provide some more examples later in the week of how to use this in action, and how it applies to a one-shot. If there’s any particular settings or systems you’d like to see use this method, let me know in the comments.

Table Techniques: Reincoporation

If you want to make your #TTRPG one-shots memorable and feel personal to your players, this is absolutely the most effective technique you can use, and it also works in ongoing campaigns. One of the challenges of one-shot play is getting the PCs connected to your plot and giving them personality, and there are lots of tricks that GMs use for this – art, standees, bonds or inciting incident questions / love letters – but this is a resource-free one that can have impressive results.

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!

It’s what a lot of players miss from convention games – feeling a genuine connection to their character. Reincorporation really helps to make this happen. It also doesn’t require too much thought at the table, which is another thing in its favour.

What Is It?

This is simple as anything – all you have to do is refer back to cool, incidental details that were established earlier in the game. Ideally, these incidental details are provided by the players – whether they realise this or not. A few pointers

  • These can be as incidental as possible. Background details, seemingly unimportant parts of description
  • Make a note of them when they’re introduced – if, like me, you’re liable to forget
  • Sometimes, you might be able to tweak your planned scene to incorporate these details – if the players described themselves all meeting in a cool coffee shop at the start of the game, have the supervillains threaten that coffee shop in the final battle
  • There’s a few ways to seed them – we’ll cover that soon

So, in the first scene of the game, the ranger describes his wolf animal companion licking hungrily at a ham bone. Later in the game, when the wolf misses, you describe a ham bone poking out of the goblin’ sack nearby which distracted him.

Why Does It Work?

It’s a risk-free way to add the shared storytelling that tabletop RPGs offer because of their collaborative effort. And, because it’s incidental to the plot, it’s a lot safer for players to come up with narrative details – because they don’t know that they’re important. It also doesn’t require too much creation from the players – but it makes them feel like their description and colour mattered.

Player-Created

When you start the game, and ask players to describe their characters – listen out for any details you can use later and reincorporate. Fancy hat? That’ll get stolen by the goblins. Heavy clanking armour? That’s what happens when they fail a stealth check. Series of enemies across the galaxy? One of them turns out to be the main opponents’ lieutenant.

This has the advantage that you’ll get some personal connections to their characters that have come straight from the players, and you should be able to get something from everything. It can sometimes lead to players giving you more, or less, depending on how they describe. To address this, if you’re going round the table doing this at the start of the session, start with a player who you think will model how to do it – if they do it well, the rest will follow that model.

Seeded In-Game


Early in the game, you can create some conditions to get this. Usually this is with an open-ended encounter – and it can be the first big scene. In Beard of Lhankhor Mhy, my 13G scenario, the adventure opens when they rescue a Duck adventurer, Crontas, from a band of Broo. How they perform in that first combat determines how Crontas responds to them – and whether they want him to come along with them to rescue his friends or not. 

Having a talkative, even annoying ally, means that the players will come back to supply details, and this gives a bit more control over what emerges to reincorporate. Similarly, if you’re narrating failures and successes with the players, how that goes in the first combat might set the tone for the whole session – as with the ham-bone example earlier. 

In all of these, try and let the details be player-provided – you can add some yourself, but the ones that you come back to should ideally be player-created. Throw lots in though – you can always use more options!

Seeded Out-Of-Game

Some players may be uncomfortable adding narrative details in-game – instead, you can explicitly get them to do this out of the game. Use Bond questions, or pre-game questions / love letters, to establish facts out of character, and then weave these in.

These can be trickier to make throwaway – you’re attaching more importance to them, so don’t be surprised if players come up with big issues and problems to solve – try and focus on some of the details they supply for those rather than the issues themselves, which will come up anyway. A detail like “I’m in love with X PC” isn’t really ripe for reincorporation as-is – but them stealing glances across the table at them, or moving to save them in combat, is – think small for effective reincorporation.

So, lots of ways to develop this. I genuinely believe this is one of the best ways to improve your game – and as an at-table technique there’s not much with more bang for its buck. How have you used reincorporation in your games? Let me know in the comments.

Into the Underhang – A Heart: The City Beneath One-Shot

I’ve had some rum luck with illness recently – a chest infection a few weeks ago, and now Covid (I’m recovering, thankfully) have meant I’ve missed two #TTRPG conventions that are genuine highlights. Owlbear and Wizard’s Staff is excellent beery fun in Leamington Spa, while Furnace is a centrepiece of the Garrison Conventions and the place that first got me into convention GMing.

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!

So, I’ve been left with an excess of prepped games, and no-where to run them – so I’ll be putting them out on here. First up, a game that was planned for Owlbear, for Roward Rook & Decard‘s Heart: The City Beneath. In Heart, your desperate treasure-hunters delve into the living, beating dungeon beneath the occupied city of Spire to find eldritch treasures – and themselves.

Yes, the art is all this good – as you’d expect from RRD

Full disclosure – I haven’t actually run this, although I’m sure it will get an outing soon. If you’re Heart-curious, this might give you an idea what to expect in the game. If you’re a Patron, feel free to message (on here or twitter) and I’ll send you the pregens I did for it as well, giving you a fully ready-to-run game. Also, this is based on an adventure seed in the actual book – there are loads of them in there – but fleshed-out to be runnable for a one-shot. I’ve got more to say about prep for loose-improv games like Heart and Spire, but that’s another blog post.

Into the Underhang

A Heart: The City Beneath One-Shot

Into the Underhang is an independent production by Burn After Running and is not affiliated with Rowan, Rook and Decard. It is published under the RR&D Community License. Heart is copyright Rowan, Rook and Decard. You can find out more and support these games at rowanrookanddecard.com.

Scene 1 – Derelictus

We begin in the city between the cities, a sprawling, semi-underground mirror of Spire, Derelictus. From Platform 1, where all manner of equipment can be sourced, to Platform 2, where we find ourselves now – with Ostrer, a mad researcher, is cutting you a deal.

Hang Station was built as a tourist trap; suspended over a vast subterranean sea, so that aelfir could see the captured, sleeping monster beneath, captured from the far north. Hang Station is on Tier 2 of Heart – so will need at least a couple of delves, stopping off at a waypoint on the way. He wants to get a sample of the beast’s blood – and he needs your help.

There appear to be two notable routes towards Hang Station (a Technology) – through the singing, open railways of the Vermissian Railways – maybe hoping to catch a train some of the way, or a darker, lower way, through Sump Station (a Warren) – the flooded remains of an old station now submerged. Darker, but less likely to attract attention

In Derelictus, each PC has a chance to prepare – they can try and get hold of a D6 piece of equipment for the journey, or research another route – perhaps one going through a more favourable area for them. After a skill roll each, and potential stress (always D4 at this stage, and usually to Supplies or Fortune), they must set off

Scene 2 – Delve to Tier 1

This is a delve they will take to either Sump Station, Hang Station, or another location

Route: Between Derelictus and Sump Station

Tier: 1

Domains: Technology, Warren

Stress: D4

Resistance: 10

Description: A tramp through foot-deep, the knee-deep, flooded tunnels, in fading light and with labyrinthine corridors. Occasional relics of machinery or rails puncture through the floor – and occasionally pumps still churn. It smells bad initially, then turns to a warm, cleaner smell.

Events: Jonjak and his gang of gutterkin will track the PCs from Derelictus, and attempt to jump them to find out what they are doing; a sudden overflow means they have to wade chest-deep or lower; strange fluorescent fish swim under the water and circle the PCs; a warehouse of fishmongery where Mikkel the Fish waits to serve them

Connection: Capture the glowing fish for Mikkel and he will teach you the secrets of the eddies

Route: Between Derelictus and Hang Station

Tier: 1

Domains: Technology, Occult

Stress: D4

Resistance: 10

Description: A walk along high, ruined walkways alongside the tracks which have collapsed in places; crystals line the path eventually; the smell of incense and sulphur. Damaged rope-ways line each pathway

Events: Jonjak and his gang of gutterkin will track the PCs from Derelictus, and attempt to jump them to find out what they are doing; a clattering of a passing train requires jumping out of the way – or onto it; the singing of crystals in the ceiling above as one falls and shatters

Connection: Repair the rope-ways linking to the paths

Scene 3: The Mid-Point

At this point, they have arrived, either in Sump Station or Hang Station, and have a chance for respite. Ostrer insists that they need to purchase some supplies – ropes and pulleys – but at this point you encounter the rival delvers, Protector Baram and his men.

They accost the players as they explore the haven, asking them their business and mocking them. They know that the beast has laid eggs, and can see that Ostrer wants one as well. Depending on the PC’s approach, they may suggest an alliance, or try and sabotage their equipment. Either way, he will wish them luck.

As with Scene 1, PCs may make 1 test to try and recover equipment or preparations for the further delve.

Scene 4: Into the Underhang

From their location, they need to venture deeper into the Heart, to Hang Station and the underground lake.

Route: Between Tier 1 and Hang Station

Tier: 2

Domains: Cursed, Technology

Stress: D6

Resistance: 10

Description: Trekking through walkways suspended over still lakes, or raging torrents – creaking at the wind that blows through them. The smell of tar, and then of some big, fishy beast. The crackling of magical energy from long-decayed dampers and siphons. The echoes of fellow hunters, or ghosts, around them.

Events: A crackle of energy covers the ground in front with a web of occult power that must be bypassed; the walkway shatters and falls, meaning they must form a new route; Jonjak, still tracking, ambushes them on a walkway; Baram makes his move as they approach; a ghostly engineer seeks aid in repairing conduits and walkways

Connection: Repairing the conduits will allow them to lay the ghost to rest.

Scene 5: The Harvest

They emerge onto a vast creaking observation platform, a sparkling lake below them swaying gently. A huge whale-beast has broken the surface of the water below, and a light snore echoes around the cavern – but the eggs are on the other side.

They must

  • Somehow get down to the lake. There are maintenance rowboats and rafts available, ropes and pulleys, that could be fashioned
  • Recover the eggs from the egg sac beyond the creature – they could dive in, or trick it into rolling over
  • Avoid the attentions of the rival gangs, who will attempt to ambush them

At their moment of triumph, a roar echoes through the lake – the beast has awoken, and they must escape

NPCs

Ostrer the Mad Researcher

Motivation: Find and recover the eggs of the Hang Station beast

Sensory Details: Thick, clouded goggles with no light; the smell of dusty books mixed with oil; a dirty, flapping lab coat

At the Table: Close eyes when speaking

Jonjak the Tunnel Brigand

Motivation: Find a score big enough to retire on

Sensory Details: Filthy overalls and cloak; scarred face and hands; odd limp

At the Table: Speaks with a pirate accent (Arr!)

Difficulty: 0

Resistance: 10

Protection: 1

Resources: Stolen heirlooms (D8, Taboo), Poorly-written maps (D6 Delve)

Jonjak’s Gutterkin

Motivation: Gain freedom from Jonjak, or at least more pleasant employment with him

Sensory Details: A mob of 8 or 9 gullboys and heron-girls; squawking and clambouring over one another; rusted, broken knives with alarming speed

At the Table: Look this way and that while skwarking in semi-speech

Resistance: 8

Protection: 0

Stress: Knives D6, Unreliable

Mikkel the Fish

Motivation: Serve his narcotic fishes to the discerning

Sensory Details: A scale-clad shaved gnoll with rings everywhere; stares oddly at everything; the smell of oil and tar

At the Table: Keep mouth open when not speaking

Protector Baram, Drow Rival Delver

Motivation: Be the first to recover a beast-egg for his masters

Sensory Details: The smell of cheap perfume, a shiny well-maintained leather coat, the clip of heels on ground; accompanied by a pair of cackling gnolls, Forrad and Vorrad

At the Table: Alan Rickman-esque villainy

Difficulty: Risky

Resistance: 10

Protection: 1

Stress: Whip D8 Tiring, Pistol D6 Ranged One-Shot

The Hang Station Beast

Motivation: To eat, sleep and breed

Sensory Details: A thick smell of fur, fish and sweat; blue-grey skin covered in slick water; a light, echoey snore

At the Table: Describe the ground shifting

Difficulty: Dangerous

Resistance: 10

Protection: 2

Stress: Roll over D6

Prep Techniques – Round-Up

Last year, I started writing about Prep Techniques – ways to structure your prep for a one-shot session to build a good structure for your session. One-shot and short-form play is all about having a clear structure of ideas so you’re not left floundering at the table, and these were designed to encourage that, with practical advice to turn an idea into a ready-to-run set of prep.

I contrast these with Table Techniques, which are things you do during the game that often don’t need any prep beyond creating the conditions for their deployment – Shared Narration is an example of this (well, several examples) – and I’ll be providing more examples of them over the next few months.

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 hasn’t been a full list of my Prep Techniques posts before now, so here’s a summary of what’s here. If you’re just starting prepping a one-shot and not sure what to do first, you could do worse than pick one of these and follow the method described.

Essential prep – gathering your props

The 5-Room Non-Dungeon is Johnn Four’s 5-Room Dungeon method, applied more broadly to give a series of linked scenes. This is a great place to start if you’re beginning running one-shots. I actually think it works better out of the dungeon than for dungeon games.

Three Places is a way to structure investigative, location-based play where you want your players to have genuine choices as to how they approach the problem.

Another one that’s not mine, I did a deep dive of Sly Flourish’s Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master prep method here – even if you don’t use the whole method, the list of unconnected secrets and clues is a great technique to have in your back pocket, or to go through before a session to give things for the players to discover.

Another good way to get started is to write a convention pitch for the game, and use that to focus your thoughts – guidance here. Technique also applies for writing actual convention pitches!

For a more loosely-structured game, where you expect to think on your feet, you need a bag of tricks to throw at the players. The guidance in this post is relevant for PBTA, FitD, and other similar games like Spire and Heart. It’s easy to try and go in raw with these sorts of games, but in my experience having some prep thoughts done beforehand really help to make them sing in a one-shot.

Or for a more simple structure, start by thinking about the Boss Fight and work backwards from there. There’s a couple of examples of this approach here.

I’m not saying there won’t be more Prep Techniques shared in the future, but here’s all there are for now. My focus for the next few months is two things – putting out ready-to-run one-shots for a few systems (most of which are my own con game sessions from over the summer) and Table Techniques, which will give techniques that can be done during play to add interest and excitement to your games. Let me know if there’s anything you’d like to see!

OneD&D: Hot Takes on the Upcoming Non-Edition

The internet and his mother all seem to have an opinion on the latest “D&DNext” iteration – from hoary old grognards comparing it to 2e to players who’ve only ever known 5e reacting angrily at their first encounter with edition wars. And, as with everything on the internet, there seems to be a lot of nonsense being spoken. So, here’s why I think some of those hot takes are going to be, in the words of the Grognards, bobbins. Stay with me while I unpack 5 myths about the latest D&D.

“It’s just a money-making scam!”

Probably not this like this one

Oh my sweet summer child. How do you think Call of Cthulhu got to 6th edition before changing any of the rules? In an industry where it’s pretty tricky to make money, refreshing the product with a new edition is a tale as old as time. Yes, it’s an opportunity for Wizards to make yet more money, but so is everything they do – until the revolution and the socialist TTRPG republic gets formed, selling rules, books, and bumf is what makes the industry exist and bring new shiny product to us.

They’ve waited a long time for this too – 5e will last unchanged for 10 years, and 1st ed. AD&D only lasted 12 before 2e came out (and time was different back then in those days of black and white TVs, so I’m told by my elders). Yes, inevitably there is a business model behind this creative decision, but there is with everything.

“D&D Beyond will spell ruin for local game stores / the print medium / other TTRPGs”

A lot of comments from older gamers on the integration of D&D Beyond miss an important fact – D&D Beyond was already super integrated into the hobby before Wizards acquired it. Go down to your local Geek Retreat and you’ll find keeping your PC on D&D Beyond, and using it to level up, is a standard tool used by players. 

I’m with the grognards in that I like to do my own maths and workings out, and prefer a pencil to a spreadsheet for my character sheet – but the additional integration they are promising is nothing new, and will not be an industry-changing development. If you want to run a published D&D adventure on a VTT, you’d be paying for the pack anyway – this will just add extra integration. Which brings us on to…

“The 3D VTT will spell ruin for all other VTTs / online play in general”

Definitely not like this one

My take on the 3D VTT that’s being talked about is that I expect it won’t be very good, but even putting that aside, the VTT market is hardly somewhere where a new competitor is likely to push everyone else aside. From super-simple systems like Owlbear Rodeo, to brain-achingly nerdy options like Foundry (Roll20 sits in the happy middle ground for me), there’s a wide range of options, and new things being added all the time.

I don’t think the new VTT will be a hit, by the way, because I just don’t think there’s the appetite for a 3D image of the game. A lot of play takes place in theatre of the mind, and D&D’s biggest public image representative, Critical Role, aren’t often counting squares and having 4e-style battlefield fights anyway – I expect a significant proportion of D&D play is theatre of the mind, which will have no interest in this.

Now, there is a scenario where support for D&D drops from Roll20 and the other platforms, but that won’t happen, because the OGL stuff will still be there. DMs Guild is too big a part of Wizards offering for them to let it drop, and the ongoing support it offers for some of its books.

“All my old books will be obsolete”

Okay, this is what a new edition does, right? The PHB, DMG, MM will all be replaced (although I think there’s a fair chance that the more recent designs in Monsters of the Multiverse and other publications have been explicitly designed to be fully compatible)… and they’ve said that other sourcebooks will be backwards compatible. Now, I see commenters doubting this, and suggesting a bit of work might still need to be done, but on the other hand…

Every edition of D&D is backwards compatible. Converting a 1st ed adventure to 5e involves replacing the monsters and traps with their new stats, and… that’s it. As I’d always strongly recommend checking and tweaking the monsters and traps in 5e published adventures (as some are very weirdly balanced), this really isn’t a big deal.

“This isn’t my game anymore! They’ve added tieflings with elf ears and pronouns to the core races…”

Oh shut up. Too right it’s not your game anymore – it never was, anyway. Go and cry about Thaco the Clown somewhere else.

So, I hope that clarifies what I confidently predict won’t happen with OneD&D; watch this space as in a couple of years I may well have egg on my face from this, when you’re reading this on an archived .pdf file within D&D Beyond where all TTRPG blogs now have to hosted. What do you think? Personally, everything I’ve read – including the playtest stuff they are releasing gradually – tells me OneD&D will be good. I doubt it’ll become my best version of D&D ever (13th Age is still there), but, like 5e, I expect a decent system that’s sure to be well-supported with some great stuff. So let’s see.

Running Games At Conventions

We are well into the RPG convention season – a big range of residential cons and one-day meetups are happening, and the schedule seems to be recovering well in the aftermath of Covid restrictions. It’s over 5 years since I first posted about running at conventions, so I thought I’d revisit this, more focussed now on the convention as a whole rather than individual games.

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!

I’m talking here about going beyond just running one or two games at meetups or cons, to being an actual ‘convention GM’ – running multiple games at events, and being a part of delivering the experience of conventions. If you want to do this, here are some tips.

Go To Multiple Conventions

Don’t just restrict yourself to the one meetup – explore online options, too. To get better at convention GMing, you need to practise it, so make a commitment to some conventions and book some games in. Don’t just think of the bigger face-to-face conventions (in fact, these can sometimes be frustrating to GM at) – look at online options and small local one-day cons as well. 

Play (At Least) As Much As You Run

Time was when some convention GMs would sign up to run every slot. You still see this model encouraged by some big cons – UK Games Expo offers free accommodation to GMs who complete such a punishing schedule of GMing. Running every slot is a terrible idea. Conventions shouldn’t be supporting it – I’d be happier if they had a limit on how much one person can GM. Play convention games at the same time, and use this time to research and craft how to run your games.

Run Games More Than Once

As you might think from the name of the blog, I used to just run my convention games once. I happily avoid that now – I have plastic folders filled with prep notes ready to run that I can pull out and revisit for a pickup game with minimal prep. If you’ve got pregens, consider laminating them if you want to use them again to save printing again, and buy some cheap dry wipe markers for players to use. If you’re thinking you’ll run a game multiple times, consider this in your prep and think about multiple means of resolution to keep it interesting for you as well.

One Game A Day

I’d go further than the above and say that one game per day is the standard, baseline you should be aiming for if you want to be a con GM. It’s what I try to stick to, and it helps keep all of those games fresh and perky, and you won’t lose your voice. I occasionally get carried away and make exceptions (running 6 games out of 10 at The Kraken was the result of offering additional games at the event, and even then I did duplicate some systems and prep), but I always regret it if I end up running two games in a day.

Run Parallel / Linked Games

As well as running games multiple times, you can make things easier for yourself by running the same (or similar) systems multiple times. I’ve offered, for instance, three 13th Age games before – which helped me get the system internalised really easily. You can also re-use pregens, and even if you get the same players this will be as much a feature as a bug as they get to see what another character plays like. Again, laminating these is a good move.

So, some tips for convention GMing to step up to being a regular. Conventions need GMs, and it’s great to get more people stepping up to run regularly. Is there any other advice you’d give, or concerns? Let me know.

Temporarily Living, Breathing NPCs – A Deep Dive of Shadows Over Bogenhafen, Part 2

As I talked about here, I’m committing to only reviewing RPG products I’ve actually used – so, run or played – and in Part 1 I talked about how I ran and adapted the second half of the first part of the classic WFRP Enemy Within campaign. If you’re interested in the first half of the first part, you’ll want to look at my deep dive of Mistaken Identity here and here. In this part, I’m going to more generally review the adventure, and see what gems we can steal for our own games from it. It’s in Enemy in Shadows, and is available from Cubicle 7 here.

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!

As with Part 1, below is full of spoilers – if you’re still wanting to play it “fresh,” 35+ years after it was first published, you might want to look away now!

This is, as you’d expect, a well presented adventure – and generally organised well to run it. I did find it a bit of an ovelarge sandbox to work with – as the adventure basically gives you access to the entire city to ask around – but every other section was relatively simple to parse and deliver at the table.

There Are Some Old-School Roadblocks

There’s a couple of structural things that stood out for me that I altered. The whole investigation segment relies on the PCs, after lengthy legwork, hitting a brick wall, and Magerius telling them everything that they’ve been trying to find out. This is weak, and I let my players have a shot at sneaking into the council meeting themselves to find out first hand – a shot that they singularly failed to succeed at, but a shot nonetheless. 

Similarly, when they disturb the Cult of Ranald, as written there’s a weird no-roll-to-prevent bit about being ambushed and tied up, which again is weak, and entirely unnecessary – the Cult are ideal allies later in the adventure. So, again, I took this out. The summoning circle in the sewers has an undetectable (and unopenable) secret door, and an odd roadblock to find where in the city it actually is, which I wasn’t able to find a way around – other than by making sure they had plenty of other leads to pursue when they got back to the surface.

There’s the odd other bit – like the goblin escaping with no roll possible to stop him – I can live with that as a plot necessity to kick the adventure off – but there are points where this adventure shows its age a bit. Indeed, the scene-by-scene progression which started in Mistaken Identity when they were literally point-crawling (or sometimes pub-crawling) along a sequence of encounters makes the loose sandboxing of the exploration segment sit oddly.

Great NPCs – While They Last

As with Mistaken Identity, there’s some great NPCs in here, sketched out well and fun to play at the table. This feels like a living, breathing world; except that many of those NPCs don’t breathe for too long after the PCs meet them. It’s a slight exaggeration to say that everyone dies shortly after encountering the players… but almost everyone does, which gives a grimdark edge that isn’t far from farce at the table. I tried to make sure that some plot-adjacent NPCs survived, just to give some continuity from game to game, but didn’t always manage.

Friedrich Magerius, a deus ex machina clue machine (deceased, obviously)

A Good Sewer Dungeon!

It’s a cliche now, but fighting rats in the sewers really is fun. There’s a plot reason for the sewers to be dangerous (the council has stopped the watch going there so they don’t find their summoning circle), and the sewers feel genuinely alien and weird – while still very close to the city, which as already established, is plenty dangerous enough on its own. 

Fighting a man-sized rat while knee-deep in effluent felt really desperate and dangerous at the table, in part because of the shadow of the disease rules hanging over the players. And encountering the Cult of Ranald’s cellar – and in fact the summoning circle – reinforced that the PCs were very close to the hustling, bustling, dangerous city above them.

Why Stay in Bogenhafen?

Given that Mistaken Identity ends with the PCs being nearly killed by a witch hunter and then saved by a ravening demon of Tzeentch, it’s not entirely clear why they’d want to stick around or poke their heads up investigating stuff around the town. While my players responded well to the expectation that the adventure’s name is Shadows Over Bogenhafen, not Shadows over Weissbruck, there was a bit of dissonance reported from them, with some commenting that even Altdorf felt safer. And they were really scared in Altdorf.

Overall, it’s a good adventure that has just about stood the test of time. I didn’t make as much use of the Grognard Boxes as I did in Mistaken Identity, mainly because they didn’t seem to address the problems I saw in the ways I wanted to, but it ran smoothly and came to a satisfying conclusion. We’ll be revisiting Death on the Reik next year, with a plan to do the whole adventure – so look forward to those write-ups!

Have you run or played Shadows Over Bogenhafen? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Cultists, Rats, and Yet More Pubs: A Deep Dive of Shadows Over Bogenhafen, part 1

Shadows Over Bogenhafen is the second half of the Enemy Within campaign for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and follows Mistaken Identity – which I looked at here and here. In the latest iteration of the campaign, the two are folded together as Enemy in Shadows. Enemy Within has a reputation as one of the “great” RPG campaigns, so I played through it with my Tuesday group – you can get hold of it from Cubicle 7 here.

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!

I’ll start by giving you a session-by-session breakdown of how it went, and any alterations I made to the adventure as published. In part 2, I’ll discuss my overall impressions of the adventure. With my Tuesday group, part of our play culture is to share Stars and Wishes at the end of each session, so I’ve folded in some feedback from a player perspective here as well. Expect spoilers – so look away now if you don’t want plot reveals from a 35+ year old adventure!

Synopsis

I ran Shadows Over Bogenhafen over 5 sessions, immediately following the run of Mistaken Identity (5 sessions) – this included a session for character generation and learning the system, and a one-shot when a player was missing, so all told it was 8 sessions of play. We do tend to aggressively pursue plot threads and keep the game going in my Tuesday group (no game suffers from too much pace, as one player is wont to say) – so you might expect it to take a bit longer with a slower pace. 

Session 1 – What Happens in The Schaffenfest…

Following a hook I laid in the previous adventure from the Enemy in Shadows Companion, the PCs went to the Schaffenfest and wandered around trying to find Dieter Rundmann, bumping into various NPCs and being given clues and rumours as to what was going on. Eventually, they find themselves at the circus and agree to track the three-legged goblin into the sewers, in one of the all-time-classic adventure hooks.

I picked out an NPC for each player based on their background and interest, and selected rumours and hints that were actually relevant for this. The Schaffenfest supplies a lot of plot-unrelated trouble to get into, and I did tighten it up a bit with a mission to get them where they needed to go. I introduced a witch hunter as a side NPC at the fair who I failed to give proper importance to later on – I think the players wanted him to be a bigger deal than he turned out to be, but you live and learn.

Session 2 – Under Bogenhafen

They went into the sewers, disturbed some rats, fast-talked their way into the Cult of Ranald, fought a giant rat, and discovered a summoning circle. As expected, a demon appeared, that they fought, before running away to the surface. At some point, they found a dwarf’s body, and the bones of the three-legged goblin. Upon their return, they were assured that the goblin had been found at the docks and dealt with – despite their protestations.

This mini-dungeon sewer-crawl was actually a lot of fun! I ignored the Cult of Ranald advice in the book to have them knocked out and captured (a no-save fun-ruiner) to allow the halfling thief to blather his way into making them allies – a source of information they turned to later in the adventure. The demon fight was a bit of a damp squid with WFRP’s swingy combat swinging in the PC’s favour – the giant rat was more dangerous!

Session 3 – Chasing Shadows

Upon their return, the PCs embarked on a mammoth investigate-a-thon around Bogenhafen. They gradually uncovered the conspiracy in an action-light session that wasn’t really my best work as a GM. It ended with them being invited to dinner with the Guild leader to allay their concerns and a long list of clues that they were just starting to piece together.

The adventure has far, far, more information than even I shared with the players, and a lot more “verisimilitude-clues” than “story-clues” – that is, lots of hints and rumours that add more colour than plot direction. At a different point in the story this might have been fine, but in the context of “there’s a massive ritual about to be done in 2 days time” it fell a bit flat.

Session 4 – The Countdown Begins

After dining with Magirius, who reassured them that all of their solid evidence was merely coincidence, they continued their investigations. Resolving to sneak into the meeting of the Council that Magerius was attending, the fickle winds of WFRP dice rolling led to their discovery in the gardens and a brutal fight and a near-TPK – only Fate points spared their blushes. As they recuperated in a nearby pub, Magerius told them that they were right, and in fact a massive ritual was expected to be carried out – and begged them to stop it!

After the previous session, I shifted my prep notes to use Sly Flourish’s Lazy DM method for structure, and this helped me keep the pace up a lot. Dieter showed up at the start, trying to question them for smuggling, which was a good way to remind them they still hadn’t tied up that original quest and start with a bit of action. A defeat in combat was what we all needed after a few lucky fights, and it felt much more WFRP – and a good emergent story structure to be nearly killed just before the finale.

Session 5 – The Ritual

After finding Magerius dead, and framed for his murder – the least of their worries at this point – they raced to find the location of the ritual and eventually – after the Wizard had discovered some hidden knowledge (hidden in the magic chapter of the rulebook) managed to save the day and disrupt the ritual, saving the town. After which, they resolved to leave forthwith – and a hasty sailing back to Weissbruck, dreaming of a crawl between the three pubs.

As a finale to the adventure, this worked well – the initial scene and chase through the streets pursued by the guards went well, and added a sense of urgency that kept through a pacy finale. As with a lot of the adventure, while stopping a chaos cult ritual is a bit of a cliche, it’s a cliche because in part of this adventure, so we’ve got to forgive it that.

So – five sessions to save Bogenhafen. In part two, I’ll talk about overall impressions, and any big changes I made – or wished I’d made – to the adventure.

Starting a New Campaign

Over at Patreon, one of my backers requested a post about starting a new campaign. I’m always happy to take requests from my noble backers, so here’s a step by step of what I do when I’m starting to set up a campaign or longer-form game. To give my bona fides, until 2020 I don’t think I’d ever run what I’d consider a successful campaign game – but the advent of lockdown, and a dive into online gaming, has changed that. I’m currently running an ongoing D&D game, a Star Trek Adventures game (where we are skirting around the Shackleton Expanse campaign), and in the process of pulling together a One Ring game. So – what do I do to start with, when I’m about to launch a campaign?

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!

  1. Set the Scope

Firstly, think about how long the campaign is going to last, and agree with your group. I’d strongly recommend splitting a longer campaign into seasons of max 8-12 sessions in order to keep things fresh, and I’d consider starting with even fewer sessions than that. Having a defined end point will stop your campaign from fizzling out, and keep everyone in the game and focussed.

Based on how often your group meets, work out how long real-time this will last for – and make sure you’re up for that. If you meet once a month and want to run a 12-session campaign, that’s a year’s worth of gaming for the group! If you’re weekly, 12 sessions is still 3 months of play. Make sure that you – and your players – are clear about that commitment and happy with it.

Of course, you might have an in-game end in mind – for my D&D campaign, we’re running through Rime of the Frostmaiden; that campaign finishes when they’ve brought the sun back to Icewind Dale and defeated Auril the Frostmaiden. Even with that, I’ve worked out that with 2 sessions at each level of character, this is about 20 sessions. I’d planned a mid-season break after 10, but as it happens we ended up cancelling some sessions anyway, so we’re good to go with the second part of it.

  1. Get the Big Picture

The approach to this stage varies a little depending on whether you’re plotting your own campaign or running something pre-written. In either case, though, you will sketch out the broad picture of how you expect the campaign to play out.

If you’re rolling your own, a great tool to use (taken from Dungeon World) is Fronts. Consider your campaign’s big bad, and sketch out some steps that it might take. Sly Flourish also has a discussion of using this for D&D that streamlines the process a bit.

Having a campaign finale in mind helps – even if your Roll20 presentation isn’t up to much

If you’re using a published adventure, this is when you need to skim read the whole thing. If you’re running something popular (like a D&D campaign) it’s also well worth googling it to see if folks like Sly Flourish or Justin Alexander have notes on how to run it. There will be some of these on here soon as my ‘Deep Dive’ series extends – currently I’ve got Rime of the Frostmaiden Chapter 1, Shadows over Bogenhafen, and the first Vaesen adventure compendium A Wicked Secret to write up. 

Once you’ve got this, sketch out how the sessions might look – for instance, I expected for Rime we’d probably hit one of the Ten-Towns quests per session, along with some additional personal stuff, for the first 6 sessions before hitting Chapter 2 and the more open-ended part of the game. As it happens in a couple of sessions we doubled up adventures, but we were able to mesh some of the scenarios into the PC backstories anyway (for a session-by-session report written by one of my players – and ongoing – check out Fandomlife’s blog here).

Running published campaigns requires slightly different prep to rolling your own

If the start of your campaign is going to branch off and be more of a sandbox, think about how you’ll structure this. I’m a big fan of getting players to decide what they’ll do next time at the end of a session, so I can focus on those bits for the following session. Also, think about how long you’re prepared to let them play in the sandbox – is there an element in your Front, or a lead you can drop, that will force them to leave and stop them wanting to talk to every NPC and find every secret?

  1. Imagine Some Specifics

Once you’ve got your big picture, you could run right away, but now I like to start thinking about specific scenes, encounters, locations, and NPCs that might come up. These can be just sketches to start with, but by having a file ready to note these in before the session zero, you can add to it. For example, in a campaign of Legend of the Five Rings I ran a couple of years ago, I had a few scenes in mind before chargen started – but when one of the PCs had a morbid fear of dogs, of course the bandits were led by a dog-faced demon who took an instant dislike to them. 

With a published adventure, you might want to think about a few NPCs using the 7-3-1 technique if they are likely to recur or be important – I’ve got a wizard lined up for the next couple of sessions who I sketched out a personality for right at the start – or how some encounters might play out in the first few sessions. This isn’t unlike the Bag of Tricks prep technique I’ve used for one-shots – it gives you some go-to scenes and moments that you’ll be able to use later in the campaign.

  1. Session Zero

At this point, you’re ready to get the players involved. My personal agenda for a session zero covers Content / Chargen / Play, but sometimes fitting in all of these can be tricky. If character generation is something that will be dreary to all sit round and do together, get your players to come to the table with something lightly sketched out, and do a bit of in-character bonding in that first session instead. Absolutely would recommend the final part though – getting a bit of play in makes it all worthwhile!

For Content, you want to discuss any safety tools you’ll be using, as well as invite your players to contribute to Lines and Veils and Tone – again, The Gauntlet has an excellent blog on all of this. Alongside this, you want to cover housekeeping – how often you meet, who brings the snacks, what to do if you can’t make it, that sort of thing. For my games I generally have a hard rule that if 3 players and the GM can make it, we play – and we’ll work out a way for the others to catch up later. This does fall down a bit if I can’t make a session, but it gives a bit of insulation against having a run of cancellations.

For the Play bit, just a half-hour encounter is fine – but I’d go with something action-y that involves rolling the dice instead of something roleplay-focussed. Start them around a camp, and have some goblins attack, and then the goblins tell them about the problems in the area. Getting some dice rolled makes the session zero fun, and starts to build momentum for the game proper.

  1. Session-By-Session

Now you can run it! For me, I’m never more than a session ahead of where the party is up to, and I prep in between sessions – I can’t imagine doing it any other way. I’ve blogged before about session prep for campaigns being like for one-shots, but to summarise – I’d recommend making each session a coherent episode if you can, even going so far as to give it a name. 

6 sessions of prep files – complete with corny titles

In my prep, each session gets a Google doc, and follows a fairly similar format, which is either a scene-by-scene breakdown followed by NPC notes, or a Sly Flourish Lazy DM set of notes. I’ve found that for my own prep, I like a defined scene-by-scene breakdown, but for published games that I’m running the Sly Flourish technique works best. I think this helps me to break down components and be a bit more prepared for players going in different directions – whereas with my own games I’m already able to do that without any help.

I’m conscious of my own practice as well (or at least try to be) – and one of the things I’m trying to work on is more memorable NPCs – so at the moment I make sure there’s a few ‘tells’ for each one in my prep notes to make sure I put the effort in to try and do this.

Be sure at the end of each session to get some feedback – either as Stars and Wishes (now rebranded to Spangles and Wangles by my Friday group) or a more informal method, and be prepared to tweak where the campaign is going if needed. I’d also recommend having some ongoing contact with your players, whether about the game or not, between sessions – it helps to keep momentum, which is one of the main things you need to keep a campaign going.

So, step by step campaign planning! I’ll try and get a couple of examples down too, and as always happy to accept Patreon post requests! Let me know in the comments if you’d like to see more.

13th Age One-Shots, Revisited

It’s been a few years since I first wrote about 13th Age one-shots, and it’s a long time since I’ve run a system that used to be one of my trademarks. But, as I’ve been prepping Swords Against Owlbears for All Rolled Up’s Free RPG Day event, I’ve got more to say about how some specific aspects of 13A play can be made to work 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!

So, here goes:

One-Shot Unique Things

In 13th Age, each PC has a One Unique Thing (OUT) that sets them out from the rest of the populace. It’s the start of an expectation that players will help to define the world and setting. For one-shots, rather than being campaign-level (“I’m the last of the dwarves” “I’m half-dragon half-halfling”) these can just be specific to the session planned… guide the players when they’ve picked pregens to choose, for instance, why they personally have to track down the orc chieftain, or what the Priestess’s minions stole from them. 

I’ve previously been ambivalent about making players pick OUTs at the table, since sometimes they can just clam up, so have offered ready-made ones – but this links them to the play as well and helps to provide motivation for whatever gonzo plot you’ve got up your sleeve.

Dice Rolling Apps Are Your Friend

13th Age PCs are generally rolling their level number of damage dice – or more – each time they hit. Additional powers often add other dice to the mix, too – so unless you’re playing at 1st or 2nd level, encourage your players to use dice roller apps to do the arithmetic for them. Some players, of course, (the ones really quick with mental arithmetic) will want to add them up in their head – let them, but only if they really are quick enough for nobody else to get impatient. They will be the ones that thank you for it – it’s hard to resist adding up your neighbour’s totals for them if they’re struggling. 

Dice rollers unlock high level play for one-shots, which is (a) awesome, and (b) not all that complicated for players. A few more options emerge, but your barbarian and ranger characters are still going to be really accessible for players who don’t want to balance loads of options.

Pick Three Icons Each

In 13th Age, players have a set of Icon relationships that are rolled at the start of each session and interact with the play, bringing powerful setting NPCs into the game. 

Icon relationships in some of the published one-shots are left to be picked at the table. In my pregens, I’ve usually pre-populated them. Neither of these are really necessary. Just pick three Icons for each pregen that seem most likely for them – have the players do their icon rolls (either d6 for each of them, or just d3 for which Icon benefit they have if you want everyone to definitely have one – sometimes, I make sure they’ve all got one if somebody rolls none, sometimes I don’t.

Give them the icons on little cards to remind them to use them, too. And I’m fairly relaxed about them giving a system-based bonus in one-shots – they can

  • Allow an additional use of a Daily power
  • Punch up an auto-recovery if they drop to 0hp
  • Grant a cool magic item of the appropriate tier (+1 for Adventurer, +2 Champion, +3 Epic) – let the player design it and give it a quirk
  • Grant an extra turn in combat once

And so on. The best uses of Icon relationships are often in skill challenges or montages, but these give everyone a chance to own them and get some benefit from them, and the Icons interfering grounds the game in the world.

Campaign Losses – Limbs, Friends, or Items

Campaign Losses, generally, happen instead of Total Party Kills in 13th Age. The party can choose to retreat, lick its wounds, and try another way. In one-shots, this doesn’t make sense – and can mess with your pacing – so make them lose something important to them instead, and progress the story around the scene again. This might mean they still achieve the combat scene’s goal – so make sure what they lose is really big! You could even have an NPC captured, to set up a sequel one-shot! This comes directly from Swords Against Owlbears, where the titular battle in particular has some very nasty owlbear cub mooks (and a randomly-appearing owlbear mother) that could easily overwhelm players.

So, some more 13th Age tips – and a resolution from me to get 13A back on my circuit of convention games!