Auntie Wu’s Tea House – a Hearts of Wulin One-Shot

Hearts of Wulin is Gauntlet Publishing’s PBTA game of wuxia melodrama – swords, romance, and, crucially, inner conflict. A lot of the APs available (and there are loads on the Gauntlet’s YouTube channel) focus on campaign play – so I sketched out a one-shot and ran it twice. Once face-to-face, at Revelation, and once online at Virtual Grogmeet 2022.

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!

Revelation is a PBTA con (report here), so I was assuming some relative knowledge of these kind of games – so we did character generation at the table, exactly as in the book. The notes below assume this. For Virtual Grogmeet, I couldn’t be as sure (and indeed, I had one player entirely new to PBTA) – so, inspired by the Avatar: Legends adventure book, sketched out some pregens.

Entanglements are the Bonds / Hx / whatever of Hearts of Wulin, and they’re absolutely key to getting the sorts of games it generates – in play I think the plot was about 40% external forces, and 60% players pursuing them. They’re really cleverly designed – you get a few to pick from for each playbook, and everyone gets one “general” and one “romantic” one. Each one has one PC and one NPC in it. They took a bit of time at Revelation, so for the second play-through, I sketched them out – picking the NPC but allowing the players to choose which PC they wanted in it.

For example, one of the PCs, Eagle Sentinel, an Aware (Travelling Teacher), had the following Entanglements:

  • I love Wu Chao (Aunti Wu’s ward), who I have overlooked too long; now they love [PC]
  • I suspect my friend [PC]’s parent is the villain White Fang Chu

They could, of course, swap the PC and NPC positions in these. This worked really well to get everyone on the same page quickly, and they always lead to excellent play. One tip if you’ve only got 3 players (which I had for both games) is to read the familial ties loosely – siblings need not be related, parents need be parents in name only – since you’ll have quite a tight web of romance. For Virtual Grogmeet, I used the Gauntlet’s excellent Character Keeper, and just let them roll their own dice.

So, below are my prep notes – I hope these are useful if you want to run it yourselves, or at least it helps for those “how exactly do you prep PBTA?” questions.

Auntie Wu’s Tea House

A One-Shot for Hearts of Wulin

Nestled in an isolated pass, the only route through the World’s Edge Mountains for miles, Auntie Wu’s has been a staple of the Wulin world. Warriors come to meet, drink tea, and … occasionally… to fight. But now, with the Army of the North massing behind the World’s Edge, you’ve been sent to persuade Auntie Wu and her household to withdraw – for surely the Army will overrun her. Will she listen to her? Will you obey your orders? Who among the encroaching army do you know already, and why did you not expect to fall in love with them again?

PCs & Setup

Follow the usual procedure after creation (no extra moves yet)

  • Go round and introduce their PC’s look and style
  • Go round and do Entanglements 1 each. Make a note of any new NPCs – the others can be on the table with their descriptions. Note that each Entanglement must involve 1 PC and 1 NPC
  • Choose a Bond with 1 of the characters in each Entanglement

In the opening scenes, get any extra NPCs on screen ASAP.

TWO PCs (A and B) have been sent from Magistrate Chen with a message for Auntie Wu – the army is already engaged on the Eastern Front, and they should fall back. Auntie Wu should evacuate her tea house and flee.

A – Why have you been trusted with this mission, and B – why are you reluctant to carry it through?

TWO PCs (C and D) have just escaped from capture in the Army of the North, and have been creeping up to safety

A – How did you escape from this mighty army, and B – what is their greatest weakness?

Opening Scenes 

In both of these make sure to bring in any additional NPCs from Entanglements as soon as possible – 

We begin with A and B as they settle in at the tea house and are brought soup. They can see the tea house shift into the evening, as baiju and beer is brought out, and Stone Ox Wu approaches them

Will you share your mission immediately, or wait and enjoy the hospitality of the evening?

Stone Ox Wu approaches them and asks their business – he then asks them to drink with him! This could well be an Impress move, or perhaps a Hearts and Minds if they stake their mission straightaway

Meanwhile, C and D are approaching from the North, climbing through the mountains. As they move through the quiet village towards Auntie Wu’s, they are not alone – there are soldiers here, carrying weapons and fire sticks. It seems that they are interrupting an ambush!

Do you alert the inhabitants or take out the ambushers yourself

As the ambush strikes, the tea house roof is (probably) set on fire – an Overcome move to tackle. Hordes of soldiers provide more than enough for some PCs to Deal with Troops, and they are led by Peerless Falcon and/or Sergeant Cheng and any other NPCs who could conceivably be with the Army of the North

Middle Scenes

After a period of respite,

  • The PCs could get aid from the Bandits, led by Number One Sword – could he help to protect, or shelter the villagers
  • They may want to seek help – or wisdom – from Harmonious Jade in his monastery
  • Both of these could provide allies 
  • They could investigate and try and sabotage the advancing army. The outer camps are run by Sergeant Cheng who has them in good order but could be convinced
  • Encourage them to also pursue their Entanglements, and remember to trigger Inner Conflict when appropriate

Possible additional “bangs” for these scenes include

  • Auntie Wu / another NPC has fallen ill! She needs herbs from the gardens at the foothills – near the army’s camps… or maybe Harmonious Jade can help her
  • Constable Cheng arrives, angry at A and B for failing to carry out their orders – why has the village not been evacuated?
  • Betrayal is discovered! A guest left an army seal, and a map of the grounds has been found on a messenger. Should they be punished or sent as a message?

Finale

The likely end point is a pitched battle – try and pair PCs off with potential scenes individually, including rallying the peasant army (Impress would be the move for this), fighting various NPCs or Troops, or dealing with betrayal

Possible Finale Bangs include

  • An ally (Number One Sword / Wu Chao / Stone Ox Wu) switches sides – for reasons established in previous narrative – can they be convinced of their error or punished?
  • Fire sticks! The houses around the Tea House are on fire! Villagers panic and rush to save their belongings instead of defending against the army
  • Any remaining Entanglement NPCs show up and cause trouble

NPCs

Auntie Wu, middle aged proprietor – wants only for things to stay the same, her tea house to be safe, and her daughters to be happily married off

Hunchbacked, carries a tray of tea or a walking stick

Sensory: The smell of jasmine, a calming influence

Schtick – crouch low and hunchbacked and nestle your hands around an imaginary cup of tea

Wu Chao, Auntie Wu’s neice – wants to escape her Aunt’s clutches and seek adventure – which probably doesn’t involve being married

Beautiful, porcelain-skinned, fights with flowing robes

Sensory: Serene and quiet, with a twinkle in her eye

Schtick: Winks conspiratorially at anyone (e.g. the PCs) who might be fun

Number One Sword – chief of the World’s Edge bandits, wants his tribe to be safe and money and riches

Bearded, powerful, wields a curved blade with symbols down its length

Sensory: Shouts orders as he appears suddenly, smells of sweat and booze

Schtick: Sit up straight and shout slightly at all times

Peerless Falcon – Captain of the Army of the North, charged with capturing the pass

SCALE 2 FIGHTER

Slender, armored, glowing – wields a pair of curved knives which he also throws

Schtick: Pauses for thought before replying slowly

Sergeant Cheng – a junior officer in the Army of the North

Stout, careful, taciturn. Wields a curved halberd. Is not entirely convinced of the Army’s cause.

Schtick: Looks worried and plays with his moustache

Stone Ox Wu, Auntie Wu’s son- wants to protect the Tea House at all costs

Huge, bald-headed, angry – wields a massive hammer

Schtick: Bellows and drinks Baiju from a glass whenever he can

Harmonious Jade – monk who lives in the World’s Edge mountains, whose monastery is famously neutral

SCALE 2 FIGHTER

Tall, portly, laughing – quick to smile. Fights unarmed

Schtick: Laughs and giggles at all times

Constable Cheng – imperious busybody constable who just likes to check on order

Fights with a staff

Schtick: Looks down on everyone and everything

If It All Goes Quiet…

Use these options at any time when it looks like there’s nothing going on, or if the PCs are reluctant to engage

Men with Knives!

  • A group of bandits/audacious soldiers have snuck into the camp to steal what they can before the serious looters arrive – have a PC discover them and them be offered a share of the loot

Big Blade Huang

  • A warrior of audacious skill visits the tea house; he has no interest in defending it, seeing beating an army as beneath him
  • Trigger the Deal With Misunderstanding move on p110 of the book (nb this is also where the Deal With Grief move is, which you’ll need if someone wanders off)

Avalanche!

  • The army’s explosives have triggered an avalanche to crush the tea house – can they get the villagers to safety?

Alas, poor Rolf: A Deep Dive of  Mistaken Identity from The Enemy Within, 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 first part of the classic WFRP Enemy Within campaign. 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!

Overall, I think this is an excellent adventure, with a few quirks which come from (a) its being written in another age, and (b) being designed to be the opening act of an enormous campaign. It pulls the PCs together well, with an quirky hook that gets them to travel to Altdorf, and then to Bogenhafen, and leave them at a loose end with a reason to stick together and a lot of potential threads to pick up.

Poor old Rolf Hurtsiss has seen better days

The art is consistently fantastic, and the writing manages to tread a tightrope and be both evocative and laugh-out-loud funny at times. In particular, the NPCs are sketched really well, and the character of the places you visit – from the Coach and Horses Inn, to Altdorf, to Weissbruck – really comes across.

Everyone has a name

The first ‘monster’ you meet on the road – the mutant Rolf Hurtsis – is an old acquaintance of one of the characters; but even after this, every character is drawn with a past, and every one is named. The rest of the mutant band – led by Knud – all have names (I made them call out to one another as the PCs – as expected – slaughtered them). Nobody appears on the scene without having a richer and fuller life outside the story they are in, and the world is richer for it; the road warden is tracking down his sister on the road to Altdorf, for example. And, even more so…

Everyone has character

The NPCs are so well drawn in here, it’s worth taking the time to give them some character at the table. I jotted down some of the 7-3-1 technique for each one, although that sometimes led me to “now what does Josef talk like again?” moments, it made their interactions – which are at the centre of this adventure – more interesting.

Playing online, there are a few tricks to make characters stand out. The first is to show their picture (and every NPC in the adventure has great art) when you talk as them – I used “Show to Players” with Handouts on Roll20, but there are lower tech versions like sharing a screen if you’re running without VTT. The second is to overact terribly. I exhausted my limited repertoire of accents after two sessions, but it does help to have Josef talk like a pirate king (Hans Pflaster, the aforementioned roadwarden – was Jason Isaac’s Marshall Zhukov from Death of Stalin, and just as short-tempered) to get a sense of versimilitude. That said…

It can be a bit Carry On

There’s an element of farce to the central conceit – and several of the key scenes – that might take some careful running. There are times when your players might be tempted to back out – when they follow Josef to the pub in Bogenhafen, and it’s quickly obvious they’re in a very dangerous place – so I think setting the tone is important. 

There’s a lot of Long Game Foreshadowing

I’ve never run a game before where I dropped a rumour in the first session that foreshadows Empire in Ruins, the fifth instalment of the campaign that sits maybe 40-50 sessions away. I’ll deal with if they remember the (false as it turns out) rumour then if and when it occurs. I took the approach of, whenever the book gave me a page of rumours, liberally spreading them out to my players, without showing them which were immediately relevant and which were flavour. This seemed to work well, and they’ve not led to too many red herrings yet.

It’s a bit Bait and Switch

Your group may vary with this – but I’d like to think that my players were under no illusions, when they found their lookalike body, that they weren’t actually going to collect 10,000 Crowns. By the time they get to Bogenhafen, and almost everyone they’ve ever associated with has turned up dead, more cautious players might be forgiven for being wary about heading to collect the inheritance. I presented this as if there weren’t many options – and in any case, it couldn’t be more dangerous than that dockside pub in Altdorf, right?

In Summary

It’s great. It’s not really like anything I’ve run before in a fantasy setting, and indeed it stands alone in terms of where its encounters come from. There’s no monsters to fight, or wilderness areas – it’s an entirely urban adventure, really – with a few interludes on canals or roads, but still well within reach of the Roadwardens. Given that it manages to still be terrifying even when in the midst of supposed safety, I’d recommend it to anyone – although tell your GM you’ve read this first so they can switch it up with the Grognard Boxes!

Have you played or run Mistaken Identity? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments!

Three Terrifying Pubs: A Deep Dive of  Mistaken Identity from The Enemy Within, Part 1

Mistaken Identity is the initial adventure from the Enemy Within campaign for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and acts as a prelude to Shadows Over Bogenhafen, the first adventure proper. 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 it through with my Tuesday group – you can get hold of it from Cubicle 7 here.

The first of many mutants in this adventure / campaign, and a former associate of our thief.

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!

In this first part I’ll give you a session-by-session breakdown of how I ran it, including what I changed from the published adventure. In Part Two, I’ll summarise what worked well, and what worked less well – and suggest what can be taken from it for other games. There are, of course, a huge number of spoilers below – if you’re still wanting to play it “fresh,” 35+ years after it was first published, you might want to look away now!

Synopsis

I ran Mistaken Identity over 5 online sessions of between 2 and 3 hours for 4 PCs, with the first session including character generation. The adventure as written has some very useful “Grognard Boxes,” ways to alter the adventure if your players are familiar with it already. I used them to just pick from if it looked more interesting – especially in the first session.

The adventure as written has chapters that are roughly one session long (if you play with a fair lick of pace) – and I’ve written them up below, along with the names I gave each session as part of my prep notes. If Patrons would like sight of my actual prep notes, feel free to get in touch – although I find the writing up of them is more useful to me than reading them, if that makes sense – the process of creating them revises and solidifies the game in my head. I used Roll20 (which has a bit of a fiddly WFRP interface for improving PCs, but it’s too late now for us to switch) and Google Meet for A/V, if people are interested in those things.

You’ll note as you read this that I have a crew of absolutely top-drawer players. In this, my regular Tuesday group, plots are aggressively pursued and roleplay opportunities are harvested from even the least interesting scenes. Situations like one PC not knowing a secret the other three are keeping from them (the player knows, obviously) are handled maturely and leaned into for maximum roleplaying fun – your mileage may vary, obviously – but it’s worth invested in play culture at the table if you want to be able to engage with an adventure like this that’s full of unresolved secrets and bait-and-switches.

Session 1 – The Coach and Horses

After character generation and session zero stuff, they montaged talking to some NPCs at the Coach and Horses and then fought a daemon summoned by one of the patrons.

I completely ditched the structure of the first session in the adventure, which is the coldest of cold opens – some gambling (out of budget for almost all starting characters as written), some meeting strangers who don’t like them – the only action is if and when they catch the gambler cheating. Oh, and we did chargen by the rules – and ended up with human nun, smuggler, and wizard’s apprentice, and a halfling thief.

I quite liked the NPC Phillipe Descartes, so didn’t want him to be an enemy, so had him merely regale them with tales in his outrageous Brettonian accent. Each PC got a single short scene where they made a skill check (usually Gossip) to impress an NPC, and then received 1 or 2 of the rumours supplied. We cut from PC to PC as they did this, before I triggered “The Rival Magus” from the Grognard Box and had a daemon appear.

After they’d fought the demon, of course, they were basically an adventuring party, and we’d got to know the interface and basic rules in session 1. All this took maybe an hour of play after characters were done – it’s my favoured approach for a session zero to get a bit of play in at the end to whet everyone’s appetite.

Session 2 – The Road to Altdorf

They fought a mutant, went further down the road, fought some more mutants, and discovered the adventure’s hook – a body looking identical to one of the PCs, with a will to collect from Bogenhafen and a signed affidavit that the bearer is indeed the long lost nobleman, and instructions to claim his inheritance in Bogenhafen.

I pretty much ran this as described – the players made it more interesting by three of them being in on the identity theft, but keeping it quiet from the fourth – a nun of Myrmidia – as they expected she’d not be in favour. Instead, they told her that Othelbert the apprentice actually was Kastor Leiberung, just travelling undercover to Bogenhafen – and swore her to secrecy.

Session 3 – Welcome to Altdorf

After a confusing encounter with some strangers, and surviving a theft attempt, they caught up with Josef – a boatman and old acquaintance who just happened to be going to Bogenhafen – and went with him on a very dangerous bar crawl. It becomes very obvious that everyone they meet at the moment seems to end up dead very quickly – and they see a shadowy figure tracking them.

I added in a quick chase scene at the start with some pickpockets for two reasons – firstly, to start with some action, and secondly to give a big of the ‘dangerous big city’ vibe. This happened at the same time as the Emperor’s procession, which the module stressed is important later. As they’d all been travelling to Altdorf, they each had a scene where they resolved that – the nun resolved to continue travelling in Myrmidia’s name, the halfling went to his uncle’s pie shop and made contact, the wizard’s apprentice tried to enrol at the university. These gave a bit more verisimilitude and allowed the players to drop their previous lives a bit as they seemed committed to be adventurers now.

The bar crawl I ran as written, with the halfling thief enthusiastically joining in with Brandy Bounce and them using their wits to navigate the situation. The whole bar scene is a great set piece – as they realised just how much danger they were in – and balanced off nicely by several of their NPCs being found dead the next morning.

Session 4 – Come Drown With Me

We were a player down, so with the finale approaching, I ran a fill-in session of Come Drown With Me from One Shots of the Reikland – the three remaining players survived a zombie attack and re-sealed the tomb of Kurgon Three-Eyes while they travelled down the Weissbruck Canal. Testament to how dangerous Altdorf felt that a potential zombie apocalypse was a welcome light relief.

The character art in the adventure is brilliantly evocative – e.g. this portrait of Maria Braund, the highwaywoman who I used as an extra link to the follow-up adventure

Session 5 – No Mister Lieberung, I Expect You To Die

After meeting a highwaywoman and agreeing to do her a favour on the canal, they went onwards to Weissbruck, where they tangled with their pursuer. Evading him, they went on to Bogenhafen – where they realised they’d inherited a setup meant to catch a cultist, and neither the inheritance nor the title were true. As a horrific beast appeared to ‘save’ them in the nick of time, they were left pondering what to do next – luckily, the Schaffenfest is in Bogenhafen, and they had an assortment of plot hooks leading them there!

Maria Braund, the highwaywoman, is from the Enemy in Shadows Companion, and I added her in to give a hanging plot hook to the Schaffenfest for when they arrived – the start of the session also had them avoid a robbery from their fellow riverfolk, who’d heard one of them was a nobleman in disguise. I had Adolfus smoke some distinctive cigarettes so they could tell he’d been around the pubs with them, and he fled when they confronted him and they fought his heavies.

The final scene, while a bit deus ex machina (daemonium ex machina?) is another great set piece – as they watch through the windows the splashes of blood, before finding the body of their pursuer ripped apart.

In Part Two, I’ll summarise what stood out about the adventure, what didn’t work as well, and what tricks and components of it we can steal for future one-shot (or campaign) play. Questions or feedback as always are welcome to @milnermaths on twitter.

The Third Pillar – Fixing Exploration

In this previous post, I talked about the first two “pillars” of D&D – and by association TTRPGs generally – combat and roleplaying. I’ve put a whole post into the third one, exploration, for a simple reason – I don’t think that we do exploration very well. That is, I don’t think TTRPGs do it very well, and I think there’s a lack of clarity about what it actually is.

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. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

I’m going to describe why exploration is tricky, then try to suggest some ways to make it better. 

Why is exploration hard?

  • It’s not explained well. Looking at the Exploration section of the 5e DMG, there’s two pages covering travel time outdoors, tracking (mainly DCs), visibility, noticing other creatures, and a bit about “special travel pace” to calculate daily travel times if your movement rate gets adjusted (by a spell, for instance). Setting to one side that these are all ‘wilderness adventures’ things, there’s not a lot of rules to sit alongside this. These don’t seem to be rules for exploration – more rules for travelling a long way.
  • It’s not supported by rules. Exploring a dungeon involves crawling from room to room and having encounters. Exploring wilderness (once you’ve worked out your special travel pace) involves walking across a map – and maybe encountering monsters or NPCs. Exploring a new city involves walking around talking to NPCs. All of the excitement in these situations comes from the other two pillars – combat or roleplay. Generally (and there are a few notable exceptions), exploration in itself isn’t rules-supported.
  • It’s not clear what it is. The player’s handbook gives some examples about Exploration being “the give and take of the players describing what they want to do, and the Dungeon Master telling them what happens as a result.” (PHB, p8) – this sounds an awful lot like the entire gaming experience – or Apocalypse Worlds’ roleplay as a conversation – do these things not happen during combat or roleplay?
  • It relies on a traditional GM vs. players model of narrative control. This control has since been shifted in so many games, and in so many play cultures, that the “wander around and find out” type of exploration now feels dull and lifeless to many of us. If I’m planning a wilderness expedition, I’m much more likely to use a 13th Age-style montage or ask my players for descriptive details with Paint The Scene questions than I am to feed information myself.
Dark forests should be scary by themselves, without needing combat or roleplaying as well

Categorizing exploration

Word lovers, look away now. I’m going to posit that exploration is too generic a term, so I’m going to create some portmanteau’s to split it into useful categories. I’m going to argue that exploration is primarily about transfer of information – that is, finding stuff out. This can happen in a few ways.

  • Placeploration is background learning. This can be utterly rubbish, learning what happened 200 years ago (the “Adventure Background” bit we all used to skip over before the actual adventure) – or it can be a brilliant piece of versimilitude. It can foreshadow future events, or provide details of what’s going on in the world’s metaplot. Basically, learning anything that isn’t usable this session falls into this category.
    • It takes a few days to cross the forest, and you find the lumber camps abandoned and empty. Make me an Intuition check (succeeds) – looks like they packed up in a hurry, and there are indistinct boots and tracks that look like goblins around here. After you’ve recovered the crown, you could come back here and look into that.
  • Plotsploration is directly relevant secrets and clues for the current plot. By exploring the dungeon, the city or the world you uncover secrets and clues that either bring you closer to the confrontation, or provide an advantage in it. This works best as a drip-drip of information, and can happen during, as well as in between, combat and roleplaying scenes.
    • This room is clearly a prison. There’s chains and manacles on the walls where prisoners must have been held, but no sign of the Prince. Closer inspection of the manacles reveals they’ve been unlocked, and there are a couple of broken lockpicks on the floor nearby – a picklock did this, and not a particularly good one at that.
  • Perilsploration is less about information transfer and more about crossing a barrier. You’ve got to walk across Mirkwood to get to tell the elves, and it’s going to be dangerous. These places should be dangerous even if they didn’t have combat or roleplaying in, so sometimes you might have to create a skill challenge in order to model it. Games that do this well already, saving you this time, are The One Ring, Trophy, 13th Age (montages can be switched to any system, the rules are so straightforward), Ironsworn, Mouse Guard, and a lot of the PBTA games. These are good frameworks to get some placesploration in as well, as your players try to overcome the barrier.
    • The signal tower is three days away, and you’ve only got two. We’ve got a skill check each – probably at DC 15 unless you try something exceptional – to try and get there in time, and you’ll need at least 3 successes to get there in time. What  are you rolling?

Once you’ve got exploration split into these categories, it’s easier to incorporate it into your game – think about each instance you have in your prep, and whether its a barrier, current info, or future info – and spread out your clues appropriately. I’ll pull together some examples in a future post – in the meantime, what other fixes do you have for exploration? Or are you happy with it as it’s presented in TTRPGs generally? Let me know in the comments.

The First Two Pillars in One-Shot Design – Combat and Roleplaying

In the DMG, D&D talks about the three pillars of D&D play as combat, roleplaying and exploration. While this is a generic way to look at play (and I think the first two are probably better defined in the collective mind than the third), it’s a useful check to see if your one-shot adventure has balance. I’m going to look at each one in turn, and how you can tweak your one-shot if you think it’s missing one or more of them.

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. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

Combat

This should be easy, right? Well, I think good combat in one-shots is tricky – that’s why I wrote about it here and here. I would say that, while it’s great to be able to circumvent combat challenges, if I’m playing an action-oriented one-shot system, I want at least one challenging combat in a one-shot that can’t be avoided. At least one of the pregens is likely to shine in combat, and missing it out is sub-optimal. And maybe even in less combaty systems – I’m sure a lot of Call of Cthulhu one-shots could be improved by a tussle with some cultists somewhere along the way.

Saying “a challenging combat” means different things in different systems, but I think it’s as much about fight duration as actual peril. A fight of around 3 full rounds (of everyone taking a turn) is about the optimum I reckon – and I’m sure there’s some maths people can do for individual systems to make this work. For D&D and similar systems with a ‘balance’ system, it’s probably around at least the “Hard” mark of wherever you balance encounters; although in Feng Shui and Conan 2d20, just use the guidance they supply, they already balance combat well for one-shots.

Don’t have enough combat in your one-shot? Bandits, gangsters or men with guns should be easy to add – if you’re not sure about timings put them in at the start and give them clues to lead to the next scene – just don’t add them for the sake of it, link them to the plot.

Roleplaying

Easy to miss, and easy to fix. A good rule of thumb is around 3 NPCs that the players could meaningfully interact with, and who have relevance to their mission. They might not spend lots of time with all three, but it gives them some options as to how to relate to the NPCs. Ideally they’ve got some link to at least one of the pregens – even if they’re both high elves – and to make them shine, give them some contrasting wants and needs. This doesn’t have to be massively complex or dramatic, just enough for them to need to rub up against the plot to achieve these goals.

For example, the tramp merchant wants rid of the pirates plaguing his shipping lines, but he also needs to keep costs down super-low. The princess-to-be wants her prince rescuing, but also wants a more exciting suitor. The crime boss wants his rival offed, but needs everyone to think he did it himself. All of these, even if only tangential to the plot, offer a meaningful interaction where both outcomes are interesting.

To make them pop at the table, give each of these three a schtick to use at the table – rubbing their eyes, a facial mannerism, an accent even if you’ve got the chops for it. For a con one-shot, don’t worry about this being a bit corny – broad brush strokes work best. Both “Basil Brush” and “Terry Jones playing a woman” voices have done me proud over my years of convention GMing!

Don’t have enough roleplaying in your one-shot? Stick in a neutral, or even a friendy NPC, and give them some conflicting motivations to get in the way and rub against the PCs.

Exploration

Now, this is trickier. You see, I’m not sure if even D&D is clear on what makes exploration fun – which is why this will be continued next week!

The Sixth Revelation – Hearts of Wulin, Masks, City of Mist

Conventions are great. A chance to play games with like-minded people, and to spend time with too much drink, too much food, and not enough sleep. Back in the day, “Con Reports” used to be a thing – forums would fill up with people’s reports of the games they’d played, the fun they’d had, what they had for lunch and how much it cost (the lunch, not the convention – I kid you not). You don’t see them much anymore, but after going to Revelation – the sixth annual(ish) Powered by the Apocalypse convention in Sheffield, I thought I’d write down some thoughts.

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. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

Revelation is a weekend event where all the games are Powered by the Apocalypse (PBTA), Forged in the Dark (FITD), or related derivations. After some pushing the organisers, I got confirmation that e.g. Spire, Heart, Belonging Outside Belonging and similar games would work fine – basically, if it’s been informed by the sort of gameplay that PBTA engenders, it’s good to go. Which means, you get a tight range of games, and a group of players that dig shared narrative. Running PBTA at Revelation is less of a risk than at some other cons – less of a risk that the players will plan or turtle, or not want to just play to find out. Of course, after making a fuss about what games were allowed, I ran two ‘classic’ PBTA systems.

This year was about 25-30 punters, five slots, and a mixture of single-session and multiple-slot games. I’m not usually a fan of multi-slot con games as it reduces the choice for everyone, but I can grudgingly agree that at Revelation it makes sense so you can see PBTA/FITD games over a longer period. And I can’t talk, since I’ve run double-slotters a few times at them. Like all the Garrison cons, it’s all about the games – there are no seminars or other events, so the norm is to play in every slot – I like this, play is the centre of the hobby and the most important thing we do. We should be going to conventions to play, and conventions should be putting play at the centre of everything.

I ran a double-slot two-table cross-universe game of Masks with my co-MC Neil, and a single-slot game of Hearts of Wulin. I also played  City of Mist in a single-slot game. I’ve split my thoughts into con practicalities (no lunch prices, sorry) and games thoughts, so here goes:

Practicalities

  • Cons are great, and venue matters. The Garrison hotel is almost the perfect place for an RPG convention, such that a few minor changes were noticed – no standing lights in the cells, for instance, and some confusion over the Saturday finish times. That said, I still love running in the cells, and I’m sure at other venues I’ll notice how much better the acoustics are in your own little nook (even if what you gain in audio is sometimes sacrificed in visual in the dim lighting).
  • Sharing a room at a con is great. I’ve become a bit of a solo con-goer in recent years, but I shared a room, which made a much more convivial (although perhaps more boozy and less sleep-filled) weekend. I might have convinced myself back towards it. It was also handy for Masks prep as we could sketch out plans over breakfast.
  • See comment re lighting above – the print on some PBTA playbook sheets is tiny! Print them out A3 in future for a convention, or make your own simplified ones. Similarly, I should have folded my Masks sheets before distributing – if you don’t the booklet for moves starts with the Adult Moves, which you aren’t going to be using.

Games

  • PBTA is varied and diverse! Even disregarding FITD and the other splits, I played three very different games over the course of the weekend in terms of structure of play and player experience, what’s expected of players, etc. City of Mist is, as far as I can tell, pretty close to a trad game – with just enough flexibility in the tags for different approaches and player-driven spontaneity. Hearts of Wulin is entirely at-the-table; my prep was only a backdrop to the melodrama that unfolded. Masks sat somewhere in the middle, but some of that was the necessary structure for us to run parallel games across universes.
  • Multi-table games work, and are a lot of fun. They do rely on the two GMs being comfortable with about the same amount of prep work though, and luckily we were (both of us have also run ‘vanilla’ Masks quite a bit too). We had two parallel universes being combined (the All Star Society and the All Star League) and the teenage heroes (All Star Juniors/Juniorz) having to save the day. At the midpoint – the end of the first session, a failed merge of the universes meant two players swapped tables – and there was more player exchanging to come. The villains of one universe were the hero mentors of the other – it all sounds complicated until you realise we just ripped off Crisis on Infinite Earths. All great fun, and good to push the boat out for a showcase game.
  • Fewer players isn’t always best. Because of a drop-out I had 3 players for Hearts of Wulin, and I think it would have been cleaner with 4 – certainly, the Entanglements were head-scratchy as everyone had to be linked to everyone else. Everyone filling them out at the table was harder than I thought, too – I’m tweaking my prep to run it again at Virtual Grogmeet, and I’ll pre-populate some of them with NPCs to help.

So, there are my Revelation thoughts. Why did con reports fade away? If you’ve got any ideas, let me know below – and if you’d like to hear more about any of the games let me know in the comments.

Burn After Reviewing

I said something on Twitter yesterday that sparked some debate – and, twitter being twitter, I didn’t quite get the full message of it across, so I’m posting it here as well. This post, because it feeds into a current debate, is going out on Patreon and the public blog at the same time – don’t worry, Patreons, you’ll be getting more early access content soon!

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. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about putting reviews on here – at the start, they were really a way to muse on one-shots with a clear framework – but I can’t deny they’re popular. Even looking at 2021’s stats, my 6th highest hit was for a review posted in, er, 2020. There’s a D&D effect in that, too – but it’s the same whenever I post one. They are also relatively easy to write, because I’ve never been too thorough in them – certainly easier than writing an adventure or a set of advice on a specific game – and always get a fair number of hits straightaway.

That said, this isn’t a review site. First up, I only ever review things I like – I’ve no interest in being a critic, and there’s enough good stuff out there that I don’t feel the need to talk about the bad. I’ve received exactly one review copy of anything in my life – and I’ve not reviewed it yet. I’ve stuck reviews into a format that is deliberately incomplete – I’m interested in what I’d do with the product as a one-shot, not covering all the content but a broad-brush impression. So after some thinking, I’m changing how review posts work on Burn After Running.

After Play Only

Film critic Barry Norman, who used to watch the films before he reviewed them

Henceforth, I’m only going to post ‘reviews’ of products I’ve played (as a GM or player). Most of my reviews have been like this anyway (for example, this one of Agon) but a fair few haven’t (see Ravnica, Theros, or Starfinder – although I’ve since played all three of those products). I’m going to try and put some focus on the play experience – what could be gleaned from the game that was surprising even after a read-through, which will of course cover some – but not all – of the content of the product.

But I’ll also be looking at how I ran it, or how it felt as a player. Where I’ve written a one-shot for the game, I’ll share that one-shot. If it’s a published adventure, I usually write up notes as part of my prep, and if you’re a Patreon, you’re welcome to get access to those as well on request. If I twisted some rules or encounters around, I’ll put that in as well. 

This also means some completeness (well, even more) will be sacrificed. If you want a thorough review of the content of the book, informed by years of gaming experience and from a thorough read-through, these won’t be it. Instead I’d direct you to Reviews from R’luyeh if you want words, or Bud’s RPG Review if Youtube is your bag – other content creators are available too.

Does This Mean Less Reviews?

Food critic Jay Rayner, who generally eats the food at the restaurant before he reviews it

Well, no. I think a consequence of this is that when I’ve run something, I’ll most likely (assuming it wasn’t a disaster) put up a post about it. In essence I’ll be merging the “Review” posts and the “How to run X” posts, which will hopefully make it a bit easier to cover more games here.

So, for example, I’m nearing completion of the ‘prelude’ to Shadows Over Bogenhafen with my regular group, so expect a write-up of Mistaken Identity soon – there’s some really clever stuff in the design of this adventure that I didn’t realise until I saw it at the table, and I have made a few significant changes as well. 

I’ve run through all of Vaesen’s A Wicked Secret series of mysteries, and I have strong views on which of them make great (and not so great) candidates for running. I’ve got con games of Masks and Hearts of Wulin coming up this weekend, and I expect to share notes and thoughts on those as well – Masks in particular I’m trying a double-table crossover campaign, so we’ll see how that plays out!

Can You Review After A One-Shot?

Yes. While some games might really sing in a longer-form game, so much more is revealed even from 2 hours at the table, that you can see how that would roll out. Some of these will be one-shot reviews – this still lets me comment on the important bit, which is what I changed and what I would change in the future.

On that note, I’ve not run nearly enough one-shots yet – we seem, though, to be moving out of the liminal post-pandemic zone into one where people might actually meet up and play games more, so expect more to come. If you’re a Patron and would like a one-shot of something I’ve talked about, message me and we’ll try to sort something out!

Rime of the Frostmaiden – Prelude One-Shot: Into the Snow

I’m running D&D again. This time, I’ve got hold of a crew of 4 players, a mixture of veterans and newcomers, to run through Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden. I’ll be blogging here about how I’m adapting it, tweaking it, and approaches to it (worth noting if you’re interested that Sly Flourish has already done a great job of this here – I’m not going to duplicate his work!)

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. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

One of my players is brand new to roleplaying. So, instead of expecting him to dive into character creation and commit to a long campaign, I thought I’d run a one-shot with pregens to set the scene. This is set in Ten Towns, in the same place as the game, foreshadows some of the content, and gets everyone on the same page about tone. It’s an idea I’ve heard Simon Burley, esteemed designer of Golden Heroes, talk about as his default campaign starter (he calls it a “Session Minus One”) and I’ve never done it before. 

It’s first level, to keep everything simple, and is a fairly linear progression, although all of the encounters have a few ways to resolve them. Most of the opposition arrives in waves, which is a good trick for balancing 1st level fights – they can be really swingy when one blow can knock out a player or opponent, so having not everyone attack at once means you can adjust the level of challenge on the fly a bit. It’s balanced for 3 1st level PCs – just add or subtract bandits or undead if you have more or fewer.

It went great – and we’re now one session into the actual campaign! In a couple of months I hope to follow this up with a ‘review’ of the first chapter, Ten Towns, based on actual play. Inspired by Fear of a Black Dragon, I’m trying to limit my reviews to products or adventures I’ve actually played or run, because I think this is most useful – although I appreciate not all reviewers can do this, and if everyone did there wouldn’t be many reviews around! There’s a place for reviews-after-reading as well, they just do different things.

But, I digress. Here is the adventure, presented exactly as my prep notes looked for it – let me know if you use it here or on Twitter @milnermaths !

Into the Snow

A Rime of the Frostmaiden prelude adventure (3 x 1st level PCs)

You live in the far north, beyond the Spine of the World, in the desolate icy realms of Ten-Towns. For the past two years, Icewind Dale has been stuck in an endless winter – every night, strange lights appear, and every night lasts forever as the sun fails to rise. Trapped forever in glacial ice, you eke out a precarious living.

As we open we see you trudge across an open snowfield, a heavily laden sled pulled by two huskies, Gore and Chew. It’s three hours since you set off from Easthaven, one of the more prosperous towns, and you carry on your sled beer, mead, and supplies for Caer Dineval. Caer Dineval has been without beer for two weeks now – you can’t imagine their pain.

  • Describe your character – what are they carrying, how are they walking alongside the sled

But the going has been hard. 9 hours this would normally take, but the snow has come in and you fear a blizzard is coming. As you cross an ice floe, you notice the dogs startle – and the wind threatens to tip your sled over.

  • Ask the PCs what they are doing to prevent the tip. Generally it might be a Survival (Wisdom) check, but they could use other skills as well. At least half (rounded down) need to make it – if they fail, they are overwhelmed when the raiders attack and suffer disadvantage on Initiative checks

Scene 1 – Raiders in the Ice

Out of the snow and ice appear shadows, and the barking of dogs – you are under attack!

There are 4 raiders (bandits), but only 2 attack – and 2 rough huskies (mastiffs). As they fight, each round they see the snow get thicker – and as they flee / are defeated, they notice the sled has been raided.

0 failures – they have grabbed some of the supplies, and a prized bottle of Calishite brandy, charged with delivery to the Caer Dineval castle by your patron

1 failure – as above, but a couple of barrels of mead have gone as well

2 failures – all the supplies are taken

3 failures – one of the huskies has been dragged off as well

As the storm momentarily clears, they can attempt to make sense and give chase.

A Survival (Wisdom) check DC 15 will reveal that the storm is only briefly abated, and they had better follow the tracks now – they lead towards some rough hills which might also offer some shelter

A History or Investigation DC 11 check shows the men to be natives of Icewind Dale, clad in rough winter clothes – accustomed to living in the wilds, but not themselves Rheged Nomads

Scene 2 – The Chwingas

As they follow the tracks, they make their way towards the hills. Strange black crystals occasionally jut from the horizon – DC 15 Arcana to reveal it is Chardalyn, a magical material found only in Icewind Dale.

But the storm gets worse. Ask for DC 10 Survival checks to avoid becoming Exhausted – and then DC 10 Perception to notice a shelter ahead. 

A group of 6-inch-tall animated dolls, about 5 of them, are dancing around a fire

DC 15 Arcana or History to reveal these are Chwingas – tiny fey folk who can be helpful if charmed.

They mimic the characters, then ask them to dance – an appropriate skill check must be made (at DC 12) to receive a charm from each of them.

They award these charms in order: Charm of Vitality Charm of Heroism Charm of Bounty

The PCs can rest while the storm rages around them, and when it passes there are no signs of tracks. The Chwingas, however, can indicate the way their raiders went – up a narrow path to a hill cave

Scene 3 – The Hill Cave

With the mastiffs caged up outside, they can see the tiny cave as they approach – a group Stealth check DC 10 is enough to gain entry. They see the 4 raiders, and a teenaged girl, Varana. She is clad in wispy clothes despite the biting cold and seeks no trouble.

They can try and recapture their stuff, and this is an easy fight – the bandits will only fight to ⅓ of their hp – so 3 hp or less- before surrendering. Then, they tell them the story

Varana was a sacrifice, one of the lottery chosen by the Children of Auril, a cult who seek to end the endless night. She escaped, with her friends, three months ago. They move around a lot, looking for shelter. She clearly has some sort of magical power – as if the frost won’t touch her as she has escaped the Frostmaiden’s clutches – so she protects her friends.

They cover their tracks with the blizzards that follow Varana around… the PCs didn’t leave any tracks here, did they? (At that, they hear the howl of the dogs from outside, and a splash of blood – and the cult death squad attacks)

The cult death squad is an instrument of icy doom – a goliath zombie and a pair of skeletons crash through, while another 4 skeletons attack the following round

As they defeat (or are defeated by) the death squad, they find Varana is gone. They can trudge back to Caer Dineval with their recovered loot.

Prep Techniques: Boss Monster Examples

Here, I talked about building scenarios around antagonists. I’m going to give a couple of examples of that sort of prep, as scenario sketches. I’d want a bit more personalisation if I was going to run these myself, but I would probably do that while loading up Roll20 for them.

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. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

D&D, 3rd level – PITGURAT THE BLADE, ORC WARCHIEF

3rd level is the sweet spot for a lot of 5e D&D play, but it can be tricky to fit in a big damn hero encounter to it – so here’s one. A quick check of Xanathar’s suggests that 4 x level 3 characters should be soloing a CR 3 legendary monster, so let’s start with Pitgurat as a CR 2 Eye of Gruumsh and level him up using Matt Colville’s Villain Actions – making hit CR 2 legendary, but he won’t be encountered alone. He’s looking for sacrifices to complete some big evil ritual to bring ruin to the human settlement, and he’s enlisted the help of the thieve’s guild to help him – which is probably how the PCs learn of his schemes.

Here’s his boss profile

Name: Pitgurat the Blade, orc ritualist and cult leader

Goal & why the PCs care: His ritual will spread Gruumsh’s corruption and destroy the town of Greendale.

Secret weakness: He has a terrible rage when slighted, and will stop at nothing to pursue imagined slights (to tie this down as an actual weakness, this means that if the PCs can spread the word about him, he’ll track them down himself – meaning they can face him on his terms, instead of in his caves with hordes of cultists.

Description: An ambitious Eye of Gruumsh, Pitgurat’s war chief and lover was killed by adventurers from the town of Greendale three years ago. Since then, he’s gathered what’s left of the tribe, and enlisted the help of some humans, to try and enact a ritual to destroy Greendale forever. 

Lieutenants (1-3): Althadore the sly, leader of the thieves’ guild – knows Pitgurat’s weakness, and has been kept in the dark about the wholescale destruction of the town – he just wants the town council disposed of and Greendale corrupted (he’s a bandit captain in terms of stats); Yaradoth, Pitgurat’s lieutenant – a towering, one-eyed Orog who’s fiercely defensive of Pitgurat.

Mid-range Antagonists: Orcs, of course – most of Pitgurat’s tribe bear significant scars and injuries from the adventurer’s attacks. 

Minions: The thieve’s guild, human bandits, have thrown in their lot with Pitgurat as well. The orcs keep some goblin servants around too, to do their dirty work and help with Pitgurat’s rituals

Locations: The sprawling warehouses of the thieves guild, converted to a makeshift altar of Gruumsh as a show of faith with Pitgurat; the dark forests around Greendale where sacrifices for the ritual are abducted from merchants and traders; the orc caves, with a central ritual chamber.

Potential non-combat challenges: Opening scene – Althadore’s men try and burn down a tavern with the PCs in it to deter any interference. Navigating the trap-filled orc caves (I’d run this as a skill challenge / montage thing, not doing individual trap nonsense).

Star Trek Adventures – Captain Gazzad of the “Orion Space Navy”

Let’s go for a change of setting now, with an orion pirate and trickster suitable for an original series-era game of Trek. He’s set a planet up as a trap for the next Federation starship of do-gooders to arrive, with the aim of capturing a Constitution-class vessel (the PCs’ own).

Here’s his boss profile:

Name: Captain Ullad Gazzad, orion pirate and trickster

Goal & why the PCs care: To capture a Federation starship

Secret weakness: Gazzad is a sucker for a pretty face. He’s set up the resort on this planet to be the ideal retreat for a Federation captain, but it’s a little too sleazy for starfleet.

Description: Gazzad has rebuilt the settlement of Novaris on Erickron IV as the ideal pleasure planet, and presented himself as a prophet and wanderer. His crew are concealed among the staff of the resort, and he has sent an SOS – they’ve discovered volcanic activity in the caves around the resort, and need it to be made safe – or them evacuated. Of course, he’s faked the volcanic signals, and plans to trap the Captain and senior crew down there and then take over the starship.

Lieutenants: Bazzal Thor is an allied b, who’s got a cruiser in a nearby orbit for when the Captain is dealt with. He trusts Gazzad little, but knows a good scam when he sees one. Litoral is a native of Erickron IV who’s in on the deal – he presents Gazzad as his brother (a tricorder scan reveals this is unlikely) to allay any suspicions.

Mid-range Antagonists: The crew of Thor’s vessel – who try to beam aboard as a boarding action. Gazzad has several Orion crewmembers around Novaris who will help him, too.

Minions: The volcanic activity in the mines is fake, but the Erickronian Tunnel Worms – six foot long carnivorous scavengers – are very real, and will attack when the PCs are trying to escape the caves and race to their ship.

Locations: In orbit around Erickron, where sensors are weakened due to the planet’s unusual geology; the resort of Novaris, where Orions have set up the natives to provide the ultimate shore leave; the caves near Novaris, with passages rigged to blow and dangerous tunnel worms.

Potential non-combat challenges: Investigate and find out that the resort is full of Orions; navigate and escape the caves; the likely finale of starship combat with the Orion cruiser isn’t exactly non-combat, but it’s at a different scale so we’ll include it.

So, two examples of boss monster prep in action. Let me know if you’ve used the technique – or one like it – yourself.

Prep Techniques: The Boss Monster

Good antagonist design isn’t just essential for good TTRPG sessions, it can be something you base your whole session on – even if it’s a convention one-shot. I’m going to look at a method to build a session outwards from an antagonist, including looking at some rules tweaks that you might want to put in if your system isn’t as great at supporting solo monsters.

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. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

In previous Prep Techniques posts, I’ve looked at 5-Room Dungeons, Sly Flourish’s Method, Three Places, Con Pitches and a Bag of Tricks. Here, I’m going to talk about using an antagonist as a starting point for your one-shot or session. This turns traditional adventure prep on its head – and gives you a stock of prep material that should let you run a flexible session, with multiple routes to take down the antagonist.

First, the Fluff

Let’s talk about the boss’s background first. Who is he and what’s his plan? What does he want to do, why is it terrible, and why can’t the PCs ignore it? A good starting point is one or more of the PCs – can you link them to their backstory to make the players care about the antagonist? If you’re in an ongoing campaign, think about linking him with previous sessions, or foreshadowing future plans.

Your boss should be tough fight, even if they’re on their own. Clever plots or schemes from the players should have the option of getting to them without his supporters – and they should still be a challenge then. So think about levels of power – they need to be a threat!

They aren’t going to be alone though, so have between 1 and 3 lieutenants – minor monsters that support him, who can be a challenge with support themselves. These lieutenants should be distinct in terms of powers and personalities from the boss – if the boss is an archmage, make his lieutenants warlords or combat monsters.

Antagonist-based plotting is a staple of superhero gaming, but it can also be used for any TTRPG genre

Plan for the PCs to deal with a lieutenant first, maybe even as the hook to discover the boss’ plans. Also, think about what their weakness is – even if it’s a tendency to monologue – and a way the PCs can find this out and use it to their advantage.

Next, the Crunch

To have a truly effective boss in a fight, you might need to bend or break your game’s action economy. In D&D, consider using Matt Colville’s excellent Villain Actions hack, so your boss can act multiple times a round – and in another system consider giving them 2 or more actions each round. If you don’t feel like doing this, or your boss has multiple attacks already, consider spreading them out across the round – you want to keep the spotlight on them during the fight, rather than it feeling like the PCs have all the actions.

They also need to be hard to kill. This might mean just more hp, or some sort of special rule. I’m a fan of Feng Shui 2’s boss rule – when they would go down, roll 1d6, and you need to get an odd result to actually defeat them. It adds a level of jeopardy and pressure to a fight and distinguishes them from lesser enemies.

As you’ve got the lieutenants sorted, almost any boss should have a numberless supply of minions – these can be added to any encounters liberally to balance to the right level of challenge you desire. With minions, I like them to sometimes be much easier to defeat than normal – don’t be afraid to send your 5th level PCs up against hordes of kobolds – often with the boss’ supporting powers they might be a challenge, and usually some PCs will still want to deal with the minions.

Third, the Adventure

Now, you want to think about some key scenes. I’d recommend having a starting scene fully prepped, where they learn about the boss’ plans in some way – maybe a fight with some minions, or one of the lieutenants. And think about mid-scenes, where they might take down a lieutenant or learn the boss’ weakness. By combining lieutenants and minions in a few different ways, you can have some options for different opposition they could face along the way.

You’ll want around 3 locations along the way that could lead to the showdown, and some things that could happen to the environment there. Some of these – or some of the lieutenants – can lend themselves to non-combat challenges (if you’re looking for rules to support these, try here or here) – that you can steer towards. Make some plans for the final confrontation – this needs to be a showcase fight scene, so bear in mind the advice here for building it.

So far, your adventure prep will look a bit like this list… next week, I’ll post up some examples for a few different systems!

BOSS PROFILE

Name:

Goal & why the PCs care:

“Secret” weakness:

Description:

Lieutenants (1-3):

Mid-range Antagonists:

Minions:

Locations:

Potential non-combat challenges: