D&D One-Shots Done Right – Review: Uncaged, volume 1

If there’s one thing that is like looking for a needle in a haystack, it’s decent one-shots for D&D 5th edition. There are hundreds of them out there on DMs Guild, but picking through them to find those with good quality and the style of play that I like is a challenge. After I spent last summer running D&D one-shots, I’ve kept D&D as a regular source of one-shot fun, particularly for newcomers to the hobby (read the posts linked above for my reasoning why I think D&D is right for this).

Uncaged CoverSo, there’s Uncaged (this review is of Volume 1 – there are now three more volumes). From it’s own product description, it’s a set of folklore-themed adventures that “subvert tropes around female mythological creatures.” If that sounds a bit complex, in layman’s terms each adventure is focused around a female creature of myth, and does interesting stuff with them.

So there’s a hag adventure, a lamia adventure, a banshee adventure, and so forth. RPGs have had, and continue to have, some issues with representation, so this is a great concept for a product – a book around female monsters produced by a team of female writers and artists.

In volume 1 there are a total of 26 adventures – 14 Tier 1, 7 Tier 2, 4 Tier 3 and a single Tier 1. I’m not surprised that there are more for lower tiers, and that suits me to be fair.

The Fluff

First out, these are proper one-shots. They’re each 2-4 hours of play, and contain just enough setting to make sense. The advantage of this is that they can be slotted in anywhere – I’d put some of these in to Ravnica or Eberron without any trouble at all – which makes them useful as drop-in adventures. In some cases, the setting is pretty integral to the adventure, so this makes them harder to drop into an ongoing campaign, but it’s great if you’re looking for one-shots.

Because of this, though, it helps when you run it to try and embed the PCs into the adventure and setting a bit deeper – I’ve used Backstory cards when I’ve run them to make sure the PCs feel like they have a shared past. It’s also a good opportunity to share out some of the fleshing out of the stuff that isn’t always in the adventures – in case they encounter some town guards, the PC who used to be in them can describe how the guards work in this city.

Each adventure comes with a featured piece of art, and the book is nicely laid out without being too fussy – there’s also a printer friendly version of each adventure you can print out individually to have at the table, and separate files for player maps. There’s a hardcopy POD option from Drivethru, but I haven’t explored that yet – I just downloaded the .pdf. Also worth noting that any content warnings are up front at the start of each adventure, again really useful if you’re running one-shots for people you don’t know.

The Crunch

First up, although the adventures are all by different authors, and there’s a refreshing diversity in their plot structure, they are generally excellent. None of these are dungeon-crawling adventures, and all involve investigation and roleplaying, presented in an easy-to-use way with skill DCs up-front and clear. The adventures aren’t long, either – and they have had a solid edit to take out any unnecessary waffle.

There is combat in them (this is D&D after all), but the conclusion of an adventure is as likely to be a negotiation or compromise, or discovering a secret, as a pitched battle. The combat encounters, in the ones that I’ve run (all Tier 1), have been balanced and fair for D&D5e – which is to say, I’d recommend running the CR numbers through the D&D system and beefing them up a bit. In most of the adventures there are, at most, 2-3 combat encounters, so you might want to make key battles more challenging. Likewise, some of the adventures have adjustments for different level parties, while some are just for the set level stated – all are easy enough to adjust up and down.

There’s also quite a few bits where skills are tested and investigations take place. This is an opportunity, if you’re inclined, to try out one of the skill challenge systems here – how they are presented in each adventure varies.

The One-Shot

This is a really good book if you want to run D&D one-shots. Particularly for new players, they showcase the social interaction aspect of play really well, in a way that can be missing in more ‘traditional’ D&D adventures – it is one of the three pillars of D&D play after all. Because they are tightly presented and edited, they are also easy to disassemble, rearrange, and adapt. In all honesty, many of these would be excellent run with different systems as well – and easy to adapt.

So far, I’ve run Maid in Waterdeep (level 1), Lai of the Sea Hag (level 2) – twice, and A Wild Hunt (level 2) – and all have been really satisfying. A Wild Hunt features the kumiho, shapeshifting fox-women from Korean folklore, and manages to make them both frightening and sympathetic.

Fully recommended – and I’m sure the other 3 anthologies are similar. These are also an excellent source of plots and explorations of creatures for systems other than D&D, which is testament to its quality. A great source of one-shot D&D adventures – and a great toolkit to pull apart and reuse in pieces too.

Perilous Tribulations – non-combat group challenges in One-Shots

Something that comes up a lot when I’m prepping one-shots is what I’ll call the Perilous Non-Combat Encounter. Whether the players are trekking through a dangerous wilderness, spelunking down a cave, hiding from orcs in the forest, or racing to find a vaccine for the alien mind-plague, these are non-combat situations that are big set-piece encounters, where the whole group are involved and working together to achieve a goal.

Often systems address one or more of these as specific subsystems – rules for Chases, or Social Combat, or Deathtraps – but I like to have some systems for these even when the rules set doesn’t directly do the heavy lifting for me.

There are a few ways to handle these, which I’ve stolen from a few different systems – I’ve used all of these at one point or another in my games, and I’ve tried to analyse which is best for which approach below. Things they have in common are, generally:

  • they are adaptable to a wide variety of situations. They aren’t a chase subsystem, or a mountaineering subsystem, or a mass combat subsystem – it can be used for all three of those at different times
  • they allow the whole group to make rolls. This isn’t Netrunning – where the one super-skilled PC gets all the fun while the rest of the group watch passively
  • there’s some flexibility in what skills can be used to tackle the obstacle. If they’re climbing a cliff, along Athletics checks to actually climb, maybe they use Sleight of Hand to check the knots in the rope, or Navigation to plot an easier route – or even Sing to raise the spirits of their companions
  • there are consequences to failure – normally group consequences, which might be in terms of plot, or might be in terms of system (everyone take 1d6 damage from the arctic winds) – although there’s one exception to this below in the Turn-Taking section

I’ve broken these down into four main approaches – although this is certainly a non-exhaustive list – below:

The Skill Challenge

Skill Challenges DMG 4eIn this approach, originating in 4e D&D, your group has to accumulate a number of successes before they make 3 failures. There’s an excellent post here about how that would work in D&D 5e, and a post here with lots of 4e examples. This caused some controversy when it first came out for 4th ed (not least because they had to swiftly issue errata changing some of the difficulty levels), but it’s a solid way to introduce a challenge while still making it perilous and having real chance of failure.

Be warned that you probably need to make each skill check easier than you might think, or have an exciting consequence for failure. Failure in these kinds of situations is often less fun in a one-shot as some of the consequences may take time up – and in a one-shot, time is a precious commodity. So if they fail the skill challenge to sneak around the forest and the consequence is they have to fight orcs, that’s time that could be spent fighting the green dragon at the end that they have to waste on the orcs. Better to make all the DCs lower (or whatever margin of success your system uses) and let them show how they overcome the problem like the heroes that they are.

The three failures thing can also be tweaked – there is a risk that the first three players all fail and the remaining players don’t get a chance to contribute. To avoid this, you can increase the failure threshold to four failures, which makes this much more unlikely to happen (or impossible, if you have four players). Or you can allow the remaining players a check to avert disaster at the last – although the skill challenge has been failed, perhaps they have a chance to mitigate some of the most deadly effects of it.

The Tolerance Test

Skill Challenges TORThis comes from The One Ring, which uses this to resolve social encounters. Each time you meet an NPC you set a Tolerance – this is usually related to the PC’s best Valour or Wisdom score, maybe with contextual bonuses or penalties. The players take turns trying to impress the NPC, with each failure taking one point of Tolerance away, until there is no Tolerance left. Then, the number of successes they have amassed gives the margin of success – so maybe the NPC grudgingly allows them to be on their way, or maybe they shower them with gifts or praise.

The Tolerance is usually around 3, so it’s as easy if you’re adapting this to another system to just set it at 3. The difference between this and the Skill Challenge is that there’s no specific “failure” condition – just a sliding scale of outcomes – which makes this a good approach if you’re more interested in how well they do. For instance, if they are climbing the peak to find the cloud giant castle atop it, we know they need to climb the peak – the question is whether they arrive bedraggled and fatigued, or fresh and ready for the fight to come.

In prepping this, you need to work out what different levels of success overall look like – so if the party get 0-2 successes, 3-4 successes, or 5 or more succeses, for instance. It’s also worth having an idea of what Critical successes look like –  in One Ring, great successes are worth 2 points, and extraordinary successes are worth 3, which gives more influence over some great rolls and also make spending any resources to boost rolls worthwhile.

The other advantage of this is that there is a defined end point – the challenge will be resolved one way or another and the players pointing where you want them to go at the end of it. Once they reach the best outcome you have planned on the outcome table, as long as everyone has had a go, you can cut it there and assume they have finished the challenge.

The First To Three

Skill Challenges Fate CoreI think this first came up in Fate Core as Contests, described in the Fate SRD here. Basically, you have two or more sides, and the first to accumulate three successes is the victor. This obviously works well if you are competing against something (say if you and the orcs are both racing up the peak to the cloud giant castle) but you can also make it work by rolling for the opposition (maybe the peak has a +5 bonus to try and thwart you and rolls each time).

One advantage here is that everyone rolls at once, which keeps everyone a bit more involved – although this will work better face to face than if you are running online, where better turn discipline is sometimes needed. This also works if there are multiple ‘teams’ acting – maybe the orcs, the peak, and the PCs are all competing for the cloud giant castle. You can either make everyone roll against a set difficulty, or allow opposed rolls in whatever way your system allows them – a simple D&D hack would be that everyone who rolls above DC 15 get to mark a success, and the team with the highest roller on it gets to mark two.

Turn Taking

This is the simplest way to look at a challenge, but it shouldn’t be overlooked. This is easy to add in if you want to respond to a new approach the players have tried, as it needs minimal prep beforehand. Basically, in turns each player rolls the skill that fits their approach to the situation, and suffer individual consequences for failure. Then once everyone has taken their rolls, you look at the successes and failures and give an overall picture of how successful they have been. So, while they climb the peak, each failure makes that individual take 1d6 damage (or something) and then after they have all rolled, you make a judgement on how successful overall they have been – again this works better if you need a successful outcome overall, and need to see how smoothly they achieve it.

This works well where there are ways players can support one another with successful rolls – so in FFG Star Wars / Genesys allow Advantage results to be converted into Boost dice for the other players, or the Momentum system that 2d20 uses. It is also quick and finite in terms of time required.

Alternative Approaches

If players want to use powers or spells instead of their skills, personally I’m really flexible about this – with the allowance that they have to expend a resource. So a daily spell, or a spell they can only cast 2 or 3 times in the scenario, will if it fits allow an automatic success. In 13th Age, Icons and Runes can certainly be used – if I’m feeling generous, I’ll even allow them to be spent after the roll to flip a failure to a success.

These can also, of course, be used to resolve combat as well. There’s a future post planned about handling mass combat in One-Shots, but one way to handle it is of course using one of these skill challenges.

What other methods have you used for non-combat resolution beyond a single skill check? Comment below, or let me know @milnermaths on twitter. In the next post, I’ll post with examples of each of these challenges – probably for D&D, but if you’ve a particular request for a system, let me know in the comments.

Headphones and Dice – playing One-Shots Online

OK, in the interesting times we’re living in now, there’s suddenly a lot of interest in online RPGs. For myself, I started doing some online gaming at the start of the year, and it’s become a fixture of my gaming schedule since then – even more so now we’re all in lockdown.

A chance twitter shout-out to play some One Ring led to a group, originally to play One-Shots, that have ended up playing through most of the adventure anthology Tales from the Wilderland. The One Ring deserves a whole post of its own – but one of the things that has helped to keep us together is the style of play that online roleplaying has led us into. In short 2-hour sessions, we’re all on it; serious and alert to play up the rest of the party. Every session has brought a moment of greatness, often emergent from TOR’s sometimes fiddly mechanics, and the PCs are now a well-loved fellowship. Next session, they’re probably going to meet Gandalf – and I’m reminding myself how nice it is to have ongoing games as well as One-Shots.

But, if you want to play or run one-shots, here’s a brief guide to it if you’re starting out

Online Packages

There’s a lot of discussion of virtual tabletops out there, Roll20, Fantasy Grounds, and Astral Tabletop all touted as decent products for different things. If you’re just starting, I’d ask that you ignore all that, though.

All you need is a stable set of video conferencing software.

My favoured setup is Google Hangouts (yes, it still exists) – but I’ve played with Zoom or Discord, and I know groups who play using Skype or even Facebook messenger. You need to be able to communicate with each other. As long as you trust each other (and if you don’t, you should find another group), it works just fine if everyone just rolls their own dice and lets you know what they are.

While you’re on these, you also need headphones – a mic you can do without, but without headphones your laptop microphone is likely to create an annoying echo every time another player speaks. It’ll be annoying to everyone else, not to you, so you won’t realise it’s happening – until someone has to awkwardly remind you.

I’d also say that laptops > tablets > phones for online gaming. On a laptop or a decent sized tablet, you can have your character sheet (or whatever neat piece of art the GM has shared on his tabletop) on the screen as well – my practice is to have the video call off to one side, or in the corner, so the screen isn’t dominated by the pixellated face of my fellow players.

Like this:

Roll20 Sample 2

The One Ring art by John Hodgson – the Dwimmerhorn looms out of the fog

The advantage of an online tabletop is the ability to share art and pictures initially – they also have inbuilt dice rollers, and if you want to get technical they can have all kinds of macros and stuff built in for different games. If you’re playing Pathfinder or a similar ‘griddy’ game, you can get a map up and track everything with player tokens.

But, to stress again, you don’t have to do this. Start simple with Hangouts. Eventually, like me, you’ll start to dip your toe into showing some pretty pictures.

Recruiting

Finding players for online games used to sometimes be a bit tricky – it’s easy to flake out of a game if you don’t have to leave the house for it, which made one-shots difficult to schedule unless you found yourself a regular group.

Every cloud, though – the current lockdown means there’s a lot of interest in online gaming again, and lots of people moving their own groups to online for social distancing. There are a number of virtual cons springing up now, too – Go Play Manchester and Go Play Leeds are both going virtual, and following the cancellation of Seven Hills and North Star conventions we’re looking at a virtual con in their stead. As with most things, playing in a game prior to running something virtually is a good idea, and most online cons have some more experienced GMs around to help.

In general, prior to lockdown my approach for recruitment seemed to work well – a twitter shout-out led to about 10 interested parties, and then setting an evening and schedule whittled that down to the 5 of us who could make it. Right now I’d have some confidence in posting something on twitter and getting a group together – although usual stuff applies.

“Who wants to play Savage Worlds Rifts on Monday at 7pm GMT?”

is more likely to work than

“Who wants to play some online games soon?”

It’s usually better to have a slightly smaller group than you might for a face-to-face game – 3 or 4 is ideal, while for me 5 is a hard maximum. You have to be much stricter with turn-taking and listening, and so it gets exponentially harder the more players you have.

Playing / Running

As I’ve said before, prior to running an online game I’d really recommend you play – even if you’re only using Hangouts or Zoom, it’s easier to not worry about the technical side if you’re the player instead of the GM. Prior to the game, the GM (or whoever is hosting) will send out a link – whatever the platform, you should be able to join in with that.

Don’t fret over technical difficulties – as long as everyone has headphones and is careful you’ll be fine. About every other session for me there’s something that crops up – lag on a virtual tabletop, audio interference on a player, or – a couple of sessions ago – me hanging up the whole Hangouts call (I was GMing) by accident while fiddling around with windows. As long as you’re all playing generously you can probably muddle through and fix it – usually the classic IT solution of logging out and then in again will fix most things.

Generally 2 hours, with maybe 30 minutes each way, is a good time limit for online play – you remove table chatter, so you’ll be surprised how much you can get through in that time. It’s a bit more intense, weirdly, as everyone is on the game, and one person having the spotlight at once adds to this. As a GM, it pays to be super-conscious of this spotlight – even out of combat, I try to invite players in turn – so if you’re roleplaying, try to take turns so one player doesn’t dominate too much.

And have fun! There’s tons of online gaming going on right now – and there’s loads of blog posts like this, from people who know their shizz like Paul Mitchener, Dom Mooney, and many more. There’s also a Smart Party podcast just landed about online play – which I’m off to listen to right now.

If you know more links, please share them below – and maybe I’ll see you across a web browser soon!

Pregen Power Levels

In this post I’m going to talk about how powerful your one-shot pregens should be. Designing pregens is often the first step to prepping a one-shot, and definitely needs to be done before your prep is finished (and then you can check there are relevant challenges for each PC to allow for spotlight spread), and it’s tempting to just throw together characters following the rules in the book – standard starting characters. This is sometimes the best case, but sometimes it’s worth beefing up your characters a bit.

This is obviously a topic that varies a lot from system to system, so I’m going to look at a few in turn.

D&D / 13th Age / F20 games

If you’re running a game for players that are completely new to TTRPGs, and you want to keep things simple (and you should) – start at 1st level. D&D 1st level pregens can be a bit squishy, so you might consider either making them 2nd level (which really are no more powerful apart from the extra hp and a few more spell slots) or even just giving them the 2nd level hit point boost. This is something I’d particularly recommend if you’re running for players who might not be too keen on their PCs being knocked out.

Of course, instead of beefing them up you might be tempted to knock down the opposition – but I’d caution against this. For one thing, several of the support roles in D&D are really unsatisfying if there isn’t proper opposition – I can remember playing a Life Cleric in a one-shot and being a bit disappointed that I didn’t get to use my awesome healing powers.

If you’ve got some experienced players, but still want to keep it straightforward, 3rd or 4th level is the way to go. At this point, there’s a bump in complexity that gives PCs a plethora of options in D&D (in 13th Age they have these options pretty much from 1st level), and a lot of scope for niche protection; two 3rd level human fighters can play very differently at the table depending on design choice.

If you want superhero-style high fantasy, you can use the Fireball Cutoff. This rule (which I’ve just invented) states that at the point where PCs acquire the spell Fireball, that’s when they become high fantasy superheroes instead of hardscrabble spelunkers. This happens in most F20 games at a lowly 5th level – from that point on, expect your players to be big damn heroes. Weirdly, this happens in almost every level-based fantasy game – it stands in D&D, 13th Age, Shadow of the Demon Lord. In other systems, feel free to locate Fireball in the spell list and work out where this level is

At this level or above, even if you’ve got experienced players, I’d recommend allowing them to use average damage for effects that require rolling a lot of dice (especially in 13th Age, where this is every weapon and spell attack) – if a player is going to take some time to add up the result of 6d10+12 it’s going to be boring for the rest of the table, and dull for them, so offer this as an option in advance. At the very least, have plenty of dice so they aren’t trying to roll their own single d10 six times. If you want more swing, just let players flip a coin for max/min damage – I’ve used this effectively in a 5th level 13th Age one-shot.

Fate / PBTA

In these games, generally the pregen they start with is fine. The one adjustment I like to make in PBTA games is give everyone two or three XP ticks, just so it’s very likely they’ll get an advance in the first couple of hours of play – giving them a chance to see their character grow during the game.

For Fate, the equivalent I’d recommend is leaving one or two aspects blank, and even (if Fate Core) a few mid-range skills. Players can fill these in before, or during, the game to allow a bit of input into their character. It’s possible to run Fate Core doing character generation entirely in-game, based on just a high concept aspect, but this is a bit of a risk unless you know your players will be up for this and won’t spend ages paralysed by decisions.

I’ve written in more detail about Forged in the Dark games like Blades here, but in general I’d resist boosting any of their starting abilities, tempting though it may be. It’s more enjoyable for PCs to fumble through a heist or job, as failure will drive more problems their way, than to have them patch everything up with some die rolls – this also makes them spend stress and have something to do in the Downtime phase. A similar approach works for Mouse Guard – don’t be afraid to force some of the Guardmice to roll skills they might not have – this forces them to tap Nature and risk it dropping, and work together even more. In these teamwork-driven games, niche protection is vital, so you need to be careful to not make the PCs able to succeed individually.

Cypher

Cypher (the system behind Numenera and The Strange, amongst other excellent setting books) is a really rules-light system that focuses a bit more on resource management than the rest of the ones discussed here – and boils most things down to a single d20 roll.

For Cypher, I’d recommend Tier 2 characters as a minimum, and I wouldn’t be afraid of Tier 3 or 4. As Cypher PCs advance, they don’t particularly get much more powerful – they just gain additional options to use. At Tier 1, their options are generally pretty limited – it’s only at higher tiers that the really cool Foci abilties kick in, and while the PCs get more badass, they don’t become anywhere near invincible. This is great in a campaign where they can watch their options grow, but in a one-shot they might as well have these options earlier. I’d also recommend using my hack for experience in Cypher games in one-shots, to avoid the spend-or-hoard XP mechanics.

Balancing Opposition

This is a big generalisation across the systems, but I prefer to beef up opposition beyond what it says in the book for low-level PCs, and taper this off as they get higher level. At low levels, you need challenges to be genuine challenges, and resource-depletion fights that are the bread-and-butter combat encounters of longer-term F20 games are generally unsatisfying. Mix it up, too – as here, it’s an idea to start off with a really underpowered fight as a training level for the players, but do what you can to make the difficulty ramp up through the one-shot to the climax.

If you’ve every played D&D or Pathfinder in a campaign, you’ll have realised that by 3rd level – if the group has stayed pretty consistent – your party has usually evolved into an efficient combat unit because you have some awareness of what other PCs abilities do. As you play through encounters, you become adept at knowing when to rage, when to hang back, how many heals your cleric has left, that sort of thing. In a one-shot, this knowledge is unlikely to develop in 3 hours, and it can make a massive difference to a party’s effectiveness.

So be prepared to tone it down and have some flexibility with challenges – this can include having terrain features that may or may not come into play, reinforcements that might or might not come, or even some killer tactics that might not be used, depending on how ruthless your players are being.

What are your tips for balancing pregens and encounters? Are there any other systems you’d like to see discussed?

This was meant to be the final post of 2019, but it’s ended up creeping out after a rewrite in 2020. So, if you can imagine this came out last year, thank you so much for your continued support and digestion of my words. In the last two years Burn After Running has grown into almost a ‘real blog,’ and as always I love to hear suggestions for what games to cover or review, new kinds of articles, and what you’d like more or less of. Catch me on twitter @milnermaths or comment below.

Day of the Octopus: Unpacking the One-Shot

MSH image

Day of the Octopus is the starter adventure included with Marvel Super Heroes basic set, first published in 1984. It’s a straightforward adventure that I remember liking when I first picked up Marvel (considerably later than 1984!), and it still stands up well. It’s got some lessons in it for prepping a one-shot, especially for convention play, and I think it bears a closer look. It’s also available as a download on the Classic Marvel Forever website, if you want to give it a closer look.

Specifically, it does a few things well

  • it demonstrates the expectations and structure of play
  • it’s designed to teach the rules as it goes
  • it gives a solid approximation to a dramatic arc

There’s a few things it does… less well, I guess

  • it’s almost entirely linear. There’s one branching point, but that’s only if the PCs get captured
  • it’s dramatic scenes all resolve around combat – even one where combat really isn’t the actual resolution still looks very combat-y to the players

Overview

It’s designed with specific heroes in mind – Spider-Man, The Thing, and Captains Marvel and America. In the first scene (or Chapter as they’re called in the adventure) this is important, as they start interacting with their day-to-day lives – Peter Parker is with Aunt May, The Thing is sulking in the park, Captain America is with his “gal.” It also demonstrates the classic superhero team structure in RPGs – that although the heroes are normally arranged into specific teams in the comics, in the game they can form a team of whatever heroes the players want to play.

It’s a 1984 adventure, so there’s boxed text – but it’s pretty decent boxed text though – no need to describe dungeon rooms makes it flow easily. Each chapter also starts with a short comic strip, where we see the start of the action, which is a nice touch – I particularly like the investigative scene where The Thing is a deerstalker, especially because it makes him look a bit like Bungle from Rainbow.

It’s designed to be used with the maps supplied – this book came in a boxed set, of course, and there’s a fair amount of tactical faffing about where to place various PCs and their opponents that was probably a lot more important back in the day than it is now. Maps for superhero games leave me cold – especially when there’s two characters that have fairly limited movement alongside two with massively fast movement – can’t Captain Marvel travel at the speed of light? Why does she need a map?

Structure

Overall, the plot looks like this:

day of the octopus structure1357830321..jpg

In Chapter 1, the PCs start separately, while still on the same map, and face one or two Thugs (normal humans) each. These are trivially easy fights, and this chapter shows up as a nice little training mission. In my one-shots I often have an easy fight as the first scene, and this approach (having a really, really easy fight)is something that I’d like to try. I’d expect both encounters to only take a round or so, so it’s a good stakes-free way to teach the basic rules.

No sooner are the thugs dealt with, Chapter 2 starts, where some actual supervillains (one per hero – another superhero RPG trope – and somewhat randomly assembled) appear and try to steal the same tech. It’s expected that they’ll be thwarted, and a Dr Octopus arm will get the tech anyway, but this is the first real fight of the adventure. It has detailed notes for how the villains will fight, which is a thing we don’t often see enough of these days I think – even if Radioactive Man’s first action is to blow a hole underneath The Thing so that he has to spend three turns climbing out, which feels a little bit mean on that player.

CSI: Marvel Super Heroes

In Chapter 3, they do some investigating, which is snappy and has multiple routes and ways of finding their way to Dr Ock’s hideout. There’s three places they can go to pick up clues – the site of the battle, the rental company they got the truck from, and a dive bar on the waterfront. It’s expected they’ll go through these places in order – if I was running this I’d add multiple clues to each location so they didn’t have to go to all three (or could split up), but it’s still presented as a pretty pacy segment, and isn’t reliant on dice rolls to move the plot forwards.

Chapter 4 is the hideout itself, where they fight Dr Octopus, any remaining supervillains from the previous battle, and several environmental effects. This is definitely mean to potentially be a tough one, as Chapter 5 is what happens if they lose, and begins with each hero being captured individually and them needing to escape.

Chapter 6 is the final scene, when they try to stop a gigantic Octobot as it rampages through New York. This fight is almost unwinnable, but it’s also much more of a problem solving challenge – the robot isn’t something they can take on directly, so they need to try and disable it using trickery. In game terms, this is almost a skill challenge compare to the fights beforehand – which is also a nice way to mix it up.

Unpacking the Plot

So, the structure looks roughly like the diagram above. We have 4 core scenes – a training level, a normal challenge scene, and two hard challenge scenes, with two of those being fights and one being more of a skill challenge. There’s a few different ways to move between what is basically a linear plot structure, and there’s a safety net in case they don’t get any further.

The safety net is a bit weak though – it’s Thor – who can either swoop in and save the day in a fight, or just tell them clues if they miss them. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this kind of contingency plan in a one-shot, but I prefer some immediate, tangible consequences to a failed scene – maybe Thor does offer the details of Dr Octopus’ hideout, but that means they have time to prepare themselves and the next fight will be tougher, or the robot starts rampaging sooner.

20191225_1515021068067650.jpg

For me, I like to have the final climax be a big, challenging battle (this also removes the need for a “contingency Thor” for that scene) and make the skill challenge be the middle scene. For skill challenge, it could be something different to an actual fight, but I think it needs to be an extended task that is supported by the system – in Fate this could be a Contest or a Cliffhanger (from Masters of Umdaar), it could be a Chase scene in Savage Worlds or Call of Cthulhu, a starship combat in a sci fi game, or a social conflict in a system which supports this. In all cases, it’s worth hanging some proper stakes on the scene, so it has tangible consequences to the folowing scenes.

I really like the first scene of this adventure – by introducing the players individually, and giving them a small interaction with the rules, they set up a low-stakes way of teaching both roleplaying and the basics of the rules. I’ve done this with individual skill checks before now, but not with really weak opponents, and I’d like to try it out with that – either with the heroes as individuals or with them together teaming up against a small obstacle.

I’ll definitely be re-skinning this structure and trying out some of the ideas here, and I’ll post on here and twitter about how it goes. I’m going to pull out some other ‘classic’ one-shots and do a similar unpacking of them – what should I look at next?

Review: Eberron, Rising from the Last War

EberronFirst, a disclaimer. My reviews aren’t thorough, and I don’t review things I don’t like – there’s enough negativity around. That’s not to say that I like everything – just, if I’m not a fan, I don’t see the point of telling the internet. But if something is good, I like to share why and how it’s good, and give a feel for how it could be used in one-shot games. And Eberron is bloody good. If you’re after more complete reviews, I can recommend Pookie’s site Reviews from R’lyeh – and there are many other review sites a google search will find you.

Eberron is D&D’s latest setting – although it’s not brand new to 5th edition. First emerging in the 3rd Edition era, it was an attempt to design a world from the ground up – it arrives completely free of old-timey weirdness in the way, say, Forgotten Realms has Elminster everywhere, and Greyhawk is full of dungeons and places called Geoff. It’s pulp, and steampunk-pulp, and is actually designed for exciting adventures… the whole world feels like it sits on a knife-edge, as if brave heroes could actually make a difference.

The Fluff

Eberron is your typical D&D fantasy world, magic everywhere, dwarves in the mountains, elves in the hills. They’ve just had a massive war, though – where warforged, sentient humanoid robots, became a thing, along with lots of magical-technological inventions. There’s lightning rail trains, airships (we love an airship), and magic item manufactories. The city covered in detail in the sourcebook, Sharn, use air elemental powers to grow vertically, so that it’s hundreds of feet high. There’s dragonmarked houses, families with weird birthmarks that give them magical powers, and a weird psychic spirit realm that some creatures are attached to. The last war ended when an unknown WMD destroyed an entire country.

There’s more along the same lines, and it’s a mixture of familiar tropes and neat little twists. Eberron is a world in flux, where things can collapse and be rebuilt very quickly. There’s intrigue and opportunity and everything is very factional – there’s a continent of monsters, Drooam, but PCs could easily find themselves working alongside its goblins and bugbears against greater human evils. There are dinosaur-riding halflings. There are half-werewolf shifters. There’s lots of stuff – it’s a kitchen sink setting – and just enough of it is twisted in a cool way to make it stand out. It’s very pulp, and very D&D.

The Crunch

You get a lot of extra game in Eberron – four entirely new races, a new core class (the artificer) and lots of variants and options, including for dragonmarks. There are guidelines for having a group patron which are more suited to longer-term play really, and they also provide a good framework to hang a one-shot on. There are monsters, including some really cool ideas that would transport into other settings (living spells in particular deserve to be in every mad sorcerer’s tower).

And as with most D&D5 supplements, there are a lot of tables, and plenty of maps. The move towards sourcebooks as inspiration-dumps is great, and Eberron, like Ravnica before it, demonstrates this brilliantly. Even where it becomes more of a traditional setting gazetteer (describing the districts and buildings of Sharn, for example) the information is presented with usability considered – there are lists of important buildings, rather than long sections of prose describing daily life.

The One-Shot

Eberron is a great setting for a one-shot. The pulp style makes it easy to come up with quests and missions to explore, and the way each area or faction is loaded up with plot hooks makes them ideal for one-shot play. Indeed, each of the Patrons given – from fairly standard (Adventurer’s Guild) to more unusual (Newspaper, Inquisitive Agency) give ample opportunity for mission-based play. Like Ravnica’s guilds, each of these provide a strong backdrop to hang a one-shot adventure on and still have it feel distinctively Eberron.

All in all I’m very pleased to see Eberron back as an official D&D setting – if a little worried that Ravnica might now see it’s star fade a little, as it treads similar tropes to Eberron with a more limited scope. I’ll be developing some one-shots for it, certainly, and I’ll share them here when they are in a polished-enough state.

 

The Rats of Rothsea – a D&D5 1st-level One-Shot

After my summer of running lots of D&D (see here and here), I have quite a few 1st-level one-shots sketched out – and I’ll be putting them up here gradually, to go with The Goblins and The Pie Shop and my adaptation of Goblin Gulley. This is a village-based investigative adventure (again borrowing structure from The Alexandrian’s Node-Based Design) with lots of giant rats in it.

Oh, and just to be clear – the similar-sounding town of Rothesay, on the Isle of Bute near Glasgow, is nothing like the village here. It’s an old-fashioned resort town where you can enjoy the bracing Scottish weather and view the finest public lavatories in Scotland (seriously) – and has almost no rats.

The Rats of Rothsea

An introductory D&D one-shot for 3-6 1st level characters

Introduction

Rothsea has a rat problem. For the last few weeks, swarms of vicious rats, and giant ones as big as dogs, have chewed their way through their supplies. Even the Vermincatcher’s Guild seem powerless to help, and all points towards an old trawler that grounded on the nearby beach. Only the joyful songs of Erwin Jest, a bard newly arrived to the village, and the stout heart of Torven the Barkeep have managed to keep the villagers from sinking into despair.

In truth, Jest is a warlock in thrall to an ancient rat-god, and it was him that arrived on the trawler that night along with his verminous host and an evil artefact, the Amulet of Rodents. He has paid off the Vermincatcher’s Guild and is hoping that the lack of food will paint him as the village’s saviour when he eventually solves the village’s rat problem.

Characters

Erwin Jest appears as a twinkle-eyed bard with a tuneful lute and a quick wit. He only arrived at the village recently but is already a firm favourite – some suspected him to be a retired adventurer when he first arrived, but his abject cowardice has made them sure he is not that. In truth, he seeks to turn the village into his own – by overrunning it with rats. He’s told Maria, of the Vermincatcher’s guild, that they’ll live together as Lord and Lady, and bribed her heftily.

Torven is a simple dwarf, a former miner who threw his lot in with Rothsea when he lost his husband in a cave-in in the dwarven mines. He is loyal to the village and enjoys Jest’s company. He keeps his tavern, The Rusty Hook, in good order, and prides himself on serving rough, simple fare for his patrons.

Actis is Torven’s only other member of staff, a wiry elf who used to be a fisherwoman but quit when a beast from the deep chewed off half of her leg. She walks with a limp now and is determined to make the best of her lot. Torven has been very good to her and she is loyal– and she also is fascinated by Jest.

Maria is the current guildmistress of the vermincatcher’s guild. A hard-eyed halfling with three missing fingers on her left hand (chewed off by rats, she claims, although it was actually a punishment for theft as a child), she has taken Jest’s bribe in good faith and is assured of a place at his right hand at the culmination of his scheme.

Locations

Rothsea is a grim fishing village on the far coast, isolated from main trade routes. Adventurers occasionally stop here, but mostly it is fishermen and trawlers who venture out for a few days at a time to the stormy seas to bring back their catch. They are grim but loyal folk, and very worried about the recent rat activities.

Beneath their streets, the inhabitants know that there are a series of catacombs and sea-caves that link to the village’s cellars sometimes – this makes them very wary of rats and other creatures lairing in them, and one reason why they employ Maria and her vermincatchers to keep them safe.

Scene One – The Rats in the Cellar

DeanSpencer-filler-ratseating

Rats (C) Dean Spencer

As the characters arrive in Rothsea, it is falling to dark. The only tavern in the village, The Rusty Hook, looks out over the sea-front, and Torven pours pints of dark, heavy ale to a few sou-wester’d fishermen and women as they sit glumly. Jest greets them in between his songs.

If the characters ask for food Torven fetches bowls of stew, but is apologetic as he hands them the thin gruel and mouldy bread – supplies are low, he says. Then a scream is heard from below the tavern in the cellars, and the patrons hang back in fear. Torven leads the way, and they can see into the cellar, where Actis is scrabbling to get away from a swarm of rats that are chewing her good leg away. As the characters approach, they see a group of huge rats the size of dogs appear through the collapsed wall and bear down on them.

There is one giant rat (MM327) per player. If your players are experienced, and you want to make this first encounter more of a challenge, replace two of the giant rats with a rat swarm (MM339) – but be warned that they can be a dangerous opponent to the players.

Once they have dispatched the rats, Torven sends his patrons away and makes to repairing the wall. He offers the characters employment to solve the village’s rat problem – 150gp between them if they can resolve it in the next few days – and suggests a few lines of enquiry.

The might want to investigate the hole in his cellar and see where the tunnels lead (Scene Two). His patrons are sure that the rat problem started when a trawler washed up on the beach nearby (Scene Three). They could also pay the Vermincatcher’s Guild a visit and ask them why they haven’t managed to resolve the rat problem (Scene Four).

Scene Two – The Tunnels Beneath Rothsea

If they explore the broken wall, they can soon make their way into Rothsea’s labyrinthine tunnel system. The caverns have at times been hollowed out and crafted, and at one time these tunnels have been used as lairs for various creatures. The following skill checks are relevant.

The tunnels are damp and stinking, with only the occasional shaft of light from about to provide some fresh air and illumination. The tunnels are an odd mixture of natural passageways linked to the sea caves and man-made corridors.

DC10 History – the tunnels predate the building of Rothsea – many of these passages were here before the town was built

DC10 Survival – there are tracks all over of rats and giant rats, but also a few humanoid footprints here and there
DC15 Survival – the humanoid footprints are from well-made city books, not the rough wellingtons worn by most of Rothsea’s inhabitants
DC20 Survival – most of the tracks can be traced to the Vermincatcher’s Guild, but a few lead out towards a hut on the outskirts of town.

DC10 Perception – there are some sources of food down here – it appears as if some waste has been deliberately left for the rats

A longer passage leads out towards the sea cave to the side of the trawler (Scene Three), and a thorough exploration of the links to cellars will lead them to a few different places – including the Vermincatcher’s Guild. A rough wooden board has been made into a makeshift door into the Guild House cellars – and clearly it has been used recently (Scene Four). If they follow the tracks to the hut, they will come to Jest’s house (Scene Five) – although since their arrival he has boarded up his route into the cellars, sure that he can always use the entrance in the Guild House if he needs to see his rats again.

Scene Three – The Old Trawler

A few minutes walk outside the village, washed up on a quiet beach surrounded by cliffs, is the old trawler. A tatty sign painted on the side that is out of the tide gives the vessel’s name – the Rum Jug. Locals can tell how it arrived one storm-filled night, and ever since the rat problem has been significant. On the night of the wreck, a few fishermen went out to look for survivors, but there were none, and most assumed that the sailors must have abandoned ship earlier on the stormy seas. Such storms are fairly common, and although it has been a few years since there has been a wreck, old fishermen speak of the dangers of the cliffs to the south of Rothsea. Looters have long since taken anything of value, they say, and locals are extremely reluctant to return to it.

The ship lies on its side half-in and half-out of the water at high tide, and a thorough search of the surface reveal only old chests of grain and supplies that have long since rotted or been looted. A door leads to the captain’s quarters and is locked – it is a DC12 Thieves’ Tools check to pick, or a DC15 Athletics check to kick open. If neither of these are successful, concerted effort can lead them to open it, but the guardians inside will be able to surprise the characters.

Inside the captain’s cabin are the final guardians of the ship’s secrets, one or more undead octopi. These have statistics identical to the Giant Octopus on MM326 but have damage resistance to necrotic damage, immunity to poison, condition immunity to exhaustion and poison and darkvision of 60’ (thanks to the Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque blog for the quick-and dirty undead template here)

Number of PCs Number of Undead Octopi
3-4 1
5 2, but one is wedged between the side of a desk and so does not act until the second round of combat
6 2

 

Within the captains drawer is a series of letters detailing the cargo – mostly grain and trinkets, but also the transport of a prisoner, one Erwin Jest, for transportation into the wilderness for his ‘depraved practices’ – a reference to his pact with the rat-god.

It also describes a small sea-chest, inscribed with a carved octopus, as being of great value and asking for it to be stored ‘in the captains quarters, and locked away with all its guardians.’ The captain’s log speaks of the terrible conditions on the sea, and of his fears as the prisoner appeared to have escaped just before the storm. There are also two daggers and a finely-made shortsword in a small display case which is trapped with a poison needle (DC15 to detect and disarm – needle does 1hp damage and a DC10 Constution save or lose 1d4 hp from maximum and cannot recover hp except by magical means).

The cliffs around the Trawler contain some damp sea-caves, which lead to the tunnels underneath Rothsea (Scene Two). Asking around about the sea-chest among the looters, none of them can remember finding such an item – although some seem to remember seeing such a thing in the Vermincatcher’s Guildhouse (Scene Four). They may seek to confront Jest, in which case asking around will reveal that he lives in an old hut on the edge of the town (Scene Five)

Scene Four – The Vermincatcher’s Guildhouse

Maria and her Vermincatchers – a motley assortment of halflings, gnomes and small humans, used to take pride in their work, but have been bribed by Jest to stay out of this until he gives the signal. Maria is quite taken by Jest, but mostly sees him as an opportunity for their Guild to gain some respectability in the village.

If the characters sneak around, they find the guildhouse is guarded by a handful of guildmembers – use Bandit statistics (MM343), and they can find the guild’s details of the arrangements with Jest; nothing directly incriminating, but their records of jobs stops entirely two weeks ago – they have not done any vermincatching for the previous two weeks. The octopus chest from the wreck sits in the Guildmistress’s office safe, although she has long since taken the gold herself and hidden it in her lodgings.

If they confront the guildmembers, they put up a reasonable fight but if it turns against them, will reveal Jest’s arrangements – they have no idea what he is planning to do, but assume that he is planning to emerge a hero in the town.

The opposition below should present a challenging fight for the characters – it is assumed however, that the guildmember’s don’t fight to the death, and will not all appear at once – they arrive at a rate of 2 every round until their full complement is present.

Number of PCs Opposition
3 Maria (as Thug MM350) and 2 Bandits (MM343)
4 Maria (as Thug MM350) and 4 Bandits (MM343)
5 Maria (as Thug MM350) and 6 Bandits (MM343)
6 Maria (as Thug MM350) and 8 Bandits (MM343)

 

Following a confrontation, if they search the Guildhouse they can reveal the doors in the cellars leading to the tunnels (Scene Two). Questioning Maria can reveal the whole plot – although she will try to direct the characters to the trawler (Scene Three) first to confront Jest, claiming that he hides out around there. If they have already searched the trawler, or see through her lies, she will grudgingly point them in the direction of Jest’s House (Scene Five)

Scene Five – Jest’s House

Jest is renting a tiny cottage just outside the village –at the furthest extent of the tunnel’s reach. On the ground floor, his kitchen and living room are modest, but down in his cellar he has a vast shrine to his eldritch rat-deity. Twigs, bones, litter and assorted detritus assembled and stuck together with saliva and blood to make a roughly humanoid shape. Behind it, a circular passageway leads to the tunnels.

If the characters arrive here without clear and compelling evidence to confront Jest, he smiles at them and tries to pin the blame on the Vermincatcher’s Guild – he had ventured into the cellars to see what was going on, and caught the Guild leaving fish guts out for the rats, but had to flee as he thought he was discovered. He claims to be a retired adventurer now, in the hope of winning their trust, but says he has no time for fighting now.

If needs be, he volunteers to come with the characters to confront Maria and her Guild, but – when they do this, he will decide at the time whether to lead them into a trap, or try to blame Maria, depending on how much he believes the characters trust him.

If the confrontation leads to a fight, immediately giant rats appear out of the walls and sewers of the village, overrunning the town – even Jest’s defeat will not be rid of them until the Amulet is destroyed.

Number of PCs Opposition
3 Jest and 2 Giant Rats – only 1 Rat appears in the first round (MM327)
4 Jest and 2 Giant Rats
5 Jest and 3 Giant Rats
6 Jest and 4 Giant Rats

 

The Amulet of Rodents is a Sentient Magical Item with Int 8, Wis 8, and Cha 10. It communicates telepathically in dark whispers to those who wear it, and has hearing and darkvision out to 120 feet. It is Chaotic Evil in alignment, and seeks to see the lands of humans overrun with rodentkind.

The wearer can control and summon rats within 240 feet of the amulet. He gains 10 temporary hit points when within 30 feet of a rat or other rodent (in urban areas, this is likely to be most of the time!).

 

Erwin Jest, human rat-touched warlock (posing as bard)

Str -1 / Dex +2 / Con +2 / Int +0 / Wis +1 / Cha +3

Notable skills: Deception +5, Perception +3, Performance +5

Armor Class: 15 (assumes mage armour active)

Hit Points: 20 (plus 10 temporary hp from the Amulet)

Erwin makes one attack per round, usually his eldritch blast

Eldritch Blast: +5 vs. AC, 1d10+3 force damage

Erwin casts spells as a 2nd level Warlock, with 2 spell slots, a spell attack of +5, and a spell save DC of 13

1st level spells: Dissonant Whispers, Ray of Sickness, Witch Bolt

Awakened Mind: Erwin can communicate telepathically with any creature he can see within 30 feet.

Challenge Rating / XP: 1 / 200

Sting of the Scorpion Men – a 13th Age Glorantha One-Shot

13th Age GloranthaI’ve run this one-shot, for 4th level PCs, twice now, at UK Games Expo and at BurritoCon, and it’s been a lot of fun both times. I’m not going to claim it’s the most original plot structure going, but the combination of two of Glorantha’s iconic (but less-known than Broo) Chaos beasts, Gorps and Scorpion Men, make it a lot of fun.

One note – these aren’t the same stats for Gagix Two-Barb as are included from p422 of the 13G book – she’s not got 1000 hp. If this bothers your Gloranthan versimilitude, maybe this is a Chaos body-double for Gagix, or rule that she’s weakened by the Stone Chair Man’s enchantments.

Pregenerated characters are here, if you want. The Praxian Bison Rider uses the optional Mounted Combat rules from 13th Age Monthly that you can find here. All of them have 3 of their Background points spent, with the others to be allocated as they please.

Want a 1st level 13G one-shot? My re-imagining of Gringle’s Pawnshop is here.

Sting of the Scorpion Men

A 4th level 13G adventure

Introduction

An unprovoked attack on an isolated village tells you that the poisoned Earth around Larnste’s Footprint is rising up. You will have to travel through the Fossil Woods, and evade the Chaos beasts therein, to steal Gagix Two-Barb’s sting!

The PCs begin as established adventurers – they may be Rune Lords of their cult by 4th level, and are travelling through the wilderness near the village of Stone Chair after a successful adventure. Once their, an attack by corrupted Earthbeasts leads them to investigate the Stone Chair Man, a guardian spirit, who sends them in Larnste’s Footprint to steal the sting.

If you are inserting this into an ongoing campaign, maybe the characters have been asked to travel to Stone Chair because Venkor and/or Sarooth have forseen that the enchantments that protect the village are fading, or they have dreamed of strange chaos-touched Earthbeasts attacking villagers in the area.

Characters

Sarooth the Wise is the Elder of Stone Chair. He half-expects trouble when welcoming Rune Lords to his village. Every time they come, Chaos seems to follow, and he is weary of the disturbance even as he knows he will need their help.

Venkor the Fair is Sarooth’s daughter, an Ernaldan Earth Priestess who sees to the medical needs of Stone Chair. She hates the village and that she has to stay in it, since the wards that protect it make the population healthy and well, and dreams of a more interesting assignment in Backford or Whitewall.

The Stone Chair Man is a Guardian Spirit of the Woods around Stone Chair – their influence allows the village to continue to prosper. He lives within a huge ancient stone chair in the depths of the Fossil Woods, where his Earth Beasts normally protect him. Since it was overwhelmed by chaos, he his Earth Beasts will not follow his commands, and his altar is overrun with Gorps. He appears as a ten foot tall, stick-thin man made out of stone, and his altar is a large stone chair.

Gagix Two-Barb is a vicious scorpion woman with two stingers at the end of her tail. Ensorcelled by the Stone Chair Man in this adventure, she is less of a threat than on p426 of the core book, but she is still a formidable enemy.

Scene 1 – Earth Shark Attack

The Village of Stone Chair is between Backford and Larnste’s Footprint, and is nestled precariously around the hills above Backford. A tight set of steps leads up to a small square, where preparations are underway for the heroes’ arrival.

  • The trickle of a brook and the smell of cows roasting – “More Cows!” if there is a Troll in the party – and the chatter of villagers
  • They notice Venkor the Fair looking glum, sitting outside the circle, despite Sarooth trying to introduce them
  • They ascend stairs to the flat area of Stone Chair, and can see a winding path leading into the Fossil Forest – “This way lies doom!”

The village square is laid out, a feast is upon them, and everyone is dancing and relaxing, when an earth shark attacks! They notice the earth around Venkor raises up to surround her, and she is carried away on a wave of earth.

An Earth Shark has stats as a bulette from regular 13th Age (stats available on the SRD), a L 5th-lvl wrecker. For 3 players, it is alone. Add one earthbeast (13G p301) per additional player as well.

No. of PCs Opposition
3 1 Earth Shark
4 1 Earth Shark, 1 Earthbeast
5 1 Earth Shark, 2 Earthbeasts
6 1 Earth Shark, 3 Earthbeasts

 

The Earth Shark and Earthbeasts burst out of the very ground beneath them, and damage the foundations of the village – describe the rumbling ground beneath their feet as they fight.

When they recover, Sarooth is beside himself. Not only is village under threat, but Venkor, his daughter, has been carried away. He pleads with the PCs to travel to the Stone Chair Man to see what can be done – he is sure that something must be up with the protective wards that keep the village safe.

Scene 2 – Journey to the Stone Chair Man

They need to travel through the Fossil Woods to speak to the Stone Chair Man, an ancient shaman.

  • The path is well-trodden at first, but gets more loose and overgrown
  • Soon wood and trees begin to show signs of stone, and soon it is like walking down the corridor of a cathedral of stone – the noises quieten, and they can hear nothing but an eerie silence – and the occasional odd squelch
  • Soon a brash, acid scent – not unlike fresh vomit – hits their senses – and an appropriate Background check will reveal that this is a sign of Gorps in the area.
  • The Stone Chair man is in a vast Stone Chair in the centre of a circular clearing – but they can see a huge mass of ooze atop it, tentacles going into and out of the ground as they watch.

They must defeat a Gorp to rescue the Stone Chair Man – for 3-4 players, this is a single Earth-Killer Gorp (13G p265) ; for more PCs, add additional Gorps (13G p264). Use the toxic terrain special feature – when a non-Chaos creature rolls a 1 or 2 they take damage equal to their level.

No. of PCs Opposition
3 1 Earth-Killer Gorp
4 1 Earth-Killer Gorp, plus on the 2nd round an additional 2 Gorp spawn and attack
5 1 Earth-Killer Gorp plus 2 Gorp (from each Arm)
6 1 Earth-Killer Gorp plus 2 Gorp (from each Arm)

 

Scene 3 – Speaking to the Stone Chair Man

Once the Gorp are defeated and the Stone Chair Man awakens, he tells them of a curse on the Fossil Woods, that the natural order of things has broken down and the Foulblood Forest has infested them. He tells them that the source of the infection is deep within Larnste’s footprint, and the Scorpionmen leader Gagix must be behind this. He tells them that the only way he can lift the curse is by hitting Gagix where it hurts – and asks that they bring him the sting from the end of one of her scorpion tails. With this in his possession, he can cure the poison that is infecting the Fossil Woods and the village. He can help them, too – he can use his magics to send the scorpion men into a deep sleep, which should allow the PCs to creep up on them.

He pleads with them to go, and if they agree, they feel a shifting in their perceptions as they enter the Hero Lands. They can see Larnste’s huge foot in the clouds above – and he bids them set off straight away!

Scene 4 – Into Foulblood Forest

This is a montage scene (explained here, or in the 13th Age GM’s kit), accompanied by the spirit of the Stone Chair man. They emerge eventually into the Scorpion Man ruins, and can find Gagix and her inner circle of guards at the top of a ziggurat in the centre of the scorpion men city. Stealing the sting will be easy – but it will wake up her and her guards, if not the entire city!

The initial scene (for the GM to narrate) is that the Fossil Woods end abruptly, at the edge of Larnste’s footprint – with a sheer cliff leading into fogged grasslands below. You think you can just make off the towers of the Scorpion Man towns in the distance, but there are no ways down the cliff as far as you can see – what little goat tracks you can see disappear into the distance.

As the final scene, have the players sneak into the city, which is crawling with scorpion men. Resolve the final obstacle by seeing the Stone Chair Man’s face above them, and Larnste’s foot falling, sending all the inhabitants into a deep sleep. They can ascend the steps to the palace and find Gagix softly sleeping.

Scene 5 – Steal the Sting

Within the Scorpion Man Palace:

  • There is a thick aroma of spices and strange meats, and smoke and dust are everywhere. Pools of poison dot the bare sandstone grouns.
  • There is a light snoring all around. Gagix is fast asleep, on either side of her rest her champions.
  • Tied up in cane cages around the scorpionmen are a group of villagers, including Venkar. If the fight is going badly for the PCs, allow Venkar to help – maybe she casts some healing magic on an injured PC, or she summons an Earthbeast to distract one of the Scorpionmen.
  • Assuming the PCs attempt to either kill her or cut off her stinger, she will still awaken, along with her immediate bodyguards. Who else will fight them depends on the opposition table
No. of PCs Opposition
3 Gagix and a ScorpionMan Bruiser
4 Gagix, a Bruiser, and a Warrior
5 Gagix, a Bruiser, and a Shaman
6 Gagix, a Bruiser, a Warrior and a Shaman

 

Gagix is a Scorpion Man Bruiser for the purposes of this fight – except that her ranged attack is the Shaman power. All scorpion men have the nastier specials

The Bruiser is Mesh, and old, aged Scorpionman whith countless scars across his bare torso. The Warrior is Flex, a youth not older than his teens who wears bright red armour. The shaman is a female Scorpionman, who carries a strange glowing staff.

Scene 6 – Return

They can effect their escape and return to Stone Chair with the help of the Stone Chair Man – as the rest of the city awakens and tries to avenge their leader. They return as heroes, the village saved.

Thews of Dice – more thoughts on One-Shot Conan 2d20

Way back when, I ran my first one-shot of Modiphius’ 2d20 Conan RPG. A couple of weeks ago, I ran it again, at the Furnace RPG convention. This was my own adventure and, being at a con, I felt a bit more pressure. If I’m honest, it was the game that I was least confident about – but it went really well. I’ve still not quite internalised how the system works – the way I have Fate or 13th Age. But I’m getting there, and it’s a learning process that I’m sure can help any 2d20 convention GMs.

Big Threats

I didn’t believe Conan’s encounter balancing advice – 1.5 to 2 toughened foes per PC, or swap a Toughened for 2 Minions, or 2 Toughened for a Nemesis. For one thing, within each power level, there seemed to be a big variation. The two Nemeses I was using for the game looked to vary wildly in power, from the glass cannon of the Witch to the heavily armoured death machine of the Lindorm.

With this in mind, I planned my opposition modestly. Although the PCs didn’t quite walk all over them – it was still exciting and pulpy in combat, and they were reliant on teamwork to win (more on that later) – but none of them took any meaningful damage. Note for con game prep – if none of the PCs take any damage, your opposition is not powerful enough.

I’ve learned that, despite the varying power levels of the threats, PCs can probably deal with them – mainly because…

It’s All About Teamwork and Momentum

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Doom Tokens. All Rolled Up are the people to go to if you want to score a box of skulls

I said before that 2d20 is much more a game of resource management than it appears, and once the players start to get some system proficiency it is a game that encourages teamwork. After a couple of combat rounds, my players realised that they could generate and bank Momentum for the group to make the important actions effective – and the variety of Momentum spends possible mean you can overcome lots of different threats.

I was worried that the Lindorm’s massive 6 points of Armour would be a problem – I shouldn’t have been; 6 armour is Momentum points to pierce, which is fairly easy to create if a few players work together intelligently.

I’ve learned that you have much more of a safety net than it appears when balancing encounters – because it’s more about Momentum than the PC stats.

Design Easy Character Sheets

Yes, Conan character generation is fiddly – a randomish lifepath system that creates backstory and ties PCs to the setting. It’s an exciting prospect when generating a PC to play yourself – but less so when statting up six pregens for a con game. And there is a we-based version that will do all the heavy lifting for you.

The character sheet the website produces is beautiful – the game’s full colour character sheet, in fact – and it’s also not the easiest thing to use. I made my own, which while less pretty are more functional. Talents were underneath their skills, in a different colour, in the hope that players will notice their exceptions as they roll – it worked well.

I’ve learned that my approach to con character sheets – function over bling – is still valid.

Hacking Steely Glare

The one piece of rules-drift I did do was to broaden out the scope of the social conflict rules. In Conan RAW, there are a range of Displays that characters can do – social conflict options that can be used in combat to damage Resolve. Most have specific conditions – you must demonstrate sorcery the round before, or you must heft the severed head of an enemy towards your opponent – but one is always available, Steely Glare.

I ruled that a Steely Glare attack can be used for any sort of social/mental attack – be it intimidation, trickery, blather or distraction. It’s not very powerful – it’s base damage is poor, and the effects it produces aren’t brilliant – but for a Bard PC, it is very useful to be able to attack with Persuasion instead of Melee. It led to a really pulpy combat feel, with the Sage and Bard cowing opponents into fleeing in fear while the Barbarian hacked their fellows to pieces.

I’ve learned to be generous in non-violent social attacks, even in the heat of battle. Urban Jungle was a big inspiration for this – it has genuinely interesting options in combat for non-violent characters.

 

So, after some doubts about running Conan, and a bit of a confidence crisis with the system, I – and I hope my players – had a blast. I’m definitely putting it out as a con game again, with the learning points above in mind, and got hold of Conan The Pirate last weekend for a Seas Of Blood-style piratical one-shot.

Do you have any 2d20 tips and hints? I’ll post up the adventure I ran, Caverns of the Snow Apes, later this week when I’ve edited it, along with my pregens.

D&D One-Shots, Part 4: More Tips

I’ve spent the best part of the summer running D&D5e for (relative) newcomers to the hobby. I’m at the point where I’m probably going to take a breather and look to my shelves for some other games to prep one-shots of now, but I’ve learned a few more things that are worth sharing since the first post that started it all. So, here goes:

Maps Are Good, Even Without Minis

A map – even one sketched with a Sharpie on plain paper – is really useful if you’ve got a set-piece combat scene. I’ve talked before about how I’m not a huge fan of minis and grids – and in this context it makes the game a little bit more complex – but a map is really useful. Next time I run, I’ll try and find some evocative art as well – even just pictures of a monster or scene – to help players get into the moment.

This is what a table for 12 D&D players looks like

Ambitious Stuff Works!

Over the summer, I ran a D&D Activity Group with another GM on a residential week. We had 12 players in two groups of 6, playing for 1hr 15min a day for the week. We thought up linked plots for our groups – one was escorting a pair of children who would turn out to be werewolves, one was hunting a beast from the town who turned out to be an escaped werewolf. We had four sessions as separate groups, and managed to drag them together so the final two sessions could be a huge 12-player group as they joined forces to face the source of both of their problems.

We had a real range of experiences in the game – a couple of experienced players (more on them later), some who had played a few times before, and some completely new to the hobby. Now, I’m not going to run for 12 players again very soon – but the session where they linked up and shared their stories was -amazing-. It’s the kind of ambitious cross-campaign shenanigans that I’m usually wary of, but thanks to my amazing co-GM we managed to pull it off. So don’t shy away from doing the epic. It works.

Bring Dice, In Sets

For my games, I’ve brought a big pile of dice and got my players to pick out their own d20 and any other dice they might need. This is not the best way, I learned from my co-GM in the werewolf game. The best way is to have a set of dice for each player. They have their own dice, can move them around and put them on their character sheet, and have ownership of them for the game. A player’s relationship with their dice is a key part of the game, and by having their own they get to try this.

Use Your Expertise

If you’re lucky enough to have a few players with some experience in your group, use them! Conventional wisdom might say to encourage them to play the more complex classes – the wizard or the sorcerer – but I’d say that it works better having the player next to them playing those, and them helping them out. They need to have a players handbook – they can look up spells, if you don’t have spell cards, and even conditions – I’m a big fan of saying, eg “OK, you’re weakened – Scott, what does that mean in-game?” and letting them manage it.

Use The Good Stuff Out There

I’ve mentioned Spell Cards, but having the Monster Cards lets you avoid juggling a monster manual and you can show them the art on the back. I have run Goblin Gully a few times (with my adapted notes here), but I also found Troll Trouble by Gary Whicker to be an excellent first level adventure – a good mixture of dungeoneering, role-play, and interesting action scenes. It’s a long time since I’ve run it, but The Goblins and The Pie Shop is a fun little one-shot too that I posted up on here. Come to think of it, it still sees a lot of traffic, so I’m planning to put some more 1st-level one-shots on here as I write them. But for now, I need a break from D&D – you can have too much of a good thing after all.