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

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

“It’s just a money-making scam!”

Probably not this like this one

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

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

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

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

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

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

Definitely not like this one

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

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

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

“All my old books will be obsolete”

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

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

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

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

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

Running Games At Conventions

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

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

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

Go To Multiple Conventions

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

Play (At Least) As Much As You Run

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

Run Games More Than Once

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

One Game A Day

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

Run Parallel / Linked Games

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

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

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

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

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

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

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

There Are Some Old-School Roadblocks

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

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

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

Great NPCs – While They Last

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

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

A Good Sewer Dungeon!

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

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

Why Stay in Bogenhafen?

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

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

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

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

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

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

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

Synopsis

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

Session 1 – What Happens in The Schaffenfest…

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

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

Session 2 – Under Bogenhafen

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

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

Session 3 – Chasing Shadows

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

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

Session 4 – The Countdown Begins

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

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

Session 5 – The Ritual

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

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

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

Starting a New Campaign

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

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

  1. Set the Scope

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

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

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

  1. Get the Big Picture

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

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

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

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

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

Running published campaigns requires slightly different prep to rolling your own

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

  1. Imagine Some Specifics

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

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

  1. Session Zero

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

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

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

  1. Session-By-Session

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

6 sessions of prep files – complete with corny titles

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

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

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

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

13th Age One-Shots, Revisited

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

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

So, here goes:

One-Shot Unique Things

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

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

Dice Rolling Apps Are Your Friend

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

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

Pick Three Icons Each

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

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

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

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

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

Campaign Losses – Limbs, Friends, or Items

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

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

Don’t Just Have Fun – actually useful advice for new DMs/GMs

Over on twitter, there was some discussion recently about advice for people taking their first steps to DMing – on the lines that “just have fun!” is really terrible advice, advocating for an end product without giving any guidance on how to get there. So, putting my money where my mouth is, here are five actually useful tips for running your first game.

Because this post is probably not aimed at my patrons, this is going out to Patreon subscribers and regular blog readers at the same time. Of course the best way to become a better DM is to become a patreon backer – where you’ll instantly become much more skilled at every aspect of TTRPG play. For £2 a month you get access to (most) posts 7 days before release, and get to bask in the warm glow of supporting Burn After Running!

Run What You Know

Pick a system to run that you’ve already experienced as a player. If you’re in a D&D campaign, and think “I’d like to try running Cyberpunk Red” – or another game you haven’t played, then great! It’s good to diversify systems and settings – but run some D&D first. Knowing the rules (or feeling like you have to know them) takes up processing power at the table – if you’ve played before, a lot of these will be internalised already, so you can watch the table and worry about other stuff! So run what you know, at least to start with – whether that’s D&D or whatever system you’ve been introduced to.

Use Published Scenarios

Want to run D&D for the first time? You could do a lot worse than run through one of the Starter Sets or the Essentials Kit – and in any case, you’ll make it easier for a first time to use a published adventure. Both options are good, and there are some great starting short adventures for a few systems out there. Like getting your head around the rules, having the plot worked out for an adventure will give you one less thing to worry about. There are even some on this blog!

This book does contain some actually useful advice too!

Run for 2-4 sessions

Running one-shots is hard, as is maintaining (or committing) to a long campaign. Take away some of the time pressure by pitching to run for 3 sessions or so – you don’t have to worry as much about pacing, and you can take feedback and do any tweaking you need to between sessions. A lot of published adventures will run to this length anyway, so you can use them – but feel free to cut out stuff if you want to as well – you don’t have to run as the scenario author intended.

Don’t Bother With Character Creation

For a full campaign, you’ll want a session zero where you share expectations and the players create their characters. For your first time, you’ll find it easier at the table if you get some pregens together and just dive in. This means you’ll have a better idea of what the PCs can do, and also means you’ll be actually running the game straightaway. Of course, you still want to have some basic safety tools like an X-Card or trigger warnings for any potentially upsetting stuff at the start – but don’t spend a session making characters, just dive in.

Get Feedback

End each session with a quick stars and wishes session and ask your players what they want more or less of. Having a quick debrief like this will help you to zoom out and see what the session was like, and also allow your player to show you appreciation for running it. It’s easy when DMing to only notice when things go wrong, and your players should be able to help show you how much fun they had! (If your players are mean to you after you’ve just run a session for them, get new players. Seriously.)

So, some actually useful advice for new GMs… I mean, above all, do just have fun, but the above might make it easier to have it! Let me know in the comments if there’s anything I’ve missed!

Alternative Spelunking – Different Ways to Dungeoncrawl

Exploring a dungeon – whether it’s an actual cave filled with goblins, an abandoned space station, or a defunct arcology filled with deathtraps – is a staple of TTRPG games. The usual presentation is a map you can describe to your players, which offers choice  but not much in the way of a narrative arc. 

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

But are there other ways to cover dungeon crawling? Well, yes, with varying degrees of narrative freedom. Once you start to mush up location- and encounter-based play, you end up with plenty of options to make interesting and engaging one-shot structures. Here are three of them.

Point Crawl

Instead of thinking of your dungeon as a rigidly- defined series of rooms, think of it as set pieces separated by an assortment of corridors and interstitial areas. The Five-Room Dungeon is a good model for this, and it means the place doesn’t literally have five rooms, too. Or, for an even tighter design, draw up Three Places building to a climax.

Make the linking sections interesting by throwing in some optional, but interesting, flavour encounters that supply background or foreshadowing – carvings on the walls showing former inhabitants, wandering monsters or ghosts that can dispense clues, hidden stashes of treasure trapped. For a one-shot this also means you can choose which of these optional bits to include, helping with pacing.

Journey Challenge

Sometimes, we go into a dungeon with a clear goal and set piece to work towards – to disrupt the ritual, to slay the dragon, to rescue the princess. Having half-way set pieces doesn’t really work, and skipping straight to the end doesn’t make the location exciting or allow for any foreshadowing.

So, structure your dungeon like a skill challenge – use some of the variant rules here or here, or work out your own for the system you’re using. It pays to have definitive consequences for failure mapped out in advance, so there are some stakes for the skill rolls – and in a fantasy setting, think about what spells can do (auto-success? Require an Arcana roll? Grant permission to use an alternate skill?). Pace the journey through the dungeon using the skill challenge, and then finish with your big set-piece encounter.

Montage

Sometimes, the journey through the dungeon is even less important, or you want to hand over more narrative control to the players. A 13th Age-style montage is a great way to cover this – you decide on an obstacle facing the players, and the first player describes how it’s overcome and the next obstacle, until everyone has had their turn. This can lead to some truly epic explorations, and it works well with dungeons that have a really clear theme and concept that players can share and develop. 

Some groups are less keen on this player-led narration – although this is my default when I’m running 13th Age. You can build up their comfort level, if you want to, using some of the techniques listed here.

So, three ways to free dungeons from the restrictions of location-based play. Of course, these work just as well for space stations, or steampunk-era cities, or haunted forests – let me know if you use one or more of these techniques in the comments!

Seeing the Light – Running Illuminated by LUMEN one-shots

LUMEN, developed by Spencer Campbell of Gila RPGs, is a rules framework for action TTRPGs that’s inspired a veritable horde of games based on its core system. Well, strictly speaking, LIGHT was the first game, and the SRD came later, but you get what I mean. Its combination of fast-play action and easy-to-spin system make it a really fantastic convention game, and I thought I’d put down some tips for making sure a one-shot really hits the right buttons.
While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

I ran Gunfucks at North Star recently, and am planning on running LIGHT and Deathless soon. Gunfucks is a Borderlands-riffed shooter-looter (I’ll share my prep notes in the next post), while LIGHT feels sort-of-Destiny, and Deathless is a Highlander-style immortal warrior battles game. If all of these seem high-action and pretty frenetic, that’s the sort of play that LUMEN leans towards – and it’s useful in general to think of them emulating video games as their source material, as you’ll see later.

It’s All About the Fights

LUMEN isn’t quite a game with a combat system and nothing else (and that’s not a dig – I’m a huge fan of Sentinel Comics, Marvel Heroic, and even Feng Shui 2 that largely subsist on set piece action scenes) – but it is built towards big, powerful heroes fighting set piece battles, and most of the rules support this.

With this in mind, fight scenes with some attention and planning made to them pay off well. Make sure that your fights take place in Dangerous Places – so the battlefield has lots of things to interact with that either side can turn to their advantage. It’s also worth thinking of fights in terms of goals and victory conditions, rather than everyone fighting to the death.

Because the resolution mechanic is relatively simple, encourage and model your players to describe their actions cinematically – because success criteria (the highest dice rolled) is out in the open, they should be able to follow the start description -> roll dice -> describe success or failure pretty smoothly.

Gunfucks has a cool idea (which I’ll be stealing for other games) where in the GM’s turn there’s a battlefield shift – something changes each turn to make the fight interesting. Easy ways to do this in LUMEN games is to shift some range bands, or introduce some more hazards. It can also move some enemies or call in reinforcements – which you might need, as balancing combat isn’t as straightforward as you might think.

It’s Not All About the Fights

It’s easy to think that LUMEN games don’t really have a system for skill checks – but they absolutely do, with the Approaches rolls functioning just as well for investigative or social conflict. A simple skill challenge where the party need to get a total of 5 successes across the rolls will work fine, with them taking consequences for each 1-4 roll.

But, as combat can be pretty frenetic with dice-rolling and power-checking, it works just as well to have interludes between fights that are just free roleplaying. This will add depth to the game, and by prepping some interesting NPCs with conflicting goals (a good approach is the 7-3-1 method) you can have some good scenery-chewing interludes. In play, LUMEN often feels like a video game – and these are the cut scenes that provide a break from the relentless shooting and fighting.

In all of these games, PCs are high-powered badasses, so don’t be afraid to make the stakes big – the safety or otherwise of a country or a planet could rest on their shoulders. Enemies, likewise, should be dangerous, and give them plans and motivations the players can riff off. A pre-game relationship building exercise where you work out bonds between the PCs would help in a one-shot to encourage inter-PC dialogue, even if it’s a simple one like this

Practicalities

There’s a few practical tips at the table that can help prep and delivery. For starters, you can afford to really throw enemies at your players. For games with 5 or 6 players, you can be prepared to give lots of low-level enemies for them to defeat before they can get to the big bad, or you risk fights being over very quickly. As long as your mooks only do 1 or 2 Harm you’ll be fine – quite a few of the classes can resist 1 Harm anyway, and if they’ve got 1 Health they’ll go down in one hit anyway.

Many LUMEN games have both Health and some sort of power resource – in Gunfucks its Bullets, for instance. Having counters to represent this really helps at the table – I favour poker chips for health, as it’s pretty visible in one stack to you and the other players how much the other PCs have left.

I touched on it earlier, but these games also really benefit from getting PC narration in. They’re not just rules-light but very setting-light as well – a lot of depth will come from the table, and 5-6 imaginations are better than one for this. So use the techniques here to help develop player narration and give the setting – and scenes – some depth.

Have you played or run any LUMEN games? Any recommendations for what I should try next? Let me know in the comments.

Future Imperfect – Why Sci-Fi One-Shots are Hard, and What to Do About It

In a week’s time, I’ll be at North Star – a science fiction TTRPG convention. It fills an excellent role in the con calendar, because sci-fi is underrepresented in convention gaming – and it’s easy to see why. It’s got some issues that you just don’t get with fantasy, or even horror, gaming – and the lack of a clear industry leader to hang your expectations around (like D&D or Call of Cthulhu) is just one of them. Sci-fi one shots can be hard to get prepped – and hard to sell to players – here’s why, and what to do about it.

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!

What in the universe is the setting?

In fantasy, you’ve got an easily-referenced source material that everyone understands – a mixed group of ne’er do wells exploring underground areas for treasure. Even when a fantasy setting is quite different to this (e.g. Glorantha) it is easily explained by listing the differences between it and D&Desque fantasy (e.g. talking ducks, lots more cows).

Sci-fi doesn’t have this central reference point. It can be pulpy or gritty, lethal or safe – and it can literally mean anything. Communicating setting and tone is really important – if you’re running a sci-fi genre that isn’t well-known, you should be really explicit about this both in your con pitch and your prep. Go over it at the start of the session as well (briefly!) and cut it to the basic details. Players need to know if they can charge into a group of stormtroopers like in Star Wars, or if they’ll be shot to pieces, like in Traveller.

An alternative, of course, is to run in an established universe that you can expect players to relate to. If you do this, though, remember that not everyone will know all the references you do. At a con, I’d say you can rely on players knowing the broad brush strokes of Star Trek, Star Wars, Warhammer 40K, and maybe Doctor Who as key sci-fi tropes. Any more than that, you’d better be prepared to be explicit. I’ve had people try to explain Blake’s Seven to me more times than I care to remember, and I’m still none the wiser.

One approach is to use an IP you’d hope players are familiar with

Build Your Sandbox with Walls

The other challenge is the sheer scope of sci-fi play. In a one-shot, you want to decide early on in your prep what the geographical scope of play is – a single city, a single planet, a system, a cluster? This, again, needs to be really explicit – while you might want a picaresque jaunt across a few fantastic locations, consider how much depth you can provide to each of them. I’ve run effective one-shots on a single planet (although if you do this, stick some stuff in for the pilot PC to do), as well as in a single city. You might not need all the setting you have – just pick the good bits.

Plot is Still Plot

Similarly, the wide open nature of sci-fi themes can be daunting. Look back to your first step, and consider what kind of game your one-shot is, and how you can promote this. Daydreaming cool scenes and sticking them together works well – for example, for Snowblind, I knew I wanted a Wampa fight and a Tauntaun chase – so I fitted the rest of the plot around them. They also don’t need to be that complicated – exploring a “derelict” orbital structure that turns out to have a deadly alien / rogue AI in it is popular because it’s a good one-shot format – remember the adage (from I think Robin Laws) that in RPGs, cliché is a  good thing.

Adding NPCs to give background to the universe helps

In terms of structuring your adventure, point-crawls are often great ways to build sci-fi one-shots – 5 Room Non-Dungeons and Three Places are also good approaches. Remember to have engaging NPCs – and a good trick is to have the NPCs hint at the broader scope of the game. Your Star Trek one-shot might be all about the Neutral Zone and tangling with Romulans, so having a subplot NPC who’s an Orion pirate or a Klingon captain shows that there’s lots more going on in the universe.

So, three things that are hard about science fiction one-shots; if you’re reading this on the blog, I’ll just be setting off back from Sheffield after North Star – there’s a fair crack I’ll have more to say about this. What successes (or challenges) have you had with science fiction gaming? Be sure to let me know in the comments.