Stars and Wishes – because Feedback is Hard

If I can point to one technique that’s changed my play through 2021, it’s getting regular feedback after sessions using a technique called Stars and Wishes. It’s become part of the end-of-session routines both for campaign play and especially for one-shots, and I can honestly say it’s made for a better experience every time.

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

Great Technique, So-So Name

Yes, it sounds like middle-management speak. Or, to those of us working in education, like “What Went Well / Even Better If” and a million useless feedback strategies used to make teachers feel busy when having no impact. I grabbed it from The Gauntlet, where it used to be called Roses and Thorns – which in some ways sounds even worse. The shift to Stars and Wishes was to make its purpose more explicit, and I can see that.

I should say that the link above shows a few different ways to use it – like everything, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. But here I’ll show how I use it.

What is it?

Stars – At the end of the session, everyone gives some highlights – moments or techniques that they enjoyed. For me, these can be really flexible, but they often include a mixture of

  • Appreciation for the GMs prep work – if running online, and especially if they’ve taught the system e.g. for a one-shot
  • Key moments of roleplay from the other players, or ways the plot twisted – this is more common in PBTA / FITD games
  • Memorable scenes and situations – “I really liked the fight with the Dianoga as we tried to hack the reactor…” / “That skill challenge worked really well” / “I loved the scene between X and Y’s PCs”

Wishes – Everyone also gives some wishes, which can either be things they weren’t too keen on, or things they’d like to see more of. Again, the line between these is often a bit blurry – especially in a one-shot.

  • Requests for more of some things – “I’d like to see more of the Klingon Captain soon, he feels like he should be recurring.”
  • Rules that didn’t quite flow or sit right – sometimes even rulings. These are usually raised by the GM about their own rulings!
  • Structural requests – we had “I’d quite like to fight a bit more,” once in a D&D game

Why it works

Predicated on all of this are some fundamental beliefs I have about how RPGs work – that the GM is as much a player as the rest of the table, and that we all share responsibility for the fun. The GM also does stars and wishes, and their feedback is as equally valid as everyone else’s – it can be as much about player engagement and approaches as their own prep (often, my wishes are about my own prep though – it’s very easy to over-analyse).

If you’re reading this and think you don’t agree with those beliefs, I’ll admit, Stars and Wishes might not be for you. But even if you’re running at a con – I’d ask you to try and get feedback after a session. It’s really difficult sometimes to judge what goes well with players at the table, especially over video chat, and any feedback can certainly help you to improve.

It also provides a good end for a one-shot. Running con games online often leads to a dive in energy at the end – you spend 3 hours in a high-energy game with strangers, and then drop out and back into the real world. At a face to face con, there’s the interstitial bar chat and banter around the venue where you can talk about games and reflect on how it went – but online there isn’t. Stars and Wishes gives you the chance to reflect, and also to thank and engage with your fellow players!

So, have you tried this or similar techniques for feedback? Let me know in the comments!

D&D, My Way

As I’ve blogged before, one of my 2022 gaming plans is to run a ‘proper’ game of D&D – one of the big campaigns, or an Adventurer’s League series. I did this in 2020, managing to get up to about 10th level of the Eberron AL series of adventures, and I’ve got a pretty good idea of what my flavour of D&D would look like if I did it again. 

I’ve played enough different games now to know that D&D, while an excellent game, isn’t always to my tastes. So here are the things I’d do to run D&D, my way.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

Milestone, and Frequent, Leveling

I don’t have time to level up every 4 sessions, nor to track XP. We’ll level up when the game demands it, and it’ll probably be every 2 sessions at the slowest – I could easily be persuaded by 1 level a session. This gives the players new toys to play with quickly, and stops the game being samey in gameplay, which is a risk with D&D. It also makes campaign length manageable – 4-12 session seasons are my normal campaign length these days, with a chance to go back and revisit if needed.

Zoom in, Zoom out

There’ll be liberal use of montages for long journeys and ongoing scenes. PCs schmoozing at an important party? We don’t need to play out every moment of it, we’ll just zoom into the important NPC conversations. There are games that do journeys and travel well – for me, D&D is not one of them – so we’ll cut to the chase. Likewise, state intent and then roleplay a bit, make a roll, is how we’ll do social conflict.

No Shopping, No Encumbrance

Encumbrance is another idea we don’t need, as is lengthy equipment lists. PCs in my D&D have an adventurer’s kit of common useful items for their travels – if they want something that we think is a stretch, they can always make a skill check to see if they’ve got it. Likewise we’ll not spend any time roleplaying encounters with shopkeepers – you do your shopping off-table, and we only zoom in (as above) on the exciting stuff.

Player Ownership of Backgrounds

You’re playing a snow elf? Cool, you get to define as much as you want about snow elves in this world. You used to serve with the Imperial Navy? Cool, tell me about how they recruit new sailors. As long as I can spin it into any plot that I might have for the game, players are free to negotiate their backgrounds as part of their characters at the table.

One note, though – this happens in play. I don’t want anyone showing up with 500 words of backstory for their 1st level character – we can’t collaborate if we do that. It comes out at the table, so any ideas you might have need to be held onto lightly.

Begrudgingly, Grids

I’ve gone on record before to say that grids, maps and minis aren’t necessary, even for games like Pathfinder that pretend they are, but I’ll be using battle maps. I’m running online, so this isn’t really any extra prep, and – having played a sorcerer in a recent Theros run – without them you really lose some of the options for PCs (and monsters) when they hit area-effect attacks and movement around the battlefield.

I’ll not be using dynamic lighting though – I find it both unreasonably fiddly and complex not knowing what the players can see, but also weirdly making it feel a lot more like a mini skirmish game instead of an RPG – without really adding anything. I’ll begrudgingly use Fog of War if it means I can have one map for a big location, but that’s about it.

No Dungeon Expeditions

Yeah, we’ll go to dangerous underground locations, but we’ll be in and out in the day. I don’t think D&D supports the “try and camp in an empty room” jeopardy (at least not in 5th ed – this was a bigger deal in the OSR days) – and it screws with the fight economy. So we’ll just not do it – other games like Torchbearer and Trophy handle this a lot better anyway. This means some dungeons and adventure locations will be mixed up to remove non-essential rooms and encounters – we’ll fill those with…

Montages and Skill Challenges

13th Age-style Montages will let us cut some of the less essential bits out when we zoom out of the adventure, while still adding some epicness to the world. Likewise, some stuff we’ll handle with Skill Challenges, either using the 4e system or one of these here or here. The standard 5e Group Skill Check rules aren’t too bad, either, and they’re often underused, so we’ll have plenty of that.

Alternate Plot and Subplot

Given that we’re levelling every 2 sessions, we’ll aim to alternate between a big metaplot session and a more character-driven side quest once we get going. This won’t always fit in the narrative of the adventure I’m running, but where it does I’ve found it gives a really good balance in game between often quite railroady big plot sessions, and more flexible character-driven sessions. These might still be pretty linear, but they’ll be taken from player requests so will allow us to get more done.

Moar Magic Items

Despite my dislike for equipment tracking, I want to make magic items a bigger deal. I think I often forget about them as rewards, and when I was running the AL campaign some of the rewards were a big stingy, so I want to make them a feature even if they mean I have to adjust some of the opposition to balance them. They’re a key cool bit of D&D that I haven’t focussed on enough in the past, so I need to make more of them.

So, that’s how I’d run D&D my way. Anything you’d add, or think I’m being controversial about? I’m still musing on what to run, and who for – I’ve only got one player confirmed, so shout up if you’re interested! Currently thinking Rime of the Frostmaiden or Curse of Strahd, but could be persuaded by Witchlight as well – if you’ve got and recommendations, let me have them! I need to have a proper look at Tales from the Yawning Portal, too – I think that might break my no multi-day dungeoning rule, but it’s a way to cover a lot of classic adventures in turn. Saltmarsh may be a better option. As I said, I need recommendations!

2022’s New Game Resolutions

As we come to the end of the year, I think it’s always worth reviewing how you’re getting on with the hobby, and thinking about where you’re heading with it. For me, 2021 was pretty similar to 2020 – a lot more online play, with the odd face to face game at conventions later in the year. But my gaming is still dominated by regular online groups, and this is all good – there’s lots of stuff I’m excited to continue with next year.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

Organisation / This Blog

I’m going to try and get more ad hoc games up – one-shots or 3 / 4 session mini-campaigns – with groups set up just for the one off. I started a Supers One-Shot club halfway through the year, and though we’ve hit some scheduling difficulties recently, it’s been great to try out some games with a supportive group.

Keep your eyes peeled in the new year for dates for Burn After Playing, which will (finally) start up – one-shots with Patreon priority on topics covered in the blog. Growing Patreon is also a priority so I can get some art and design stuff for the blog (maybe even…. T Shirts and Mugs? How stylish would we all look?!) – so feel free to spread the word. While I’m clear on wanting the blog to be publicly open – so the vast majority of core content will be just offered as early access to Patrons – I’ve got a few ideas for Patreon exclusives, including sharing my prep notes and pregens for con games ready-to-run. 

The other priority with the blog is to start some youtubing – I’ve not quite got this idea finalised in my head, but thinking of a mixture of recordings of one-shots (without some of the filler you often get in streamed RPGs – straight to the action, paced like a con one-shot), live prep sessions, and maybe even interviews with other con GMs. I’m open to ideas at the moment – what would be useful for you?

Gaming – Long-Form

There’s a few campaigns that I’ve got bubbling under I’d like to get run, and some of them are below

The Enemy Within – after spending a lot of 2021 running WFRP one-shots, I’d like to finally tackle this beast. Even with the remixed Cubicle 7 edition, I think I’d want to edit it a bit to keep the pace to my tastes, and I’m not sure if I’ve got a group for it yet, but I’d like to get another ‘classic’ campaign under my belt. Would definitely run in ‘seasons’ per each of the books.

The One Ring 2e – The One Ring was my entry drug into online GMing, and when the new edition hits print, I’ve the regular Tuesday group primed to play through some of 2nd ed. I ran a one-shot megamix of the starter set at Grogmeet recently, and the new rules really work from what I can see. Will probably take one of the 1st ed adventure cycles and run it through – I’m a bit unconvinced by The Darkening of Mirkwood as it might be a bit too long … and slow-build… for our tastes.

13th Age Glorantha – Amazingly, I haven’t run any 13th Age at all this year. I’d like to give 13G a proper run, 1st to 10th level, seeing our heroes grow to world-shaking power. The limiting factors are my lack of knowledge of Gloranthan lore, and my lack of enthusiasm to learn any Gloranthan lore. Glorantha will vary though, right? It’s mostly ducks and cows anyway.

D&D – I’ve got an itch to run some D&D, and maybe even one of the big hardback campaigns. I know Curse of Strahd gets all the praise, but I’ve currently torn between Rime of the Frostmaiden and Wild Beyond the Witchlight. This involves finding a group for it – although I’ve got one keen player already – and if I’m running D&D online I want players on the same page as me about what kind of fun we’re having – which I might elaborate on in a later post.

Gaming – Short-Form

My “bubble list” of games I want to run one-shots of includes Soulbound, Pathfinder 2 (that’s what reviewing a good adventure does to you), Trail of Cthulhu (I’ve somehow never run a Gumshoe game), and Wanderhome – or at least something using Belonging Outside Belonging, the diceless PBTA-adjacent collaborative system.

There’s a few other new games that I’d like a sampler of a one-shot before running any longer – from Lex Arcana (Roman occult investigators with a funky dice system that might be great) and Ironclaw (incredibly I’ve never run this anthropomorphic fantasy system) to Hearts of Wulin and some more PBTA games.

I’d also like to give Feng Shui 2’s new adventures published through the subscription system a good run out, and finally get some Heart and Spire one-shots to the table. There seems to be a lot of good stuff coming out of itch at the moment, and I should get some of them put on – maybe these are options for Burn After Playing as well.

As always, this list might well change before January ends, such is the hobby. What are your 2022 want-to-do’s in roleplaying? And, as above, let me know what sort of Patreon benefits you’d like to see – whether you’re a patron or not.

One-Shot Reviews: Threshold of Knowledge for Pathfinder 2nd Edition

It’s been a while since I’ve done a review of a product, but here we are. For a change, over the next few reviews I’m going to look at (ideally) freely-available one-shot adventures, with a focus on unpicking and adapting them for other settings and systems. 

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

I’m normally of the view that a review is much more valuable if you’ve played the product. With that in mind, I’ve neither run nor played Threshold of Knowledge – yet, and have only played Pathfinder 2nd Edition once in a playtest demo once. It’s available as a free download here, if you missed picking it up on Free RPG Day.

In these reviews, apart from an overview of the product, we’ll look at the structure, and how it works for a one-shot – with an eye towards running for new people. I’ve tried to keep this relatively spoiler-free in case you end up playing it – but I’ve not been too careful, so you might want to stop reading now if you plan on playing this.

The Product

Threshold of Knowledge is 16 pages, with a page of maps, and 5 pregenerated 1st-level characters. It’s set around the Magaambya magic school in Pathfinder’s Mwangi Expanse region, which makes it feel different and cool – Mwangi is a diverse and exciting land, and where a huge magic school is based – which features heavily. The art is, as you’d expect from Paizo, lovely.

You’ll need your PF2 books close to hand to run this – monsters aren’t given stats if they’re already in the Bestiary, and in one case you’ll need to flip between two pages of it (or, obviously, work out what Weak Sea Devil stats are in advance – it’s a shame the book doesn’t do this, although obviously it allows them to cram more in.)

In terms of the plot, there’s a bit of fetching-and-carrying and a chase across town before the PCs need to explore a mini-dungeon and rescue their teacher. The encounters in the dungeon are a good mix of straight-up fights and avoidable monsters, and I’d be happy to run this for a group – many of the adversaries can be negotiated with, tricked, or (in the case of the crocodile Jubo) snuck past while he dozes. Each individual encounter feels well-thought-out and flexible, which compensates for it being entirely linear.

The Structure

The structure of the adventure is, as I’ve said, a straight line. You chase a dwarf across town (sequence of skill checks), get sent to do some fishing (more open-ended skill checks), and then have a fight and a bit of puzzling to find the way to the dungeon. Once there, it’s a straight line of rooms – sort of a 5 room dungeon, although there are only actually 4 rooms and there’s not too much of a twist or trick in it. 

I’ve said before that I’ve got no problem with a linear series of scenes, and I think ToK manages to make each individual bit interesting enough to avoid it – although I’ll know more after I’ve run it. There’s also quite a lot in this – I can imagine this taking two session easily, especially accounting for PF2’s far-from-quick combat learning curve.

One thing stands out about the combat encounters as you run through them – every one has a different approach you can take. Even the first encounter, as much a training-level fight as anything, has a chance for a Nature check to pick up a clue that can help in the fight. Other encounters have different options – one can be negotiated with, another can be snuck past, and the final confrontation is really more about stopping a ritual than defeating the creature – so either approach will work. 

One thing that I was surprised at, doing the maths for the encounters, is how they were all Low- or Moderate-challenge in terms of PF2’s encounter building. When I run it I’d be tempted to beef up the final confrontation a bit to add a bit of jeopardy – I’ll resist sharing spoilers but an additional level 1 Creature (say, like the one two rooms earlier) will make that final fight a bit more dangerous.

The Fluff

I’m a big fan of what Paizo have done with the Pathfinder setting, and especially with the Mwangi expanse, and there’s a lot to like in the presentation of this adventure that grounds it in the setting. You’re students at a magical school, to begin with (which seems to be the current fantasy trend, and the adventure very much shines with the city of Nantambu – you get a real sense of the magical school’s influence around the city, and some neat mechanical things reinforce this.

To start, you get magical items right away here – a bubbling scale that lets you breathe water, and earn other rewards as you go on. This is something I need to put more of in my 1st-level one-shots, and fantasy one-shots generally – the reward factor of getting something useful and magical is great for players and brings them into the setting. 

The pregens are good in terms of roleplaying prep – they feel like actual con pregens for their fluff. There’s background on their life before joining the academy and how they feel about a couple of the other pregens (I might make these bonds questions, where they can decide who they trust most and worry about most from the group, and why, if I was running for an experienced group). In short, the ideal amount of backstory from a traditional game perspective. Their rules write-ups are okay, too, if not perfect – I’d want a handout for what e.g. the elixirs of life and alchemist’s fires that some of them carry do, as well as spell descriptions. There’s a couple of new spells to go with the three new minor magical items as well.

In Summary

I really like this as a one-shot, and as I get more curious about PF2 I’d like to get it to the table. The skill checks – training fight – puzzle – mini-dungeon structure works well, and I’ll certainly be borrowing that. Although a few branching points would be nice, the alternate-approaches for each encounter is textbook. I’d go so far as to say you could learn a lot about one-shot prep just by reading this.

Prep Techniques: A Bag of Tricks

In earlier prep technique posts, I’ve talked about 5 Room Dungeons, Sly Flourish’s method, using 3 Places, and starting with a con pitch. Most of those are focussed toward more traditional GM-prepped games – where you have a clear idea of the scenes and sequence of play the players will encounter in game. Today I’m going to share a technique I’ve been using to prep for Blades in the Dark, John Harper’s game of steampunk heists in a cursed city. 

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. In addition, for this post, Patrons have access to my prep notes for the two sessions of Blades play that inspired this post – so they can see it in action!

With Blades (and other less GM-led games, including a lot of PBTA games – although some of those have other prep processes) – you don’t really know where the PCs are going to go. You prep a score, and some things that might happen in it – and then roll with the punches and dice rolls of the players. This can be intimidating if you’re used to a more traditional setup – and indeed, I’ve shown here how a more traditional setup can work with Blades as a one-shot – but it can really sing if you’ve done your prep to be ready to respond to players in a few different ways.

The idea behind this technique is to produce a bag of stuff that can be used during the session to keep it ticking along, in systems that do some (but not all) of the improv heavy lifting for you.

What’s This For?

In the examples below, I’ll be talking about Blades, and this definitely works for mission-based Forged in the Dark games. Some PBTA games like Masks and Monster of the Week have similar approaches – MOTW has a mystery countdown and a monster, and Masks needs your Supervillain statted up – and I think it generally works for more directly-plotted PBTA games. 

If I was running, for example, Thirsty Sword Lesbians, Monsterhearts, or Apocalypse World as a one-shot, I’d definitely use this – because I’d want a strong inciting incident and a finite stage of locations for the action. In an ongoing campaign, I might be less constrained by the first step below, but I’d probably use the same process described below for Locations and Characters and Moments for each session.

Think About the Score

Disclaimer: in any post about how to prep a John Harper game, the first advice is – do what John Harper tells you to do. This is right there in the book, but it is a bit hidden away on p188 in the GM Actions section. Maybe it’s not hidden away – but I’d run Blades a few times before reading it.

In it, you need to consider the mission you’re offering the players – it has a structure of things to think about, like the target location, some secrets to be discovered, an obvious and non obvious approach vector – but nothing too concrete. Often the first scene – where a faction offers the score – is the only fully-prepped scene in the session, and this is where this tends to come out.

To tell the truth, sometimes I follow this process, and sometimes I just write a con pitch-style overview for the score. Generally the secrets and factions come out through the rest of the process.

One or Two Locations, Plenty of Characters

You’ll need to think about the main location where you expect play to take place, and you’ll need a cast of characters for the PCs to interact with. Generally I’ll try and prep more NPCs than I need so I can throw extra ones in when needed – and in an ongoing game those leftover characters will just reappear later. I use something like the Gauntlet’s 7-3-1 technique for this, and 7 is a good number total for these things.

In particular, having a way to portray NPCs at the table is really useful to make them more interesting – it’s only at the am-dram level, we’re not Critical Role – but it really helps to model a little bit of in-character dialogue from the players as well.

Moments

Moments are your Batman Utility-Belt of cool descriptions – including shark-repellant spray!

Moments is an idea lifted directly from Trophy – I think – although other Gauntlet games feature them now, and they’re a great idea. Basically, they’re background, system and setting neutral-ish things that happen to reinforce the tone and style of the game. If that sounds too fancy, these were what I had for an Infirmary raid score in Blades a few weeks ago:

  • A scream from a nearby room as a pair of drunken Billhooks play a deadly game of amateur surgery on one another and come running out
  • A covered body that appears to still be breathing
  • A neatly arranged table of surgical tools and chemicals
  • A panicked orderly desperately trying to ignore the chaos around them
  • Rows and rows of Bluecoats setting up to raid the Skovlanders

They don’t have to be amazingly original or interesting, but they help you to come up with something that gives the locations and setting more verisimilitude as you play without requiring boxed-text style prep.

So, with a score/opening scene, some locations and characters, and a few moments, you should be good to go. Extras to consider are – if you haven’t already covered them in the score prep – what sort of twists could arrive to complicate matters, and what secrets about their target could be revealed. Usually when I use this method, these come out organically from the locations and characters as I think about their motivations. What other prep techniques have you used for FITD / PBTA / other more loosely controlled systems?

Release The Trolls – How to Run Vaesen One-Shots (or Campaigns)

Vaesen is Free League’s game of folk horror investigation, where 19th century Scandinavian investigators explore the conflicts between humanity and the Vaesen – supernatural creatures like werewolves, ghosts, and fairies. It uses the Year Zero Engine, and for me this fits the game really well – and it has a structure to its investigations that make it great for one-shots or episodic campaigns. There’s even a follow-up Kickstarter running at the moment (well, depending on when you read this) to bring the game to Britain and Ireland.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

Each mission, you’re called out to somewhere, and travel there to try and resolve the conflict of the area. This gives a great Town-A-Week structure to Vaesen, and I really enjoy running it – even though investigative games aren’t always my bag. Here are my four top tips for making it sing:

Prep the Structure

Firstly, Vaesen has a whole chapter dedicated to Mystery design. This is absolute gold, and I’d recommend reading – or even following along – with this to create your first mystery. That’s what I followed when I designed the Haunted Mill introductory scenario, and it works well. Like Tales From The Loop, Vaesen assumes a Three Places style of prep – where players are free to explore nodes as a countdown continues, leading up to a final confrontation.

One word of warning – the published adventures (in the core book and A Wicked Secret – don’t always follow this structure. By all means run them as a way in, but they play around a bit with the prep advice – so don’t rely on them as models.

Nail Your Places

If you’re starting from scratch with your prep, you might be wise to think about your confrontation first – how can the conflict with the Vaesen be resolved? – and then think about where that could happen. From that, you can think of your core places in the town. I’d suggest that usually, you want something like this

  • A place where the regular townspeople meet and ill-informed gossip can be had (a PUB, if you like)
  • A place where the ‘traditional’/modern view of the Vaesen is represented (this is often a CHURCH, but it could be a factory or a work camp)
  • A place where the old ways are kept, and the Vaesen are respected (a SPOOKY PLACE, maybe on the outskirts of the town)

As long as you have those three, you’ll probably have enough to feed the players clues to lead to the confrontation. One thing I’ve noticed in play (at least among my group) is that a pub is expected – make sure to consider what excitement and clues visiting the tavern can bring, even if it’s not a major location. On a practical note, the investigators need somewhere to stay, and it’s usually best if this is a place of relative safety – several of the rules kick in to recover conditions here, and it lets you pull no punches in other confrontations. 

Add Friends, Enemies, and Frenemies

Your Vaesen will almost certainly need allies – either humans wrapped up in its worship like a cult, or actual products of the Vaesen – a confrontation against a lone monster is rarely exciting without some other parties to contend with. For most Vaesen it’s relatively easy to give them some agents in the town – and remember that any one with Enchant can Command Animal, so don’t rule out packs of wild dogs or the odd bear to contend with.

When I prep Mysteries, I think it’s good to have some actual conflict during the investigation – ideally fairly early – and often this will be with the Vaesen’s agents, rather than the Vaesen itself. Plan for this and put it into your Countdown, and throw it at them early.

In a town, you’ll likely have quite a few NPCs to detail – and portray at the table. Painting them with broad brush strokes, or just giving each of them one distinctive feature to portray, will help them to stand out to your players and make the investigation more role-play based. 

Countdown Fast And Early

Each mystery has at least one countdown which is the Vaesen’s (or another faction’s) reaction to the investigators showing up in the town. This is the device that adds urgency to the game and prevents turtling, so go hard and fast with this. I like to trigger the first countdown within half an hour (game time) of the PCs arrival, and often almost as soon as they pitch up. Starting with a bang forces investigation and exploration, and reinforces the danger the community is under.

So, my top tips for running Vaesen – either as a one-shot or an ongoing campaign. Have any of you tried it, as a player or GM? Anything you’d add?

Getting to 100 in 2021 – How To Play More

Earlier this week, with a session of Blades in the Dark in which the crew of Bravos almost managed to pull off a quiet score without burning anything down, I played my 100th game session of 2021 (I say ‘played’ for playing or running – the GM’s a player too). I’m pretty pleased with this, although my gaming hasn’t quite reached 2020’s pandemic-induced heights – by this time then I was on 133.

If you’re reading this and wish you got to play more, here are some hints I’ve picked up from 2 years of playing a lot.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

Online ftw

Playing RPGs online is easy and convenient. For me, it’s been the easiest way to keep a regular weeknight group together. Yes, you lose some of the camaraderie and banter from sitting round a table, but that isn’t always a bad thing, either – games can be much more focussed in a 2-3 hr online slot. A group with multiple potential GMs is the easiest way to keep it together and make it a regular thing. I’ve found online play to be much more resilient to the vicissitudes of work and real life – and there are lots of resources and advice available to help you set up. 

If you haven’t yet tried it – and, honestly, I’m amazed any gamer has made it through the pandemic without transitioning to online – you should. Online groups aren’t going anywhere.

My breakdown – D&D, Savage Worlds, and Star Trek Adventures making the medal places

Conventions, Meet-Ups, Game Days

There are lots of these springing up – from my own Go Play Leeds, Go Play Manchester, and various Meetups and groups offering games. If you want to play with new people and find players, a one-shot is a great way to try out their company and see if your styles are compatible.

Lots of these have transitioned to online and are currently offering a blended model – or staying as online presences – an online con is a really great way to get some games in with people you wouldn’t normally, without the time and expense of travelling and accommodation.

Balance GMing and Playing

I GM a lot, but I still aim for at least a 50/50 split of sessions where I run compared to playing (I’m at 44% GMing at the moment, which I’m very happy with). Playing and GMing are very different experiences in a lot of games, and one definitely feeds the other in terms of inspiration and ideas.

It’s also worth thinking of a campaign as having a finite length. 4-12 sessions of linked sessions is a reasonable length – by thinking about this at the start, you’re more likely to have a satisfying conclusion than letting it tail off. Also, be prepared to get one shots out of nowhere – a shout out on twitter for a given game, as long as you’ve prepped it, will help.

Have Some Back Pocket Prep

You know that game you’d like to run? What if 4 players showed up tonight and were up for playing? Could you offer them it? If you’re interested in GMing, prep a one-shot and have it ready. In every meetup, club, and games day I’ve seen, there’s dropouts, and having a chance to offer something will get picked up. 

“I’d like to run Werewolf – but I’ll need  few weeks to get it together,” is very unlikely to result in a game… “I’ve got a Werewolf one-shot, could be a campaign starter, ready to go – with pregens – fancy trying a session and seeing how it goes?” is very likely to result in a game.

Right now I’ve got Brancalonia, Heart, and Age of Sigmar Soulbound bubbling around in my brain, ready to run, and I need to get on it to get them ready to run. I’ve actually done some pregens for Soulbound, and I should commit to a session soon. So why not try some lonely fun (not Traveller) and get a session ready, without any con or group in mind?
So, 100 sessions and counting. I’m firmly of the belief that RPG experiences are improved by the Play > Prep > Read > Buy inequality chain – where do you stand on that? For the record, I’m much better at Play, Prep and Buy than I am at Read – not sure how that works – but I’m focussing on more play at the moment.

Great Train Journeys – In Defence of the Railroad

Last weekend, at Grogmeet, I found myself apologising as my One Ring 2e game started –

I’ve adapted this from the Starter Set adventures… it might be a bit linear…

Many of my one-shots are, I realise. Read prep posts here and you’ll find discussions of scenes, pre-planned for trad games, that often take place in a set order. I think I run a lot of railroads at cons. 

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

So, should I be apologising? Well, no – because first of all, a good railroad knocks the socks off a poor sandbox – it’s easier to pace and easier to prep if you know where the game is going. Also, there are some ways to make your railroad much less railroady, so your players don’t feel they’ve been shoehorned into a plot. Here are my top tips for making linear one-shots better.

An actual railroad track. Don’t use this.

Multiple Resolutions

If you need scenes to happen in a set order, give each scene a flexible way to resolve it. For example, if your investigators have to find out that the Hell’s Angels were hired to threaten your murder victim, consider how the players can

  • Beat up on them to get their respect
  • Trick the information out of them
  • Negotiate with them for the clue

Come up with three ways to resolve the scene, and make each one exciting – but be open at the table to other reasonable requests; the thinking about different ways will make it easier for you to respond to other unexpected ways at the table.

Be flexible about scene transitions (what Robin Laws in Feng Shui 2 calls ‘connective tissue,’ too – have multiple ways to get to the next set piece scene, that can happen in a few ways. A 13th Age montage, or One Ring’s Journey system, are good approaches for this – as they create unpredictability, either from the players or the dice.

Flexible Ordering and “the Swell”

Another way to mix up the railroad and make it feel less linear is, well, to make it less linear. While you might have a clear idea of the start and end of your session, and possibly a key scene in the middle, intersperse this with scenes that can take place in any order.

So the players encounter the bandits raiding the village and fight them (KEY SCENE), learn of an opposing force massive to strike on the village (CONNECTIVE TISSUE), then recruit allies and prepare the village defenses (FLEXIBLE SCENES), then fight off the attack (KEY SCENE).

For the flexible scenes, it can help to think of them as short challenges, and think of a ‘normal approach’ (which might just be a simple skill check or challenge) that will get it done. Combine this approach with the one above – with multiple approaches for each task likely to be successful. Chain this between three key scenes, and you’ve got yourself an epic adventure. The example above was largely the plot of @the_smart_party ‘s Deadlands game I played at Grogmeet, where we foiled an actual railroad – following the mass battle (Savage Worlds, it turns out, has a great abstracted mass battle system) we tracked the real villain into his cult and fought him as a final key scene. 

Make Them Pop

The truth is, if your scenes are really entertaining, and transitions between them logical, nobody will care that they are linear. In a campaign, yes, you’ll find this unsatisfying after a couple of sessions, but in a one-shot the strong pull of a linear plot will keep everyone engaged.

Make sure each scene has some genuine stakes though – maybe they make subsequent scenes easier or harder, or feed into the final confrontation. Scenes do still need stakes, and you need to find a way to do this when the scenes that follow are pre-determined. And, whatever you do, don’t start the session sharing a map with one road going one way – a literal railroad out for everyone to see.

This was all I did with One Ring – the starter set has 5 adventures, so I stuck together two of them and tried to stick to the best bits and Spend Hope that the players enjoyed themselves – and I think they did.

What are your views on the railroad? Is anyone going to rush to the defense of the sandbox? Either way, let me know in the comments.

Rough Games and Hard Fights – How To Run WFRP (4e) One-Shots

I’ve had a chance recently to run a few one-shots of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, at both Furnace and online, and it’s a game with a lot of love from the UK RPG community especially. It’s a great example of grim low fantasy, and as such takes a careful hand to run a satisfying one-shot of it. So, here are my top tips for delivery.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

Take out the safety net

WFRP is deadly, and brutal. To help ensure their continued existence, PCs have one-shot Fate and Resilience points, that let them cheat death or avoid a mutation respectively. These are very limited-recovery, and are part of the game balance of starting characters (humans get loads of them, elves get very few – but have generally better starting attributes).

In a one-shot, remove these. Keep the per-session resources, Fortune and Resolve – they’ll need them to survive – but take the Fate and Resilience off. When I’ve run it, I’ve asked the players to cross them off their character sheets – this gives (a) a clear message that this game could be deadly, and (b) makes them more conscious of the Fortune and Resolve points which they might want to spend.

Flavour is everything

WFRP is a game of grim, dirty humanity in a losing battle against corruption, goblinoids, and foul magics. Although it’s got its fair share of monsters and traditional antagonists, a lot of WFRP’s aesthetic comes from human failures – even chaos thrives as a result of humanity surrendering to its temptations. The noble houses are corrupt and terrifying while the peasantry toil in back-breaking labour. You get the idea.

With this in mind, use the excellent source material for this – WFRP is not a game that works without the Old World behind it. The publications  from Cubicle 7 are dripping in flavour – use them liberally. If I’d recommend one purchase beyond the core book, I’d go with the Starter Set for a plot hook-sprinkled guide to the city of Ubersreik.

Combat is rare, and dangerous

A bad roll – or a good one – can be the end of a fight, for either side. In a recent con game, the PCs triumphed largely due to their main opponent (a skaven leader) fumbling their attack. It could have gone the other way just as easily. Combat also involves tracking Advantage, which means that once things start to go badly (or well) for a combatant, the odds begin to be stacked in their favour. For Advantage in a F2F game, I used some Campaign Coins – online I’ve used a token that explains what it is as well.

For this reason, outside of the final confrontation of the one-shot, don’t worry about making your combats pushovers. A few humans (WS 30) with a dagger (damage SL+4 for you S 30 thugs) will still feel dangerous for your PCs when one good hit can make a mark on them. For the final confrontation, feel free to throw stuff at them, but bear in mind that numbers (because of the Advantage rule) and size make a big difference to players. I’ve run Slaughter in Spittlefeld three times so far and the final confrontation, with a single underpowered vampire, is consistently perilous.

Use the Published Stuff

WFRP is rare among trad games in that it comes with loads of ready-made adventures that are either one-shots already, or easily adapted.

Night of Blood is a classic spooky inn ‘mystery’ where things start horrific and just get worse – I’ve run this at least three times, and would recommend. In the Ubersreik Adventures supplement, Slaughter in Spittlefeld is the most obvious one-shot for a tight con game – the PCs are locked in a tenement and have to solve it’s problem – but Mad Men of Gotheim and If Looks Could Kill are also great con-length one-shots.

And there’s a pdf-only One Shots of the Reikland supplement, too – I’d suggest these might need framing scenes beforehand to give a satisfying con experience, but it’s usually easier to add than take away. To run Curd Your Enthusiasm, I added a scene at the start where they meet Tomas, their patron, when they both he and one of the PCs are pickpocketed by a pair of thieves in Ubersreik – a chase ensues, and it serves as a good system- and character-intro to get everyone ready for the cheese-based investigations that ensue.

So, WFRP has become one of my go-to one-shot systems, and one I’ll certainly stay with. I keep musing about running the classic Enemy Within campaign – especially now it’s been rebooted by Cubicle 7 – but I think it remains a solid one-shot game, just simple enough – but fun enough – to give a satisfying experience.

Zero to Zero – running 1st level D&D one-shots

Sly Flourish is a genius, and I agree with him about nearly everything D&D-related. He’s wrong about skill challenges, though (they’re one of my favourite things in any game, as these posts will testify) – and he’s wrong about 1st level adventures. I’ve run most of my D&D5e one-shots at 1st level, mostly for people new to the hobby, and I’m posted a few on here – check out The Goblins and The Pie Shop, The Rats of Rothsea, and Tower of the Stirge – and the pregen sheets I use to try and make things simpler.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

But there’s a particular set of advice that I’d suggest for 1st level D&D. It’s really not that deadly, if done right, and while players don’t have quite as many options as they do by 3rd level, they do have options in the right place. For me, 1st level one-shots come down to three things – Support, Survivability, and Stakes.

Support

You can ignore this, to some extent, if you know you’ve got seasoned D&D vets. But usually, when I’m running 1st level D&D, I’m expecting some players new to the hobby. The Starter Set and Essentials Kit are great, but… their character sheets are ridic. You need less detail, and more help, on them – and so I made these, which I stole from (I think) an insta post from someone from Critical Role… sorry I can’t give a more exact credit, but in fairness it was in the background of a photo.

For spellcasters, I’ll first of all steer newbies away unless they’re up for a bit of reading what spells do, and/or resource management. Otherwise I’ll have spell cards, or a handout with the details clipped from the SRD. Certainly nobody should be looking stuff up in the Player’s Handbook at the table.

Survivability

A 1st level, your PCs need plenty of rests. I sort of run D&D like this at higher levels like this, anyway – trying to face a challenging combat with 1 spell slot left is no fun when some classes’ long rest abilities run out. I normally go for a ‘training’ encounter, then a long rest, and another (sometimes inserted in with handwavey magic refreshing) before the final fight with the big bad.

I think you also need to be careful with enemy damage – challenge ratings are generally a fairly good indicator of challenge, but my rule of thumb is to avoid any attack that can take a PC out in one hit – that’s just too swingy for me. I’m a great fan of the starter adventure in Theros, but the initial encounter is with creatures that do 1d8+3 +2d6 poison damage – that’s not 1st level compliant, for me. Oh, and I generally roll enemy damage – it gives a bit more threat and jeopardy to know that one arrow could do 8 points of damage and really worry them.

Stakes

Even at 1st level, keep the stakes high

Clearing out giant rats is no fun, despite me writing an adventure about it. Give your 1st level one-shot serious stakes – one of my very favourite DCC adventures, The Hole In The Sky, pits the 0-level funnel PCs against a 200 foot tall demon! At the very least, their failure should have somebody’s life on the line, or the well-being of a village or town that will then hold them up as heroes.

Bridge the gap between the PCs and these stakes by getting them to answer questions that tie them to the background. In my latest 1st level one-shot, it begins with a wedding, and the players describe how they’ve got an invite. In playtest, this led to some great emergent NPCs, and a genuine interest in the event passing well – which served as a baked-in motivation.

In terms of in-game scene-by-scene stakes, have failure conditions in mind. 1st level is swingy as hell, and you can end up with a TPK with a run of bad (or good) rolls… have a plan in mind where they wake up in the goblin’s dungeons (or wherever) and get one last chance to escape.

I certainly aren’t going to stop running D&D at 1st level any time soon, and I’ve got a lot of good work out of it so far. I haven’t talked about it here, but worth noting that a lot of the AL stuff has 1st level players doing 2-4 one-hour mini-adventures, which as you’d expect I’m a fan of – this helps the long rests situation. 

What’s been your experience of 1st level D&D? Let me know in the comments.