Hillfolk One-Shots

Hillfolk_Cover_reduced1Hillfolk is an amazing RPG. I’ve normally got a bit of a problem with what can be seen as “stone soup” RPGs, where the mechanics are limited to almost nothing, but there are two exceptions I make. One is Fiasco, where the complete absence of a resolution mechanic forces players into a hard director stance – you’ve got to embrace the feel of the films you are emulating and push your protagonists into difficult situations. And the other is Hillfolk. Hillfolk is a quieter, more contemplative kind of game; every time I’ve run it we’ve hit pathos, character development, and difficult decisions. And it does that because you don’t have to think about hit points.

 

It’s also a game that, unusually, benefits from a larger player group than I’d normally pick (I think the sweet spot is 5-6), and is explicitly designed for campaign play. But, like every game designed for campaign play (see my series on Powered by the Apocalypse games), with a few tweaks and procedures you can get a satisfying one-shot experience from it.

Skip Character Generation

Character generation in Hillfolk is awesome. It’s a whole session of setting up your series, where you’ll develop themes, dramatic poles, and potential story arcs. It takes a full 3-4 hour session. It does not benefit from being shortened. Instead, I’d recommend skipping it and setting up a tight initial situation yourself. There’s loads of information in the Series Pitches supplied with the game to develop your own with a little research, or there are some great ones already done. If you’re looking to run your first Hillfolk one-shot, I can’t recommend enough picking up Jon Cole’s character packs from the Pelgrane website (here, towards the end of Forms). There’s also a set of playbooks for The Secret of Warlock Mountain on the same site. And tons of advice and support; seriously worth a read.

Start with the Ensemble

Begin with a scene where (much like my advice for Urban Shadows) all the protagonists are present, and a looming threat emerges. This helps to coalesce the players towards working in one direction, even if PvP develops naturally. The classic Hillfolk set-up is that a nearby village has burned down your grain store, or the ailing Chief seeks a successor, but you can pick your own for the Series Pitch of your design. For my Hollywoodland game, I start with a party with all the protagonists present and have a police chief (either Charles Sebastian, or, if he’s a PC, a rival cop) shut it down and state that with the mayoral run coming up they’ll be coming down hard on the drugs and booze excesses of the movie industry. Depending on their reaction, one or two of them could get arrested, and you’re good to go. My own Hollywoodland start-up is a bit less flexible than the two examples linked, but that’s in part because the players are portraying real(ish) historical figures.

Listen, Prompt, Be a Fan

Because scene calling happens in rotation, your players will need to be ready to call the next scene. Give them the time and space to do this, and try not to prompt them too hard – I try to repeat the classic improv mantra that the most obvious thing to do is usually the best thing, and that they needn’t try to be original or flashy – the awesome will come naturally. If other players aren’t convinced of this, model it – be a fan of everyone’s scenes, and if you have players who haven’t played before you’ll see them blossom before you as they grow into the system, even if they’ve never played before.

Sample Set-Up

Here’s my own set-up for a Hollywoodland one-shot. Hollywoodland is a series pitch by Jason Morningstar set in the incipient movie industry of 1914.

I hope it’s useful to you, either to run yourself (and let me know how it goes!) or as a model for how to develop a one-shot set of characters for Hillfolk. I’ve tried to include as much detail as I can while still leaving the overall plot and scenes up to the players – there are scene notes and ideas for what to do to further their interests, and enough imbalanced relationships to hopefully lead to some slow-burn confrontations.

Bear in mind that the set-up can go to some difficult places, particularly if the film Birth of a Nation ends up being a backdrop, so I’d strongly recommend using an X-Card with this game (and almost any game with shared narrative authority that has any chance of similar things happening).

Afterword

I’ve got a few one-shot advice posts up now – for Dungeon WorldThe ‘Hood, Fate, Urban Shadows – as well as a piece on general “crunchy system” prep. I’ve got one-shot advice posts for 7th Sea (2nd edition) and 13th Age in the pipeline already, and I’m running Tenra Bansho Zero next month and will certainly blog about that, but I’m open to requests – what systems (even those that everybody says never work in a one-shot) would you like to hear about? Just tweet me or put it in the comments section.

Manchester, 1997 – An Urban Shadows City

As promised here, below is the city guide I used for my Manchester, 1997 game of Urban Shadows at Revelation. The inspiration was to use a not-quite-familiar city that could evoke a sense of nostalgia while still allowing some distance and oddness. I’ll confess that I did pretty minimal research for it other than my own experience – I lived in Manchester from 1999 when I went there to University, I’ve seen the excellent Steve Coogan vehicle 24 Hour Party People plenty of times, and a few wikipedia pages supplied the rest.

So, the dating is almost certainly off, and although the 1996 bombing really did have no direct fatalities, this should be credited to a substantial and quick response from emergency services rather than a gang of undead protectors. Similarly, Tony Wilson was never, to mine or anyone’s knowledge, a Chaos Magician seeking to harness the ley lines beneath the city. The best NPCs are of course those that the players themselves bring to the game, of course, but I couldn’t bring myself to include the demon-tainted Hazel Blears MP in the write-up.

The write up is below, or here in handy .pdf form. I’d say that it’s probably read-to-run if you pick some Playbooks and follow the procedures in my previous post.

The City

Manchester in 1997 is a city on the cusp of tomorrow; the music scene has exploded and is the envy of the North, if not London quite yet. The Hacienda nightclub and Factory records sound like they could last forever, and the punks and hipsters walk around like they own the place now. The city centre feels vibrant, edgy, as if the longed-for prosperity of the days when the Industrial Revolution built this city are just around the corner.

The city centre is also a maze of building sites and new developments; last year’s IRA bombing has left vast parts of the city straining to rebuild, and the shining bricks are a sign of the prosperity to come. Things really can only get better, in the words of Tony Blair’s successful election campaign.

Just outside the city lie some of the most dangerous parts of Britain. Moss Side, Rusholme, and Salford hold back-to-back terraces that have changed little since the Communist Manifesto was written in them by a shocked Marx and Engels. Trams run to Altrincham and Bury, linking both sides of the city but leaving vast areas at the mercy of crumbling buses.

South of the city, in Altrincham, Sale, and Didsbury, the wealthy middle classes – stayers-on from University or well-heeled Cheshire inheritors – carry on as they always have. These socialites and old money dealers have little truck with the regeneration of the city, unless there’s money in it for them.

To the North in Bury and Oldham the straining past of industry still stalks the streets – the dark satanic mills around here haven’t been made into flats or offices, and an older, deeper Manchester hides.

The largest population of students outside of London flood the streets of Fallowfield and Withington on the south side of the city, while the city’s four universities – Manchester, UMIST, Manchester Metropolitan, and Salford – tussle over long-held rivalries.

City Moves

  • Open a new development, bar, or shop
  • Reveal a deep industrial past
  • Shock the public with an unexpected display of violence
  • Discuss secrets on public transportation
  • Hold a powerful meeting in an aging bar or nightclub

Images and Hooks

A drunk staggers around Piccadilly, muttering something incomprehensible in an unknown language. Students flood the streets for a protest or festival. Groups of youths in tracksuits start trouble in a shop. A couple argue in the street. A cold pint of lager. A bag of drugs. A nice cup of tea.

Faction Mapping

Night

The City Ghosts

Astonishingly, in a bomb attack causing £700 million of damage last year, there were no fatalities. None that were mortal, at least. The media credited the fast response of the emergency services, but in truth, below Piccadilly in the old water routes and storage containers of the city’s industrial path, the people that built Manchester still guard it.

The City Ghosts started as men and women who died during the city’s building, but as an open association of Spectres they were augmented in both wars. They have one goal – for Manchester to endure – and watch over them from their pits around Cornbrook. The cities’ tram lines – even those yet to be built – mostly use old railway lines, and these routes let the city ghosts traverse the whole of greater Manchester.

Their ‘interference’ in last year’s bombing has ruffled a few feathers, most notably of the City’s Fae, many of whom have sympathies with the mortal bombers, but nobody dares move against them yet as a group so obsessed with their own self-endurance.

Sample Night NPC: Dead Fred, a rogue City Ghost who acts as a go-between between the city’s mysterious spectral protectors and the other factions of the city.

Power

The Seers of Affleck

A loose organisation of wizards, oracles, and hedge-mages, based from a sprawling tower of shops and cafes in the city’s Northern Quarter, the Seers of Affleck dream as they always have. They dream of a rebuilt Manchester, of Britain’s first city, of London and Leeds and Birmingham fading to insignificance as the hermetic patterns grow.

Manchester sits on a confluence of energy, they would tell you, making it like no other city on earth. They whisper in the ears of musicians and artists, architects and drug dealers and nudge them in the direction of their planned futures.

Students from the city’s universities follow them, particularly the city’s University of Manchester, who even designed their Mathematics Tower according to their own mystical geometries. Rumours abound about the latest influx of undergraduates, about how the Seers may have found their next great archmagi.

Sample Power NPC: Tony Wilson, CEO of Factory Records, a dangerous chaos mage channeling the life energy and forces of music to his own ends with scant regard for the safety of the city.

Mortality

The Bridgewater Club

In the city centre, there are well-heeled gentleman’s clubs still, where new money up-and-comers can drink and read the Express and forget about the dirty city streets around them. The Bridgewater Club is not one of those. It maintains private rooms in several bars around the city, but its main base is in Sale, south of Manchester and nestled in Cheshire money.

The wealth of these socialites is tied up in ‘protecting’ the city from supernatural threats – and liberating those threats of any valuable assets to ensure the survival of the Club. Part monster hunting club, part relic collectors, part tomb robbers, their activities are tolerated by the other factions as long as they only target individuals and do not openly move against the factions.

The Bridgewater, for itself, recognises the benefit in the balance of power for the city – and for their continued existence – and recognise that the Vampires of London and the Scottish Wolves are unlikely to offer them as much freedom as they have here in Manchester. So they plan their heists, track the movements of the supernatural around the city, looking for any hints of instability, to strike and take just enough. Of course, individual members do not always share the organisations careful approach to supernatural politics.

Sample Mortality NPC: Jack Firness, established Bridgewater Club Veteran and collector of supernatural ephemera. Jack may be a bit long in the tooth now but he isn’t above dusting down the old crossbow and going to kill some vampires.

Wild

The Oldham Tinkers

They aren’t all from Oldham, of course. They aren’t all from anywhere in this world, or the next. But any city with such a high influx of Irish settlers is bound to have a high fae presence, and the Celtic spirits have formed an alliance with the spirits of the hills and bogs of Lancashire North of the City to ensure that the city’s growth doesn’t compromise the earth.

All these huge buildings being rebuilt now are sometimes covering up important Glamour sites, and the Tinkers are frustrated that the City Ghosts seem to be doing nothing to prevent this. The life that’s recently come to the city with the new music and nightclubs is a welcome source of energy, but it’s drug-fuelled and tainted – something about the rise of the city just isn’t right, and the Tinkers will do anything to slow it – or even perhaps to destroy it.

Sample Wild NPC: Feargal O’Shaugnessy, leader of the Monkey Town Boys, a group of Redcaps and violent fae operating out of Heywood, Lancashire. Feargal and his boys have recently been posted in Manchester to keep tabs on the current situation in the city.

Like what you see? Want a peculiarly British take on urban fantasy with a straightforward simple system and a great team of some of the best UK RPG game designers and writers, and me? The Liminal kickstarter is funding! Back it and make me write a supplement on vampires and more Case Files!

Urban Shadows One-Shots

Urban Shadows (US) is Magpie Games’ Powered by the Apocalypse (PBTA) game of urban fantasy; if political manoeuvrings with wizards, vampires, and demons is your jam, it’s a great game. It’s a great game whatever, actually, which is why I’ve developed a few tips  for one-shot play that should help you if you want to bring it to a one-shot table.

I’m going to present this in two stages – what you do before it hits the table, and what you do at the start of play. Note that the book does have some great advice for one-shots in it already, but I’ve extended some of the advice to hit my particular sweet spot between player-driven and GM-prepped narrative. If you’d like more details on running PBTA one-shots generally, there’s a post here, as well as specific advice for Dungeon World.

Before Play

Pre-select Playbooks

You can make things easier for yourself by restricting the playbook selection for your players. This has two advantages – one, you avoid any chance of selection paralysis at the table, and two, you can focus your prep towards the playbooks selected. One from each faction is ideal – and I’d go with The Aware, The Vamp, The Tainted, and The Wizard for my choices – the Hunter has potential for some nasty PvP that some of your players may find uncomfortable, and The Fae has to keep track of promises as well as Debt which can be fiddly. If you have players pre-signed or know who’s going to play, you can let them pick, of course – but this helps to focus your thoughts on where they will be relevant. If you haven’t got anyone playing the Vamp, for instance, you don’t need to think about complex vampire politics.

Pick a City

Either use one of the cities already developed in Dark Streets, the setting sourcebook for US, or come up with one yourself. All you need for this is a defined group for each of the factions – for instance, when I wrote up Manchester 1997 for the Revelation convention I had the City Ghosts as my Night faction – a group of industrial-age spectres that keep the city surviving, and The Bridgewater Club as a group of hunters and graverobbers who sought to maintain the status quo – and represented the Mortality faction. If you’re able to, you could share your city write-up with your players in advance of the session. It’s also useful to develop broad brush strokes of one NPC for each faction. You need to be careful about introducing too many NPCs in your one-shot, but it helps to have some to start with so the players can generate them. Resist the temptation to have more than one NPC for each faction! Your players will generally invent more of them, and you can always create more on the fly for them if you need to.

Think of a Bang to Start With

Before play starts, think about an unavoidable event that can be happening that will bring the PCs together. Maybe something that threatens the whole city, or something that you know the PCs will hold dear – a reason for them to stick together. In play, the start of session move will give them more stuff to do as well, so your incident might be a backdrop or might be the key action of the session, but it should be unavoidable and with clear consequences.

Good ideas are an important area or location in the city being under threat, a massive monster being released or summoned, or a deadly NPC arriving and tipping the status quo. Even if it ends up being a backdrop, it should be something that sets multiple events in motion – it’s OK to have a deadly vampire killer on the loose, but make sure that his murders trigger an all-out Vamp-Werewolf gang war in the city, and have the wizards summoning blood demons to take out the most dangerous Vamp threats to them.

As well as an inciting incident, have a few ideas about how this event will climax towards the end of the session – the battle / binding of the demon, the restoring of the status quo, the NPC being chased off. Clearly it’s a good idea to have this as loose as you can make it, but it should be a clear endgame where the threat gets resolved one way or another.

Start of Play

Do Character Generation by the book

Get the players to fill in their Playbooks as per the rules on them. Follow the book advice on one-shots (one extra advance, 3 points of Corruption, one Corruption advance). Get them to go around and briefly introduce their characters after you give a brief overview of the city and the four factions you created. For each NPC, write their name and faction onto an index card and throw them in the middle of the table.

Do Debt – and make it a massive deal

Get the players to take turns in deciding Debt, and make a big deal of it. The book does advise this, but it helps to explicitly refer to Debt a key currency in the game – this is a game of factional manipulation and politics, so who owes whom is really important. I like to stress that 2 Debt is a big deal – you owe them big time, and they can call in a suitably big favour for this – anyone who owes 2 Debt to someone has a ticking time bomb of something being called in. In play, remember to remind them when they ask for something that Debt is the way to leverage it – and that they can always refuse to help with the appropriate Debt Moves.

Start of Session Moves

It’s easy to think that the start of session move doesn’t work for one-shots, but it really sings, especially if somebody rolls a Miss. I avoid giving any hints of my inital scene before they have done the session move, so that the PCs already have a lot on their plate before their unavoidable event happens.

Don’t pull punches! If they roll a Miss, it’s entirely appropriate to start them in a terrible situation. PBTA games are really resilient at letting PCs go from tragedy to glory, and back again, in just a few Moves, so don’t feel bad about starting with your Wizard captured by a recalcitrant demon he was trying to summon. When they mark their Faction, explain how the Advancement system works and that they are just 3 interactions away from advancing – they should be actively hunting down other factions to get their ticks. In the course of the Session Move, the players might suggest additional NPCs. Write them on an index card with their faction and put them in the middle of the table.

Check your NPCs

Before you launch your starting scene, take a look at the NPCs on the table and see if you can ditch any of them. If there’s one without any debt who doesn’t seem to be of interest to the group, suggest to the players that they might not feature in the game. They might have future plans for them – which is fine – but otherwise try to trim your NPC list down as much as you can. If this means ditching all four of your starting NPCs, so be it! The players inevitably come up with much more interesting characters.

Play!

Often PBTA games suggest you take a break now and collate your notes, look at how factions interact, and check you are ready to play. My own experience is that after the start of session moves I’m often fizzing with ideas, and the players are ready to go, so it’s better to start with the inciting incident now and have a break straight after it.

One piece of pay advice I’m terrible at following myself – make your hard moves soon! In a one-shot, once that first miss gets rolled in a risky situation, it’s fine to hit the player with unavoidable consequences; the “warn someone of impending danger” move is often slow. I prefer, in a one-shot, to “put someone in danger.”

So that’s a quick write-up of how I do Urban Shadows one-shots. It’s a cracking game and a great urban fantasy experience to bring to conventions. I’ll be posting up my Manchester 1997 setting shortly, so watch out for that – and putting up more one-shot advice soon enough.

Oh, and if urban fantasy is your bag, you should check out the kickstarter for the Liminal RPG. I’m involved in editing and producing some Case Files (adventures) for the system, and possibly more content depending on how far the stretch goals go. It’s already funded, so any extra Backers just mean more stuff gets written and produced for everyone!

The Forest of Doom – a Dungeon World One-Shot

Forest of Doom imageIt’s one thing to blog about prep, but here’s some actually finished prep, ready for you to use yourselves, either as an actual session plan or as a framework. I present to you a ready-to-run one-shot for Dungeon World (DW), adapting the classic Fighting Fantasy gamebook The Forest of Doom.

There’s an awful lot of love for the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks (in the UK gaming scene anyway) – an awful lot of us had our first experience of fighting goblins and exploring dungeons in the paperbacks by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone.

In adapting it to Dungeon World, I went with a couple of Fronts about the evil forest and the impending troll army, and tried to sprinkle a few clues into the encounters in the forest in order to make them feel a little less random than the original game.

The download for the notes is here – be warned that it’s very much as many notes as I need to run it, and you might find the previous article to be useful in order to make sense of it.

In terms of how I adapted it, I started by playing through the gamebook four or five times (never successfully, may I add – some of the early FF games are really unforgiving!). I then made a list of the most interesting / iconic encounters, and made them the set pieces for the adventure. It was a lot of fun, and it really sang at the table – all of my players were really into the shared narration part of it, and DW does a great job of creating the camaraderie (in-jokes even) of a group of adventurers in only a few hours of play.

I ran it at Revelation, a convention entirely consisting of Powered by The Apocalypse (PBTA) games in Sheffield, UK. I also ran Urban Shadows, which I’ll blog more about soon, and played in an excellent game of Undying.

Right now, I’m tempted to adapt some more FF books for Dungeon World, since it seems such a good fit. Any requests? And if by any chance you do use this at the table, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

Dungeon World One-Shots

Edit: If you’re interested in an actual real-life one-shot set-up, my Forest of Doom setup is available here.

 

I’m mid-way between running a Dungeon World (DW) one-shot, and prepping one at the moment, so I’m thinking a lot about how to make DW hot for one-shot play. John Aegard has some excellent advice here, and I’ve blogged more generally about prepping Powered by the Apocalypse (PBTA) games before, but here’s a few other tips that I’ve developed that are DW-specific. For me, running DW at conventions means I need a bit more meat on the bones of that the PCs will actually do, while still letting them freewheel and develop the narrative situation themselves.

Let them choose

Unlike in other PBTA games, there’s no need to pre-book players in Classes. In other games, the choices they make here have significant impact on the focus of the game and how it plays out – if your Apocalypse World group includes a Hardholder, for instance, you’re going to need to put their settlement front and centre of the action and aggressively threaten and develop it.

In Dungeon World, regardless of the choices made, the players are going to be an adventuring team – so there’s no need to do this. In fact, at the start of play I try to be really explicit that the balance of classes really isn’t important in this game, just to make sure they don’t feel like they need (for instance) a Fighter to tank and a Cleric to heal people. So encourage players to have a free rein in picking their Classes and Races. I tend to restrict mine to the classes in the DW book, just because there’s more than enough there, but if one of the players has a burning desire to play a 3rd-party Class, I’d probably let them.

Pitch your Sitch

For convention games, you usually need to advertise your game in advance, and for that you need to write an exciting teaser trailer for your upcoming game. Get this set in advance and not only can you give your PCs a problem they can’t ignore, but you can also tie them into this story right at the start with link questions.

The game I’m prepping at the moment is riffing off the classic Fighting Fantasy gamebook Forest of Doom by Ian Livingstone, and so to promote my game (and set my situation), I’ve just used the text on the back of the book:

A war is raging and your help is needed to vanquish the evil trolls. To save the dwarfs, you must find the Grand Wizard Yaztromo and track down the pieces of a legendary war hammer lost in the depths of Darkwood Forest, where gruesome monsters lurk.

Now, once this situation is prepared, I write a list of link questions to ask the PCs – at least one per player, but you might want a few more. They ask the PCs about their relationship with this crisis – and allow them to define twists, NPCs, or aspects of the situation within a comfortable framework.

For Forest of Doom, my link questions look like this:

  • You served in the dwarf army before, defending Stonebridge from the trolls. Why did you leave?
  • You’ve wandered Darkwood Forest before. What dangerous beast did you encounter?
  • What have you done to earn the Grand Wizard Yaztromo’s ire?
  • Gillibran, the dwarf leader in Stonebridge, leads a demoralized and divided army. What happened to bring the dwarf military so low?
  • And so on…

I try to make these questions about what has gone before, rather than what is happening now, so that players don’t feel like they might step on narrative toes, and so that I can keep my prep useful. In play, I go through them straight after Bonds.

Fronts, Dangers, and a Map

For a single 2-4 hour one-shot, you’re not going to want more than one Adventure Front. This is the backbone of the adventure, and the closest thing to a pre-determined plot you have. Likewise, your Dangers give structure to the encounters and opposition that the PCs face; without them they might feel they’re aimlessly wandering from monster to monster. For my current prep, that’s pretty much what playing the Forest of Doom gamebook feels like, so I’m especially keen to avoid that!

I’ve not run my Forest of Doom adventure yet, so I’ll publish my Fronts and Dangers separately at a later date to avoid any spoilers for my players, but suffice to say I tend to just follow the procedures on p185 of the DW book, including adding in stakes questions (which might sometimes already be answered by your link questions above).

A lot of the available adventure starters and modules for DW include several Custom Moves for each game. Personally, I try to avoid them – DW does not need new rules for a one-shot. The only time I put them in is when I don’t see an obvious fit with the Basic Moves for how to resolve something – very often one of those moves will fit. They give great flavour in an ongoing game as the party encounters new areas and foes – and ultimately with custom moves, new rules – but I really don’t think they’re necessary in a one-shot.

Forest of Doom map

The Ideal Level of Detail on your map – Darkwood Forest

I like to have a sketch map to put in the centre of the table during play. This doesn’t contain encounter locations or details, but it grounds the players in w

hat they’re doing and makes it feel a bit less like you’re pulling encounters and events out of thin air based on how they’re doing and the pacing needs of the game – which is pretty much what you’re going to be doing, except informed by the Fronts and Dangers. This map from the gamebook is exactly the level of detail I want for my game

 

Set Pieces

In play, I tend to follow the player’s leads, offer them choices as to which paths and routes to take, and respond accordingly. I do like to have 5-6 ‘set piece’ encounters lined up that I hope they’ll take – usually these will be where they find items or clues that move the adventure along. In Forest of Doom, where the quest is to find the lost two parts of a war hammer, obviously two of the encounters will result in finding the parts of the hammer – but unlike the book I’m going to seed clues in the rest of the encounters to show where the hammer might be, rather than rely on random wanderings through the forest.

These don’t have to combat encounters, and should have a number of options to resolve them. You can use linked questions (eg, “Tell me one thing all gnomes hate” when they first meet a gnome) to give narrative control.

You don’t have to use all of them, but they will provide a backdrop of things to use if you suffer the dreaded PBTA “Move Freeze” when an MC move doesn’t immediately occur to you. DW is already pretty forgiving in this – in no small way because it’s easier in the fiction and implied setting to have a sudden change of pace (orcs attack!) to bring up the energy levels at the table and even buy you some time to figure out what’s going on.

So those are my emerging tips for DW one-shots. I’ll conclude by saying that it’s my belief that Dungeon World really is the most forgiving PBTA game to start MCing, and encourage you to try it if you’re at all interested in these kinds of games. I spent several months trying to grok Apocalypse World and Monsterhearts before a game of Dungeon World made me chill the hell out and realise that they were easier to run than I was thinking. What are your top tips for Dungeon World one-shots? And look out for the full prep notes for Forest of Doom after the Revelation convention at the end of February.

The Goblins and The Pie Shop – a 1st-level D&D adventure

Following on from my posts on D&D 5e and review of Xanathar’s Guide, I present for you a light-hearted introductory adventure, showing what happens when you take the classic The Orc and The Pie encounter and try and flesh it out into an actual adventure. Rather than structure it as a dungeon, this is a loosely-structured investigation into what has gone on at Mrs Miggins’ pie shop, and it contains some pre-setup questions that are designed to embed the PCs in the situation and involve them in creating some of the setting and background. The structure of the adventure uses Justin Alexander’s Adventure Nodes.

If you’re looking for a more traditional dungeon-crawling 1st level module, I have to recommend Matt Colville’s The Delian Tomb (the link is a youtube video of him explaining how to design it).

If you want it as a .pdf, you can download it from here. Otherwise, read on!

The Goblins and the Pie Shop

A 1st-level introductory adventure for D&D 5th Edition

Mrs Miggins’ pie shop is the first place any self-respecting adventurer would head to on their way out to seek their fortune in the world… her delicious meat and flaky crust are the talk of every frontier tavern, and many carefree ventures into the wilderness have started here. Naturally, as you venture into the Dark Forest, you’d stop here first… but when goblins have stolen her secret spice mix, you must rush to Mrs Miggins’ aid so that adventurers will be sustained.

This is an introductory adventure for 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons. It’s designed to take around 2-3 hours to play through, although there are guidelines at the end to condense this to 1-2 hours. It’s balanced for four 1st-level adventurers generated using Adventurer’s League guidelines; again the appendix contains details to scale the encounters for smaller or larger groups.

It is designed to give a simple introduction to D&D5e and fantasy roleplaying outside of a dungeon setting, and to demonstrate how a loosely-plotted adventure can be structured.

Background – DM’s Eyes Only

Symon “The Pieman” has a pie shop in town, and he’s brutally jealous of Mrs Miggins’ success. He uses the same alchemist to ward his own shop – so once he learned how to bypass the magical wardings, he sent his goons in to steal her secret spice recipe. He then paid Holg the Orc to break in and kick about the shop the following day to cover up the theft and make it look like a random goblin raid.

Scene 0: Pre-Set Up

Allow the players to choose characters and introduce them briefly. Explain the starting situation to the players. In brief:

  • They have decided to seek their fortune in the Dark Forest, for the reasons determined previously
  • They are rookie adventurers, having just banded together as like-minded young heroes
  • It is traditional amongst new adventurers to call at Mrs Miggins’ Pie Shop, on the edge of the forest, for some fortifying snacks to take with them on the way to the Forest
  • The forest is dangerous in the centre, but at its boundaries is less dangerous. There are goblins, orcs, and brigands wandering around it though, as well threats the players will now define

They have some background already, but spend a few minutes asking each of them one of the questions from the list below.

  • Why are you venturing into the Dark Forest? What great riches await you there?
  • What is said to guard these riches?
  • What has made you leave your comfortable home to take up a life of adventure?
  • (insert name), you have a mentor, a veteran adventurer. Who is he and what has he told you of Mrs Miggins pie shop?
  • (insert name), a friend of yours growing up was Mrs Miggins’ grandson. What pie filling did he recommend that you just had to try?
  • (insert name), you’re not sure you even like pies. You had one of Symon the Pieman’s pies back in the village and it made you sick. What have the others done to convince you to stop at Mrs Miggins’?

As the players answer these questions, make brief notes of them – if you can, on a big piece of paper in the middle of the table so that all the players can see it. If you can incorporate these answers into the game as it plays, so much the better – and encourage the players to do so as well!

Scene 1: Mrs Miggins’

As they approach the Pie Shop, a tumbledown cottage from which you would normally expect the smell of delicious baking, it is mid-morning and something is clearly wrong. The door hangs ajar from its hinges and the gates to the cottage garden appear to have been torn from their hinges. There are signs of a scuffle inside, and as they approach cautiously, they discover a group of goblins engaged in ransacking the place.

Combat: there are three Goblins (MM, p166), Elg, Melg, and Thom. They wield curved knives as scimitars from the standard stat block, and are extremely cowardly – they will run as soon as they have lost a total of half their hit points – this is 12 hp for 3 PCs, 16 hp for 4 PCs, and so on. Of course, the PCs may well decide to give chase, which will allow them (if anyone speaks goblin) to work out who sent them.

Treasure: The goblins carry only loose change – they carry 15 cp each and their wretched scimitars, and are clad in rough rags.

Mrs Miggins is tied up, badly injured (DC 10 Wisdom (Medicine), or a Spare the Dying / Cure Wounds spell to stabilize, otherwise she will be groggy and uncommunicative, and unable to provide them with any pies), and says that she came down this morning to find the goblins rooting around. She has freshly paid-up magical wards from the Alchemist’s Guild in town, so she was surprised to see them, but they quickly overwhelmed her. There’s no way they could have bypassed those wards – she often finds drunken adventurers trying to sneak in and steal pies, and the wards always knock them out cold.

Any surviving goblins can be easily persuaded with a DC 10 Charisma (Intimidation or Persuasion) check to surrender what information they know. They were tipped off by Holg the Orc to raid the shop, and told there would be no magical defences. There weren’t, and the door was unlocked, which they thought was unusual. Holg oftens throws good jobs to their tribe (the Dark Forest Goblins) in return for odd jobs and help with distracting adventurers. He’s a herbalist who lives not far from here on the edge of the forest. Mrs Miggins knows him as a regular customer, and is very upset if she learns that he has had any hand in the raid. She doubts that he is skilled enough to remove her magical protections.

Mrs Miggins is in shock when it emerges that her secret spice mix has also been stolen – the goblins know nothing about it, but when she checks her cupboards it’s nowhere to be seen. She offhandedly remarks that, while she has no competitors because her product is so good, Symon “the Pie Man” in the village would dearly love to get his hands on her spice formula, and he has been visiting recently asking her about what goes into it – she never reveals anything, and has told him he will just have to devise his own formula! She of course begs the PCs to help her recover the secret spices; she can offer lifetime credit at her pie shop, 100 gp, and also a couple of potions of healing that they can take with them if they agree to help.

A really thorough search of Mrs Miggins’ spice cupboard reveals a scrap of black velvet that has been caught on the side of the wall – and which certainly doesn’t belong to any goblins.

From this point, the players may decide to investigate their leads in whatever order they choose – they can visit the Alchemist’s Guild (scene 2), or head over to Holg’s dwelling (scene 3). Either of these may lead them to scene 4 or to the final confrontation in scene 5.

Scene 2: The Alchemists’ Guild

The Alchemists Guild sits on the edge of town, and it is straightforward to get an appointment with Crawford Ellison, the wispy-bearded wizard who set up Mrs Miggins wards. If persuaded (DC 15 Charisma (Persuasion)) he will reveal that they are standard-issue wards, given to regular business customers, and a DC 10 Intelligence (Arcana) or Wisdom (Insight) check, as they check his records, that the wards only appear to be changed weekly – so that a customer who had the wards installed in the same week could in theory bypass them. If Crawford refuses to talk to them (failed persuasion roll) they can see the warding roster and invoices sat in the back office of the Guild – a DC 15 Dexterity (Stealth) or Intelligence (Investigation) should be enough to find them by stealth and discover the same information.

The customers from the same week include Rezzik the Half-Orc’s Wagon company, The White Lion public tavern, and Symon “the Pie Man” for his pie shop at the edge of town… again, if Crawford is friendly he will reveal that Symon still hasn’t paid for his wards, as he said he had a big business venture coming up which would mean he could pay them off easily. He has also asked for another job to be completed, and they are currently debating whether to ask for the money up front this time – for a small shack further into the forest (“A godforsaken place – that surely can’t be his next business venture, unless he’s setting up some sort of goblin mercenary company haha!”). A sketched map to this shack is held with the other files for the wards, which Crawford will share with the PCs if he is friendly.

Scene 3: Holg the Orc

Holg lives in a isolated, tumbledown cottage deeper into the woods. He’s a solitary herbalist, and while he has no great love for adventurers, he’s no fool. He has had a bad feeling about organising the goblins to raid Mrs Miggins ever since he was party to it, and is keen to try and make amends so he can enjoy her delicious pies again. Holg isn’t easy to persuade, ut a DC 15 Charisma (Intimidation) will be enough to make him share what he knows, or any show of force that shows him the PCs mean business. Once this happens he will reveal that Symon used him as a go-between to get the goblins to ransack the shop

Combat: Holg is a standard Orc (MM p246) with no additional abilities save his contacts and reasonable nature. He surrenders as soon as the combat turns against him – which includes having taken more damage than the PCs have at any time.

  • Symon just said that the magical protections would be down for the day, and asked that Holg go and ransack the place. Holg is quite fond of Mrs Miggins, so he didn’t go himself, but he got the Dark Forest goblins to go, on the condition they didn’t hurt her
  • He knows nothing about the secret spice mix, or even that Symon’s men had raided the shop previously
  • He can give them directions to the shack that Symon has set up in the forest, and everyone knows where the Symon “the Pie Man”’s shop is

Scene 4: The Shack in the Forest

Symon has set this up as a secret laboratory to try and duplicate the results of his theft. The shack is lined with herbs and spices, and different crust mixtures sit in an ice-box alongside packets of Mrs Miggins’ pies. Hidden away in the shelves (DC 15 Wisdom (Perception)) is Mrs Miggins’ secret mix, with the label half-peeled off.

(optional) Scene 4a: Symon’s Thugs

Depending on the time available, the confrontation may take place here (see the listing for Symon and his associates in Scene 5) or you may need an additional conflict to stretch out the adventure. If this is the case, a squad of Symon’s guards arrive to dissuade the PCs to call off their search; they are all human thugs, but one carries a swatch of black velvet on his shoulder which can be seen to be ripped.

Combat: There are 6 Guards (MM p347) and one guard dog (stats as Wolf (MM p341)) who has tracked the PCs here.

Scene 5: Symon “the Pie Man”’s Shop

Symon’s shop is freshly painted a new, but the aroma of pastry that comes from it is stale, and the meat in his pie fillings is under-seasoned. His shelves groan with unsold pies – truth be told, Symon is not a gifted baker, and unless he is able to successfully duplicate Mrs Miggins’ spice mix, it is unlikely that his business will survive.

If the PCs arrive here without solid proof that Symon is implicated in this, he will present himself as a reputable businessman and tell them that the attack on Mrs Miggins is a result of random goblin raids. Only the evidence of the secret spice mix (if they have recovered it from the shack), or compelling evidence like the torn black velvet, will force him into a confrontation, where he and his guards will attempt to silence the PCs.

Combat: Symon is a Thug (MM p350) and he is accompanied by his Guard Dog, Gnash (stats as Wolf, MM p341) and 2 Guards (MM p347).

Treasure: Symon and his men carry 40 gp and 200 sp, and Symon has a potion of greater healing (which he drinks if he has to) and a potion of climbing.

He fights to the death as he realises his entire business empire is at risk, peppering the battle with references to Mrs Miggins’ terrible pies and how she only made her fortune serving dishonest adventurers.

Once dispatched, the town guards will be certain to arrive and take Symon and his men to be imprisoned and tried by the village magistrate. Having rescued the secret spice mix, it is probably time for the PCs to return to Mrs Miggins where she will be fulsome with her praise and generous with her pies!

Appendix A: Running in Less Time

The adventure is designed to run to completion in around 2-3 hours; if you have less time, cut out some of the options for the investigations in the middle of the adventure to have just one of scenes 2-4 happen. Some options are presented below, depending on which lead the players follow:

  • The Alchemist’s Guild will implicate Symon fully in the break-in, and will give them the details of the shack in the forest that he has also asked to be warded by them. They can head over there where they interrupt Symon and his crew and can have the showdown with him.
  • If the PCs go straight to Holg the orc, have Holg spill the whole story as soon as he knows he has adventurers on his back; he has a note signed by Symon asking him to break into the shop, and was given the keys to the arcane wards as well. He is meant to be meeting Symon that afternoon, and will happily take the PCs with him to allow them to ambush him
  • If they go to The Shack, they interrupt Symon and his crew in the process of duplicating the spice mix – once they notice they have been seen they go to attack the PCs to cover up their secret.

In all cases, be prepared to guide and assist the players if they don’t quite follow the sequence of events. The goblins in Scene 1 will readily admit that the place was already broken into when they arrived – and maybe one of them is carrying a prepackaged meat pie from Symon’s place!

Appendix B: Running With More of Fewer Players

The adventure as written is designed to provide a challenge for four players. With fewer (or more) players, use the following table to adjust the number of opponents in each of the (potential) combat scenes:

Scene 2 PCs 3 PCs 5 PCs 6 PCs 7+ PCs
1 – Goblins 1 Goblin 2 Goblins 4 Goblins 5 Goblins 6 Goblins
3 – Holg Give Holg stats as a Goblin (p166) – he is old and infirm 1 Orc 1 Orc 1 Orc and Holg has a pet Wolf as well 1 Orc and Holg has a pet Wolf as well
4a – Guards 3 Guards 4 Guards 6 Guards

1 Wolf

6 Guards

2 Wolves

6 Guards

2 Wolves

5 – Symon 1 Thug

1 Guard

1 Thug

1 Wolf

1 Guard

1 Thug

1 Wolf

1 Guard

1 Thug

1 Wolf

2 Guards

1 Thug

2 Wolves

2 Guards

 

Review: Xanathar’s Guide to Everything (D&D5e)

I’ve been saying for a while that playing, and running, more 5th edition D&D is definitely something I want to do this year; and in this post, I dissected the beauty of random tables and promised a review of the product that inspired them, Wizards’ latest D&D5e supplement Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. Well, here it is. Disclaimer first: I’m hardly the most knowledgeable person to talk about D&D5; if some of the new rules are imbalanced and hazy, I probably won’t have noticed them – other reviews are available, that will no doubt have a different focus to mine. I’m not going to be analysing the mechanical balance and options of each subclass presented, for instance – as usual in my reviews, I’ll be looking in broad brush strokes at what’s useful for one-shot games in the publication.

The Fluff – Roll 1d6 for your next three adventure hooks

While at first glance Xanathar’s contains little in the way of setting information, background or explicit ‘story,’ it is filled with is implicit, flexible background. Each character option and random table populates your game’s world with NPCs, factions, and hooks – and these are yours, not some silent D&D canon. This is a map-free book, but in using the optional rules just for your PCs you’ll find setting leaping out at you fully-formed.

What and how? Well, each background has additional tables, and there are a set randomly-rolled life events for each character. Each class has them; and they’re short and simple, easily picked though and just the relevant ones used. Wizards, for instance, now have three 1d6 tables that they can optionally use to determine what their spellbook looks like, what their mystical ambitions are, and what eccentricities they have developed through their studies of the art.

There’s also a set of random encounter tables by terrain and tier that give a good inclination of what different areas are like. It’s a long time since I’ve used any sort of random encounter table (and my procedure tended to be to roll up 2-3 in advance, make them tied to the world and interesting mechanically, and throw them at players if they came up, rather than rolling directly on them while in play) but they give a good sense for the setting and just what kinds of D&D creatures inhabit each kind of terrain.

Another nice bit of fluff is rules for Common Magic Items, which are cantrip-like magic items that provide small, but useful, functions – like the candle of the deep which never goes out, even underwater. Each one suggests multiple different uses – I can imagine a city beseiged by seasonal storms to have a roaring trade in candles for when the storms come, both from the wealthy seeking to keep their houses well-lit and those wanting to do business under cover of them.

The Crunch – there is a lot of this

Let’s start with the big stuff, the stuff that most readers will go to immediately – there are tons of character options, at between 2-4 new subclasses for each class. Some are familiar (I was pleased to see the Cavalier back, as well as the Kensai , Swashbuckler, and Hexblade) – and some are funkier suggestions (there’s a drunken master monk style, and a samurai). I’d really appreciate these when rolling up pregens for one-shots, as they provide a really clear distinct concept for players to latch onto. Because they’re subclasses, they don’t really add extra complexity to play, either, as they’re a one-off option that replaces other rules options in the class.

There’s lots of new spells, too – and extended trap design rules and systems for downtime. There’s tables and rules for buying, crafting, and selling magic items – not likely to see play in a one-shot, but fills in a handwavey part of play that’s been really poorly supported in previous editions. Back in youth of playing D&D, we’d always be heading back to town trying to fence yet another longsword +1 or potion of feather fall, and it always felt we were at the DM’s mercy as to how generous he was feeling.

There’s a new reading of the encounter design system, which appears much simpler and easier-to-use than the previous one in the DMG. My own experience from building encounters for one-shots right back from 3rd Edition would be to make every encounter harder than the rules say – you’re aiming for exciting, dangerous combat rather than the gradual resource-drain of regular dungeon exploration – and on the face of it this system makes it easier to twiddle those knobs to make that work.

Also there are extended rules for using tools – which I can see being really useful in a one-shot to make non-combat skill use a bit better supported in the game. Each set of tools is also linked to which skills are used with it – and if you’ve got any kind of mystery or investigation, these are good sources of inspiration for where clues might come from.

The One-Shot

Truth be told, most of the use this will see in a one-shot is embedded in the options above, but there are 3 excellent pages in an appendix at the back that are really useful. They detail how to setup and run a shared campaign, and although they clearly are geared towards running Adventurer League games, there’s some useful estimates such as how long combat encounters should take and how you can pace experience so everyone stays on the same page. I’m a big fan of linking one-shots into episodic campaigns, and this gives you most of the tools to do so, as well as sharing GM duties.

In an ideal world, for me this would have been 30 pages, not 3, and maybe explored using D&D for one-shots, different campaign formats (the 3-session minicampaign, sandbox play with a player pool like in West Marches, etc) – ook at structuring games and giving players ownership and genuine choice while also managing your prep (stuff like The Alexadrian’s Node-Based Design) – but hey, if it had all that stuff in, there’d be less for people to blog about, I guess.

To sum up, Xanathar’s brings an awful lot of extra ‘stuff’ to the game, but in a format that makes it pretty easy to drop in bits of it at a time to add to, rather than complicate, your game. I’ve still got a lot more thinking and exploring to do about running D&D5e as a one-shot (and I’ll be posting my thoughts here), but Xanathar’s increases the range of tools available to do so. What approaches or prep have you found useful in setting up a D&D5 one-shot, and am I right in thinking that using supplements like Xanathar’s and Volo’s can add richness without complexity?