The Smallest Available Group: 1-on-1 one-shot gaming

I blogged about online gaming here, and I’ve certainly had a lot of that going on this year, but I’ve also run and played some 1-on-1 games; one GM, one player. With social restrictions likely to continue well into 2021, it’s never been a better time to embrace the smallest possible gaming group.

This makes quite a big difference to the gaming experience – it’s a different way to play than a more tradition gaming group, with it’s own advantages and foibles. I’m going to talk about the three systems I’ve used for it this year, and the pros and cons of each, as well as some general thoughts/advice about how I think it works best.

Gumshoe One-2-One

Pelgrane Press currently have two published games for 1-on-1 play – Cthulhu Confidential, a spin off of Trail of Cthulhu where a solo investigator encounters Lovecraftian horrors, and Nights Black Agents: Solo Ops, where an amnesiac vampire conspiracy survivor (or another PC – you can generate your own) uncovers a conspiracy of bloodsucking undead. It has a simple, small dice pool-ish system for resolving conflict and each conflict is a different table of results, potentially making writing your own mysteries time-consuming – but that probably isn’t a concern, and they have quite a bit of stuff out for it anyway.

I’ve run Cthulhu Confidential, guiding hard-boiled P.I. Dex Raymond through a mystery, and played NBA: Solo Ops, where my vampire escapee just about managed to survive and get the hell out of Budapest.

Pros: As with every Gumshoe game, this is amazingly good for investigative / clue-based games. Other styles of play work less well – although NBA:SO is good for pulse-pounding action, and my game of it was definitely intense and threatening. There’s a level of genuine peril in the system – you can’t die or go insane during the game, but you might at the end if you still have injuries or madnesses hanging over you, and the card-based consequences work really well.

Cons: It is prep-heavy, even if you use their pre-written mysteries. They are heavily scaffolded to make it easy to run, but reading then and keeping the stuff in my head was tricky, and playing online you’ll want the cards as handouts which will take some setup.


Ironsworn is a PBTA-adjacent game of grimdark fantasy, and has a really good system for tracking quests and objectives – you Swear an Iron Vow when you get a quest, and then can attempt to resolve it when you’ve made some progress along its track. This track-based resolution works for every task in the game, and it’s a really clever system where the basics are simple, but your traits (available as cards) give you neat edges and advantages.

It’s full of oracle tables and random generators (it’s designed to also be playable solo, as well as with a group) and so it suits a more improvisational style of play. When I ran it, I had a loose idea of some raiders based in an ancient shipwreck, and the tables were enough to flesh that out with the usual PBTA player-input into conflicts. It has a supplement, Delve, that applies the same principles to location-based adventuring (fill the Delve’s track and try to resolve it) – I haven’t used this, but it looks excellent.

Pros: The setup and setting is explained well and quite intuitive if you follow the steps involved – the shared world-building really builds a unique dark fantasy setting. The system shines out as a genuinely original way of resolving stuff, and I’m planning on giving it a proper run-out as a group game soon.

Cons: The improv-heavy nature, while making setup easy, does sometimes feel like another thing to think about. I’m generally more comfortable with a ready-baked adventure for 1-on-1 play, despite being a bit more loosey-goosey in one-shots generally, so be aware you’ll have to think on your feet a bit and lean on the oracles.


Wait, what? Well, I discovered some excellent stuff from Sly Flourish, so I’ve run a couple of sessions of D&D 1-on-1. The post above has the guidance I used in it, but basically we played with a group of 2 PCs, one played by the GM during roleplaying scenes, but controlled by the player in combat or dice-based challenges. Fights take a bit of balancing, and I think being a few levels above what an adventure recommends and eyeballing using the rules in Xanathar’s Guide for CR helped to make the combats a sufficient challenge.

There’s loads of published stuff, obviously, for this, and it being a familiar system makes it feel easier than it is – despite D&D being quite crunchy compared to the previous posts. I’m guessing this system would work well for any ‘trad’ game – and the 2-PC 1-player thing seemed to be both manageable for the player and made it more fun for me as GM.

Pros: Loads of stuff available, easy to get into the swing of things because we all know what D&D is. D&D tropes feel familiar (to me at least) so this was the least stressful system to run.

Cons: There might be published stuff, but you do need to check the combat encounters and try to rebalance them, and maybe make some judgements on the fly. I found genuine peril a bit hard to get in these game – that’s D&D5e for you I guess – which may be more of an issue for you and your player.

General Tips

There are many other ways to run 1-on-1 games, and as I’ve said the D&D method above will work for any ‘trad’ system, but there are a few general tips that I’ve found useful:

  • Shorter sessions, or regular breaks, work best. 1-on-1 play is intense, and you won’t have time to catch you breath (as a player) in a regular game. Things move fast, so you might be able to get a 1H1S in, or at least have a pause each hour to check in and rest a little
  • Embrace side chatter. As above, with only two of you, the normal table chatter will be absent, so you can be a bit more relaxed about off-topic conversation and sidetracked roleplaying. This goes with the previous point, that you need some low intensity bits, and so be prepared to roleplay some shopkeepers or bystanders even if they aren’t plot-relevant
  • Consider published adventures. Normally I’m an advocate of either baking your own, or heavily adapting published material, but in 1-on-1 play it’s one less thing to worry about. Long campaigns can be tricky, but there’s so much stuff out there, you can do yourself a favour and pick something up and enjoy the ride as GM yourself.
  • Think about theatre of the mind. Again, with two of you have time to explore descriptions and share the action in your imagination – you’ll have less need of a combat map, too, with fewer PCs and fewer opponents. This can add to the immersion and intensity well.

So, I hope you get chance to try some 1-on-1 gaming over the holidays. There are plenty of other systems that support this explicitly, so please link them in the comments if they work well – along with what’s good (or bad) about them.

Cake Mix, Not Actual Cakes – Running Pre-Written Adventures

I’m currently running (and playing) far more campaign games than one-shots (perhaps that’s why posting here has slowed down a little). In many of the games I’m running, I’m using pre-published adventures, and I’ve done this for one-shots as well.

While it’s easy to think that this will make things easier, in practice I end up doing a similar amount of prep. Using a pre-written adventure gives you an easy lead-in or hook, and can showcases some good ideas (I ran a one-shot of Village of Homlett for 13th Age a few years ago, and it allowed me to show a ‘classic’ adventure in a new light). But often the structure of pre-published modules needs some work to make it one-shot ready. Below is some advice about adapting published materials for a one-shot.

Read the Thing

You need to not only read it, but read it closely enough to get the overall structure of the thing. I take the odd note as I read, and try to sketch out a likely structure of play, breaking it into scenes. Weirdly, this is much harder to do in a location/dungeon-based game, but I try to get an idea of the order things will be encountered in based on the map.

I’ll usually do a quick sketch of what the structure could look like – at this stage I’m probably already cutting out unnecessary scenes – so I’ve got some idea how it’ll play. In particular, I need to have the start of the session really clear in my mind; I’ll usually write notes down to where I talk about rules or safety tools, even planning out the pre-game conversations.

Start Big

In a one-shot (and in any game session, in my opinion) you need to start with an exciting, action-filled scene. If your adventure doesn’t have one, you’ll need to add one. It could be that you add an extra scene in at the start, but given you’ll probably be trying to cut things out, you could always just start the action later than the adventure assumes. I’ve said before that the door to the dungeon is the earliest your one-shot should start, and don’t be afraid to go further than that, for example…

You’ve broken into the crypt beneath the church, and bypassed the traps – fighting some giant rats along the way – that kept out the previous tomb raiders. As you click the pressure points into place, you see the dust swirl out of a much more ancient, much more deadly, crypt – serried ranks of hanging corpses line the sides of a corridor covered with ancient runes, and as the dust moves you see them begin to reach towards you, as the runes begin to shift and swirl before your eyes!

Cut What You Can – Add If You Must

In general, unless your adventure was written as a one-shot (and even if it was, depending on the time you have and your taste in pacing), you’ll have to cut out some of it. Using the example above, it’s perfectly fine to montage through some dungeoneering, and I don’t think a one-shot ever benefits from finding empty rooms – so cut them out ruthlessly.

Prep Notes - including a hastily-scribbled ship name I'd forgotten to prep!
Prep Notes Example

Start by thinking about what the key encounters you would have to have for it to still make sense as a story, and think about whether you need to add anything to that. The things to add could be:

  • existing threads of plot or scenes that back-up what you are running
  • additional encounters that aren’t in the adventure you’re prepping but help to bring it all together
  • scenes or encounters that help with versimilitude, to give some sense of place beyond the one-shot

I have a few ready-reckoners in my head for what makes a good one-shot – between 1 and 3 interesting NPCs (who could be allies or enemies), 2 or 3 challenging fights or similar action scenes, a maximum of 1 puzzle or moral quandary. Often it’s the NPCs that need to be added – alongside some less interesting NPCs being cut. In the past I’ve added sympathetic goblins to dungeons, or trapped tomb robbers, that the PCs could aid or hinder (and vice versa) – it gives you some chance for a bit of roleplaying amidst the one-shot pace.

Pace is Everything, Therefore Structure is Everything

The most important skill in delivery of a one-shot is consistent control of pace – when it’s high action, the pace should be fast and breezy, but with quieter moments so the players (and you) can catch breath. Running a published adventure can make this more of a challenge, as it’s not obvious (because you haven’t written it yourself) what you can cut or change without affecting the overall plot.

I’d recommend a quick scene/structure map of the one-shot as a really essential pre exercise, and something to have to hand as you run the one-shot. This structure will give you an idea of what I mean – note that often the middle scenes can take place in any order, but usually I have a good idea of the finale, and I always know how it’s going to start. Often if I’m running from a published adventure I don’t need very much detail within the scene (unless I’ve changed it) but how they fit together is key to keep the action moving.

What are your favourite published one-shots? Any that you can recommend, or that make running a one-shot easier? As always, comment below or get me on twitter @milnermaths.

Interfering Factions – A Technique to Improve Your One-Shot

Often, the plot of a one-shot is simple. Go into the forest and confront the bandits. Clear the demons out of the old temple. Find and destroy the Imperial signal base. As I’ve frequently written on here, a good rule of thumb for a one-shot is to start with a simple, straightforward plot and then twist it. Interfering Factions is one such twist that adds player agency, roleplaying opportunity, and time flexibility to your one-shot; in this sense, it will almost certainly improve it.

How do you do it?

Take your simple one-shot and add another faction. This faction’s motives need not be complex, but they do need to be orthogonal to both the players and the antagonists. You need to imagine a way in which they serve as allies, and a way in which they could serve as enemies – and let them move between these extremes.

It’s usually a good idea to drop hints as to their existence at the outset, or at least make their appearance be easily predictable, so they make sense in the one-shot; you can easily present them as a possible antagonist or friend, but be careful to not commit too hard to either,

Why does this help? Well, it gives the players genuine choice as to how they approach them – they are potential allies, if they can be persuaded or bribed, but they could also interfere. They give a stakes-attached scene which isn’t necessarily a fight (at least at first).

They also, crucially, help with timing if you are running a game at an organised convention or similar. Their introduction and interaction can be flexible – they can appear at a key point to rescue or help the PCs, or betray them at the end – they give flexibility to the GM as well as the players.


In my 13th Age Glorantha adventure The Beard of Lhankor Mhy, the PCs encounter a lost, injured squad of the hated Lunars as they near the big bad – can they put differences aside to rescue their friends? In the adventure as written, the Lunars have a good reason to want an alliance, but I have sometimes seen the PCs and them turn on one another after the main plot is concluded.

Or, to take one of the most obvious fantasy ur-plots,

Goblins are raiding the caravans on the forest road!

The basic adventure is to track them to their cave lair and defeat them via dungeon crawl. But add in a interfering faction – here are a few ideas

  • A rival goblin clan who the goblin chief betrayed to set out on his own
  • The feckless human guard who insist on solving the problem themselves
  • An arrogant noble merchant prince who seeks to monopolize safety along the road

Or, for a science fiction example,

Someone on Planet X has developed a bioweapon!

The basic adventure is that you find who has the one sample by skulduggery and intrigue, then raid them at their suspiciously-combat-prepared lab. But add in

  • Angry eco-terrorists who want the bioweapon for their own ends
  • A rival company who seek to destroy the weapon so their own can gain the patent
  • A disgruntled scientist (in an armored exoskeleton) who seeks to release it in the lab for revenge

You can, of course, add more than one interfering faction, and even build an entire one-shot out of three or more rival factions (for a great example of this communicated with Robin Laws’ customary ease-of-play, see The Strangling Sea for 13th Age). Have you used interfering factions in play? Be sure to comment and let me know.

Review: Mythic Odysseys of Theros

So, continuing on from reviews of Ravnica and Eberron, here’s D&D’s latest setting sourcebook. Theros, apparently, is a setting from Magic: The Gathering that’s a Mythic Greece style fantasy. I’ve written here before about how good this setting is for fantasy (see my review of Agon here), so it’s interesting to see how Wizards have transplanted this to D&D.

The Fluff

Theros map

Map of Theros from the MTG wiki

First up, I must admit I’m a fan of these Magic setting books. They carry their content in a much more manageable way – there aren’t bags and bags of setting history to digest, and the areas covered are more modest. For campaigns as well as one-shots, I like the focus that provides.

The key conceit of Theros is that the Gods take a great personal interest in the heroes and villains of the Mortal Realm – and indeed, travel beyond the Mortal Realm is relatively easy.

The Gods correspond to the Greek pantheon, although everything has been slightly changed – I’m not sure if I’d rather have the original group, although they’ve added some twists to make each one have potential as a patron and an antagonist and give them some flavorful hooks and details. Like Ravnica’s guilds, each God gets a section looking at potential adventures involving them, with a linked map of their temple that could be an encounter location. This is an excellent presentation decision – show don’t tell your setting to GMs! As I’ve said before, I’m also all in favor of D&D moving towards random tables for everything – it’s a neat presentation choice, even if you pick from them.

There’s a discussion of Omens as well, and some other similar background touches in the setting. Particularly interesting are the Returned, the dead who’ve escaped the Underworld, left with few memories of their previous lives, and no faces – they wear ornate golden masks to deal with mortals. It’s refreshing to find a new take on the undead, and – given their memories also haunt the world as Eidolons – a great opportunity for plot.

The Returned feature in the sample adventure, too – which is, I have to say, an absolute corker. A action-packed start, a range of encounters that could be solved by combat or roleplay in different interesting ways, and a hook for the next stage. A little tweaking would make it an excellent one-shot.

The Crunch

Mythic Odysseys of Theros coverFirst up, the new rules stuff – well, apart from humans you have centaurs, satyrs, tritons, minotaurs, and leonine (cat-people, like Tabaxi but significantly less annoying) – each gets the full treatment and goes a long way towards making Theros feel different, even though I’m pretty sure they could have snuck some dwarves in. There’s an extra Bard College (Eloquence), a Paladin Oath (Glory), and an additional Backgroun (Athlete) as well.

Each PC also has a Supernatural Gift, in addition to their Background, which shows how the god have touched them. These are great, and at 1st level give a significant boost to make players more heroic – they include the Anvilwrought – you were crafted in Purphoros’ (Hephaestus) Forge, so appear as a metallic creature, or the Unscarred – like Haktos (Achilles) you’re resistant to physical damage.

It’s assumed that heroes will follow one of the Gods, and there’s a system for them advancing in powers as they gain Piety – a measure which increases and decreases as they follow their God’s whims. I’m not quite as keen on this – it strays close to “good roleplaying” doggy biscuits, and leans a bit on DM judgement, and to not encourage difficult player behavior – this feels a bit looser than I’m used to from D&D.

The One-Shot

I think this is an excellent setting for a one-shot, and the heavy focus on heroes as devotees of the Gods provides keen hooks to motivate them. The Greek focus provides a good bank of tropes players can lean into, and the Gods’ attentions can lead them into all sorts of trouble, from a simple “slay the hydra” plot to more political machinations in the polis presented.

Crucially for D&D settings, it’s sufficiently distinct from Greyhawk / Forgotten Realms/ etc. to feel like a change of scenery. This would be an excellent setting for a break from your regular game or to offer at a game day (virtual or real) where there will be a lot of D&D-focused players there. As I mentioned before, the starter adventure provides an excellent structure for a one-shot, too, with multiple resolution methods for each encounter. If nothing else, I’ll be stealing the encounter with Broken King Antigonos – no spoilers, but he might be my favourite NPC in a published 1st level adventure.

So, I’d heartily recommend Theros, for high fantasy Greek-inspired derring-do. And while honestly I’d be happy with Dark Sun getting the 5e treatment, I’m really enjoying the MTG settings that are being put out by Wizards. Grognards need to stop bitching about Dragonlance and Birthright and embrace the new D&D settings coming out – they bring something genuinely different to the game.

Call of Cthulhu One-Shots

Call of Cthulhu coverAs befits a game with such a strong following, there’s no shortage of game advice for Call of Cthulhu. There’s a wealth of stuff in the Keeper’s Guide, and there’s some excellent advice in The Haunter of the Dark, a story-to-adventure how-to from Paul Baldowski for his own Cthulhu Hack system. Vaesen also has some excellent plot structure tips in its GM advice.

All of these are relevant to the plethora of Call of Cthulhu-style games (Cthulhu Hack, Trail of Cthulhu, Cthulhu Dark, Delta Green, etc, etc), and more generally supernatural horror investigation games (Vaesen, Fear Itself, etc, etc). As always these may not be to your taste – let’s have some agreeable banter in the comments if that’s the case.

Use Safety Tools

As a minimum, stick an X card in it. Explain what it is, and what it does, and be prepared to act on it. More nuanced (and more complex) tools are available – use those if you’d rather. You have no idea what the triggers are for your players, especially at a convention, and even if you think you do, having one in place will reassure you and your players that you take their concerns seriously.

If you’ve tried it and not used it, that’s great – having it there means you have some confidence that your players were comfortable in the game. If you don’t care for comfort, and your plan is to shock your players for real, to get a reaction – well then you shouldn’t be running games at all, and certainly not at a convention. Get a grip.

Signpost Clues. Un-Signpost Un-Clues

Haunter in the DarkIf the NPC they meet in the coffee shop is important, make her sound and look important; give her quirks and mannerisms, and have her drop clues pointing to sources of information. Offer skill checks and even more clear signs: she nervously grasps her handbag, glancing down to the corner of a book kept within. Justin Alexander explains it better than me when he talks about the Three Clue Rule – have multiple ways to move the investigation forward, and be prepared to have some of them come to the players as well if they don’t get them. Keep the pace.

As important as this, if an aspect of the scene isn’t important, don’t describe in it exacting detail so that the players think it is. Don’t plan any red herrings. The players will come up with these anyway – let them theorize, and gently head them off and back to the core. If they ignore the NPC above and begin looking into the rare coffee beans they serve, just circle them back round to the plot as soon as you can. Having antagonists that are active can help with this – if an investigation is stymied, have the clues come to them – maybe carried by men with guns.

Start with an Actual Scene

By an “actual scene,” I mean an in-game event with an element of risk and/or choice. Not a mission briefing, not a mysterious party invite, not waking up in the morning. Start at the party, at the scene of the crime, at the location of the Shoggoth attack, looking at the smear of blood that was once the victim.

Trail of CthulhuThere are variations, of course – in Delta Green, you’re likely to want a mission briefing at the start – but try starting with their first encounter of the mission and covering the briefing in flashback – it’s not as if they have an option to take it or not (especially in a one-shot). In Vaesen, often you’ll begin with a letter inviting you to investigate – but you get to pick your Advantages for that adventure – start in the carriage or on the train to the site of the investigation, and do this in flashback.

In any case you want your first scene to telegraph the PCs in the direction of your plot, making it impossible to ignore – and hopefully give them enough to do that they don’t start too much theorizing until they’ve found out more.

Make Investigation Scenes Worthwhile

Delta GreenInvestigation scenes should do one or two things – they should advance the plot, bringing the PCs closer to their ultimate adversary, or they should grant some advantage in that confrontation. “Advantage” is relative, of course – in Purist Cthulhu it might just be a good escape route.

By making investigation scenes reveal a weakness of the antagonist, a way in or out, or a key part of their backstory, you make these scenes valuable and keep the plot ticking along at pace. Scenes that look like investigation scenes, but reveal nothing and don’t move the plot forward, are just wasting everyone’s time. Flavour and atmosphere can be delivered during a useful scene, rather than being the focus of an entire scene.

Don’t Explain it Afterwards

Or rather, put it in the actual game. “What you didn’t find out was that…” is rubbish. Throw that information in, and resist the urge to gloat if the players haven’t solved your problems. Any reveal should take place in-game; not after it as a sort of “if you’d done better this would have happened.” Clever plots, NPCs and monsters are only clever if the players meet them.

So there you are – I’m indeed no expert on investigative or horror gaming, although I do know a thing or two about one-shots. You can also hear me and the Smart Party picking apart investigative games (specifically, the Vaesen introductory scenario) on their Youtube channel. What are your top tips for investigative gaming? Put them in the comments – or on twitter – and I’ll agree and/or argue with you about them!

Do This, First – 5 ways to improve your one-shot during prep

In this post, I gave 5 things to do while running your one-shot to improve it. In this post, I’m going to give 5 tips to do before you play – during your prep, whether its for a convention, meetup, or just as a change of pace from your usual game. I’ve posted before about prep, where I tried to split it into three stages – the advice sits around all these stages, and is applicable if you’re taking a different approach.

Start With Pregens

Thugs by Jonny Gray

An evocative group of pregens can really make your game pop – art by Jonny Gray

Early on in your prep, if it’s a new game in particular, you should be thinking about the characters you’ll have in the game. If this is your first time with the system, you can use this to get your head around the rules as well – character generation usually gives some indication of what different skills and approaches are, and it’ll help when you come to plot out your game.

I wrote more about pregens here, if you want more advice on making strong pregenerated characters.

Get The Rules Right

If I’m running a game for the first time, for all but the simplest games I like to do a one-sheet of notes of the basic rules, just to help me internalize them. Running a one-shot, you’ll usually have to do some teaching of the rules unless you’re running a really popular game, so you need to know them well enough to explain them to your group. Making notes really helps.

If it’s a particularly complex game, I’ll often run myself through a mock-up conflict as well, just to familiarize myself with how combat (especially) flows. I’ll take two or three of the pregens I’ve just made, and try to run them through a quick battle to internalise the structure of actions.

Also, see here for more notes on running crunchy games.

Structure Your Notes

I’ve said it before, looking at published adventures for sample structures for one-shots isn’t a good idea. Preparing a game for publication and preparing it for play are two different things – in fact if I’m running a published adventure I’ll usually write down some bullet points even if I’m going to have the text in front of me.

I talked about a structure for notes here which I know some others have found useful, but really it’s as much as this

  • Have a well-prepared start and (potential) climax
  • Have a list of cool things that can happen between them
  • Have a list of NPCs with any brief notes you’ll need to differentiate them.

The last one is vital for me. I tend to lose track of NPCs when I’m running, and so I over-prep to make sure I know where they are and what their relationship to the plot is.

Check for Skill Matching

Nobody wants to play a game where their character sucks, so first of all, make sure that every pregen is at least broadly competent at the core activity of the adventure. In a Call of Cthulhu game, none of your pregens should have no ways to investigate and follow up leads, and in an F20 game it’s taken as read that everyone can fight well.

But look a bit closer at the secondary skills that your PCs have, and see if there are opportunities to put them into the game. Likewise, look at the challenges you’ve put into each scene and see if there’s an obvious pregen that can show their skills off in that challenge – you can adjust in either direction to help.

I posted about this – the “three-skill trick” here in more detail.

Check for Plot Matching

For one-shots, I’m a huge fan of having a heavy incentive on following the plot for the whole group, but look to make threads that tie individual pregens into the adventure as well. The fighter’s parents were kidnapped when they were a child? Make it the evil baron who did it, so when they meet him in the finale they’ve got a hook to hang on. A pregen has a long-lost sister? Make them a helpful  NPC they’ll meet along the way – or the evil sorceress serving the aforementioned baron.

As with skill matching, this can be done in either direction – but try to find a thread to link each pregen to the plot so that they get a good chance to advance their own personal story as well as that of the game. This helps to ground them in the setting, so things happen before and after the game, and make the one-shot feel more like a slice of something bigger.

Think and Dream

Alongside the 5 tips above, there’s the core activity of prep – thinking of scenes and challenges that make for an exciting game. Give yourself time to think of these – prep can just as well be done in the shower or while out running as you dream and percolate ideas in your head – just remember to write them down before you forget them!

With these, you’ve got a good chance at making any one-shot really sing. If you want tips to do during play, see this post. If you want to listen to me talking about some of these techniques, I was on the Smart Party podcast talking to Gaz about one-shots here.

I’m going to be doing some more system-specific posts over the next few weeks – as always, if there’s something you’d like to see more (or less) of, get in touch in comments here or on twitter (@milnermaths).

Everyone is Awesome – Review: Mythic D6

Mythic D6 is a game from Khepera Publishing, Jerry D. Grayson’s publishing house that also produces ATLANTIS: Second Age, HELLAS, and soon-to-be-kickstarted Godsend Agenda. All of his games are good-looking, action-adventure games, and quite a few of them use the Omni System, a straightforward D20-based resolution. Mythic D6 does not – it uses a dice pool system (of D6, as you’d expect), and comes as a “Multi-Genre” master book (which includes a sample setting) and an expanding series of campaign supplements .

The Fluff

Mythic D6 coverMythic’s central concept is that it’s a game for playing superheroes. In a snappy forward, it lays out the author’s view that action-adventure roleplaying is really all about telling stories of superheroes – that the PCs stand shoulders above normal men and women by virtue of extraordinary powers. The power level it seems to be pitched at is low/street-level superheroes, and this is relevant – most supers games aim a bit higher for PC power level, and add lower-level heroes as an option, which is usually a less than exciting option since, well, they aren’t as powerful. Mythic makes the default level fairly low, and centres itself solidly around this.

Apart from street-level supers, it’s spawned two supplementary campaign settings so far – Bastion, an afro-centric post-apocalypse sword and sorcery setting, and Terra Oblivion, an eco-activism steampunky pulp adventure (technically it’s probably either ecopunk or, well, fishpunk, but I’m going to resist taking the -punk nomenclature any further).

It also comes with a setting in the book, Project: Mythic, aimed at modern-day low-level supers, that stands out as a great set-up for one-shot play. Otherworldly creatures are invading the normal world through breaches or Shallowings, and PCs as agents of the Institute are dispatched to close these breaches and defeat whatever monsters have leaked forth from them. For a one-shot, it’s a nice tight mission structure, both different and familiar enough from similar genres to make for a good con game or one-shot.

The Crunch

At its heart Mythic is a D6 dice pool system, where you’re counting rolls of 4 and above as successes and hoping to beat a target number. One of your dice is a Wild Die, which can explode on a 6 and give you a critical failure on a 1, and the system is all unified around this dice pool rolling – there’s ‘pips’ that can be used to graduate between whole dice, and auto-successes that can be taken without rolling, but everything hangs around the dice pool. PCs have archetypes that grant them limited-use bonuses (which usually let them double a skill for a roll), and an array of powers from an extensive power list, including separate subsystems for magic and gadgeteering.

As far as complexity goes, the powers are relatively straightforward – they each have a number of options of Enhancements and Limitations that can add or subtract to them. From a cursory read, I’d say that if a player really wanted to make a game-breakingly powerful character, they could – this isn’t an interlocking cogs-and-bolts game, but it tries to model the powers with the minimum of fuss. I’m fine with that – for a one-shot, you’ll be using pregens anyway, and the selection in the book are a great mixture and (crucially) all look straightforward to play.

The rules have all the usual stuff for skills and combat, and two features that I’m becoming more and more attached to in games. The first is an Aggravation Pool, a resource the GM has that can be spent (like the Hero Points players have) to boost enemies and increase the challenge. Like in 2D20 with its Doom Pool, in play I’d have this pile of dice right out in front of me where everyone can see it. The second is rules for Events – non-combat skill challenges that are tackled in stages, like rescuing civilians from a burning building. These are excellently explained and presented, and will be great in one-shots for big, cinematic scenes and interesting use of powers. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking – and blogging– about these recently, and these rules are a great, flexible subsystem.

The One-Shot

There’s a lot to recommend Mythic as a one-shot. A system that’s simple to pick up but with enough depth and complexity to reward players who like to dig into it a bit, and that supports the genre it follows well. Settings that provide automatic hooks and are easy to grasp but with enough interest to hold attention.

In multi-genre books, the included setting is often a bit of an afterthought, but Project: Mythic is engaging, inspiring and deep. As well as an obvious mission structure to get the players involved, it’s got ready-made plot for any one-shot you might need (deal with this Shallowing) that still provides a big range of options for play. Mythic D6 (and Bastion and Terra Oblivion) are certainly going to see some play at cons, face to face or virtual, in the future.

Do This, Now – 5 Ways to Improve any One-Shot

In this post, I’m going to summarize a lot of things that are scattered around the blog, and share 5 things any GM can do to make their TTRPG one-shots rock, whatever the system. If you want examples of most of these (1 and 5 in particular) there’s a stream on YouTube of me running 13th Age Glorantha here (you’ll want Part 3 for the final scenes)

  1. Get your players to introduce their characters in a scene

Don’t ask your players to just describe who they are playing – it’s boring, open-ended (some will take forever, some will just read out their background and – in one “memorable” con game I played in – their equipment list) – ask them to show their characters in a scene. For pulpy, high-fantasy, I describe it as like the opening credits of an old TV show, where they used to show the best bits of the season at the start as the music played. So we might see the barbarian boldly vanquish an orc before downing a pint, or the bard wooing a fair princess. Hand this over to your players and it’ll both introduce them to each other, and set the scene for high action.

In more low-key settings, give a few more parameters. Maybe we see the PCs killing time during a star-system jump, or trudging across the woods on a journey, and zoom in on each one in turn – but ask the players to show, not tell, what their character is like, and you’ll help them to describe their characters’ action better for the rest of the one-shot.

  1. Do some bonds

As described here, get your players to describe links to other PCs – as simple as “who do you trust, and why?” or even describing in turn their previous quest. This really works in a one-shot as it sets the action you’re about to play through in a continuing narrative, making it feel like a episode in an ongoing series rather than a one-off activity.

  1. Have a training conflict

As early as possible in the game, have a skill check or combat for everyone where the stakes – although they are there – are relatively low. In a lot of fantasy games this can just be a combat, and it can be a pretty straightforward one, but it could also be one of the skill challenges described here. By engaging with the system straight away you can get players new to the game up to speed with the system and demonstrate how it works. A lot of running one-shot games at conventions with different systems is teaching the system itself, so don’t neglect this responsibility as GM.

  1. Take breaks

Seriously, take breaks, or they’ll happen anyway during play. Online, I recommend every hour or so, face to face, every 1.5-2 hours, even if only briefly. This helps to keep everyone on board during play and focused and prevent players’ attention wandering. Have them at opportune moments like the end of a scene/act, or even on a cliffhanger – you’ll keep your players (and yourself) fresh to keep your minds focused on the game.

  1. Have a ‘credits roll’ final scene

After the players have completed the one-shot, and they’ve rescued the princess, saved the galaxy, or stolen the jewels, have each player describe a scene from their PCs immediate future – they might be celebrating the recent victory, ruing missed chances, or picking up a loose thread. Like (2), this puts the one-shot into an ongoing narrative, and is a good way for players to sign off playing their PC from the session.

So, that’s my top 5 tips for improving one-shots during the game. Later on I’ll give you 5 things to do during prep that can improve any one-shot. What are your top tips for in-game awesomeness?

Even More Perilous Tribulations: Non-Combat Challenges Revisited

In the original post, I talked about skill challenges, and incorporating them into RPGs of all systems. In this post, I’m going to describe 4 more types of challenge, and give examples of how I’ve used them in my games recently.

The Group Check

This comes, believe it or not, from 5e D&D, although I think it is underused. In this, everyone in the party rolls a skill check (usually the same skill) and if at least half of the party succeed, the group check is successful. An interesting tweak of D&D is that this, like everything, is rounded down, so in a group of 3 PCs if one of them passes the check is passed.

The example I used this for was a group trying to navigate across the Mournland to a location – they all made Survival tests. It works where there is a clear, group-applicable success or failure – and there are consequences for failure. In the example, if they fail, they must spend another day wandering the wastes.

The Success per PC

In this challenge, everyone needs to pass, but there is a facility for very successful rolls to ‘donate’ successes to PCs that fail – as example might be use of Stealth to sneak into an enemy base. Everyone needs to make a check, but especially stealthy PCs can share some of their success to the less stealthy PCs – this avoids the paladin always triggering the guards.

This works well in a group success/failure situation where it doesn’t make sense for some players to fail and the group still to be successful – I’ve used it in the past for climbing a mountain, where the stronger climbers can support the weaker PCs. It does rely on your system having solid degrees of success though – in a d20 game where your skill result is more binary and pass/fail it won’t work.

One Roll with Help

Barely a sub-system, this just means one player makes the check and the others help in whatever way to system allows it. In a recent game of Genlab Alpha, the PCs had to impress the warlike rabbit general, so the group’s warrior rolled – we roleplayed how his allies all helped and gave him the extra dice. For extra flavour, in some systems you can track whether the help worked or not and work it into the narration.

This works when one player is clearly leading, with the others to back them up – often in social encounters with a single NPC or group one player will take the lead, and there is no individual success/failure impact.

The Engagement Roll

This is basically stolen from Blades in the Dark, where the planning and preparation for a job is folded into a single roll that shows how successful it has been. Each player makes a skill check in turn, and the number of successes or failures indicates how successful their engagement has been. Make the rolls in any logical order and with broad brush strokes, and you can get an idea of how well a plan has come off. I used this when running 13th Age Glorantha for a final assault on a Broo camp (the game was streamed; you can watch the skill challenge here, from the start of Part 3)

This is good when you need to montage into something bigger, and failure won’t be a problem – in the example above, if they had all failed we might have cut to them all captured by Broo and staging a daring escape – while if they had all been successful, I had another plan in mind (a Lunar betrayal!) to give the game a satisfying climax – but their raid on the Broo would have been successful.

So, four more kinds of skill challenges. I’ve been finding they really add to the game, particularly when we are playing online, where turn-taking needs to be strict and everyone should be hyper-focussed on plot. Are there any more I should add? What experiences have you had with them? (And make sure you follow JamesCORP on Twitch and YouTube for more streamed games – I’m playing Delta Green this Saturday and there are more one-shots lined up).

What Year Is It? – Running Historical RPG One-Shots

1066 calendar

1066 calendar from – I’d maybe run it through Photoshop before using it in a game

Historical one-shots are something I’ve historically (ha) avoided playing (and running) at conventions. Too much risk of experts, or historical diversions, or putting accuracy ahead of fun. But recently (inspired by an excellent Mythic Babylon game from @thetweedmeister) I’ve begun dipping my toe into them again, helped by the realisation that Glorantha is to all intents and purposes a historical setting given the wealth of detail about its timeline.


I think at the outset I should say that historical gaming should emulate historical fiction, not actual history. History, inconveniently, doesn’t even fit into the pattern of an ongoing RPG campaign, much less a one-shot. It helps to think of each session as a TV series episode, with a tightly-defined arc in its 3-4 hour time-frame. Where historical games help with one-shots is that they can set your one-shot in something bigger – there’s stuff happening before and after the game, and it’s easy to see where the characters and plots go next when the game is over.

And while we’re on the subject, think carefully about how to handle the more problematic elements of historical settings. If you want to include the sexism, racism or homophobia of a historical setting in your game, I guess that’s your business, but please don’t do it anywhere near my table. Most historical periods were much more diverse and varied than some corners of the RPG hobby would have you believe, anyway.

Do Your – Minimum – Research

In no way do you need to be the smartest person in the room, but at a convention or other one-shot, if you know nothing about the period of history your game is set in, you’re going to come undone at some point. You are probably going to have to read the sourcebook before play – in a way that you probably don’t have to if you’re running a game in a fantastical setting.

Before getting too far into research, remember you really do only need broad brush strokes. Also, research doesn’t just mean boring old books. There are history podcasts you can listen to while doing other things, and TV series are often better for a feel of historical fiction than actual history. If you’re going to run Duty & Honour, watching a few episodes of Sharpe will help you much more than reading accounts of the Peninsula War. If you want to run Hunters of Alexandria, you’d do as well to play some Assassin’s Creed: Origins to get a feel for the city and its opportunities for adventure.

Additionally, it probably helps to own your inaccuracies – check at the start of the game if you have any period experts in (it’s likely you could have, if you’ve advertised the game for sign-ups at a con) and ask them to add flavour/colour, but not to go on historical divergences until after the game. I’ve heard of using an H-Card (as well as an X-Card) for historical off-game chat, which is an interesting idea – you need to remember that the game is the primary thing, not the history lesson.

Pick Your Game For The Genre You Want

There are lots of historical RPGs out there – make sure you pick a game where the system supports the kind of play you want. If you want to run a one-shot in the Dark Ages, then Age of Arthur, Mythic Britain, and Wolves of God will all give very different play experiences, even with the same basic scenario. There’s nothing to stop you, of course, using a generic system with a play style you enjoy, and adapting it – and there are some excellent historical setting books, the pick of which are the GURPS sourcebooks and Design Mechanism’s Mythic Earth series. Dark Ages Savage Worlds, anyone?

Points of Divergence

If you’re running a historical game on Earth, you probably do need to know what year it is. Those enormous timelines that setting books have – pick a year and find something interesting that the PCs can act around.

Think of this point as a point of divergence. Before that, history was as it is in the timeline described – scholars today would recognize the world. From the moment that play starts, though, that needs to change. Put the PCs right in the center of the action – they might not be working directly for the King or leading the armies, but their actions will certainly affect the outcomes of these events, and might leave the world looking very different.

Don’t Spectate

Along similar lines, the PCs should be actively doing things. Nobody wants to watch the pyramids being built – the PCs should be negotiating with laborers and work-gangs, protecting the site from evil spirits, and dealing with betrayal and uprisings. If the pyramids are already there, they should be dueling bandits on the slopes, or heading into the tombs to work out what has escaped from them and whether it needs banishing.

It can be tempting to site the one-shot a long way from recorded history, to protect the timeline, but I tend to think that if you’re running history you should put some history in it. So don’t be afraid to introduce historical figures (and don’t give them any plot protection – let your PCs kill Caesar and win the hand of the princess – just not in the same game).

With all that in mind, I’m thinking of stretching my games out into the historical waters for some of my one-shot offerings now. Thanks to everyone on Twitter who offered their advice on this, by the way – you’ll be first in line when I get some online one-shot offerings prepped up!