The Third Pillar – Fixing Exploration

In this previous post, I talked about the first two “pillars” of D&D – and by association TTRPGs generally – combat and roleplaying. I’ve put a whole post into the third one, exploration, for a simple reason – I don’t think that we do exploration very well. That is, I don’t think TTRPGs do it very well, and I think there’s a lack of clarity about what it actually is.

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

I’m going to describe why exploration is tricky, then try to suggest some ways to make it better. 

Why is exploration hard?

  • It’s not explained well. Looking at the Exploration section of the 5e DMG, there’s two pages covering travel time outdoors, tracking (mainly DCs), visibility, noticing other creatures, and a bit about “special travel pace” to calculate daily travel times if your movement rate gets adjusted (by a spell, for instance). Setting to one side that these are all ‘wilderness adventures’ things, there’s not a lot of rules to sit alongside this. These don’t seem to be rules for exploration – more rules for travelling a long way.
  • It’s not supported by rules. Exploring a dungeon involves crawling from room to room and having encounters. Exploring wilderness (once you’ve worked out your special travel pace) involves walking across a map – and maybe encountering monsters or NPCs. Exploring a new city involves walking around talking to NPCs. All of the excitement in these situations comes from the other two pillars – combat or roleplay. Generally (and there are a few notable exceptions), exploration in itself isn’t rules-supported.
  • It’s not clear what it is. The player’s handbook gives some examples about Exploration being “the give and take of the players describing what they want to do, and the Dungeon Master telling them what happens as a result.” (PHB, p8) – this sounds an awful lot like the entire gaming experience – or Apocalypse Worlds’ roleplay as a conversation – do these things not happen during combat or roleplay?
  • It relies on a traditional GM vs. players model of narrative control. This control has since been shifted in so many games, and in so many play cultures, that the “wander around and find out” type of exploration now feels dull and lifeless to many of us. If I’m planning a wilderness expedition, I’m much more likely to use a 13th Age-style montage or ask my players for descriptive details with Paint The Scene questions than I am to feed information myself.
Dark forests should be scary by themselves, without needing combat or roleplaying as well

Categorizing exploration

Word lovers, look away now. I’m going to posit that exploration is too generic a term, so I’m going to create some portmanteau’s to split it into useful categories. I’m going to argue that exploration is primarily about transfer of information – that is, finding stuff out. This can happen in a few ways.

  • Placeploration is background learning. This can be utterly rubbish, learning what happened 200 years ago (the “Adventure Background” bit we all used to skip over before the actual adventure) – or it can be a brilliant piece of versimilitude. It can foreshadow future events, or provide details of what’s going on in the world’s metaplot. Basically, learning anything that isn’t usable this session falls into this category.
    • It takes a few days to cross the forest, and you find the lumber camps abandoned and empty. Make me an Intuition check (succeeds) – looks like they packed up in a hurry, and there are indistinct boots and tracks that look like goblins around here. After you’ve recovered the crown, you could come back here and look into that.
  • Plotsploration is directly relevant secrets and clues for the current plot. By exploring the dungeon, the city or the world you uncover secrets and clues that either bring you closer to the confrontation, or provide an advantage in it. This works best as a drip-drip of information, and can happen during, as well as in between, combat and roleplaying scenes.
    • This room is clearly a prison. There’s chains and manacles on the walls where prisoners must have been held, but no sign of the Prince. Closer inspection of the manacles reveals they’ve been unlocked, and there are a couple of broken lockpicks on the floor nearby – a picklock did this, and not a particularly good one at that.
  • Perilsploration is less about information transfer and more about crossing a barrier. You’ve got to walk across Mirkwood to get to tell the elves, and it’s going to be dangerous. These places should be dangerous even if they didn’t have combat or roleplaying in, so sometimes you might have to create a skill challenge in order to model it. Games that do this well already, saving you this time, are The One Ring, Trophy, 13th Age (montages can be switched to any system, the rules are so straightforward), Ironsworn, Mouse Guard, and a lot of the PBTA games. These are good frameworks to get some placesploration in as well, as your players try to overcome the barrier.
    • The signal tower is three days away, and you’ve only got two. We’ve got a skill check each – probably at DC 15 unless you try something exceptional – to try and get there in time, and you’ll need at least 3 successes to get there in time. What  are you rolling?

Once you’ve got exploration split into these categories, it’s easier to incorporate it into your game – think about each instance you have in your prep, and whether its a barrier, current info, or future info – and spread out your clues appropriately. I’ll pull together some examples in a future post – in the meantime, what other fixes do you have for exploration? Or are you happy with it as it’s presented in TTRPGs generally? Let me know in the comments.

The First Two Pillars in One-Shot Design – Combat and Roleplaying

In the DMG, D&D talks about the three pillars of D&D play as combat, roleplaying and exploration. While this is a generic way to look at play (and I think the first two are probably better defined in the collective mind than the third), it’s a useful check to see if your one-shot adventure has balance. I’m going to look at each one in turn, and how you can tweak your one-shot if you think it’s missing one or more of them.

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

Combat

This should be easy, right? Well, I think good combat in one-shots is tricky – that’s why I wrote about it here and here. I would say that, while it’s great to be able to circumvent combat challenges, if I’m playing an action-oriented one-shot system, I want at least one challenging combat in a one-shot that can’t be avoided. At least one of the pregens is likely to shine in combat, and missing it out is sub-optimal. And maybe even in less combaty systems – I’m sure a lot of Call of Cthulhu one-shots could be improved by a tussle with some cultists somewhere along the way.

Saying “a challenging combat” means different things in different systems, but I think it’s as much about fight duration as actual peril. A fight of around 3 full rounds (of everyone taking a turn) is about the optimum I reckon – and I’m sure there’s some maths people can do for individual systems to make this work. For D&D and similar systems with a ‘balance’ system, it’s probably around at least the “Hard” mark of wherever you balance encounters; although in Feng Shui and Conan 2d20, just use the guidance they supply, they already balance combat well for one-shots.

Don’t have enough combat in your one-shot? Bandits, gangsters or men with guns should be easy to add – if you’re not sure about timings put them in at the start and give them clues to lead to the next scene – just don’t add them for the sake of it, link them to the plot.

Roleplaying

Easy to miss, and easy to fix. A good rule of thumb is around 3 NPCs that the players could meaningfully interact with, and who have relevance to their mission. They might not spend lots of time with all three, but it gives them some options as to how to relate to the NPCs. Ideally they’ve got some link to at least one of the pregens – even if they’re both high elves – and to make them shine, give them some contrasting wants and needs. This doesn’t have to be massively complex or dramatic, just enough for them to need to rub up against the plot to achieve these goals.

For example, the tramp merchant wants rid of the pirates plaguing his shipping lines, but he also needs to keep costs down super-low. The princess-to-be wants her prince rescuing, but also wants a more exciting suitor. The crime boss wants his rival offed, but needs everyone to think he did it himself. All of these, even if only tangential to the plot, offer a meaningful interaction where both outcomes are interesting.

To make them pop at the table, give each of these three a schtick to use at the table – rubbing their eyes, a facial mannerism, an accent even if you’ve got the chops for it. For a con one-shot, don’t worry about this being a bit corny – broad brush strokes work best. Both “Basil Brush” and “Terry Jones playing a woman” voices have done me proud over my years of convention GMing!

Don’t have enough roleplaying in your one-shot? Stick in a neutral, or even a friendy NPC, and give them some conflicting motivations to get in the way and rub against the PCs.

Exploration

Now, this is trickier. You see, I’m not sure if even D&D is clear on what makes exploration fun – which is why this will be continued next week!

The Sixth Revelation – Hearts of Wulin, Masks, City of Mist

Conventions are great. A chance to play games with like-minded people, and to spend time with too much drink, too much food, and not enough sleep. Back in the day, “Con Reports” used to be a thing – forums would fill up with people’s reports of the games they’d played, the fun they’d had, what they had for lunch and how much it cost (the lunch, not the convention – I kid you not). You don’t see them much anymore, but after going to Revelation – the sixth annual(ish) Powered by the Apocalypse convention in Sheffield, I thought I’d write down some thoughts.

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

Revelation is a weekend event where all the games are Powered by the Apocalypse (PBTA), Forged in the Dark (FITD), or related derivations. After some pushing the organisers, I got confirmation that e.g. Spire, Heart, Belonging Outside Belonging and similar games would work fine – basically, if it’s been informed by the sort of gameplay that PBTA engenders, it’s good to go. Which means, you get a tight range of games, and a group of players that dig shared narrative. Running PBTA at Revelation is less of a risk than at some other cons – less of a risk that the players will plan or turtle, or not want to just play to find out. Of course, after making a fuss about what games were allowed, I ran two ‘classic’ PBTA systems.

This year was about 25-30 punters, five slots, and a mixture of single-session and multiple-slot games. I’m not usually a fan of multi-slot con games as it reduces the choice for everyone, but I can grudgingly agree that at Revelation it makes sense so you can see PBTA/FITD games over a longer period. And I can’t talk, since I’ve run double-slotters a few times at them. Like all the Garrison cons, it’s all about the games – there are no seminars or other events, so the norm is to play in every slot – I like this, play is the centre of the hobby and the most important thing we do. We should be going to conventions to play, and conventions should be putting play at the centre of everything.

I ran a double-slot two-table cross-universe game of Masks with my co-MC Neil, and a single-slot game of Hearts of Wulin. I also played  City of Mist in a single-slot game. I’ve split my thoughts into con practicalities (no lunch prices, sorry) and games thoughts, so here goes:

Practicalities

  • Cons are great, and venue matters. The Garrison hotel is almost the perfect place for an RPG convention, such that a few minor changes were noticed – no standing lights in the cells, for instance, and some confusion over the Saturday finish times. That said, I still love running in the cells, and I’m sure at other venues I’ll notice how much better the acoustics are in your own little nook (even if what you gain in audio is sometimes sacrificed in visual in the dim lighting).
  • Sharing a room at a con is great. I’ve become a bit of a solo con-goer in recent years, but I shared a room, which made a much more convivial (although perhaps more boozy and less sleep-filled) weekend. I might have convinced myself back towards it. It was also handy for Masks prep as we could sketch out plans over breakfast.
  • See comment re lighting above – the print on some PBTA playbook sheets is tiny! Print them out A3 in future for a convention, or make your own simplified ones. Similarly, I should have folded my Masks sheets before distributing – if you don’t the booklet for moves starts with the Adult Moves, which you aren’t going to be using.

Games

  • PBTA is varied and diverse! Even disregarding FITD and the other splits, I played three very different games over the course of the weekend in terms of structure of play and player experience, what’s expected of players, etc. City of Mist is, as far as I can tell, pretty close to a trad game – with just enough flexibility in the tags for different approaches and player-driven spontaneity. Hearts of Wulin is entirely at-the-table; my prep was only a backdrop to the melodrama that unfolded. Masks sat somewhere in the middle, but some of that was the necessary structure for us to run parallel games across universes.
  • Multi-table games work, and are a lot of fun. They do rely on the two GMs being comfortable with about the same amount of prep work though, and luckily we were (both of us have also run ‘vanilla’ Masks quite a bit too). We had two parallel universes being combined (the All Star Society and the All Star League) and the teenage heroes (All Star Juniors/Juniorz) having to save the day. At the midpoint – the end of the first session, a failed merge of the universes meant two players swapped tables – and there was more player exchanging to come. The villains of one universe were the hero mentors of the other – it all sounds complicated until you realise we just ripped off Crisis on Infinite Earths. All great fun, and good to push the boat out for a showcase game.
  • Fewer players isn’t always best. Because of a drop-out I had 3 players for Hearts of Wulin, and I think it would have been cleaner with 4 – certainly, the Entanglements were head-scratchy as everyone had to be linked to everyone else. Everyone filling them out at the table was harder than I thought, too – I’m tweaking my prep to run it again at Virtual Grogmeet, and I’ll pre-populate some of them with NPCs to help.

So, there are my Revelation thoughts. Why did con reports fade away? If you’ve got any ideas, let me know below – and if you’d like to hear more about any of the games let me know in the comments.

Burn After Reviewing

I said something on Twitter yesterday that sparked some debate – and, twitter being twitter, I didn’t quite get the full message of it across, so I’m posting it here as well. This post, because it feeds into a current debate, is going out on Patreon and the public blog at the same time – don’t worry, Patreons, you’ll be getting more early access content soon!

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

I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about putting reviews on here – at the start, they were really a way to muse on one-shots with a clear framework – but I can’t deny they’re popular. Even looking at 2021’s stats, my 6th highest hit was for a review posted in, er, 2020. There’s a D&D effect in that, too – but it’s the same whenever I post one. They are also relatively easy to write, because I’ve never been too thorough in them – certainly easier than writing an adventure or a set of advice on a specific game – and always get a fair number of hits straightaway.

That said, this isn’t a review site. First up, I only ever review things I like – I’ve no interest in being a critic, and there’s enough good stuff out there that I don’t feel the need to talk about the bad. I’ve received exactly one review copy of anything in my life – and I’ve not reviewed it yet. I’ve stuck reviews into a format that is deliberately incomplete – I’m interested in what I’d do with the product as a one-shot, not covering all the content but a broad-brush impression. So after some thinking, I’m changing how review posts work on Burn After Running.

After Play Only

Film critic Barry Norman, who used to watch the films before he reviewed them

Henceforth, I’m only going to post ‘reviews’ of products I’ve played (as a GM or player). Most of my reviews have been like this anyway (for example, this one of Agon) but a fair few haven’t (see Ravnica, Theros, or Starfinder – although I’ve since played all three of those products). I’m going to try and put some focus on the play experience – what could be gleaned from the game that was surprising even after a read-through, which will of course cover some – but not all – of the content of the product.

But I’ll also be looking at how I ran it, or how it felt as a player. Where I’ve written a one-shot for the game, I’ll share that one-shot. If it’s a published adventure, I usually write up notes as part of my prep, and if you’re a Patreon, you’re welcome to get access to those as well on request. If I twisted some rules or encounters around, I’ll put that in as well. 

This also means some completeness (well, even more) will be sacrificed. If you want a thorough review of the content of the book, informed by years of gaming experience and from a thorough read-through, these won’t be it. Instead I’d direct you to Reviews from R’luyeh if you want words, or Bud’s RPG Review if Youtube is your bag – other content creators are available too.

Does This Mean Less Reviews?

Food critic Jay Rayner, who generally eats the food at the restaurant before he reviews it

Well, no. I think a consequence of this is that when I’ve run something, I’ll most likely (assuming it wasn’t a disaster) put up a post about it. In essence I’ll be merging the “Review” posts and the “How to run X” posts, which will hopefully make it a bit easier to cover more games here.

So, for example, I’m nearing completion of the ‘prelude’ to Shadows Over Bogenhafen with my regular group, so expect a write-up of Mistaken Identity soon – there’s some really clever stuff in the design of this adventure that I didn’t realise until I saw it at the table, and I have made a few significant changes as well. 

I’ve run through all of Vaesen’s A Wicked Secret series of mysteries, and I have strong views on which of them make great (and not so great) candidates for running. I’ve got con games of Masks and Hearts of Wulin coming up this weekend, and I expect to share notes and thoughts on those as well – Masks in particular I’m trying a double-table crossover campaign, so we’ll see how that plays out!

Can You Review After A One-Shot?

Yes. While some games might really sing in a longer-form game, so much more is revealed even from 2 hours at the table, that you can see how that would roll out. Some of these will be one-shot reviews – this still lets me comment on the important bit, which is what I changed and what I would change in the future.

On that note, I’ve not run nearly enough one-shots yet – we seem, though, to be moving out of the liminal post-pandemic zone into one where people might actually meet up and play games more, so expect more to come. If you’re a Patron and would like a one-shot of something I’ve talked about, message me and we’ll try to sort something out!

Rime of the Frostmaiden – Prelude One-Shot: Into the Snow

I’m running D&D again. This time, I’ve got hold of a crew of 4 players, a mixture of veterans and newcomers, to run through Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden. I’ll be blogging here about how I’m adapting it, tweaking it, and approaches to it (worth noting if you’re interested that Sly Flourish has already done a great job of this here – I’m not going to duplicate his work!)

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

One of my players is brand new to roleplaying. So, instead of expecting him to dive into character creation and commit to a long campaign, I thought I’d run a one-shot with pregens to set the scene. This is set in Ten Towns, in the same place as the game, foreshadows some of the content, and gets everyone on the same page about tone. It’s an idea I’ve heard Simon Burley, esteemed designer of Golden Heroes, talk about as his default campaign starter (he calls it a “Session Minus One”) and I’ve never done it before. 

It’s first level, to keep everything simple, and is a fairly linear progression, although all of the encounters have a few ways to resolve them. Most of the opposition arrives in waves, which is a good trick for balancing 1st level fights – they can be really swingy when one blow can knock out a player or opponent, so having not everyone attack at once means you can adjust the level of challenge on the fly a bit. It’s balanced for 3 1st level PCs – just add or subtract bandits or undead if you have more or fewer.

It went great – and we’re now one session into the actual campaign! In a couple of months I hope to follow this up with a ‘review’ of the first chapter, Ten Towns, based on actual play. Inspired by Fear of a Black Dragon, I’m trying to limit my reviews to products or adventures I’ve actually played or run, because I think this is most useful – although I appreciate not all reviewers can do this, and if everyone did there wouldn’t be many reviews around! There’s a place for reviews-after-reading as well, they just do different things.

But, I digress. Here is the adventure, presented exactly as my prep notes looked for it – let me know if you use it here or on Twitter @milnermaths !

Into the Snow

A Rime of the Frostmaiden prelude adventure (3 x 1st level PCs)

You live in the far north, beyond the Spine of the World, in the desolate icy realms of Ten-Towns. For the past two years, Icewind Dale has been stuck in an endless winter – every night, strange lights appear, and every night lasts forever as the sun fails to rise. Trapped forever in glacial ice, you eke out a precarious living.

As we open we see you trudge across an open snowfield, a heavily laden sled pulled by two huskies, Gore and Chew. It’s three hours since you set off from Easthaven, one of the more prosperous towns, and you carry on your sled beer, mead, and supplies for Caer Dineval. Caer Dineval has been without beer for two weeks now – you can’t imagine their pain.

  • Describe your character – what are they carrying, how are they walking alongside the sled

But the going has been hard. 9 hours this would normally take, but the snow has come in and you fear a blizzard is coming. As you cross an ice floe, you notice the dogs startle – and the wind threatens to tip your sled over.

  • Ask the PCs what they are doing to prevent the tip. Generally it might be a Survival (Wisdom) check, but they could use other skills as well. At least half (rounded down) need to make it – if they fail, they are overwhelmed when the raiders attack and suffer disadvantage on Initiative checks

Scene 1 – Raiders in the Ice

Out of the snow and ice appear shadows, and the barking of dogs – you are under attack!

There are 4 raiders (bandits), but only 2 attack – and 2 rough huskies (mastiffs). As they fight, each round they see the snow get thicker – and as they flee / are defeated, they notice the sled has been raided.

0 failures – they have grabbed some of the supplies, and a prized bottle of Calishite brandy, charged with delivery to the Caer Dineval castle by your patron

1 failure – as above, but a couple of barrels of mead have gone as well

2 failures – all the supplies are taken

3 failures – one of the huskies has been dragged off as well

As the storm momentarily clears, they can attempt to make sense and give chase.

A Survival (Wisdom) check DC 15 will reveal that the storm is only briefly abated, and they had better follow the tracks now – they lead towards some rough hills which might also offer some shelter

A History or Investigation DC 11 check shows the men to be natives of Icewind Dale, clad in rough winter clothes – accustomed to living in the wilds, but not themselves Rheged Nomads

Scene 2 – The Chwingas

As they follow the tracks, they make their way towards the hills. Strange black crystals occasionally jut from the horizon – DC 15 Arcana to reveal it is Chardalyn, a magical material found only in Icewind Dale.

But the storm gets worse. Ask for DC 10 Survival checks to avoid becoming Exhausted – and then DC 10 Perception to notice a shelter ahead. 

A group of 6-inch-tall animated dolls, about 5 of them, are dancing around a fire

DC 15 Arcana or History to reveal these are Chwingas – tiny fey folk who can be helpful if charmed.

They mimic the characters, then ask them to dance – an appropriate skill check must be made (at DC 12) to receive a charm from each of them.

They award these charms in order: Charm of Vitality Charm of Heroism Charm of Bounty

The PCs can rest while the storm rages around them, and when it passes there are no signs of tracks. The Chwingas, however, can indicate the way their raiders went – up a narrow path to a hill cave

Scene 3 – The Hill Cave

With the mastiffs caged up outside, they can see the tiny cave as they approach – a group Stealth check DC 10 is enough to gain entry. They see the 4 raiders, and a teenaged girl, Varana. She is clad in wispy clothes despite the biting cold and seeks no trouble.

They can try and recapture their stuff, and this is an easy fight – the bandits will only fight to ⅓ of their hp – so 3 hp or less- before surrendering. Then, they tell them the story

Varana was a sacrifice, one of the lottery chosen by the Children of Auril, a cult who seek to end the endless night. She escaped, with her friends, three months ago. They move around a lot, looking for shelter. She clearly has some sort of magical power – as if the frost won’t touch her as she has escaped the Frostmaiden’s clutches – so she protects her friends.

They cover their tracks with the blizzards that follow Varana around… the PCs didn’t leave any tracks here, did they? (At that, they hear the howl of the dogs from outside, and a splash of blood – and the cult death squad attacks)

The cult death squad is an instrument of icy doom – a goliath zombie and a pair of skeletons crash through, while another 4 skeletons attack the following round

As they defeat (or are defeated by) the death squad, they find Varana is gone. They can trudge back to Caer Dineval with their recovered loot.

Prep Techniques: Boss Monster Examples

Here, I talked about building scenarios around antagonists. I’m going to give a couple of examples of that sort of prep, as scenario sketches. I’d want a bit more personalisation if I was going to run these myself, but I would probably do that while loading up Roll20 for them.

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

D&D, 3rd level – PITGURAT THE BLADE, ORC WARCHIEF

3rd level is the sweet spot for a lot of 5e D&D play, but it can be tricky to fit in a big damn hero encounter to it – so here’s one. A quick check of Xanathar’s suggests that 4 x level 3 characters should be soloing a CR 3 legendary monster, so let’s start with Pitgurat as a CR 2 Eye of Gruumsh and level him up using Matt Colville’s Villain Actions – making hit CR 2 legendary, but he won’t be encountered alone. He’s looking for sacrifices to complete some big evil ritual to bring ruin to the human settlement, and he’s enlisted the help of the thieve’s guild to help him – which is probably how the PCs learn of his schemes.

Here’s his boss profile

Name: Pitgurat the Blade, orc ritualist and cult leader

Goal & why the PCs care: His ritual will spread Gruumsh’s corruption and destroy the town of Greendale.

Secret weakness: He has a terrible rage when slighted, and will stop at nothing to pursue imagined slights (to tie this down as an actual weakness, this means that if the PCs can spread the word about him, he’ll track them down himself – meaning they can face him on his terms, instead of in his caves with hordes of cultists.

Description: An ambitious Eye of Gruumsh, Pitgurat’s war chief and lover was killed by adventurers from the town of Greendale three years ago. Since then, he’s gathered what’s left of the tribe, and enlisted the help of some humans, to try and enact a ritual to destroy Greendale forever. 

Lieutenants (1-3): Althadore the sly, leader of the thieves’ guild – knows Pitgurat’s weakness, and has been kept in the dark about the wholescale destruction of the town – he just wants the town council disposed of and Greendale corrupted (he’s a bandit captain in terms of stats); Yaradoth, Pitgurat’s lieutenant – a towering, one-eyed Orog who’s fiercely defensive of Pitgurat.

Mid-range Antagonists: Orcs, of course – most of Pitgurat’s tribe bear significant scars and injuries from the adventurer’s attacks. 

Minions: The thieve’s guild, human bandits, have thrown in their lot with Pitgurat as well. The orcs keep some goblin servants around too, to do their dirty work and help with Pitgurat’s rituals

Locations: The sprawling warehouses of the thieves guild, converted to a makeshift altar of Gruumsh as a show of faith with Pitgurat; the dark forests around Greendale where sacrifices for the ritual are abducted from merchants and traders; the orc caves, with a central ritual chamber.

Potential non-combat challenges: Opening scene – Althadore’s men try and burn down a tavern with the PCs in it to deter any interference. Navigating the trap-filled orc caves (I’d run this as a skill challenge / montage thing, not doing individual trap nonsense).

Star Trek Adventures – Captain Gazzad of the “Orion Space Navy”

Let’s go for a change of setting now, with an orion pirate and trickster suitable for an original series-era game of Trek. He’s set a planet up as a trap for the next Federation starship of do-gooders to arrive, with the aim of capturing a Constitution-class vessel (the PCs’ own).

Here’s his boss profile:

Name: Captain Ullad Gazzad, orion pirate and trickster

Goal & why the PCs care: To capture a Federation starship

Secret weakness: Gazzad is a sucker for a pretty face. He’s set up the resort on this planet to be the ideal retreat for a Federation captain, but it’s a little too sleazy for starfleet.

Description: Gazzad has rebuilt the settlement of Novaris on Erickron IV as the ideal pleasure planet, and presented himself as a prophet and wanderer. His crew are concealed among the staff of the resort, and he has sent an SOS – they’ve discovered volcanic activity in the caves around the resort, and need it to be made safe – or them evacuated. Of course, he’s faked the volcanic signals, and plans to trap the Captain and senior crew down there and then take over the starship.

Lieutenants: Bazzal Thor is an allied b, who’s got a cruiser in a nearby orbit for when the Captain is dealt with. He trusts Gazzad little, but knows a good scam when he sees one. Litoral is a native of Erickron IV who’s in on the deal – he presents Gazzad as his brother (a tricorder scan reveals this is unlikely) to allay any suspicions.

Mid-range Antagonists: The crew of Thor’s vessel – who try to beam aboard as a boarding action. Gazzad has several Orion crewmembers around Novaris who will help him, too.

Minions: The volcanic activity in the mines is fake, but the Erickronian Tunnel Worms – six foot long carnivorous scavengers – are very real, and will attack when the PCs are trying to escape the caves and race to their ship.

Locations: In orbit around Erickron, where sensors are weakened due to the planet’s unusual geology; the resort of Novaris, where Orions have set up the natives to provide the ultimate shore leave; the caves near Novaris, with passages rigged to blow and dangerous tunnel worms.

Potential non-combat challenges: Investigate and find out that the resort is full of Orions; navigate and escape the caves; the likely finale of starship combat with the Orion cruiser isn’t exactly non-combat, but it’s at a different scale so we’ll include it.

So, two examples of boss monster prep in action. Let me know if you’ve used the technique – or one like it – yourself.

Prep Techniques: The Boss Monster

Good antagonist design isn’t just essential for good TTRPG sessions, it can be something you base your whole session on – even if it’s a convention one-shot. I’m going to look at a method to build a session outwards from an antagonist, including looking at some rules tweaks that you might want to put in if your system isn’t as great at supporting solo monsters.

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

In previous Prep Techniques posts, I’ve looked at 5-Room Dungeons, Sly Flourish’s Method, Three Places, Con Pitches and a Bag of Tricks. Here, I’m going to talk about using an antagonist as a starting point for your one-shot or session. This turns traditional adventure prep on its head – and gives you a stock of prep material that should let you run a flexible session, with multiple routes to take down the antagonist.

First, the Fluff

Let’s talk about the boss’s background first. Who is he and what’s his plan? What does he want to do, why is it terrible, and why can’t the PCs ignore it? A good starting point is one or more of the PCs – can you link them to their backstory to make the players care about the antagonist? If you’re in an ongoing campaign, think about linking him with previous sessions, or foreshadowing future plans.

Your boss should be tough fight, even if they’re on their own. Clever plots or schemes from the players should have the option of getting to them without his supporters – and they should still be a challenge then. So think about levels of power – they need to be a threat!

They aren’t going to be alone though, so have between 1 and 3 lieutenants – minor monsters that support him, who can be a challenge with support themselves. These lieutenants should be distinct in terms of powers and personalities from the boss – if the boss is an archmage, make his lieutenants warlords or combat monsters.

Antagonist-based plotting is a staple of superhero gaming, but it can also be used for any TTRPG genre

Plan for the PCs to deal with a lieutenant first, maybe even as the hook to discover the boss’ plans. Also, think about what their weakness is – even if it’s a tendency to monologue – and a way the PCs can find this out and use it to their advantage.

Next, the Crunch

To have a truly effective boss in a fight, you might need to bend or break your game’s action economy. In D&D, consider using Matt Colville’s excellent Villain Actions hack, so your boss can act multiple times a round – and in another system consider giving them 2 or more actions each round. If you don’t feel like doing this, or your boss has multiple attacks already, consider spreading them out across the round – you want to keep the spotlight on them during the fight, rather than it feeling like the PCs have all the actions.

They also need to be hard to kill. This might mean just more hp, or some sort of special rule. I’m a fan of Feng Shui 2’s boss rule – when they would go down, roll 1d6, and you need to get an odd result to actually defeat them. It adds a level of jeopardy and pressure to a fight and distinguishes them from lesser enemies.

As you’ve got the lieutenants sorted, almost any boss should have a numberless supply of minions – these can be added to any encounters liberally to balance to the right level of challenge you desire. With minions, I like them to sometimes be much easier to defeat than normal – don’t be afraid to send your 5th level PCs up against hordes of kobolds – often with the boss’ supporting powers they might be a challenge, and usually some PCs will still want to deal with the minions.

Third, the Adventure

Now, you want to think about some key scenes. I’d recommend having a starting scene fully prepped, where they learn about the boss’ plans in some way – maybe a fight with some minions, or one of the lieutenants. And think about mid-scenes, where they might take down a lieutenant or learn the boss’ weakness. By combining lieutenants and minions in a few different ways, you can have some options for different opposition they could face along the way.

You’ll want around 3 locations along the way that could lead to the showdown, and some things that could happen to the environment there. Some of these – or some of the lieutenants – can lend themselves to non-combat challenges (if you’re looking for rules to support these, try here or here) – that you can steer towards. Make some plans for the final confrontation – this needs to be a showcase fight scene, so bear in mind the advice here for building it.

So far, your adventure prep will look a bit like this list… next week, I’ll post up some examples for a few different systems!

BOSS PROFILE

Name:

Goal & why the PCs care:

“Secret” weakness:

Description:

Lieutenants (1-3):

Mid-range Antagonists:

Minions:

Locations:

Potential non-combat challenges:

Stars and Wishes – because Feedback is Hard

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

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

Great Technique, So-So Name

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

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

What is it?

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

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

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

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

Why it works

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

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

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

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

D&D, My Way

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

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

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

Milestone, and Frequent, Leveling

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

Zoom in, Zoom out

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

No Shopping, No Encumbrance

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

Player Ownership of Backgrounds

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

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

Begrudgingly, Grids

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

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

No Dungeon Expeditions

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

Montages and Skill Challenges

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

Alternate Plot and Subplot

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

Moar Magic Items

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

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

2022’s New Game Resolutions

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

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

Organisation / This Blog

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

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

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

Gaming – Long-Form

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

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

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

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

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

Gaming – Short-Form

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

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

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

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