Day of the Manta Ray – a Sentinel Comics One-Shot

Last weekend, I was at the Owlbear and the Wizard’s Staff, an improbably-named convention in Leamington Spa – and this was the scenario I ran for it. I’d previously playtested it online with my pick-up Supers Gaming group, and made quite significant changes to some of the encounters based on how that went. I thought I’d share it here as a verbatim example of my notes for a one-shot game, along with a few explanatory things.

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I designed this scenario for the pregen group Daybreak in the Sentinel Comics rulebook – they are teen superheroes, and I played up their lesser status in Freedom City by having lots of spectators and NPCs wearing Legacy merch (the other, more established, superheroes). Sentinel has a really structured encounter/scene structure, which I stuck to for the set pieces, but I freeformed a lot of the investigation scene by just asking for 6 successes and giving them some plot hooks when they made their Overcome rolls.

I knew I had 3 players, but added an extra into each scene to allow for an extra player to arrive. I’ll be following this up with a Sentinels review, and probably something on playtesting con scenarios, so watch this space!

Intro / Con Pitch

In this terrifying issue, Ray Manta (p400) has hatched a devious plan to hold Freedom City to ransom, by kidnapping the hapless Mayor Thomas at the opening of Freedom City Aqualand. After dealing with the aftermath of his kidnapping, the heroes have to track down Ray Manta to his secret underwater base, find him, and battle him and his aquatic friends to save the mayor.

SCENE ONE -THE GRAND OPENING

Easy/Medium Action Scene

The heroes are guests of honour, or just there for a day out, at the opening of Aqualand, the Freedom City aquarium. It’s been rebuilt after a terrible incident of collateral damage that the heroes were somehow involved in. Standing in front of the prize pool is Mayor Thomas, his too-tight suit and the blazing sun making his hair dye drip onto his collar. As he readies to cut the ribbon, Orca and Morca, the aquarium’s prized killer whales, jump a pirouette behind him. 

A great day for the fishes! A great day for the city! As I always say, with cod on our side, we’re always sure to have a whale of a time! I’ve always been a fin of the aquarium, and I’ve often said this day was manta be! 

As Mayor Thomas giggles at his terrible puns, the fireworks go off – and smoke fills the area. Slightly confused, there are soon some secondary explosions – and screams!

Ray Manta has set off his trap – his squid-bots have been waiting in the wings, and his shark-bots have already replaced the beloved Orca and Morca.

As the smoke clears, Mayor Thomas is nowhere to be seen, and man-sized squidbots terrorize the assembled crowds. An explosion under a stand has left the assembled people tumbling into the pool, where a now-enraged Morca has been dropped from the sky.

Scene Tracker – Standard

3 Players:

ELECTRIC EEL – D8 Lieutenant

Herman Gyros got caught in an oil rig accident and given the ability to turn into living electricity – now he works for Ray Manta after a hastily-arranged re-image to fit his fish theme

Ability: Can ATTACK and HINDER a target with the same die roll if making a ranged attack with his ELECTRO-SHOCK

Tactics: Flies around from zone to zone targeting the most dangerous-looking opponent. Flees if the fight turns.

HAMMERHEAD – D8 Lieutenant

One of King Shark’s followers, Hammerhead has been loaned out to Ray Manta for this mission. He is utterly clueless and doesn’t understand much of what is going on

Ability: At home in the water – +2 to close-combat attack or defend actions when in the water

Tactics: Keeps fighting until the bitter end – like we said, clueless.

ROBOCTOPI

These look like unconvincing plexiglass octopi

Ability: 16 arms are better than 8! They get a +2 to Boost fellow octopods

(H) D6 Minions

ENVIRONMENT – The Bombing Campaign

Frequent random explosions D8

Escaping wild aquatic animals D6

Hacked water cannons and fire trucks D8

Green – a few explosions happen towards the edges of the scene – the whole place has been booby-trapped!

Minor: Explosions fire at one hero on the ground of the scene, making an Attack using the Mid die

Minor: Another roboctopi activates!

Major: Two heroes are buried under a pile of rubble – Hinder at Mid, Attack at Min

Yellow – spectators are dropped into the orca tank, as fish swarm from all directions

Minor: A wave of water targets everyone on the ground who isn’t aquatic – Attack with Min vs. everyone

Minor: One hero is covered with mating octopi – a persistent and exclusive Boost action

Major: Advance the scene tracker by one space as the ground begins to creak under the water

Red – the stand collapses into the city’s water system – there are sharks all over the city now!

Minor: Water sprays up, a Hinder (Mid) on everyone – including the flyers

Minor: An arc of electricity flies up to Electric Eel and restores him to full strength!

Major: Waves of water stand between the heroes and their opponents – a Max Defend action

4 players:

ADD

SAVE THE SPECTATORS

OO Right the stand

O Calm the enraged killer whale

SCENE TWO – AFTERMATH

Montage Scene

As the scene clears, a message has been scorced into the grass in front of the aquarium – unless THREE MILLION DOLLARS is delivered to an unmarked post office box downtown, they will never see the mayor – or Orca – again. Commissioner Brown is beside himself

But the people of Freedom City – they love that goddam dolphin! And Mayor Thomas, of course. Him as well. But, how will poor Morca cope without her mate?

Players can narrate their scene to heal/help/boost as usual.

SCENE THREE – INVESTIGATIONS

Easy Action Scene

As they race to find the location the mayor (and the beloved killer whale) is hiding, they need a total of 6 successes on Overcome actions to do so.

Possible approaches –

Hack the robots to find their ‘homing location’ somewhere in Freedom Bay

Investigate the PO box – where they find a terrified employee who says a ‘fat man who smelled of fish’ asked him to set it up, then crawled back into the river

Look into the aquarium contractors – where there are a lot of contracts given to on Mandy Tallahasie Raynham – with the location of the warehouse that he used

Go bust some heads at the warehouse – where they can reveal Ray Manta’s underwater base

SCENE FOUR – PREPARATIONS

Montage Scene

They know where Ray Manta’s base is, and they know how to get there -and that it’s underwater. How do they prepare to get there?

Players can narrate their scene to heal/help/boost as usual.

SCENE FIVE – SHOWDOWN

Moderate Action Scene

As they burst into Ray Manta’s base, they find the mayor and the Orca already tied to a laser cutter, and the swarms of bots all around them

Scene Tracker – Standard

3 Heroes:

SAVE THE WHALE!  (AND THE MAYOR)

OOOO Defuse the laser

RAY MANTA (see full profile, with upgrade suit, in the Sentinel Comics core book)

ELECTRIC EEL (AGAIN!)

D10 LIEUTENANT

Can Attack and Hinder the with one action

KING ORCA

A man in a shark suit just as unconvincing as Ray Manta’s costume, King Orca is nevertheless a dangerous villain

D10 LIEUTENANT

+2 to Boost actions

4 heroes – ADD

HORDES OF FLYING FISHBOTS

(H) D8 MINIONS

Annoying blighters: +1 to Hinder Actions

Once the scene is finished, the heroes are victorious! They have saved the mayor, and the beloved Killer Whale, Orca! Narrate a closing scene where they celebrate their victory.

Cut to the Chase Scene – 5 In Medias Res Starts for your One-Shot

I’ve blogged before about the importance of a strong start in your one-shots, and a good way to achieve that is to start in medias res – in the midst of the action.

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

In Medias Res as a term was coined by Horace in his Ars Poetica, when he pointed out that Homer’s games of D&D he was running down the Parthenon didn’t start ab ovo – with the dragon hatching from the egg – but right in the middle of a pitched battle against orcs. Or something like that. What it means for us is a reliable way to get dice rolling within the first twenty minutes – and get the pace tripping along right from the start.

So, here are 5 In Medias Res’s to get your one-shots off to a bang.

The Previous-Quest-Maguffin

Gamma World’s famous flow-chart – more fun to look at than play through, in my experience

Begin at the end of the last adventure – where they find a fantastical item that spurs them on to the main quest. A good chance for an ‘easy’ section of dungeoning – a ‘training level’ – to get the item, and then some problem solving / roleplay to interpret the item and pick up the trail.

Credit to Dirk the Dice of The Grognard Files who did this in a memorable Gamma World one-shot that I’ve shamelessly stolen (both here, and in other con games) – in that game we used the infamous artifact flowchart to decipher the mission.

Trapped in the Tomb

Don’t just start at the door to the dungeon, have the party on the wrong side of it as the trap triggers and the door closes behind them. You might want to have another peril activate at the same time, just to lay it on thick that they need to find a way out – as well as whatever they came here for in the first place.

Note that if you’re doing this you’ll need some NPCs or other roleplaying opportunities in the tomb/dungeon/derelict space station in order to make this more interesting – so throw in a chatty mummy/off-message AI/reactivated golem for the PCs to interact with and help/hinder them as well.

The Contest

You don’t think just anyone gets to represent the king while plundering the treasures of the forgotten jungles? No, every year you must compete for the privilege against the nations most foolhardy heroes. Feel free to have some of the failed contestants travel over there anyway as a rival adventuring party – that the PCs will eventually have to save and/or fight.

In terms of pacing, don’t make the contest too long, or it might become the focal point of the whole session – a few skill checks or a simple combat should be enough. Last year I started a Legend of the 5 Rings campaign with each PC describing the gift they’d brought for the daimyo they’d appeared to serve, and then make a skill check for how successful their gift had been – and one bushi’s terrible sake became a recurring theme for the whole campaign.

In Medias Res-ervoir Dogs

The heist (dungeon crawl, assassination, saving the city, etc…) went wrong – or at least drew a lot of heat. Now they’re on the run, trying to escape and fix things. A good way to start with a chase scene – either using the RPGs chase mechanics or just some opposed skill checks or a fight.

This is a good example of a fight with a clear objective – and an opportunity to intersperse the scene with flashbacks of the actual job they’re running from. Note that in Reservoir Dogs they just lie low and chew scenery at each other – diverge from the film in your game and have them carry out the even bigger score that will make things right, hunt down the contact who betrayed them, or finally get the jewels back.

Zombies Attack!

Wherever the PCs are at the start (tavern, castle, space station, etc…) is suddenly subject to an invasion. A recent session of Deadlands I played in started with zombies crawling through the saloon floor, and it’s a well tested method for starting with a bang.

As with Trapped in the Tomb, you’ll need to make sure there’s a few NPCs for the PCs to interact with during the session so it’s not just a string of fights, but having the call to action be an actual invasion is a classic trope. See here for more ideas about managing invasions – you might want to think about what weakness of the attackers can be exploited, and how they can find it, for instance.

So, five ways to start your one-shot with a bang – what other ways have you seen a one-shot started? Let me know in the comments.

Fighting Talk, Part One – Know Their Enemies

Particularly in one-shots, building battles is a bit of an art. Most crunchy games include some guidance on balancing encounters (and those that don’t should), but I’ve found some general principles that will improve almost any fighting encounter that you have. In Part Two we’ll look at the battlefield itself, but in this post we’ll look at your opponents.

For this post I’ve given examples based around 5th edition D&D, because it has guidance for balancing encounters in the DMG that is both thorough, and also a bit misleading – but the same principles apply to other games.

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

Balancing Your Opposition

I’ve said this a few times on the blog already, but I’ll say it again – fights, especially in one-shots, should be easy or hard – not “medium.” An easy fight at the start of a session to help everyone learn the rules is a fine thing, or an opportunity for the players to show how awesome they are, but a ‘medium difficulty’ fight is, generally, weak. If you play D&D or Pathfinder, the majority of the fights you’ll find in published scenarios are at this level – just cut some of them out and beef up the ones that are left to make it at least “hard” by whatever difficulty metric they give.

The reason that games often give a ‘medium’ difficulty level is about attrition. The classic D&D resource management game is that you will gradually use resources through the adventuring day, meaning a selection of averagely difficult fights will wear you down and provide a tactical challenge. I don’t really agree with this approach, even in long-term play – a few big battles are better than lots of middling ones, and I think resource management like this is overrated.

You Need More Than You Think

One opponent per PC is an absolute minimum if you want an exciting battle. There’s tricks and ways to make a fight against one big opponent work, which I might talk about in a later post – but if you’re looking for an exciting fight, you probably want the number of opponents to be between 1.5 and 3 times the number of PCs.

How do you do a big fight against, e.g., a dragon then? Simple, just add in some low-level supporters. If you’ve got 4 6th level D&D characters, a “hard” fight can be a Young White Dragon (CR 6) and 5 or 6 Scouts (CR ½) – the scouts won’t be as big a threat as the dragon, but they’ll still harry and whittle away at the party’s resources ensuring that they won’t just be able to mob the dragon from the start. It’s easy in D&D to fall into the trap to think that low CR monsters aren’t suitable for mid- or high-level parties, but they absolutely are – which brings us to…

Minions, Mooks, and Hordes

Big fight scenes need a big cast – which means more enemies

If you’re going to have lots of opponents without swamping the PCs, some of those opponents might have to be quite low-level. A group of low-level minions is an excellent set of opponents to add to a challenging fight. They’ll draw the PCs’ fire, get between them and the main opponents, and give the players a chance to show their awesomeness by going down easily.

If you’re worried that there might be too many, give some thought to morale options – maybe once their leader is killed they’ll run off into the hills, or half of them hang back as they attack in waves. With lots of opponents you have a few ways to pace battles you can use depending on how it’s going – make it logical, and don’t hold back, but you don’t have to have them all charge in at once.

Make Them Individual

Give your opponents identifying traits, names, or other characteristics. On a VTT, it’s easy to drop name labels on to each of your mooks – it feels much cooler when the goblins they pick off have names. Otherwise, even just listing a characteristic of each of them – this one has one eye, this one is overweight and limping –helps it to feel like a TTRPG instead of a video game. Generally, I’d not recommend altering any of their game statistics for this – keep it simple for yourself – but you can use it in their descriptions.

Another more general way to improve individuality is to reskin monsters liberally. Bestiaries will act like they’ve gone to loads of trouble to make monsters individual, but it’s so easy to reskin monsters to make similar opponents. Need stats for Big Baz, the slow-moving henchman of the chief bandit for your bandit encounter? Baz is a zombie with no undead traits. A low-level evil sorcerer can easily be a reskinned Sea Hag  with his claws a magical bolt and the Horrific Appearance a fear spell.

And one of D&D’s great secrets is page 274 of the DMG, the “Building a Monster” section, that lets you design monsters from the ground up – also perfect if you want a slightly stronger monster to lead a pack of them – just go to the next level up and increase its CR.

Putting it All Together – An Example

With this in mind, let’s set up the personnel of encounters for a D&D one-shot, exploring a group of goblins who’ve hidden in a cave and are harrying villagers. I’ll be talking about the “3 Fights” one-shot structure in a later post, but you can probably grasp the basic idea of it from the name, so for our three encounters – balanced for a 2nd level party of 5 PCs – we’ve got:

Fight 1 – The Guards (at the entrance, or patrolling) – a DMG “easy” fight, although we’ve gone a little over budget – it’s likely the PCs will get some sort of surprise on them, and they’ll be fighting them fresh, so this should be straightforward for them.

2 Goblins (CR ¼) and 3 Goblin Hounds (Mastiffs – CR 1/8)

Even for an easy encounter, having enough 5 opponents will still mean that they’ll have to think about who they engage, and if they can afford to protect a ranged-based character or wizard.

Fight 2 – The Kennels  – this is a “hard” fight, and again it’s a little over budget – we’ll have the worg hang back for the first round, and only arrive to defend its pups in round 2.

2 Goblins (CR 1/4), 1 Worg (CR 1/2), 4 Goblin Hounds (Mastiffs – CR 1/8)

More opponents this time, and a big beast that they might want to join forces to handle – but by arriving on Round 2, they’ll already be engaged with the hounds and goblins. Depending on how the PCs are looking at this stage, we have some tactical options to balance this – we could always throw everyone in at once, or have the goblins hang back in cover and fire arrows at the party.

Fight 3 – The Boss Fight – this is a DMG “deadly” fight – we want to try to engineer that the PCs are pretty healed up and ready for this fight, which shouldn’t be too much of a problem as it’ll be the climactic battle of the one-shot

1 Goblin Tribe Leader (a Hobgoblin – CR ½), 1 Goblin Champion (a non-undead Zombie – CR ¼), 3 Goblins (CR ¼), 4 Goblin Rabble (stats as  Bandits) (CR 1/8)

Nine opponents make this fight challenging, and the Rabble/Bandits and the Champion can get between the big boss and the goblins who can pick players off with missile weapons – while the bandits will be quickly dealt with, this will pace the fight so that they still have to face the main opponents – the leader and the champion.

So, now that we’ve looked at building our opposition, the next post will deal with locating this in the session – both in terms of plotting, and in terms of the actual physical battlefield.

Tower of the Stirge – a 1st level D&D One-Shot Adventure

Continuing a series which began with The Goblins and The Pie Shop, and continued with Rats of Rothsea (with a short interlude adapting Dyson Logos’ Goblin Gully), here’s another 1st level one-shot for D&D5e. This one is a bit grimmer and darker than the others, as befits the subject matter, and isn’t recommended for younger players like the previous two. There’s zombies, blood-sucking, and egg-laying flying beasts with proboscis in this one. Oh, and the plural of stirge is “stirge,” I’ve just decided. Apologies to any adventurers who assume this means the tower only contains one of the beasties.

In terms of structure, this was heavily modelled on Johnn Four’s 5 Room Dungeon model, which is a really good way to structure linear encounters for play (there’s probably a follow-up post on that. If you want a map for the tower, Dyson Logos’ Ashryn Spire is ideal.

Tower of the Stirge

Introduction

The tower at Halk Head used to be a mage’s tower – but for many years it lay dormant after a band of brave adventurers defeated and looted the wizard. Until, a few months ago, the hermit Gorthrix came to the village. Seeking a place to rest, he moved in and begun to explore the ruined tower. Noises and rumour brought children and explorers from the village, so to deter them Gorthrix attracted a nest of stirge and reactivated the wizard’s earth elemental bodyguard.

He meant the stirge to just deter visitors, but he find the beasts have now overtaken the entire top floor of the tower; although they don’t attack him, there’s was little he could do when they ambushed and killed a pair of children who came exploring, dragging the blood-drained bodies back to their nest. Panicking, he sent the elemental out to destroy the cliffside path to the tower, and now sits tight, hoping that the villagers will avoid the ruined tower as a place of ill omen. He hasn’t counted on the recklessness of adventurers.

Characters

Gorthrix is a mean-spirited, loner of a dwarf who wants nothing more than to be left alone, and is prepared to kill to ensure that happens. Finding the tower was the first step in him finding some space for himself, and he’s not going to let an accident with his new pets stop him.

Gorthrix has a tame baboon who helps him. He has named him Gorthrox, and Gorthrox is just as brutal and angry as the stirge.

Cliff is a bound earth elemental who used to serve the old wizard hundreds of years ago. When the adventurers came, he was locked in the tower basement, so he just slept. Now, he’s slow and confused, but Gorthrix doesn’t ask too much of him and he quite enjoys the company. What he really wants to do is properly rebuild the tower, but Gorthrix won’t led him near the bird-things on the roof.

The Stirge are horrible, bloodsucking flying rats with long proboscis that drip with blood. After a feed they are bloated and clumsy flyers, but when hungry they are fast and vicious. Gothrix feeds them treats, so they like him, but he’s still just walking food to them.

The Village

The village of Clifftop sits at the top of 80 feet of steep cliffs. At their foot is a small beach, with a pier and a few fishing boats, and a treacherous path carved into the rock. A small, rickety path leads out to the Tower – in the other direction, a more sturdy path offers a shortcut to the larger town of Endholme.

The PCs will be summonsed by the Village Elders and told the story – two local boys, Edric and Embry, were wandering out near the tower last week and now appear to have disappeared. The village sheriff, Robel, went out looking and found nothing, but the elders are sure that it’s something in the tower – strange lights have been seen in recent days coming from it – it is surely a place of ill omen. Robel assumes that the boys have just run away to the tower and are hoping to attract the attention of the villagers – but he will grudgingly point the adventurers in the direction of the tower.

The villagers beg the PCs to explore the tower – if nothing else, to see if they can bring the boys’ bodies back. They offer 20gp each for their troubles. Robel is keen to stay in the village to make sure no more trouble comes to the farmers’ herds, but he can point them towards the cliff-top path to the tower.

If they ask around, a successful DC 15 skill check gets them a true-ish rumour, a failed one gets them an almost-certainly-false one. If they fail the check, the character has a fair idea that the information they have is false.

True-ish Rumours (d6)

1 – The tower was built by an old sorcerer – they say that remnants of his magic can still be found there

2 – Huge crows have been seen circling the tower – this is surely an ill omen?

3 – Farmer Copley, whose clifftop farm isn’t far from the tower, has had several sheep disappear recently – without any of the usual marks of wolf attacks

4 – A few months ago a stinking dwarf clad in rags came to the town and asked lots of questions about the tower. He stole a loaf of bread, so Robel ran him out of town.

5 – The cliffside path has withstood storms and terrible weather for years – it can’t have just collapsed on its own

6 – Last month, a body was found by the cliffside path, drained entirely of blood. The villagers who found it went to get Robel, but by the time they returned, it was gone.

Almost Certainly False Rumours (d6)

1 – The sorcerer who used to rule the tower has returned, and he has taken the boys as sacrifices

2 – All who enter the tower are compelled to stay there by dark magic

3 – The two boys were always up to no good – I expect they’ve just run away to get shot of Robel spoiling their fun

4 – Two more children went missing a few weeks ago, that the PCs haven’t been told about (they did, but Robel brought them back and returned them – they had just got stranded on the beach)

5 – The strange birds that can be seen circling the tower can only be hurt by silvered or magical weapons

6 – The tower doesn’t even exist – it’s an illusion that lures explorers to the cliffs, where they fall and are eaten by the kraken. The kraken? Nobody’s told you about the kraken?

Scene One – Approach to the Tower

The path to the tower has been damaged and pulled apart by Cliff, but he didn’t do a very good job, because he much prefers building things to pulling them apart. A few of the ropes are still there where the path has crumbled, and where boulders cover the path, they can be -carefully- clambered over.

To get to the tower, each PC must make an Athletics check with DC10. On a failure, they stumble and slide down from the path – they take 1d6 damage, with a Dexterity save for half. If half or more of the PCs (round up) fail their skill checks, the stirges are alerted by the noise and ambush them while they are on the path – the path is difficult terrain, and anyone without a secure footing will fight with disadvantage.

Stirge by Jacob E Blackmon

Stirge by Jacob E. Blackmon

Stirge Attack!

Either as they approach the tower, or half way along the treacherous cliff path, a group of stirges will attack them. Seeing the PCs approaching, their Queen has sent them out to hunt.

There is one stirge for each PC, and they attempt to attack one each as well. They aren’t used to fighting creatures that fight back much, so they don’t gang up on opponents unless an obvious opportunity presents itself.

As the stirge wobble towards them, clever players might have their characters take cover, particularly if they heard the rumour in the village about them. Their passive Perception is only 9, and a successful Stealth check will let them hide behind a useful rock. If the whole party manage to hide from the Stirges, they fly around looking for them for a while, before flying off to feast on a nearby sheep.

Scene Two – The Tower

The Ground Floor and Basement

The ground floor is were the wizard used to welcome visitors. It’s now crumbled and full of rubble; the staircase up to the next level is crumbled and treacherous.

Cliff rests in the Ground Floor – he is an earth elemental, so will be a possible insurmountable challenge for the PCs to fight, but he’s very amenable to talking. As they enter, he steps away from the section of wall he was resting against and tries to whisper to them that they should go away, or the New Master will kill them. “He never wants visitors, not living ones anyway – you should go!”

Cliff just wants to be left alone to rebuild the tower – he’s not too bright, and pretty content with his lot. He’ll tell them about the New Master and about how he wants to help them, but the New Master would be mad at him if he did – and he doesn’t want to be shouted at. He doesn’t know much about the ‘funny birds’ at the top of the tower, and he certainly doesn’t know what happened to the kids who came to explore.

If the PCs talk to Cliff, allow them to make appropriate skill checks – once they have 3 successes – most likely Persuasion or Deception, although Intimidation is possible – the only wizard Cliff has seen for many years was a mighty sorcerer, so a flashy display of magic might trick him. If they fail 3 times in total, he loses his patience with them, and starts banging and shouting, alerting Gorthrix and his baboon from upstairs.

If they try to fight him, luckily for them Cliff is very reluctant to hurt anyone. He’ll try and Grapple the biggest looking opponent and then put them in some inaccessible part of the cliff below. Only if really enraged will he attack with his Slam. If he defeats the whole party, he carries them back and leaves them at the edge of the village – feeling terribly guilty that he might have hurt them.

The First Floor

The first floor contains the remnants of the wizard’s magical traps and tricks – and is probably the most deadly of the rooms – it’s also where Gorthrix will make his stand.

As they enter, a magic mouth trap challenges them to speak their name, and then casts a slow spell at them (save DC 13). Assuming some of the PCs are affected, Gorthrix then leaps out and attacks them – his stats are the same as a spy, and he begins the fight with his pet Gorthrox, a baboon, alongside him.

If they defeat him (and Gorthrix will surrender if the fight turns against him) – he warns them of what is on the roof. The boys are there, he says, but not like they were – he begs for forgiveness – he wanted to be left alone, but those beasts were just too much for him to handle – he never meant for them to kill the boys, or – what they have become.

Gorthrix’s room is here, and it has some of his treasure – although most of the shiny trinkets have been taken by the stirges. He carries 20gp on his person in a leather purse, and two potions of healing. He will offer the money as a bribe for them to spare them – but tries to keep the potions to recover his and Gorthrox’s wounds.

The Second Floor

Has a crumbling, uneven floor – as the PCs walk across it, they can hear it creaking and moaning. Each PC has to make a Stealth or Acrobatics check, DC 10, to cross without alerting the stirge nested above. Halflings and gnomes not wearing heavy armour can make this check with advantage. If half or more of the PCs fail the check, a creaking floorboard snaps, and the ceiling above collapses as the stirge fall about onto them.

Cautious testing, looking for footprints and dust, and a DC 15 Investigation roll can show where there has been movement and where there hasn’t on the floor, also granting advantage on the above roll.

If they spared Gorthrix, when he sees the PCs in combat with the stirge and zombies he will try and seize the opportunity to get his revenge on them by assisting the monsters in this fight.

The Third Floor

This is where the stirge nest, and a horrible sight it is. In the centre of the room lie the bloated bodies of the two boys killed exploring. The stirge around seem to be feeding them their own blood, and the boys have changed into something undead and horrific. As they move to attack, a fat, blood-drenched stirge with a bulbous belly sits on the ground – the Stirge Queen, who is laying her eggs in the boys. Beyond this scene, a nest full of shiny things beckons – see Rewards below.

The two boys have statistics as zombies, and move immediately to attack backed by two stirge. As the combat continues, another two stirge join the following round, and another two the round after – defending their nest, they fight alongside one another and attempt to attack the tastiest-looking (or fattest) adventurers – they are particularly fond of halfling and gnome.

If both of the boys are killed, the remaining stirge panic, as their eggs spill out from the bodies and they flee from the tower. At this point, the stirge queen (as a normal stirge but 10 hp from her fat, egg-filled belly) fights as the rest of them attempt to flee.

Rewards

In the stirge nest, the accumulated shiny things they have collected can be found. They one malachite gem per PC (each worth 10gp), plus a single bigger bloodstone gem (worth 50gp) mixed in a pile with 100 sp and 30 cp. The cp have been polished to a shine by stirge proboscises, and will need a good wash before any merchant will accept them.

D&D One-Shots Done Right – Review: Uncaged, volume 1

If there’s one thing that is like looking for a needle in a haystack, it’s decent one-shots for D&D 5th edition. There are hundreds of them out there on DMs Guild, but picking through them to find those with good quality and the style of play that I like is a challenge. After I spent last summer running D&D one-shots, I’ve kept D&D as a regular source of one-shot fun, particularly for newcomers to the hobby (read the posts linked above for my reasoning why I think D&D is right for this).

Uncaged CoverSo, there’s Uncaged (this review is of Volume 1 – there are now three more volumes). From it’s own product description, it’s a set of folklore-themed adventures that “subvert tropes around female mythological creatures.” If that sounds a bit complex, in layman’s terms each adventure is focused around a female creature of myth, and does interesting stuff with them.

So there’s a hag adventure, a lamia adventure, a banshee adventure, and so forth. RPGs have had, and continue to have, some issues with representation, so this is a great concept for a product – a book around female monsters produced by a team of female writers and artists.

In volume 1 there are a total of 26 adventures – 14 Tier 1, 7 Tier 2, 4 Tier 3 and a single Tier 1. I’m not surprised that there are more for lower tiers, and that suits me to be fair.

The Fluff

First out, these are proper one-shots. They’re each 2-4 hours of play, and contain just enough setting to make sense. The advantage of this is that they can be slotted in anywhere – I’d put some of these in to Ravnica or Eberron without any trouble at all – which makes them useful as drop-in adventures. In some cases, the setting is pretty integral to the adventure, so this makes them harder to drop into an ongoing campaign, but it’s great if you’re looking for one-shots.

Because of this, though, it helps when you run it to try and embed the PCs into the adventure and setting a bit deeper – I’ve used Backstory cards when I’ve run them to make sure the PCs feel like they have a shared past. It’s also a good opportunity to share out some of the fleshing out of the stuff that isn’t always in the adventures – in case they encounter some town guards, the PC who used to be in them can describe how the guards work in this city.

Each adventure comes with a featured piece of art, and the book is nicely laid out without being too fussy – there’s also a printer friendly version of each adventure you can print out individually to have at the table, and separate files for player maps. There’s a hardcopy POD option from Drivethru, but I haven’t explored that yet – I just downloaded the .pdf. Also worth noting that any content warnings are up front at the start of each adventure, again really useful if you’re running one-shots for people you don’t know.

The Crunch

First up, although the adventures are all by different authors, and there’s a refreshing diversity in their plot structure, they are generally excellent. None of these are dungeon-crawling adventures, and all involve investigation and roleplaying, presented in an easy-to-use way with skill DCs up-front and clear. The adventures aren’t long, either – and they have had a solid edit to take out any unnecessary waffle.

There is combat in them (this is D&D after all), but the conclusion of an adventure is as likely to be a negotiation or compromise, or discovering a secret, as a pitched battle. The combat encounters, in the ones that I’ve run (all Tier 1), have been balanced and fair for D&D5e – which is to say, I’d recommend running the CR numbers through the D&D system and beefing them up a bit. In most of the adventures there are, at most, 2-3 combat encounters, so you might want to make key battles more challenging. Likewise, some of the adventures have adjustments for different level parties, while some are just for the set level stated – all are easy enough to adjust up and down.

There’s also quite a few bits where skills are tested and investigations take place. This is an opportunity, if you’re inclined, to try out one of the skill challenge systems here – how they are presented in each adventure varies.

The One-Shot

This is a really good book if you want to run D&D one-shots. Particularly for new players, they showcase the social interaction aspect of play really well, in a way that can be missing in more ‘traditional’ D&D adventures – it is one of the three pillars of D&D play after all. Because they are tightly presented and edited, they are also easy to disassemble, rearrange, and adapt. In all honesty, many of these would be excellent run with different systems as well – and easy to adapt.

So far, I’ve run Maid in Waterdeep (level 1), Lai of the Sea Hag (level 2) – twice, and A Wild Hunt (level 2) – and all have been really satisfying. A Wild Hunt features the kumiho, shapeshifting fox-women from Korean folklore, and manages to make them both frightening and sympathetic.

Fully recommended – and I’m sure the other 3 anthologies are similar. These are also an excellent source of plots and explorations of creatures for systems other than D&D, which is testament to its quality. A great source of one-shot D&D adventures – and a great toolkit to pull apart and reuse in pieces too.

The Rats of Rothsea – a D&D5 1st-level One-Shot

After my summer of running lots of D&D (see here and here), I have quite a few 1st-level one-shots sketched out – and I’ll be putting them up here gradually, to go with The Goblins and The Pie Shop and my adaptation of Goblin Gulley. This is a village-based investigative adventure (again borrowing structure from The Alexandrian’s Node-Based Design) with lots of giant rats in it.

Oh, and just to be clear – the similar-sounding town of Rothesay, on the Isle of Bute near Glasgow, is nothing like the village here. It’s an old-fashioned resort town where you can enjoy the bracing Scottish weather and view the finest public lavatories in Scotland (seriously) – and has almost no rats.

The Rats of Rothsea

An introductory D&D one-shot for 3-6 1st level characters

Introduction

Rothsea has a rat problem. For the last few weeks, swarms of vicious rats, and giant ones as big as dogs, have chewed their way through their supplies. Even the Vermincatcher’s Guild seem powerless to help, and all points towards an old trawler that grounded on the nearby beach. Only the joyful songs of Erwin Jest, a bard newly arrived to the village, and the stout heart of Torven the Barkeep have managed to keep the villagers from sinking into despair.

In truth, Jest is a warlock in thrall to an ancient rat-god, and it was him that arrived on the trawler that night along with his verminous host and an evil artefact, the Amulet of Rodents. He has paid off the Vermincatcher’s Guild and is hoping that the lack of food will paint him as the village’s saviour when he eventually solves the village’s rat problem.

Characters

Erwin Jest appears as a twinkle-eyed bard with a tuneful lute and a quick wit. He only arrived at the village recently but is already a firm favourite – some suspected him to be a retired adventurer when he first arrived, but his abject cowardice has made them sure he is not that. In truth, he seeks to turn the village into his own – by overrunning it with rats. He’s told Maria, of the Vermincatcher’s guild, that they’ll live together as Lord and Lady, and bribed her heftily.

Torven is a simple dwarf, a former miner who threw his lot in with Rothsea when he lost his husband in a cave-in in the dwarven mines. He is loyal to the village and enjoys Jest’s company. He keeps his tavern, The Rusty Hook, in good order, and prides himself on serving rough, simple fare for his patrons.

Actis is Torven’s only other member of staff, a wiry elf who used to be a fisherwoman but quit when a beast from the deep chewed off half of her leg. She walks with a limp now and is determined to make the best of her lot. Torven has been very good to her and she is loyal– and she also is fascinated by Jest.

Maria is the current guildmistress of the vermincatcher’s guild. A hard-eyed halfling with three missing fingers on her left hand (chewed off by rats, she claims, although it was actually a punishment for theft as a child), she has taken Jest’s bribe in good faith and is assured of a place at his right hand at the culmination of his scheme.

Locations

Rothsea is a grim fishing village on the far coast, isolated from main trade routes. Adventurers occasionally stop here, but mostly it is fishermen and trawlers who venture out for a few days at a time to the stormy seas to bring back their catch. They are grim but loyal folk, and very worried about the recent rat activities.

Beneath their streets, the inhabitants know that there are a series of catacombs and sea-caves that link to the village’s cellars sometimes – this makes them very wary of rats and other creatures lairing in them, and one reason why they employ Maria and her vermincatchers to keep them safe.

Scene One – The Rats in the Cellar

DeanSpencer-filler-ratseating

Rats (C) Dean Spencer

As the characters arrive in Rothsea, it is falling to dark. The only tavern in the village, The Rusty Hook, looks out over the sea-front, and Torven pours pints of dark, heavy ale to a few sou-wester’d fishermen and women as they sit glumly. Jest greets them in between his songs.

If the characters ask for food Torven fetches bowls of stew, but is apologetic as he hands them the thin gruel and mouldy bread – supplies are low, he says. Then a scream is heard from below the tavern in the cellars, and the patrons hang back in fear. Torven leads the way, and they can see into the cellar, where Actis is scrabbling to get away from a swarm of rats that are chewing her good leg away. As the characters approach, they see a group of huge rats the size of dogs appear through the collapsed wall and bear down on them.

There is one giant rat (MM327) per player. If your players are experienced, and you want to make this first encounter more of a challenge, replace two of the giant rats with a rat swarm (MM339) – but be warned that they can be a dangerous opponent to the players.

Once they have dispatched the rats, Torven sends his patrons away and makes to repairing the wall. He offers the characters employment to solve the village’s rat problem – 150gp between them if they can resolve it in the next few days – and suggests a few lines of enquiry.

The might want to investigate the hole in his cellar and see where the tunnels lead (Scene Two). His patrons are sure that the rat problem started when a trawler washed up on the beach nearby (Scene Three). They could also pay the Vermincatcher’s Guild a visit and ask them why they haven’t managed to resolve the rat problem (Scene Four).

Scene Two – The Tunnels Beneath Rothsea

If they explore the broken wall, they can soon make their way into Rothsea’s labyrinthine tunnel system. The caverns have at times been hollowed out and crafted, and at one time these tunnels have been used as lairs for various creatures. The following skill checks are relevant.

The tunnels are damp and stinking, with only the occasional shaft of light from about to provide some fresh air and illumination. The tunnels are an odd mixture of natural passageways linked to the sea caves and man-made corridors.

DC10 History – the tunnels predate the building of Rothsea – many of these passages were here before the town was built

DC10 Survival – there are tracks all over of rats and giant rats, but also a few humanoid footprints here and there
DC15 Survival – the humanoid footprints are from well-made city books, not the rough wellingtons worn by most of Rothsea’s inhabitants
DC20 Survival – most of the tracks can be traced to the Vermincatcher’s Guild, but a few lead out towards a hut on the outskirts of town.

DC10 Perception – there are some sources of food down here – it appears as if some waste has been deliberately left for the rats

A longer passage leads out towards the sea cave to the side of the trawler (Scene Three), and a thorough exploration of the links to cellars will lead them to a few different places – including the Vermincatcher’s Guild. A rough wooden board has been made into a makeshift door into the Guild House cellars – and clearly it has been used recently (Scene Four). If they follow the tracks to the hut, they will come to Jest’s house (Scene Five) – although since their arrival he has boarded up his route into the cellars, sure that he can always use the entrance in the Guild House if he needs to see his rats again.

Scene Three – The Old Trawler

A few minutes walk outside the village, washed up on a quiet beach surrounded by cliffs, is the old trawler. A tatty sign painted on the side that is out of the tide gives the vessel’s name – the Rum Jug. Locals can tell how it arrived one storm-filled night, and ever since the rat problem has been significant. On the night of the wreck, a few fishermen went out to look for survivors, but there were none, and most assumed that the sailors must have abandoned ship earlier on the stormy seas. Such storms are fairly common, and although it has been a few years since there has been a wreck, old fishermen speak of the dangers of the cliffs to the south of Rothsea. Looters have long since taken anything of value, they say, and locals are extremely reluctant to return to it.

The ship lies on its side half-in and half-out of the water at high tide, and a thorough search of the surface reveal only old chests of grain and supplies that have long since rotted or been looted. A door leads to the captain’s quarters and is locked – it is a DC12 Thieves’ Tools check to pick, or a DC15 Athletics check to kick open. If neither of these are successful, concerted effort can lead them to open it, but the guardians inside will be able to surprise the characters.

Inside the captain’s cabin are the final guardians of the ship’s secrets, one or more undead octopi. These have statistics identical to the Giant Octopus on MM326 but have damage resistance to necrotic damage, immunity to poison, condition immunity to exhaustion and poison and darkvision of 60’ (thanks to the Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque blog for the quick-and dirty undead template here)

Number of PCs Number of Undead Octopi
3-4 1
5 2, but one is wedged between the side of a desk and so does not act until the second round of combat
6 2

 

Within the captains drawer is a series of letters detailing the cargo – mostly grain and trinkets, but also the transport of a prisoner, one Erwin Jest, for transportation into the wilderness for his ‘depraved practices’ – a reference to his pact with the rat-god.

It also describes a small sea-chest, inscribed with a carved octopus, as being of great value and asking for it to be stored ‘in the captains quarters, and locked away with all its guardians.’ The captain’s log speaks of the terrible conditions on the sea, and of his fears as the prisoner appeared to have escaped just before the storm. There are also two daggers and a finely-made shortsword in a small display case which is trapped with a poison needle (DC15 to detect and disarm – needle does 1hp damage and a DC10 Constution save or lose 1d4 hp from maximum and cannot recover hp except by magical means).

The cliffs around the Trawler contain some damp sea-caves, which lead to the tunnels underneath Rothsea (Scene Two). Asking around about the sea-chest among the looters, none of them can remember finding such an item – although some seem to remember seeing such a thing in the Vermincatcher’s Guildhouse (Scene Four). They may seek to confront Jest, in which case asking around will reveal that he lives in an old hut on the edge of the town (Scene Five)

Scene Four – The Vermincatcher’s Guildhouse

Maria and her Vermincatchers – a motley assortment of halflings, gnomes and small humans, used to take pride in their work, but have been bribed by Jest to stay out of this until he gives the signal. Maria is quite taken by Jest, but mostly sees him as an opportunity for their Guild to gain some respectability in the village.

If the characters sneak around, they find the guildhouse is guarded by a handful of guildmembers – use Bandit statistics (MM343), and they can find the guild’s details of the arrangements with Jest; nothing directly incriminating, but their records of jobs stops entirely two weeks ago – they have not done any vermincatching for the previous two weeks. The octopus chest from the wreck sits in the Guildmistress’s office safe, although she has long since taken the gold herself and hidden it in her lodgings.

If they confront the guildmembers, they put up a reasonable fight but if it turns against them, will reveal Jest’s arrangements – they have no idea what he is planning to do, but assume that he is planning to emerge a hero in the town.

The opposition below should present a challenging fight for the characters – it is assumed however, that the guildmember’s don’t fight to the death, and will not all appear at once – they arrive at a rate of 2 every round until their full complement is present.

Number of PCs Opposition
3 Maria (as Thug MM350) and 2 Bandits (MM343)
4 Maria (as Thug MM350) and 4 Bandits (MM343)
5 Maria (as Thug MM350) and 6 Bandits (MM343)
6 Maria (as Thug MM350) and 8 Bandits (MM343)

 

Following a confrontation, if they search the Guildhouse they can reveal the doors in the cellars leading to the tunnels (Scene Two). Questioning Maria can reveal the whole plot – although she will try to direct the characters to the trawler (Scene Three) first to confront Jest, claiming that he hides out around there. If they have already searched the trawler, or see through her lies, she will grudgingly point them in the direction of Jest’s House (Scene Five)

Scene Five – Jest’s House

Jest is renting a tiny cottage just outside the village –at the furthest extent of the tunnel’s reach. On the ground floor, his kitchen and living room are modest, but down in his cellar he has a vast shrine to his eldritch rat-deity. Twigs, bones, litter and assorted detritus assembled and stuck together with saliva and blood to make a roughly humanoid shape. Behind it, a circular passageway leads to the tunnels.

If the characters arrive here without clear and compelling evidence to confront Jest, he smiles at them and tries to pin the blame on the Vermincatcher’s Guild – he had ventured into the cellars to see what was going on, and caught the Guild leaving fish guts out for the rats, but had to flee as he thought he was discovered. He claims to be a retired adventurer now, in the hope of winning their trust, but says he has no time for fighting now.

If needs be, he volunteers to come with the characters to confront Maria and her Guild, but – when they do this, he will decide at the time whether to lead them into a trap, or try to blame Maria, depending on how much he believes the characters trust him.

If the confrontation leads to a fight, immediately giant rats appear out of the walls and sewers of the village, overrunning the town – even Jest’s defeat will not be rid of them until the Amulet is destroyed.

Number of PCs Opposition
3 Jest and 2 Giant Rats – only 1 Rat appears in the first round (MM327)
4 Jest and 2 Giant Rats
5 Jest and 3 Giant Rats
6 Jest and 4 Giant Rats

 

The Amulet of Rodents is a Sentient Magical Item with Int 8, Wis 8, and Cha 10. It communicates telepathically in dark whispers to those who wear it, and has hearing and darkvision out to 120 feet. It is Chaotic Evil in alignment, and seeks to see the lands of humans overrun with rodentkind.

The wearer can control and summon rats within 240 feet of the amulet. He gains 10 temporary hit points when within 30 feet of a rat or other rodent (in urban areas, this is likely to be most of the time!).

 

Erwin Jest, human rat-touched warlock (posing as bard)

Str -1 / Dex +2 / Con +2 / Int +0 / Wis +1 / Cha +3

Notable skills: Deception +5, Perception +3, Performance +5

Armor Class: 15 (assumes mage armour active)

Hit Points: 20 (plus 10 temporary hp from the Amulet)

Erwin makes one attack per round, usually his eldritch blast

Eldritch Blast: +5 vs. AC, 1d10+3 force damage

Erwin casts spells as a 2nd level Warlock, with 2 spell slots, a spell attack of +5, and a spell save DC of 13

1st level spells: Dissonant Whispers, Ray of Sickness, Witch Bolt

Awakened Mind: Erwin can communicate telepathically with any creature he can see within 30 feet.

Challenge Rating / XP: 1 / 200

Sting of the Scorpion Men – a 13th Age Glorantha One-Shot

13th Age GloranthaI’ve run this one-shot, for 4th level PCs, twice now, at UK Games Expo and at BurritoCon, and it’s been a lot of fun both times. I’m not going to claim it’s the most original plot structure going, but the combination of two of Glorantha’s iconic (but less-known than Broo) Chaos beasts, Gorps and Scorpion Men, make it a lot of fun.

One note – these aren’t the same stats for Gagix Two-Barb as are included from p422 of the 13G book – she’s not got 1000 hp. If this bothers your Gloranthan versimilitude, maybe this is a Chaos body-double for Gagix, or rule that she’s weakened by the Stone Chair Man’s enchantments.

Pregenerated characters are here, if you want. The Praxian Bison Rider uses the optional Mounted Combat rules from 13th Age Monthly that you can find here. All of them have 3 of their Background points spent, with the others to be allocated as they please.

Want a 1st level 13G one-shot? My re-imagining of Gringle’s Pawnshop is here.

Sting of the Scorpion Men

A 4th level 13G adventure

Introduction

An unprovoked attack on an isolated village tells you that the poisoned Earth around Larnste’s Footprint is rising up. You will have to travel through the Fossil Woods, and evade the Chaos beasts therein, to steal Gagix Two-Barb’s sting!

The PCs begin as established adventurers – they may be Rune Lords of their cult by 4th level, and are travelling through the wilderness near the village of Stone Chair after a successful adventure. Once their, an attack by corrupted Earthbeasts leads them to investigate the Stone Chair Man, a guardian spirit, who sends them in Larnste’s Footprint to steal the sting.

If you are inserting this into an ongoing campaign, maybe the characters have been asked to travel to Stone Chair because Venkor and/or Sarooth have forseen that the enchantments that protect the village are fading, or they have dreamed of strange chaos-touched Earthbeasts attacking villagers in the area.

Characters

Sarooth the Wise is the Elder of Stone Chair. He half-expects trouble when welcoming Rune Lords to his village. Every time they come, Chaos seems to follow, and he is weary of the disturbance even as he knows he will need their help.

Venkor the Fair is Sarooth’s daughter, an Ernaldan Earth Priestess who sees to the medical needs of Stone Chair. She hates the village and that she has to stay in it, since the wards that protect it make the population healthy and well, and dreams of a more interesting assignment in Backford or Whitewall.

The Stone Chair Man is a Guardian Spirit of the Woods around Stone Chair – their influence allows the village to continue to prosper. He lives within a huge ancient stone chair in the depths of the Fossil Woods, where his Earth Beasts normally protect him. Since it was overwhelmed by chaos, he his Earth Beasts will not follow his commands, and his altar is overrun with Gorps. He appears as a ten foot tall, stick-thin man made out of stone, and his altar is a large stone chair.

Gagix Two-Barb is a vicious scorpion woman with two stingers at the end of her tail. Ensorcelled by the Stone Chair Man in this adventure, she is less of a threat than on p426 of the core book, but she is still a formidable enemy.

Scene 1 – Earth Shark Attack

The Village of Stone Chair is between Backford and Larnste’s Footprint, and is nestled precariously around the hills above Backford. A tight set of steps leads up to a small square, where preparations are underway for the heroes’ arrival.

  • The trickle of a brook and the smell of cows roasting – “More Cows!” if there is a Troll in the party – and the chatter of villagers
  • They notice Venkor the Fair looking glum, sitting outside the circle, despite Sarooth trying to introduce them
  • They ascend stairs to the flat area of Stone Chair, and can see a winding path leading into the Fossil Forest – “This way lies doom!”

The village square is laid out, a feast is upon them, and everyone is dancing and relaxing, when an earth shark attacks! They notice the earth around Venkor raises up to surround her, and she is carried away on a wave of earth.

An Earth Shark has stats as a bulette from regular 13th Age (stats available on the SRD), a L 5th-lvl wrecker. For 3 players, it is alone. Add one earthbeast (13G p301) per additional player as well.

No. of PCs Opposition
3 1 Earth Shark
4 1 Earth Shark, 1 Earthbeast
5 1 Earth Shark, 2 Earthbeasts
6 1 Earth Shark, 3 Earthbeasts

 

The Earth Shark and Earthbeasts burst out of the very ground beneath them, and damage the foundations of the village – describe the rumbling ground beneath their feet as they fight.

When they recover, Sarooth is beside himself. Not only is village under threat, but Venkor, his daughter, has been carried away. He pleads with the PCs to travel to the Stone Chair Man to see what can be done – he is sure that something must be up with the protective wards that keep the village safe.

Scene 2 – Journey to the Stone Chair Man

They need to travel through the Fossil Woods to speak to the Stone Chair Man, an ancient shaman.

  • The path is well-trodden at first, but gets more loose and overgrown
  • Soon wood and trees begin to show signs of stone, and soon it is like walking down the corridor of a cathedral of stone – the noises quieten, and they can hear nothing but an eerie silence – and the occasional odd squelch
  • Soon a brash, acid scent – not unlike fresh vomit – hits their senses – and an appropriate Background check will reveal that this is a sign of Gorps in the area.
  • The Stone Chair man is in a vast Stone Chair in the centre of a circular clearing – but they can see a huge mass of ooze atop it, tentacles going into and out of the ground as they watch.

They must defeat a Gorp to rescue the Stone Chair Man – for 3-4 players, this is a single Earth-Killer Gorp (13G p265) ; for more PCs, add additional Gorps (13G p264). Use the toxic terrain special feature – when a non-Chaos creature rolls a 1 or 2 they take damage equal to their level.

No. of PCs Opposition
3 1 Earth-Killer Gorp
4 1 Earth-Killer Gorp, plus on the 2nd round an additional 2 Gorp spawn and attack
5 1 Earth-Killer Gorp plus 2 Gorp (from each Arm)
6 1 Earth-Killer Gorp plus 2 Gorp (from each Arm)

 

Scene 3 – Speaking to the Stone Chair Man

Once the Gorp are defeated and the Stone Chair Man awakens, he tells them of a curse on the Fossil Woods, that the natural order of things has broken down and the Foulblood Forest has infested them. He tells them that the source of the infection is deep within Larnste’s footprint, and the Scorpionmen leader Gagix must be behind this. He tells them that the only way he can lift the curse is by hitting Gagix where it hurts – and asks that they bring him the sting from the end of one of her scorpion tails. With this in his possession, he can cure the poison that is infecting the Fossil Woods and the village. He can help them, too – he can use his magics to send the scorpion men into a deep sleep, which should allow the PCs to creep up on them.

He pleads with them to go, and if they agree, they feel a shifting in their perceptions as they enter the Hero Lands. They can see Larnste’s huge foot in the clouds above – and he bids them set off straight away!

Scene 4 – Into Foulblood Forest

This is a montage scene (explained here, or in the 13th Age GM’s kit), accompanied by the spirit of the Stone Chair man. They emerge eventually into the Scorpion Man ruins, and can find Gagix and her inner circle of guards at the top of a ziggurat in the centre of the scorpion men city. Stealing the sting will be easy – but it will wake up her and her guards, if not the entire city!

The initial scene (for the GM to narrate) is that the Fossil Woods end abruptly, at the edge of Larnste’s footprint – with a sheer cliff leading into fogged grasslands below. You think you can just make off the towers of the Scorpion Man towns in the distance, but there are no ways down the cliff as far as you can see – what little goat tracks you can see disappear into the distance.

As the final scene, have the players sneak into the city, which is crawling with scorpion men. Resolve the final obstacle by seeing the Stone Chair Man’s face above them, and Larnste’s foot falling, sending all the inhabitants into a deep sleep. They can ascend the steps to the palace and find Gagix softly sleeping.

Scene 5 – Steal the Sting

Within the Scorpion Man Palace:

  • There is a thick aroma of spices and strange meats, and smoke and dust are everywhere. Pools of poison dot the bare sandstone grouns.
  • There is a light snoring all around. Gagix is fast asleep, on either side of her rest her champions.
  • Tied up in cane cages around the scorpionmen are a group of villagers, including Venkar. If the fight is going badly for the PCs, allow Venkar to help – maybe she casts some healing magic on an injured PC, or she summons an Earthbeast to distract one of the Scorpionmen.
  • Assuming the PCs attempt to either kill her or cut off her stinger, she will still awaken, along with her immediate bodyguards. Who else will fight them depends on the opposition table
No. of PCs Opposition
3 Gagix and a ScorpionMan Bruiser
4 Gagix, a Bruiser, and a Warrior
5 Gagix, a Bruiser, and a Shaman
6 Gagix, a Bruiser, a Warrior and a Shaman

 

Gagix is a Scorpion Man Bruiser for the purposes of this fight – except that her ranged attack is the Shaman power. All scorpion men have the nastier specials

The Bruiser is Mesh, and old, aged Scorpionman whith countless scars across his bare torso. The Warrior is Flex, a youth not older than his teens who wears bright red armour. The shaman is a female Scorpionman, who carries a strange glowing staff.

Scene 6 – Return

They can effect their escape and return to Stone Chair with the help of the Stone Chair Man – as the rest of the city awakens and tries to avenge their leader. They return as heroes, the village saved.

D&D One-Shots, Part 3: Goblin Gully

In my last post, I talked about running a one-shot for six complete newcomers using an extended/modified version of Dyson Logos’ Goblin Gully one-sheet dungeon. I added some stuff to it, mainly to give a bit of an introduction to the core mechanics (with a straightforward battle against some bandits) and a chance for a bit of out-of-dungeon roleplaying (by interacting in the town before venturing to the dungeon).

It worked really well as a 1st-level introductory game. The dungeon is just complex and multi-layered enough to give a chance for tactical decisions, and the final encounter really emphasises that sometimes you don’t have to defeat the enemy, just capture them. My notes that I used, in addition to the original dungeon, are below. And check Dyson’s stuff out! There are loads of really good maps, geomorphs, and adventures on his website.

Synopsis

The PCs are young, thrusting adventurers out to earn their fortune. They have recently taken their first, exciting, job – escorting the merchant Donia and her husband Reaghan through the High Forest to the village of Stone Stand.

They are attacked by bandits, and Reaghan is wounded before they are able to chase them off, and they learn that there is much increased bandit activity – linked to the goblins near the Kalil Slave Pit. At the town, Donia and the innkeeper Jarrod engage them to investigate the Slave Pit and drive off the goblins.

Cast

Donia is an able and capable merchant, middle-aged with a steely stare and an eye for business.

Reaghan, her husband, is a feckless idiot, an ex-adventurer who doesn’t see why the PCs should have been hired since he can easily deal with a few bandits.

Jarrod, the innkeeper of the Wyvern’s Rest, is a stout and hearty barkeep who  just wants the best for Stone Stair.

Scene One – Ambush!

As the players round a corner in the depths of the High Forest, less than a day’s travel away, their cart sticks in the mud – closer inspection (DC 10 perception) shows that a groove has been hollowed out in the road deliberately to trap them. As they inspect, Spencer and his Bandits approach – Reaghan immediately challenges them, and is seriously wounded by an arrow for his troubles.

There is one Bandit for every PC, plus Spencer, the leader. They attempt to flee if the battle starts to clearly go against them, which it probably will.

Spencer: As a normal Bandit but hp 18.

Searching the bandits they find two potions of healing (regain 2d4+2 hp) and a map showing the details of the Kalil Slave Pit, with scrawled notes on it – Keep Adventurers Away from Stone Stand, and from the Pit – Maglubiyet will reward you (10 gp/adventure head – double if alive!).

Reaghan can be stabilized with a Wisdom (Medicine) DC 10 check, or any healing that restores even 1hp. If there isn’t a cleric or paladin in the party, consider them finding an extra potion of healing – maybe on Spencer. Once he is stabilized they can continue to the village.

Tracking the bandits

If they are keen to track them, they can make a Wisdom (Survival) DC 10 check to show that they have a basic camp about half a day’s march away. There they may be able to ambush the remaining bandits, or question them about the goblins

Questioning the bandits

Spencer and his men are opportunists – they dug the hole in the hope of a cart coming along because they’ve tracked the PCs for the past day. The goblin bounty has made ambushing carts much more lucrative as there are often adventurers amongst them. They will plead with the PCs to let them go, or failing that to at least take them back to town – Wisdom (Insight) DC 10 will reveal that what they are really scared of is being sent to the goblins.

Scene Two – Stone Stair

Stone Stair is a picturesque village in the middle of the wilderness, nestled on either side of stone steps up a hillside, making it very defensible but also reliant on imports for food. The one tavern, the Wyvern’s Rest, is run by Jarrod, a retired adventurer. As they are settled and rested, they will learn that Stone Stair has been beset by bandits – none have dared attack the village itself yet, but many supply carts have gone missing, and there are rumours of goblins abroud in the hills to the north as well.

Jarrod and Dorian will offer the PCs 200 gp to clear out and/or investigate the old Kalil Slave Pits – a mysterious wanderer, Kras, will tell them that he has seen the bridge has been restored to it.

Gathering Information

They can question any of the NPCs around town about the Slave Pits – on a successful DC 10 check of an appropriate skill they receive a True rumour from the Goblin Gully sheet, on a failed on they receive a False one – but will know it is questionable.

Scene Three – Goblin Gully

The PCs can make their way to the Kalil Slave Pits and explore Goblin Gully as per the one-sheet. Additional notes for each location are below.

By investigation, the goblins believe the black pudding to be an avatar of Maglubiyet, and have been throwing sacrifices in. They have been running short, so last week two goblins were pushed in, and their claw marks are visible on the walls as they tried to escape.

  1. Entrance – two Goblins up a tree. They attack with their shortbows.
  2. Antechamber
  3. Grand Hall – four Goblins guard here (or one per PC)  (Passive Perception 9 if sneak)
  4. Bridge Room – two Goblins will attempt to support combat in 3 – but not leave their posts.
  5. Bridge – to cross quickly is a DC 10 Dex save or they will be left hanging off a thread, a further save or they fall for 1d6 damage
  6. Gully Floor – the bodies carry a Scroll of Bless
  7. Empty Room – goblin in 8 to surprise
  8. Contains Graz’tur, a goblin boss, and three Goblins (XP 350)
  9. Secret Chamber. The door is trapped, and secret (DC 10 to find, DC 15 to disarm – or DC 15 Dex save or 1d10 damage from a dropped rock)
  10. Secret Storage. There is a +1 Longsword here, but if it is disturbed then the Animated Armor at the back of the room attacks with its ornate two-handed sword – this sword detects as magical.
  11. Four goblins, can be ambushed easily
  12. The Pit. Contains a black pudding. Required DC 15 Wisdom save to flee and shut the door. The door to the Pit is barred by heavy wooden bars, and the sword in 10 can be used to seal the portal permanently.

So, there are my notes for Goblin Gully (posted with Dyson’s permission, I should add). What are your favourite short dungeons to introduce D&D to newcomers?

Next post, I’ll talk about prepping one-shot games for D&D.

Spotlight Maintenance and the Three-Skill Trick: A One-Shot Prep Technique

After several cons in the last few weeks, I’ve come to realise how important spotlight sharing is in One-Shot games. In some games, a structured turn helps to make this happen naturally, especially in combat; in D&D, for instance, everyone has a role to play in combat, so generally a fight has the spotlight shared reasonably equally. But in games that are less combat-centric, such as investigative games, it can be easy to neglect some characters and favour others. And even in D&D, outside of combat it can be easy to make the game focus more on some PCs and not others.

So, in thinking about this, I present…

The Three-Skill Trick

You do this at some point in your prep after you have your pregens ready. You might only have the bare bones of your plot – in which case this might take you in unexpected directions – or you might have the game basically prepped – in which case this will add detail and options that will check that everyone has plenty to do.

Start by looking at your pregens and working out what they are really good at – this will include their “Apex skill,” whatever they are best at, but also anything that they have a Talent/Stunt/whatever your system calls them that can boost it. Sometimes talents can have specific instances – for instance in FFG Star Wars Talents sometimes just remove penalty dice – so consider if those instances can occur in the game.

Then list three places in the scenario for each pregen where these skills can shine. Make sure these are skill uses that hinge on success – passing them adds significant value and plot leverage to the game.

Why three? Well, not all of them may come up, no matter how obvious you think they might be. By having three, you’re guaranteeing as close as you can that it’ll come up at least once. This is easier to illustrate with an example, so let’s look at a classic/boring adventure structure, and let’s stick to D&D, the “Bandits on the Road” adventure.

Imagine this is as far as our prep goes for this 1st level D&D adventure: the PCs are hired to escort a caravan through the dangerous woods; part way through they are ambushed by bandits, who run off with a vital item. The PCs are offered double their fee to track the bandits and recover the item, from which they can then return to civilisation.

Just to stick to the cliche, let’s assume a bog-standard D&D party of Fighter, Magic-User, Thief, and Cleric, and let’s make them good at standard 1st Edition AD&D things – the Cleric can heal and speak to people, the Fighter can, er, Bend Bars and Lift Gates, and hit things with his sword; you get the idea.

Let’s look at each PC in turn and look at what we can add to give them a proper spotlight.

Fighter

  • during the ambush, the caravan is forced into a rut and loses a wheel – it needs lifting up and repairing
  • during the ambush, one of the bandits is carrying a shield bearing the heraldic crest of the Duke’s bastard son – foreshadowing that…
  • the bandits have a champion, the Duke’s disgraced bastard son, who seeks to duel the fighter in single combat

Thief

  • The camp is nestled up a cliffside – by climbing the (fairly easy) cliffs it can be scouted and alarms cut off
  • The bandits around the camp (or even during the ambush) carry obvious keys that can be pickpocketed from them
  • The camp has tripwire traps all around the approach to the forest

Cleric

  • At the start of the ambush, the merchant’s wife is shot and dangerously wounded – she needs healing
  • During the night – during which the PCs must travel to get to the bandit camp – restless spirits and ghosts stalk the forest
  • There are druids in the forest who are none too happy about the caravans coming through, but a friendly approach leads to their help against the bandits, who they are equally displeased with

Magic-User

  • the stolen item is an arcane box that can be magically tracked
  • during the camp ambush, there are lots of braziers and pots of oil (that can easily be mage hand-ed to cause distraction)
  • from the ambush, they find a map to the bandit camp – but it is in code

Obviously, this isn’t quite game-ready, but I’d argue it’s a significant improvement on the standard adventure already. All it needs is a re-arranging into order and a few stats and names, and it’s a pretty serviceable one-shot. Watch this space and I might even do that – after all, I did try and chisel a decent one-shot out of another classic/corny adventure plot, “The Orc And The Pie.”

What are your tricks for managing spotlight in one-shots? Have you tried a similar technique? And watch out for Part 2, where I’ll apply it to a more complex base adventure.

Ravnica Airship Heist – a 3rd level D&D One-Shot

In my review of the Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica, I talked about it’s amazing steampunky setting – and it made me think immediately of an airship heist. Well, I went ahead and designed one, and have run it twice now – once at Go Play Leeds and once at the excellent Airecon convention in Harrogate.

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.

airship pic

Airship by Jonny Gray

It’s presented in fairly loose note form below (and here as a .pdf) – and in this post I’ve got links to the pregens that I used for it. You can probably get an idea about how I tend to run D&D5e from it – there’s no maps, for instance, and in particular the part of the one-shot where the PCs have to source flying mounts is left intentionally vague. In both occasions of running it, the Goblin player has decided instead to have his own experimental flying machine.

Let me know any feedback – particularly if you run it, or part of it.

Ravnica Airship Heist

(An Azorius Senate Ravnica One-Shot for five 3rd level PCs)

Background

There’s one airship out of the Tenth District that you need to get to; it’s got Lady Saves on it, a wanted Simic Combine ‘disappearer’ who is wanted for multiple Guildpact violations. She’s gone into deep hiding, but you know she’s still in the Tenth District, and you’re going to capture her.

She knows the Azorius are on to her, though, and has made plans. After exhausting a number of avenues, she has kidnapped Izzet league goblin inventor Grizmalgun and forced him to steal and pilot an airship for her. With this, she will flee to the faraway Sixth District and start her experiments again!

Setup

This one-shot assumes that the PCs are working with, or allied to, the Azorius Senate, and begins at the finale of their investigations into her practices. The adventure begins at the finale of their investigations into her – they have tracked her down to her laboratory on the edge of Zonot Seven, in Precinct Five of the Tenth District. Her crimes – kidnapping, experimentation without consent – are so foul that even the Simic Combine has stopped defending her, and so the Azorius have a warrant for her arrest.

With each PC, ask why they are dedicated to finding Lady Saves – what has she done to them, their Guild or their family. Let them know the terms of the warrant – it applies within the Tenth District, and so it is imperative that they don’t let her escape.

Then ask them which PC they have worked with before – what case they worked on, and what they thought of them.

Cast

Lady Saves is a cruel, heartless Simic biomancer who seeks only to further her own glory by a series of increasingly dangerous experiments. She appears as a beautiful, if otherworldly, woman, and has a thin pair of butterfly wings that are usually kept folded and hidden behind her back. Likewise, if she needs it, a pair of concealed tentacles can emerge from her body.

Grizmalgun is a scatterbrained and disorganised goblin inventor who usually works in the harnessing of elemental powers. He has worked many times on maintaining the Tenth District’s airships, and so is in a prime position to steal one. While he has no time for Lady Saves, the chance to actually fly one of his creations has made him relatively sympathetic to her cause – and the chance to start again in the Sixth District also appeals, as he has a long list of debts from previous experiments.

Scene 1 – Dawn Raid on Growth Chamber Alpha-3

The PCs enter the Growth Chamber to find it apparently deserted – there are two greenish pools in front of them, beyond which a desk of apparatus and notes lies in disarray. Another doorway leads to some abandoned living quarters All through the room is the thick smell of acid which stings the eyes. Within the pools, two Category 1 Krasis (p210 GGR) (both with the Acidic Skin power) lie ready to attacl the PCs. They will try to wait until the PCs have started to investigate the desk, trapping them in the chamber, but if anyone tries to explore the pools they will attack.

A thorough search of the chamber reveals –

  • A detailed plan for airship piloting, which has had several notes left in it
  • A list of Izzet league contacts – with notes next to them, each crossed out. Only one, Grizmalgun, a goblin airship inventor, remains
  • A guide book to the Sixth District, far across Ravnica

If Lady Saves makes it to the Sixth District, she will be well away from her crimes here – even the Guildpact takes a long time to enforce, and she belongs in your jurisdiction! They can follow up the leads

Airships

Research about airships shows that they are likely to be from the Airpship Station at the centre of Tenth District. They are slow but easily obtained with the right contacts, and asking around will reveal that there are unscrupulous Izzet Leaguers who are prepared to bypass security and wards and help people get them.

Scene Two – Grizmalgun’s Workshop

Grizmalgun is long gone, but Lady Saves’ Simic allies have left traps just in case somebody tries to come after him. A Hybrid Shocker and two Hybrid Spies (GGR p218) are hidden in the alleyways around the workshop – test the Spys’ stealth of +5 against the PC’s Passive Perception to see if they are detected, unless they search the outside thoroughly.

Upon entry, the Workshop is a two-story affair – you can use the map on p145 of GGR for it – but much of the walkways around the ground level above the generator have been removed or destroyed. A tripwire near entry triggers the first (mechanical) trap – the lower level begins to flood with water. Whoever enters first must make a DC15 Perception to spot the tripwire, followed by a DC15 Acrobatics to avoid being tipped into the lower level for 1d6 damage and to be within the water. The lower level will fill up within two rounds, and then begin to flood the ground floor. There is a cut-off switch on the far side of the basement floor – from which the water floods – which can be reached and turned off with a DC10 Athletics check.

When the trap is triggered, or when the PCs enter the workshop without it triggering, the Simic will attack. The Shocker can target everyone in the water with their Shocking Touch attack or Electrified Body reaction.

Upon questioning the Simic, they can reveal that Lady Saves is long gone – she is already on board the airship. Similarly, a thorough search of the workshop finds evidence of a fight – and calculations for a flight path and route. Checking the wind speeds and timings, the airship is already airborne – there is no time to lose to catch it!

Scene Three – Airborne Steeds

They need to use their contacts to get hold of either Griffins or Skyjek Rocs to ride onto the Airship, if they want to try and attack aerially. If any of the group have Izzet league contacts, they may be able to find their own Airships. Allow the players to make whatever plans they have for this – a skill check is only needed if you want to determine who has the best-maintained Griffin and who has a grimy beakless nag!

(optional) Scene Four – Aerial Battle

If you have time (allow about an hour for the final confrontation), have the PCs encounter some interference on their way to the fight. Three Harpies (MM p181)have been bribed by Lady Saves to run interference in case they are followed.

An appropriate Animal Handling check can make their Rocs or Griffins sing, which will counteract the Luring Song of the Harpies. As all combatants are mounted, feel free to use – or not use – the Mounted Combat rules, depending on your table preferences.

Scene Five – Airship Heist

On board the airship, there are Lady Saves – stats as a Cult Fanatic (MM p345 – but with a Flight speed of 40ft if she needs it), a Krasis Stage 1 (with Flight – p210 GGR), and Four Simic Thugs (MM p350). There’s also a very frightened-looking Grizmalgun (stats as Counterflux Blastseeker, p242 GGR) who is chained to a cage at the front of the Airship. He can be persuaded to help with an appropriate social skill, and joins in on the PCs side. This can be a difficult battle – particularly if anyone falls off their mounts – but the PCs have access to Grizmalgun, and also their Rocs / Griffons to help that they should be able to make use of.

Scene Six – Airship Crash!

As the battle rages, the Airship begins to pitch and toss, and if the fight is going against her, Lady Saves is likely to pull the bomb mechanism that Grizmalgun has installed and cut the cables. The mechanisms within the airship begin to whirr and the airship begins to lose altitude.

To level it out and crash-land the airship will take a series of skill checks. They need to get to 4 (same as no. of PCs) successes before they reach 3 failures, using a range of skills (generally DC is 10)

  • Use Dexterity (Thieve’s Tools) to repair the rigging
  • Use Intelligence (Arcana) to repair the air elemental holding wards
  • Use Strength (Athletics) to climb onto the rigging and hold it in place
  • Use Charisma (Persuasion) to get Grizmalgun to help – once the bomb goes off he is very keen on observing the carnage instead of helping
  • …and so on

With success, the ship crashes gently into a Rubble Pit – and with it come a group of Gruul. Judicious use of social skills, and explaining Lady Saves’ crimes, should enable them to get out successfully, and they can bring her to justice.