Grand Theft Auto Sandboxing

I don’t really like “sandbox” play – where a setting or location is provided with NPCs, some interactions, and the players are left to wander around finding an emergent plot. I think it’s some youthful games of Traveller where my fellow players just traded and avoided any kind of danger, but they’ve always been slow, unwieldy things where the emergent plot hasn’t been satisfying. 

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 of £2 per month. 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!

But genuine choice is a real feature of one-shots, which can easily be railroaded affairs, so I’d like to get better at them. So, for one-shots or longer-form games, I present my solution – or at least, the solution to my problem with sandboxes – the Grand Theft Auto Sandbox.

I’ve named it after GTA as that’s the first video game I encountered that looked like this, but it’s generally how open world games are structured now, and I’m sure GTA3 wasn’t the first. In it, as the world opens up, you always have a few missions on your plate, that you can follow in whatever order, some main plot and some side quests. The choice and setting makes for an entertaining game where you really feel in charge of your characters destiny. 

As it’s been developed, in games like Red Dead Redemption you have side quests that turn out to be main quests, and a few branching storylines – all immersing you in the world, and making your characters choices feel important even though they aren’t always.

What’s Wrong With Sandboxes?

Well, there’s a few things, in my experience. Some of these, to some players, may be more feature than bug, but for me they do my head in:

  • PCs, faced with a dangerous and less dangerous option, will always choose the less dangerous first
  • The sandbox often doesn’t change. Whenever you go to the town, it’s often the same location they saw before
  • Side quests are either not present, or too independent of the main plot – they’re either too tempting or not tempting enough
  • The players disagree about what to do. With too many options, it’s hard to see what to do

Building Your Sandbox

  • Have a limited, bounded location. Give some interesting-sounding adventure sites – these can just be names for now
  • Imagine an antagonist, and the plot your PCs will work against. Sketch out some possible escalations of their plan that can happen during the sandbox
  • Add a couple of neutral/antagonistic factions that aren’t the main antagonist that the players can butt up against. Work out how they feel about the other factions, and what they want
  • Prep a straightforward, action-oriented first session that introduces the main factions and locations and sets up a the next two or three options for quests

Playing Your Sandbox

  • Give two or three missions at once. Missions that aren’t picked up may stay available, or may vanish as they pursue others.
  • Steal published adventures for quests – either with or without the serial numbers filed off
  • Have some side quests ready that the players can do at any time. Maybe these have a simple twist ready that link them to the main antagonist – or maybe they don’t
  • Ask the players what they do next time at the end of the session. This way, you only have to fully prep what they’re doing next, rather than the whole shebang.
  • Lay out tracks in front as you go. You might know where you’re heading, but you might also want to play to find out – especially if you’re running a more player-driven game.
  • Occasionally, interrupt and put them on rails – especially if the antagonist reacts. If they’ve been particularly successful against them (or another faction), have the trouble come to them and them have to deal with it

So, there’s my basic principles of GTA Sandboxing. I’m going to provide some more examples later in the week of how to use this in action, and how it applies to a one-shot. If there’s any particular settings or systems you’d like to see use this method, let me know in the comments.

Into the Underhang – A Heart: The City Beneath One-Shot

I’ve had some rum luck with illness recently – a chest infection a few weeks ago, and now Covid (I’m recovering, thankfully) have meant I’ve missed two #TTRPG conventions that are genuine highlights. Owlbear and Wizard’s Staff is excellent beery fun in Leamington Spa, while Furnace is a centrepiece of the Garrison Conventions and the place that first got me into convention GMing.

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 of £2 per month. 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!

So, I’ve been left with an excess of prepped games, and no-where to run them – so I’ll be putting them out on here. First up, a game that was planned for Owlbear, for Roward Rook & Decard‘s Heart: The City Beneath. In Heart, your desperate treasure-hunters delve into the living, beating dungeon beneath the occupied city of Spire to find eldritch treasures – and themselves.

Yes, the art is all this good – as you’d expect from RRD

Full disclosure – I haven’t actually run this, although I’m sure it will get an outing soon. If you’re Heart-curious, this might give you an idea what to expect in the game. If you’re a Patron, feel free to message (on here or twitter) and I’ll send you the pregens I did for it as well, giving you a fully ready-to-run game. Also, this is based on an adventure seed in the actual book – there are loads of them in there – but fleshed-out to be runnable for a one-shot. I’ve got more to say about prep for loose-improv games like Heart and Spire, but that’s another blog post.

Into the Underhang

A Heart: The City Beneath One-Shot

Into the Underhang is an independent production by Burn After Running and is not affiliated with Rowan, Rook and Decard. It is published under the RR&D Community License. Heart is copyright Rowan, Rook and Decard. You can find out more and support these games at rowanrookanddecard.com.

Scene 1 – Derelictus

We begin in the city between the cities, a sprawling, semi-underground mirror of Spire, Derelictus. From Platform 1, where all manner of equipment can be sourced, to Platform 2, where we find ourselves now – with Ostrer, a mad researcher, is cutting you a deal.

Hang Station was built as a tourist trap; suspended over a vast subterranean sea, so that aelfir could see the captured, sleeping monster beneath, captured from the far north. Hang Station is on Tier 2 of Heart – so will need at least a couple of delves, stopping off at a waypoint on the way. He wants to get a sample of the beast’s blood – and he needs your help.

There appear to be two notable routes towards Hang Station (a Technology) – through the singing, open railways of the Vermissian Railways – maybe hoping to catch a train some of the way, or a darker, lower way, through Sump Station (a Warren) – the flooded remains of an old station now submerged. Darker, but less likely to attract attention

In Derelictus, each PC has a chance to prepare – they can try and get hold of a D6 piece of equipment for the journey, or research another route – perhaps one going through a more favourable area for them. After a skill roll each, and potential stress (always D4 at this stage, and usually to Supplies or Fortune), they must set off

Scene 2 – Delve to Tier 1

This is a delve they will take to either Sump Station, Hang Station, or another location

Route: Between Derelictus and Sump Station

Tier: 1

Domains: Technology, Warren

Stress: D4

Resistance: 10

Description: A tramp through foot-deep, the knee-deep, flooded tunnels, in fading light and with labyrinthine corridors. Occasional relics of machinery or rails puncture through the floor – and occasionally pumps still churn. It smells bad initially, then turns to a warm, cleaner smell.

Events: Jonjak and his gang of gutterkin will track the PCs from Derelictus, and attempt to jump them to find out what they are doing; a sudden overflow means they have to wade chest-deep or lower; strange fluorescent fish swim under the water and circle the PCs; a warehouse of fishmongery where Mikkel the Fish waits to serve them

Connection: Capture the glowing fish for Mikkel and he will teach you the secrets of the eddies

Route: Between Derelictus and Hang Station

Tier: 1

Domains: Technology, Occult

Stress: D4

Resistance: 10

Description: A walk along high, ruined walkways alongside the tracks which have collapsed in places; crystals line the path eventually; the smell of incense and sulphur. Damaged rope-ways line each pathway

Events: Jonjak and his gang of gutterkin will track the PCs from Derelictus, and attempt to jump them to find out what they are doing; a clattering of a passing train requires jumping out of the way – or onto it; the singing of crystals in the ceiling above as one falls and shatters

Connection: Repair the rope-ways linking to the paths

Scene 3: The Mid-Point

At this point, they have arrived, either in Sump Station or Hang Station, and have a chance for respite. Ostrer insists that they need to purchase some supplies – ropes and pulleys – but at this point you encounter the rival delvers, Protector Baram and his men.

They accost the players as they explore the haven, asking them their business and mocking them. They know that the beast has laid eggs, and can see that Ostrer wants one as well. Depending on the PC’s approach, they may suggest an alliance, or try and sabotage their equipment. Either way, he will wish them luck.

As with Scene 1, PCs may make 1 test to try and recover equipment or preparations for the further delve.

Scene 4: Into the Underhang

From their location, they need to venture deeper into the Heart, to Hang Station and the underground lake.

Route: Between Tier 1 and Hang Station

Tier: 2

Domains: Cursed, Technology

Stress: D6

Resistance: 10

Description: Trekking through walkways suspended over still lakes, or raging torrents – creaking at the wind that blows through them. The smell of tar, and then of some big, fishy beast. The crackling of magical energy from long-decayed dampers and siphons. The echoes of fellow hunters, or ghosts, around them.

Events: A crackle of energy covers the ground in front with a web of occult power that must be bypassed; the walkway shatters and falls, meaning they must form a new route; Jonjak, still tracking, ambushes them on a walkway; Baram makes his move as they approach; a ghostly engineer seeks aid in repairing conduits and walkways

Connection: Repairing the conduits will allow them to lay the ghost to rest.

Scene 5: The Harvest

They emerge onto a vast creaking observation platform, a sparkling lake below them swaying gently. A huge whale-beast has broken the surface of the water below, and a light snore echoes around the cavern – but the eggs are on the other side.

They must

  • Somehow get down to the lake. There are maintenance rowboats and rafts available, ropes and pulleys, that could be fashioned
  • Recover the eggs from the egg sac beyond the creature – they could dive in, or trick it into rolling over
  • Avoid the attentions of the rival gangs, who will attempt to ambush them

At their moment of triumph, a roar echoes through the lake – the beast has awoken, and they must escape

NPCs

Ostrer the Mad Researcher

Motivation: Find and recover the eggs of the Hang Station beast

Sensory Details: Thick, clouded goggles with no light; the smell of dusty books mixed with oil; a dirty, flapping lab coat

At the Table: Close eyes when speaking

Jonjak the Tunnel Brigand

Motivation: Find a score big enough to retire on

Sensory Details: Filthy overalls and cloak; scarred face and hands; odd limp

At the Table: Speaks with a pirate accent (Arr!)

Difficulty: 0

Resistance: 10

Protection: 1

Resources: Stolen heirlooms (D8, Taboo), Poorly-written maps (D6 Delve)

Jonjak’s Gutterkin

Motivation: Gain freedom from Jonjak, or at least more pleasant employment with him

Sensory Details: A mob of 8 or 9 gullboys and heron-girls; squawking and clambouring over one another; rusted, broken knives with alarming speed

At the Table: Look this way and that while skwarking in semi-speech

Resistance: 8

Protection: 0

Stress: Knives D6, Unreliable

Mikkel the Fish

Motivation: Serve his narcotic fishes to the discerning

Sensory Details: A scale-clad shaved gnoll with rings everywhere; stares oddly at everything; the smell of oil and tar

At the Table: Keep mouth open when not speaking

Protector Baram, Drow Rival Delver

Motivation: Be the first to recover a beast-egg for his masters

Sensory Details: The smell of cheap perfume, a shiny well-maintained leather coat, the clip of heels on ground; accompanied by a pair of cackling gnolls, Forrad and Vorrad

At the Table: Alan Rickman-esque villainy

Difficulty: Risky

Resistance: 10

Protection: 1

Stress: Whip D8 Tiring, Pistol D6 Ranged One-Shot

The Hang Station Beast

Motivation: To eat, sleep and breed

Sensory Details: A thick smell of fur, fish and sweat; blue-grey skin covered in slick water; a light, echoey snore

At the Table: Describe the ground shifting

Difficulty: Dangerous

Resistance: 10

Protection: 2

Stress: Roll over D6

Prep Techniques – Round-Up

Last year, I started writing about Prep Techniques – ways to structure your prep for a one-shot session to build a good structure for your session. One-shot and short-form play is all about having a clear structure of ideas so you’re not left floundering at the table, and these were designed to encourage that, with practical advice to turn an idea into a ready-to-run set of prep.

I contrast these with Table Techniques, which are things you do during the game that often don’t need any prep beyond creating the conditions for their deployment – Shared Narration is an example of this (well, several examples) – and I’ll be providing more examples of them over the next few months.

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 of £2 per month. 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!

There hasn’t been a full list of my Prep Techniques posts before now, so here’s a summary of what’s here. If you’re just starting prepping a one-shot and not sure what to do first, you could do worse than pick one of these and follow the method described.

Essential prep – gathering your props

The 5-Room Non-Dungeon is Johnn Four’s 5-Room Dungeon method, applied more broadly to give a series of linked scenes. This is a great place to start if you’re beginning running one-shots. I actually think it works better out of the dungeon than for dungeon games.

Three Places is a way to structure investigative, location-based play where you want your players to have genuine choices as to how they approach the problem.

Another one that’s not mine, I did a deep dive of Sly Flourish’s Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master prep method here – even if you don’t use the whole method, the list of unconnected secrets and clues is a great technique to have in your back pocket, or to go through before a session to give things for the players to discover.

Another good way to get started is to write a convention pitch for the game, and use that to focus your thoughts – guidance here. Technique also applies for writing actual convention pitches!

For a more loosely-structured game, where you expect to think on your feet, you need a bag of tricks to throw at the players. The guidance in this post is relevant for PBTA, FitD, and other similar games like Spire and Heart. It’s easy to try and go in raw with these sorts of games, but in my experience having some prep thoughts done beforehand really help to make them sing in a one-shot.

Or for a more simple structure, start by thinking about the Boss Fight and work backwards from there. There’s a couple of examples of this approach here.

I’m not saying there won’t be more Prep Techniques shared in the future, but here’s all there are for now. My focus for the next few months is two things – putting out ready-to-run one-shots for a few systems (most of which are my own con game sessions from over the summer) and Table Techniques, which will give techniques that can be done during play to add interest and excitement to your games. Let me know if there’s anything you’d like to see!

Starting a New Campaign

Over at Patreon, one of my backers requested a post about starting a new campaign. I’m always happy to take requests from my noble backers, so here’s a step by step of what I do when I’m starting to set up a campaign or longer-form game. To give my bona fides, until 2020 I don’t think I’d ever run what I’d consider a successful campaign game – but the advent of lockdown, and a dive into online gaming, has changed that. I’m currently running an ongoing D&D game, a Star Trek Adventures game (where we are skirting around the Shackleton Expanse campaign), and in the process of pulling together a One Ring game. So – what do I do to start with, when I’m about to launch a campaign?

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 of £2 per month. 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!

  1. Set the Scope

Firstly, think about how long the campaign is going to last, and agree with your group. I’d strongly recommend splitting a longer campaign into seasons of max 8-12 sessions in order to keep things fresh, and I’d consider starting with even fewer sessions than that. Having a defined end point will stop your campaign from fizzling out, and keep everyone in the game and focussed.

Based on how often your group meets, work out how long real-time this will last for – and make sure you’re up for that. If you meet once a month and want to run a 12-session campaign, that’s a year’s worth of gaming for the group! If you’re weekly, 12 sessions is still 3 months of play. Make sure that you – and your players – are clear about that commitment and happy with it.

Of course, you might have an in-game end in mind – for my D&D campaign, we’re running through Rime of the Frostmaiden; that campaign finishes when they’ve brought the sun back to Icewind Dale and defeated Auril the Frostmaiden. Even with that, I’ve worked out that with 2 sessions at each level of character, this is about 20 sessions. I’d planned a mid-season break after 10, but as it happens we ended up cancelling some sessions anyway, so we’re good to go with the second part of it.

  1. Get the Big Picture

The approach to this stage varies a little depending on whether you’re plotting your own campaign or running something pre-written. In either case, though, you will sketch out the broad picture of how you expect the campaign to play out.

If you’re rolling your own, a great tool to use (taken from Dungeon World) is Fronts. Consider your campaign’s big bad, and sketch out some steps that it might take. Sly Flourish also has a discussion of using this for D&D that streamlines the process a bit.

Having a campaign finale in mind helps – even if your Roll20 presentation isn’t up to much

If you’re using a published adventure, this is when you need to skim read the whole thing. If you’re running something popular (like a D&D campaign) it’s also well worth googling it to see if folks like Sly Flourish or Justin Alexander have notes on how to run it. There will be some of these on here soon as my ‘Deep Dive’ series extends – currently I’ve got Rime of the Frostmaiden Chapter 1, Shadows over Bogenhafen, and the first Vaesen adventure compendium A Wicked Secret to write up. 

Once you’ve got this, sketch out how the sessions might look – for instance, I expected for Rime we’d probably hit one of the Ten-Towns quests per session, along with some additional personal stuff, for the first 6 sessions before hitting Chapter 2 and the more open-ended part of the game. As it happens in a couple of sessions we doubled up adventures, but we were able to mesh some of the scenarios into the PC backstories anyway (for a session-by-session report written by one of my players – and ongoing – check out Fandomlife’s blog here).

Running published campaigns requires slightly different prep to rolling your own

If the start of your campaign is going to branch off and be more of a sandbox, think about how you’ll structure this. I’m a big fan of getting players to decide what they’ll do next time at the end of a session, so I can focus on those bits for the following session. Also, think about how long you’re prepared to let them play in the sandbox – is there an element in your Front, or a lead you can drop, that will force them to leave and stop them wanting to talk to every NPC and find every secret?

  1. Imagine Some Specifics

Once you’ve got your big picture, you could run right away, but now I like to start thinking about specific scenes, encounters, locations, and NPCs that might come up. These can be just sketches to start with, but by having a file ready to note these in before the session zero, you can add to it. For example, in a campaign of Legend of the Five Rings I ran a couple of years ago, I had a few scenes in mind before chargen started – but when one of the PCs had a morbid fear of dogs, of course the bandits were led by a dog-faced demon who took an instant dislike to them. 

With a published adventure, you might want to think about a few NPCs using the 7-3-1 technique if they are likely to recur or be important – I’ve got a wizard lined up for the next couple of sessions who I sketched out a personality for right at the start – or how some encounters might play out in the first few sessions. This isn’t unlike the Bag of Tricks prep technique I’ve used for one-shots – it gives you some go-to scenes and moments that you’ll be able to use later in the campaign.

  1. Session Zero

At this point, you’re ready to get the players involved. My personal agenda for a session zero covers Content / Chargen / Play, but sometimes fitting in all of these can be tricky. If character generation is something that will be dreary to all sit round and do together, get your players to come to the table with something lightly sketched out, and do a bit of in-character bonding in that first session instead. Absolutely would recommend the final part though – getting a bit of play in makes it all worthwhile!

For Content, you want to discuss any safety tools you’ll be using, as well as invite your players to contribute to Lines and Veils and Tone – again, The Gauntlet has an excellent blog on all of this. Alongside this, you want to cover housekeeping – how often you meet, who brings the snacks, what to do if you can’t make it, that sort of thing. For my games I generally have a hard rule that if 3 players and the GM can make it, we play – and we’ll work out a way for the others to catch up later. This does fall down a bit if I can’t make a session, but it gives a bit of insulation against having a run of cancellations.

For the Play bit, just a half-hour encounter is fine – but I’d go with something action-y that involves rolling the dice instead of something roleplay-focussed. Start them around a camp, and have some goblins attack, and then the goblins tell them about the problems in the area. Getting some dice rolled makes the session zero fun, and starts to build momentum for the game proper.

  1. Session-By-Session

Now you can run it! For me, I’m never more than a session ahead of where the party is up to, and I prep in between sessions – I can’t imagine doing it any other way. I’ve blogged before about session prep for campaigns being like for one-shots, but to summarise – I’d recommend making each session a coherent episode if you can, even going so far as to give it a name. 

6 sessions of prep files – complete with corny titles

In my prep, each session gets a Google doc, and follows a fairly similar format, which is either a scene-by-scene breakdown followed by NPC notes, or a Sly Flourish Lazy DM set of notes. I’ve found that for my own prep, I like a defined scene-by-scene breakdown, but for published games that I’m running the Sly Flourish technique works best. I think this helps me to break down components and be a bit more prepared for players going in different directions – whereas with my own games I’m already able to do that without any help.

I’m conscious of my own practice as well (or at least try to be) – and one of the things I’m trying to work on is more memorable NPCs – so at the moment I make sure there’s a few ‘tells’ for each one in my prep notes to make sure I put the effort in to try and do this.

Be sure at the end of each session to get some feedback – either as Stars and Wishes (now rebranded to Spangles and Wangles by my Friday group) or a more informal method, and be prepared to tweak where the campaign is going if needed. I’d also recommend having some ongoing contact with your players, whether about the game or not, between sessions – it helps to keep momentum, which is one of the main things you need to keep a campaign going.

So, step by step campaign planning! I’ll try and get a couple of examples down too, and as always happy to accept Patreon post requests! Let me know in the comments if you’d like to see more.

Split the Party

“Don’t split the party!” is a classic refrain from the early days of D&D that still holds a surprising amount of traction. It’s also absolute rubbish; your games will be much more fun if the group separates and gets back together during the course of an adventure. This is especially true in investigative games like Vaesen or Call of Cthulhu – but even in your classic F20 game it can lead to much richer play. Here’s why.

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 of £2 per month. 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!

More Content!

If you’ve got two potential leads out from a scene, why go to each in turn? Send a couple of PCs to talk to the old woman, while the others poke around in the merchants’ quarter. By cutting between them, you get a nice contrast, and it’s easier to be an audience for the other pair when things are being resolved by the others. Things move quicker with fewer PCs on the scene, too.

In-party roleplaying in action

More (In-Party) Roleplaying!

Four PCs in the same place, talking to someone – they might talk to each other, but the focus of their investigation is going to get more of their time. Two PCs in the same place, it’s much more natural for them to talk to one another – and it will happen more. This is especially true online, where a conversation between more than two people needs structural help to avoid talking over each other. 

Mix up the pairings a few times, and you’ll soon get some neat character interactions going. If you’re doing this in a very trad game, or as a one-shot, you might want to lay the groundwork for this with some in-party setup questions.

More Verisimilitude!

Another cliche from the early days of roleplaying is the Cthulhu investigator team – six men with shotguns showing up in the suburban street to talk to the little old lady about her neighbours. In genre fiction, it’s very rare that the whole ensemble cast go together to resolve a problem – this is reserved for the finale (and maybe the start of the episode). 

If you’re looking at a one-shot structure like the Ur-Plot, it could be as simple as the middle bits are with the party separate – you’ll end up with a grabbier plot, that’ll move faster and cover more in-party chat – all for the good!

How To Make It Happen

First, let’s make sure we’ve got the conditions for this to happen. You need to banish any sort of adversarial “the-GM-is-out-to-get-us” mentality from your players – which means, try and not give them the obvious potential risks from splitting up. Eventually, you probably want to throw that ambush – and the subsequent rescue – but to start with you probably just want peril to be the consequences, not actual character death.

Keeping the PCs in contact – with cell phones or the fantasy equivalent – should also make them more comfortable splitting up. Eventually, you want to remove these and cut them off, but that will only be effective as a change from the norm, so keep that in reserve for the first couple of times.

You can also put a timer on it – if there’s only 3 hours until the next killing has been foretold, and there’s two temples to search for the anti-ritual, there’s a big incentive to split up and cover both places. 

Getting Into Trouble

I’m certainly not advocating that when the party is split up it should be peril-free; the scenes should be exciting and dangerous, or what’s the point of them. But the peril doesn’t have to be combat. Skill checks or challenges (even longer-term ones) work just as well with 2 players as with 5, so plan some of these for big payoffs. 

There’s a knack to getting spotlight right with this – you don’t want one group making a single Persuade check while the other has some multi-layered challenge to resolve their scene – but you can always give the successful Persuaders something else to do.

And, combat doesn’t have to be off the table. Balance it carefully, and make sure there’s an objective behind it – one group getting ambushed or captured and having to be rescued makes for great drama. In games with tight combat design (like D&D), 2-PC combat does some really interesting/weird things sometimes, which can make it exciting and dangerous even if you adjust the opposition’s level challenge.

For any action-based challenges while the PCs are split up, and even for investigative scenes, smash cut between the two groups frequently – try to aim for cliffhangers, even if minor ones. Techniques like this keep the momentum going, and help players be good audiences for their other group – which spares you having to do an awkward roleplaying scene later where they tell each other what they’ve just found out. It’s unnecessary – they already know – so encourage them to cut to the analysis of their discoveries, not the reporting.

Even in the Dungeon…

A lot of this advice has been focussed on investigative games, but I should say it all applies just as much to more traditional fantasy games. How often do parties in F20 games send the rogue first to scout out the next room, and how often do they actually get separated? Take that as the consequence of a failed perception or find traps roll, and you’ve got an extra layer to your dungeoneering.

Have you ever split the party? Are your players reluctant to do so, or do they just need a bit of a push? Let me know in the comments.

The Curse of Clearview Forest – a 1st-level D&D one-shot

I’ve got another 1st level D&D adventure for you here, ready-to-run, and this one is even playtested – at Go Play Leeds last year. It’s pretty rough-and-ready, and contains a collapsible set of scenes in the middle so you can expand or contract to fill the available time. I’d be generous with any alternative plans that the PCs make to get to the dryad’s grove – but all paths will eventually lead to the druid. 

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 of £2 per month. 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!

If you want to toughen up the fight, add a few twigblights into the mix – although the big bad Garrett, designed using Matt Collville’s villain actions, is pretty effective as a solo boss. Villain Actions take place out of initiative order after a player’s action – usually one per round in the first three rounds, although feel free to tweak this if they’re needed in order to survive. He also has a Bonus Action and a Reaction that make him a bit more survivable – I’d recommend a watch of Matt’s youtube video for some good examples of building boss monsters with Villain Actions.

In terms of NPCs, I got a lot of mileage from making Prince Kyle a feckless loser convinced of his own heroism, and Mayor Goodbarrow as a somewhat sinister leader. I used regular 1st level characters, using my simplified character sheets, for this.

Background

Twenty years ago, Green Goodbarrow, mayor of Clearview, struck a deal with the fey of Clearview Forest. In return for Clearview’s continued prosperity and protection, he offered the services of his son to the dryad Qualan – confident that he would be well looked after, and his wife would bear more children for him.

A difficult birth followed, and Gwen Goodbarrow gave birth to twins. Rushing both dying mother and twins to Qualan’s glade, he begged for the deal to be cancelled – but he had already been elected mayor, and bargains with fey cannot be undone. The mayor’s son, Garrett, was taken by the dryad into the Feywild, to serve her as an apprentice and guardian of the forests. The daughter, Gynnie, was left to grow up with her father.

Time passed and Clearview prospered – the bandits and goblins that had troubled the other villages of the forest never troubled Clearview, and it became wealthy and prosperous. Garrett was comfortable enough serving the fey, and his druidic magics grew, even as he wished to return to his own, human world.

Clearview’s prosperity will be sealed now – for the great beauty of Gynnie Goodbarrow has attracted the attention of Prince Kyle, who has courted her and arranged a marriage. As he and his love walked in the forest, the talking trees of the forest saw them steal a kiss – and reported it back to the fey court – where Garrett heard of it.

Enraged to be reminded of all he has missed, and the life he could have lived, he turned on his former wards, capturing the dryad in a feywild prison and breaking the vows that protected Clearview. Even now, though, Prince Kyle and his Kingsguard yomp through the forest for their wedding, unaware of what has happened – with Garrett no longer serving them, the forest will demand the other child…

Prelude – The Forest Path

There is a wedding in Clearview, where Gynnie Goodbarrow, daughter of the town Mayor, is to be wed to Prince Kyle – youngest and least impressive of the King’s son, but a Prince nonetheless! You are making your way there…

  • Ask each player:

Why have you got an invite to, or are attending, this wedding?

As they round a turn in the road, they come across quite a scene. A mean, one-eyed bandit brandishes a crossbow from the trees at a well-dressed travelling group – surely the Prince and his Kingsguard. In a plummy, high-pitched voice, the Prince speaks –

You would challenge me? Fair know it, that I am a master with the sword, and in fact I insist that my guards stand down and allow me to slay you single-handedly!

A crossbow bolt flies from the woods and slays a Kingsguard, and combat ensues.

It is assumed the PCs will join in. They will face 5 bandits (AC 12, hp 11, +3 club for 1d4 or +3 crossbow for 1d8+1) plus One-Eyed Isaac (same but hp 18) – the bandits will engage the dangerous-looking Kingsguard first until they have been attacked.

The Kingsguard are utterly useless, and the Prince is worse.

Once they are vanquished, the Prince introduces himself – and tells you how lucky that his two Kingsguard, Erlin and Harlin, were there to save them – despite them doing almost nothing.

They can then proceed to the wedding – allow them a long rest as they are fed and watered at Clearview.

Scene One – The Wedding Party

Before the wedding, there is a great, drunken, feast, around the Clearview Oak, a huge tree in the centre of the village. During the festivities, they can attempt to find out about the wedding

  • Clearview is richer than it has ever been – it is said the forest is blessed, and even bandits don’t dare to interfere with Clearview’s prosperity
  • Green Goodbarrow is a good mayor, but he’s been more and more melancholy as the wedding day has approached – maybe memories of his late wife – who died giving birth to Gynnie – have been bothering him
  • The mayor has been taking many long walks in the woods of late – last time he returned looking like he’d seen a ghost!
  • Clearview is blessed by the forest – even the beer is the best in the forest! (as she says this, she takes a big swig, frowns a little as if it’s not as she expected it, and then returns to pretending it is good)

At the height of festivities – from the Clearview Oak burst 1 Needle Blight and 8 Twig Blights. A pair of Twig Blights grab Gynnie and pull her into the oak – immediately she is in the Feywild and captured again. As they do, the wise woman Ernestine shouts out

They come to take their prize! What is owed to them?! Where is the other child?!

Once they are defeated, Green Goodbarrow is extremely upset. He demands that people go after and rescue his daughter – of course, the Prince and his Kingsguard immediately volunteer. He also eyes up the heroes and asks them to go, but the Prince will have no truck with it – nevertheless, he promises at least 200gp of his considerable wealth if they can ensure the wedding goes smoothly. He suggests they travel to the dryad Qualan, the guardian of the forest – maybe something has happened to her that means the forest’s blessing may be ended.

Scene Two – Forest Exploration

Clearview’s forest paths are dim and oppressive.

There are a number of encounters the players can have, depending on time available, until they find the dryad’s grove – if you are short of time, feel free to skip ahead to that.

Talking Trees

The Trees used to be a source of wisdom, but are grumpy and angered now the curse has landed. They must be entertained – with a joke, a dance, or similar – a DC 13 Performance or similar check – from all the PCs (group check, needs half successes) to talk to them.

They can tell the whole legend of a boy taken as a price for the prosperity of Clearview, and that there was another child – a beautiful girl – and a dying mother. 

The Pool

You come across a tranquil pool, with lilies floating on it and an idyllic bridge tripping over it beyond thick, impassible forest. As you take the first steps over it, though, strange bubbles emerge from the pool, and a thick mist begins to cloud your vision.

The PCs must all make Con saves to remain awake, and then succeed on a group check (half successes needed) of Athletics or similar to cross the bridge – further failed Con saves inflict 1d4 hp damage. If all PCs fall asleep, they awaken in the dryad’s grove in the Feywild, and are awoken by the dryad by it’s dying breath after Garrett soliloquises the reason for his anger.

The Webs

They hear weak shouting ahead – from the Kingsguard, trapped in spider’s webs – a proper chance to save them! Luckily the Giant Spider who snared them is out hunting, but his three children – stats as Giant Wolf Spiders – stalk and will attack. After three rounds, their mother arrives – hope they have saved the Kingsguard by then!

Scene Three – The Dryad’s Pool

The Dryad’s Pool is clearly in trouble. The water is stagnant and stinking, and the tree looks to be dying on it. Arcane symbols scratched around it indicate a passage to the Feywild, recently used.

A DC 10 Arcana or Religion check will allow them to enter the Feywild and confront Garrett – they emerge on a scene of Qualan tied to a tree, and Garrett will tell them the history and why he feels aggrieved. Qualan tells them he is right – that for the blessing to continue Gynnie must be taken by the forest instead. Either way, Garrett attacks – Qualan using her last energy to Long Rest the PCs, if needed. If it looks sketchy, one of the Kingsguard tosses a PC a healing potion – they are much too terrified to join in the actual fight. 

Garratt – corrupted Druid (villain monster, CR 2+)

AC 11 or  16 (assume Barkskin), hp 52 (40 if just 4 PCs)
Speed 30ft
Multiattack 2 of –
–        make one shillelagh attack (+4 reach 5ft. damage 1d8)
–        make a sling attack (+4 range 30ft, damage 1d4)
–        cast a spell (Entangle, Thunder Wave, or Dust Devil)
Spells – Thunderwave (15ft cube, Con save or 2d8 damage and pushed 10 ft away – save for half and no push) – Entangle is a 20ft cube – Dust Devil is a movable 5ft square
Bonus action – get an additional save vs. an effect
Reaction – when struck by an attack, cast Barkskin to raise AC to 16
Villain Action Round 1 – Cast Entangle on all opponents within 50ft, Str save or restrained
Villain Action Round 2 – Immediately cast Longstrider on himself and move (no attacks of opp) up to 40 feet
Villain Action Round 3 – Summon a Dust Devil (Str save or 1d8 damage and pushed 10 feet away) against all opponents engaged with him

Scene Four – Return

The wedding is back on – or is it? Will the PCs tell the village the truth, or will they keep their counsel. Prince Kyle, in a rare show of bravery, is determined to marry Gynnie no matter what – and can be persuaded to reveal the secret or not by the PCs.

End with a montage of the next scenes in the PCs’ lives, showing how they move on from these heroics.

Three Terrifying Pubs: A Deep Dive of  Mistaken Identity from The Enemy Within, Part 1

Mistaken Identity is the initial adventure from the Enemy Within campaign for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and acts as a prelude to Shadows Over Bogenhafen, the first adventure proper. In the latest iteration of the campaign, the two are folded together as Enemy In Shadows. Enemy Within has a reputation as one of the “great” RPG campaigns, so I played it through with my Tuesday group – you can get hold of it from Cubicle 7 here.

The first of many mutants in this adventure / campaign, and a former associate of our thief.

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 of £2 per month. 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 this first part I’ll give you a session-by-session breakdown of how I ran it, including what I changed from the published adventure. In Part Two, I’ll summarise what worked well, and what worked less well – and suggest what can be taken from it for other games. There are, of course, a huge number of spoilers below – if you’re still wanting to play it “fresh,” 35+ years after it was first published, you might want to look away now!

Synopsis

I ran Mistaken Identity over 5 online sessions of between 2 and 3 hours for 4 PCs, with the first session including character generation. The adventure as written has some very useful “Grognard Boxes,” ways to alter the adventure if your players are familiar with it already. I used them to just pick from if it looked more interesting – especially in the first session.

The adventure as written has chapters that are roughly one session long (if you play with a fair lick of pace) – and I’ve written them up below, along with the names I gave each session as part of my prep notes. If Patrons would like sight of my actual prep notes, feel free to get in touch – although I find the writing up of them is more useful to me than reading them, if that makes sense – the process of creating them revises and solidifies the game in my head. I used Roll20 (which has a bit of a fiddly WFRP interface for improving PCs, but it’s too late now for us to switch) and Google Meet for A/V, if people are interested in those things.

You’ll note as you read this that I have a crew of absolutely top-drawer players. In this, my regular Tuesday group, plots are aggressively pursued and roleplay opportunities are harvested from even the least interesting scenes. Situations like one PC not knowing a secret the other three are keeping from them (the player knows, obviously) are handled maturely and leaned into for maximum roleplaying fun – your mileage may vary, obviously – but it’s worth invested in play culture at the table if you want to be able to engage with an adventure like this that’s full of unresolved secrets and bait-and-switches.

Session 1 – The Coach and Horses

After character generation and session zero stuff, they montaged talking to some NPCs at the Coach and Horses and then fought a daemon summoned by one of the patrons.

I completely ditched the structure of the first session in the adventure, which is the coldest of cold opens – some gambling (out of budget for almost all starting characters as written), some meeting strangers who don’t like them – the only action is if and when they catch the gambler cheating. Oh, and we did chargen by the rules – and ended up with human nun, smuggler, and wizard’s apprentice, and a halfling thief.

I quite liked the NPC Phillipe Descartes, so didn’t want him to be an enemy, so had him merely regale them with tales in his outrageous Brettonian accent. Each PC got a single short scene where they made a skill check (usually Gossip) to impress an NPC, and then received 1 or 2 of the rumours supplied. We cut from PC to PC as they did this, before I triggered “The Rival Magus” from the Grognard Box and had a daemon appear.

After they’d fought the demon, of course, they were basically an adventuring party, and we’d got to know the interface and basic rules in session 1. All this took maybe an hour of play after characters were done – it’s my favoured approach for a session zero to get a bit of play in at the end to whet everyone’s appetite.

Session 2 – The Road to Altdorf

They fought a mutant, went further down the road, fought some more mutants, and discovered the adventure’s hook – a body looking identical to one of the PCs, with a will to collect from Bogenhafen and a signed affidavit that the bearer is indeed the long lost nobleman, and instructions to claim his inheritance in Bogenhafen.

I pretty much ran this as described – the players made it more interesting by three of them being in on the identity theft, but keeping it quiet from the fourth – a nun of Myrmidia – as they expected she’d not be in favour. Instead, they told her that Othelbert the apprentice actually was Kastor Leiberung, just travelling undercover to Bogenhafen – and swore her to secrecy.

Session 3 – Welcome to Altdorf

After a confusing encounter with some strangers, and surviving a theft attempt, they caught up with Josef – a boatman and old acquaintance who just happened to be going to Bogenhafen – and went with him on a very dangerous bar crawl. It becomes very obvious that everyone they meet at the moment seems to end up dead very quickly – and they see a shadowy figure tracking them.

I added in a quick chase scene at the start with some pickpockets for two reasons – firstly, to start with some action, and secondly to give a big of the ‘dangerous big city’ vibe. This happened at the same time as the Emperor’s procession, which the module stressed is important later. As they’d all been travelling to Altdorf, they each had a scene where they resolved that – the nun resolved to continue travelling in Myrmidia’s name, the halfling went to his uncle’s pie shop and made contact, the wizard’s apprentice tried to enrol at the university. These gave a bit more verisimilitude and allowed the players to drop their previous lives a bit as they seemed committed to be adventurers now.

The bar crawl I ran as written, with the halfling thief enthusiastically joining in with Brandy Bounce and them using their wits to navigate the situation. The whole bar scene is a great set piece – as they realised just how much danger they were in – and balanced off nicely by several of their NPCs being found dead the next morning.

Session 4 – Come Drown With Me

We were a player down, so with the finale approaching, I ran a fill-in session of Come Drown With Me from One Shots of the Reikland – the three remaining players survived a zombie attack and re-sealed the tomb of Kurgon Three-Eyes while they travelled down the Weissbruck Canal. Testament to how dangerous Altdorf felt that a potential zombie apocalypse was a welcome light relief.

The character art in the adventure is brilliantly evocative – e.g. this portrait of Maria Braund, the highwaywoman who I used as an extra link to the follow-up adventure

Session 5 – No Mister Lieberung, I Expect You To Die

After meeting a highwaywoman and agreeing to do her a favour on the canal, they went onwards to Weissbruck, where they tangled with their pursuer. Evading him, they went on to Bogenhafen – where they realised they’d inherited a setup meant to catch a cultist, and neither the inheritance nor the title were true. As a horrific beast appeared to ‘save’ them in the nick of time, they were left pondering what to do next – luckily, the Schaffenfest is in Bogenhafen, and they had an assortment of plot hooks leading them there!

Maria Braund, the highwaywoman, is from the Enemy in Shadows Companion, and I added her in to give a hanging plot hook to the Schaffenfest for when they arrived – the start of the session also had them avoid a robbery from their fellow riverfolk, who’d heard one of them was a nobleman in disguise. I had Adolfus smoke some distinctive cigarettes so they could tell he’d been around the pubs with them, and he fled when they confronted him and they fought his heavies.

The final scene, while a bit deus ex machina (daemonium ex machina?) is another great set piece – as they watch through the windows the splashes of blood, before finding the body of their pursuer ripped apart.

In Part Two, I’ll summarise what stood out about the adventure, what didn’t work as well, and what tricks and components of it we can steal for future one-shot (or campaign) play. Questions or feedback as always are welcome to @milnermaths on twitter.

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.

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

I 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.

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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.