“Which PC do you most want to die?” – Setup Questions in One-Shots (and Grogmeet 2018)

I’ve just returned from Grogmeet 2018, a one-day convention organised by Dirk the Dice at the Grognard Files – it’s almost a spin-off con from his podcast; I doubt there was anyone in attendance who didn’t regularly follow the ‘cast. It was unusual, and refreshing like a warm pint of bitter, and threw up some interesting game points that I’ve tried to cobble together into a post.

An Odd Bunch – and no, I mean the games

hitthenorth

Great to be back in Manchester, too

As befits an event steeped in nostalgia for the games of yesteryear, there was a wide selection of games that I don’t think you’d see at any other convention; from Tunnels and Trolls, to Flashing Blades, to new releases of old favourites like Runequest Glorantha and Warhammer FRP 4th edition, to the extreme niche (Price of Freedom? You might remember it from old copies of White Dwarf – it’s the game with a massive picture of Lenin on the front of it).

I would be very surprised if a more diverse (and frankly bonkers) selection of games is on offer at any other convention. And all were run with enthusiasm, and received with enthusiasm. I go to a lot of cons, and I’m don’t think I’ve seen a convention with so much enthusiasm for the hobby. It practically oozed out of everyone, particularly after a few beers. I played in an excellent game of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (4th edition) from Gaz from the Smart Party in the morning, and in the afternoon I ran Twilight 2000.

Indie-ing Twilight 2000

Before I go on, let me preface that I won’t be running T2000 again, and I can’t recommend that you do. I don’t want to spend too long going through my issues with the game, but have a few bulletpoints that I just need to get off my chest:

  • extremely low skill levels (at least if you generate PCs who aren’t in their 50s – good old GDW lifepath systems, eh?) As a d10 roll-under system, apart from combat skills it’s reasonable to have a character sheet that looks much like a Gumshoe game – lots of skills of 1 and 2. So lots of failure
  • difficulty is represented by doubling or halving your skill value. This is… swingy. So most shots in Combat are Easy (doubling) but that gets knocked down to Average because even if you spend an action Aiming, it only applies to the first bullet fired. Difficult actions are virtually impossible; Easy actions are often trivially easy.
  • a boringly overpowered initiative system. Initiative is a static value. If you have Initiative 3, you act in Phase 3, Phase 2, and Phase 1 (phases count down – because that’s obvious, right?). If you have Initiative 5, you get 5 actions, starting in Phase 5. If you have initiative 1, you not only act last, but only get one action.
  • automatic fire is independent of skill and requires a bucketload of d6s, with each 6 counting as a hit. I’m all for rolling a handful of dice, but once you hit double figures it starts to get less fun. There is a rule to avoid rolling too many which restricts the number you might have to roll for emptying the magazine to a maximum of 50d6; because otherwise our machinegunner could have had to roll 250d6 at the table.
  • there’s no Search skill. Like, seriously. I guess I could have used Observation, but as that’s the only perception skill, I felt like I was calling for rolls on that quite often too.

In short, you could sketch a system blindfold on the back of a fag packet right now that would still be smoother and more consistent than T2000. It was even worse in play than I was expecting – so in order to mitigate that I tried to make plenty of the session not be about the rules. To do this I used two sets of questions – and I’m going to share the technique here as a system-neutral tip for any game (even if you have a game system that actually works!)

Setting Questions

twilight 2000 pic

Pregens – with requisite gun porn and service history

After my pregens were handed out (and a brief summary given of the implied setting – post-apocalypse nuclear fallout, game set in South American jungles, isolated settlements beset by nomadic raiders) – I went with this set of questions, asked to the whole table but with the expectation that they were to be quickly decided rather than discussed and mused on. There were a couple of quick vetoes used (“No, that sounds rubbish”) – and I tried to join in about as much as the other players with new ideas, while also guiding and pulling together their discussions

  • What is your home community like? What is its name? Who’s in charge?
  • What does your community have in abundance? What does it lack?
  • There are rebels who live wild and want to steal from your community. What are they after?
  • There’s another community – you used to get along but not any more. Who are they? Why did you fall out?

I had a few other questions, about where they got their ammo, and who else they knew, but these provided enough of a setting – an old cocaine farm, rich in resources and defences but short of food and leadership, led by Vega (I think) – who’s first establishing Q&A of “What’s he like?” “He’s an arsehole,” set the tone for the whole community.

I then introduced another key NPC for the adventure, Old Isaac, a trader who has gone missing, and they decided on some facts about him – then they made three NPCs that they cared about – this was the patrol that went to investigate before them.

I was hoping that by asking the players to design the NPCs (even though I had stats for them and a rough idea what would happen to them) they would actually care about them. In the final scene (spoilers!) they had to battle against the three of them mind-controlled, and while it wasn’t a moment of world-shaking pathos and tragedy, it did lead to some interesting roleplaying, even if they only managed to save one of them.

PC-PC Questions

Neither of these ideas is original, of course, and this one in particular was taken mostly from Dungeon World Bonds. Basically, as you want the PCs to function as a team, by getting them to say how they feel about each other, the PCs get rounded and well-defined not just by their own player but the others around them. And it was dead simple.

Every PC had these questions on their character sheet – they just went through them after everyone had given a brief character description.

  • Who do you trust most on the team? Who’s always got your back?
  • Who do you always keep an eye on? Why?
  • Who’s pulled your shit out of the fire more than once?
  • Who is out of their depth and needs protecting for their own good?

Some of the players were pleasantly surprised when this threw up some asymmetrical relationships (one player trusting another who didn’t trust them back); I’ve seen that happen every time I’ve used this technique, and it’s golden.

Did it work?

I think it did. I won’t be running T2000 again – the disconnect between system and play was too much – but it felt like everyone had fun – including me. The two question techniques above can be used for any game, and I’m sure will have similar effects. It’s mostly about shared ownership of setting – which leads to investment in the adventure, which might make the players actually care a bit more about their characters. I’d be interested if anyone has had any success running T2000 in, like, the past 10 years or so, and how they found the system. I can’t quite bring myself to write up my prep notes or pregens into a publishable form, but I’ll try and get round to it if people are interested in it.

It was also a first for me in ages at running a mostly-investigative game. I’m not sure I’m very good at them yet, but it gave me enough food for thought that I might trot out some more at cons or Go Play Leeds in the future, and I’m sure they’ll make it onto the blog.

Gringle’s Pawnshop – a 13th Age Glorantha One-Shot adventure

Like all of our community, I was very saddened to hear of Greg Stafford’s sad passing. As just the week before I’d been running a ‘tribute one-shot’ to one of his classic adventures, it felt only right tidy it up a bit to share it here. Greg was the creator of Glorantha, which I’ve talked about here, and also (by all accounts – I never got to meet him myself) a thoroughly nice bloke – so many of the tributes to him have talked as much about how friendly and welcoming he was as well as his innovations in game design and worldbuilding.

Last weekend, at Furnace convention in Sheffield, UK, I ran three games of 13th Age Glorantha. I had planned to run two, but a few GMs had to pull out so I offered up another game in one of the slots. The first was Beard of Lhankor Mhy, for 2nd level PCs and published in Hearts in Glorantha 7 from D101 Games (along with the pregens). The second was a 3rd level one-shot, Into The Wasps’ Nest, where the PCs had to petition both the trolls of Troll Wood and the Wasp Riders of Wasp Nest to aid the Sartarite tribes.

This was the third – an update of the classic Apple Lane scenario by Greg Stafford for 1st level 13G characters. I set it a month after the original adventure, when the PCs have to clear up after the last adventurers, and tried to make it a lighthearted pastiche of the elements of the first adventure. I trust Greg would see the funny side – I mean, he did invent Ducks, after all, so he can’t blame me for putting one in a tuxedo, surely? The adventure is also here as a .pdf if you want to print it out.

Gringle’s Pawnshop

A 13th Age in Glorantha Adventure for 1st-level PCs

Introduction

As your band of heroes wanders out in search of adventure, you seek out the Runelord Gringle, proprietor of his Pawnshop in Apple Lane. But upon arrival at the hamlet, you find it overrun by trollkin, with Gringle and his faithful Duckservant Quackjohn trapped in the Pawnshop. After rescuing them, they tell you of their problem – Apple Lane has fallen into ruin since the temple of Uleria was ransacked by a tribe of baboons. The priestesses have been kidnapped and taken into the hills – the players must rescue them!

Dramatis Personae

Gringle is a white-bearded man obsessed with his stock and the hoarding of magic items. A Runelord of Issaries, he enjoys nothing more than the hustle and bustle of trade, but this has all but dried up since the baboons ransacked the town. His collectors nature has, in fact, proven to be his undoing. A tribe of baboons returned last month to claim their stolen necklace of Toothsharp from the shop, easily dispatching the rookie adventurers Gringle had employed to guard it. So easy was the recovery that they also saw fit to set fire to the Tin Inn and kidnap the three priestesses of Uleria while they were at it, leading to his present predicament. Gringle is a pleasant fellow who speaks kindly to adventurers – but he dislikes getting his hands dirty, hence his propensity for hiring adventurers to do his dirty work.

Quackjohn is Gringle’s longsuffering duckservant. He speaks rarely, and when it is it is often to remind Gringle in weary tones of something obvious he has forgotten. He is usually clad in a worn and battered tuxedo. He has pulled Gringle’s neck out of more than a few scrapes, and grows weary of his time serving his eccentric master.

The three kidnapped priestesses are the true power keeping Apple Lane going. They have manged to ensure that the regular visitors to the pawnshop spent their money freely with the local businesses, and kept the bickering farmhands in line. It is no surprise that without them Apple Lane has fallen to ruin.

  • Avareen Bosom is a hard-nosed and fearsome woman, and the true leader of the town – a stern yet kindly woman in late middle age.
  • Pretty Aileena is indeed pretty, but also the shrewdest of the three. Gringle in particular has learned several times not to trifle with her quick wit.
  • Bingoood is the youngest, barely out of her teens but already possessed of powerful magic and a temper to match

Khochaz the baboon cannot believe his luck. A minor tribal leader, he has managed to not only reclaim his prized Toothsharp necklace but also capture three human females who he hopes he can ransom to the strange shopkeeper from the village. He’s good at leadership and keeping his crew in line, but less good on details like keeping close eyes on the hostages or making sure his baboons guard the camp properly.

Biglaugh Bigclub is the mercenary Khochaz employed to help him loot the pawnshop. He has stayed with the Baboons (along with Pinfeather, a duck thief) in order to try and double-cross them, and steal both the humans and the Toothclaw pendant. Both him and Pinfeather are neither bright nor brave, however, and are prevaricating over the best moment to escape with the prize – maybe when some heroes attack the Baboon camp?

Scene One – Apple Lane

As the heroes approach Apple Lane, they find it very different to what they expected. The Tin Inn lies in ruins, and the Temple of Uleria has been trashed. Print out and place one of the many available maps of Apple Lane into the middle of the table (there’s a good one in the RQG GM’s pack) and draw the destruction on with a sharpie. As they explore the town, they hear skittering and screeching – before a group of Trollkin ambush them!

There is one Dark Troll Warrior, Shuffle, and 9 Starving Trollkin Wretches. If the Dark Troll is killed, make a Save for the remaining Wretches – they will attempt to flee. If you have fewer or more than 5 players, add or subtract 3 trollkin per player. Their statistics are in 13G p295.

Scene Two – Meeting Gringle

As the scene clears and the trolls and/or trollkin flee, a white-bearded man emerges from his ruined Pawnshop, followed by an elderly duck in a tuxedo. He introduces himself as Gringle, and states that he was just about to deal with the trolls himself using his “powerful Issaries rune magic.” Quackjohn rolls his eyes and coughs politely.

He explains the situation – Apple Lane is in a sorry state, and he is forced to admit it is since the priestesses were captured. He had acquired a necklace of Toothsharp through perfectly legal means, but the tribe of baboons who claimed it decided to raid his shop. Thinking it prudent to employ some protection, he employed a group of adventurers, who failed so poorly at defending his shop that the baboons (and their allies, who were led by a centaur) then set about looting the town and carried off the priestesses.

If questioned about where he was with his powerful magic while this was going on, he was involved in an important Issaries ritual in the basement of his shop, which also required Quackjohn’s attendance. When he emerged in the morning he was dismayed to find that the adventurers had fled, leaving him with a disunited village, many of whom started to flee to neighbouring towns since their protectors had so abandoned them. The troll raids started shortly afterwards.

He implores them to rescue the priestesses – he knows that the baboons tribe will be in the hills to the southeast, towards Highwyrm.

Scene Three – The Journey

As the heroes set off on their journey, and they have the directions from the adventurers who sold Gringle the Toothsharp necklace. Play this scene as a 13th Age montage – each player in turn narrates an event on the journey. Begin by narrating their first obstacle as they set off – the bridge across the river to the foothills has been cut by the trollkin as they ransacked the village, and they now stand at one bank of a mighty rushing river. Pass to a player who narrates how the party manage to overcome the obstacle – add a twist yourself if you wish to, to remind them that they are entering the wilderness and that chaos is afoot – and they then narrate the next obstacle. Proceed until every player has taken a turn – further examples of this are in the 13th Age GM Screen pack.

In your twists as GM, play up how dangerous the terrain is and add in any additional monsters just to add to the peril – they are venturing into dangerous mountains. The hills should gradually turn into mountains as they approach, until they come across the Baboon’s camp, nestled in a rocky valley and well defended.

Scene Four – Baboon Camp

The Baboons have taken up their camp in an old abandoned Dragonewt temple. The Baboon camp is as well-defended as it can be by a tribe of semi-sapient monkeys. Bigclub has attempted to organise some sort of watch system, but he knows he might need to sneak out one night so hasn’t bothered too much when the Baboons keep wandering off and losing interest.

As the players approach, they can see the chaotic attempts at guarding, and there are many opportunities to formulate a plan; judicious use of runes may work here. The baboons guard in pairs before they inevitably begin to wind one another up and fall about fighting or arguing, before Khoshaz jumps on them with his big stick to whip them into line.

If you like, sketch a map of the area and allow the players to think about their approach; any reasonable plan should be able to give them the advantage of surprise, or of not having to fight all the Baboons at once, particularly if the players make judicious use of runes.

If they vacillate, have matters come to a head for them. As they watch, a patrol of Baboons spots them, and a round later, they see Bigclub and Pinfeather attempting to carry the priestesses off.

There are a total of 10 Baboon Troopers from 13G p244, plus the NPCs detailed below.

This is a double-strength fight, so could be dangerous for the PCs if they don’t have their wits about them. There are a few ways to manage this

  • If the players are finding it too easy, more Baboons rush to their fellow’s aid – add an extra three Baboon Tribesmen
  • If they look to be finding it hard, allow Avareen breaks out of his bonds and runs across to them. A glow of love suffuses the battlefield, and all involved can heal using a recovery; this may also cause Bigclub and/or Pinfeather to be occupied for the next round chasing after her and re-capturing her

 

Khochaz, Baboon Leader

2nd level leader

Initiative: +8

Long spear: +8 vs AC – 5 damage

Natural 16+: Other baboons gain a +2 damage bonus against the target until the end of the battle

R: Sling +8 vs AC (one nearby or far away enemy) – 5 damage

Surviving: When an attack hits Khochaz and he’s staggered, roll a normal save. If it succeeds, it hits the other baboon instead.

AC 18                     PD 17                     MD 14                   HP 40

Bigclub, Centaur Raider

3rd level troop

Initiative: +9

Charging Lance: +9 vs AC – 12 damage, and the target pops free from the centaur

Hit ‘em hard: The crit range expands by 2 (18-20) and instead deals 16 damage on a hit if Bigclub first moves before attacking a new enemy

Natural 18+: The target is also dazed (-4 to attack) until the start of its next turn

Big Club: +8 vs AC – 10 damage

Natural even hit: Bigclub can Kick as a free action

Kick: +7 vs PD (1d2 enemies engaged with Bigclub) – target takes 4 damage and      pops free from Bigclub

Harnessed speed: +4 AC bonus vs opportunity attacks

AC 19                     PD 16                     MD 13                   HP 48

Pinfeather, duck thief

3rd level archer

Initiative: +9

Daggers: +9 vs AC (two attacks) – 6 damage

R: Shortbow +11 vs AC – 8 damage

Natural even hit or miss: Pinfeather can make a second shortbow attack as a free action

Quick shot: When Pinfeather is unengaged and an enemy moves to engage it, roll a normal save. If successful, Pinfeather can make a Shortbow attack as a free action just before he is engaged

AC 15                     PD 14                     MD 11                   HP 46

 

 

Scene Five – Victorious Return

The heores can now escort the three priestesses back to Apple Lane. Once their equipment is recovered, they cast a ritual that returns them to their temple; and as they harness the power of the Toothclaw necklace to do so, it crumbles into dust while the walls of the temple are rebuilt.

The find Gringle in good spirit as they return – he had found a few charms in his store, and has set about rebuilding the Tin Inn – riding into town is Bulster Brewer, the landlord, who says that now the baboons have been defeated he plans to reopen. He reckons there are still a few barrels in the cellar that should be good, and opens them while the players, Gringle, Quackjohn, Avareen, Aileena, and Bingoood drink to celebrate Apple Lane’s return to prosperity!

 

 

Railroading in One-Shots

Over on twitter, Mike Mearls posted a great thread talking about railroading – and the bad reputation it has ended up with. I’ll let you read the whole thread for yourself, but it made me think about one-shot prep; if we want a satisfying experience in 4 hours or less, is railroading unavoidable?

In short, yes, it pretty much is. It’s less of a problem than in ongoing campaigns, because there’s usually player buy-in that they’ll have to engage with the problem given (and the GM’s prep) – but it’s hard to avoid some level of structure  to ensure it works out in the time available. Our challenge is trying to make it not be a problem in the game, so the players still have agency to approach the problem how they want to.

I’ll outline three techniques that I use to make railroading less of an issue in my one-shots. All are usable in any “trad” game – for games with more player agency, see my posts on PBTA games and GMless games, for starters. For the sake of examples, I’m going to describe how I’d use them in a one-shot for FFG’s Force And Destiny Star Wars game. Our basic one-sentence pitch is that the PCs, all Jedi Knights and their allies, have to recover a holocron that has recently been discovered before the Empire can find and destroy it.

Technique: Tight Horizons

Holocron2_CVD(1)

Jedi Holocron – image from Wookieepedia

If you are going to offer players a taste of a sandbox to play in during your one-shot, you need to keep the boundaries of the sandbox tight. I’ve posted before about the perils of too many NPCs in a one-shot game, and usually go with a rule of thumb that you very rarely need more NPCs than you have PCs at the table who have any sort of meaningful interaction. You might have may more ‘background characters’, and in a political / social game you might want to have more named NPCs, it’s still good pratice try to keep the numbers that will be interacted with properly as low as you can.

In our Star Wars game, let’s establish some parameters – let’s say that the holocron is found on Ossus, a planet detailed in the Nexus of Power sourcebook, a barren wastleland ravaged by lightning storms and hidden from the rest of the Galaxy by astronomical phenomena. In order to keep our play tight, let’s restrict our horizons to a particular patch of wastleland leading up to a cave system in the mountains, and the space around Ossus’ orbit. The PCs have no reason to go to another planet, and their scope for exploring Ossus is limited to the regions described. In terms of factions – and hence NPCs, let’s say there are the native Ysanna, who will try to prevent the PCs from taking the holocron, and the Imperial forces; and let’s keep an independent treasure hunter in as well, who could work either for or against the PCs.

Technique: The Swell

the swell

The diagram to the left shows the plot structure I use in most of my ‘trad’ convention games; it begins with a tightly structure opener, which throws the PCs into the action straight away, and incites action towards the main event. After this, it opens out a little – they have multiple options to follow in whatever order they want, some of which are dictated by choices they make, some of which I choose based on how the pace of the story is going (if the PCs are vacillating and taking too long, or trying to avoid trouble, the trouble is likely to come to them – never underestimate the effectiveness of a bad guy with a gun/blaster to wake up a flagging game). These then push towards a confrontation which I’ve structured as tightly as I can to make it memorable.

In our Jedi game, let’s begin with our PCs attempting to land on Ossus (their mission can be delivered in flashback, or just introduced as background) only to be struck by one of the lightning storms that ravage the planet. They need to crash land safely, and then fight off some native beasts that have been attracted by the disturbance. In a one-shot this kind of start not only makes sure that the players are involved right from the start but serves as a useful rules tutorial. Of course, the ship will now need parts to leave the planet, making sure they need to proceed towards their goal.

As they set off towards the caves in the hills, we’ll have a range of options for them for the middle part of the one-shot. Do they attempt to find shelter in the nearby settlements, aware that the Ysanna might not trust them? Will they follow the tracks of other treasure hunters? There’s an Imperial patrol waiting to ambush them – or be ambushed – as they get to the foothills. Another ruined ship from many years ago will hold resources that might make entering the caves easier – if they can bypass it’s still-functioning defences. Will they be contacted by the treasure hunters or make contact with them as they discover their existence? When prepping this section, I try not to have these building blocks joined together – I’ll have notes and stats for the Imperials, the treasure hunters, and the natives, and locations for the wreck, the native settlement, and the outer cave systems – and depending on the player’s decisions which faction is encountered where. If I’m particularly organised each of these blocks is written on an index card so I can pull it out when I need (I’ve not gone into FFG’s swanky-looking NPC cards yet, but these could easily save me some time)

All of this of course leads to a confrontation to get the holocron – in this adventure I might well let the players recover it, and the missing parts, relatively easily, in time for a race to leave the system that has been blockaded by the Imperials – because space combat is as good a finale as anything, and there’s probably been quite a lot of planetside action for a science fiction game.

Technique: Hard Scene Framing

When the players make a decision about what their action is, cut straight to it. Travelling between destinations (unless your game system makes this an exciting part of play, like The One Ring or Mouse Guard) can be quickly handwaved to allow as much time as possible interacting with the nodes presented. If it’s a dangerous area, I’ll either resolve it with one skill roll, or frame a montage (a great idea from 13th Age that is portable into any system or setting).

Either way, I like to cut to it. By all means allow a moment to establish the setting and offer verisimilitude (or even immersion) but don’t be afraid to cut quickly into action.

For our Ossus Holocron-chase, the long and perilous journey across the wilderness is going to just require a straightforward Survival role to navigate (and maybe a Piloting – Planetary if they manage to secure speeders or Kirruk Riding Beasts from the crashed ship or the Ysanna). In my notes I’ll have a list of bullet points of flavour that I’ll drop into my descriptions as they do it, but – lightning strike inciting incident aside – I don’t intend to spend time faffing around with the weather as a major player when there are more exciting blocks like the NPCs and factions to interact with.

Disclaimer

Of course, I’m sure some of the above techniques could be derided as illusionism – or even railroading by those who consider it a bad thing. But in the balancing act of prepping a time-limited one-shot, I’ll prioritise action – and making sure that aimless wanderings don’t happen – over loftier goals. I’m interested in other techniques readers may have – let me know in the comments or on social media what those are. I’m going to properly prep this Force and Destiny game now – FFG (and WEG) Star Wars are always a big draw at Go Play Leeds, and there’s one coming up this Sunday!

Where I’m At – Seven Hills, Liminal, Go Play Leeds and other stuff

Burn After Running is nearly a year old! I thought I’d share what I’ve been up to recently, and what is coming in the immediate future.

Seven Hills

At the end of March I attended Seven Hills, a games convention in Sheffield. Paul Mitchener has organised it for the past 5 years, and announced prior to the convention that he’s stepping back from this – and I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be taking over from him! I’ve got a team of people who actually know what they’re doing behind me, of course, and Paul has left a very successful format that I don’t intend to mess with, but it’s exciting and daunting in equal measure. We’ve tried to revitalise the “themed” format of the convention by making an executive decision about next year’s theme – so Seven Hills 2019 will be Historical.

I ran two games at Seven Hills 2018, and both went well, from what I can tell. Unusually for me, I didn’t follow the name of this blog, and ran games that I’d previously run – which made my prep significantly easier. I ran the Emerald of the Ice Queen for 7th Sea 2nd edition, which I’ve blogged about here, and it went sufficiently smoothly for me to start writing up my notes to share on here. 7th Sea really is a loosey-goosey system, which holds together more from shared enthusiasm and keeping the plot moving, and my players were very helpful in making sure this happened. I’m going to be running much more 7th Sea, and I’m happy that I managed to get a ‘starter set’ adventure written that was a lot of fun. I’m going to write up the adventure into a playable form and stick in on here in due course – the pregens are already available to download here.

Crontas-The-Duck-for-Web

Crontas the Duck – as featured in The Beard of Lhankhor Mhy, in 13th Age in Glorantha (art by John Ossoway, one of my players the first time round)

I also ran 13th Age Glorantha, which was a blast, and similarly an ‘introduction to the system’ sort of game. I’m tidying this up to send off to be published in Newt Newport’s Hearts in Glorantha fanzine, so watch out for that, but I’m pleased that I managed to combine explaining the system with blagging my limited knowledge of the basket-weaving mythic nonsense that is Glorantha.

I got to play as well of course, although I had to leave early so dropped out of a chance to play Mutant Year Zero Mechatron, which I hear went really well. I’ve been meaning to run Blades in the Dark for ages, and so jumped at the chance to play it with Pete Atkinson at the helm, and it confirmed my suspicions that it is a game right up my street. I didn’t expect the setting to ooze through quite as much as it did – but we couldn’t help but feel the steampunk desperation vibe as our created-at-the-table crew staged an ill-fated raid on a rival gangs coffers. I got to play the Face of the group and I got to spam my character’s disguise skills.

And I got to play Earthdawn, the styled “greatest RPG ever made,” with Gaz from the Smart Party in the GM’s chair. It was a lot of fun, although also a great reminder of what 90s games were like, as we all remembered what Perception checks – and not making them – meant. Earthdawn has a slightly funky – and almost certainly uneven – dice ranking system, meaning that any bonuses or penalties result in you rolling a completely different set of dice for every ability, but it didn’t seem to slow us down too much, even if I did pick a Nethermancer (wizard) with 4 pages of character sheet. The plot was an interesting investigation into betrayal and familial guilt that surprised me in its complexity, and we had much more roleplaying than rolling dice – probably for the best given the shonky system.

Other gaming

I’ve started playing some online D&D (5e) over Roll20 – one session in, and it’s great. I have loads of tactical options every round, and this is even playing a cleric! By picking the War domain I’ve managed to be a fairly capable front-line fighter, although I don’t think I can dole out as much healing as the rest of the party was hoping for. I’m still iffy about the square-countiness of the grid, but I’m getting there with it.

Go Play Leeds has had a minor hiatus while we source a new venue, but we have a great one lined up which will be revealed in good time. The start of this year has seen a big rise in people coming who are returning to RPGing or have never played before, and so many new faces makes me feel positive about the hobby.

It’s not tabletop RPGing, but I’ve just started getting my head down in Assassin’s Creed Origins; I’ve just got to Alexandria and hit the open-world segment proper of the game. Can’t help but get a hankering to run some Hunters of Alexandria now!

Liminal

And I’ve just sent off my first piece of writing for the Liminal RPG, which I’m involved in with a team of great UK RPG designers (and me). The team is already overflowing with ideas for our British Urban Fantasy setting, and as we bounce folk tales off each other and build on one another’s ideas it feels like we’ll have a really great RPG at the end of it.

I’m involved in editing, writing some Case Files (adventures), and a sourcebook on Vampires. What started as a kickstarter for a new RPG has turned into an entire game line, with books on Mages, Fae, Werewolves, and specific location books for London and Newcastle as well as  big gazetteer of the setting, and it should keep us all busy for a while!

One-Hour One-Shots: Starfinder: Into the Unknown

SF into the unknown picI’ve blogged before here about trying to prep and deliver an effective one-hour introductory game (and attempted to use the #1H1S abbreviation!), so I was pleasantly surprised to find out about the Starfinder Quests packaged together as Into the Unknown (ITU). The link takes you to Paizo’s website, but it’s a free download, and it’s worth a look even if you’re not keen on Starfinder (although you shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it) – as we’ll talk about here (If you want to see another example of a #1H1S, written by yours truly, head to D101 games and download (also free) Bite of The Crocodile God, my 1-hour game for Hunters of Alexandria).

The product consists of five linked adventures (“Quests”) designed to take an hour of game time for five 1st-level characters (and of course there are pregens available separately – along with some useful guidance about what starship roles they will be most effective at in the ship combats.

The adventures are simple and straightforward – three are ground combats with a mixture of exploration/investigation, and two are starship battles. I can see why Starfinder wants to show off its space combat, but I’d imagine these are the weakest to run on their own – they do just consist of a battle against another starship with a bit of plot context (and it doesn’t sell me on Starfinder – although the system is I’m sure fun – that these will take an hour on their own!)

If I was to run a few of them in sequence, the first three, in which the PCs follow a trail of clues (and a starship battle) to discover a missing starship, is a great 3-hour set, and if you were to run one on its own as a one-hour game, the first one would work well – there’s a good opportunity for roleplay as well as an interesting but relatively simple (as in complexity, not challenge) combat. It’s a good, tight design, and I’ll be stealing the structure to plot out similar traditional games for #1H1S.

Stick to One Set-Piece – but Seed with Roleplaying

With any kind of crunchy system (and see this post for more generic advice), in an hour you will only tackle one rules-heavy scene. That probably means if you’re planning one #1H1S, it’ll be a combat, so try and make it challenging and interesting and build stuff around it. For instance, in ITU’s first quest Station, there’s a neat investigation with an NPC leading to the confrontation, and probably an interrogation afterwards – so the combat is set in a context that justifies it.

Highlight the Best Crunch of the Game

As above, this is likely to be combat, but if you’re allowing yourself the luxury of a set of #1H1S games to piece together, you might like to expand. For instance, if I was planning something with Modiphius’ Star Trek Adventures (and I really should, given the popularity of the franchise), I’d probably want to include some sort of Extended Task scientific challenge for one of the segments – my scenes probably have a starship combat, a science-y extended task, and a ground combat – and maybe another extended task which is a negotiation or similar.

Either way, think about the rules you are showcasing as you prep. I’m sure that the Starship combat is deliberately showcased in ITU, which is why 2 whole Quests consist of an extended space battle. In other games, you might want to show how great social conflict can be (Burning Wheel springs to mind) – so include it if you can.

Episode it up and embrace the railroad

There’s a lot of guff spoken about railroading, especially when it comes to one-shot play, and even more if you’ve only got an hour to play with. Yes, in an extended campaign, forcing your players’ hands either explicitly or on the sly is certainly not good practice, but it’s necessary – advantageous even – in a one-shot to guide the players towards the good bits.

Also, try and make each #1H1S a complete and distinct chapter. This isn’t always easy, and it’s a stretch for some of ITU’s sections (I’ll come back again to the starship combat sections – yes, starship combat is a neat system in Starfinder, but I can’t see why you wouldn’t just play X-Wing for an hour if that was your jam).

Go forth and #1H1S

I must admit, since posting about them last year, I was a bit stymied about the #1H1S project – but finding ITU has got me seriously thinking about them now. Watch this space for further developments – and probably ready-to-play modules – and feel free to comment or contact me to suggest or request systems. As I said, Star Trek Adventures feels like a good fit for it. And let me know if you’re doing anything with them yourselves!

Manchester, 1997 – An Urban Shadows City

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

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

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

The City

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

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

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

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

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

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

City Moves

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

Images and Hooks

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

Faction Mapping

Night

The City Ghosts

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

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

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

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

Power

The Seers of Affleck

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

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

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

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

Mortality

The Bridgewater Club

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

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

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

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

Wild

The Oldham Tinkers

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

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

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

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

Urban Shadows One-Shots

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

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

Before Play

Pre-select Playbooks

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

Pick a City

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

Think of a Bang to Start With

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

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

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

Start of Play

Do Character Generation by the book

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

Do Debt – and make it a massive deal

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

Start of Session Moves

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

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

Check your NPCs

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

Play!

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

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

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

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