Get A Village – Embedding Setting in One-Shots

It’s easy to ditch the setting if you’re prepping a one-shot; but part of the joy of a #TTRPG is exploring a fantastic world, isn’t it? As to what extent can you get this feeling in a one-shot, there are a few approaches. You could spend the first half-hour explaining the setting and context for your players, but that would be rubbish. How can you show setting through play, without sacrificing pace? Well, here’s one method.

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You Need A Village

The Classic D&D village

Set up a small, coherent, manageable place for your one-shot. A village is the right size for this – give it an obvious theme, and link it to the plot. Show how your inciting incident affects it – the terrible plots of the big bad should have affected the villagers, and let the PCs witness this.

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Heard About The Dungeon? – A Rumour Tables Hack

A staple of the TTRPG adventures I grew up on (mostly from Dungeon magazine) was the rumour table. Before venturing out of the safety of the town to explore the dangerous area (usually a dungeon, obviously), PCs could ask around and get some useful clues about what was going on. Usually, this table contained a mixture of true, false, and almost-true rumours – and which rumour was heard was entirely random.

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I like this idea – a random table is a good way to abstract an evening spent asking around the tavern before the mission. It prevents over-preparation if you have a finite number of rolls on it – and I also like the jeopardy of potentially hearing a false rumour, and the confusion that could cause.

But I’m not as keen on it being entirely random, or the pay-off for a false rumour not being clear. If PCs expect every rumour to be true, they’ll feel cheated when they act on a false one – and similarly, once they realise some are false, they’ll be reluctant to act on actually true rumours in case they turn out to be incorrect.

So, here’s a proposed solution, which I came up with while messing around with my notes for the a potential DM’s Guild submission

The Rumour Check

When you ask around the town for details of the dangerous place, or research such a place in the town records, make a skill check for an appropriate social or research skill. On a success, roll 1d6 on the Rumour Table; on a failure, roll 1d12.

On the Rumour Table, entries 1-6 are filled with TRUE rumours about the place; entries 7-12 are filled with FALSE, HALF-TRUE, or USELESS rumours. It’s worth considering, particularly with the 7-12 entries, whether your rumours will at or subtract from the fun – dire warnings and instructions to, e.g., stay away from the pit traps – are likely to lead to over-cautious players. Try and make them a call to do things in the site rather than not do them.

Why is this an improvement? Well, on a failed roll, the player (and his PC) knows he hasn’t been successful. Maybe he’s chanced upon the town drunk who previously was claiming to be a high elf heir, or the book he’s found is full or lurid, unlikely, or patently false information. Nevertheless, the information gleaned might still be true – there’s a choice to be made as to whether to act on it, knowing it could be false. A successful roll gets rightly rewarded, and the players can be relatively confident that rumour is true.

Of course, you could always roll 1d4 or 1d8 on a 1-8 table, if you’re stuck for ideas – but coming up with 12 is an interesting thought exercise in grounding your dungeon in the rest of the world – what have people heard about it? What has happened before?

Here’s an example, for the freely-available Tomb of the Serpent Kings adventure (which is designed as an intro to OSR-style adventuring, and is excellent – well worth a read even if you never run it).

Result (d6/d12)Rumour
1Tombs of that age were often built with a false tomb to deter robbers – the real treasures lie deeper (true)
2Tombs like this often show mechanical traps near their entrance to deter robbers – in particular anywhere that people don’t travel down, so look out for locked doors and check them for traps (true)
3You might want to pack some holy water and symbols of St Cuthbert – or take a cleric with you – one thing you find in tombs is undead, and I’ve heard of them stalking around the tomb (true)
4Rumours are the serpent people who built the tomb had fell magics, and could even keep themselves alive beyond death – there might still be undead serpent people down there – and who knows what they would make of this world? (true)
5The caves near to the tomb had some raids a few years back – weird fungus-covered goblins, who disappeared as soon as some adventurers sorted them out (true)
6Some adventurers did come and plan to raid the tomb last year, and never returned – either they got too scared to come back to town, or there’s something or someone in those tombs (true)
7There’s an underground chasm near those ruins – who knows what monsters might haunt those depths? (while true, this is of no use)
8If there’s one thing serpent people were scared of, it was fire – they can’t approach a burning torch, so I’ve heard (false, and certainly dangerous)
9There’s a stone golem somewhere down there – disturb the tomb and it’ll wander the world and seek revenge for its snake-masters! (true-ish, but the stone guardian can’t escape)
10We ran an old wizard out of town twenty years ago for necromancy – no doubt he now lairs in the tomb in the hills (false)
11There’s snakes around the hills and in the tomb. Luckily, I’ve got some antidote here – 2gp for a bottle, it’ll sting a bit going down but should help to pass the poison (false, and of course the antidote is cheap liquor cut with boot polish)
12The whole tomb is cursed – if you stay in there on the full moon, you’ll see the snake-men walk out of it and never return (false)

I’ll be using this the next time I write up a dungeony adventure – let me know what you think in the comments or at @milnermaths.

Prep Techniques: The Con Pitch

Previously on this blog I’ve talked about 5-Room Dungeons, Three Places, and Sly Flourish’s Lazy Dungeon Master method. Today I’m going to showcase another technique, which is my starting point for convention one-shots, but can be applied easily to any TTRPG session. It’s more of a pre-drinks technique rather than the actual prep pub crawl, but it’s a good way to go from a blank slate to a sketched-out session – and then you can get the beers in.

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.

What’s a Con Pitch?

At a convention, you’d write a snappy pitch for your game to entice players to sign up for it; this is either printed out on a sign-up sheet (maybe with some nice art to draw punters in) or posted online so that prospective players know what to sign up for. Like the blurb on the back of a book, it should sell the session and promise excitement and fun! As an example, here’s my pitch for a game of Sentinel Comics at the Owlbear & Wizards Staff convention that’s coming up:

In this terrifying issue, Ray Manta 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.

I also include a bit about what the system is, if there’s any PVP, etc – but that’s not relevant here. Writing this pitch is almost the very first thing that I do to prep for a con game – before pregens or scenes. Why? Because it focusses my thoughts into a simple specification for the session. I write this, then come back to it and make a session out of it – starting from this makes prep much more manageable!

What Do You Want From This? – Start with Goals

To get your con pitch ready, start by working out what you want to get out of it. If it’s a con game, you might want to showcase a system or a setting – what are the elements of that that you’d like to foreground?

If it’s for an ongoing campaign game, you might already have an idea of the next logical session that will follow on (in a sandbox game, ask your players at the end of each session what they do next and work from that). Or you might want to highlight or introduce an enemy or setting element they haven’t seen yet. Or highlight a PC; in a recent series of Star Trek Adventures I loosely modelled the first four sessions on spotlighting each of the PCs in turn.

In either case, you might also want to use a cool monster – by starting with an opponent, the rest can be fitted around it. For the purpose of an example, I’m going to pitch a D&D adventure set in Theros – the Greek-ish Magic setting they’ve recently put out (if you’re interested in Theros, as well as my review, check out this character primer and this supplement from Tim Gray – the first one in particular is invaluable for character creation). There’s a bunch of cool new monsters in it, but I’d like to run a one-shot featuring the Hundred-Handed Ones – giants surrounded by floating arms that serve as artisans and have beef with the archons. So let’s start from that point – we want them to fight a Hundred-Handed One at the climax of the adventure.

Notes, Notes, Notes

Before you write your pitch, you might need to fill in some details. For instance, if you’re running D&D or 13th Age, what level the PCs are is important (I’m completely not above reskinning stats to balance against the PCs, as in the 1st-level owlbear antagonist here). For a one-shot, you might work backwards based on your antagonist to work out the level you want your PCs to be – and then you can fill in some more potential opponents. Look at this post about fight rosters for inspiration – and my mantra is that fights are always easy or hard, never medium.

If you have that decided, look at any advice the game has for balancing fights and think about appropriate antagonists, and also exciting action scenes and interesting NPCs. Hold lightly onto these ideas – not all of them will make it, and you certainly won’t put them in your pitch, but it’ll get you in the right brain space to begin to have an idea of the shape of the session.

Look at the setting as well – both in terms of history and events, and what sort of terrain the session will be set in. A useful technique for me is to write down ten components you could put into it – ten might seem like a lot, but it’s in the stretching and uncomfortable thinking that you’ll get your best ideas. Again, not all of these will actually be used, but they give you a good framework.

Thinking about our Theros one-shot, a Hundred-Handed One is CR 15, so a quick eyeball of levels indicates 5 heroes should be at about level 11 or so for a big climactic fight with one and some minions. It’s Theros, so the Gods are everywhere, so let’s have Purphoros, God of the Forge, involved as well – this giant has stolen part of his forge, and seeks to remake the Archons work (which, inconveniently for many heroes, includes many of the cities of Theros) by his own hand in revenge. He’s taken over a Volcano Temple (map in the Theros supplement) and corrupted the priests and guardians to worship him.

Theros contains suggested monsters for Purphoros, so let’s have some CR4 Oreads (fire nymphs) to trick the party, and maybe a pair of CR5 Fire Elementals that can be tricked or bypassed. I like the idea of a four-armed hill giant guarding the entrance, too – should be a nice easy warm-up fight with some terrified cultists to start the session with.  A bit more daydreaming, and my  list of 10 components looks like this:

  1. Battling a hundred-handed giant in the bowels of a volcano-forge
  2. Riddling with corrupted fire nymphs through the temple innards
  3. Geseros, the flame-haired priest of Purphoros with a brass arm who entreats the players for help
  4. A treacherous climb through lava floes to the temple
  5. The forge’s steam-filled cooling system flooding corridors with scalding water
  6. A six-armed hill giant and his four-armed ogre companion who guard the temple for the Hundred-Handed One
  7. Terrified smiths of Purphoros that must be rescured or calmed
  8. A volcano being stoked to erupt and flatten a city – allowing the giant to remake it in their image
  9. A pair of pun-obsessed satyrs, the last explorers to visit the temple, who can offer hints of the terrors within
  10. A reassuring/terrifying intervention by Purphoros if the giant is defeated.

Write Your Pitch

Now, in less than 100 words, pitch your scenario. Start with a grabby opener – say what the key idea of the session is, and make it exciting! Go big with what the stakes are and what the PCs might face. Using questions is a good idea as well – Can you survive the treacherous Akorosian Sea? Will you defeat the mighty Kraken?

Oh, and give it a title – even if it’s a session in an ongoing game, session titles make them exciting and episodic, and give a hook to. If in doubt, just name it after a location – (Adjective) (Exciting Place) of (Noun) is as good a model as any.

Here’s our finished pitch for our Theros one-shot

The Doom-Forge of Purphoros

Purphoros, God of the Forge, calls for aid! His volcano-temple has been desecrated by an ancient, hundred-handed giant, who seeks to reform the city below in his own deadly image. Can you race up the lava floes, battling the corrupted forge-creatures and evading their deadly traps, to prevent the eruption? Or will you fall to Alekto, the Hundred-Handed One, renegade smith of the Archons? A D&D one-shot for five 11th level PCs.

What Next?

Next, wait. Leave the pitch at least overnight – and possibly for much longer, conventions often need games to be confirmed well in advance – and then flesh out the adventure using whatever more detailed prep technique you have. Let me know if you want me to develop the Doom-Forge into a full adventure – and maybe even run it for patrons – in the comments or on twitter @milnermaths.

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.

How to Play One-Shots

Looking on the horizon to the tentative return of in-person conventions, it’s worth talking about how to be a good player at a convention. As I’ve said before, in order to run good one-shots, the best thing you can do is play lots of them, and I certainly try to have a 50% running / 50% playing in my campaign and one-shot play (current 2021 figures show a 49%/51% running/playing split, which I can live with!)

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.

A convention is a great opportunity to experience different GMing styles, see a system in action, and consider how you would run a similar game – and it’s great to try to be the best players we can be. So, here goes – my top 5 tips to be a great player in a one-shot TTRPG.

Be Prepared

Standard stuff here: arrive on time, talk to the other players, introduce yourself and them, try to make the start of the game as smooth as it can be. I know GMs should do this as well, but your GM has the next three hours to worry about as well, so cut them some slack if they don’t remember everything – pick up the slack.

An empty game table with lots of dice, notes, character sheets, card names, and D&D books
Don’t rely on the DM to bring all those dice!

Bring pencils, dice, that sort of thing. Be helpful about suggesting breaks – it can be difficult to read the energy of the table if you’re GMing. In terms of rules, if you’re familiar, feel free to suggest – but remember it’s the GMs game. If there’s a fumble for a ruling, or a need to look stuff up – volunteer to do it, or if you’ve a suggested fix, suggest it – you can help to keep the pace flowing. If you know the system, you can always volunteer to track initiative or do any of those little housekeeping things that come up sometimes.

Be a Good Plot-Hook Doggo

I went through a six month period of running a lot of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4e (WHFRP) at cons when it first came out. I always included a rat catcher in the pregens, as a nod to a classic WFRP trope – they begin play with a “small but vicious dog.” I didn’t realise until I started running, but that dog was a godsend. Any time the players needed a nudge in the direction of plot, their dog would run off – often after real or imagined sausages (lean into the tropes, everyone).

And as a player, you should be that dog. Tilt for likely plot hooks – don’t turtle, and pull your fellow PCs with you. Presented with a hook, your job is to wolf it down and try and swallow the fishing line, and don’t hold back. Pursue where you think the plot is aggressively, and you’ll help everyone at the table.

Play Up

“Playing Up” is a concept from LARP about supporting other players by giving them cool opportunities to shine. You ask the other character questions, try to give them opportunities to show their character off, make the spotlight time for them.

One of the hardest things to encourage as a con GM is speaking in character – take this on-board and help to encourage it. Rather than comment on what your character sees, ask another PC about it. Do the same in combat, too – speak while doing your action in-character to make your spotlight shine, and suggest tactics in-character (if it’s that sort of game).

Have A Shtick

Similar to this, it helps to have a “shtick” for your PC – pick up on a roleplaying quirk like you would an NPC and lean into it a little. It’s unlikely to be annoying over the three hours as long as you keep pointing towards the plot, and it will encourage everyone else to bring something to the game as well.

Standard improv advice says, incidentally, to always do the obvious thing unless you’ve got an obviously better idea – so do this. Orcs burst through the door – attack them! Your other players can be the voices of reason – be prepared to tilt at windmills.

Show You’re Having Fun

Listen actively – especially if online, smile and nod, and help to bring some energy to the table. Look, I know at F2F cons this can be difficult on the second or third day, when sleep deprivation and the energy of running games and drinking beer hits – but you’ve been there as a GM when the table looks back at you like they’d rather be asleep. Help you GM out by showing enthusiasm and responding positively to his ideas, especially at the start. GMing at cons is hard – the best of us get nervous about it at the time. So help them out by being the best player you can be.

There you go, five tips to be a better player. What would you add to this? Let me know in the comments or at @milnermaths.

Low Fantasy RPGs – Part One

In this previous post, I gave some general tips for making low-fantasy one-shots memorable and exciting. I’m going to begin some reviewing of the systems you can use for this sort of play now, beginning with a mixture of big hitters and lesser-known systems.

I’m sure that some of the ideas here will provoke cries of “that’s not low fantasy!” from commentators – I’m using a broad definition that basically just limits the PC access to fireball spells. For each game I’ve given a brief overview of how I think it’ll work for a one-shot, long with some pros and cons.

Pendragon

See my post on historical gaming here – in Pendragon, a game from the days of the grognards that has aged amazingly well, you’re Cymric knights gallivanting around England solving problems.

Pros – it’s a big touchstone, not just as a genre but as a game, and there are easy hooks to get the players involved (e.g. your Lord tells you to do it). Everyone playing knights is less of a problem than you might think, and there’s a funky Passions system that lets you do emotive stuff as well

Cons – a lot of the depth of Pendragon is in ongoing play, watching your Passions etc go up and down. While there’s a huge library of published material for it, most will take some solid adapting to make them really sing as a one-shot.

Romance of the Perilous Lands

A Black Hack-inspired romantic fantasy game, while there are playable wizards they’re much more embedded in the setting than in traditional D&D, and the quasi-historical setting means you’ll be getting muddier than you might expect.

Pros – simple, quick system that gives players plenty of options while remaining easy to grasp in a one-shot. Nice range of character options give some niche protection.

Cons – it might end up being a bit too heroic if you’re heart is set on full-on low fantasy.

Cthulhu: Dark Ages

A supplement for the classic horror game that takes you into the 12th Century, with all kinds of scary cultists, goat-headed hermits and stuff

Pros – a really straightforward system that still gives enough depth in resolution – the book also comes with great setting material and sample adventures that would be brilliant one-shots right out of the box.

Cons – I mean, really, it’s a horror game. Pick the right archetypes and I think you’ll have a lot of fun with this though, and there’s only a tentacle-width between grim fantasy and apocalyptic horror after all.

Next time, another 3 systems for low fantasy gaming – and after that, guidance on hacking D&D5e to make it a grim and gritty low fantasy system. Easier than you might think, I’d imagine.

What are your go-to systems for low fantasy gaming? Any you’d like to see my thoughts on? Let me know in comments.

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“You Don’t Notice Anything.” – Why Perception is Rubbish, and How To Make It Better

Over on his blog, @vinegarymink has posted about Failing Forward – ensuring that failed challenges are just as fun as successful ones. Half way through playing a game of Pendragon (played ‘straight’ and devoid of indie pretentions – and a fantastic game, don’t get me wrong) this week, a realisation came to me somewhere around our fifth Awareness check. Perception is a bit rubbish. It’s a ubiquitous skill in all trad systems, and one of the hardest to “fail forward” with. It’s usually quite hard to fail at all with it, which is why I think it often leaves me frustrated as a GM. I’m going to go through some of the issues with it, and then suggest some hacks that can overcome them.

Awareness 15: the essential Knightly skill
  • If it’s something the group could notice, only one player needs to notice, and they tell the others. Having everyone roll makes a group perception check trivially easy – the probabilities of just one person having to pass make them super generous. If you’ve got a 50% chance to pass the check, with the 4 players you’ve got a whopping 94% chance of at least somebody noticing – and with something harder, with a 25% chance to notice, its still at 68%.
  • Failure is usually crap. “You don’t notice anything” creates a disconnect, because by asking for the roll, the player most certainly knows there’s something to notice. D&D5e tries to solve that with Passive Perception scores, but that’s crap too – bounded accuracy means that they have a really tight range, and they concentrate the first problem – the cleric’s going to notice and tell everyone.
  • Clue restriction is rubbish. If there’s something to notice, we should want our players to notice it. When you’re negotiating with the Romulan Captain, I want my players to notice that she’s stalling for time – and even if they fail, because of the point above they know there’s something off about her.

So, how can we fix that? Here’s a few techniques.

Have Failure Consequences, or Don’t Roll

For every Perception check you call, have a clear idea of a non-restrictive consequence of failure. This is good advice for every skill check – see Alex’s blog post for more ideas – but especially important for Perception, because its failure consequences are so often not-fun. If you can’t think of a consequence for failure – don’t call for the check, and just tell them.

Have Success Benefits, or Don’t Roll

Equally, instead of just telling the players if you have a Perception check you can’t think of a cool failure condition, give them a benefit for passing instead. Maybe you accept that everyone is going to notice the bandits planning to ambush you – but if you make the check, you know which of them has decent armour under his grimy cloak, or also see the hidden archers in the trees covering the road, or you see a weak spot in the wyvern’s hide from a previous skirmish (maybe enough to make a called shot bypass some of it’s armour).

You Can’t Roll if You’re Talking/Acting

One way around the group check problem is to suggest that if you are taking action, you’re not as able to notice stuff. The players who aren’t active in the scene are the only ones that get to roll. This makes the check have closer to normal probabilities, and has the additional benefit of sharing the spotlight in a cool in-game way. Just ask any players who aren’t directly interacting with the events in play to make, as they hang back and observe.

Use it For Initiative

One of the issues with Perception checks to notice enemies trying to ambush you is that the consequences of a surprise round in most games can be enormous (notably, 13th Age avoids this, making them just inconvenient –but not entirely unbalancing). Instead, make Initiative the result of a Perception check in these circumstances. Maybe the ambushers get to roll Stealth instead, as well, for their score? There’s another blog post in my head about how initiative is also often rubbish, though, so I might come back to this.

Use it To Bank Resources

I’m running Star Trek Adventures, the 2d20 game from Modiphius at the moment, and it is (like Conan, which I posted about here) heavy on resource management. Players want to get as much Group Momentum banked early in the session, so they can spend it on extra dice for checks. The best way to get this in STA at the start of the session? Scan the planet from the ship. It’s probably low difficulty, so you can get some Momentum banked for future skill checks. In some ways, this is like designating a Success Benefit, but it fits nicely into the balance of the system. It’s accepted that there will be some easy skill checks, often for things like noticing stuff, but they have some game impact through the meta-currency of the system.

Likewise, in Fate, you can offer a Fate Point Compel to miss something – to not even make a check, and have a failure consequence ready for them. In my experience, most players will do anything for a Fate point, and it’s very likely they’ll have an Aspect you can use to get this. Other systems will have their own solutions, I’m sure.

Just Ditch It

One way to force yourself out of the habit of asking for Perception checks – just remove the skill. If it’s important enough that the players need to notice something, tell them. If it’s one of the few circumstances where failure or success can be interesting, just pick another skill relevant to the context. Ambush in the Forest? Roll Nature to notice the absence of usual sounds. Trap in an ancient tomb? Sounds like a History check, or maybe a Thieves’ Tools check to notice and disarm in one roll before it triggers.

So, a selection of ways to hack perception to make it less rubbish. Are there any more techniques that you’ve used to improve it? Any games that do it particularly well? Let me know in the comments, or get me on twitter @milnermaths.

Review: Mythic Odysseys of Theros

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

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.

The Fluff

Theros map

Map of Theros from the MTG wiki

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

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

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

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

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

The Crunch

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

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

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

The One-Shot

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

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

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

Call of Cthulhu One-Shots

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

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.

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

Use Safety Tools

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

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

Signpost Clues. Un-Signpost Un-Clues

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

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

Start with an Actual Scene

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

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

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

Make Investigation Scenes Worthwhile

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

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

Don’t Explain it Afterwards

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

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

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

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

Start With Pregens

Thugs by Jonny Gray

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

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

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

Get The Rules Right

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

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

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

Structure Your Notes

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

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

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

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

Check for Skill Matching

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

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

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

Check for Plot Matching

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

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

Think and Dream

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

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

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