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.

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.

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).

Do This, Now – 5 Ways to Improve any One-Shot

In this post, I’m going to summarize a lot of things that are scattered around the blog, and share 5 things any GM can do to make their TTRPG one-shots rock, whatever the system. If you want examples of most of these (1 and 5 in particular) there’s a stream on YouTube of me running 13th Age Glorantha here (you’ll want Part 3 for the final scenes)

  1. Get your players to introduce their characters in a scene

Don’t ask your players to just describe who they are playing – it’s boring, open-ended (some will take forever, some will just read out their background and – in one “memorable” con game I played in – their equipment list) – ask them to show their characters in a scene. For pulpy, high-fantasy, I describe it as like the opening credits of an old TV show, where they used to show the best bits of the season at the start as the music played. So we might see the barbarian boldly vanquish an orc before downing a pint, or the bard wooing a fair princess. Hand this over to your players and it’ll both introduce them to each other, and set the scene for high action.

In more low-key settings, give a few more parameters. Maybe we see the PCs killing time during a star-system jump, or trudging across the woods on a journey, and zoom in on each one in turn – but ask the players to show, not tell, what their character is like, and you’ll help them to describe their characters’ action better for the rest of the one-shot.

  1. Do some bonds

As described here, get your players to describe links to other PCs – as simple as “who do you trust, and why?” or even describing in turn their previous quest. This really works in a one-shot as it sets the action you’re about to play through in a continuing narrative, making it feel like a episode in an ongoing series rather than a one-off activity.

  1. Have a training conflict

As early as possible in the game, have a skill check or combat for everyone where the stakes – although they are there – are relatively low. In a lot of fantasy games this can just be a combat, and it can be a pretty straightforward one, but it could also be one of the skill challenges described here. By engaging with the system straight away you can get players new to the game up to speed with the system and demonstrate how it works. A lot of running one-shot games at conventions with different systems is teaching the system itself, so don’t neglect this responsibility as GM.

  1. Take breaks

Seriously, take breaks, or they’ll happen anyway during play. Online, I recommend every hour or so, face to face, every 1.5-2 hours, even if only briefly. This helps to keep everyone on board during play and focused and prevent players’ attention wandering. Have them at opportune moments like the end of a scene/act, or even on a cliffhanger – you’ll keep your players (and yourself) fresh to keep your minds focused on the game.

  1. Have a ‘credits roll’ final scene

After the players have completed the one-shot, and they’ve rescued the princess, saved the galaxy, or stolen the jewels, have each player describe a scene from their PCs immediate future – they might be celebrating the recent victory, ruing missed chances, or picking up a loose thread. Like (2), this puts the one-shot into an ongoing narrative, and is a good way for players to sign off playing their PC from the session.

So, that’s my top 5 tips for improving one-shots during the game. Later on I’ll give you 5 things to do during prep that can improve any one-shot. What are your top tips for in-game awesomeness?

What Year Is It? – Running Historical RPG One-Shots

1066 calendar

1066 calendar from timeanddate.com – I’d maybe run it through Photoshop before using it in a game

Historical one-shots are something I’ve historically (ha) avoided playing (and running) at conventions. Too much risk of experts, or historical diversions, or putting accuracy ahead of fun. But recently (inspired by an excellent Mythic Babylon game from @thetweedmeister) I’ve begun dipping my toe into them again, helped by the realisation that Glorantha is to all intents and purposes a historical setting given the wealth of detail about its timeline.

 

I think at the outset I should say that historical gaming should emulate historical fiction, not actual history. History, inconveniently, doesn’t even fit into the pattern of an ongoing RPG campaign, much less a one-shot. It helps to think of each session as a TV series episode, with a tightly-defined arc in its 3-4 hour time-frame. Where historical games help with one-shots is that they can set your one-shot in something bigger – there’s stuff happening before and after the game, and it’s easy to see where the characters and plots go next when the game is over.

And while we’re on the subject, think carefully about how to handle the more problematic elements of historical settings. If you want to include the sexism, racism or homophobia of a historical setting in your game, I guess that’s your business, but please don’t do it anywhere near my table. Most historical periods were much more diverse and varied than some corners of the RPG hobby would have you believe, anyway.

Do Your – Minimum – Research

In no way do you need to be the smartest person in the room, but at a convention or other one-shot, if you know nothing about the period of history your game is set in, you’re going to come undone at some point. You are probably going to have to read the sourcebook before play – in a way that you probably don’t have to if you’re running a game in a fantastical setting.

Before getting too far into research, remember you really do only need broad brush strokes. Also, research doesn’t just mean boring old books. There are history podcasts you can listen to while doing other things, and TV series are often better for a feel of historical fiction than actual history. If you’re going to run Duty & Honour, watching a few episodes of Sharpe will help you much more than reading accounts of the Peninsula War. If you want to run Hunters of Alexandria, you’d do as well to play some Assassin’s Creed: Origins to get a feel for the city and its opportunities for adventure.

Additionally, it probably helps to own your inaccuracies – check at the start of the game if you have any period experts in (it’s likely you could have, if you’ve advertised the game for sign-ups at a con) and ask them to add flavour/colour, but not to go on historical divergences until after the game. I’ve heard of using an H-Card (as well as an X-Card) for historical off-game chat, which is an interesting idea – you need to remember that the game is the primary thing, not the history lesson.

Pick Your Game For The Genre You Want

There are lots of historical RPGs out there – make sure you pick a game where the system supports the kind of play you want. If you want to run a one-shot in the Dark Ages, then Age of Arthur, Mythic Britain, and Wolves of God will all give very different play experiences, even with the same basic scenario. There’s nothing to stop you, of course, using a generic system with a play style you enjoy, and adapting it – and there are some excellent historical setting books, the pick of which are the GURPS sourcebooks and Design Mechanism’s Mythic Earth series. Dark Ages Savage Worlds, anyone?

Points of Divergence

If you’re running a historical game on Earth, you probably do need to know what year it is. Those enormous timelines that setting books have – pick a year and find something interesting that the PCs can act around.

Think of this point as a point of divergence. Before that, history was as it is in the timeline described – scholars today would recognize the world. From the moment that play starts, though, that needs to change. Put the PCs right in the center of the action – they might not be working directly for the King or leading the armies, but their actions will certainly affect the outcomes of these events, and might leave the world looking very different.

Don’t Spectate

Along similar lines, the PCs should be actively doing things. Nobody wants to watch the pyramids being built – the PCs should be negotiating with laborers and work-gangs, protecting the site from evil spirits, and dealing with betrayal and uprisings. If the pyramids are already there, they should be dueling bandits on the slopes, or heading into the tombs to work out what has escaped from them and whether it needs banishing.

It can be tempting to site the one-shot a long way from recorded history, to protect the timeline, but I tend to think that if you’re running history you should put some history in it. So don’t be afraid to introduce historical figures (and don’t give them any plot protection – let your PCs kill Caesar and win the hand of the princess – just not in the same game).

With all that in mind, I’m thinking of stretching my games out into the historical waters for some of my one-shot offerings now. Thanks to everyone on Twitter who offered their advice on this, by the way – you’ll be first in line when I get some online one-shot offerings prepped up!

Headphones and Dice – playing One-Shots Online

OK, in the interesting times we’re living in now, there’s suddenly a lot of interest in online RPGs. For myself, I started doing some online gaming at the start of the year, and it’s become a fixture of my gaming schedule since then – even more so now we’re all in lockdown.

A chance twitter shout-out to play some One Ring led to a group, originally to play One-Shots, that have ended up playing through most of the adventure anthology Tales from the Wilderland. The One Ring deserves a whole post of its own – but one of the things that has helped to keep us together is the style of play that online roleplaying has led us into. In short 2-hour sessions, we’re all on it; serious and alert to play up the rest of the party. Every session has brought a moment of greatness, often emergent from TOR’s sometimes fiddly mechanics, and the PCs are now a well-loved fellowship. Next session, they’re probably going to meet Gandalf – and I’m reminding myself how nice it is to have ongoing games as well as One-Shots.

But, if you want to play or run one-shots, here’s a brief guide to it if you’re starting out

Online Packages

There’s a lot of discussion of virtual tabletops out there, Roll20, Fantasy Grounds, and Astral Tabletop all touted as decent products for different things. If you’re just starting, I’d ask that you ignore all that, though.

All you need is a stable set of video conferencing software.

My favoured setup is Google Hangouts (yes, it still exists) – but I’ve played with Zoom or Discord, and I know groups who play using Skype or even Facebook messenger. You need to be able to communicate with each other. As long as you trust each other (and if you don’t, you should find another group), it works just fine if everyone just rolls their own dice and lets you know what they are.

While you’re on these, you also need headphones – a mic you can do without, but without headphones your laptop microphone is likely to create an annoying echo every time another player speaks. It’ll be annoying to everyone else, not to you, so you won’t realise it’s happening – until someone has to awkwardly remind you.

I’d also say that laptops > tablets > phones for online gaming. On a laptop or a decent sized tablet, you can have your character sheet (or whatever neat piece of art the GM has shared on his tabletop) on the screen as well – my practice is to have the video call off to one side, or in the corner, so the screen isn’t dominated by the pixellated face of my fellow players.

Like this:

Roll20 Sample 2

The One Ring art by John Hodgson – the Dwimmerhorn looms out of the fog

The advantage of an online tabletop is the ability to share art and pictures initially – they also have inbuilt dice rollers, and if you want to get technical they can have all kinds of macros and stuff built in for different games. If you’re playing Pathfinder or a similar ‘griddy’ game, you can get a map up and track everything with player tokens.

But, to stress again, you don’t have to do this. Start simple with Hangouts. Eventually, like me, you’ll start to dip your toe into showing some pretty pictures.

Recruiting

Finding players for online games used to sometimes be a bit tricky – it’s easy to flake out of a game if you don’t have to leave the house for it, which made one-shots difficult to schedule unless you found yourself a regular group.

Every cloud, though – the current lockdown means there’s a lot of interest in online gaming again, and lots of people moving their own groups to online for social distancing. There are a number of virtual cons springing up now, too – Go Play Manchester and Go Play Leeds are both going virtual, and following the cancellation of Seven Hills and North Star conventions we’re looking at a virtual con in their stead. As with most things, playing in a game prior to running something virtually is a good idea, and most online cons have some more experienced GMs around to help.

In general, prior to lockdown my approach for recruitment seemed to work well – a twitter shout-out led to about 10 interested parties, and then setting an evening and schedule whittled that down to the 5 of us who could make it. Right now I’d have some confidence in posting something on twitter and getting a group together – although usual stuff applies.

“Who wants to play Savage Worlds Rifts on Monday at 7pm GMT?”

is more likely to work than

“Who wants to play some online games soon?”

It’s usually better to have a slightly smaller group than you might for a face-to-face game – 3 or 4 is ideal, while for me 5 is a hard maximum. You have to be much stricter with turn-taking and listening, and so it gets exponentially harder the more players you have.

Playing / Running

As I’ve said before, prior to running an online game I’d really recommend you play – even if you’re only using Hangouts or Zoom, it’s easier to not worry about the technical side if you’re the player instead of the GM. Prior to the game, the GM (or whoever is hosting) will send out a link – whatever the platform, you should be able to join in with that.

Don’t fret over technical difficulties – as long as everyone has headphones and is careful you’ll be fine. About every other session for me there’s something that crops up – lag on a virtual tabletop, audio interference on a player, or – a couple of sessions ago – me hanging up the whole Hangouts call (I was GMing) by accident while fiddling around with windows. As long as you’re all playing generously you can probably muddle through and fix it – usually the classic IT solution of logging out and then in again will fix most things.

Generally 2 hours, with maybe 30 minutes each way, is a good time limit for online play – you remove table chatter, so you’ll be surprised how much you can get through in that time. It’s a bit more intense, weirdly, as everyone is on the game, and one person having the spotlight at once adds to this. As a GM, it pays to be super-conscious of this spotlight – even out of combat, I try to invite players in turn – so if you’re roleplaying, try to take turns so one player doesn’t dominate too much.

And have fun! There’s tons of online gaming going on right now – and there’s loads of blog posts like this, from people who know their shizz like Paul Mitchener, Dom Mooney, and many more. There’s also a Smart Party podcast just landed about online play – which I’m off to listen to right now.

If you know more links, please share them below – and maybe I’ll see you across a web browser soon!

Pregen Power Levels

In this post I’m going to talk about how powerful your one-shot pregens should be. Designing pregens is often the first step to prepping a one-shot, and definitely needs to be done before your prep is finished (and then you can check there are relevant challenges for each PC to allow for spotlight spread), and it’s tempting to just throw together characters following the rules in the book – standard starting characters. This is sometimes the best case, but sometimes it’s worth beefing up your characters a bit.

This is obviously a topic that varies a lot from system to system, so I’m going to look at a few in turn.

D&D / 13th Age / F20 games

If you’re running a game for players that are completely new to TTRPGs, and you want to keep things simple (and you should) – start at 1st level. D&D 1st level pregens can be a bit squishy, so you might consider either making them 2nd level (which really are no more powerful apart from the extra hp and a few more spell slots) or even just giving them the 2nd level hit point boost. This is something I’d particularly recommend if you’re running for players who might not be too keen on their PCs being knocked out.

Of course, instead of beefing them up you might be tempted to knock down the opposition – but I’d caution against this. For one thing, several of the support roles in D&D are really unsatisfying if there isn’t proper opposition – I can remember playing a Life Cleric in a one-shot and being a bit disappointed that I didn’t get to use my awesome healing powers.

If you’ve got some experienced players, but still want to keep it straightforward, 3rd or 4th level is the way to go. At this point, there’s a bump in complexity that gives PCs a plethora of options in D&D (in 13th Age they have these options pretty much from 1st level), and a lot of scope for niche protection; two 3rd level human fighters can play very differently at the table depending on design choice.

If you want superhero-style high fantasy, you can use the Fireball Cutoff. This rule (which I’ve just invented) states that at the point where PCs acquire the spell Fireball, that’s when they become high fantasy superheroes instead of hardscrabble spelunkers. This happens in most F20 games at a lowly 5th level – from that point on, expect your players to be big damn heroes. Weirdly, this happens in almost every level-based fantasy game – it stands in D&D, 13th Age, Shadow of the Demon Lord. In other systems, feel free to locate Fireball in the spell list and work out where this level is

At this level or above, even if you’ve got experienced players, I’d recommend allowing them to use average damage for effects that require rolling a lot of dice (especially in 13th Age, where this is every weapon and spell attack) – if a player is going to take some time to add up the result of 6d10+12 it’s going to be boring for the rest of the table, and dull for them, so offer this as an option in advance. At the very least, have plenty of dice so they aren’t trying to roll their own single d10 six times. If you want more swing, just let players flip a coin for max/min damage – I’ve used this effectively in a 5th level 13th Age one-shot.

Fate / PBTA

In these games, generally the pregen they start with is fine. The one adjustment I like to make in PBTA games is give everyone two or three XP ticks, just so it’s very likely they’ll get an advance in the first couple of hours of play – giving them a chance to see their character grow during the game.

For Fate, the equivalent I’d recommend is leaving one or two aspects blank, and even (if Fate Core) a few mid-range skills. Players can fill these in before, or during, the game to allow a bit of input into their character. It’s possible to run Fate Core doing character generation entirely in-game, based on just a high concept aspect, but this is a bit of a risk unless you know your players will be up for this and won’t spend ages paralysed by decisions.

I’ve written in more detail about Forged in the Dark games like Blades here, but in general I’d resist boosting any of their starting abilities, tempting though it may be. It’s more enjoyable for PCs to fumble through a heist or job, as failure will drive more problems their way, than to have them patch everything up with some die rolls – this also makes them spend stress and have something to do in the Downtime phase. A similar approach works for Mouse Guard – don’t be afraid to force some of the Guardmice to roll skills they might not have – this forces them to tap Nature and risk it dropping, and work together even more. In these teamwork-driven games, niche protection is vital, so you need to be careful to not make the PCs able to succeed individually.

Cypher

Cypher (the system behind Numenera and The Strange, amongst other excellent setting books) is a really rules-light system that focuses a bit more on resource management than the rest of the ones discussed here – and boils most things down to a single d20 roll.

For Cypher, I’d recommend Tier 2 characters as a minimum, and I wouldn’t be afraid of Tier 3 or 4. As Cypher PCs advance, they don’t particularly get much more powerful – they just gain additional options to use. At Tier 1, their options are generally pretty limited – it’s only at higher tiers that the really cool Foci abilties kick in, and while the PCs get more badass, they don’t become anywhere near invincible. This is great in a campaign where they can watch their options grow, but in a one-shot they might as well have these options earlier. I’d also recommend using my hack for experience in Cypher games in one-shots, to avoid the spend-or-hoard XP mechanics.

Balancing Opposition

This is a big generalisation across the systems, but I prefer to beef up opposition beyond what it says in the book for low-level PCs, and taper this off as they get higher level. At low levels, you need challenges to be genuine challenges, and resource-depletion fights that are the bread-and-butter combat encounters of longer-term F20 games are generally unsatisfying. Mix it up, too – as here, it’s an idea to start off with a really underpowered fight as a training level for the players, but do what you can to make the difficulty ramp up through the one-shot to the climax.

If you’ve every played D&D or Pathfinder in a campaign, you’ll have realised that by 3rd level – if the group has stayed pretty consistent – your party has usually evolved into an efficient combat unit because you have some awareness of what other PCs abilities do. As you play through encounters, you become adept at knowing when to rage, when to hang back, how many heals your cleric has left, that sort of thing. In a one-shot, this knowledge is unlikely to develop in 3 hours, and it can make a massive difference to a party’s effectiveness.

So be prepared to tone it down and have some flexibility with challenges – this can include having terrain features that may or may not come into play, reinforcements that might or might not come, or even some killer tactics that might not be used, depending on how ruthless your players are being.

What are your tips for balancing pregens and encounters? Are there any other systems you’d like to see discussed?

This was meant to be the final post of 2019, but it’s ended up creeping out after a rewrite in 2020. So, if you can imagine this came out last year, thank you so much for your continued support and digestion of my words. In the last two years Burn After Running has grown into almost a ‘real blog,’ and as always I love to hear suggestions for what games to cover or review, new kinds of articles, and what you’d like more or less of. Catch me on twitter @milnermaths or comment below.

Day of the Octopus: Unpacking the One-Shot

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Day of the Octopus is the starter adventure included with Marvel Super Heroes basic set, first published in 1984. It’s a straightforward adventure that I remember liking when I first picked up Marvel (considerably later than 1984!), and it still stands up well. It’s got some lessons in it for prepping a one-shot, especially for convention play, and I think it bears a closer look. It’s also available as a download on the Classic Marvel Forever website, if you want to give it a closer look.

Specifically, it does a few things well

  • it demonstrates the expectations and structure of play
  • it’s designed to teach the rules as it goes
  • it gives a solid approximation to a dramatic arc

There’s a few things it does… less well, I guess

  • it’s almost entirely linear. There’s one branching point, but that’s only if the PCs get captured
  • it’s dramatic scenes all resolve around combat – even one where combat really isn’t the actual resolution still looks very combat-y to the players

Overview

It’s designed with specific heroes in mind – Spider-Man, The Thing, and Captains Marvel and America. In the first scene (or Chapter as they’re called in the adventure) this is important, as they start interacting with their day-to-day lives – Peter Parker is with Aunt May, The Thing is sulking in the park, Captain America is with his “gal.” It also demonstrates the classic superhero team structure in RPGs – that although the heroes are normally arranged into specific teams in the comics, in the game they can form a team of whatever heroes the players want to play.

It’s a 1984 adventure, so there’s boxed text – but it’s pretty decent boxed text though – no need to describe dungeon rooms makes it flow easily. Each chapter also starts with a short comic strip, where we see the start of the action, which is a nice touch – I particularly like the investigative scene where The Thing is a deerstalker, especially because it makes him look a bit like Bungle from Rainbow.

It’s designed to be used with the maps supplied – this book came in a boxed set, of course, and there’s a fair amount of tactical faffing about where to place various PCs and their opponents that was probably a lot more important back in the day than it is now. Maps for superhero games leave me cold – especially when there’s two characters that have fairly limited movement alongside two with massively fast movement – can’t Captain Marvel travel at the speed of light? Why does she need a map?

Structure

Overall, the plot looks like this:

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In Chapter 1, the PCs start separately, while still on the same map, and face one or two Thugs (normal humans) each. These are trivially easy fights, and this chapter shows up as a nice little training mission. In my one-shots I often have an easy fight as the first scene, and this approach (having a really, really easy fight)is something that I’d like to try. I’d expect both encounters to only take a round or so, so it’s a good stakes-free way to teach the basic rules.

No sooner are the thugs dealt with, Chapter 2 starts, where some actual supervillains (one per hero – another superhero RPG trope – and somewhat randomly assembled) appear and try to steal the same tech. It’s expected that they’ll be thwarted, and a Dr Octopus arm will get the tech anyway, but this is the first real fight of the adventure. It has detailed notes for how the villains will fight, which is a thing we don’t often see enough of these days I think – even if Radioactive Man’s first action is to blow a hole underneath The Thing so that he has to spend three turns climbing out, which feels a little bit mean on that player.

CSI: Marvel Super Heroes

In Chapter 3, they do some investigating, which is snappy and has multiple routes and ways of finding their way to Dr Ock’s hideout. There’s three places they can go to pick up clues – the site of the battle, the rental company they got the truck from, and a dive bar on the waterfront. It’s expected they’ll go through these places in order – if I was running this I’d add multiple clues to each location so they didn’t have to go to all three (or could split up), but it’s still presented as a pretty pacy segment, and isn’t reliant on dice rolls to move the plot forwards.

Chapter 4 is the hideout itself, where they fight Dr Octopus, any remaining supervillains from the previous battle, and several environmental effects. This is definitely mean to potentially be a tough one, as Chapter 5 is what happens if they lose, and begins with each hero being captured individually and them needing to escape.

Chapter 6 is the final scene, when they try to stop a gigantic Octobot as it rampages through New York. This fight is almost unwinnable, but it’s also much more of a problem solving challenge – the robot isn’t something they can take on directly, so they need to try and disable it using trickery. In game terms, this is almost a skill challenge compare to the fights beforehand – which is also a nice way to mix it up.

Unpacking the Plot

So, the structure looks roughly like the diagram above. We have 4 core scenes – a training level, a normal challenge scene, and two hard challenge scenes, with two of those being fights and one being more of a skill challenge. There’s a few different ways to move between what is basically a linear plot structure, and there’s a safety net in case they don’t get any further.

The safety net is a bit weak though – it’s Thor – who can either swoop in and save the day in a fight, or just tell them clues if they miss them. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this kind of contingency plan in a one-shot, but I prefer some immediate, tangible consequences to a failed scene – maybe Thor does offer the details of Dr Octopus’ hideout, but that means they have time to prepare themselves and the next fight will be tougher, or the robot starts rampaging sooner.

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For me, I like to have the final climax be a big, challenging battle (this also removes the need for a “contingency Thor” for that scene) and make the skill challenge be the middle scene. For skill challenge, it could be something different to an actual fight, but I think it needs to be an extended task that is supported by the system – in Fate this could be a Contest or a Cliffhanger (from Masters of Umdaar), it could be a Chase scene in Savage Worlds or Call of Cthulhu, a starship combat in a sci fi game, or a social conflict in a system which supports this. In all cases, it’s worth hanging some proper stakes on the scene, so it has tangible consequences to the folowing scenes.

I really like the first scene of this adventure – by introducing the players individually, and giving them a small interaction with the rules, they set up a low-stakes way of teaching both roleplaying and the basics of the rules. I’ve done this with individual skill checks before now, but not with really weak opponents, and I’d like to try it out with that – either with the heroes as individuals or with them together teaming up against a small obstacle.

I’ll definitely be re-skinning this structure and trying out some of the ideas here, and I’ll post on here and twitter about how it goes. I’m going to pull out some other ‘classic’ one-shots and do a similar unpacking of them – what should I look at next?

D&D One-Shots, Part 4: More Tips

I’ve spent the best part of the summer running D&D5e for (relative) newcomers to the hobby. I’m at the point where I’m probably going to take a breather and look to my shelves for some other games to prep one-shots of now, but I’ve learned a few more things that are worth sharing since the first post that started it all. So, here goes:

Maps Are Good, Even Without Minis

A map – even one sketched with a Sharpie on plain paper – is really useful if you’ve got a set-piece combat scene. I’ve talked before about how I’m not a huge fan of minis and grids – and in this context it makes the game a little bit more complex – but a map is really useful. Next time I run, I’ll try and find some evocative art as well – even just pictures of a monster or scene – to help players get into the moment.

This is what a table for 12 D&D players looks like

Ambitious Stuff Works!

Over the summer, I ran a D&D Activity Group with another GM on a residential week. We had 12 players in two groups of 6, playing for 1hr 15min a day for the week. We thought up linked plots for our groups – one was escorting a pair of children who would turn out to be werewolves, one was hunting a beast from the town who turned out to be an escaped werewolf. We had four sessions as separate groups, and managed to drag them together so the final two sessions could be a huge 12-player group as they joined forces to face the source of both of their problems.

We had a real range of experiences in the game – a couple of experienced players (more on them later), some who had played a few times before, and some completely new to the hobby. Now, I’m not going to run for 12 players again very soon – but the session where they linked up and shared their stories was -amazing-. It’s the kind of ambitious cross-campaign shenanigans that I’m usually wary of, but thanks to my amazing co-GM we managed to pull it off. So don’t shy away from doing the epic. It works.

Bring Dice, In Sets

For my games, I’ve brought a big pile of dice and got my players to pick out their own d20 and any other dice they might need. This is not the best way, I learned from my co-GM in the werewolf game. The best way is to have a set of dice for each player. They have their own dice, can move them around and put them on their character sheet, and have ownership of them for the game. A player’s relationship with their dice is a key part of the game, and by having their own they get to try this.

Use Your Expertise

If you’re lucky enough to have a few players with some experience in your group, use them! Conventional wisdom might say to encourage them to play the more complex classes – the wizard or the sorcerer – but I’d say that it works better having the player next to them playing those, and them helping them out. They need to have a players handbook – they can look up spells, if you don’t have spell cards, and even conditions – I’m a big fan of saying, eg “OK, you’re weakened – Scott, what does that mean in-game?” and letting them manage it.

Use The Good Stuff Out There

I’ve mentioned Spell Cards, but having the Monster Cards lets you avoid juggling a monster manual and you can show them the art on the back. I have run Goblin Gully a few times (with my adapted notes here), but I also found Troll Trouble by Gary Whicker to be an excellent first level adventure – a good mixture of dungeoneering, role-play, and interesting action scenes. It’s a long time since I’ve run it, but The Goblins and The Pie Shop is a fun little one-shot too that I posted up on here. Come to think of it, it still sees a lot of traffic, so I’m planning to put some more 1st-level one-shots on here as I write them. But for now, I need a break from D&D – you can have too much of a good thing after all.

D&D One-Shots, Part 2: Absolute Beginners

Here I talked about why we should be running D&D one-shots; I shared some pregens here (there will be more of them later); and I talked about the start of sessions here. In this post I’m going to offer some tips from experience for running for a table that are entirely new to tabletop RPGs. Some of this advice will be D&D focused, but a lot of it goes for any system where you have a lot of players who are new to the hobby.

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Best advice for running D&D for new players

Bring All The Stuff, Make Friends

You will need dice for everyone. You will need pencils for everyone. You will need an index card for each player to make a name tent (with their character and ‘real’ name on, if the group doesn’t know one another). Do introductions. Be nice to people. Be aware that if this is a new group, weird social dynamics can emerge, and you share some responsibility for making sure that people don’t dominate or shy away.

1st Level is Fine

With more experienced players, or in a convention slot, I’d probably want to start at least at 2nd level, to give players a range of options. With new players, I take advantage of D&D’s training levels and stick to level 1. Why?

  • there’s an obvious action each round so they don’t have to worry about ‘doing the right thing’
  • the mental arithmetic is easier with fewer hit points and options
  • there are less ‘rules exceptions’ – rules that change other rules, that are really confusing if you’ve not used the actual rules before

Keep it As Simple As You Can

The pregen sheets I used (in the same format as the 2nd level characters here) are here. From the feedback of my six new players, they were easily complex enough – in fact they couldn’t believe that the actual character sheets were more complicated than this, until I showed them the one in the back of the Player’s Handbook.

I had spell cards for the sorcerer in the game, and I’d recommend having them ready, and introducing that PC as the most challenging. In my game I nudged the sorcerer towards the one player who had his own set of dice – that seemed to indicate he’d be down for a bit more processing, even though he hadn’t played before.

Teach Core Concepts First

After a quick tour of the character sheets, I’d recommend teaching the core concept of D&D. The core concept, in case you are wondering, isn’t “roll 1d20 and add a bonus,” the core concept is this:

Say what your character does, and we’ll work out what happens from there.

The reference point I used was videogame RPGs, as that was one point of reference they were all familiar with. Saying it’s like you have dialogue options, except you can say whatever you want, and I’ll say what the NPC says, helped, as did referring to combat as being turn-based like Final Fantasy.

Model What To Do

So, as I talked about here and here, I like to do a bit of an introduction for a one-shot to bind the PCs together. This felt a bit like throwing them in at the deep end, so I just asked for a brief description of what their character looked like and acted.

I modelled this first myself by describing the merchants who had hired them – the confident, worldly wife and her feckless moustached husband who didn’t understand why they needed to hire adventurers for support as he could deal with any bandits himself. They then went round and, following my lead, described their PCs in a similar amount of detail. I did some interjecting, like “I’m thinking you’re a pretty wide-eyed and innocent…” and giving positive feedback while they did this.

This was absolutely crucial to the action that followed. When their cart was inevitably attacked by some bandits, one of the fighter’s first actions was of course to check on the female merchant in the cart that she was OK – while the sneaky sorcerer hid under the cart and hoped he wasn’t noticed until it was obvious he had been.

Get the Action / Roleplay Balance Right

I think this varies for each game, but for D&D I was certain I was going to use a proper dungeon – so I started with Dyson Logos’ excellent Goblin Gully, and added an inciting event (the aforementioned bandit attack, and then some investigation in town) before they ventured to the dungeon. Prioritising the roleplay and being your character meant that, even in combat, everyone was describing their awesome (or not so awesome) moves. I’ll be sharing my notes on how exactly I did this, and my D&D5 conversion for it, in a later post.

Minis: You Do You

I didn’t use minis, because they aren’t me. I never really use them – even when I played in a mini-campaign of Pathfinder, we managed to muddle through (I’m not a fan of the term “Theatre of the Mind,” either, as it just sounds pretentious).

But if you’re a GM who uses minis, by all means crack them out – props are good, and they provide a good focus for the play. I would definitely have had less swashbuckling derring-do from my PCs with a map, but that’s just my tastes I think.

Enjoy it!

Running D&D for six complete newcomers is one of my most exhilarating experiences at the table this year. I can’t recommend it enough – not just for bringing new people into the hobby, but for the enjoyment yourself of seeing them grow in confidence through the game. And, despite what I’m saying in a lot of these D&D posts, after a few games of D&D it might be time to talk to them about other games – and see if they want to give, say, Star Wars a try.

Have you run games for complete beginners? How did it go? In future posts I’ll expand on how I opened out Goblin Gully, and give my own approach to balancing encounters and timings for D&D5.