Grand Theft Auto Sandboxing

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

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

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

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

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

What’s Wrong With Sandboxes?

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

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

Building Your Sandbox

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

Playing Your Sandbox

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

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

Prep Techniques – Round-Up

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

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

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

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

Essential prep – gathering your props

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Running Games At Conventions

We are well into the RPG convention season – a big range of residential cons and one-day meetups are happening, and the schedule seems to be recovering well in the aftermath of Covid restrictions. It’s over 5 years since I first posted about running at conventions, so I thought I’d revisit this, more focussed now on the convention as a whole rather than individual games.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

I’m talking here about going beyond just running one or two games at meetups or cons, to being an actual ‘convention GM’ – running multiple games at events, and being a part of delivering the experience of conventions. If you want to do this, here are some tips.

Go To Multiple Conventions

Don’t just restrict yourself to the one meetup – explore online options, too. To get better at convention GMing, you need to practise it, so make a commitment to some conventions and book some games in. Don’t just think of the bigger face-to-face conventions (in fact, these can sometimes be frustrating to GM at) – look at online options and small local one-day cons as well. 

Play (At Least) As Much As You Run

Time was when some convention GMs would sign up to run every slot. You still see this model encouraged by some big cons – UK Games Expo offers free accommodation to GMs who complete such a punishing schedule of GMing. Running every slot is a terrible idea. Conventions shouldn’t be supporting it – I’d be happier if they had a limit on how much one person can GM. Play convention games at the same time, and use this time to research and craft how to run your games.

Run Games More Than Once

As you might think from the name of the blog, I used to just run my convention games once. I happily avoid that now – I have plastic folders filled with prep notes ready to run that I can pull out and revisit for a pickup game with minimal prep. If you’ve got pregens, consider laminating them if you want to use them again to save printing again, and buy some cheap dry wipe markers for players to use. If you’re thinking you’ll run a game multiple times, consider this in your prep and think about multiple means of resolution to keep it interesting for you as well.

One Game A Day

I’d go further than the above and say that one game per day is the standard, baseline you should be aiming for if you want to be a con GM. It’s what I try to stick to, and it helps keep all of those games fresh and perky, and you won’t lose your voice. I occasionally get carried away and make exceptions (running 6 games out of 10 at The Kraken was the result of offering additional games at the event, and even then I did duplicate some systems and prep), but I always regret it if I end up running two games in a day.

Run Parallel / Linked Games

As well as running games multiple times, you can make things easier for yourself by running the same (or similar) systems multiple times. I’ve offered, for instance, three 13th Age games before – which helped me get the system internalised really easily. You can also re-use pregens, and even if you get the same players this will be as much a feature as a bug as they get to see what another character plays like. Again, laminating these is a good move.

So, some tips for convention GMing to step up to being a regular. Conventions need GMs, and it’s great to get more people stepping up to run regularly. Is there any other advice you’d give, or concerns? Let me know.

Starting a New Campaign

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

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

  1. Set the Scope

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

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

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

  1. Get the Big Picture

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

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

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

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

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

Running published campaigns requires slightly different prep to rolling your own

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

  1. Imagine Some Specifics

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

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

  1. Session Zero

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

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

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

  1. Session-By-Session

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

6 sessions of prep files – complete with corny titles

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

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

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

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

Seeing the Light – Running Illuminated by LUMEN one-shots

LUMEN, developed by Spencer Campbell of Gila RPGs, is a rules framework for action TTRPGs that’s inspired a veritable horde of games based on its core system. Well, strictly speaking, LIGHT was the first game, and the SRD came later, but you get what I mean. Its combination of fast-play action and easy-to-spin system make it a really fantastic convention game, and I thought I’d put down some tips for making sure a one-shot really hits the right buttons.
While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

I ran Gunfucks at North Star recently, and am planning on running LIGHT and Deathless soon. Gunfucks is a Borderlands-riffed shooter-looter (I’ll share my prep notes in the next post), while LIGHT feels sort-of-Destiny, and Deathless is a Highlander-style immortal warrior battles game. If all of these seem high-action and pretty frenetic, that’s the sort of play that LUMEN leans towards – and it’s useful in general to think of them emulating video games as their source material, as you’ll see later.

It’s All About the Fights

LUMEN isn’t quite a game with a combat system and nothing else (and that’s not a dig – I’m a huge fan of Sentinel Comics, Marvel Heroic, and even Feng Shui 2 that largely subsist on set piece action scenes) – but it is built towards big, powerful heroes fighting set piece battles, and most of the rules support this.

With this in mind, fight scenes with some attention and planning made to them pay off well. Make sure that your fights take place in Dangerous Places – so the battlefield has lots of things to interact with that either side can turn to their advantage. It’s also worth thinking of fights in terms of goals and victory conditions, rather than everyone fighting to the death.

Because the resolution mechanic is relatively simple, encourage and model your players to describe their actions cinematically – because success criteria (the highest dice rolled) is out in the open, they should be able to follow the start description -> roll dice -> describe success or failure pretty smoothly.

Gunfucks has a cool idea (which I’ll be stealing for other games) where in the GM’s turn there’s a battlefield shift – something changes each turn to make the fight interesting. Easy ways to do this in LUMEN games is to shift some range bands, or introduce some more hazards. It can also move some enemies or call in reinforcements – which you might need, as balancing combat isn’t as straightforward as you might think.

It’s Not All About the Fights

It’s easy to think that LUMEN games don’t really have a system for skill checks – but they absolutely do, with the Approaches rolls functioning just as well for investigative or social conflict. A simple skill challenge where the party need to get a total of 5 successes across the rolls will work fine, with them taking consequences for each 1-4 roll.

But, as combat can be pretty frenetic with dice-rolling and power-checking, it works just as well to have interludes between fights that are just free roleplaying. This will add depth to the game, and by prepping some interesting NPCs with conflicting goals (a good approach is the 7-3-1 method) you can have some good scenery-chewing interludes. In play, LUMEN often feels like a video game – and these are the cut scenes that provide a break from the relentless shooting and fighting.

In all of these games, PCs are high-powered badasses, so don’t be afraid to make the stakes big – the safety or otherwise of a country or a planet could rest on their shoulders. Enemies, likewise, should be dangerous, and give them plans and motivations the players can riff off. A pre-game relationship building exercise where you work out bonds between the PCs would help in a one-shot to encourage inter-PC dialogue, even if it’s a simple one like this

Practicalities

There’s a few practical tips at the table that can help prep and delivery. For starters, you can afford to really throw enemies at your players. For games with 5 or 6 players, you can be prepared to give lots of low-level enemies for them to defeat before they can get to the big bad, or you risk fights being over very quickly. As long as your mooks only do 1 or 2 Harm you’ll be fine – quite a few of the classes can resist 1 Harm anyway, and if they’ve got 1 Health they’ll go down in one hit anyway.

Many LUMEN games have both Health and some sort of power resource – in Gunfucks its Bullets, for instance. Having counters to represent this really helps at the table – I favour poker chips for health, as it’s pretty visible in one stack to you and the other players how much the other PCs have left.

I touched on it earlier, but these games also really benefit from getting PC narration in. They’re not just rules-light but very setting-light as well – a lot of depth will come from the table, and 5-6 imaginations are better than one for this. So use the techniques here to help develop player narration and give the setting – and scenes – some depth.

Have you played or run any LUMEN games? Any recommendations for what I should try next? Let me know in the comments.

Future Imperfect – Why Sci-Fi One-Shots are Hard, and What to Do About It

In a week’s time, I’ll be at North Star – a science fiction TTRPG convention. It fills an excellent role in the con calendar, because sci-fi is underrepresented in convention gaming – and it’s easy to see why. It’s got some issues that you just don’t get with fantasy, or even horror, gaming – and the lack of a clear industry leader to hang your expectations around (like D&D or Call of Cthulhu) is just one of them. Sci-fi one shots can be hard to get prepped – and hard to sell to players – here’s why, and what to do about it.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

What in the universe is the setting?

In fantasy, you’ve got an easily-referenced source material that everyone understands – a mixed group of ne’er do wells exploring underground areas for treasure. Even when a fantasy setting is quite different to this (e.g. Glorantha) it is easily explained by listing the differences between it and D&Desque fantasy (e.g. talking ducks, lots more cows).

Sci-fi doesn’t have this central reference point. It can be pulpy or gritty, lethal or safe – and it can literally mean anything. Communicating setting and tone is really important – if you’re running a sci-fi genre that isn’t well-known, you should be really explicit about this both in your con pitch and your prep. Go over it at the start of the session as well (briefly!) and cut it to the basic details. Players need to know if they can charge into a group of stormtroopers like in Star Wars, or if they’ll be shot to pieces, like in Traveller.

An alternative, of course, is to run in an established universe that you can expect players to relate to. If you do this, though, remember that not everyone will know all the references you do. At a con, I’d say you can rely on players knowing the broad brush strokes of Star Trek, Star Wars, Warhammer 40K, and maybe Doctor Who as key sci-fi tropes. Any more than that, you’d better be prepared to be explicit. I’ve had people try to explain Blake’s Seven to me more times than I care to remember, and I’m still none the wiser.

One approach is to use an IP you’d hope players are familiar with

Build Your Sandbox with Walls

The other challenge is the sheer scope of sci-fi play. In a one-shot, you want to decide early on in your prep what the geographical scope of play is – a single city, a single planet, a system, a cluster? This, again, needs to be really explicit – while you might want a picaresque jaunt across a few fantastic locations, consider how much depth you can provide to each of them. I’ve run effective one-shots on a single planet (although if you do this, stick some stuff in for the pilot PC to do), as well as in a single city. You might not need all the setting you have – just pick the good bits.

Plot is Still Plot

Similarly, the wide open nature of sci-fi themes can be daunting. Look back to your first step, and consider what kind of game your one-shot is, and how you can promote this. Daydreaming cool scenes and sticking them together works well – for example, for Snowblind, I knew I wanted a Wampa fight and a Tauntaun chase – so I fitted the rest of the plot around them. They also don’t need to be that complicated – exploring a “derelict” orbital structure that turns out to have a deadly alien / rogue AI in it is popular because it’s a good one-shot format – remember the adage (from I think Robin Laws) that in RPGs, cliché is a  good thing.

Adding NPCs to give background to the universe helps

In terms of structuring your adventure, point-crawls are often great ways to build sci-fi one-shots – 5 Room Non-Dungeons and Three Places are also good approaches. Remember to have engaging NPCs – and a good trick is to have the NPCs hint at the broader scope of the game. Your Star Trek one-shot might be all about the Neutral Zone and tangling with Romulans, so having a subplot NPC who’s an Orion pirate or a Klingon captain shows that there’s lots more going on in the universe.

So, three things that are hard about science fiction one-shots; if you’re reading this on the blog, I’ll just be setting off back from Sheffield after North Star – there’s a fair crack I’ll have more to say about this. What successes (or challenges) have you had with science fiction gaming? Be sure to let me know in the comments.

Fearless Defenders – a One-Shot Structure

Our heroes are at a remote location, filled with cheerful and innocent NPCs. An army approaches, sure to overrun said location – unless our heroes can stop them! From Seven Samurai to Zulu, it’s a classic plot for fiction – and a great plot for a one-shot. The mixture of fight scenes, roleplaying opportunities, and player agency make it a winner. Here’s how to prep it.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

The Place

The place needs to be remote enough that defending it falls to the heroes, not any conventional militia or army. Or, there is an army, but it won’t arrive for several days – if the PCs can hold off the attack until then, the place will be saved. Alternatively, perhaps help won’t come even if it could – the local lord has rebelled against the tyrannical king, or the planet is in a neutral zone stopping a fleet from arriving.

It needs to have enough NPCs to give it a face – make them sympathetic, and as always – three is a good number. Making one of them a sympathiser or a coward is a good move, as this will create complications later – try not to make it the obvious one.

Seven Samurai – well, six of them at least

The Enemy

Although the enemy should be implacable and overwhelming for the place, try and give it a human face that the PCs can interact with – even if it’s a sinister necromancer leading the army of zombies! Be specific about why they want to overrun this Place in particular – do they have a history here, or is it strategically important – why? 

Alternatively, make your enemy leader have beef with one or more of the PCs; a past enemy, or an ally of a past enemy, will add some drama to the situation. Look at Auntie Wu’s Tea House, a one-shot for Hearts of Wulin, for some examples of upping the melodrama in a wuxia setting.

Initial Scene – The Threat is Revealed

You want to start your game with an exciting scene where the threat, and the timeline, is revealed. Maybe an encounter with a wounded villager, or an attack by scouts of the enemy, happens – generally, I’d make this lead into a simple fight for a one-shot, particularly for a con game – you need the ‘training combat’ for players who haven’t played the system before so they get an idea of how the system works without too much jeopardy, so you can go harder later on.

Zulu is another classic model in film. Bonus points if you get your players to sing.

After this scene, they should know that the advancing force is coming – and they have a short period of time to prepare or retreat. Establish that the force is overwhelming, even if this combat is itself easy, and that retreat should not be an option.

Middle Scenes – Training Montages etc

Once the threat is revealed, the adventure can open out for the players – present them with a number of options to prepare for the attack, and be open to other suggestions.

  • They can attempt to negotiate allies or additional reinforcements. Having one or more neutral, and difficult-to-please factions around in the area helps with this – and the players can always split up to negotiate separately with them. Some might ask for a simple favour, while some might need some roleplaying to convince them to help – try to keep these short mini-quests, resolved with a few skill rolls, to keep things moving. Allies that refuse to help might join the opposition forces!
  • They can prepare defences. The usual problem solving advice of “any reasonable plan” applies here – a successful check can give a one-off bonus in the battle is how I’d play it unless you’ve got a system with a better approach embedded.
  • They can spy on the enemy. Sneaking into the enemy camp is totally a thing they can do – to find their attack plans or even disrupt their preparations. Again, this can be resolved by zooming out or using some infiltration system, especially if the whole party isn’t doing this.
  • They can rally the defenders. This includes training montages for the villagers, and can be handled as above. If you’ve planned a betrayal or retreat, they could try and win that NPC round as well, or you can use this scene to foreshadow their betrayal.
  • They can deal with the opposition doing any of the above! To keep the pace going and add to the sense of peril, the enemy may send a scout to attack – a mid-preparation combat can keep things interesting. Maybe they send goblins in with fire-pots to set some houses on fire. Or enrage a bear to storm the walls through magic. Or bribe some pirates to blockade the starport. Either way, this provides a good prelude for the final scene.

Final Scene – The Big Fight

Once the preparations are done – or not – and the enemy’s attack has been dealt with, it’s time for the big finale. You need to give some thought to how you’ll resolve this. While some games have excellent mass battle rules (Savage Worlds for instance has one that’s really good for this), you may also want to look at another meta-resolution method from here or here.

You can make this more epic by pacing sequences of challenges with individual challenges for the PCs – prep a few of these that you can throw in, and maybe they can influence the overall battle as well. Don’t shy away from having a relatively involved challenge here – this is meant to be the big finale – and equally have lots of stuff ready to throw into the mix to keep things moving.

If the betrayal hasn’t happened already, after the first round of fighting is a good time for it to kick in – zoom in on individual PCs and allow them to deal with this (or not) before it turns the tide. Make sure the interaction with the enemy’s human face is there as well – have him spit words at the PCs as he’s fighting to encourage some roleplay in the course of this.

There you have it. Have you used a similar structure in your one-shot games? Are there any published adventures you’ve seen that do this well? Let me know in the comments.

In Praise of the Supplement

I’ve just picked up (from kickstarter) Rowan Rook and Deckard’s SIN – a fantastic supplement for the SPIRE RPG, where every page seems to have plot hooks and gameable material leaping off it. It got me thinking about what a really good RPG supplement looks like. For these purposes, I think a supplement should have a bit of everything – some player-facing stuff, maybe new rules, new setting material and background – but most importantly, tons of stuff that can be dropped into an ongoing campaign or inspire a one-shot. 

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

SIN hits the jackpot on all of these – but I won’t be talking about it yet, in accordance with my review policy, because I haven’t actually used it in play yet. So instead, here are 4 supplements – I’ve tried to restrict myself to things nominally in print at least (although getting physical copies of one of these might be a challenge!) – that are top-drawer and have seen action at my table recently.

Strongholds of Resistance (for FFG’s Star Wars: Age of Rebellion)

This is the one you might struggle to find in print. It’s worth it though – a selection of planets, a selection of rebel bases (including, of course, Echo Base on Hoth), three new player species (including the squid-faced Quarren as featured in the Mandalorian) and some equipment and options. What makes this stand out are the planets and bases – they are all dripping with gameable content, and even include a “what if this base is discovered / falls” section. The bases all have maps which can be used here, or even transplanted to another setting or system.

This book entirely inspired Snowblind, a one-shot around Echo Base, which is linked here.

Book of Demons (for 13th Age)

This is absolute gold. It kicks off with the Demonologist class, which has three very different options (if you’re familiar with the 13th Age Druid, it’s similar to that in that the role in the party can be anything depending on what you pick). There’s a great section on gamemastering demons, and then “Six Hell Holes” – adventure locations at different levels of challenge full of demons. Explicitly designed to be dropped into the game anywhere, this would be useful for any kind of fantasy game. 13th Age products somehow manage to make even their fluff easily usable in other games, and this doesn’t disappoint.

I’ve thrown stuff from this into 13th Age one-shots (although not for a while – I haven’t run 13th Age for too long!), including adding a melee-focussed demonologist as a pregen. 

Beta Quadrant Sourcebook (for Star Trek Adventures)

For those with limited Star Trek knowledge, the Beta Quadrant is probably what you’re expecting if you think Trek – the baddies are Romulans and (depending on the era) Klingons, you’ve got Orions and (my favourite) Gorn rolling around – it’s a wild frontier region of space, ripe for exploration yet still bucking up against other civilisations in the form of the Romulan Neutral Zone. Apart from details of each of these civilisations and some new player species, there’s some extra starships, and some adventure locations. The Briar Patch and the Shackleton Expanse (although for the latter you might want to get the bigger – and more adventure-led – book of the same name) are full of danger and peril.

Overall it’s just a great starter region for Star Trek, where the core book is a bit limited by offering any era of play. If you’re running Original Series or Next Generation, this is your essential next purchase.

I used this a lot in the first season of my ongoing Star Trek Adventures campaign, where they tussled along the Neutral Zone with a recurring Romulan Captain.

Starter Set (for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4th edition)

Is it cheating to put a starter set in here? Not in this case. Apart from the usual pregens, dice and an excellent adventure (Doing the Rounds), the 64-page Guide to Ubersreik is what sets this apart. Full details of the city, with adventure hooks in every location, both dripping in flavour and instantly gameable. Add to this that fully half of the Adventure Book is given over to single-page short adventures, this is the perfect primer for both what WFRP is all about, and how to make a city breathe and sing.

My WFRP one-shots have all been set in and around Ubersreik – there’s just enough material in here to expand one or more of them into a satisfying game.

So, what fantastic supplements can you recommend? Link them in the comments.

Split the Party

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

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

More Content!

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

In-party roleplaying in action

More (In-Party) Roleplaying!

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

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

More Verisimilitude!

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

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

How To Make It Happen

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

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

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

Getting Into Trouble

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

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

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

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

Even in the Dungeon…

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

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

Table Techniques: Sharing Narration

As I’ve blogged about before, my gaming is so deeply infested with indie/narrative approaches that I find it quite jarring to go back to a more traditional style of play – even when playing, say, D&D. One aspect of this approach is players describing more about their setting and actions – becoming more like directors of the scene than actors. It can add a lot to everyone’s enjoyment at the table, so here are a few techniques to get started on sharing player narration.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

I guess the first question is, why bother? What are the advantages? Well, I hope we’ve moved a long way from the GM-responsible-for-fun model of RPG delivery – everyone at the table needs to help. These structures let some of the description of the shared imagined space come from players, without jarring too much with the normal GM/player conversation. These techniques allow players to add awesomeness in really interesting ways, and for most of them there’s a sliding scale of how much invention they need to do. 

It’s more engaging – for everyone, since the GM isn’t always describing stuff, and adds ownership to the ongoing plot from your players too. Also, I wouldn’t save it up for experienced players – I’ve used all of these with folks new to the game, and they’ve not met with any resistance. If anything, it’s been more experienced grognards who’ve struggled with them sometimes. So, in a rough order of complexity from simplest to most advanced, here are four techniques to share narration around a bit.

Tell Me How The Orc Dies

Player: I swing my axe… and 18, and… 10 damage!

GM: Great, that’s the bugbear down – what does it look like?

Player: He lunges forward, but I duck to one side and stove the back of his head in!

The first step is to get players to narrate their successful final blows in combat. This lets us zoom in on the awesome shot of their victory like a slo-mo death move in a video game, and happens only occasionally enough to make it a non-onerous task. It also lets your players own their success, and takes away any nerves they may have about introducing complications – there’s no expectation that they do, just that they describe how their axe shatters the skull of their opponent.

If this technique has a down side, it’s that if used in isolation you can end up asking players for a lot of the same sort of narration. Players might start thinking they need a list of finishing blows ready, and feel put on the spot in an already high-adrenaline environment. Still, it’s an obvious way to get players to describe more awesome shizzle.

Why Didn’t You Cross the Chasm?

Player: Now, I’ll pick the lock on that door – and… a 12

GM: It’s DC 15, I’m afraid, you’re not going to get it open in time – why couldn’t you get it open, you’re a master thief, right?

Player: Ah… it’s been down this tomb so long, all the mechanisms are rusty – I’d need heavy-duty picks for that, and I lost mine down that chasm two weeks ago…

An alternative is to hand over the narrative reins when players fail their rolls. When they miss, or fail an important skill check, ask them how they failed – were they distracted, did they underestimate their foe, or did they succeed a bit too well so that it might as well be a failure?

This has the advantage that you’re giving something back – although they’ve failed the roll, they get a chance to control the manner of their failure still. I’ve used this and it’s led to some great background moments – in a recent WFRP game, their escape from the Guildmasters House was delayed by the halfling’s failed Stealth roll – he found the contents of the kitchen just too tempting to stop and raid the larder. Of such momentary flavour details, great sessions are made, and this certainly helps them.

This requires a bit more buy-in, particularly from more experienced trad players, since they may be wary to describe anything that might put them at a disadvantage later – and there’s often an expectation that, if you miss, that just happens and we move on – spotlighting moments of failure takes practice too.

Tell Me About The Elves…

GM: There’s a huge forge at the end of this chamber, although it’s not been lit in years – covered in offerings for Grundelin, the All-Smith.

Player 1: What sort of offerings?

GM: Ah – well, Darak Deathspeaker’s a dwarf, he might know about Grundelin – what kind of offerings?

Player 2: It’s mining and smithing tools, hammers and anvils – but they all have to be well-used, so broken or worn.

Player 1: I was hoping for piles of gold…

Another technique is to give players some ownership of their own PC backgrounds. If someone’s playing a dwarf and dwarvish customs or lore comes up, hand the question over to them – why do dwarves all drink beer then, Branwyn Fire-Druid? This has the benefit of taking place (usually) outside of pace-driven action encounters, so players may feel more comfortable taking time with descriptions and being given the spotlight, and it can add richness to cultures that (apart from said PC) may not be given much spotlight time in the world.

As a GM, of course, listen and reincorporate where you can down the line – plot hooks derived from these will be extra special for your players. This can be a tricky technique in lore-heavy games (or any game where “what year is it?” is a relevant question) – and be prepared to shoot down the adjacent player who pipes up with a canon answer. “Well actually, in the Forgotten Realms, Moon Elves wouldn’t eat meat….” “How would you know, you’re not a Moon Elf – continue”

Some Kind of Skill Check

GM: So, as you disrupt the ritual, the goblins flee in all directions as the roof caves in – you’ve got moments to get out of the cavern before you’re buried alive! How do you escape?

Player 1: I’ll leap between the falling rocks, dodging this way and that to the exit

Player 2: I’ll estimate where the safest route is – where the cavern looks most stable, using stonecunning.

Player 3: The goblins had Wargs, right? I’ll leap onto one of them and ride it out as it flees.

GM: Okay, that looks like Athletics and Animal Handling for sure. Stonecunning normally goes off Knowledge (History), sounds a bit weird but let’s go with it. DC 15 for each of you.

To use this, rather than having set skills or abilities in mind to tackle obstacles, give the players free rein as to how they tackle it. This requires some flexibility in obstacle design, but don’t overthink it – and don’t worry about making it too challenging. Combining this with a good method for perilous tribulations (see part 2 here) allows everyone a skill roll, and so democratises it a bit. It can work in published adventures too – in a recent D&D game in Icewind Dale (using the published Rime of the Frostmaiden adventure) the PCs escaped a frost giant skeleton-infested cave by slingshotting a cauldron over the ice. 

A potential disadvantage of this is that, while you want to keep the difficulties low enough that their clever plans succeed more than they fail, players may only want to use their good skills. To mitigate this, have some other skill rolls in the adventure that use set rolls, and don’t be flexible all the time – make them roll that Stealth check sometimes.

So there you have it, four techniques to bring player narration into your games. Have you any other approaches? Let me know in the comments.