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.

Auntie Wu’s Tea House – a Hearts of Wulin One-Shot

Hearts of Wulin is Gauntlet Publishing’s PBTA game of wuxia melodrama – swords, romance, and, crucially, inner conflict. A lot of the APs available (and there are loads on the Gauntlet’s YouTube channel) focus on campaign play – so I sketched out a one-shot and ran it twice. Once face-to-face, at Revelation, and once online at Virtual Grogmeet 2022.

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!

Revelation is a PBTA con (report here), so I was assuming some relative knowledge of these kind of games – so we did character generation at the table, exactly as in the book. The notes below assume this. For Virtual Grogmeet, I couldn’t be as sure (and indeed, I had one player entirely new to PBTA) – so, inspired by the Avatar: Legends adventure book, sketched out some pregens.

Entanglements are the Bonds / Hx / whatever of Hearts of Wulin, and they’re absolutely key to getting the sorts of games it generates – in play I think the plot was about 40% external forces, and 60% players pursuing them. They’re really cleverly designed – you get a few to pick from for each playbook, and everyone gets one “general” and one “romantic” one. Each one has one PC and one NPC in it. They took a bit of time at Revelation, so for the second play-through, I sketched them out – picking the NPC but allowing the players to choose which PC they wanted in it.

For example, one of the PCs, Eagle Sentinel, an Aware (Travelling Teacher), had the following Entanglements:

  • I love Wu Chao (Aunti Wu’s ward), who I have overlooked too long; now they love [PC]
  • I suspect my friend [PC]’s parent is the villain White Fang Chu

They could, of course, swap the PC and NPC positions in these. This worked really well to get everyone on the same page quickly, and they always lead to excellent play. One tip if you’ve only got 3 players (which I had for both games) is to read the familial ties loosely – siblings need not be related, parents need be parents in name only – since you’ll have quite a tight web of romance. For Virtual Grogmeet, I used the Gauntlet’s excellent Character Keeper, and just let them roll their own dice.

So, below are my prep notes – I hope these are useful if you want to run it yourselves, or at least it helps for those “how exactly do you prep PBTA?” questions.

Auntie Wu’s Tea House

A One-Shot for Hearts of Wulin

Nestled in an isolated pass, the only route through the World’s Edge Mountains for miles, Auntie Wu’s has been a staple of the Wulin world. Warriors come to meet, drink tea, and … occasionally… to fight. But now, with the Army of the North massing behind the World’s Edge, you’ve been sent to persuade Auntie Wu and her household to withdraw – for surely the Army will overrun her. Will she listen to her? Will you obey your orders? Who among the encroaching army do you know already, and why did you not expect to fall in love with them again?

PCs & Setup

Follow the usual procedure after creation (no extra moves yet)

  • Go round and introduce their PC’s look and style
  • Go round and do Entanglements 1 each. Make a note of any new NPCs – the others can be on the table with their descriptions. Note that each Entanglement must involve 1 PC and 1 NPC
  • Choose a Bond with 1 of the characters in each Entanglement

In the opening scenes, get any extra NPCs on screen ASAP.

TWO PCs (A and B) have been sent from Magistrate Chen with a message for Auntie Wu – the army is already engaged on the Eastern Front, and they should fall back. Auntie Wu should evacuate her tea house and flee.

A – Why have you been trusted with this mission, and B – why are you reluctant to carry it through?

TWO PCs (C and D) have just escaped from capture in the Army of the North, and have been creeping up to safety

A – How did you escape from this mighty army, and B – what is their greatest weakness?

Opening Scenes 

In both of these make sure to bring in any additional NPCs from Entanglements as soon as possible – 

We begin with A and B as they settle in at the tea house and are brought soup. They can see the tea house shift into the evening, as baiju and beer is brought out, and Stone Ox Wu approaches them

Will you share your mission immediately, or wait and enjoy the hospitality of the evening?

Stone Ox Wu approaches them and asks their business – he then asks them to drink with him! This could well be an Impress move, or perhaps a Hearts and Minds if they stake their mission straightaway

Meanwhile, C and D are approaching from the North, climbing through the mountains. As they move through the quiet village towards Auntie Wu’s, they are not alone – there are soldiers here, carrying weapons and fire sticks. It seems that they are interrupting an ambush!

Do you alert the inhabitants or take out the ambushers yourself

As the ambush strikes, the tea house roof is (probably) set on fire – an Overcome move to tackle. Hordes of soldiers provide more than enough for some PCs to Deal with Troops, and they are led by Peerless Falcon and/or Sergeant Cheng and any other NPCs who could conceivably be with the Army of the North

Middle Scenes

After a period of respite,

  • The PCs could get aid from the Bandits, led by Number One Sword – could he help to protect, or shelter the villagers
  • They may want to seek help – or wisdom – from Harmonious Jade in his monastery
  • Both of these could provide allies 
  • They could investigate and try and sabotage the advancing army. The outer camps are run by Sergeant Cheng who has them in good order but could be convinced
  • Encourage them to also pursue their Entanglements, and remember to trigger Inner Conflict when appropriate

Possible additional “bangs” for these scenes include

  • Auntie Wu / another NPC has fallen ill! She needs herbs from the gardens at the foothills – near the army’s camps… or maybe Harmonious Jade can help her
  • Constable Cheng arrives, angry at A and B for failing to carry out their orders – why has the village not been evacuated?
  • Betrayal is discovered! A guest left an army seal, and a map of the grounds has been found on a messenger. Should they be punished or sent as a message?

Finale

The likely end point is a pitched battle – try and pair PCs off with potential scenes individually, including rallying the peasant army (Impress would be the move for this), fighting various NPCs or Troops, or dealing with betrayal

Possible Finale Bangs include

  • An ally (Number One Sword / Wu Chao / Stone Ox Wu) switches sides – for reasons established in previous narrative – can they be convinced of their error or punished?
  • Fire sticks! The houses around the Tea House are on fire! Villagers panic and rush to save their belongings instead of defending against the army
  • Any remaining Entanglement NPCs show up and cause trouble

NPCs

Auntie Wu, middle aged proprietor – wants only for things to stay the same, her tea house to be safe, and her daughters to be happily married off

Hunchbacked, carries a tray of tea or a walking stick

Sensory: The smell of jasmine, a calming influence

Schtick – crouch low and hunchbacked and nestle your hands around an imaginary cup of tea

Wu Chao, Auntie Wu’s neice – wants to escape her Aunt’s clutches and seek adventure – which probably doesn’t involve being married

Beautiful, porcelain-skinned, fights with flowing robes

Sensory: Serene and quiet, with a twinkle in her eye

Schtick: Winks conspiratorially at anyone (e.g. the PCs) who might be fun

Number One Sword – chief of the World’s Edge bandits, wants his tribe to be safe and money and riches

Bearded, powerful, wields a curved blade with symbols down its length

Sensory: Shouts orders as he appears suddenly, smells of sweat and booze

Schtick: Sit up straight and shout slightly at all times

Peerless Falcon – Captain of the Army of the North, charged with capturing the pass

SCALE 2 FIGHTER

Slender, armored, glowing – wields a pair of curved knives which he also throws

Schtick: Pauses for thought before replying slowly

Sergeant Cheng – a junior officer in the Army of the North

Stout, careful, taciturn. Wields a curved halberd. Is not entirely convinced of the Army’s cause.

Schtick: Looks worried and plays with his moustache

Stone Ox Wu, Auntie Wu’s son- wants to protect the Tea House at all costs

Huge, bald-headed, angry – wields a massive hammer

Schtick: Bellows and drinks Baiju from a glass whenever he can

Harmonious Jade – monk who lives in the World’s Edge mountains, whose monastery is famously neutral

SCALE 2 FIGHTER

Tall, portly, laughing – quick to smile. Fights unarmed

Schtick: Laughs and giggles at all times

Constable Cheng – imperious busybody constable who just likes to check on order

Fights with a staff

Schtick: Looks down on everyone and everything

If It All Goes Quiet…

Use these options at any time when it looks like there’s nothing going on, or if the PCs are reluctant to engage

Men with Knives!

  • A group of bandits/audacious soldiers have snuck into the camp to steal what they can before the serious looters arrive – have a PC discover them and them be offered a share of the loot

Big Blade Huang

  • A warrior of audacious skill visits the tea house; he has no interest in defending it, seeing beating an army as beneath him
  • Trigger the Deal With Misunderstanding move on p110 of the book (nb this is also where the Deal With Grief move is, which you’ll need if someone wanders off)

Avalanche!

  • The army’s explosives have triggered an avalanche to crush the tea house – can they get the villagers to safety?

Burn After Reviewing

I said something on Twitter yesterday that sparked some debate – and, twitter being twitter, I didn’t quite get the full message of it across, so I’m posting it here as well. This post, because it feeds into a current debate, is going out on Patreon and the public blog at the same time – don’t worry, Patreons, you’ll be getting more early access content soon!

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

I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about putting reviews on here – at the start, they were really a way to muse on one-shots with a clear framework – but I can’t deny they’re popular. Even looking at 2021’s stats, my 6th highest hit was for a review posted in, er, 2020. There’s a D&D effect in that, too – but it’s the same whenever I post one. They are also relatively easy to write, because I’ve never been too thorough in them – certainly easier than writing an adventure or a set of advice on a specific game – and always get a fair number of hits straightaway.

That said, this isn’t a review site. First up, I only ever review things I like – I’ve no interest in being a critic, and there’s enough good stuff out there that I don’t feel the need to talk about the bad. I’ve received exactly one review copy of anything in my life – and I’ve not reviewed it yet. I’ve stuck reviews into a format that is deliberately incomplete – I’m interested in what I’d do with the product as a one-shot, not covering all the content but a broad-brush impression. So after some thinking, I’m changing how review posts work on Burn After Running.

After Play Only

Film critic Barry Norman, who used to watch the films before he reviewed them

Henceforth, I’m only going to post ‘reviews’ of products I’ve played (as a GM or player). Most of my reviews have been like this anyway (for example, this one of Agon) but a fair few haven’t (see Ravnica, Theros, or Starfinder – although I’ve since played all three of those products). I’m going to try and put some focus on the play experience – what could be gleaned from the game that was surprising even after a read-through, which will of course cover some – but not all – of the content of the product.

But I’ll also be looking at how I ran it, or how it felt as a player. Where I’ve written a one-shot for the game, I’ll share that one-shot. If it’s a published adventure, I usually write up notes as part of my prep, and if you’re a Patreon, you’re welcome to get access to those as well on request. If I twisted some rules or encounters around, I’ll put that in as well. 

This also means some completeness (well, even more) will be sacrificed. If you want a thorough review of the content of the book, informed by years of gaming experience and from a thorough read-through, these won’t be it. Instead I’d direct you to Reviews from R’luyeh if you want words, or Bud’s RPG Review if Youtube is your bag – other content creators are available too.

Does This Mean Less Reviews?

Food critic Jay Rayner, who generally eats the food at the restaurant before he reviews it

Well, no. I think a consequence of this is that when I’ve run something, I’ll most likely (assuming it wasn’t a disaster) put up a post about it. In essence I’ll be merging the “Review” posts and the “How to run X” posts, which will hopefully make it a bit easier to cover more games here.

So, for example, I’m nearing completion of the ‘prelude’ to Shadows Over Bogenhafen with my regular group, so expect a write-up of Mistaken Identity soon – there’s some really clever stuff in the design of this adventure that I didn’t realise until I saw it at the table, and I have made a few significant changes as well. 

I’ve run through all of Vaesen’s A Wicked Secret series of mysteries, and I have strong views on which of them make great (and not so great) candidates for running. I’ve got con games of Masks and Hearts of Wulin coming up this weekend, and I expect to share notes and thoughts on those as well – Masks in particular I’m trying a double-table crossover campaign, so we’ll see how that plays out!

Can You Review After A One-Shot?

Yes. While some games might really sing in a longer-form game, so much more is revealed even from 2 hours at the table, that you can see how that would roll out. Some of these will be one-shot reviews – this still lets me comment on the important bit, which is what I changed and what I would change in the future.

On that note, I’ve not run nearly enough one-shots yet – we seem, though, to be moving out of the liminal post-pandemic zone into one where people might actually meet up and play games more, so expect more to come. If you’re a Patron and would like a one-shot of something I’ve talked about, message me and we’ll try to sort something out!

Prep Techniques: The Boss Monster

Good antagonist design isn’t just essential for good TTRPG sessions, it can be something you base your whole session on – even if it’s a convention one-shot. I’m going to look at a method to build a session outwards from an antagonist, including looking at some rules tweaks that you might want to put in if your system isn’t as great at supporting solo monsters.

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

In previous Prep Techniques posts, I’ve looked at 5-Room Dungeons, Sly Flourish’s Method, Three Places, Con Pitches and a Bag of Tricks. Here, I’m going to talk about using an antagonist as a starting point for your one-shot or session. This turns traditional adventure prep on its head – and gives you a stock of prep material that should let you run a flexible session, with multiple routes to take down the antagonist.

First, the Fluff

Let’s talk about the boss’s background first. Who is he and what’s his plan? What does he want to do, why is it terrible, and why can’t the PCs ignore it? A good starting point is one or more of the PCs – can you link them to their backstory to make the players care about the antagonist? If you’re in an ongoing campaign, think about linking him with previous sessions, or foreshadowing future plans.

Your boss should be tough fight, even if they’re on their own. Clever plots or schemes from the players should have the option of getting to them without his supporters – and they should still be a challenge then. So think about levels of power – they need to be a threat!

They aren’t going to be alone though, so have between 1 and 3 lieutenants – minor monsters that support him, who can be a challenge with support themselves. These lieutenants should be distinct in terms of powers and personalities from the boss – if the boss is an archmage, make his lieutenants warlords or combat monsters.

Antagonist-based plotting is a staple of superhero gaming, but it can also be used for any TTRPG genre

Plan for the PCs to deal with a lieutenant first, maybe even as the hook to discover the boss’ plans. Also, think about what their weakness is – even if it’s a tendency to monologue – and a way the PCs can find this out and use it to their advantage.

Next, the Crunch

To have a truly effective boss in a fight, you might need to bend or break your game’s action economy. In D&D, consider using Matt Colville’s excellent Villain Actions hack, so your boss can act multiple times a round – and in another system consider giving them 2 or more actions each round. If you don’t feel like doing this, or your boss has multiple attacks already, consider spreading them out across the round – you want to keep the spotlight on them during the fight, rather than it feeling like the PCs have all the actions.

They also need to be hard to kill. This might mean just more hp, or some sort of special rule. I’m a fan of Feng Shui 2’s boss rule – when they would go down, roll 1d6, and you need to get an odd result to actually defeat them. It adds a level of jeopardy and pressure to a fight and distinguishes them from lesser enemies.

As you’ve got the lieutenants sorted, almost any boss should have a numberless supply of minions – these can be added to any encounters liberally to balance to the right level of challenge you desire. With minions, I like them to sometimes be much easier to defeat than normal – don’t be afraid to send your 5th level PCs up against hordes of kobolds – often with the boss’ supporting powers they might be a challenge, and usually some PCs will still want to deal with the minions.

Third, the Adventure

Now, you want to think about some key scenes. I’d recommend having a starting scene fully prepped, where they learn about the boss’ plans in some way – maybe a fight with some minions, or one of the lieutenants. And think about mid-scenes, where they might take down a lieutenant or learn the boss’ weakness. By combining lieutenants and minions in a few different ways, you can have some options for different opposition they could face along the way.

You’ll want around 3 locations along the way that could lead to the showdown, and some things that could happen to the environment there. Some of these – or some of the lieutenants – can lend themselves to non-combat challenges (if you’re looking for rules to support these, try here or here) – that you can steer towards. Make some plans for the final confrontation – this needs to be a showcase fight scene, so bear in mind the advice here for building it.

So far, your adventure prep will look a bit like this list… next week, I’ll post up some examples for a few different systems!

BOSS PROFILE

Name:

Goal & why the PCs care:

“Secret” weakness:

Description:

Lieutenants (1-3):

Mid-range Antagonists:

Minions:

Locations:

Potential non-combat challenges: