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

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

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Best advice for running D&D for new players

Bring All The Stuff, Make Friends

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

1st Level is Fine

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

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

Keep it As Simple As You Can

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

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

Teach Core Concepts First

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

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

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

Model What To Do

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

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

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

Get the Action / Roleplay Balance Right

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

Minis: You Do You

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

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

Enjoy it!

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

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

D&D5e One-Shots, Part 1: Getting Started

Previously, I told everyone they should be running D&D5e one-shots. Here, I shared some of my techniques for pregens, as well as some actual pregens. In the next few posts, I’m going to actually talk about what techniques and tricks I use to make D&D5e one-shots sing, starting with the start of the session. For this post, I’m assuming that you’re running for players who have played D&D or another tabletop RPG before – my next post will be about players who are completely brand new.

Pregens / Characters

D&D5e is unusual in that, thanks to Adventurer’s League, often players will expect to be able to bring their own characters to the table. Also, if they have D&D Beyond, they can probably whip up a character in 10 minutes to your spec. I try to embrace this as much as I can – if I advertise a game, I’ll be clear that although I’ll bring pregens, if they’ve got (standard array) characters at the right level, I’m happy to have them instead. They do have to meet that spec though – no “I randomly rolled these stats,” or “My sorcerer is 4th level instead of 2nd, is that still ok?” – again, with the app it’s really easy to make those adjustments, so they should be at least initially balanced to the other PCs.

I usually turn up with a selection of my own pregens, a few extras from the excellent FastCharacter website, and let them pick. Running D&D, of course, that you might well have players who really know the system – so if they want to adapt or change stuff from a pregen, they can usually just go ahead and do it.

Forming a Party

This does mean that you can often have a fairly disparate band of PCs at the start of the session. I’m blogged here about using charged questions to help bring groups together, but I’ve recently started using Backstory Cards, and these have worked really well to not only tie a group together but also tie them to the setting.

With Backstory Cards, you have a few lists of individuals, groups, and locations, and then ask questions of the players to establish some shared history. With a set of cards, they can be drawn at random by the players, but I just pick some interesting questions from the cards and my lists, and manage it so that everyone gets some screen time.

Example questions might include:

  • Pools, you and Fuuwde did something in Hightower that at least one of you regrets, or is ashamed of. What lengths will you go to hide it?
  • Van Erp, your allegiances aren’t clear when it comes to the Dock Rats thieves’ guild. How did Jansora find out? What don’t they know?

As you can see the questions are pretty multi-levelled – I’m not too bothered if we don’t get right to the bottom of the question – just spitballing a heist in Hightower that went wrong will be enough to bond the players together. I use a mixture of groups, individuals and places from the one-shot itself, and peripheral to it – so, although the city watch might not specifically be mentioned in the scenario, they are around, and having some history with them means they can be on stage during scenes as much as the players (and I) want.

I do this straight after an introduction – so the start of the session looks like this:

  • players go round the table and introduce their PC’s name, race, class, and anything obvious they have set in their mind about them
  • we do the backstory cards – making sure that each PC gets some screen time. I’ll use this to drip-feed anything important about the setting, too, as they do this – sometimes I’ll amend my prep notes as well if something particularly juicy comes out
  • players introduce their PCs properly. I get them to do this like an opening montage in a cheesy TV series, like Robin of Sherwood or Quantum Leap – we see each PC in the middle of an action scene from a previous (or future) adventure, doing something that defines them in some way

This all of course takes a bit of time, but it’s well spent. At the end of this process (which I normally budget about 30 minutes for, longer if players faff around with their characters) you should have an adventuring party, rather than a collection of individuals. I’ve lost count of how many one-shots (and D&D is over-represented here) where half an hour in I still didn’t know the character names of my fellow PCs.

So that’s my approach for the start of the session. In my next post, I’ll talk about running D&D one-shots for players that are completely brand new to Tabletop RPGs, which simplifies some of these ideas a bit.

D&D One Shots: Pregens

After my last post on the why of running D&D one-shots, I’m now going to start on the how. My next post will be about prep and play at the table, but I’m going to focus on one aspect of prep today: the pregens. I’ve blogged before about making successful pregens for a one-shot, but this is just about my D&D approach.

I don’t like the D&D character sheet for one-shots. It’s not alone; I don’t like many ‘offical’ character sheets for one-shot play. They aren’t really designed for the same function – they are worksheets for long-term play that can account for hours of character development, equipment gain and loss, and notes. There’s just too much on them.

So, after some requests from followers, I’m going to share my 2nd level D&D pregens for a one-shot that I ran recently. I’ve tried to make them as straightforward and easy-to-use as possible. I have a bit of a tin eye for design (GCSE Grade D – I blame the teacher) but I hope I’ve made them as clean and consistent as I can. There’s a few things that bear explaining

LAI of the sea hagSkills & Spells

Now that there are Spell Cards for D&D, I don’t as a rule select spells for my pregens – the player can just pick out the cards they want to use, or use their PHB if they’ve got it. You’ll see on these that there’s everything ready except the spells. I’m also pretty flexible in play if players want to swap out spells that they know – if they haven’t cast it yet, they’ve not committed.

Skill bonuses are only on if they are different from the default stat bonus. This does mean that, as GM, you need to remember that Wisdom is the base stat for Perception, but it makes the sheets much cleaner.

I haven’t put Passive Perception on the sheets. I’m not a fan. I’d rather the players rolled Perception against an opponent’s Passive Stealth – dice rolls are better for the players.

Gender, Weapons, Equipment

I used to try and have a mix of genders for my pregens. I’ve moved on. My pregens now can be whatever gender their player wants them to be. I try and pick names that are suitably flexible – and, obviously, the names are optional too.

The weapons can similarly be swapped out by the players if they want to – and I usually go with letting them have whatever they want for the same stats. Want to have a broadsword instead of the axe? Yeah, whatever, just use the same stats. Change the damage type if you must – but, again, it often doesn’t make that much difference.

I don’t give my pregens equipment. They have what they can be reasonably expected to have. If something sounds dubious, or a stretch, they can always make a check for a loosely relevant skill to see if they remembered it. I do this in every game where equipment isn’t really a feature of play.

Personality, Ideals, Bonds, Flaws

I don’t use these for one-shots. Instead, I do a shared party set-up similar to the one I talked about here to give them a shared history as a group and some emergent backstory – more on that in my next post. I just find that they run a little deep for what will come out in a one-shot – it’s better to give the PCs links to things and events they will actually encounter, whether that be their fellow PCs or important parts of the adventure.

2nd Level Pregens

These are my 2nd level pregens, which I used to run Maryska Connolly’s excellent Lai of the Sea Hag from Uncaged Vol. 1. Some of them use races from Volo’s, just because I realised I’d not used it yet, but there should be enough information on the sheets to use them without.

Tiefling Rogue

Bugbear Barbarian

Human Fighter

Tabaxi Bard

Tiefling Rogue

Dwarf Paladin

Dragonborn Wizard

More to Come…

Next post, I’ll talk about some techniques for running D&D one-shots, including how to deal with players bringing their own PCs, and balancing combat (hint: ignore 50% of what it says in the DMG).

Why Aren’t You Running D&D One Shots?

Periodically, a discussion starts online like this –

“I have a friend / colleague / partner / child who wants to try D&D. What should I run for them that’s a good introduction to the hobby?”

…and the discussion then proceeds with lots of helpful advice about what system to use, people suggesting their favourites – D100 because the probabilities are easy, Fate because the narrative aspects are easy to grab, Fighting Fantasy because they’ll know the system from the books, that sort of thing.

And they’re all wrong.

If somebody wants to play D&D, you should run D&D for them. It’s not complex, and is (finally – in its current edition) a really intuitive, straightforward, balanced system. As a wider hobby, those of us who run non-D&D games need to get over ourselves that D&D can’t be as good as our favourite game just because it’s popular, and maybe consider that actually that popularity might be in fact because it’s really quite good.

For the first time in the history of the hobby, it’s staggeringly easy to ‘get into’ D&D – Critical Role and similar AP series have made people realise how much fun it can be, and it gets generally sympathetic media coverage. So, we should just accept that D&D is a good entry point to the hobby – yes, of course, there are other games, but D&D is one of those games.

But everybody else runs D&D!

Unless your local area has a flourishing, and welcoming, D&D Adventurers League, I’d counter this that there aren’t all that many people running D&D One-Shots. There are lots of D&D Campaigns going on, but even a quick review of Adventurer’s League shows that the vast majority of adventures featured are designed to be slotted into an ongoing campaign. As previously discussed, the one-shot format (and ideally the short-one-shot format) is an easier way for newcomers to access the hobby.

But I don’t like D&D!

Don’t you? How much D&D5e have you played, or run? I know people who aren’t keen on the fantasy genre, which is fair enough, but a lot of people who claim to not like D&D tend to hold this view from previous editions. I mean, certainly, don’t run the game if you don’t like it, but be open about that, and tell your potential hobbyist that your reluctance to run D&D is because of your own tastes, and not that…

But D&D Is Rubbish! It’s not as good / realistic / fun as Runequest / Fate / Dungeon World!

Look, D&D doesn’t do all genres well. But it does do D&D Fantasy very well – as you might expect. It emulates its own genre perfectly, if you like. Sure, see previous answer, but if you have somebody who is keen to engage with the hobby, telling them that the one thing they are interested in isn’t as good as another game with lower exposure isn’t going to draw them into the hobby. Run D&D first. Then you can tell them about Runequest, if they’re into ducks.

D&D Is Too Complicated!

character sheet comparison

It’s not. One of the great design aspects in D&D5e is that the first two levels are training levels for each of the classes. First level D&D is really easy to play, 2nd level adds in one or two more options, and it’s not until 3rd that PCs really start to get some complexity and depth. Even then, it’s a nice balance where system mastery is much less important than in many other games, so it’s much more forgiving for the new player to pick up.

I do think that a lot of D&D Character Sheets look too complicated – I’ve been working on my own designs that look like the picture here (I copied them off (I think) someone from Critical Role who posted a photo of their sheets for a one-shot) – and will be posting more on this site over the next few weeks.

So Run Some D&D

So, if I can implore you, rather than complain about everyone wanting to play D&D and how they aren’t interested in your favourite system, just run some D&D. In my next post, I’ll cover some ways to make it work – because of the exposure and expected play styles, D&D one shots are a little bit different to other games.

And don’t look down your noses at D&D – it’s not becoming for the hobby for us to throw our game vs. game wars at newcomers, and as well D&D5e is really really good. I’m spending some time over the summer making sure I always have some D&D ready to run – in part because I have a few friends who are interested, and I want their first D&D experience – and their first TTRPG experience – to be awesome.

Running at Conventions, Part 2: Bringing the Bling

In Part 1, I talked about beating the nerves before a con game. I’m now going to tacle another part of prep – the bling that you can bring to the table. I have to admit first off that I’m not always the biggest fan of bling. Bling for bling’s sake is no good, and it’s absolutely no substitute for a well prepared game with engaging pregens and NPCs. I’ve been in a few games where there were plastic standees and pretty maps, but no core plot, and they didn’t fix the game.

I’m going to split bling into three sections – Must-Haves, Setting, and System. Must-Haves, as you might expect, are the things you need to run the game – which often have some bling within them. Setting bling helps your players to understand the world, while System bling helps them understand the rules.

Must-Haves

character sheet comparison

D&D5e sheet. I think his Acrobatics bonus is wrong, now I look at it

You need character sheets. Most games, these are pregens. You’ve got a number of options – whatever the system provides, either written on with your neatest handwriting or form-filled in a .pdf, or ones of your own design. I’ve seen some nice pregen sheets where the GM has used photoshop to design a flavourful sheet that gets into genre. I don’t do this. I tend to use my own sheets, but it’s usually on Word, and I try to prioritise clarity at the table over looking pretty. I’m proud of my D&D5e character sheets – which I think I borrowed heavily from a twitter post from a Critical Role-er – and if you can get a clear, clean sheet, that wins for me. I sometimes laminate – if I’m going to use them more than once, I almost always do.

You need dice, pencils. Wipe-pens if your sheets are laminated. Don’t assume that all players will bring these things – in any given con game, at least two won’t bring anything. Specialist dice, you need enough for a big pile in the middle of the table – and be aware of dice requirements even for traditional dice. When I run 13th Age at 4th level+, I make sure I’ve got stacks of d8s, for instance – similarly for Marvel Heroic or other Cortex games, it’s d8s that often run short. For a d6 dice pool system, having a couple of blocks that are the same colour makes it easy to distinguish yours from the players’ when they have to borrow them.

(For Marvel Heroic, when I used to run it a lot, I had a 6-piece rubber muffin tin for my dice, each one filled with d4 – d6 – d8 – d10 – d12 – plot point tokens so that players could easily assemble their handful-of-dice for each task)

You need water (to drink, if that isn’t obvious), and I consider a stack of index cards (either card or wipeable) essential, too. For initiative, for writing down NPC names and sticking in the middle of the table, for Fate Aspects, for writing down player and PC names.

Setting Bling

Different settings sometimes require bling – although I’m not a huge fan of character portraits as I prefer to leave it up to my players to set the appearance of their character. There are compelling arguments either way though!

My usual setting bling just runs to some picture sheets that give some ideas for what various things in the setting might look like. I adapted (stole) the idea from Gaz of the Smart Party, who in a Tales from the Loop game got some of the evocative Simon St̴lenhag photos to add to the mood of the table. I use them in a more direct way Рwhen I run Glorantha (usually 13G) I have a Friends sheet, that shows what Ducks and Trolls look like, along with some Orlanthi so the players have some idea what they might look like, and a Foes sheet with Walktapi, Broo, and Scorpion Men on.

You can get play mats printed of course, and the Big Book of Battle-Maps looks like an amazing investment if you use that sort of thing (even without grids, it’s often useful to be able to position PCs in the action). I try to have pictures of NPCs ready, but often I don’t – I do have name cards to put into the middle of the table, to avoid all the players having to write down someone’s name when they meet them (and often ask how to spell it).

Other useful setting bling, aside from character art and standees, include lists of names. Even when I’m fully prepped, I’ll often have to name NPCs on the fly, for when the players decide to interview a previously-unimportant bystander, and it’s nearly impossible to get names at short notice. I’m a fan of Fantasy Name Generators and the Story-Games Names Project to get my lists from, but there are many others out there.

System Bling

bling

Some of my bling. I need a bigger ARU.

I’ve written about this before, in posts about running Fate and Conan one-shots, but here’s my general rule: if players (including yourself) have an economy they spend and need to track, they should have something to track it with.

I usually use simple glass beads, purchased as huge job lot from Dice Shop Online when I was running Tenra Bansho Zero and needed up to a hundred, but it’s nice if you can get something thematically appropriate. I have Campaign Coins for Fantasy games (Fate and Fortune points in WHFRP, Fortune in 7th Sea 2nd ed.) and little plastic skulls to track Doom in Conan 2d20. All Rolled Up sell lots of things you can use for this, including plastic counters you can draw your own symbols on that can be used for loads of things.

Cards are also incredibly useful, and it’s always worth a quick poke around the internet before running a game, as often people will have produced them already, even if there aren’t ‘official’ ones available. I wouldn’t dream of running Mouse Guard without the Action Deck, because it makes selecting your three-rounds-in-advance combat actions so straightforward, and there’s something awesome about giving a player a condition and handing them the card with them on.

One-sheet rules summaries are really useful, too. I like to make my own for behind the screen with rules I’m likely to forget (healing rules, usually, or the ‘what happens at 0hp’ question – things that are important but rarely come up). If the players have resources to spend, I’d strongly suggest that they need a sheet telling them what they can spend them on – this can just be a printout of that bit of the .pdf. If your game has critical hits or fumbles, having them printed out so the player can roll on them is better than them having you look them up in the book for them – if it’s feasible to have printouts of these.

All these things can, of course, be laminated, and that will make them re-usable for lots of games. All of which does add up to The Grognard Files’ claim that convention games are a conspiracy by stationers’ and printer manufacturers – we will get through a lot of ink to get these things ready. But they’re worth it, and you can pick and choose which you think is right.

Is there anything I’ve missed? Bling at the convention table has increased in my experience just in the last couple of years, while at the same time miniatures seem to be less common – what’s the best bling you’ve seen at the table?

I’ll be returning to talk about Convention Gaming in a few months – in the meantime, I have some reviews to get posted up. As always, if there’s anything you’d like to see on the blog, drop a comment here or get me on Twitter @milnermaths.

Running at Conventions, Part 1: Beating the Nerves

I’m just back from UK Games Expo, the UK’s biggest games convention, one of the highlights of which was hearing The Smart Party (plus Grognard Files and Jackson Elias representatives) talk about Running Games at Conventions. My most recent post about pregen prep even got a shout out, and you can just about hear my mumbling across the floor talking about 13th Age, and Con games being a lot about demoing/teaching the game.

One comment in particular stood out for me – Paul Fricker talked about getting nervous before convention games. It’s reassuring to hear someone who runs all the time talk about it! A quick twitter survey revealed a big diversity of reactions from those of us who regularly GM at conventions, from those who didn’t really get it any more, to those who find it a major issue.

And it is. To run a game in front of strangers, in a fixed time slot, in a strange place, is challenging. Myself, I still get a frisson of edginess before I run a game – much less than I used to, and I’m trying to explain how I minimise it in these posts. I used to worry terribly about con games, but I’ve got it down now to a positive shot of adrenaline, like Paul has, and I think this is how….

1. Accept That It’s Not Easy – and Do The Human Stuff

Running a con game is not going to be easy. Leaving all the nonsense about the GM being responsible for everyone’s fun aside (they aren’t), you still have responsibility for the social contract, for making sure everyone is comfortable, and for bringing the character sheets. I know some very, very experienced GMs who flat out don’t run at conventions – for them the pay-off isn’t worth the stress. Just by pitching up to do it, you’re taking the first step – and it’s impossible that any of your players could do a better job, or they’d be doing it instead.

Indeed, everyone at the table should want you to succeed, and if they don’t, then you shouldn’t care what they think. For me, it’s not so much the social balancing of running for strangers, as it’s the balancing of running for a mixture of friends and strangers – I can’t recall a time I’ve run a con game where there weren’t people who were already familiar with each other at the table.

So do the human stuff. Get everyone to introduce themselves, even if some of them know each other – especially if some of them know each other. I have what is almost a script at the start of each game that covers practical stuff – we will finish to time (I usually finish early, especially in a 4 hour slot), we’ll have 1 or 2 breaks, if you need a break just shout out, if you need a comfort break just go (we’re not in school, are we?), that sort of thing. I used to write bullet points with these things on, so if you think you might forget, do that. Let everyone get drinks or snacks or go to the bathroom before you start, and check everyone is ready to go before you start.

2. Know Your Stuff

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Always plastic poppers

The one thing that still gives me nerves is the practical stuff. At Games Expo, I hadn’t run games there before, and there were a few things to navigate – a booking system via the app to book player tickets in, running times for the slots, where the rooms were – that were my primary sources of stress before the game. 13th Age Glorantha is a crunchy, narratively open system, but I’ve run it plenty of times before. Finding the Windsor room, or booking tickets in on the Expo app, were new to me.

So before most cons I have a cheat sheet about practical stuff. It has slot timings for games, things written down like “find the room” before the slot I need to be in it, and notes on anything I need to do like book players in or order food. This is an A4 sheet that gets folded up and put in the same pocket every time, and it’s there so I can check it if I need to (I usually don’t, like so many things the process of making it is the end product).

All my game prep goes into a plastic popper wallet, pregens, any maps I’m using, index cards if I need them, the rulebook if it’s small. Just like the photo. It’s always a plastic popper wallet so I can glance in my bag and be sure that it’s a game in there. Routines, rituals. I get to the game space early – ridiculously early in the case of Expo, because I wasn’t running anything in the slot previous – and unpack. I scan my notes and highlight anything I need to remember, and sometimes even pick out extra bullet points – all to internalise it as much as possible immediately before running.

3. Know Your Rules

Rules one-sheets are your friend! For many systems you can find them on the internet, but making them is a process that is worthwhile in itself. In condensing the rules I need to know onto a side of A4, I internalise rules and exceptions and build confidence for the game. The aim is to not have to open a book at the table (I have the book in my bag – I’m not infallible!) in ‘normal’ play.

Things that often need to be on this – rules for healing (usually a completely different system to the rest of the game), what happens at 0 hp (your health tracker may vary), the rules for PCs assisting other PCs (again, an exception rule that comes up an awful lot in play). There are others depending on the game; so for 13th Age, I have a list of the conditions so I don’t need to remember what Dazed or Vulnerable actually means.

4. Have Contingencies

I try to make sure I can handle, if needed, from 3 up to n+1 players, where n is the number I advertised for. At Expo I’d heard rumours of drop-outs, so promoted my games for 6 players hoping I’d get 4 or 5, and had one game of 3 and one game of 6, so this didn’t exactly work how I’d planned, but I’d prepped for every option.

In a crunchy game like 13th Age or D&D, I have encounters scaled for each option of number of players – in other, simpler, games, it’s easier to wing it. I try to have some ‘collapsible’ scenes as well that can be easily cut (or rooms, if it’s a location-based adventure like a dungeon – in case I need to cut to the end of the adventure, or the players are having fun just roleplaying instead of advancing the plot). Some idea of where additional clues can be put in case the players get stymied. I’m a big fan of lots of clues, and lots of opportunities to find them.

That’s the first selection of tips for running at conventions. In Part 2, I’ll talk about the least/most important part of prep, and another way to beat the nerves – bringing the bling!

Spotlight Maintenance and the Three-Skill Trick: A One-Shot Prep Technique

After several cons in the last few weeks, I’ve come to realise how important spotlight sharing is in One-Shot games. In some games, a structured turn helps to make this happen naturally, especially in combat; in D&D, for instance, everyone has a role to play in combat, so generally a fight has the spotlight shared reasonably equally. But in games that are less combat-centric, such as investigative games, it can be easy to neglect some characters and favour others. And even in D&D, outside of combat it can be easy to make the game focus more on some PCs and not others.

So, in thinking about this, I present…

The Three-Skill Trick

You do this at some point in your prep after you have your pregens ready. You might only have the bare bones of your plot – in which case this might take you in unexpected directions – or you might have the game basically prepped – in which case this will add detail and options that will check that everyone has plenty to do.

Start by looking at your pregens and working out what they are really good at – this will include their “Apex skill,” whatever they are best at, but also anything that they have a Talent/Stunt/whatever your system calls them that can boost it. Sometimes talents can have specific instances – for instance in FFG Star Wars Talents sometimes just remove penalty dice – so consider if those instances can occur in the game.

Then list three places in the scenario for each pregen where these skills can shine. Make sure these are skill uses that hinge on success – passing them adds significant value and plot leverage to the game.

Why three? Well, not all of them may come up, no matter how obvious you think they might be. By having three, you’re guaranteeing as close as you can that it’ll come up at least once. This is easier to illustrate with an example, so let’s look at a classic/boring adventure structure, and let’s stick to D&D, the “Bandits on the Road” adventure.

Imagine this is as far as our prep goes for this 1st level D&D adventure: the PCs are hired to escort a caravan through the dangerous woods; part way through they are ambushed by bandits, who run off with a vital item. The PCs are offered double their fee to track the bandits and recover the item, from which they can then return to civilisation.

Just to stick to the cliche, let’s assume a bog-standard D&D party of Fighter, Magic-User, Thief, and Cleric, and let’s make them good at standard 1st Edition AD&D things – the Cleric can heal and speak to people, the Fighter can, er, Bend Bars and Lift Gates, and hit things with his sword; you get the idea.

Let’s look at each PC in turn and look at what we can add to give them a proper spotlight.

Fighter

  • during the ambush, the caravan is forced into a rut and loses a wheel – it needs lifting up and repairing
  • during the ambush, one of the bandits is carrying a shield bearing the heraldic crest of the Duke’s bastard son – foreshadowing that…
  • the bandits have a champion, the Duke’s disgraced bastard son, who seeks to duel the fighter in single combat

Thief

  • The camp is nestled up a cliffside – by climbing the (fairly easy) cliffs it can be scouted and alarms cut off
  • The bandits around the camp (or even during the ambush) carry obvious keys that can be pickpocketed from them
  • The camp has tripwire traps all around the approach to the forest

Cleric

  • At the start of the ambush, the merchant’s wife is shot and dangerously wounded – she needs healing
  • During the night – during which the PCs must travel to get to the bandit camp – restless spirits and ghosts stalk the forest
  • There are druids in the forest who are none too happy about the caravans coming through, but a friendly approach leads to their help against the bandits, who they are equally displeased with

Magic-User

  • the stolen item is an arcane box that can be magically tracked
  • during the camp ambush, there are lots of braziers and pots of oil (that can easily be mage hand-ed to cause distraction)
  • from the ambush, they find a map to the bandit camp – but it is in code

Obviously, this isn’t quite game-ready, but I’d argue it’s a significant improvement on the standard adventure already. All it needs is a re-arranging into order and a few stats and names, and it’s a pretty serviceable one-shot. Watch this space and I might even do that – after all, I did try and chisel a decent one-shot out of another classic/corny adventure plot, “The Orc And The Pie.”

What are your tricks for managing spotlight in one-shots? Have you tried a similar technique? And watch out for Part 2, where I’ll apply it to a more complex base adventure.