Rough Games and Hard Fights – How To Run WFRP (4e) One-Shots

I’ve had a chance recently to run a few one-shots of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, at both Furnace and online, and it’s a game with a lot of love from the UK RPG community especially. It’s a great example of grim low fantasy, and as such takes a careful hand to run a satisfying one-shot of it. So, here are my top tips for delivery.

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.

Take out the safety net

WFRP is deadly, and brutal. To help ensure their continued existence, PCs have one-shot Fate and Resilience points, that let them cheat death or avoid a mutation respectively. These are very limited-recovery, and are part of the game balance of starting characters (humans get loads of them, elves get very few – but have generally better starting attributes).

In a one-shot, remove these. Keep the per-session resources, Fortune and Resolve – they’ll need them to survive – but take the Fate and Resilience off. When I’ve run it, I’ve asked the players to cross them off their character sheets – this gives (a) a clear message that this game could be deadly, and (b) makes them more conscious of the Fortune and Resolve points which they might want to spend.

Flavour is everything

WFRP is a game of grim, dirty humanity in a losing battle against corruption, goblinoids, and foul magics. Although it’s got its fair share of monsters and traditional antagonists, a lot of WFRP’s aesthetic comes from human failures – even chaos thrives as a result of humanity surrendering to its temptations. The noble houses are corrupt and terrifying while the peasantry toil in back-breaking labour. You get the idea.

With this in mind, use the excellent source material for this – WFRP is not a game that works without the Old World behind it. The publications  from Cubicle 7 are dripping in flavour – use them liberally. If I’d recommend one purchase beyond the core book, I’d go with the Starter Set for a plot hook-sprinkled guide to the city of Ubersreik.

Combat is rare, and dangerous

A bad roll – or a good one – can be the end of a fight, for either side. In a recent con game, the PCs triumphed largely due to their main opponent (a skaven leader) fumbling their attack. It could have gone the other way just as easily. Combat also involves tracking Advantage, which means that once things start to go badly (or well) for a combatant, the odds begin to be stacked in their favour. For Advantage in a F2F game, I used some Campaign Coins – online I’ve used a token that explains what it is as well.

For this reason, outside of the final confrontation of the one-shot, don’t worry about making your combats pushovers. A few humans (WS 30) with a dagger (damage SL+4 for you S 30 thugs) will still feel dangerous for your PCs when one good hit can make a mark on them. For the final confrontation, feel free to throw stuff at them, but bear in mind that numbers (because of the Advantage rule) and size make a big difference to players. I’ve run Slaughter in Spittlefeld three times so far and the final confrontation, with a single underpowered vampire, is consistently perilous.

Use the Published Stuff

WFRP is rare among trad games in that it comes with loads of ready-made adventures that are either one-shots already, or easily adapted.

Night of Blood is a classic spooky inn ‘mystery’ where things start horrific and just get worse – I’ve run this at least three times, and would recommend. In the Ubersreik Adventures supplement, Slaughter in Spittlefeld is the most obvious one-shot for a tight con game – the PCs are locked in a tenement and have to solve it’s problem – but Mad Men of Gotheim and If Looks Could Kill are also great con-length one-shots.

And there’s a pdf-only One Shots of the Reikland supplement, too – I’d suggest these might need framing scenes beforehand to give a satisfying con experience, but it’s usually easier to add than take away. To run Curd Your Enthusiasm, I added a scene at the start where they meet Tomas, their patron, when they both he and one of the PCs are pickpocketed by a pair of thieves in Ubersreik – a chase ensues, and it serves as a good system- and character-intro to get everyone ready for the cheese-based investigations that ensue.

So, WFRP has become one of my go-to one-shot systems, and one I’ll certainly stay with. I keep musing about running the classic Enemy Within campaign – especially now it’s been rebooted by Cubicle 7 – but I think it remains a solid one-shot game, just simple enough – but fun enough – to give a satisfying experience.

Day of the Manta Ray – a Sentinel Comics One-Shot

Last weekend, I was at the Owlbear and the Wizard’s Staff, an improbably-named convention in Leamington Spa – and this was the scenario I ran for it. I’d previously playtested it online with my pick-up Supers Gaming group, and made quite significant changes to some of the encounters based on how that went. I thought I’d share it here as a verbatim example of my notes for a one-shot game, along with a few explanatory things.

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.

I designed this scenario for the pregen group Daybreak in the Sentinel Comics rulebook – they are teen superheroes, and I played up their lesser status in Freedom City by having lots of spectators and NPCs wearing Legacy merch (the other, more established, superheroes). Sentinel has a really structured encounter/scene structure, which I stuck to for the set pieces, but I freeformed a lot of the investigation scene by just asking for 6 successes and giving them some plot hooks when they made their Overcome rolls.

I knew I had 3 players, but added an extra into each scene to allow for an extra player to arrive. I’ll be following this up with a Sentinels review, and probably something on playtesting con scenarios, so watch this space!

Intro / Con Pitch

In this terrifying issue, Ray Manta (p400) has hatched a devious plan to hold Freedom City to ransom, by kidnapping the hapless Mayor Thomas at the opening of Freedom City Aqualand. After dealing with the aftermath of his kidnapping, the heroes have to track down Ray Manta to his secret underwater base, find him, and battle him and his aquatic friends to save the mayor.

SCENE ONE -THE GRAND OPENING

Easy/Medium Action Scene

The heroes are guests of honour, or just there for a day out, at the opening of Aqualand, the Freedom City aquarium. It’s been rebuilt after a terrible incident of collateral damage that the heroes were somehow involved in. Standing in front of the prize pool is Mayor Thomas, his too-tight suit and the blazing sun making his hair dye drip onto his collar. As he readies to cut the ribbon, Orca and Morca, the aquarium’s prized killer whales, jump a pirouette behind him. 

A great day for the fishes! A great day for the city! As I always say, with cod on our side, we’re always sure to have a whale of a time! I’ve always been a fin of the aquarium, and I’ve often said this day was manta be! 

As Mayor Thomas giggles at his terrible puns, the fireworks go off – and smoke fills the area. Slightly confused, there are soon some secondary explosions – and screams!

Ray Manta has set off his trap – his squid-bots have been waiting in the wings, and his shark-bots have already replaced the beloved Orca and Morca.

As the smoke clears, Mayor Thomas is nowhere to be seen, and man-sized squidbots terrorize the assembled crowds. An explosion under a stand has left the assembled people tumbling into the pool, where a now-enraged Morca has been dropped from the sky.

Scene Tracker – Standard

3 Players:

ELECTRIC EEL – D8 Lieutenant

Herman Gyros got caught in an oil rig accident and given the ability to turn into living electricity – now he works for Ray Manta after a hastily-arranged re-image to fit his fish theme

Ability: Can ATTACK and HINDER a target with the same die roll if making a ranged attack with his ELECTRO-SHOCK

Tactics: Flies around from zone to zone targeting the most dangerous-looking opponent. Flees if the fight turns.

HAMMERHEAD – D8 Lieutenant

One of King Shark’s followers, Hammerhead has been loaned out to Ray Manta for this mission. He is utterly clueless and doesn’t understand much of what is going on

Ability: At home in the water – +2 to close-combat attack or defend actions when in the water

Tactics: Keeps fighting until the bitter end – like we said, clueless.

ROBOCTOPI

These look like unconvincing plexiglass octopi

Ability: 16 arms are better than 8! They get a +2 to Boost fellow octopods

(H) D6 Minions

ENVIRONMENT – The Bombing Campaign

Frequent random explosions D8

Escaping wild aquatic animals D6

Hacked water cannons and fire trucks D8

Green – a few explosions happen towards the edges of the scene – the whole place has been booby-trapped!

Minor: Explosions fire at one hero on the ground of the scene, making an Attack using the Mid die

Minor: Another roboctopi activates!

Major: Two heroes are buried under a pile of rubble – Hinder at Mid, Attack at Min

Yellow – spectators are dropped into the orca tank, as fish swarm from all directions

Minor: A wave of water targets everyone on the ground who isn’t aquatic – Attack with Min vs. everyone

Minor: One hero is covered with mating octopi – a persistent and exclusive Boost action

Major: Advance the scene tracker by one space as the ground begins to creak under the water

Red – the stand collapses into the city’s water system – there are sharks all over the city now!

Minor: Water sprays up, a Hinder (Mid) on everyone – including the flyers

Minor: An arc of electricity flies up to Electric Eel and restores him to full strength!

Major: Waves of water stand between the heroes and their opponents – a Max Defend action

4 players:

ADD

SAVE THE SPECTATORS

OO Right the stand

O Calm the enraged killer whale

SCENE TWO – AFTERMATH

Montage Scene

As the scene clears, a message has been scorced into the grass in front of the aquarium – unless THREE MILLION DOLLARS is delivered to an unmarked post office box downtown, they will never see the mayor – or Orca – again. Commissioner Brown is beside himself

But the people of Freedom City – they love that goddam dolphin! And Mayor Thomas, of course. Him as well. But, how will poor Morca cope without her mate?

Players can narrate their scene to heal/help/boost as usual.

SCENE THREE – INVESTIGATIONS

Easy Action Scene

As they race to find the location the mayor (and the beloved killer whale) is hiding, they need a total of 6 successes on Overcome actions to do so.

Possible approaches –

Hack the robots to find their ‘homing location’ somewhere in Freedom Bay

Investigate the PO box – where they find a terrified employee who says a ‘fat man who smelled of fish’ asked him to set it up, then crawled back into the river

Look into the aquarium contractors – where there are a lot of contracts given to on Mandy Tallahasie Raynham – with the location of the warehouse that he used

Go bust some heads at the warehouse – where they can reveal Ray Manta’s underwater base

SCENE FOUR – PREPARATIONS

Montage Scene

They know where Ray Manta’s base is, and they know how to get there -and that it’s underwater. How do they prepare to get there?

Players can narrate their scene to heal/help/boost as usual.

SCENE FIVE – SHOWDOWN

Moderate Action Scene

As they burst into Ray Manta’s base, they find the mayor and the Orca already tied to a laser cutter, and the swarms of bots all around them

Scene Tracker – Standard

3 Heroes:

SAVE THE WHALE!  (AND THE MAYOR)

OOOO Defuse the laser

RAY MANTA (see full profile, with upgrade suit, in the Sentinel Comics core book)

ELECTRIC EEL (AGAIN!)

D10 LIEUTENANT

Can Attack and Hinder the with one action

KING ORCA

A man in a shark suit just as unconvincing as Ray Manta’s costume, King Orca is nevertheless a dangerous villain

D10 LIEUTENANT

+2 to Boost actions

4 heroes – ADD

HORDES OF FLYING FISHBOTS

(H) D8 MINIONS

Annoying blighters: +1 to Hinder Actions

Once the scene is finished, the heroes are victorious! They have saved the mayor, and the beloved Killer Whale, Orca! Narrate a closing scene where they celebrate their victory.

Get A Village – Embedding Setting in One-Shots

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

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.

You Need A Village

The Classic D&D village

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

Continue reading →

Heard About The Dungeon? – A Rumour Tables Hack

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

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.

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

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

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

The Rumour Check

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prep Techniques: The Con Pitch

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

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

What’s a Con Pitch?

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

In this terrifying issue, Ray Manta has hatched a devious plan to hold Freedom City to ransom, by kidnapping the hapless Mayor Thomas at the opening of Freedom City Aqualand. After dealing with the aftermath of his kidnapping, the heroes have to track down Ray Manta to his secret underwater base, find him, and battle him and his aquatic friends to save the mayor.

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

What Do You Want From This? – Start with Goals

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

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

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

Notes, Notes, Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Write Your Pitch

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

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

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

The Doom-Forge of Purphoros

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

What Next?

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

Cut to the Chase Scene – 5 In Medias Res Starts for your One-Shot

I’ve blogged before about the importance of a strong start in your one-shots, and a good way to achieve that is to start in medias res – in the midst of the action.

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

In Medias Res as a term was coined by Horace in his Ars Poetica, when he pointed out that Homer’s games of D&D he was running down the Parthenon didn’t start ab ovo – with the dragon hatching from the egg – but right in the middle of a pitched battle against orcs. Or something like that. What it means for us is a reliable way to get dice rolling within the first twenty minutes – and get the pace tripping along right from the start.

So, here are 5 In Medias Res’s to get your one-shots off to a bang.

The Previous-Quest-Maguffin

Gamma World’s famous flow-chart – more fun to look at than play through, in my experience

Begin at the end of the last adventure – where they find a fantastical item that spurs them on to the main quest. A good chance for an ‘easy’ section of dungeoning – a ‘training level’ – to get the item, and then some problem solving / roleplay to interpret the item and pick up the trail.

Credit to Dirk the Dice of The Grognard Files who did this in a memorable Gamma World one-shot that I’ve shamelessly stolen (both here, and in other con games) – in that game we used the infamous artifact flowchart to decipher the mission.

Trapped in the Tomb

Don’t just start at the door to the dungeon, have the party on the wrong side of it as the trap triggers and the door closes behind them. You might want to have another peril activate at the same time, just to lay it on thick that they need to find a way out – as well as whatever they came here for in the first place.

Note that if you’re doing this you’ll need some NPCs or other roleplaying opportunities in the tomb/dungeon/derelict space station in order to make this more interesting – so throw in a chatty mummy/off-message AI/reactivated golem for the PCs to interact with and help/hinder them as well.

The Contest

You don’t think just anyone gets to represent the king while plundering the treasures of the forgotten jungles? No, every year you must compete for the privilege against the nations most foolhardy heroes. Feel free to have some of the failed contestants travel over there anyway as a rival adventuring party – that the PCs will eventually have to save and/or fight.

In terms of pacing, don’t make the contest too long, or it might become the focal point of the whole session – a few skill checks or a simple combat should be enough. Last year I started a Legend of the 5 Rings campaign with each PC describing the gift they’d brought for the daimyo they’d appeared to serve, and then make a skill check for how successful their gift had been – and one bushi’s terrible sake became a recurring theme for the whole campaign.

In Medias Res-ervoir Dogs

The heist (dungeon crawl, assassination, saving the city, etc…) went wrong – or at least drew a lot of heat. Now they’re on the run, trying to escape and fix things. A good way to start with a chase scene – either using the RPGs chase mechanics or just some opposed skill checks or a fight.

This is a good example of a fight with a clear objective – and an opportunity to intersperse the scene with flashbacks of the actual job they’re running from. Note that in Reservoir Dogs they just lie low and chew scenery at each other – diverge from the film in your game and have them carry out the even bigger score that will make things right, hunt down the contact who betrayed them, or finally get the jewels back.

Zombies Attack!

Wherever the PCs are at the start (tavern, castle, space station, etc…) is suddenly subject to an invasion. A recent session of Deadlands I played in started with zombies crawling through the saloon floor, and it’s a well tested method for starting with a bang.

As with Trapped in the Tomb, you’ll need to make sure there’s a few NPCs for the PCs to interact with during the session so it’s not just a string of fights, but having the call to action be an actual invasion is a classic trope. See here for more ideas about managing invasions – you might want to think about what weakness of the attackers can be exploited, and how they can find it, for instance.

So, five ways to start your one-shot with a bang – what other ways have you seen a one-shot started? Let me know in the comments.

How to Play One-Shots

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

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

Be Prepared

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

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

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

Be a Good Plot-Hook Doggo

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

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

Play Up

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

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

Have A Shtick

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

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

Show You’re Having Fun

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

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

Low Fantasy RPGs – Part One

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

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

Pendragon

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

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

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

Romance of the Perilous Lands

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

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

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

Cthulhu: Dark Ages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have Failure Consequences, or Don’t Roll

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

Have Success Benefits, or Don’t Roll

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

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

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

Use it For Initiative

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

Use it To Bank Resources

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

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

Just Ditch It

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

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

Review: Mythic Odysseys of Theros

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

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The Fluff

Theros map

Map of Theros from the MTG wiki

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

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

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

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

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

The Crunch

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

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

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

The One-Shot

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

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

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