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 Stålenhag photos to add to the mood of the table. I use them in a more direct way – when 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

20190605_171152.jpg

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.

Star Wars One-Shots: The “Way” is Strong in These Ones

star wars rpgsTo celebrate Star Wars day, here’s a review of the options you currently have if you want to run a one-shot in the worlds of Ewoks and Gungans. Why would you want to do that, apart from the aforementioned furry/aquatic aliens? Well, firstly, Star Wars has really clear tropes and expectations of its heroes – redemption, fighting the good fight, and starting from humble beginnings – which make it easy to motivate a group of adventurers to carry out a specific mission. It’s also got an unknowably huge canon, with cartoons, comics, and fiction alongside the films – and lots of sources of inspiration. And finally, there’s  lots of space opera tropes in it – human-like but diverse aliens, survivable and fun space combat, big beasts and monsters… it could already be a D&D campaign, just with blasters and laser swords.

But what system to run it with? I’m going to attempt a quick tour of them …. although I think I’ll probably only scratch the surface of the options…

Edge of the Empire / Age of Rebellion / Force and Destiny 

Fantasy Flight’s big RPG offering with the license, these are high-production value RPGs (and they are three separate games, although sharing almost exactly the same system) with a pile of supplements and adventures to go with them. Personally, I’d skip the player-facing sourcebooks that focus on specific character classes, leave the adventures alone (apart from the starter sets) and look at their ‘proper’ sourcebooks, where there are some absolutely brilliant sources of hooks and adventures – Strongholds of Resistance, for example, details rebel bases and is full of mini-adventures – I ran a really fun one-shot on Hoth based on the details in this. Lords of Nal Hutta does a similar job with criminal enterprises – you could plot about a dozen great one-shot games from each of these books.

It can be a bit of a rabbit-hole to fall down, particularly as, yes, it uses weird funky dice, and no, you can’t use regular polyhedrals. The dice are, for me, just about worth it – they give a range of successes and complications that add depth to task resolution. This means that, although the game is still towards the trad end of the trindie continuum, there’s always exciting consequences of actions. Decent and quickish space combat, and although it’s been criticised as a money-grab, I actually like how the 3 separate core books can focus on different kinds of games. When I want to run Star Wars, I need a solid reason to stray from using this system. Sooner or later I’ll write up my Hoth one-shot and put it on here.

West End Games’ D6 Star Wars

One of the original RPGs that gamers of a certain age wax lyrical about, there’s no doubt that the original Star Wars game has aged better than most of its contemporaries – a straightforward d6 dice pool system and a neat archetype character creation system – which you could almost complete at the table, if you really wanted to – yes the PCs aren’t always balanced, and yes the Force rules are awkwardly funky to the point of being broken, but the core mechanic is great fun, and works well enough to still be inspiring games.

There’s now an anniversary edition out from FFG, but there’s also the entire original game line available from Womp Rat Press here – really useful if, say, you wanted to run one of the classic Star Wars adventures with a different system. Some of the old adventures even start with a ‘script’ for the players to read out – playing the roles of NPCs before the start of the game – which is a weird and funky way to start a one-shot today, let alone in the 1980s when these modules were written.

Star Wars d20 / SAGA Edition

Remember the d20 bubble? In the explosion of mediocrity that it brought to RPG publishing (including, to be fair, the odd gem) – Wizards of the Coast brought out a whole line of d20 Star Wars built around the 3rd Edition D&D system. This early-2000s line produced loads of supplements, and to be fair if you are a big fan of d20 and it’s associated quirks it’s an obvious choice. SAGA edition saw lots of rule changes that for me improved the game a lot.

With both of these game lines, though, if you’ve got them you’ll run them, and if you haven’t they’re really tricky to get hold of, and probably not your best choice unless you’ve been invited to run for a group of D&D gamers from 2001 and want to meet their sensibilities. Wizards lost the license in 2010, so the link above is to the wikipedia page – be prepared for a longer search of ebay etc if you want to get hold of the game, since it also dates from when Wizards didn’t do .pdfs.

Scum & Villainy

The first of the big Forged in the Dark games based on the Blades in the Dark engine (for more about Blades, see here) is space opera that is very Star Wars. For Blades-style play it works really well – ideally for a double slot, or a tightly-run training mission like this one – in play it feels so Star Wars that it’s easy to forget. I played a Mystic once and really struggled calling my powers “the Way” and not the Force. Great fun for a lower-prep player-driven one-shot, and the “heist” system works well for smugglers and low-lifes if you want the Han Solo end of the genre.

PBTA: Star Wars World / Streets of Mos Eisley

I’ll highlight two Powered By The Apocalypse (PBTA) options for your Star Wars one-shot – Star Wars World, by Andrew Medeiros (I’m not entirely sure the link above is to the latest version – I got it via another blog – please correct me if I have it wrong), is a full-blooded hack of Apocalypse World with a moves and playbooks. I haven’t played it but from a read through it looks great and Andrew really knows his PBTA stuff (having co-designed the brilliant Urban Shadows).

Streets of Mos Eisley is a simpler game, a hack of World of Dungeons which is a hack of Dungeon World, on of the first PBTA games (are you keeping up?) – it’s a tighter playset, with a much looser system. I think if I was running, I would favour Star Wars World, but for a more relaxed, system-lite game, SoME looks great.

Cypher System

This final entry is probably a little leftfield, but Star Wars has influenced a lot of RPGs, and hidden in the Worlds Numberless and Strange sourcebook for The Strange, are details for playing in the Rebel Galaxy recursion – which is, like Scum and Villany above, very Star Wars. Because Cypher is so easy to adapt (or even to busk), it would be easy to run a game using this, either with The Strange of the core Cypher rules, and it gives a significantly different playstyle to any of the games above.

At it’s heart Cypher is, like Gumshoe, a game that’s led by resource management to affect probabilities, and so I’m not convinced it fits the kind of action heroics I want in a Star Wars game, but if I was running a murder mystery, or a one-shot focused more on exploration than conflict, I would certainly be looking at Rebel Galaxy. Cypher is also a really good system for newcomers to RPGs, in my experience, so it might be a good starting place for them.

So there are your options. As I’ve said, for me it’s FFG (Age of Rebellion is my go-to style of play for one-shots) all the way – with an exception for D6 Star Wars and maybe for PBTA if I want that sort of game. It’s far from an exhaustive list, either – I’m sure there are people out there running Star Wars games with D100 (shout out to River of Heaven, D101 games science fiction game, which is pretty straightforward to hack into Star Wars), Traveller, or even The Code of the Space Lanes. I’m sure I’ve missed some, and it’s not like Star Wars to divide opinions – what are your go-to Star Wars games for one-shot play?

Convention Survival

The con season is well and truly underway – I’ll be at North Star in Sheffield next weekend, and then it’s the Shirley Crabtree of UK games cons, UK Games Expo, at the end of the month. While I mention it, I’m running two sessions of 13th Age Glorantha at Expo, on the Friday and Saturday afternoons, and at the time of writing there are still spaces available in each game – so please sign up if you’re interested and watch me not follow my own guidance I talked about here and here.

But conventions can be hard to get through – particularly if, like me, you don’t have the option of a cheeky Monday off after to recover. “Con crud” is a real thing that seems to afflict everyone with illness upon return from a convention, but it can be avoided.

Don’t Eat Crap

Most conventions don’t often give you that much in terms of a healthy option, and it’s easy to eat everything that the con has on offer. While you are on holiday, I guess, you have got to perform as well, and you’re going to need a level of energy if you’re running multiple games across the convention. You might do well, then, to get some fruit down you as well – in order to do this, in my experience, you need to bring it with you or buy it from a nearby shop. Mid-game lulls it’s much easier to snack on a banana or some nuts than the piles of sweets that will probably be within easy reach.

While we’re trying to avoid con crud, you can always invest in hand gel to minimise the chance of catching anything – I know several teachers who swear by it for avoiding the conglomeration of illnesses you can be exposed to.

Don’t Drink Crap

Conventions are social occasions, and I certainly take the opportunity to have a few beers around the night before – but convention hangovers can be brutal, particularly if you’re running a game, so I try to pace myself a bit more carefully now. On an evening when I’m in a game, I tend towards grabbing a bottle of wine – easier to sip in moderation, no need to keep going back to the bar, and if you get a bottle you can share with other players. Ultimately, it’s worth getting enough sleep – you don’t want to be falling asleep in a game either, let alone combine that with a hangover. If you’re running a game, make sure it’s a game you want to be remembered for – one where you know the rules, are well-prepared, well-rested and competent.

Likewise, you probably know your own habits with energy drinks, feel free to use them – but they aren’t a zero-sum game, and it’s pretty easy to reach for one when the caffeine lull hits. I try to stay off the Red Bull until I have to drive home.

Run the Same Game Twice… or more

This is a recent habit I’ve got into and one I’d recommend to anyone who runs multiple games at conventions. Run the same system more than once – usually different games, even at different levels, but it gives me one less thing to worry about. Sometimes I can even use the same pregens more than once – or the same pregens at different levels – which saves significantly on prep time. Having to hold just one system in my head makes it much easier for me to focus on everything else going on at the con, and also at my table. I put quite a lot of pressure on myself to know the rules back to front in a con game, and this makes it a little bit more achievable.

Take a Slot Off

Optional, of course, but if you want to balance the social side of the convention with some non-stop gaming, you can always take a slot off. Last Continuum I took Saturday evening off and spent time having a non-rushed meal and a few (too many) beers with friends. I could have tried to squeeze this in as well, but see previous comments about energy levels – and the break from gaming made me appreciate the games even more.

Play Generously

Even if you run a few games, you’re going to find yourself playing in a few games. I’ll be posting more about this later, but while you’re appreciating the time at the table with another GM, it’s worth trying to be a helpful player as well. Try and drive the plot forward, encourage links to other PCs, and build on their ideas. Try and help to keep the other players on track and don’t leave managing the game enjoyment entirely to the GM. In particular, if one player is being difficult or intransigent, it’s often easier to have an intervention from another player rather than the GM to move the game forwards – and, as an experienced GM, that could be you.

Look After Yourself – and Each Other

First off, if the con you’re at doesn’t have a harassment and safety policy, ask them why not, and challenge them to produce one. Cons can be stressful places, and as an enlightened reader of this blog, try and be friendly and helpful to the organisers and attendees, as you would expect them to be for you.

Conversely, if you need to take some time out between slots, do so. After I’ve run a game, I often need twenty minutes or half an hour on my own – or with one or two people – in the quiet to recover my social-fu. It’s fine to go back to the hotel room to do this, or find a spot to eat on your own or with a trusted confidante.

If you’re at a con where it’s harder to do this, and you think you might need it, be prepared to make the space for yourself. For instance, if you’re going to Expo and the thought of 20,000 gamers being around you feels intimidating, you can get hotels in Birmingham city centre for a fraction (quite a significant fraction!) of the NEC prices, and there are regular trains you can use to get in and out. My Expo plans are to explore in the mornings, run games in the afternoons, and head back to recover in the evenings, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve got to go into work on the Monday morning, and with these plans I hopefully won’t be ill, exhausted, or both.

Of course, with all of this, your mileage may vary, but I think it bears repeating – running games at conventions is hard, and it’s worth remembering how to make it easier. Do you have any survival tips of your own? Any of mine you disagree with? Put them in the comments.

Metaplots of the Apocalypse – one-shot structure in PBTA/FITD games

Last weekend I was at Revelation, the convention for Powered By The Apocalypse (PBTA) and PBTA-adjacent games in Sheffield. I ran Fistful of Darkness (FoD), an in-playtest Blades in the Dark hack, over 2 slots on the Saturday, and faced some challenges as the game has a fairly baked-in metaplot. I’m going to share what I did to pace the session and ensure we had a satisfying conclusion and gradient of doom.

The Basics

4RidersOfDoomV2As I talked about here, in PBTA you can make things easier for yourself by either pre-booking or limiting (depending on if you know your players) the playbooks available. Luckily I knew I had a Shot and a Wrench & Saw playing, so I knew that gunfights and steampunk mad science were going to feature heavily. I spent about forty minutes on prep at the table, getting some NPCs from each player, laying them out on index cards on the table, and getting some features of the town. As I always do with these games, during the seven hour run I had a couple of times where I took a break and asked the players to leave me alone while I did some mid-game prep – mainly involving trying to fold existing stuff into the plot, but more on that later.

Get Your Beats In

FoD has an in-built metaplot – the discovery of Hellstone is releasing monsters, and eventually the Four Horsemen, across the land, leading to an inevitable apocalypse. In play it has a Doom mechanic that triggers this, but I quickly realised that wasn’t going to work for a one-shot session. I decided to keep Doom as a track, but leave it similar to Heat in Blades in the Dark – if it gets too high, monsters will start actually hunting the PCs – and decide myself when the Horsemen made an appearance.

I then thought about the time I had. I wanted to start with an introductory mission that dusted off the system and introduced some core concepts to the players, and made this a ‘mundane’ mission – a completely regular wild west train robbery, with no magical content save for the discovery of Hellstone in the safe and discovery of plans for a Hellstone claim. At the end of the first (3-hour) session I wanted the First Horseman to appear, and then the other three were to appear in the second act – one at first fairly early, and then two at once to herald the apocalypse proper about an hour from the end, to propel the PCs to the final action to try and prevent it.

Chekhov’s Apocalypse Horsemen

In play I tried to steer everything to make the appearance of the Horsemen tied to their own actions – any chaos they created, or NPCs they killed, inevitable came back to bite them as the situation got worse. Neatly, they managed to frame one NPC for murder almost by accident, so when he was hanged in the centre of town he came back as the Hanged Rider. As the players interacted with the town and its environs, the chorus of NPCs responded in kind, becoming more angry and bestial, so hopefully the final breakdown of the barriers between worlds felt natural.

There were also mundane re-incorporations; as part of the initial setup two PCs determined they were in town to compete in a poker tournament, so when we fleshed that out as a riverboat tournament it became a centrepiece scene.

Be Prepared! (to ignore your prep)

As well as an overall sketch, I had six jobs ready for the PCs that, while not directly related to the metaplot, could be twisted and folded into it. As it was maybe two made an appearance, and heavily modified at that, but several of them were options for the PCs to explore – they just chose not to, as there were always more pressing matters to attend to. I’d like to think that, like the side missions in an open world videogame, they added depth to the world, and I felt better as a GM knowing I had some prep I could fall back on. These were literally randomly rolled on the FoD tables.

Enjoy Yourself!

One of the true pleasures of these sorts of games is the unexpected scenes that come up, often from failed rolls. There were at least three of those scenes that I never could have expected in this session, and that made it all worthwhile. I do find running PBTA/FiTD games more exhausting than more traditional games – it’s the feeling of having to stay on top of everything and focus your moves all the time – but it’s worth it.

In my other games at Revelation, I played the fantastic PvP space fantasy epic Spacewurm vs. Moonicorn, and an excellent British millenial superhero romp of Masks. All excellent fun – and it’s happening next year as well. Have you used any techniques to embed metaplot or story advancement in otherwise improvised games? Comment below, or find me on twitter.

CSI: Tenth District – Ravnica Pregens

(update: I’ve added the link to the final pregen, a Goblin Fighter more geared towards magic than fighting, to use with the adventure itself here)

Following my post about Ravnica, I’ve been doing some prep for a game I’m going to run at Airecon in March (and probably a few other places, if it goes well). It’s for 3rd level characters loosely serving the Azorius Senate (the law-keeping guild in the game) and involves them chasing clues to try and recover a rogue biomancer. It’s heavily grounded in the pulp/action tradition, and includes an airship heist – because if there are airships in a setting, you’ve got to let the PCs heist one. The prep is still in development, but I’ve got a few tweaks that I’m excited about that I’ll share here including:

  • randomly-distributed NPC contacts that are key to the mission
  • establishing questions to determine the prior investigation and bring the PCs together as a team, and
  • ways to determine PC histories with key NPCs in the plot

I’m excited about it! Part of the joy of Ravnica is that by giving random tables instead of reams and reams of history, as DM you have the freedom to create interesting situations without worrying about canon (on the Smart Party Podcast, Baz and Gaz asked Kate Welch, Wizards Game Designer about this, and it certainly looks to be a part of their plans going forwards for new settings).

In the meantime, I’ve done a set of pregens for the adventure, and tried something a bit different in the character sheet design. I’ve tried to put the minimum of information on, and to make it as clear and easy as possible to use.

Some things have had to be sacrificed (not really any room for actual spells – I’ll be using the excellent spellbook cards at the table) – like non-proficient skills – but I’m curious to see how they run in play. I think that often pregen sheets have too much information on, and just look too complicated, which leads to things being missed if people aren’t familiar with the system; compare the Minotaur sheet above against the WFRP sheet I used for my Night of Blood game at Go Play Manchester.

 

So, anyway, here are the pregens – all 3rd level, and probably not as optimised as they would be if I’d played more D&D5e – but all ready to investigate crime in the Tenth District.

Vedalkan Wizard

Human Paladin

Minotaur Barbarian

Human Rogue

Goblin Fighter

Please let me know if you use them, or have any feedback with them – I’m working on making my pregens more functional, and I’ve usually got a bit of a tin eye for visual design. And I’ll share the rest of the prep on here soon.