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.

Review: Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica (D&D5)

Let me begin with a disclaimer. I do not play, follow, or even really understand Magic: The Gathering. I understand that Ravnica is a setting in Magic, where some of their cards are set (?),  and that Wizards of the Coast own both properties, so it makes logical sense to bring a D&D supplement covering it as a game world. I had written this off as a game supplement I did not have to get into – that it would be much more useful to players in the intersect of the Venn diagram of RPG/Card gamers. And I’m not a massive fan of high-magic kitchen-sink setttings, so Ravnica probably wasn’t for me. (M:TG has got to be high-magic, yeah? It’s in the name).

GGRThen I browsed the book, and saw it had steampunk mad scientist goblins and anthro elephant men and centaurs and mushroom druids, and shrugged my shoulders and bought it. I’m glad I did. It’s a funky and original setting that shakes up some D&D expectations, and it’s also ideal for one-shot play.

The Fluff

Ravnica is a world-sized city; an entirely urban game world. What areas of ‘wilderness’ there are are rubble pits, ruined parts of the city, or ancient catacombs. It’s steampunky; there’s underground trains, bio-engineered human hybrids, and a scientific approach to magic from many of the guilds that bicker and fuel much of the conflict in the setting. There are ten guilds, each ostensibly running a part of the city’s functions, but also at each other’s throats. A tenuous Guildpact keeps them from open warfare, but it is currently manifested as an actual person, who keeps wandering off onto other plains, so it’s policed unreliably.

The guilds themselves are at the centre of play in Ravnica, and they range from the fairly vanilla (the Azorius Senate are the city watch, the Boros Legion are the army/mercenaries) to the interesting (the Cult of Radkos, led by an actual demon, provide performance and entertainment like bloodthirsty court jesters), to the brilliantly gonzo (the Simic Combine use bioengineering to augment evolution, the Orzhov Syndicate are a combination church/bank/thieves-guild led by a cabal of ghosts).

There’s a chapter covering in just the right amount of detail (for me at least) the Tenth District of the city, with lots of stuff for players to do and trouble for them to get into, and each guild gets a set of random mission tables, an iconic location mapped out, and a bunch of monsters and NPCs. The NPCs are great – the Izzet League, mad scientists and experimenters, have several NPCs who are basically flamethrower-wielding guards. D&D5 could use more NPC stat blocks, and this chapter is full of interesting ones, and they are easily adaptable to other settings.

The Crunch

You get six new races – Centaurs, Goblins, Loxodon (elephant-men), Minotaurs, Simic Hybrids (bioengineered humanoids), and Vedalkin (blue-skinned semi-aquatic humans). There’s an extra Cleric Domain (“Order,” yawn) and the Circle of Spores for druids, as well as detailed guidance for which classes and races would fit for each guild. Each guild also comes with a default Background option that links the PC into the Guild they serve.

There’s lots and lots of random tables. D&D5 has really embraced these and I think it’s a good thing. Where previous D&D settings sometimes left me feeling stifled at the weight of background needed to navigate it consistently (Forgotten Realms in particular), distilling implied setting into random tables is a much clearer way to set your imagination running. If you’re not convinced, you can listen the The Smart Party here use the DMG to create a random adventure, and see what I mean.

The One Shot

While there’s some discussion of how PCs from different guilds could work together, I can see lots of great one-shot play emerging with the PCs working for just one guild. The structure of the guild interactions, and the resources provided for each of them, mean it’s easy to think up some exciting scenarios – pick a Guild for the PCs, pick the Guild they are up against and a villain’s nefarious plan, and then throw in another Guild with perpendicular interests to get in the way and complicate matters.

There’s enough variety within each guild to make a sufficiently distinct group of PCs, and the mission-based structure works really well for a tight opening to your one-shot and an obvious climax. Conversely, the urban environment and the option to move around the city quickly make it easy to have multiple resolution options in the middle of your one-shot (the swell, which I talk about here). It even comes with a sample adventure, which is good (but not Great – I’d have preferred a more exciting enemy than a Goblin gang-lord, and you could fairly easily set most of the adventure in Waterdeep or Sharn), but it gives a good framework as an introduction to the setting. Of course, it’s written more as an intro to the setting than a one-shot, and so provides leads at the end for the PCs to follow up, but having an adventure as a matter of course in a setting book is a good thing generally.

In general, I’m really pleased with Ravnica as an addition to the D&D stable, and I think it’ll make for some excellent one-shot play. Now, how’s about Spelljammer and Dark Sun?

Breadcrumbing: Part 2 – Design Principles

In Part 1, I introduced my plans to run more investigative games, and shared my notes for an Urban Jungle (UJ) adventure, Round About Midnight (RAM). In this part I’ll discuss the principles that informed that prep, and what I’m hoping to achieve with them.

magnifying glassIn general, I want all the usual stuff from good one-shot play to be present in an investigative scenario. I want pace, in-fiction investment from the players, and a tight start that force the players into action. In all of the disappointing investigative games of my past, these are what have been missing. I also want to avoid any clueless wandering. This isn’t restricted to investigative games, but it is a common trap to fall into in games like Call of Cthulhu – where a lack of obvious leads (or ones that the PCs have noticed) can leave the PCs aimlessly waiting for another NPC to die and hopefully supply them with clues. Here are the principles I’m applying to my investigative prep.

Clues are Obvious

In order to facilitate this, I want clues to be obvious and clear when the PCs find them. If they go to a location, they might find a challenge (either a social challenge, a puzzle, or a fight) but after that, I want the relevant information to appear to them clearly. Red herrings should be obvious too -and obviously false leads. In play, there will be plenty of time for the players to come up with their own theories without me needing to plan and encourage this.

In RAM, there are three obvious leads after the starting incident, I’ve tried to make it easy to deduce that the set up (that either the nightclub owner’s brother or his lover shot him) just doesn’t add up – the attack on the nightclub is an obvious distraction tactic, and there must be more behind that coincidence.

Player Character Investment

One thing I’m doing in all my games is building in some bonds-style world-building into the pregens. All the players need to have a link to the starting situation and each other, and it’s much more interesting to let them come up with those links themselves. In my adventure, I’ve put trigger questions (described in this post) onto the pregen sheets, but I’ll also be asking them to give three details about the nightclub and its patrons, and hoping that those patrons can reappear later in the adventure.

(As an aside, if you want to see examples of this light-touch player-led worldbuilding in play, the new Campaign podcast uses this in almost every episode – it’s also a great example of how a fairly trad game can be ‘indied up’ by giving players additional agency and responsibility for the plot.)

Action! Pace! Men with guns!

I think the main inspiration for my investigation games is the RDJ Sherlock Holmes movies. In these, for every clue discovered, there’s challenge – a chase, a tense negotiation, a fight – to be won. I’ve tried to mirror this approach in a few games – and a range of approaches is usually a good way to run it. There’s nothing to stop the PCs hitting the internet or the library to find out more about what’s going on, but I don’t consider that an actual scene in the adventure – that’s just an advantage gained for the following scene, or a final confirmation of the crime or perpetrator. Nothing gets solved without pounding the streets – or the faces of some thugs.

In UJ, this is fairly easy to enforce – it’s a lawless 1920s noir setting where the police are unlikely to help you if you have any ties to the underworld without favours and negotiation (and it’s during prohibition, so you could do without investigation from the police around a nightclub). I think I still need to develop what the police do / don’t do in RAM, but they are clearly set up as not being the main allies in the game, and searching the city archives is an unlikely course of action to take when there are clear suspects and leads to follow up in the city.

Everything Else Applies

Like any one-shots, I think the usual points about structure – a tight open, a loose middle and a tight finale usually suit this sort of game really well. I’m a big fan of “The Swell” as a one-shot structure, and I follow it for most of my one-shots with traditional prep structures.

In the next instalment I’ll talk about good examples of investigative one-shots I’ve seen and how they manage to structure play effectively. Anything to add? Comment below.