One-Shot Prep: Structuring My Notes

I’ve spent quite a bit of time oscillating between different ways of presenting my prep for one-shots. Particularly at conventions, I like to have all my information to hand in an at-a-glance format, and so it helps to have a consistent structure – but it’s only in the last couple of months that I’ve settled on one. You can see this format in Gringle’s Pawn Shop, my 13G adventure, and I’ve used it for all of my recent ‘trad’ one-shot games. Here’s what it looks like

Introduction

Wizardstowera3 JOHNNY GREY

Wizards Tower by Johnny Gray

This starts with the ‘pitch,’ which is sometimes the game description that I sent off to the con / printed out on a sign-up sheet to advertise the game. I always begin my prep by pasting this across – sometimes I’ve written this text several months earlier and need to be reminded of what I said – it’s a useful creative constraint!

Then there’s overview of the background of the adventure in one paragraph maximum. I grew up on Dungeon Magazine adventures where you’d get a whole page of background explaining why the goblins settled in this particular tomb, what happened to the dwarf king who used to be buried here, but I don’t need – or care – about all that guff. Brevity is a strength, and by writing this first it helps to structure the game in my mind.

Cast

This section is a recent addition to my prep, and I’ve been surprised by how useful it is to have all my NPCs in one place. On one level, it’s useful to check there are a reasonable number of them – I think that 3-5 NPCs for a one-shot is about the sweet spot for the players to remember and interact with them all – and it’s very easy to prep a one-shot with more, or fewer, than these. Generally, fewer than 3 and the players don’t get enough chance to roleplay outside their own party, and more than 5 are too many for the players to remember and interact with meaningfully.

They get a really brief description of anything distinctive about them, and any roleplaying notes if I’m going to be doing a silly voice for them. It helps with all of these to have really simple physical notes on them – a blue dress, an eyepatch, a gravelly voice – just one thing that the players might remember about them.

Scenes

Then I list each scene out – each gets a description of what happens at the start, and any game stats / information needed. These aren’t always linear – as I’ve posted before, I like to have a set middle and end and be a bit more loosey-goosey in the middle (the ‘swell’ is described here), so often these scenes can proceed in any order. I like to get game stats here as well so it’s all in one place, which I usually snip from .pdfs – including any game mechanics that are likely to get used. Obviously the games shared on here won’t have the snipped game statistics, but it’s worked much better for me to have each scene with everything on it, so there is only one document that I need to flip at the table.

A tip that I picked up from the Smart Party is to add descriptors to any group of similar monsters – especially as I always run combat as ‘theatre of the mind’ without minis, it’s useful to be able to refer to ‘fat goblin’ and ‘eye patch goblin’ during the game.

Except for short scenes, these are often printed out one to a page, and then the whole document is stapled (and printed out single-sided – flipping sides of paper can be fiddly at the table in the heat of battle). Any information or clues that can be found in scenes is put in bullet points so it stands out from the rest of the information.

So that’s my current format for one-shot prep. Later this week I’ll post a fuller example – of a one-shot I’m prepping for Starfinder where you have to liberate android gladiators from the slave pits – but for now, what format do you use when prepping one-shots?

“Which PC do you most want to die?” – Setup Questions in One-Shots (and Grogmeet 2018)

I’ve just returned from Grogmeet 2018, a one-day convention organised by Dirk the Dice at the Grognard Files – it’s almost a spin-off con from his podcast; I doubt there was anyone in attendance who didn’t regularly follow the ‘cast. It was unusual, and refreshing like a warm pint of bitter, and threw up some interesting game points that I’ve tried to cobble together into a post.

An Odd Bunch – and no, I mean the games

hitthenorth

Great to be back in Manchester, too

As befits an event steeped in nostalgia for the games of yesteryear, there was a wide selection of games that I don’t think you’d see at any other convention; from Tunnels and Trolls, to Flashing Blades, to new releases of old favourites like Runequest Glorantha and Warhammer FRP 4th edition, to the extreme niche (Price of Freedom? You might remember it from old copies of White Dwarf – it’s the game with a massive picture of Lenin on the front of it).

I would be very surprised if a more diverse (and frankly bonkers) selection of games is on offer at any other convention. And all were run with enthusiasm, and received with enthusiasm. I go to a lot of cons, and I’m don’t think I’ve seen a convention with so much enthusiasm for the hobby. It practically oozed out of everyone, particularly after a few beers. I played in an excellent game of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (4th edition) from Gaz from the Smart Party in the morning, and in the afternoon I ran Twilight 2000.

Indie-ing Twilight 2000

Before I go on, let me preface that I won’t be running T2000 again, and I can’t recommend that you do. I don’t want to spend too long going through my issues with the game, but have a few bulletpoints that I just need to get off my chest:

  • extremely low skill levels (at least if you generate PCs who aren’t in their 50s – good old GDW lifepath systems, eh?) As a d10 roll-under system, apart from combat skills it’s reasonable to have a character sheet that looks much like a Gumshoe game – lots of skills of 1 and 2. So lots of failure
  • difficulty is represented by doubling or halving your skill value. This is… swingy. So most shots in Combat are Easy (doubling) but that gets knocked down to Average because even if you spend an action Aiming, it only applies to the first bullet fired. Difficult actions are virtually impossible; Easy actions are often trivially easy.
  • a boringly overpowered initiative system. Initiative is a static value. If you have Initiative 3, you act in Phase 3, Phase 2, and Phase 1 (phases count down – because that’s obvious, right?). If you have Initiative 5, you get 5 actions, starting in Phase 5. If you have initiative 1, you not only act last, but only get one action.
  • automatic fire is independent of skill and requires a bucketload of d6s, with each 6 counting as a hit. I’m all for rolling a handful of dice, but once you hit double figures it starts to get less fun. There is a rule to avoid rolling too many which restricts the number you might have to roll for emptying the magazine to a maximum of 50d6; because otherwise our machinegunner could have had to roll 250d6 at the table.
  • there’s no Search skill. Like, seriously. I guess I could have used Observation, but as that’s the only perception skill, I felt like I was calling for rolls on that quite often too.

In short, you could sketch a system blindfold on the back of a fag packet right now that would still be smoother and more consistent than T2000. It was even worse in play than I was expecting – so in order to mitigate that I tried to make plenty of the session not be about the rules. To do this I used two sets of questions – and I’m going to share the technique here as a system-neutral tip for any game (even if you have a game system that actually works!)

Setting Questions

twilight 2000 pic

Pregens – with requisite gun porn and service history

After my pregens were handed out (and a brief summary given of the implied setting – post-apocalypse nuclear fallout, game set in South American jungles, isolated settlements beset by nomadic raiders) – I went with this set of questions, asked to the whole table but with the expectation that they were to be quickly decided rather than discussed and mused on. There were a couple of quick vetoes used (“No, that sounds rubbish”) – and I tried to join in about as much as the other players with new ideas, while also guiding and pulling together their discussions

  • What is your home community like? What is its name? Who’s in charge?
  • What does your community have in abundance? What does it lack?
  • There are rebels who live wild and want to steal from your community. What are they after?
  • There’s another community – you used to get along but not any more. Who are they? Why did you fall out?

I had a few other questions, about where they got their ammo, and who else they knew, but these provided enough of a setting – an old cocaine farm, rich in resources and defences but short of food and leadership, led by Vega (I think) – who’s first establishing Q&A of “What’s he like?” “He’s an arsehole,” set the tone for the whole community.

I then introduced another key NPC for the adventure, Old Isaac, a trader who has gone missing, and they decided on some facts about him – then they made three NPCs that they cared about – this was the patrol that went to investigate before them.

I was hoping that by asking the players to design the NPCs (even though I had stats for them and a rough idea what would happen to them) they would actually care about them. In the final scene (spoilers!) they had to battle against the three of them mind-controlled, and while it wasn’t a moment of world-shaking pathos and tragedy, it did lead to some interesting roleplaying, even if they only managed to save one of them.

PC-PC Questions

Neither of these ideas is original, of course, and this one in particular was taken mostly from Dungeon World Bonds. Basically, as you want the PCs to function as a team, by getting them to say how they feel about each other, the PCs get rounded and well-defined not just by their own player but the others around them. And it was dead simple.

Every PC had these questions on their character sheet – they just went through them after everyone had given a brief character description.

  • Who do you trust most on the team? Who’s always got your back?
  • Who do you always keep an eye on? Why?
  • Who’s pulled your shit out of the fire more than once?
  • Who is out of their depth and needs protecting for their own good?

Some of the players were pleasantly surprised when this threw up some asymmetrical relationships (one player trusting another who didn’t trust them back); I’ve seen that happen every time I’ve used this technique, and it’s golden.

Did it work?

I think it did. I won’t be running T2000 again – the disconnect between system and play was too much – but it felt like everyone had fun – including me. The two question techniques above can be used for any game, and I’m sure will have similar effects. It’s mostly about shared ownership of setting – which leads to investment in the adventure, which might make the players actually care a bit more about their characters. I’d be interested if anyone has had any success running T2000 in, like, the past 10 years or so, and how they found the system. I can’t quite bring myself to write up my prep notes or pregens into a publishable form, but I’ll try and get round to it if people are interested in it.

It was also a first for me in ages at running a mostly-investigative game. I’m not sure I’m very good at them yet, but it gave me enough food for thought that I might trot out some more at cons or Go Play Leeds in the future, and I’m sure they’ll make it onto the blog.

Gringle’s Pawnshop – a 13th Age Glorantha One-Shot adventure

Like all of our community, I was very saddened to hear of Greg Stafford’s sad passing. As just the week before I’d been running a ‘tribute one-shot’ to one of his classic adventures, it felt only right tidy it up a bit to share it here. Greg was the creator of Glorantha, which I’ve talked about here, and also (by all accounts – I never got to meet him myself) a thoroughly nice bloke – so many of the tributes to him have talked as much about how friendly and welcoming he was as well as his innovations in game design and worldbuilding.

Last weekend, at Furnace convention in Sheffield, UK, I ran three games of 13th Age Glorantha. I had planned to run two, but a few GMs had to pull out so I offered up another game in one of the slots. The first was Beard of Lhankor Mhy, for 2nd level PCs and published in Hearts in Glorantha 7 from D101 Games (along with the pregens). The second was a 3rd level one-shot, Into The Wasps’ Nest, where the PCs had to petition both the trolls of Troll Wood and the Wasp Riders of Wasp Nest to aid the Sartarite tribes.

This was the third – an update of the classic Apple Lane scenario by Greg Stafford for 1st level 13G characters. I set it a month after the original adventure, when the PCs have to clear up after the last adventurers, and tried to make it a lighthearted pastiche of the elements of the first adventure. I trust Greg would see the funny side – I mean, he did invent Ducks, after all, so he can’t blame me for putting one in a tuxedo, surely? The adventure is also here as a .pdf if you want to print it out.

Gringle’s Pawnshop

A 13th Age in Glorantha Adventure for 1st-level PCs

Introduction

As your band of heroes wanders out in search of adventure, you seek out the Runelord Gringle, proprietor of his Pawnshop in Apple Lane. But upon arrival at the hamlet, you find it overrun by trollkin, with Gringle and his faithful Duckservant Quackjohn trapped in the Pawnshop. After rescuing them, they tell you of their problem – Apple Lane has fallen into ruin since the temple of Uleria was ransacked by a tribe of baboons. The priestesses have been kidnapped and taken into the hills – the players must rescue them!

Dramatis Personae

Gringle is a white-bearded man obsessed with his stock and the hoarding of magic items. A Runelord of Issaries, he enjoys nothing more than the hustle and bustle of trade, but this has all but dried up since the baboons ransacked the town. His collectors nature has, in fact, proven to be his undoing. A tribe of baboons returned last month to claim their stolen necklace of Toothsharp from the shop, easily dispatching the rookie adventurers Gringle had employed to guard it. So easy was the recovery that they also saw fit to set fire to the Tin Inn and kidnap the three priestesses of Uleria while they were at it, leading to his present predicament. Gringle is a pleasant fellow who speaks kindly to adventurers – but he dislikes getting his hands dirty, hence his propensity for hiring adventurers to do his dirty work.

Quackjohn is Gringle’s longsuffering duckservant. He speaks rarely, and when it is it is often to remind Gringle in weary tones of something obvious he has forgotten. He is usually clad in a worn and battered tuxedo. He has pulled Gringle’s neck out of more than a few scrapes, and grows weary of his time serving his eccentric master.

The three kidnapped priestesses are the true power keeping Apple Lane going. They have manged to ensure that the regular visitors to the pawnshop spent their money freely with the local businesses, and kept the bickering farmhands in line. It is no surprise that without them Apple Lane has fallen to ruin.

  • Avareen Bosom is a hard-nosed and fearsome woman, and the true leader of the town – a stern yet kindly woman in late middle age.
  • Pretty Aileena is indeed pretty, but also the shrewdest of the three. Gringle in particular has learned several times not to trifle with her quick wit.
  • Bingoood is the youngest, barely out of her teens but already possessed of powerful magic and a temper to match

Khochaz the baboon cannot believe his luck. A minor tribal leader, he has managed to not only reclaim his prized Toothsharp necklace but also capture three human females who he hopes he can ransom to the strange shopkeeper from the village. He’s good at leadership and keeping his crew in line, but less good on details like keeping close eyes on the hostages or making sure his baboons guard the camp properly.

Biglaugh Bigclub is the mercenary Khochaz employed to help him loot the pawnshop. He has stayed with the Baboons (along with Pinfeather, a duck thief) in order to try and double-cross them, and steal both the humans and the Toothclaw pendant. Both him and Pinfeather are neither bright nor brave, however, and are prevaricating over the best moment to escape with the prize – maybe when some heroes attack the Baboon camp?

Scene One – Apple Lane

As the heroes approach Apple Lane, they find it very different to what they expected. The Tin Inn lies in ruins, and the Temple of Uleria has been trashed. Print out and place one of the many available maps of Apple Lane into the middle of the table (there’s a good one in the RQG GM’s pack) and draw the destruction on with a sharpie. As they explore the town, they hear skittering and screeching – before a group of Trollkin ambush them!

There is one Dark Troll Warrior, Shuffle, and 9 Starving Trollkin Wretches. If the Dark Troll is killed, make a Save for the remaining Wretches – they will attempt to flee. If you have fewer or more than 5 players, add or subtract 3 trollkin per player. Their statistics are in 13G p295.

Scene Two – Meeting Gringle

As the scene clears and the trolls and/or trollkin flee, a white-bearded man emerges from his ruined Pawnshop, followed by an elderly duck in a tuxedo. He introduces himself as Gringle, and states that he was just about to deal with the trolls himself using his “powerful Issaries rune magic.” Quackjohn rolls his eyes and coughs politely.

He explains the situation – Apple Lane is in a sorry state, and he is forced to admit it is since the priestesses were captured. He had acquired a necklace of Toothsharp through perfectly legal means, but the tribe of baboons who claimed it decided to raid his shop. Thinking it prudent to employ some protection, he employed a group of adventurers, who failed so poorly at defending his shop that the baboons (and their allies, who were led by a centaur) then set about looting the town and carried off the priestesses.

If questioned about where he was with his powerful magic while this was going on, he was involved in an important Issaries ritual in the basement of his shop, which also required Quackjohn’s attendance. When he emerged in the morning he was dismayed to find that the adventurers had fled, leaving him with a disunited village, many of whom started to flee to neighbouring towns since their protectors had so abandoned them. The troll raids started shortly afterwards.

He implores them to rescue the priestesses – he knows that the baboons tribe will be in the hills to the southeast, towards Highwyrm.

Scene Three – The Journey

As the heroes set off on their journey, and they have the directions from the adventurers who sold Gringle the Toothsharp necklace. Play this scene as a 13th Age montage – each player in turn narrates an event on the journey. Begin by narrating their first obstacle as they set off – the bridge across the river to the foothills has been cut by the trollkin as they ransacked the village, and they now stand at one bank of a mighty rushing river. Pass to a player who narrates how the party manage to overcome the obstacle – add a twist yourself if you wish to, to remind them that they are entering the wilderness and that chaos is afoot – and they then narrate the next obstacle. Proceed until every player has taken a turn – further examples of this are in the 13th Age GM Screen pack.

In your twists as GM, play up how dangerous the terrain is and add in any additional monsters just to add to the peril – they are venturing into dangerous mountains. The hills should gradually turn into mountains as they approach, until they come across the Baboon’s camp, nestled in a rocky valley and well defended.

Scene Four – Baboon Camp

The Baboons have taken up their camp in an old abandoned Dragonewt temple. The Baboon camp is as well-defended as it can be by a tribe of semi-sapient monkeys. Bigclub has attempted to organise some sort of watch system, but he knows he might need to sneak out one night so hasn’t bothered too much when the Baboons keep wandering off and losing interest.

As the players approach, they can see the chaotic attempts at guarding, and there are many opportunities to formulate a plan; judicious use of runes may work here. The baboons guard in pairs before they inevitably begin to wind one another up and fall about fighting or arguing, before Khoshaz jumps on them with his big stick to whip them into line.

If you like, sketch a map of the area and allow the players to think about their approach; any reasonable plan should be able to give them the advantage of surprise, or of not having to fight all the Baboons at once, particularly if the players make judicious use of runes.

If they vacillate, have matters come to a head for them. As they watch, a patrol of Baboons spots them, and a round later, they see Bigclub and Pinfeather attempting to carry the priestesses off.

There are a total of 10 Baboon Troopers from 13G p244, plus the NPCs detailed below.

This is a double-strength fight, so could be dangerous for the PCs if they don’t have their wits about them. There are a few ways to manage this

  • If the players are finding it too easy, more Baboons rush to their fellow’s aid – add an extra three Baboon Tribesmen
  • If they look to be finding it hard, allow Avareen breaks out of his bonds and runs across to them. A glow of love suffuses the battlefield, and all involved can heal using a recovery; this may also cause Bigclub and/or Pinfeather to be occupied for the next round chasing after her and re-capturing her

 

Khochaz, Baboon Leader

2nd level leader

Initiative: +8

Long spear: +8 vs AC – 5 damage

Natural 16+: Other baboons gain a +2 damage bonus against the target until the end of the battle

R: Sling +8 vs AC (one nearby or far away enemy) – 5 damage

Surviving: When an attack hits Khochaz and he’s staggered, roll a normal save. If it succeeds, it hits the other baboon instead.

AC 18                     PD 17                     MD 14                   HP 40

Bigclub, Centaur Raider

3rd level troop

Initiative: +9

Charging Lance: +9 vs AC – 12 damage, and the target pops free from the centaur

Hit ‘em hard: The crit range expands by 2 (18-20) and instead deals 16 damage on a hit if Bigclub first moves before attacking a new enemy

Natural 18+: The target is also dazed (-4 to attack) until the start of its next turn

Big Club: +8 vs AC – 10 damage

Natural even hit: Bigclub can Kick as a free action

Kick: +7 vs PD (1d2 enemies engaged with Bigclub) – target takes 4 damage and      pops free from Bigclub

Harnessed speed: +4 AC bonus vs opportunity attacks

AC 19                     PD 16                     MD 13                   HP 48

Pinfeather, duck thief

3rd level archer

Initiative: +9

Daggers: +9 vs AC (two attacks) – 6 damage

R: Shortbow +11 vs AC – 8 damage

Natural even hit or miss: Pinfeather can make a second shortbow attack as a free action

Quick shot: When Pinfeather is unengaged and an enemy moves to engage it, roll a normal save. If successful, Pinfeather can make a Shortbow attack as a free action just before he is engaged

AC 15                     PD 14                     MD 11                   HP 46

 

 

Scene Five – Victorious Return

The heores can now escort the three priestesses back to Apple Lane. Once their equipment is recovered, they cast a ritual that returns them to their temple; and as they harness the power of the Toothclaw necklace to do so, it crumbles into dust while the walls of the temple are rebuilt.

The find Gringle in good spirit as they return – he had found a few charms in his store, and has set about rebuilding the Tin Inn – riding into town is Bulster Brewer, the landlord, who says that now the baboons have been defeated he plans to reopen. He reckons there are still a few barrels in the cellar that should be good, and opens them while the players, Gringle, Quackjohn, Avareen, Aileena, and Bingoood drink to celebrate Apple Lane’s return to prosperity!

 

 

"Fake Papers" and "Intimidate Lampblacks" countdown clocks

The Training Mission – Blades in the Dark One-Shots Part 1

I’ve been working out how to run Blades in the Dark as a one-shot for a while. The first couple of games I’ve played/run managed to get through character and crew generation, and one score, in the 3-4 hour session, and while that was a great introduction to the game, there were a few things I wasn’t sure about with that

  • character generation is fun and exciting, but crew generation is often not; players negotiate awkwardly with each other and the sometimes over-think choices
  • the setting needs to be explained quickly and concisely
  • factional interactions (in crew generation and after the score) take too long to explain and monitor
  • the pattern of score – downtime – score is a key rhythm of longer-term play; it seems a shame to neglect downtime entirely in the one-shot

With this in mind, I set about working out how to give a satisfying one-shot experience. I used to run a lot of Mouse Guard, which has a similar turn structure, and I used to make sure that I did a GM’s Turn (where they completed the first half of the mission – often this started in media res and there was little chance to prepare or negotiate approaches), a Player’s Turn (where they tried to recover from conditions, and planned for the next mission – which they had a fair idea about from plot threads in the first section) and another GM’s Turn – a more player-led mission where they might have to assemble allies or negotiate approaches, with multiple means of resolution.

With that in mind, my Blades one-shot structure now looks like this

  • Players pick playbooks from a restricted list
  • GM introduces Crew sheet and abilities (already picked, but without a name / hideout)
  • Players play “Training Score” – Race to Gaddoc
  • Downtime activities – simplified and quick
  • Players play a full score – either the starting score or one of Sean Nittner’s scores – I’ve used Gaddoc Rail a couple of times

Does it work? Well, by beginning with a simple score, the players get a chance to learn the ropes of the system and what approaches they can use, which makes the second score much more straightforward – they risk stress, use flashbacks, and really invest to make sure it works. I ran it at Go Play Leeds recently and we managed another score after Gaddoc Rail – which was short and sweet thanks to some really good rolls, but it still gave a sense of progression to the game beyond the “one score and out” approach I’d used previously.

For the playbooks, I reduce the choice to just Cutter, Hound, Leech, Lurk, and Slide – the other two are a bit ‘weird’ and can be a stretch to get the players involved if they aren’t going to stretch it themselves.

The crew are Shadows – probably the easiest crew sheet to get in with – I put the crew sheet down, tell them after the first mission they’ll have a name for themselves, and tick the first Special Ability – Everybody Steals – so they all get an extra dot in Finesse, Prowl, or Tinker.

For the training score – Race to Gaddoc – I have some pre-prepared scenes based on what playbooks have actually been selected. I don’t have to use all of them, but enough to make sure everyone has enough spotlight time – they are pitched at one of the playbooks in particular, but there’s no need for that person to necesarily resolve the issue. The scenes are below (a .pdf with all of the details in one place will be linked in Part 2 when I post it next week).

Race to Gaddoc – A Training Score

  • Explain the starting situation – as a gang of ne’er-do-wells out to make a name for themselves, they have been asked by Lyssa, new leader of the Crows, to transport a rare case of Iruvian Brandy across the city to the Railjacks Guild at Gaddoc Rail. The problem is, she obtained this Brandy by stealing it from the Red Sashes, and the Bluecoats are looking for it as well, so this won’t be an easy task
  • Explain that this is a Transport task, and ask them for their Route across the ciry – they can choose to go by the alleyways and side-streets, or by the rivers and waterways, or they can try and disguise themselves as respectable merchants
  • Don’t allow too much planning, but they need to pick their Load based on the approach chosen
  • They make their engagement roll: 1d for luck, and if they have added anything to the approach which is useful, they get +1d for a better plan. They can also add in their friends or contacts if that’s relevant for +1d (only one friend can be involved)
  • Randomly select who rolls the engagement roll – unless somebody wants the responsibility
  • On a 6, it’s all going swimmingly until the acts below happen – their rolls will generally by Controlled to start with
  • On a 4-5, there are complications – rolls will start at Risky
  • On 1-3, it’s all going wrong – rolls begin with Desperate
  • Select encounters based on the Playbooks chosen as below

 Cutter

  • As they turn a corner in an alley, there are two heavies from the Lampblacks there – they wanted this job, and don’t see why they shouldn’t have got it rather than these upstarts.
    • Controlled: they’ve got their backs to you and are talking about the problem,
    • Risky: you see them sizing you up, threatening you – maybe they can be reasoned with, or at least surprised?
    • Desperate: there’s a knife at your throat before you know it and a threat in your ear. They’ve been tracking you since you left the Crow’s old watch tower hideout
  • Results of failure are likely to be Harm! Either way, they should escape to continue the mission. Also, use the level of success to determine the position for the next roll – if it’s successful, the next roll is likely to be Controlled or Risky, if it’s a failure, it might well be Desperate, and use the fiction to snowball into this

Hound

  • As you round a corner towards your goal, you can see the Red Sashes are tracking the route to the station – there are sharpshooters on the rooftops around the alleys or waterways, and you can see their Iruvian bows glittering in the breeze
    • Controlled: They are patrolling, but haven’t noticed you yet – they should be easy pickings
    • Risky: As above, but you can see they’re watching one another as well, tracking the alley/road/canal you’re coming down – and it’s too late to turn round, and carry alarm whistles – you’ll have to take them out quickly
    • Desperate: One’s looking straight at you, whistle in his mouth and bow at his shoulder about to shoot
  • Results of failure could be Harm, or to start a Red Sash Alert! Clock (4 sections) that can be filled in by future rolls. If it fills, they’ll have the full force of the Red Sashes waiting for them at the Railjack Yard and have to fight their way through

Leech

  • You’ve found the perfect short-cut – just around this building and you’ll have it, you can walk right through the main square without ducking round. But you’ve got an array of construction apparatus blocking your path – maybe it’s time for a little engineering to get through it?
    • Controlled: As above – there’s a web of rickety scaffolding around you, that need disassembling quietly and safely so you can proceed
    • Risky: The scaffolding is rickety and groans as you touch it – and there are construction workers just around the corner moving around – you’ll have to work quickly
    • Desperate: With a sickening crunch your cart is pinned beneath the web of a scaffolding link. There’s a commotion above and you can see hard-hatted engineers making their way towards you to investigate
  • You could start a Bluecoats clock as a result of failure as they are alerted to you, or fill in another clock

Lurk

  • The area of Nightmarket around the Railjack’s yard is crawling with Bluecoats, Red Sashes, and everyone else from Duskwall. You’re going to have to sneak past them to get in – maybe use the rooftops, or the sewers. This is a good opportunity for a Group Prowl roll.
    • Controlled: They are milling around, but they’re not looking for anything in particular – could be you could sneak past in plain sight
    • Risky: They know a shipment is coming in from the Crows and what it is – the case has been reported missing, and there are sniffer dogs around who have the nose for brandy
    • Desperate: They are looking for exactly the group that the Crew represent. It’s rooftops or sewers, or there’ll be trouble.

Slide

  • The Railjack‘s yard is surrounded by customs officials – they’ve had a big shipment of blood in and there’s no way at all that the players can come in for business, or otherwise
    • Controlled: It should be a simple matter of showing your papers though?
    • Risky: There’s Bluecoats and/or Red Sashes moving around as well, talking to the customs men – depending on the state of the clocks
    • Desperate: Behind the man is a hastily-sketched likeness of your Cutter, for this or a previous crime
  • After this, they can deliver the Brandy and update the crew sheet – give them +1 with the Crows and the Railjacks, and -1 from the Red Sashes and the Bluecoats. Take a break!

In Part 2, I’ll talk about the changes to Downtime to make it quick and easy, and how to transition to the second score.

One-Hour One-Shots: Starfinder: Into the Unknown

SF into the unknown picI’ve blogged before here about trying to prep and deliver an effective one-hour introductory game (and attempted to use the #1H1S abbreviation!), so I was pleasantly surprised to find out about the Starfinder Quests packaged together as Into the Unknown (ITU). The link takes you to Paizo’s website, but it’s a free download, and it’s worth a look even if you’re not keen on Starfinder (although you shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it) – as we’ll talk about here (If you want to see another example of a #1H1S, written by yours truly, head to D101 games and download (also free) Bite of The Crocodile God, my 1-hour game for Hunters of Alexandria).

The product consists of five linked adventures (“Quests”) designed to take an hour of game time for five 1st-level characters (and of course there are pregens available separately – along with some useful guidance about what starship roles they will be most effective at in the ship combats.

The adventures are simple and straightforward – three are ground combats with a mixture of exploration/investigation, and two are starship battles. I can see why Starfinder wants to show off its space combat, but I’d imagine these are the weakest to run on their own – they do just consist of a battle against another starship with a bit of plot context (and it doesn’t sell me on Starfinder – although the system is I’m sure fun – that these will take an hour on their own!)

If I was to run a few of them in sequence, the first three, in which the PCs follow a trail of clues (and a starship battle) to discover a missing starship, is a great 3-hour set, and if you were to run one on its own as a one-hour game, the first one would work well – there’s a good opportunity for roleplay as well as an interesting but relatively simple (as in complexity, not challenge) combat. It’s a good, tight design, and I’ll be stealing the structure to plot out similar traditional games for #1H1S.

Stick to One Set-Piece – but Seed with Roleplaying

With any kind of crunchy system (and see this post for more generic advice), in an hour you will only tackle one rules-heavy scene. That probably means if you’re planning one #1H1S, it’ll be a combat, so try and make it challenging and interesting and build stuff around it. For instance, in ITU’s first quest Station, there’s a neat investigation with an NPC leading to the confrontation, and probably an interrogation afterwards – so the combat is set in a context that justifies it.

Highlight the Best Crunch of the Game

As above, this is likely to be combat, but if you’re allowing yourself the luxury of a set of #1H1S games to piece together, you might like to expand. For instance, if I was planning something with Modiphius’ Star Trek Adventures (and I really should, given the popularity of the franchise), I’d probably want to include some sort of Extended Task scientific challenge for one of the segments – my scenes probably have a starship combat, a science-y extended task, and a ground combat – and maybe another extended task which is a negotiation or similar.

Either way, think about the rules you are showcasing as you prep. I’m sure that the Starship combat is deliberately showcased in ITU, which is why 2 whole Quests consist of an extended space battle. In other games, you might want to show how great social conflict can be (Burning Wheel springs to mind) – so include it if you can.

Episode it up and embrace the railroad

There’s a lot of guff spoken about railroading, especially when it comes to one-shot play, and even more if you’ve only got an hour to play with. Yes, in an extended campaign, forcing your players’ hands either explicitly or on the sly is certainly not good practice, but it’s necessary – advantageous even – in a one-shot to guide the players towards the good bits.

Also, try and make each #1H1S a complete and distinct chapter. This isn’t always easy, and it’s a stretch for some of ITU’s sections (I’ll come back again to the starship combat sections – yes, starship combat is a neat system in Starfinder, but I can’t see why you wouldn’t just play X-Wing for an hour if that was your jam).

Go forth and #1H1S

I must admit, since posting about them last year, I was a bit stymied about the #1H1S project – but finding ITU has got me seriously thinking about them now. Watch this space for further developments – and probably ready-to-play modules – and feel free to comment or contact me to suggest or request systems. As I said, Star Trek Adventures feels like a good fit for it. And let me know if you’re doing anything with them yourselves!

Hillfolk One-Shots

Hillfolk_Cover_reduced1Hillfolk is an amazing RPG. I’ve normally got a bit of a problem with what can be seen as “stone soup” RPGs, where the mechanics are limited to almost nothing, but there are two exceptions I make. One is Fiasco, where the complete absence of a resolution mechanic forces players into a hard director stance – you’ve got to embrace the feel of the films you are emulating and push your protagonists into difficult situations. And the other is Hillfolk. Hillfolk is a quieter, more contemplative kind of game; every time I’ve run it we’ve hit pathos, character development, and difficult decisions. And it does that because you don’t have to think about hit points.

 

It’s also a game that, unusually, benefits from a larger player group than I’d normally pick (I think the sweet spot is 5-6), and is explicitly designed for campaign play. But, like every game designed for campaign play (see my series on Powered by the Apocalypse games), with a few tweaks and procedures you can get a satisfying one-shot experience from it.

Skip Character Generation

Character generation in Hillfolk is awesome. It’s a whole session of setting up your series, where you’ll develop themes, dramatic poles, and potential story arcs. It takes a full 3-4 hour session. It does not benefit from being shortened. Instead, I’d recommend skipping it and setting up a tight initial situation yourself. There’s loads of information in the Series Pitches supplied with the game to develop your own with a little research, or there are some great ones already done. If you’re looking to run your first Hillfolk one-shot, I can’t recommend enough picking up Jon Cole’s character packs from the Pelgrane website (here, towards the end of Forms). There’s also a set of playbooks for The Secret of Warlock Mountain on the same site. And tons of advice and support; seriously worth a read.

Start with the Ensemble

Begin with a scene where (much like my advice for Urban Shadows) all the protagonists are present, and a looming threat emerges. This helps to coalesce the players towards working in one direction, even if PvP develops naturally. The classic Hillfolk set-up is that a nearby village has burned down your grain store, or the ailing Chief seeks a successor, but you can pick your own for the Series Pitch of your design. For my Hollywoodland game, I start with a party with all the protagonists present and have a police chief (either Charles Sebastian, or, if he’s a PC, a rival cop) shut it down and state that with the mayoral run coming up they’ll be coming down hard on the drugs and booze excesses of the movie industry. Depending on their reaction, one or two of them could get arrested, and you’re good to go. My own Hollywoodland start-up is a bit less flexible than the two examples linked, but that’s in part because the players are portraying real(ish) historical figures.

Listen, Prompt, Be a Fan

Because scene calling happens in rotation, your players will need to be ready to call the next scene. Give them the time and space to do this, and try not to prompt them too hard – I try to repeat the classic improv mantra that the most obvious thing to do is usually the best thing, and that they needn’t try to be original or flashy – the awesome will come naturally. If other players aren’t convinced of this, model it – be a fan of everyone’s scenes, and if you have players who haven’t played before you’ll see them blossom before you as they grow into the system, even if they’ve never played before.

Sample Set-Up

Here’s my own set-up for a Hollywoodland one-shot. Hollywoodland is a series pitch by Jason Morningstar set in the incipient movie industry of 1914.

I hope it’s useful to you, either to run yourself (and let me know how it goes!) or as a model for how to develop a one-shot set of characters for Hillfolk. I’ve tried to include as much detail as I can while still leaving the overall plot and scenes up to the players – there are scene notes and ideas for what to do to further their interests, and enough imbalanced relationships to hopefully lead to some slow-burn confrontations.

Bear in mind that the set-up can go to some difficult places, particularly if the film Birth of a Nation ends up being a backdrop, so I’d strongly recommend using an X-Card with this game (and almost any game with shared narrative authority that has any chance of similar things happening).

Afterword

I’ve got a few one-shot advice posts up now – for Dungeon WorldThe ‘Hood, Fate, Urban Shadows – as well as a piece on general “crunchy system” prep. I’ve got one-shot advice posts for 7th Sea (2nd edition) and 13th Age in the pipeline already, and I’m running Tenra Bansho Zero next month and will certainly blog about that, but I’m open to requests – what systems (even those that everybody says never work in a one-shot) would you like to hear about? Just tweet me or put it in the comments section.

Urban Shadows One-Shots

Urban Shadows (US) is Magpie Games’ Powered by the Apocalypse (PBTA) game of urban fantasy; if political manoeuvrings with wizards, vampires, and demons is your jam, it’s a great game. It’s a great game whatever, actually, which is why I’ve developed a few tips  for one-shot play that should help you if you want to bring it to a one-shot table.

I’m going to present this in two stages – what you do before it hits the table, and what you do at the start of play. Note that the book does have some great advice for one-shots in it already, but I’ve extended some of the advice to hit my particular sweet spot between player-driven and GM-prepped narrative. If you’d like more details on running PBTA one-shots generally, there’s a post here, as well as specific advice for Dungeon World.

Before Play

Pre-select Playbooks

You can make things easier for yourself by restricting the playbook selection for your players. This has two advantages – one, you avoid any chance of selection paralysis at the table, and two, you can focus your prep towards the playbooks selected. One from each faction is ideal – and I’d go with The Aware, The Vamp, The Tainted, and The Wizard for my choices – the Hunter has potential for some nasty PvP that some of your players may find uncomfortable, and The Fae has to keep track of promises as well as Debt which can be fiddly. If you have players pre-signed or know who’s going to play, you can let them pick, of course – but this helps to focus your thoughts on where they will be relevant. If you haven’t got anyone playing the Vamp, for instance, you don’t need to think about complex vampire politics.

Pick a City

Either use one of the cities already developed in Dark Streets, the setting sourcebook for US, or come up with one yourself. All you need for this is a defined group for each of the factions – for instance, when I wrote up Manchester 1997 for the Revelation convention I had the City Ghosts as my Night faction – a group of industrial-age spectres that keep the city surviving, and The Bridgewater Club as a group of hunters and graverobbers who sought to maintain the status quo – and represented the Mortality faction. If you’re able to, you could share your city write-up with your players in advance of the session. It’s also useful to develop broad brush strokes of one NPC for each faction. You need to be careful about introducing too many NPCs in your one-shot, but it helps to have some to start with so the players can generate them. Resist the temptation to have more than one NPC for each faction! Your players will generally invent more of them, and you can always create more on the fly for them if you need to.

Think of a Bang to Start With

Before play starts, think about an unavoidable event that can be happening that will bring the PCs together. Maybe something that threatens the whole city, or something that you know the PCs will hold dear – a reason for them to stick together. In play, the start of session move will give them more stuff to do as well, so your incident might be a backdrop or might be the key action of the session, but it should be unavoidable and with clear consequences.

Good ideas are an important area or location in the city being under threat, a massive monster being released or summoned, or a deadly NPC arriving and tipping the status quo. Even if it ends up being a backdrop, it should be something that sets multiple events in motion – it’s OK to have a deadly vampire killer on the loose, but make sure that his murders trigger an all-out Vamp-Werewolf gang war in the city, and have the wizards summoning blood demons to take out the most dangerous Vamp threats to them.

As well as an inciting incident, have a few ideas about how this event will climax towards the end of the session – the battle / binding of the demon, the restoring of the status quo, the NPC being chased off. Clearly it’s a good idea to have this as loose as you can make it, but it should be a clear endgame where the threat gets resolved one way or another.

Start of Play

Do Character Generation by the book

Get the players to fill in their Playbooks as per the rules on them. Follow the book advice on one-shots (one extra advance, 3 points of Corruption, one Corruption advance). Get them to go around and briefly introduce their characters after you give a brief overview of the city and the four factions you created. For each NPC, write their name and faction onto an index card and throw them in the middle of the table.

Do Debt – and make it a massive deal

Get the players to take turns in deciding Debt, and make a big deal of it. The book does advise this, but it helps to explicitly refer to Debt a key currency in the game – this is a game of factional manipulation and politics, so who owes whom is really important. I like to stress that 2 Debt is a big deal – you owe them big time, and they can call in a suitably big favour for this – anyone who owes 2 Debt to someone has a ticking time bomb of something being called in. In play, remember to remind them when they ask for something that Debt is the way to leverage it – and that they can always refuse to help with the appropriate Debt Moves.

Start of Session Moves

It’s easy to think that the start of session move doesn’t work for one-shots, but it really sings, especially if somebody rolls a Miss. I avoid giving any hints of my inital scene before they have done the session move, so that the PCs already have a lot on their plate before their unavoidable event happens.

Don’t pull punches! If they roll a Miss, it’s entirely appropriate to start them in a terrible situation. PBTA games are really resilient at letting PCs go from tragedy to glory, and back again, in just a few Moves, so don’t feel bad about starting with your Wizard captured by a recalcitrant demon he was trying to summon. When they mark their Faction, explain how the Advancement system works and that they are just 3 interactions away from advancing – they should be actively hunting down other factions to get their ticks. In the course of the Session Move, the players might suggest additional NPCs. Write them on an index card with their faction and put them in the middle of the table.

Check your NPCs

Before you launch your starting scene, take a look at the NPCs on the table and see if you can ditch any of them. If there’s one without any debt who doesn’t seem to be of interest to the group, suggest to the players that they might not feature in the game. They might have future plans for them – which is fine – but otherwise try to trim your NPC list down as much as you can. If this means ditching all four of your starting NPCs, so be it! The players inevitably come up with much more interesting characters.

Play!

Often PBTA games suggest you take a break now and collate your notes, look at how factions interact, and check you are ready to play. My own experience is that after the start of session moves I’m often fizzing with ideas, and the players are ready to go, so it’s better to start with the inciting incident now and have a break straight after it.

One piece of pay advice I’m terrible at following myself – make your hard moves soon! In a one-shot, once that first miss gets rolled in a risky situation, it’s fine to hit the player with unavoidable consequences; the “warn someone of impending danger” move is often slow. I prefer, in a one-shot, to “put someone in danger.”

So that’s a quick write-up of how I do Urban Shadows one-shots. It’s a cracking game and a great urban fantasy experience to bring to conventions. I’ll be posting up my Manchester 1997 setting shortly, so watch out for that – and putting up more one-shot advice soon enough.

Oh, and if urban fantasy is your bag, you should check out the kickstarter for the Liminal RPG. I’m involved in editing and producing some Case Files (adventures) for the system, and possibly more content depending on how far the stretch goals go. It’s already funded, so any extra Backers just mean more stuff gets written and produced for everyone!