Where I’m At – Seven Hills, Liminal, Go Play Leeds and other stuff

Burn After Running is nearly a year old! I thought I’d share what I’ve been up to recently, and what is coming in the immediate future.

Seven Hills

At the end of March I attended Seven Hills, a games convention in Sheffield. Paul Mitchener has organised it for the past 5 years, and announced prior to the convention that he’s stepping back from this – and I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be taking over from him! I’ve got a team of people who actually know what they’re doing behind me, of course, and Paul has left a very successful format that I don’t intend to mess with, but it’s exciting and daunting in equal measure. We’ve tried to revitalise the “themed” format of the convention by making an executive decision about next year’s theme – so Seven Hills 2019 will be Historical.

I ran two games at Seven Hills 2018, and both went well, from what I can tell. Unusually for me, I didn’t follow the name of this blog, and ran games that I’d previously run – which made my prep significantly easier. I ran the Emerald of the Ice Queen for 7th Sea 2nd edition, which I’ve blogged about here, and it went sufficiently smoothly for me to start writing up my notes to share on here. 7th Sea really is a loosey-goosey system, which holds together more from shared enthusiasm and keeping the plot moving, and my players were very helpful in making sure this happened. I’m going to be running much more 7th Sea, and I’m happy that I managed to get a ‘starter set’ adventure written that was a lot of fun. I’m going to write up the adventure into a playable form and stick in on here in due course – the pregens are already available to download here.

Crontas-The-Duck-for-Web

Crontas the Duck – as featured in The Beard of Lhankhor Mhy, in 13th Age in Glorantha (art by John Ossoway, one of my players the first time round)

I also ran 13th Age Glorantha, which was a blast, and similarly an ‘introduction to the system’ sort of game. I’m tidying this up to send off to be published in Newt Newport’s Hearts in Glorantha fanzine, so watch out for that, but I’m pleased that I managed to combine explaining the system with blagging my limited knowledge of the basket-weaving mythic nonsense that is Glorantha.

I got to play as well of course, although I had to leave early so dropped out of a chance to play Mutant Year Zero Mechatron, which I hear went really well. I’ve been meaning to run Blades in the Dark for ages, and so jumped at the chance to play it with Pete Atkinson at the helm, and it confirmed my suspicions that it is a game right up my street. I didn’t expect the setting to ooze through quite as much as it did – but we couldn’t help but feel the steampunk desperation vibe as our created-at-the-table crew staged an ill-fated raid on a rival gangs coffers. I got to play the Face of the group and I got to spam my character’s disguise skills.

And I got to play Earthdawn, the styled “greatest RPG ever made,” with Gaz from the Smart Party in the GM’s chair. It was a lot of fun, although also a great reminder of what 90s games were like, as we all remembered what Perception checks – and not making them – meant. Earthdawn has a slightly funky – and almost certainly uneven – dice ranking system, meaning that any bonuses or penalties result in you rolling a completely different set of dice for every ability, but it didn’t seem to slow us down too much, even if I did pick a Nethermancer (wizard) with 4 pages of character sheet. The plot was an interesting investigation into betrayal and familial guilt that surprised me in its complexity, and we had much more roleplaying than rolling dice – probably for the best given the shonky system.

Other gaming

I’ve started playing some online D&D (5e) over Roll20 – one session in, and it’s great. I have loads of tactical options every round, and this is even playing a cleric! By picking the War domain I’ve managed to be a fairly capable front-line fighter, although I don’t think I can dole out as much healing as the rest of the party was hoping for. I’m still iffy about the square-countiness of the grid, but I’m getting there with it.

Go Play Leeds has had a minor hiatus while we source a new venue, but we have a great one lined up which will be revealed in good time. The start of this year has seen a big rise in people coming who are returning to RPGing or have never played before, and so many new faces makes me feel positive about the hobby.

It’s not tabletop RPGing, but I’ve just started getting my head down in Assassin’s Creed Origins; I’ve just got to Alexandria and hit the open-world segment proper of the game. Can’t help but get a hankering to run some Hunters of Alexandria now!

Liminal

And I’ve just sent off my first piece of writing for the Liminal RPG, which I’m involved in with a team of great UK RPG designers (and me). The team is already overflowing with ideas for our British Urban Fantasy setting, and as we bounce folk tales off each other and build on one another’s ideas it feels like we’ll have a really great RPG at the end of it.

I’m involved in editing, writing some Case Files (adventures), and a sourcebook on Vampires. What started as a kickstarter for a new RPG has turned into an entire game line, with books on Mages, Fae, Werewolves, and specific location books for London and Newcastle as well as  big gazetteer of the setting, and it should keep us all busy for a while!

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!

Review: Xanathar’s Guide to Everything (D&D5e)

I’ve been saying for a while that playing, and running, more 5th edition D&D is definitely something I want to do this year; and in this post, I dissected the beauty of random tables and promised a review of the product that inspired them, Wizards’ latest D&D5e supplement Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. Well, here it is. Disclaimer first: I’m hardly the most knowledgeable person to talk about D&D5; if some of the new rules are imbalanced and hazy, I probably won’t have noticed them – other reviews are available, that will no doubt have a different focus to mine. I’m not going to be analysing the mechanical balance and options of each subclass presented, for instance – as usual in my reviews, I’ll be looking in broad brush strokes at what’s useful for one-shot games in the publication.

The Fluff – Roll 1d6 for your next three adventure hooks

While at first glance Xanathar’s contains little in the way of setting information, background or explicit ‘story,’ it is filled with is implicit, flexible background. Each character option and random table populates your game’s world with NPCs, factions, and hooks – and these are yours, not some silent D&D canon. This is a map-free book, but in using the optional rules just for your PCs you’ll find setting leaping out at you fully-formed.

What and how? Well, each background has additional tables, and there are a set randomly-rolled life events for each character. Each class has them; and they’re short and simple, easily picked though and just the relevant ones used. Wizards, for instance, now have three 1d6 tables that they can optionally use to determine what their spellbook looks like, what their mystical ambitions are, and what eccentricities they have developed through their studies of the art.

There’s also a set of random encounter tables by terrain and tier that give a good inclination of what different areas are like. It’s a long time since I’ve used any sort of random encounter table (and my procedure tended to be to roll up 2-3 in advance, make them tied to the world and interesting mechanically, and throw them at players if they came up, rather than rolling directly on them while in play) but they give a good sense for the setting and just what kinds of D&D creatures inhabit each kind of terrain.

Another nice bit of fluff is rules for Common Magic Items, which are cantrip-like magic items that provide small, but useful, functions – like the candle of the deep which never goes out, even underwater. Each one suggests multiple different uses – I can imagine a city beseiged by seasonal storms to have a roaring trade in candles for when the storms come, both from the wealthy seeking to keep their houses well-lit and those wanting to do business under cover of them.

The Crunch – there is a lot of this

Let’s start with the big stuff, the stuff that most readers will go to immediately – there are tons of character options, at between 2-4 new subclasses for each class. Some are familiar (I was pleased to see the Cavalier back, as well as the Kensai , Swashbuckler, and Hexblade) – and some are funkier suggestions (there’s a drunken master monk style, and a samurai). I’d really appreciate these when rolling up pregens for one-shots, as they provide a really clear distinct concept for players to latch onto. Because they’re subclasses, they don’t really add extra complexity to play, either, as they’re a one-off option that replaces other rules options in the class.

There’s lots of new spells, too – and extended trap design rules and systems for downtime. There’s tables and rules for buying, crafting, and selling magic items – not likely to see play in a one-shot, but fills in a handwavey part of play that’s been really poorly supported in previous editions. Back in youth of playing D&D, we’d always be heading back to town trying to fence yet another longsword +1 or potion of feather fall, and it always felt we were at the DM’s mercy as to how generous he was feeling.

There’s a new reading of the encounter design system, which appears much simpler and easier-to-use than the previous one in the DMG. My own experience from building encounters for one-shots right back from 3rd Edition would be to make every encounter harder than the rules say – you’re aiming for exciting, dangerous combat rather than the gradual resource-drain of regular dungeon exploration – and on the face of it this system makes it easier to twiddle those knobs to make that work.

Also there are extended rules for using tools – which I can see being really useful in a one-shot to make non-combat skill use a bit better supported in the game. Each set of tools is also linked to which skills are used with it – and if you’ve got any kind of mystery or investigation, these are good sources of inspiration for where clues might come from.

The One-Shot

Truth be told, most of the use this will see in a one-shot is embedded in the options above, but there are 3 excellent pages in an appendix at the back that are really useful. They detail how to setup and run a shared campaign, and although they clearly are geared towards running Adventurer League games, there’s some useful estimates such as how long combat encounters should take and how you can pace experience so everyone stays on the same page. I’m a big fan of linking one-shots into episodic campaigns, and this gives you most of the tools to do so, as well as sharing GM duties.

In an ideal world, for me this would have been 30 pages, not 3, and maybe explored using D&D for one-shots, different campaign formats (the 3-session minicampaign, sandbox play with a player pool like in West Marches, etc) – ook at structuring games and giving players ownership and genuine choice while also managing your prep (stuff like The Alexadrian’s Node-Based Design) – but hey, if it had all that stuff in, there’d be less for people to blog about, I guess.

To sum up, Xanathar’s brings an awful lot of extra ‘stuff’ to the game, but in a format that makes it pretty easy to drop in bits of it at a time to add to, rather than complicate, your game. I’ve still got a lot more thinking and exploring to do about running D&D5e as a one-shot (and I’ll be posting my thoughts here), but Xanathar’s increases the range of tools available to do so. What approaches or prep have you found useful in setting up a D&D5 one-shot, and am I right in thinking that using supplements like Xanathar’s and Volo’s can add richness without complexity?

Xanathar’s Guide to Random Tables – adding story to D&D5e

D&D 5th edition is a bit of a gap in my gaming experience. While it’s hardly explicitly designed for one-shots (for me D&D hews pretty closer to the zero-to-demigod progression than any other levelled game), I’ve had great experiences playing it. It captures the sweet spot of nostalgia and actually working. I’ve never actually run it, but certainly intend to set that right in the new year. And, like Starfinder, it certainly can support one-shot play – a lot of its complexity is hidden in easily-parsed references to older editions!

Storifying D&D: it can / can’t / should / shouldn’t be done!

A common thread about ten years ago on various Indie game communities used to be how to add storygaming elements to ‘trad’ games like D&D. It was met with a range of responses, from the zealous “you shouldn’t bother, just play a game that will actually support what you want to do” to more helpful suggestions, like John Aegard’s excellent piece on making D&D 4th edition a player-led sandbox.

The foundation for story-based games lies in character (or pregen) generation – if you have characters with links to the world and NPCs in it, beliefs and motivations to act beyond money and orcslaying, everything else will come, and feel natural. So after a preorder of the new Xanathar’s Guide to Everything arrived and sparked a guilt about how little attention I’d given 5th edition, I decided to give it a run through.

Xanathar’s deserves a proper review on here when I’ve fully dissected it for one-shot play, because apart from a bunch of sub-classes, encounter design guidelines, additional uses for equipment, it also contains a few pages of shared campaign guidelines (which are absolutely golden if you want to design a one-shot, brief though they are). But what initially caught my eye were the piles of random tables.

A lot has been made of the random tables that have returned for D&D5e, and I can’t get enough of them. Right there, using the ones in the PHB alongside those in Xanathar’s, you can randomly generate characters with rich, punchy backstories. I tested them out by rolling up a 1st level human fighter, Robert (oh yeah, his name was random as well – there’s 18 pages of random name tables at the back of the book as well). The tables for family backstory, combined with the backgrounds from the PHB, have made my ‘standard issue peasant fighter’ into something much more exciting, an army deserter using adventuring to find his estranged father. Don’t believe me – here’s his rough character sheet, with the table results combined with a pre-written backstory (NB: I’ve kept any links to the background and location deliberately vague, with only a dubious-evil Baron for Robert to rage against)

Robert

Race: Human (5′ 7″, 154 lbs)

Class: Fighter

Background: Folk hero

Alignment: Neutral Good

S 16, D 15, C 15, I 11, W 14, Ch 11

Languages: Common, Orc

HP 12; AC 19

Proficiencies: All armour, shields; simple weapons, martial weapons; carpenter’s tools, vehicles (land)

Saving Throws: S +5, D +2, C +4, I +0, W +2, Ch +0

Skill Proficiencies: Animal Handling, Athletics, Perception, Persuasion

Fighting Style: Defense (+1 to AC when wearing armour)

Second Wind: Use a bonus action to regain 1d10+1 hp each short/long rest

Combat: Longsword +5; 1d8+3 slashing. Light crossbow +4; 1d8+2 piercing. Dagger +5; 1d4+3 piercing.

Equipment: Chain mail, longsword, shield, light crossbow (20 bolts), explorer’s pack, carpenter’s tools, shovel, iron pot, common clothes, belt pouch with 18gp, dagger.

 

Origin: Know who your parents are; born at home; no siblings. Raised by single mother (father was imprisoned); modest lifestyle with no permanent residence – you moved around a lot; others saw you as different and strange, so you had few companions

Background decision: A mad old hermit spoke a prophecy when I was born, saying I would accomplish great things

Fighter training: I joined the army and learned how to fight as a group

Defining Event: You broke into a tyrant’s castle and stole weapons to arm the people

Personality: If someone is in trouble, I’m always ready to lend help

Ideal: Sincerity – there’s no good in pretending to be something I’m not

Bond: I have a family, but I have no idea where they are. One day, I hope to see them again

Life Events: A relative bequeathed you a simple weapon, spent time working in a job’

Flaw: I have trouble trusting my allies

 

Born to simple carpenters, the prophecy that the mad gnome Oppleby spoke when Robert was born would prove to be his downfall. His father stayed at home from the work-gang to care for Robert following the prophecy, and though they tried to evade the Baron, Robert’s father was captured and imprisoned soon after by the Baron’s men. As Robert and his mother Emma moved from town to town, earning what little they could from odd jobs and the kindness of strangers, Robert’s heartbreak at seeing his father dragged away led to steely resolve to find his captors and bring them to justice.

Knowing he would need a strong sword arm to bring the Baron to justice, he joined the army, where he quickly became successful as a carpenter in the engineering division while his martial expertise grew. But seeing the lash of his sergeant’s whip on his comrades, Robert fled the army, defecting with his squad after stealing from the company supplies. In the escape his squad-mate Manfred was fatally injured, and he gave Robert the engraved dagger his own father had given him, begging Robert to continue his quest.

Robert found himself again moving from town to town, and making use of what carpentry skills he had, until the opportunity for adventure and making good on his prophecy came to him. He knows he will only bring danger to his mother if he returns to her, but still seeks to find his father, and free him from the Baron’s oppression.

See what I mean? It’s corny, and I guess a little obvious, but the table results just determined that juicy backstory naturally. Later I’ll be blogging here about adapting published adventures, but for a party including Robert you can bet that either (i) the Baron’s men are all over town getting in his way, and/or (ii) the adventure’s big bad has links to the Baron. Have you got any examples of how random tables can develop grabby character backgrounds?

Review: Starfinder – or, how I learned to stop worrying and love d20 again

I’ve been sniffy about Pathfinder for years, and I have to admit it’s jealousy. I played, and ran, a ton of D&D3.5 back in the day, but Pathfinder’s release coincided with me finding other gamers to play with whose tastes were broader and more in tune with my own expectations of gaming – I was discovering Fiasco, playing Spirit of the Century for the first time. Why, I asked myself, would I ever go back to counting squares and moving minis? And it simmered inside me as I watched game store shelves groan under their beautiful books with their great artwork and, and… And so many Pathfinder players seemed to play only Pathfinder, I couldn’t help but feel a bit above them – what did they know of shared imagined spaces, or GM-full improv techniques, or the freewheeling narration of 13th Age between-combat montages?

But last week, I bought Starfinder. And it’s great. So many of my feelings towards its fantasy forerunner, I realise, are unjustified. So, if you’re like me and haven’t touched d20 with a bargepole since you started buying FATE dice and freewheeling narration, here are 5 reasons you should give Starfinder a whirl:

1: The gonzo gauge is carefully calibrated

Okay, science fantasy is inherently gonzo. Do you come down on the He Man side (for which you’ll be looking at Master of Umdaar as the ideal game), or do you try for mystery and technology and magic as interchangeable (it’s post-apocalypse, but Numenera is probably the gold standard for getting this right). Starfinder walks a careful path between these – yes, it’s got magic and technomancy and priesthoods and, er, space goblins, but it’s also got a consistent background that makes these fit together in a somewhat-logical way.

Paizo did excellently with Pathfinder in reinventing a kitchen-sink D&D world in Golarion, and by setting Starfinder in Golarion’s far future they leave the door open for Pathfinder monsters to be used/adapted as well. They have space-elves, space-dwarves, and such, but wisely put them at the back of the book, leaving their more sci-fi themed races at the start. There are half-human Androids, insectoid Shirrens, and anthropomorphic rats called Ysoki, among others. The Ysoki can store small items in their cheek pouches; they do bring to mind the legendary Giant Space Hamsters of 2nd Ed. AD&D’s Spelljammer setting (talking of gonzo…), and for me that’s a good thing.

2: Everything else in the game is carefully calibrated

When Paizo set out to make Pathfinder, they took D&D3.5 and fixed it, trying to make it smoother and cleaner. Smoother I’m not sure, but it is perfectly balanced. They’ve changed a few things in Starfinder (like having Hit Points and Stamina Points, and giving equipment levels) – but it all fits together lovingly. Yes, there are those that will obsess over builds, trying to find the most powerful game-breaking character, but the fact that this generates so much discussion just goes to show how tightly balanced it generally is. While it’s not quite mastery-proof, with a little common-sense it looks to be very difficult to accidentally generate a significantly sub-optimal character.

And the classes look fun. There are Solarians, who generate spectral weaponry and armour, and Mechanics who all get funky drones to follow them around and do their bidding. It’s fantasy, so the Mystic and Technomancer are classes too. PCs get to choose Themes as well, which add another layer to the character so that several different options exist for similar characters.

3: You don’t have to use minis and count squares

This is one of the best-kept secrets of Pathfinder. It is entirely possible to play Pathfinder, and by extension Starfinder, without using miniatures or a grid. Just replace it with, well, common sense. A rough idea of encounter ranges helps, as does players who are happy with this approach, but it’s easy to negotiate, for instance, how many opponents are in an area of effect attack or whether you are flanking an opponent.

Obviously, you lose a bit of tactical grit if you do this, but you have to make the judgement that you do gain a bit more narrative flexibility with this system – I guess it goes down to how you picture a combat in your mind, and having minis and squares can help that in some ways, or hinder it in others. But genuinely, if the grid is the problem, trust me and try it without.

4: You can totally use minis and count squares

If you haven’t seen the Pathfinder Pawn collections, they are a great idea. You get a box of thick card standees with bases, and Paizo has started producing Pawn sets for its Adventure Paths as well… so if you want to run through one of its campaigns you can get the standees for everything the PCs are likely to face in the adventure. It’s cheap, easy, and all you need is one of those roll-up latex mats and some OHP pens and you can get your mapping on. The first Pawn collection for Starfinder is out now, and I’m sure Paizo will continue to support them. Worth noting that you can get the Pathfinder ones pretty cheap on Amazon and Ebay if you keep an eye out for them.

5: It can be played one-shot

The default play style for D&D 3.5, and by extension Pathfinder, was the long campaign. The progression from 1st to 20th level was carefully mapped out, and for me this meant that one-shot play was off the table. Another factor was the general encounter approach – which focused on lots of small encounters to wear down player resources without many big, dangerous fights.

Just a few tweaks can make it much more one-shot friendly though. Getting rid of the minis and maps helps if you’re cool with that, for a start. Reducing the number of fights, and making them each more challenging, is a good idea, as is having plenty of skill-based encounters – which of course is a little easier in a science fantasy setting than a dungeon-crawling fantasy one. I’d also ditch 1st level too; the sweet spots for one-shot play are about 3rd-8th level in D&D, and I’m sure Starfinder will be the same. You can, of course, use the collapsible dungeon advice from this blog to make sure you keep to time, and I’d recommend following the advice for crunchy games here.

So, you can probably expect to see some content for Starfinder appearing on here. I’ll begin hawking it at conventions, and Go Play Leeds – and especially at North Star, a newly-birthed Science Fiction RPG con in Sheffield next year. What do you think? Have I been charmed by the high production values and anthropomorphic hamsters? Or is there something in this? If it helps, the .pdf is only $9.99 at the moment from Paizo… although you’ll want the big, shiny print version once you see it.