Pregen Power Levels

In this post I’m going to talk about how powerful your one-shot pregens should be. Designing pregens is often the first step to prepping a one-shot, and definitely needs to be done before your prep is finished (and then you can check there are relevant challenges for each PC to allow for spotlight spread), and it’s tempting to just throw together characters following the rules in the book – standard starting characters. This is sometimes the best case, but sometimes it’s worth beefing up your characters a bit.

This is obviously a topic that varies a lot from system to system, so I’m going to look at a few in turn.

D&D / 13th Age / F20 games

If you’re running a game for players that are completely new to TTRPGs, and you want to keep things simple (and you should) – start at 1st level. D&D 1st level pregens can be a bit squishy, so you might consider either making them 2nd level (which really are no more powerful apart from the extra hp and a few more spell slots) or even just giving them the 2nd level hit point boost. This is something I’d particularly recommend if you’re running for players who might not be too keen on their PCs being knocked out.

Of course, instead of beefing them up you might be tempted to knock down the opposition – but I’d caution against this. For one thing, several of the support roles in D&D are really unsatisfying if there isn’t proper opposition – I can remember playing a Life Cleric in a one-shot and being a bit disappointed that I didn’t get to use my awesome healing powers.

If you’ve got some experienced players, but still want to keep it straightforward, 3rd or 4th level is the way to go. At this point, there’s a bump in complexity that gives PCs a plethora of options in D&D (in 13th Age they have these options pretty much from 1st level), and a lot of scope for niche protection; two 3rd level human fighters can play very differently at the table depending on design choice.

If you want superhero-style high fantasy, you can use the Fireball Cutoff. This rule (which I’ve just invented) states that at the point where PCs acquire the spell Fireball, that’s when they become high fantasy superheroes instead of hardscrabble spelunkers. This happens in most F20 games at a lowly 5th level – from that point on, expect your players to be big damn heroes. Weirdly, this happens in almost every level-based fantasy game – it stands in D&D, 13th Age, Shadow of the Demon Lord. In other systems, feel free to locate Fireball in the spell list and work out where this level is

At this level or above, even if you’ve got experienced players, I’d recommend allowing them to use average damage for effects that require rolling a lot of dice (especially in 13th Age, where this is every weapon and spell attack) – if a player is going to take some time to add up the result of 6d10+12 it’s going to be boring for the rest of the table, and dull for them, so offer this as an option in advance. At the very least, have plenty of dice so they aren’t trying to roll their own single d10 six times. If you want more swing, just let players flip a coin for max/min damage – I’ve used this effectively in a 5th level 13th Age one-shot.

Fate / PBTA

In these games, generally the pregen they start with is fine. The one adjustment I like to make in PBTA games is give everyone two or three XP ticks, just so it’s very likely they’ll get an advance in the first couple of hours of play – giving them a chance to see their character grow during the game.

For Fate, the equivalent I’d recommend is leaving one or two aspects blank, and even (if Fate Core) a few mid-range skills. Players can fill these in before, or during, the game to allow a bit of input into their character. It’s possible to run Fate Core doing character generation entirely in-game, based on just a high concept aspect, but this is a bit of a risk unless you know your players will be up for this and won’t spend ages paralysed by decisions.

I’ve written in more detail about Forged in the Dark games like Blades here, but in general I’d resist boosting any of their starting abilities, tempting though it may be. It’s more enjoyable for PCs to fumble through a heist or job, as failure will drive more problems their way, than to have them patch everything up with some die rolls – this also makes them spend stress and have something to do in the Downtime phase. A similar approach works for Mouse Guard – don’t be afraid to force some of the Guardmice to roll skills they might not have – this forces them to tap Nature and risk it dropping, and work together even more. In these teamwork-driven games, niche protection is vital, so you need to be careful to not make the PCs able to succeed individually.

Cypher

Cypher (the system behind Numenera and The Strange, amongst other excellent setting books) is a really rules-light system that focuses a bit more on resource management than the rest of the ones discussed here – and boils most things down to a single d20 roll.

For Cypher, I’d recommend Tier 2 characters as a minimum, and I wouldn’t be afraid of Tier 3 or 4. As Cypher PCs advance, they don’t particularly get much more powerful – they just gain additional options to use. At Tier 1, their options are generally pretty limited – it’s only at higher tiers that the really cool Foci abilties kick in, and while the PCs get more badass, they don’t become anywhere near invincible. This is great in a campaign where they can watch their options grow, but in a one-shot they might as well have these options earlier. I’d also recommend using my hack for experience in Cypher games in one-shots, to avoid the spend-or-hoard XP mechanics.

Balancing Opposition

This is a big generalisation across the systems, but I prefer to beef up opposition beyond what it says in the book for low-level PCs, and taper this off as they get higher level. At low levels, you need challenges to be genuine challenges, and resource-depletion fights that are the bread-and-butter combat encounters of longer-term F20 games are generally unsatisfying. Mix it up, too – as here, it’s an idea to start off with a really underpowered fight as a training level for the players, but do what you can to make the difficulty ramp up through the one-shot to the climax.

If you’ve every played D&D or Pathfinder in a campaign, you’ll have realised that by 3rd level – if the group has stayed pretty consistent – your party has usually evolved into an efficient combat unit because you have some awareness of what other PCs abilities do. As you play through encounters, you become adept at knowing when to rage, when to hang back, how many heals your cleric has left, that sort of thing. In a one-shot, this knowledge is unlikely to develop in 3 hours, and it can make a massive difference to a party’s effectiveness.

So be prepared to tone it down and have some flexibility with challenges – this can include having terrain features that may or may not come into play, reinforcements that might or might not come, or even some killer tactics that might not be used, depending on how ruthless your players are being.

What are your tips for balancing pregens and encounters? Are there any other systems you’d like to see discussed?

This was meant to be the final post of 2019, but it’s ended up creeping out after a rewrite in 2020. So, if you can imagine this came out last year, thank you so much for your continued support and digestion of my words. In the last two years Burn After Running has grown into almost a ‘real blog,’ and as always I love to hear suggestions for what games to cover or review, new kinds of articles, and what you’d like more or less of. Catch me on twitter @milnermaths or comment below.

Review: Eberron, Rising from the Last War

EberronFirst, a disclaimer. My reviews aren’t thorough, and I don’t review things I don’t like – there’s enough negativity around. That’s not to say that I like everything – just, if I’m not a fan, I don’t see the point of telling the internet. But if something is good, I like to share why and how it’s good, and give a feel for how it could be used in one-shot games. And Eberron is bloody good. If you’re after more complete reviews, I can recommend Pookie’s site Reviews from R’lyeh – and there are many other review sites a google search will find you.

Eberron is D&D’s latest setting – although it’s not brand new to 5th edition. First emerging in the 3rd Edition era, it was an attempt to design a world from the ground up – it arrives completely free of old-timey weirdness in the way, say, Forgotten Realms has Elminster everywhere, and Greyhawk is full of dungeons and places called Geoff. It’s pulp, and steampunk-pulp, and is actually designed for exciting adventures… the whole world feels like it sits on a knife-edge, as if brave heroes could actually make a difference.

The Fluff

Eberron is your typical D&D fantasy world, magic everywhere, dwarves in the mountains, elves in the hills. They’ve just had a massive war, though – where warforged, sentient humanoid robots, became a thing, along with lots of magical-technological inventions. There’s lightning rail trains, airships (we love an airship), and magic item manufactories. The city covered in detail in the sourcebook, Sharn, use air elemental powers to grow vertically, so that it’s hundreds of feet high. There’s dragonmarked houses, families with weird birthmarks that give them magical powers, and a weird psychic spirit realm that some creatures are attached to. The last war ended when an unknown WMD destroyed an entire country.

There’s more along the same lines, and it’s a mixture of familiar tropes and neat little twists. Eberron is a world in flux, where things can collapse and be rebuilt very quickly. There’s intrigue and opportunity and everything is very factional – there’s a continent of monsters, Drooam, but PCs could easily find themselves working alongside its goblins and bugbears against greater human evils. There are dinosaur-riding halflings. There are half-werewolf shifters. There’s lots of stuff – it’s a kitchen sink setting – and just enough of it is twisted in a cool way to make it stand out. It’s very pulp, and very D&D.

The Crunch

You get a lot of extra game in Eberron – four entirely new races, a new core class (the artificer) and lots of variants and options, including for dragonmarks. There are guidelines for having a group patron which are more suited to longer-term play really, and they also provide a good framework to hang a one-shot on. There are monsters, including some really cool ideas that would transport into other settings (living spells in particular deserve to be in every mad sorcerer’s tower).

And as with most D&D5 supplements, there are a lot of tables, and plenty of maps. The move towards sourcebooks as inspiration-dumps is great, and Eberron, like Ravnica before it, demonstrates this brilliantly. Even where it becomes more of a traditional setting gazetteer (describing the districts and buildings of Sharn, for example) the information is presented with usability considered – there are lists of important buildings, rather than long sections of prose describing daily life.

The One-Shot

Eberron is a great setting for a one-shot. The pulp style makes it easy to come up with quests and missions to explore, and the way each area or faction is loaded up with plot hooks makes them ideal for one-shot play. Indeed, each of the Patrons given – from fairly standard (Adventurer’s Guild) to more unusual (Newspaper, Inquisitive Agency) give ample opportunity for mission-based play. Like Ravnica’s guilds, each of these provide a strong backdrop to hang a one-shot adventure on and still have it feel distinctively Eberron.

All in all I’m very pleased to see Eberron back as an official D&D setting – if a little worried that Ravnica might now see it’s star fade a little, as it treads similar tropes to Eberron with a more limited scope. I’ll be developing some one-shots for it, certainly, and I’ll share them here when they are in a polished-enough state.

 

The Rats of Rothsea – a D&D5 1st-level One-Shot

After my summer of running lots of D&D (see here and here), I have quite a few 1st-level one-shots sketched out – and I’ll be putting them up here gradually, to go with The Goblins and The Pie Shop and my adaptation of Goblin Gulley. This is a village-based investigative adventure (again borrowing structure from The Alexandrian’s Node-Based Design) with lots of giant rats in it.

Oh, and just to be clear – the similar-sounding town of Rothesay, on the Isle of Bute near Glasgow, is nothing like the village here. It’s an old-fashioned resort town where you can enjoy the bracing Scottish weather and view the finest public lavatories in Scotland (seriously) – and has almost no rats.

The Rats of Rothsea

An introductory D&D one-shot for 3-6 1st level characters

Introduction

Rothsea has a rat problem. For the last few weeks, swarms of vicious rats, and giant ones as big as dogs, have chewed their way through their supplies. Even the Vermincatcher’s Guild seem powerless to help, and all points towards an old trawler that grounded on the nearby beach. Only the joyful songs of Erwin Jest, a bard newly arrived to the village, and the stout heart of Torven the Barkeep have managed to keep the villagers from sinking into despair.

In truth, Jest is a warlock in thrall to an ancient rat-god, and it was him that arrived on the trawler that night along with his verminous host and an evil artefact, the Amulet of Rodents. He has paid off the Vermincatcher’s Guild and is hoping that the lack of food will paint him as the village’s saviour when he eventually solves the village’s rat problem.

Characters

Erwin Jest appears as a twinkle-eyed bard with a tuneful lute and a quick wit. He only arrived at the village recently but is already a firm favourite – some suspected him to be a retired adventurer when he first arrived, but his abject cowardice has made them sure he is not that. In truth, he seeks to turn the village into his own – by overrunning it with rats. He’s told Maria, of the Vermincatcher’s guild, that they’ll live together as Lord and Lady, and bribed her heftily.

Torven is a simple dwarf, a former miner who threw his lot in with Rothsea when he lost his husband in a cave-in in the dwarven mines. He is loyal to the village and enjoys Jest’s company. He keeps his tavern, The Rusty Hook, in good order, and prides himself on serving rough, simple fare for his patrons.

Actis is Torven’s only other member of staff, a wiry elf who used to be a fisherwoman but quit when a beast from the deep chewed off half of her leg. She walks with a limp now and is determined to make the best of her lot. Torven has been very good to her and she is loyal– and she also is fascinated by Jest.

Maria is the current guildmistress of the vermincatcher’s guild. A hard-eyed halfling with three missing fingers on her left hand (chewed off by rats, she claims, although it was actually a punishment for theft as a child), she has taken Jest’s bribe in good faith and is assured of a place at his right hand at the culmination of his scheme.

Locations

Rothsea is a grim fishing village on the far coast, isolated from main trade routes. Adventurers occasionally stop here, but mostly it is fishermen and trawlers who venture out for a few days at a time to the stormy seas to bring back their catch. They are grim but loyal folk, and very worried about the recent rat activities.

Beneath their streets, the inhabitants know that there are a series of catacombs and sea-caves that link to the village’s cellars sometimes – this makes them very wary of rats and other creatures lairing in them, and one reason why they employ Maria and her vermincatchers to keep them safe.

Scene One – The Rats in the Cellar

DeanSpencer-filler-ratseating

Rats (C) Dean Spencer

As the characters arrive in Rothsea, it is falling to dark. The only tavern in the village, The Rusty Hook, looks out over the sea-front, and Torven pours pints of dark, heavy ale to a few sou-wester’d fishermen and women as they sit glumly. Jest greets them in between his songs.

If the characters ask for food Torven fetches bowls of stew, but is apologetic as he hands them the thin gruel and mouldy bread – supplies are low, he says. Then a scream is heard from below the tavern in the cellars, and the patrons hang back in fear. Torven leads the way, and they can see into the cellar, where Actis is scrabbling to get away from a swarm of rats that are chewing her good leg away. As the characters approach, they see a group of huge rats the size of dogs appear through the collapsed wall and bear down on them.

There is one giant rat (MM327) per player. If your players are experienced, and you want to make this first encounter more of a challenge, replace two of the giant rats with a rat swarm (MM339) – but be warned that they can be a dangerous opponent to the players.

Once they have dispatched the rats, Torven sends his patrons away and makes to repairing the wall. He offers the characters employment to solve the village’s rat problem – 150gp between them if they can resolve it in the next few days – and suggests a few lines of enquiry.

The might want to investigate the hole in his cellar and see where the tunnels lead (Scene Two). His patrons are sure that the rat problem started when a trawler washed up on the beach nearby (Scene Three). They could also pay the Vermincatcher’s Guild a visit and ask them why they haven’t managed to resolve the rat problem (Scene Four).

Scene Two – The Tunnels Beneath Rothsea

If they explore the broken wall, they can soon make their way into Rothsea’s labyrinthine tunnel system. The caverns have at times been hollowed out and crafted, and at one time these tunnels have been used as lairs for various creatures. The following skill checks are relevant.

The tunnels are damp and stinking, with only the occasional shaft of light from about to provide some fresh air and illumination. The tunnels are an odd mixture of natural passageways linked to the sea caves and man-made corridors.

DC10 History – the tunnels predate the building of Rothsea – many of these passages were here before the town was built

DC10 Survival – there are tracks all over of rats and giant rats, but also a few humanoid footprints here and there
DC15 Survival – the humanoid footprints are from well-made city books, not the rough wellingtons worn by most of Rothsea’s inhabitants
DC20 Survival – most of the tracks can be traced to the Vermincatcher’s Guild, but a few lead out towards a hut on the outskirts of town.

DC10 Perception – there are some sources of food down here – it appears as if some waste has been deliberately left for the rats

A longer passage leads out towards the sea cave to the side of the trawler (Scene Three), and a thorough exploration of the links to cellars will lead them to a few different places – including the Vermincatcher’s Guild. A rough wooden board has been made into a makeshift door into the Guild House cellars – and clearly it has been used recently (Scene Four). If they follow the tracks to the hut, they will come to Jest’s house (Scene Five) – although since their arrival he has boarded up his route into the cellars, sure that he can always use the entrance in the Guild House if he needs to see his rats again.

Scene Three – The Old Trawler

A few minutes walk outside the village, washed up on a quiet beach surrounded by cliffs, is the old trawler. A tatty sign painted on the side that is out of the tide gives the vessel’s name – the Rum Jug. Locals can tell how it arrived one storm-filled night, and ever since the rat problem has been significant. On the night of the wreck, a few fishermen went out to look for survivors, but there were none, and most assumed that the sailors must have abandoned ship earlier on the stormy seas. Such storms are fairly common, and although it has been a few years since there has been a wreck, old fishermen speak of the dangers of the cliffs to the south of Rothsea. Looters have long since taken anything of value, they say, and locals are extremely reluctant to return to it.

The ship lies on its side half-in and half-out of the water at high tide, and a thorough search of the surface reveal only old chests of grain and supplies that have long since rotted or been looted. A door leads to the captain’s quarters and is locked – it is a DC12 Thieves’ Tools check to pick, or a DC15 Athletics check to kick open. If neither of these are successful, concerted effort can lead them to open it, but the guardians inside will be able to surprise the characters.

Inside the captain’s cabin are the final guardians of the ship’s secrets, one or more undead octopi. These have statistics identical to the Giant Octopus on MM326 but have damage resistance to necrotic damage, immunity to poison, condition immunity to exhaustion and poison and darkvision of 60’ (thanks to the Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque blog for the quick-and dirty undead template here)

Number of PCs Number of Undead Octopi
3-4 1
5 2, but one is wedged between the side of a desk and so does not act until the second round of combat
6 2

 

Within the captains drawer is a series of letters detailing the cargo – mostly grain and trinkets, but also the transport of a prisoner, one Erwin Jest, for transportation into the wilderness for his ‘depraved practices’ – a reference to his pact with the rat-god.

It also describes a small sea-chest, inscribed with a carved octopus, as being of great value and asking for it to be stored ‘in the captains quarters, and locked away with all its guardians.’ The captain’s log speaks of the terrible conditions on the sea, and of his fears as the prisoner appeared to have escaped just before the storm. There are also two daggers and a finely-made shortsword in a small display case which is trapped with a poison needle (DC15 to detect and disarm – needle does 1hp damage and a DC10 Constution save or lose 1d4 hp from maximum and cannot recover hp except by magical means).

The cliffs around the Trawler contain some damp sea-caves, which lead to the tunnels underneath Rothsea (Scene Two). Asking around about the sea-chest among the looters, none of them can remember finding such an item – although some seem to remember seeing such a thing in the Vermincatcher’s Guildhouse (Scene Four). They may seek to confront Jest, in which case asking around will reveal that he lives in an old hut on the edge of the town (Scene Five)

Scene Four – The Vermincatcher’s Guildhouse

Maria and her Vermincatchers – a motley assortment of halflings, gnomes and small humans, used to take pride in their work, but have been bribed by Jest to stay out of this until he gives the signal. Maria is quite taken by Jest, but mostly sees him as an opportunity for their Guild to gain some respectability in the village.

If the characters sneak around, they find the guildhouse is guarded by a handful of guildmembers – use Bandit statistics (MM343), and they can find the guild’s details of the arrangements with Jest; nothing directly incriminating, but their records of jobs stops entirely two weeks ago – they have not done any vermincatching for the previous two weeks. The octopus chest from the wreck sits in the Guildmistress’s office safe, although she has long since taken the gold herself and hidden it in her lodgings.

If they confront the guildmembers, they put up a reasonable fight but if it turns against them, will reveal Jest’s arrangements – they have no idea what he is planning to do, but assume that he is planning to emerge a hero in the town.

The opposition below should present a challenging fight for the characters – it is assumed however, that the guildmember’s don’t fight to the death, and will not all appear at once – they arrive at a rate of 2 every round until their full complement is present.

Number of PCs Opposition
3 Maria (as Thug MM350) and 2 Bandits (MM343)
4 Maria (as Thug MM350) and 4 Bandits (MM343)
5 Maria (as Thug MM350) and 6 Bandits (MM343)
6 Maria (as Thug MM350) and 8 Bandits (MM343)

 

Following a confrontation, if they search the Guildhouse they can reveal the doors in the cellars leading to the tunnels (Scene Two). Questioning Maria can reveal the whole plot – although she will try to direct the characters to the trawler (Scene Three) first to confront Jest, claiming that he hides out around there. If they have already searched the trawler, or see through her lies, she will grudgingly point them in the direction of Jest’s House (Scene Five)

Scene Five – Jest’s House

Jest is renting a tiny cottage just outside the village –at the furthest extent of the tunnel’s reach. On the ground floor, his kitchen and living room are modest, but down in his cellar he has a vast shrine to his eldritch rat-deity. Twigs, bones, litter and assorted detritus assembled and stuck together with saliva and blood to make a roughly humanoid shape. Behind it, a circular passageway leads to the tunnels.

If the characters arrive here without clear and compelling evidence to confront Jest, he smiles at them and tries to pin the blame on the Vermincatcher’s Guild – he had ventured into the cellars to see what was going on, and caught the Guild leaving fish guts out for the rats, but had to flee as he thought he was discovered. He claims to be a retired adventurer now, in the hope of winning their trust, but says he has no time for fighting now.

If needs be, he volunteers to come with the characters to confront Maria and her Guild, but – when they do this, he will decide at the time whether to lead them into a trap, or try to blame Maria, depending on how much he believes the characters trust him.

If the confrontation leads to a fight, immediately giant rats appear out of the walls and sewers of the village, overrunning the town – even Jest’s defeat will not be rid of them until the Amulet is destroyed.

Number of PCs Opposition
3 Jest and 2 Giant Rats – only 1 Rat appears in the first round (MM327)
4 Jest and 2 Giant Rats
5 Jest and 3 Giant Rats
6 Jest and 4 Giant Rats

 

The Amulet of Rodents is a Sentient Magical Item with Int 8, Wis 8, and Cha 10. It communicates telepathically in dark whispers to those who wear it, and has hearing and darkvision out to 120 feet. It is Chaotic Evil in alignment, and seeks to see the lands of humans overrun with rodentkind.

The wearer can control and summon rats within 240 feet of the amulet. He gains 10 temporary hit points when within 30 feet of a rat or other rodent (in urban areas, this is likely to be most of the time!).

 

Erwin Jest, human rat-touched warlock (posing as bard)

Str -1 / Dex +2 / Con +2 / Int +0 / Wis +1 / Cha +3

Notable skills: Deception +5, Perception +3, Performance +5

Armor Class: 15 (assumes mage armour active)

Hit Points: 20 (plus 10 temporary hp from the Amulet)

Erwin makes one attack per round, usually his eldritch blast

Eldritch Blast: +5 vs. AC, 1d10+3 force damage

Erwin casts spells as a 2nd level Warlock, with 2 spell slots, a spell attack of +5, and a spell save DC of 13

1st level spells: Dissonant Whispers, Ray of Sickness, Witch Bolt

Awakened Mind: Erwin can communicate telepathically with any creature he can see within 30 feet.

Challenge Rating / XP: 1 / 200

D&D One-Shots, Part 4: More Tips

I’ve spent the best part of the summer running D&D5e for (relative) newcomers to the hobby. I’m at the point where I’m probably going to take a breather and look to my shelves for some other games to prep one-shots of now, but I’ve learned a few more things that are worth sharing since the first post that started it all. So, here goes:

Maps Are Good, Even Without Minis

A map – even one sketched with a Sharpie on plain paper – is really useful if you’ve got a set-piece combat scene. I’ve talked before about how I’m not a huge fan of minis and grids – and in this context it makes the game a little bit more complex – but a map is really useful. Next time I run, I’ll try and find some evocative art as well – even just pictures of a monster or scene – to help players get into the moment.

This is what a table for 12 D&D players looks like

Ambitious Stuff Works!

Over the summer, I ran a D&D Activity Group with another GM on a residential week. We had 12 players in two groups of 6, playing for 1hr 15min a day for the week. We thought up linked plots for our groups – one was escorting a pair of children who would turn out to be werewolves, one was hunting a beast from the town who turned out to be an escaped werewolf. We had four sessions as separate groups, and managed to drag them together so the final two sessions could be a huge 12-player group as they joined forces to face the source of both of their problems.

We had a real range of experiences in the game – a couple of experienced players (more on them later), some who had played a few times before, and some completely new to the hobby. Now, I’m not going to run for 12 players again very soon – but the session where they linked up and shared their stories was -amazing-. It’s the kind of ambitious cross-campaign shenanigans that I’m usually wary of, but thanks to my amazing co-GM we managed to pull it off. So don’t shy away from doing the epic. It works.

Bring Dice, In Sets

For my games, I’ve brought a big pile of dice and got my players to pick out their own d20 and any other dice they might need. This is not the best way, I learned from my co-GM in the werewolf game. The best way is to have a set of dice for each player. They have their own dice, can move them around and put them on their character sheet, and have ownership of them for the game. A player’s relationship with their dice is a key part of the game, and by having their own they get to try this.

Use Your Expertise

If you’re lucky enough to have a few players with some experience in your group, use them! Conventional wisdom might say to encourage them to play the more complex classes – the wizard or the sorcerer – but I’d say that it works better having the player next to them playing those, and them helping them out. They need to have a players handbook – they can look up spells, if you don’t have spell cards, and even conditions – I’m a big fan of saying, eg “OK, you’re weakened – Scott, what does that mean in-game?” and letting them manage it.

Use The Good Stuff Out There

I’ve mentioned Spell Cards, but having the Monster Cards lets you avoid juggling a monster manual and you can show them the art on the back. I have run Goblin Gully a few times (with my adapted notes here), but I also found Troll Trouble by Gary Whicker to be an excellent first level adventure – a good mixture of dungeoneering, role-play, and interesting action scenes. It’s a long time since I’ve run it, but The Goblins and The Pie Shop is a fun little one-shot too that I posted up on here. Come to think of it, it still sees a lot of traffic, so I’m planning to put some more 1st-level one-shots on here as I write them. But for now, I need a break from D&D – you can have too much of a good thing after all.

D&D One-Shots, Part 2: Absolute Beginners

Here I talked about why we should be running D&D one-shots; I shared some pregens here (there will be more of them later); and I talked about the start of sessions here. In this post I’m going to offer some tips from experience for running for a table that are entirely new to tabletop RPGs. Some of this advice will be D&D focused, but a lot of it goes for any system where you have a lot of players who are new to the hobby.

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Best advice for running D&D for new players

Bring All The Stuff, Make Friends

You will need dice for everyone. You will need pencils for everyone. You will need an index card for each player to make a name tent (with their character and ‘real’ name on, if the group doesn’t know one another). Do introductions. Be nice to people. Be aware that if this is a new group, weird social dynamics can emerge, and you share some responsibility for making sure that people don’t dominate or shy away.

1st Level is Fine

With more experienced players, or in a convention slot, I’d probably want to start at least at 2nd level, to give players a range of options. With new players, I take advantage of D&D’s training levels and stick to level 1. Why?

  • there’s an obvious action each round so they don’t have to worry about ‘doing the right thing’
  • the mental arithmetic is easier with fewer hit points and options
  • there are less ‘rules exceptions’ – rules that change other rules, that are really confusing if you’ve not used the actual rules before

Keep it As Simple As You Can

The pregen sheets I used (in the same format as the 2nd level characters here) are here. From the feedback of my six new players, they were easily complex enough – in fact they couldn’t believe that the actual character sheets were more complicated than this, until I showed them the one in the back of the Player’s Handbook.

I had spell cards for the sorcerer in the game, and I’d recommend having them ready, and introducing that PC as the most challenging. In my game I nudged the sorcerer towards the one player who had his own set of dice – that seemed to indicate he’d be down for a bit more processing, even though he hadn’t played before.

Teach Core Concepts First

After a quick tour of the character sheets, I’d recommend teaching the core concept of D&D. The core concept, in case you are wondering, isn’t “roll 1d20 and add a bonus,” the core concept is this:

Say what your character does, and we’ll work out what happens from there.

The reference point I used was videogame RPGs, as that was one point of reference they were all familiar with. Saying it’s like you have dialogue options, except you can say whatever you want, and I’ll say what the NPC says, helped, as did referring to combat as being turn-based like Final Fantasy.

Model What To Do

So, as I talked about here and here, I like to do a bit of an introduction for a one-shot to bind the PCs together. This felt a bit like throwing them in at the deep end, so I just asked for a brief description of what their character looked like and acted.

I modelled this first myself by describing the merchants who had hired them – the confident, worldly wife and her feckless moustached husband who didn’t understand why they needed to hire adventurers for support as he could deal with any bandits himself. They then went round and, following my lead, described their PCs in a similar amount of detail. I did some interjecting, like “I’m thinking you’re a pretty wide-eyed and innocent…” and giving positive feedback while they did this.

This was absolutely crucial to the action that followed. When their cart was inevitably attacked by some bandits, one of the fighter’s first actions was of course to check on the female merchant in the cart that she was OK – while the sneaky sorcerer hid under the cart and hoped he wasn’t noticed until it was obvious he had been.

Get the Action / Roleplay Balance Right

I think this varies for each game, but for D&D I was certain I was going to use a proper dungeon – so I started with Dyson Logos’ excellent Goblin Gully, and added an inciting event (the aforementioned bandit attack, and then some investigation in town) before they ventured to the dungeon. Prioritising the roleplay and being your character meant that, even in combat, everyone was describing their awesome (or not so awesome) moves. I’ll be sharing my notes on how exactly I did this, and my D&D5 conversion for it, in a later post.

Minis: You Do You

I didn’t use minis, because they aren’t me. I never really use them – even when I played in a mini-campaign of Pathfinder, we managed to muddle through (I’m not a fan of the term “Theatre of the Mind,” either, as it just sounds pretentious).

But if you’re a GM who uses minis, by all means crack them out – props are good, and they provide a good focus for the play. I would definitely have had less swashbuckling derring-do from my PCs with a map, but that’s just my tastes I think.

Enjoy it!

Running D&D for six complete newcomers is one of my most exhilarating experiences at the table this year. I can’t recommend it enough – not just for bringing new people into the hobby, but for the enjoyment yourself of seeing them grow in confidence through the game. And, despite what I’m saying in a lot of these D&D posts, after a few games of D&D it might be time to talk to them about other games – and see if they want to give, say, Star Wars a try.

Have you run games for complete beginners? How did it go? In future posts I’ll expand on how I opened out Goblin Gully, and give my own approach to balancing encounters and timings for D&D5.

D&D5e One-Shots, Part 1: Getting Started

Previously, I told everyone they should be running D&D5e one-shots. Here, I shared some of my techniques for pregens, as well as some actual pregens. In the next few posts, I’m going to actually talk about what techniques and tricks I use to make D&D5e one-shots sing, starting with the start of the session. For this post, I’m assuming that you’re running for players who have played D&D or another tabletop RPG before – my next post will be about players who are completely brand new.

Pregens / Characters

D&D5e is unusual in that, thanks to Adventurer’s League, often players will expect to be able to bring their own characters to the table. Also, if they have D&D Beyond, they can probably whip up a character in 10 minutes to your spec. I try to embrace this as much as I can – if I advertise a game, I’ll be clear that although I’ll bring pregens, if they’ve got (standard array) characters at the right level, I’m happy to have them instead. They do have to meet that spec though – no “I randomly rolled these stats,” or “My sorcerer is 4th level instead of 2nd, is that still ok?” – again, with the app it’s really easy to make those adjustments, so they should be at least initially balanced to the other PCs.

I usually turn up with a selection of my own pregens, a few extras from the excellent FastCharacter website, and let them pick. Running D&D, of course, that you might well have players who really know the system – so if they want to adapt or change stuff from a pregen, they can usually just go ahead and do it.

Forming a Party

This does mean that you can often have a fairly disparate band of PCs at the start of the session. I’m blogged here about using charged questions to help bring groups together, but I’ve recently started using Backstory Cards, and these have worked really well to not only tie a group together but also tie them to the setting.

With Backstory Cards, you have a few lists of individuals, groups, and locations, and then ask questions of the players to establish some shared history. With a set of cards, they can be drawn at random by the players, but I just pick some interesting questions from the cards and my lists, and manage it so that everyone gets some screen time.

Example questions might include:

  • Pools, you and Fuuwde did something in Hightower that at least one of you regrets, or is ashamed of. What lengths will you go to hide it?
  • Van Erp, your allegiances aren’t clear when it comes to the Dock Rats thieves’ guild. How did Jansora find out? What don’t they know?

As you can see the questions are pretty multi-levelled – I’m not too bothered if we don’t get right to the bottom of the question – just spitballing a heist in Hightower that went wrong will be enough to bond the players together. I use a mixture of groups, individuals and places from the one-shot itself, and peripheral to it – so, although the city watch might not specifically be mentioned in the scenario, they are around, and having some history with them means they can be on stage during scenes as much as the players (and I) want.

I do this straight after an introduction – so the start of the session looks like this:

  • players go round the table and introduce their PC’s name, race, class, and anything obvious they have set in their mind about them
  • we do the backstory cards – making sure that each PC gets some screen time. I’ll use this to drip-feed anything important about the setting, too, as they do this – sometimes I’ll amend my prep notes as well if something particularly juicy comes out
  • players introduce their PCs properly. I get them to do this like an opening montage in a cheesy TV series, like Robin of Sherwood or Quantum Leap – we see each PC in the middle of an action scene from a previous (or future) adventure, doing something that defines them in some way

This all of course takes a bit of time, but it’s well spent. At the end of this process (which I normally budget about 30 minutes for, longer if players faff around with their characters) you should have an adventuring party, rather than a collection of individuals. I’ve lost count of how many one-shots (and D&D is over-represented here) where half an hour in I still didn’t know the character names of my fellow PCs.

So that’s my approach for the start of the session. In my next post, I’ll talk about running D&D one-shots for players that are completely brand new to Tabletop RPGs, which simplifies some of these ideas a bit.

D&D One Shots: Pregens

After my last post on the why of running D&D one-shots, I’m now going to start on the how. My next post will be about prep and play at the table, but I’m going to focus on one aspect of prep today: the pregens. I’ve blogged before about making successful pregens for a one-shot, but this is just about my D&D approach.

I don’t like the D&D character sheet for one-shots. It’s not alone; I don’t like many ‘offical’ character sheets for one-shot play. They aren’t really designed for the same function – they are worksheets for long-term play that can account for hours of character development, equipment gain and loss, and notes. There’s just too much on them.

So, after some requests from followers, I’m going to share my 2nd level D&D pregens for a one-shot that I ran recently. I’ve tried to make them as straightforward and easy-to-use as possible. I have a bit of a tin eye for design (GCSE Grade D – I blame the teacher) but I hope I’ve made them as clean and consistent as I can. There’s a few things that bear explaining

LAI of the sea hagSkills & Spells

Now that there are Spell Cards for D&D, I don’t as a rule select spells for my pregens – the player can just pick out the cards they want to use, or use their PHB if they’ve got it. You’ll see on these that there’s everything ready except the spells. I’m also pretty flexible in play if players want to swap out spells that they know – if they haven’t cast it yet, they’ve not committed.

Skill bonuses are only on if they are different from the default stat bonus. This does mean that, as GM, you need to remember that Wisdom is the base stat for Perception, but it makes the sheets much cleaner.

I haven’t put Passive Perception on the sheets. I’m not a fan. I’d rather the players rolled Perception against an opponent’s Passive Stealth – dice rolls are better for the players.

Gender, Weapons, Equipment

I used to try and have a mix of genders for my pregens. I’ve moved on. My pregens now can be whatever gender their player wants them to be. I try and pick names that are suitably flexible – and, obviously, the names are optional too.

The weapons can similarly be swapped out by the players if they want to – and I usually go with letting them have whatever they want for the same stats. Want to have a broadsword instead of the axe? Yeah, whatever, just use the same stats. Change the damage type if you must – but, again, it often doesn’t make that much difference.

I don’t give my pregens equipment. They have what they can be reasonably expected to have. If something sounds dubious, or a stretch, they can always make a check for a loosely relevant skill to see if they remembered it. I do this in every game where equipment isn’t really a feature of play.

Personality, Ideals, Bonds, Flaws

I don’t use these for one-shots. Instead, I do a shared party set-up similar to the one I talked about here to give them a shared history as a group and some emergent backstory – more on that in my next post. I just find that they run a little deep for what will come out in a one-shot – it’s better to give the PCs links to things and events they will actually encounter, whether that be their fellow PCs or important parts of the adventure.

2nd Level Pregens

These are my 2nd level pregens, which I used to run Maryska Connolly’s excellent Lai of the Sea Hag from Uncaged Vol. 1. Some of them use races from Volo’s, just because I realised I’d not used it yet, but there should be enough information on the sheets to use them without.

Tiefling Rogue

Bugbear Barbarian

Human Fighter

Tabaxi Bard

Tiefling Rogue

Dwarf Paladin

Dragonborn Wizard

More to Come…

Next post, I’ll talk about some techniques for running D&D one-shots, including how to deal with players bringing their own PCs, and balancing combat (hint: ignore 50% of what it says in the DMG).