The Score – a one-shot plot structure

After a couple of games where I realised I might be stuck in a rut a bit when plotting out (trad) one-shots, and a pleasant day playing Scum & Villainy at North Star convention in Sheffield, I came up with this. It’s pretty formulaic – but does manage to teach the rules of a system concentrically, assuming that your order of complexity almost-matches the order here. I think it’s more suited to sci-fi or modern settings, as the final scene implies a chase or vehicle/starship combat, but I can see it working in fantasy setting too.

I’m a little bit obsessed with game/plot structure, especially in one-shots, as you can tell from this post about the basic one-shot plot, and this about location-based one-shots. Also, if you want to stretch it out to 3-sessions, there’s part 1 and part 2 of a post discussing that.

Scene 1: Get the Score

Start the game with the PCs having agreed the job and just negotiating their terms. They must negotiate with an unreliable patron – characterised by your best hammy acting as GM

Challenge: They must make some sort of social skill – success will give them extra resources for the mission and additional payment (which is irrelevant in a one-shot), failure will lead them to nothing. It’s a basic way to introduce the core mechanic that only offers additional benefits on success, with no real penalties for failure.

Scene 2: Case the Joint

The PCs then research the job using their own investigative skills. They might ask around, sneak around looking for secret entrances after dark, or rustle up contacts to help.

Challenge: Each player should get a chance at a skill check, with success getting them info from a list of relevant information, or additional benefits on the next roll.

Scene 3: Getting in

Give the PCs an obvious route in to avoid the turtling over-planning that you might get otherwise. This will not be straightforward – will their disguise hold, will they scale the walls of the tower, will they evade the magical traps?

Challenge: They will need to make an “engagement roll” – to borrow a term from Blades in the Dark – to see how their approach goes. This may be one roll, or there may be a sequence of them. Either way, the consequences are likely to tell in the next scene – the obvious way is whether they get the jump on their opponents

Scene 4: Fight!

At some point, they will encounter proper opposition – guards, droids, or whatever guards what they seek. Who has the upper hand initially can be determined by the previous scene – or whatever ambush rules your game favours

Challenge: The opposition – given that this is the only “straight” combat encounter in the game, and that the PCs stand a fair chance of gaining the initiative – can be a little tougher than the game normally recommends – and play hard, don’t be afraid to offer a genuine threat of injury or death to the players.

Scene 5: Getting out

The PCs get what they want – the bounty, the steal, whatever – and now need to get away. This will be a follow-up conflict, either using chase rules (all games should have chase rules, IMHO, don’t get me started on this – it’s why Call of Cthulhu 7th edition is the best edition), starship/vehicle combat, or just a plain old fight.

Challenge: This conflict should be balanced as per the regular rules – so that the players get to end the game on a high and bearing in mind some might be injured from your kick-ass fight earlier.

The End

You can then end the game with a denouement, in which they meet their patron again, to either back-slapping or criticism. There’s of course nothing to stop them betraying them and keeping the score for themselves, which they may well choose to do.

I’ll be posting some examples of this structure here for specific systems, but I’d be curious to hear how you’ve used, adapted, changed it for your own one-shots too.

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!

The Goblins and The Pie Shop – a 1st-level D&D adventure

Following on from my posts on D&D 5e and review of Xanathar’s Guide, I present for you a light-hearted introductory adventure, showing what happens when you take the classic The Orc and The Pie encounter and try and flesh it out into an actual adventure. Rather than structure it as a dungeon, this is a loosely-structured investigation into what has gone on at Mrs Miggins’ pie shop, and it contains some pre-setup questions that are designed to embed the PCs in the situation and involve them in creating some of the setting and background. The structure of the adventure uses Justin Alexander’s Adventure Nodes.

If you’re looking for a more traditional dungeon-crawling 1st level module, I have to recommend Matt Colville’s The Delian Tomb (the link is a youtube video of him explaining how to design it).

If you want it as a .pdf, you can download it from here. Otherwise, read on!

The Goblins and the Pie Shop

A 1st-level introductory adventure for D&D 5th Edition

Mrs Miggins’ pie shop is the first place any self-respecting adventurer would head to on their way out to seek their fortune in the world… her delicious meat and flaky crust are the talk of every frontier tavern, and many carefree ventures into the wilderness have started here. Naturally, as you venture into the Dark Forest, you’d stop here first… but when goblins have stolen her secret spice mix, you must rush to Mrs Miggins’ aid so that adventurers will be sustained.

This is an introductory adventure for 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons. It’s designed to take around 2-3 hours to play through, although there are guidelines at the end to condense this to 1-2 hours. It’s balanced for four 1st-level adventurers generated using Adventurer’s League guidelines; again the appendix contains details to scale the encounters for smaller or larger groups.

It is designed to give a simple introduction to D&D5e and fantasy roleplaying outside of a dungeon setting, and to demonstrate how a loosely-plotted adventure can be structured.

Background – DM’s Eyes Only

Symon “The Pieman” has a pie shop in town, and he’s brutally jealous of Mrs Miggins’ success. He uses the same alchemist to ward his own shop – so once he learned how to bypass the magical wardings, he sent his goons in to steal her secret spice recipe. He then paid Holg the Orc to break in and kick about the shop the following day to cover up the theft and make it look like a random goblin raid.

Scene 0: Pre-Set Up

Allow the players to choose characters and introduce them briefly. Explain the starting situation to the players. In brief:

  • They have decided to seek their fortune in the Dark Forest, for the reasons determined previously
  • They are rookie adventurers, having just banded together as like-minded young heroes
  • It is traditional amongst new adventurers to call at Mrs Miggins’ Pie Shop, on the edge of the forest, for some fortifying snacks to take with them on the way to the Forest
  • The forest is dangerous in the centre, but at its boundaries is less dangerous. There are goblins, orcs, and brigands wandering around it though, as well threats the players will now define

They have some background already, but spend a few minutes asking each of them one of the questions from the list below.

  • Why are you venturing into the Dark Forest? What great riches await you there?
  • What is said to guard these riches?
  • What has made you leave your comfortable home to take up a life of adventure?
  • (insert name), you have a mentor, a veteran adventurer. Who is he and what has he told you of Mrs Miggins pie shop?
  • (insert name), a friend of yours growing up was Mrs Miggins’ grandson. What pie filling did he recommend that you just had to try?
  • (insert name), you’re not sure you even like pies. You had one of Symon the Pieman’s pies back in the village and it made you sick. What have the others done to convince you to stop at Mrs Miggins’?

As the players answer these questions, make brief notes of them – if you can, on a big piece of paper in the middle of the table so that all the players can see it. If you can incorporate these answers into the game as it plays, so much the better – and encourage the players to do so as well!

Scene 1: Mrs Miggins’

As they approach the Pie Shop, a tumbledown cottage from which you would normally expect the smell of delicious baking, it is mid-morning and something is clearly wrong. The door hangs ajar from its hinges and the gates to the cottage garden appear to have been torn from their hinges. There are signs of a scuffle inside, and as they approach cautiously, they discover a group of goblins engaged in ransacking the place.

Combat: there are three Goblins (MM, p166), Elg, Melg, and Thom. They wield curved knives as scimitars from the standard stat block, and are extremely cowardly – they will run as soon as they have lost a total of half their hit points – this is 12 hp for 3 PCs, 16 hp for 4 PCs, and so on. Of course, the PCs may well decide to give chase, which will allow them (if anyone speaks goblin) to work out who sent them.

Treasure: The goblins carry only loose change – they carry 15 cp each and their wretched scimitars, and are clad in rough rags.

Mrs Miggins is tied up, badly injured (DC 10 Wisdom (Medicine), or a Spare the Dying / Cure Wounds spell to stabilize, otherwise she will be groggy and uncommunicative, and unable to provide them with any pies), and says that she came down this morning to find the goblins rooting around. She has freshly paid-up magical wards from the Alchemist’s Guild in town, so she was surprised to see them, but they quickly overwhelmed her. There’s no way they could have bypassed those wards – she often finds drunken adventurers trying to sneak in and steal pies, and the wards always knock them out cold.

Any surviving goblins can be easily persuaded with a DC 10 Charisma (Intimidation or Persuasion) check to surrender what information they know. They were tipped off by Holg the Orc to raid the shop, and told there would be no magical defences. There weren’t, and the door was unlocked, which they thought was unusual. Holg oftens throws good jobs to their tribe (the Dark Forest Goblins) in return for odd jobs and help with distracting adventurers. He’s a herbalist who lives not far from here on the edge of the forest. Mrs Miggins knows him as a regular customer, and is very upset if she learns that he has had any hand in the raid. She doubts that he is skilled enough to remove her magical protections.

Mrs Miggins is in shock when it emerges that her secret spice mix has also been stolen – the goblins know nothing about it, but when she checks her cupboards it’s nowhere to be seen. She offhandedly remarks that, while she has no competitors because her product is so good, Symon “the Pie Man” in the village would dearly love to get his hands on her spice formula, and he has been visiting recently asking her about what goes into it – she never reveals anything, and has told him he will just have to devise his own formula! She of course begs the PCs to help her recover the secret spices; she can offer lifetime credit at her pie shop, 100 gp, and also a couple of potions of healing that they can take with them if they agree to help.

A really thorough search of Mrs Miggins’ spice cupboard reveals a scrap of black velvet that has been caught on the side of the wall – and which certainly doesn’t belong to any goblins.

From this point, the players may decide to investigate their leads in whatever order they choose – they can visit the Alchemist’s Guild (scene 2), or head over to Holg’s dwelling (scene 3). Either of these may lead them to scene 4 or to the final confrontation in scene 5.

Scene 2: The Alchemists’ Guild

The Alchemists Guild sits on the edge of town, and it is straightforward to get an appointment with Crawford Ellison, the wispy-bearded wizard who set up Mrs Miggins wards. If persuaded (DC 15 Charisma (Persuasion)) he will reveal that they are standard-issue wards, given to regular business customers, and a DC 10 Intelligence (Arcana) or Wisdom (Insight) check, as they check his records, that the wards only appear to be changed weekly – so that a customer who had the wards installed in the same week could in theory bypass them. If Crawford refuses to talk to them (failed persuasion roll) they can see the warding roster and invoices sat in the back office of the Guild – a DC 15 Dexterity (Stealth) or Intelligence (Investigation) should be enough to find them by stealth and discover the same information.

The customers from the same week include Rezzik the Half-Orc’s Wagon company, The White Lion public tavern, and Symon “the Pie Man” for his pie shop at the edge of town… again, if Crawford is friendly he will reveal that Symon still hasn’t paid for his wards, as he said he had a big business venture coming up which would mean he could pay them off easily. He has also asked for another job to be completed, and they are currently debating whether to ask for the money up front this time – for a small shack further into the forest (“A godforsaken place – that surely can’t be his next business venture, unless he’s setting up some sort of goblin mercenary company haha!”). A sketched map to this shack is held with the other files for the wards, which Crawford will share with the PCs if he is friendly.

Scene 3: Holg the Orc

Holg lives in a isolated, tumbledown cottage deeper into the woods. He’s a solitary herbalist, and while he has no great love for adventurers, he’s no fool. He has had a bad feeling about organising the goblins to raid Mrs Miggins ever since he was party to it, and is keen to try and make amends so he can enjoy her delicious pies again. Holg isn’t easy to persuade, ut a DC 15 Charisma (Intimidation) will be enough to make him share what he knows, or any show of force that shows him the PCs mean business. Once this happens he will reveal that Symon used him as a go-between to get the goblins to ransack the shop

Combat: Holg is a standard Orc (MM p246) with no additional abilities save his contacts and reasonable nature. He surrenders as soon as the combat turns against him – which includes having taken more damage than the PCs have at any time.

  • Symon just said that the magical protections would be down for the day, and asked that Holg go and ransack the place. Holg is quite fond of Mrs Miggins, so he didn’t go himself, but he got the Dark Forest goblins to go, on the condition they didn’t hurt her
  • He knows nothing about the secret spice mix, or even that Symon’s men had raided the shop previously
  • He can give them directions to the shack that Symon has set up in the forest, and everyone knows where the Symon “the Pie Man”’s shop is

Scene 4: The Shack in the Forest

Symon has set this up as a secret laboratory to try and duplicate the results of his theft. The shack is lined with herbs and spices, and different crust mixtures sit in an ice-box alongside packets of Mrs Miggins’ pies. Hidden away in the shelves (DC 15 Wisdom (Perception)) is Mrs Miggins’ secret mix, with the label half-peeled off.

(optional) Scene 4a: Symon’s Thugs

Depending on the time available, the confrontation may take place here (see the listing for Symon and his associates in Scene 5) or you may need an additional conflict to stretch out the adventure. If this is the case, a squad of Symon’s guards arrive to dissuade the PCs to call off their search; they are all human thugs, but one carries a swatch of black velvet on his shoulder which can be seen to be ripped.

Combat: There are 6 Guards (MM p347) and one guard dog (stats as Wolf (MM p341)) who has tracked the PCs here.

Scene 5: Symon “the Pie Man”’s Shop

Symon’s shop is freshly painted a new, but the aroma of pastry that comes from it is stale, and the meat in his pie fillings is under-seasoned. His shelves groan with unsold pies – truth be told, Symon is not a gifted baker, and unless he is able to successfully duplicate Mrs Miggins’ spice mix, it is unlikely that his business will survive.

If the PCs arrive here without solid proof that Symon is implicated in this, he will present himself as a reputable businessman and tell them that the attack on Mrs Miggins is a result of random goblin raids. Only the evidence of the secret spice mix (if they have recovered it from the shack), or compelling evidence like the torn black velvet, will force him into a confrontation, where he and his guards will attempt to silence the PCs.

Combat: Symon is a Thug (MM p350) and he is accompanied by his Guard Dog, Gnash (stats as Wolf, MM p341) and 2 Guards (MM p347).

Treasure: Symon and his men carry 40 gp and 200 sp, and Symon has a potion of greater healing (which he drinks if he has to) and a potion of climbing.

He fights to the death as he realises his entire business empire is at risk, peppering the battle with references to Mrs Miggins’ terrible pies and how she only made her fortune serving dishonest adventurers.

Once dispatched, the town guards will be certain to arrive and take Symon and his men to be imprisoned and tried by the village magistrate. Having rescued the secret spice mix, it is probably time for the PCs to return to Mrs Miggins where she will be fulsome with her praise and generous with her pies!

Appendix A: Running in Less Time

The adventure is designed to run to completion in around 2-3 hours; if you have less time, cut out some of the options for the investigations in the middle of the adventure to have just one of scenes 2-4 happen. Some options are presented below, depending on which lead the players follow:

  • The Alchemist’s Guild will implicate Symon fully in the break-in, and will give them the details of the shack in the forest that he has also asked to be warded by them. They can head over there where they interrupt Symon and his crew and can have the showdown with him.
  • If the PCs go straight to Holg the orc, have Holg spill the whole story as soon as he knows he has adventurers on his back; he has a note signed by Symon asking him to break into the shop, and was given the keys to the arcane wards as well. He is meant to be meeting Symon that afternoon, and will happily take the PCs with him to allow them to ambush him
  • If they go to The Shack, they interrupt Symon and his crew in the process of duplicating the spice mix – once they notice they have been seen they go to attack the PCs to cover up their secret.

In all cases, be prepared to guide and assist the players if they don’t quite follow the sequence of events. The goblins in Scene 1 will readily admit that the place was already broken into when they arrived – and maybe one of them is carrying a prepackaged meat pie from Symon’s place!

Appendix B: Running With More of Fewer Players

The adventure as written is designed to provide a challenge for four players. With fewer (or more) players, use the following table to adjust the number of opponents in each of the (potential) combat scenes:

Scene 2 PCs 3 PCs 5 PCs 6 PCs 7+ PCs
1 – Goblins 1 Goblin 2 Goblins 4 Goblins 5 Goblins 6 Goblins
3 – Holg Give Holg stats as a Goblin (p166) – he is old and infirm 1 Orc 1 Orc 1 Orc and Holg has a pet Wolf as well 1 Orc and Holg has a pet Wolf as well
4a – Guards 3 Guards 4 Guards 6 Guards

1 Wolf

6 Guards

2 Wolves

6 Guards

2 Wolves

5 – Symon 1 Thug

1 Guard

1 Thug

1 Wolf

1 Guard

1 Thug

1 Wolf

1 Guard

1 Thug

1 Wolf

2 Guards

1 Thug

2 Wolves

2 Guards

 

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.

The Collapsible Dungeon – location-based one-shots

I’m going to sketch out here the procedures that allow you to keep to time and a swift pace even using a traditional dungeon design. I’ve called it the Collapsible Dungeon, and (to give credit where it’s due) adapted the idea of plot keys from the excellent Cypher System adventure anthologies Weird Discoveries (for Numenera) and Strange Revelations (for The Strange). These are probably some of the best examples of ready-to-run one-shot games out there, so they are well worth a look.

So much of old-school adventure design relies on a location-based structure, and when you play in one your pacing is often at the mercy of the players; with your home group you can probably predict how fast they’ll eat up the locations, but at a con game it’s much harder to know. I’ve run games where the players slowed to a crawl, insistent on searching every door and cautiously risk assessing every option before proceeding, and also games where the players charged through rooms keen to get to the climactic encounter ignoring all my carefully-laid reveals.

The First Location: The Entrance to The Dungeon

As the first location, everyone is going to explore this area, so make it as exciting and punchy as you can to start the session with a bang. There should be a puzzle or challenge here, or preferably both. Lay out the thematic content of the dungeon – if you’re exploring a Yuan-Ti lair, maybe the doorway is embossed with snakes, or there’s poison traps everywhere – or maybe just a huge snake across the doorway’s arch that springs to life and attacks as they approach.

The Middle Locations: The Collapsible Bit

Now prep between 5 and 10 locations (in a dungeon, these are likely to be rooms, but could also be corridors or even wandering encounters). Start the PCs with a fork in the corridor, or two mysterious doors, and allow them to encounter the rooms and encounters prepped is as logical an order as you care to make them. You do not have to cover all the locations needed to make your dungeon consistent – establish that they can fast forward through empty rooms – each of these middle locations should contain a challenge or puzzle to solve, or a secret to discover, and be linked to the overall theme.

Useful props for this section to consider in your prep are to have each location on one sheet of paper or index card, so you can select the next one quickly and put it to one side when the location has been explored. You can also do this with an (un-labelled) map, indicating the rooms the PCs progress through even as you decide on the spot what to encounter in them.

Sprinkle these middle encounters with 2-3 plot keys, adding them in according to the pace and timing of the game.

Plot Keys: The Steps to the Climax

Plot keys are the macguffins that lead to the final resolution of the adventure – they could be literal keys, or clues to the dungeon’s back story, or useful items in the final challenge. These are not tied to specific locations as prepped above, but you should decide when they are encountered. When all the keys are collected, you should be ready to push swiftly to the final encounter, and by pacing this carefully it should be easy enough to do that.

As for timing, in a 3 hour con slot I’d probably want 2 keys, one to be found on the 1hr mark and another at the 2hr mark or so – depending on the system and how long you think the final confrontation could be. Similary, for a 4 hour slot I’d probably have 3 keys spaced evenly as above.

The Final Location: Climactic Battle

This is the boss fight, the encounters that will lead to the resolution of the dungeon and completion of the adventure. This encounter should be foreshadowed with plot keys and locations in the middle section, and should be a challenging fight for the PCs even with any plot keys that will give them a boost against it. By keeping to time and doling out keys as the players progress you should be able to make it all come together in a satisfying conclusion.

Now, I’m quite prepared to admit that this ignores many of the long-standing traditions of OSR play and dungeon exploration, but I think that there’s more to gain in getting pacing right than there is by the procedural exploration of a hidden map. After all, it’s just another procedure, right? What do you think?

And keep an eye here for an example of a fully prepped one-shot OSR dungeon designed according to these principles.