Tower of the Stirge – a 1st level D&D One-Shot Adventure

Continuing a series which began with The Goblins and The Pie Shop, and continued with Rats of Rothsea (with a short interlude adapting Dyson Logos’ Goblin Gully), here’s another 1st level one-shot for D&D5e. This one is a bit grimmer and darker than the others, as befits the subject matter, and isn’t recommended for younger players like the previous two. There’s zombies, blood-sucking, and egg-laying flying beasts with proboscis in this one. Oh, and the plural of stirge is “stirge,” I’ve just decided. Apologies to any adventurers who assume this means the tower only contains one of the beasties.

In terms of structure, this was heavily modelled on Johnn Four’s 5 Room Dungeon model, which is a really good way to structure linear encounters for play (there’s probably a follow-up post on that. If you want a map for the tower, Dyson Logos’ Ashryn Spire is ideal.

Tower of the Stirge

Introduction

The tower at Halk Head used to be a mage’s tower – but for many years it lay dormant after a band of brave adventurers defeated and looted the wizard. Until, a few months ago, the hermit Gorthrix came to the village. Seeking a place to rest, he moved in and begun to explore the ruined tower. Noises and rumour brought children and explorers from the village, so to deter them Gorthrix attracted a nest of stirge and reactivated the wizard’s earth elemental bodyguard.

He meant the stirge to just deter visitors, but he find the beasts have now overtaken the entire top floor of the tower; although they don’t attack him, there’s was little he could do when they ambushed and killed a pair of children who came exploring, dragging the blood-drained bodies back to their nest. Panicking, he sent the elemental out to destroy the cliffside path to the tower, and now sits tight, hoping that the villagers will avoid the ruined tower as a place of ill omen. He hasn’t counted on the recklessness of adventurers.

Characters

Gorthrix is a mean-spirited, loner of a dwarf who wants nothing more than to be left alone, and is prepared to kill to ensure that happens. Finding the tower was the first step in him finding some space for himself, and he’s not going to let an accident with his new pets stop him.

Gorthrix has a tame baboon who helps him. He has named him Gorthrox, and Gorthrox is just as brutal and angry as the stirge.

Cliff is a bound earth elemental who used to serve the old wizard hundreds of years ago. When the adventurers came, he was locked in the tower basement, so he just slept. Now, he’s slow and confused, but Gorthrix doesn’t ask too much of him and he quite enjoys the company. What he really wants to do is properly rebuild the tower, but Gorthrix won’t led him near the bird-things on the roof.

The Stirge are horrible, bloodsucking flying rats with long proboscis that drip with blood. After a feed they are bloated and clumsy flyers, but when hungry they are fast and vicious. Gothrix feeds them treats, so they like him, but he’s still just walking food to them.

The Village

The village of Clifftop sits at the top of 80 feet of steep cliffs. At their foot is a small beach, with a pier and a few fishing boats, and a treacherous path carved into the rock. A small, rickety path leads out to the Tower – in the other direction, a more sturdy path offers a shortcut to the larger town of Endholme.

The PCs will be summonsed by the Village Elders and told the story – two local boys, Edric and Embry, were wandering out near the tower last week and now appear to have disappeared. The village sheriff, Robel, went out looking and found nothing, but the elders are sure that it’s something in the tower – strange lights have been seen in recent days coming from it – it is surely a place of ill omen. Robel assumes that the boys have just run away to the tower and are hoping to attract the attention of the villagers – but he will grudgingly point the adventurers in the direction of the tower.

The villagers beg the PCs to explore the tower – if nothing else, to see if they can bring the boys’ bodies back. They offer 20gp each for their troubles. Robel is keen to stay in the village to make sure no more trouble comes to the farmers’ herds, but he can point them towards the cliff-top path to the tower.

If they ask around, a successful DC 15 skill check gets them a true-ish rumour, a failed one gets them an almost-certainly-false one. If they fail the check, the character has a fair idea that the information they have is false.

True-ish Rumours (d6)

1 – The tower was built by an old sorcerer – they say that remnants of his magic can still be found there

2 – Huge crows have been seen circling the tower – this is surely an ill omen?

3 – Farmer Copley, whose clifftop farm isn’t far from the tower, has had several sheep disappear recently – without any of the usual marks of wolf attacks

4 – A few months ago a stinking dwarf clad in rags came to the town and asked lots of questions about the tower. He stole a loaf of bread, so Robel ran him out of town.

5 – The cliffside path has withstood storms and terrible weather for years – it can’t have just collapsed on its own

6 – Last month, a body was found by the cliffside path, drained entirely of blood. The villagers who found it went to get Robel, but by the time they returned, it was gone.

Almost Certainly False Rumours (d6)

1 – The sorcerer who used to rule the tower has returned, and he has taken the boys as sacrifices

2 – All who enter the tower are compelled to stay there by dark magic

3 – The two boys were always up to no good – I expect they’ve just run away to get shot of Robel spoiling their fun

4 – Two more children went missing a few weeks ago, that the PCs haven’t been told about (they did, but Robel brought them back and returned them – they had just got stranded on the beach)

5 – The strange birds that can be seen circling the tower can only be hurt by silvered or magical weapons

6 – The tower doesn’t even exist – it’s an illusion that lures explorers to the cliffs, where they fall and are eaten by the kraken. The kraken? Nobody’s told you about the kraken?

Scene One – Approach to the Tower

The path to the tower has been damaged and pulled apart by Cliff, but he didn’t do a very good job, because he much prefers building things to pulling them apart. A few of the ropes are still there where the path has crumbled, and where boulders cover the path, they can be -carefully- clambered over.

To get to the tower, each PC must make an Athletics check with DC10. On a failure, they stumble and slide down from the path – they take 1d6 damage, with a Dexterity save for half. If half or more of the PCs (round up) fail their skill checks, the stirges are alerted by the noise and ambush them while they are on the path – the path is difficult terrain, and anyone without a secure footing will fight with disadvantage.

Stirge by Jacob E Blackmon

Stirge by Jacob E. Blackmon

Stirge Attack!

Either as they approach the tower, or half way along the treacherous cliff path, a group of stirges will attack them. Seeing the PCs approaching, their Queen has sent them out to hunt.

There is one stirge for each PC, and they attempt to attack one each as well. They aren’t used to fighting creatures that fight back much, so they don’t gang up on opponents unless an obvious opportunity presents itself.

As the stirge wobble towards them, clever players might have their characters take cover, particularly if they heard the rumour in the village about them. Their passive Perception is only 9, and a successful Stealth check will let them hide behind a useful rock. If the whole party manage to hide from the Stirges, they fly around looking for them for a while, before flying off to feast on a nearby sheep.

Scene Two – The Tower

The Ground Floor and Basement

The ground floor is were the wizard used to welcome visitors. It’s now crumbled and full of rubble; the staircase up to the next level is crumbled and treacherous.

Cliff rests in the Ground Floor – he is an earth elemental, so will be a possible insurmountable challenge for the PCs to fight, but he’s very amenable to talking. As they enter, he steps away from the section of wall he was resting against and tries to whisper to them that they should go away, or the New Master will kill them. “He never wants visitors, not living ones anyway – you should go!”

Cliff just wants to be left alone to rebuild the tower – he’s not too bright, and pretty content with his lot. He’ll tell them about the New Master and about how he wants to help them, but the New Master would be mad at him if he did – and he doesn’t want to be shouted at. He doesn’t know much about the ‘funny birds’ at the top of the tower, and he certainly doesn’t know what happened to the kids who came to explore.

If the PCs talk to Cliff, allow them to make appropriate skill checks – once they have 3 successes – most likely Persuasion or Deception, although Intimidation is possible – the only wizard Cliff has seen for many years was a mighty sorcerer, so a flashy display of magic might trick him. If they fail 3 times in total, he loses his patience with them, and starts banging and shouting, alerting Gorthrix and his baboon from upstairs.

If they try to fight him, luckily for them Cliff is very reluctant to hurt anyone. He’ll try and Grapple the biggest looking opponent and then put them in some inaccessible part of the cliff below. Only if really enraged will he attack with his Slam. If he defeats the whole party, he carries them back and leaves them at the edge of the village – feeling terribly guilty that he might have hurt them.

The First Floor

The first floor contains the remnants of the wizard’s magical traps and tricks – and is probably the most deadly of the rooms – it’s also where Gorthrix will make his stand.

As they enter, a magic mouth trap challenges them to speak their name, and then casts a slow spell at them (save DC 13). Assuming some of the PCs are affected, Gorthrix then leaps out and attacks them – his stats are the same as a spy, and he begins the fight with his pet Gorthrox, a baboon, alongside him.

If they defeat him (and Gorthrix will surrender if the fight turns against him) – he warns them of what is on the roof. The boys are there, he says, but not like they were – he begs for forgiveness – he wanted to be left alone, but those beasts were just too much for him to handle – he never meant for them to kill the boys, or – what they have become.

Gorthrix’s room is here, and it has some of his treasure – although most of the shiny trinkets have been taken by the stirges. He carries 20gp on his person in a leather purse, and two potions of healing. He will offer the money as a bribe for them to spare them – but tries to keep the potions to recover his and Gorthrox’s wounds.

The Second Floor

Has a crumbling, uneven floor – as the PCs walk across it, they can hear it creaking and moaning. Each PC has to make a Stealth or Acrobatics check, DC 10, to cross without alerting the stirge nested above. Halflings and gnomes not wearing heavy armour can make this check with advantage. If half or more of the PCs fail the check, a creaking floorboard snaps, and the ceiling above collapses as the stirge fall about onto them.

Cautious testing, looking for footprints and dust, and a DC 15 Investigation roll can show where there has been movement and where there hasn’t on the floor, also granting advantage on the above roll.

If they spared Gorthrix, when he sees the PCs in combat with the stirge and zombies he will try and seize the opportunity to get his revenge on them by assisting the monsters in this fight.

The Third Floor

This is where the stirge nest, and a horrible sight it is. In the centre of the room lie the bloated bodies of the two boys killed exploring. The stirge around seem to be feeding them their own blood, and the boys have changed into something undead and horrific. As they move to attack, a fat, blood-drenched stirge with a bulbous belly sits on the ground – the Stirge Queen, who is laying her eggs in the boys. Beyond this scene, a nest full of shiny things beckons – see Rewards below.

The two boys have statistics as zombies, and move immediately to attack backed by two stirge. As the combat continues, another two stirge join the following round, and another two the round after – defending their nest, they fight alongside one another and attempt to attack the tastiest-looking (or fattest) adventurers – they are particularly fond of halfling and gnome.

If both of the boys are killed, the remaining stirge panic, as their eggs spill out from the bodies and they flee from the tower. At this point, the stirge queen (as a normal stirge but 10 hp from her fat, egg-filled belly) fights as the rest of them attempt to flee.

Rewards

In the stirge nest, the accumulated shiny things they have collected can be found. They one malachite gem per PC (each worth 10gp), plus a single bigger bloodstone gem (worth 50gp) mixed in a pile with 100 sp and 30 cp. The cp have been polished to a shine by stirge proboscises, and will need a good wash before any merchant will accept them.

D&D One-Shots Done Right – Review: Uncaged, volume 1

If there’s one thing that is like looking for a needle in a haystack, it’s decent one-shots for D&D 5th edition. There are hundreds of them out there on DMs Guild, but picking through them to find those with good quality and the style of play that I like is a challenge. After I spent last summer running D&D one-shots, I’ve kept D&D as a regular source of one-shot fun, particularly for newcomers to the hobby (read the posts linked above for my reasoning why I think D&D is right for this).

Uncaged CoverSo, there’s Uncaged (this review is of Volume 1 – there are now three more volumes). From it’s own product description, it’s a set of folklore-themed adventures that “subvert tropes around female mythological creatures.” If that sounds a bit complex, in layman’s terms each adventure is focused around a female creature of myth, and does interesting stuff with them.

So there’s a hag adventure, a lamia adventure, a banshee adventure, and so forth. RPGs have had, and continue to have, some issues with representation, so this is a great concept for a product – a book around female monsters produced by a team of female writers and artists.

In volume 1 there are a total of 26 adventures – 14 Tier 1, 7 Tier 2, 4 Tier 3 and a single Tier 1. I’m not surprised that there are more for lower tiers, and that suits me to be fair.

The Fluff

First out, these are proper one-shots. They’re each 2-4 hours of play, and contain just enough setting to make sense. The advantage of this is that they can be slotted in anywhere – I’d put some of these in to Ravnica or Eberron without any trouble at all – which makes them useful as drop-in adventures. In some cases, the setting is pretty integral to the adventure, so this makes them harder to drop into an ongoing campaign, but it’s great if you’re looking for one-shots.

Because of this, though, it helps when you run it to try and embed the PCs into the adventure and setting a bit deeper – I’ve used Backstory cards when I’ve run them to make sure the PCs feel like they have a shared past. It’s also a good opportunity to share out some of the fleshing out of the stuff that isn’t always in the adventures – in case they encounter some town guards, the PC who used to be in them can describe how the guards work in this city.

Each adventure comes with a featured piece of art, and the book is nicely laid out without being too fussy – there’s also a printer friendly version of each adventure you can print out individually to have at the table, and separate files for player maps. There’s a hardcopy POD option from Drivethru, but I haven’t explored that yet – I just downloaded the .pdf. Also worth noting that any content warnings are up front at the start of each adventure, again really useful if you’re running one-shots for people you don’t know.

The Crunch

First up, although the adventures are all by different authors, and there’s a refreshing diversity in their plot structure, they are generally excellent. None of these are dungeon-crawling adventures, and all involve investigation and roleplaying, presented in an easy-to-use way with skill DCs up-front and clear. The adventures aren’t long, either – and they have had a solid edit to take out any unnecessary waffle.

There is combat in them (this is D&D after all), but the conclusion of an adventure is as likely to be a negotiation or compromise, or discovering a secret, as a pitched battle. The combat encounters, in the ones that I’ve run (all Tier 1), have been balanced and fair for D&D5e – which is to say, I’d recommend running the CR numbers through the D&D system and beefing them up a bit. In most of the adventures there are, at most, 2-3 combat encounters, so you might want to make key battles more challenging. Likewise, some of the adventures have adjustments for different level parties, while some are just for the set level stated – all are easy enough to adjust up and down.

There’s also quite a few bits where skills are tested and investigations take place. This is an opportunity, if you’re inclined, to try out one of the skill challenge systems here – how they are presented in each adventure varies.

The One-Shot

This is a really good book if you want to run D&D one-shots. Particularly for new players, they showcase the social interaction aspect of play really well, in a way that can be missing in more ‘traditional’ D&D adventures – it is one of the three pillars of D&D play after all. Because they are tightly presented and edited, they are also easy to disassemble, rearrange, and adapt. In all honesty, many of these would be excellent run with different systems as well – and easy to adapt.

So far, I’ve run Maid in Waterdeep (level 1), Lai of the Sea Hag (level 2) – twice, and A Wild Hunt (level 2) – and all have been really satisfying. A Wild Hunt features the kumiho, shapeshifting fox-women from Korean folklore, and manages to make them both frightening and sympathetic.

Fully recommended – and I’m sure the other 3 anthologies are similar. These are also an excellent source of plots and explorations of creatures for systems other than D&D, which is testament to its quality. A great source of one-shot D&D adventures – and a great toolkit to pull apart and reuse in pieces too.

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.