OneD&D: Hot Takes on the Upcoming Non-Edition

The internet and his mother all seem to have an opinion on the latest “D&DNext” iteration – from hoary old grognards comparing it to 2e to players who’ve only ever known 5e reacting angrily at their first encounter with edition wars. And, as with everything on the internet, there seems to be a lot of nonsense being spoken. So, here’s why I think some of those hot takes are going to be, in the words of the Grognards, bobbins. Stay with me while I unpack 5 myths about the latest D&D.

“It’s just a money-making scam!”

Probably not this like this one

Oh my sweet summer child. How do you think Call of Cthulhu got to 6th edition before changing any of the rules? In an industry where it’s pretty tricky to make money, refreshing the product with a new edition is a tale as old as time. Yes, it’s an opportunity for Wizards to make yet more money, but so is everything they do – until the revolution and the socialist TTRPG republic gets formed, selling rules, books, and bumf is what makes the industry exist and bring new shiny product to us.

They’ve waited a long time for this too – 5e will last unchanged for 10 years, and 1st ed. AD&D only lasted 12 before 2e came out (and time was different back then in those days of black and white TVs, so I’m told by my elders). Yes, inevitably there is a business model behind this creative decision, but there is with everything.

“D&D Beyond will spell ruin for local game stores / the print medium / other TTRPGs”

A lot of comments from older gamers on the integration of D&D Beyond miss an important fact – D&D Beyond was already super integrated into the hobby before Wizards acquired it. Go down to your local Geek Retreat and you’ll find keeping your PC on D&D Beyond, and using it to level up, is a standard tool used by players. 

I’m with the grognards in that I like to do my own maths and workings out, and prefer a pencil to a spreadsheet for my character sheet – but the additional integration they are promising is nothing new, and will not be an industry-changing development. If you want to run a published D&D adventure on a VTT, you’d be paying for the pack anyway – this will just add extra integration. Which brings us on to…

“The 3D VTT will spell ruin for all other VTTs / online play in general”

Definitely not like this one

My take on the 3D VTT that’s being talked about is that I expect it won’t be very good, but even putting that aside, the VTT market is hardly somewhere where a new competitor is likely to push everyone else aside. From super-simple systems like Owlbear Rodeo, to brain-achingly nerdy options like Foundry (Roll20 sits in the happy middle ground for me), there’s a wide range of options, and new things being added all the time.

I don’t think the new VTT will be a hit, by the way, because I just don’t think there’s the appetite for a 3D image of the game. A lot of play takes place in theatre of the mind, and D&D’s biggest public image representative, Critical Role, aren’t often counting squares and having 4e-style battlefield fights anyway – I expect a significant proportion of D&D play is theatre of the mind, which will have no interest in this.

Now, there is a scenario where support for D&D drops from Roll20 and the other platforms, but that won’t happen, because the OGL stuff will still be there. DMs Guild is too big a part of Wizards offering for them to let it drop, and the ongoing support it offers for some of its books.

“All my old books will be obsolete”

Okay, this is what a new edition does, right? The PHB, DMG, MM will all be replaced (although I think there’s a fair chance that the more recent designs in Monsters of the Multiverse and other publications have been explicitly designed to be fully compatible)… and they’ve said that other sourcebooks will be backwards compatible. Now, I see commenters doubting this, and suggesting a bit of work might still need to be done, but on the other hand…

Every edition of D&D is backwards compatible. Converting a 1st ed adventure to 5e involves replacing the monsters and traps with their new stats, and… that’s it. As I’d always strongly recommend checking and tweaking the monsters and traps in 5e published adventures (as some are very weirdly balanced), this really isn’t a big deal.

“This isn’t my game anymore! They’ve added tieflings with elf ears and pronouns to the core races…”

Oh shut up. Too right it’s not your game anymore – it never was, anyway. Go and cry about Thaco the Clown somewhere else.

So, I hope that clarifies what I confidently predict won’t happen with OneD&D; watch this space as in a couple of years I may well have egg on my face from this, when you’re reading this on an archived .pdf file within D&D Beyond where all TTRPG blogs now have to hosted. What do you think? Personally, everything I’ve read – including the playtest stuff they are releasing gradually – tells me OneD&D will be good. I doubt it’ll become my best version of D&D ever (13th Age is still there), but, like 5e, I expect a decent system that’s sure to be well-supported with some great stuff. So let’s see.

Don’t Just Have Fun – actually useful advice for new DMs/GMs

Over on twitter, there was some discussion recently about advice for people taking their first steps to DMing – on the lines that “just have fun!” is really terrible advice, advocating for an end product without giving any guidance on how to get there. So, putting my money where my mouth is, here are five actually useful tips for running your first game.

Because this post is probably not aimed at my patrons, this is going out to Patreon subscribers and regular blog readers at the same time. Of course the best way to become a better DM is to become a patreon backer – where you’ll instantly become much more skilled at every aspect of TTRPG play. For £2 a month you get access to (most) posts 7 days before release, and get to bask in the warm glow of supporting Burn After Running!

Run What You Know

Pick a system to run that you’ve already experienced as a player. If you’re in a D&D campaign, and think “I’d like to try running Cyberpunk Red” – or another game you haven’t played, then great! It’s good to diversify systems and settings – but run some D&D first. Knowing the rules (or feeling like you have to know them) takes up processing power at the table – if you’ve played before, a lot of these will be internalised already, so you can watch the table and worry about other stuff! So run what you know, at least to start with – whether that’s D&D or whatever system you’ve been introduced to.

Use Published Scenarios

Want to run D&D for the first time? You could do a lot worse than run through one of the Starter Sets or the Essentials Kit – and in any case, you’ll make it easier for a first time to use a published adventure. Both options are good, and there are some great starting short adventures for a few systems out there. Like getting your head around the rules, having the plot worked out for an adventure will give you one less thing to worry about. There are even some on this blog!

This book does contain some actually useful advice too!

Run for 2-4 sessions

Running one-shots is hard, as is maintaining (or committing) to a long campaign. Take away some of the time pressure by pitching to run for 3 sessions or so – you don’t have to worry as much about pacing, and you can take feedback and do any tweaking you need to between sessions. A lot of published adventures will run to this length anyway, so you can use them – but feel free to cut out stuff if you want to as well – you don’t have to run as the scenario author intended.

Don’t Bother With Character Creation

For a full campaign, you’ll want a session zero where you share expectations and the players create their characters. For your first time, you’ll find it easier at the table if you get some pregens together and just dive in. This means you’ll have a better idea of what the PCs can do, and also means you’ll be actually running the game straightaway. Of course, you still want to have some basic safety tools like an X-Card or trigger warnings for any potentially upsetting stuff at the start – but don’t spend a session making characters, just dive in.

Get Feedback

End each session with a quick stars and wishes session and ask your players what they want more or less of. Having a quick debrief like this will help you to zoom out and see what the session was like, and also allow your player to show you appreciation for running it. It’s easy when DMing to only notice when things go wrong, and your players should be able to help show you how much fun they had! (If your players are mean to you after you’ve just run a session for them, get new players. Seriously.)

So, some actually useful advice for new GMs… I mean, above all, do just have fun, but the above might make it easier to have it! Let me know in the comments if there’s anything I’ve missed!

Alternative Spelunking – Different Ways to Dungeoncrawl

Exploring a dungeon – whether it’s an actual cave filled with goblins, an abandoned space station, or a defunct arcology filled with deathtraps – is a staple of TTRPG games. The usual presentation is a map you can describe to your players, which offers choice  but not much in the way of a narrative arc. 

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

But are there other ways to cover dungeon crawling? Well, yes, with varying degrees of narrative freedom. Once you start to mush up location- and encounter-based play, you end up with plenty of options to make interesting and engaging one-shot structures. Here are three of them.

Point Crawl

Instead of thinking of your dungeon as a rigidly- defined series of rooms, think of it as set pieces separated by an assortment of corridors and interstitial areas. The Five-Room Dungeon is a good model for this, and it means the place doesn’t literally have five rooms, too. Or, for an even tighter design, draw up Three Places building to a climax.

Make the linking sections interesting by throwing in some optional, but interesting, flavour encounters that supply background or foreshadowing – carvings on the walls showing former inhabitants, wandering monsters or ghosts that can dispense clues, hidden stashes of treasure trapped. For a one-shot this also means you can choose which of these optional bits to include, helping with pacing.

Journey Challenge

Sometimes, we go into a dungeon with a clear goal and set piece to work towards – to disrupt the ritual, to slay the dragon, to rescue the princess. Having half-way set pieces doesn’t really work, and skipping straight to the end doesn’t make the location exciting or allow for any foreshadowing.

So, structure your dungeon like a skill challenge – use some of the variant rules here or here, or work out your own for the system you’re using. It pays to have definitive consequences for failure mapped out in advance, so there are some stakes for the skill rolls – and in a fantasy setting, think about what spells can do (auto-success? Require an Arcana roll? Grant permission to use an alternate skill?). Pace the journey through the dungeon using the skill challenge, and then finish with your big set-piece encounter.

Montage

Sometimes, the journey through the dungeon is even less important, or you want to hand over more narrative control to the players. A 13th Age-style montage is a great way to cover this – you decide on an obstacle facing the players, and the first player describes how it’s overcome and the next obstacle, until everyone has had their turn. This can lead to some truly epic explorations, and it works well with dungeons that have a really clear theme and concept that players can share and develop. 

Some groups are less keen on this player-led narration – although this is my default when I’m running 13th Age. You can build up their comfort level, if you want to, using some of the techniques listed here.

So, three ways to free dungeons from the restrictions of location-based play. Of course, these work just as well for space stations, or steampunk-era cities, or haunted forests – let me know if you use one or more of these techniques in the comments!

Split the Party

“Don’t split the party!” is a classic refrain from the early days of D&D that still holds a surprising amount of traction. It’s also absolute rubbish; your games will be much more fun if the group separates and gets back together during the course of an adventure. This is especially true in investigative games like Vaesen or Call of Cthulhu – but even in your classic F20 game it can lead to much richer play. Here’s why.

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More Content!

If you’ve got two potential leads out from a scene, why go to each in turn? Send a couple of PCs to talk to the old woman, while the others poke around in the merchants’ quarter. By cutting between them, you get a nice contrast, and it’s easier to be an audience for the other pair when things are being resolved by the others. Things move quicker with fewer PCs on the scene, too.

In-party roleplaying in action

More (In-Party) Roleplaying!

Four PCs in the same place, talking to someone – they might talk to each other, but the focus of their investigation is going to get more of their time. Two PCs in the same place, it’s much more natural for them to talk to one another – and it will happen more. This is especially true online, where a conversation between more than two people needs structural help to avoid talking over each other. 

Mix up the pairings a few times, and you’ll soon get some neat character interactions going. If you’re doing this in a very trad game, or as a one-shot, you might want to lay the groundwork for this with some in-party setup questions.

More Verisimilitude!

Another cliche from the early days of roleplaying is the Cthulhu investigator team – six men with shotguns showing up in the suburban street to talk to the little old lady about her neighbours. In genre fiction, it’s very rare that the whole ensemble cast go together to resolve a problem – this is reserved for the finale (and maybe the start of the episode). 

If you’re looking at a one-shot structure like the Ur-Plot, it could be as simple as the middle bits are with the party separate – you’ll end up with a grabbier plot, that’ll move faster and cover more in-party chat – all for the good!

How To Make It Happen

First, let’s make sure we’ve got the conditions for this to happen. You need to banish any sort of adversarial “the-GM-is-out-to-get-us” mentality from your players – which means, try and not give them the obvious potential risks from splitting up. Eventually, you probably want to throw that ambush – and the subsequent rescue – but to start with you probably just want peril to be the consequences, not actual character death.

Keeping the PCs in contact – with cell phones or the fantasy equivalent – should also make them more comfortable splitting up. Eventually, you want to remove these and cut them off, but that will only be effective as a change from the norm, so keep that in reserve for the first couple of times.

You can also put a timer on it – if there’s only 3 hours until the next killing has been foretold, and there’s two temples to search for the anti-ritual, there’s a big incentive to split up and cover both places. 

Getting Into Trouble

I’m certainly not advocating that when the party is split up it should be peril-free; the scenes should be exciting and dangerous, or what’s the point of them. But the peril doesn’t have to be combat. Skill checks or challenges (even longer-term ones) work just as well with 2 players as with 5, so plan some of these for big payoffs. 

There’s a knack to getting spotlight right with this – you don’t want one group making a single Persuade check while the other has some multi-layered challenge to resolve their scene – but you can always give the successful Persuaders something else to do.

And, combat doesn’t have to be off the table. Balance it carefully, and make sure there’s an objective behind it – one group getting ambushed or captured and having to be rescued makes for great drama. In games with tight combat design (like D&D), 2-PC combat does some really interesting/weird things sometimes, which can make it exciting and dangerous even if you adjust the opposition’s level challenge.

For any action-based challenges while the PCs are split up, and even for investigative scenes, smash cut between the two groups frequently – try to aim for cliffhangers, even if minor ones. Techniques like this keep the momentum going, and help players be good audiences for their other group – which spares you having to do an awkward roleplaying scene later where they tell each other what they’ve just found out. It’s unnecessary – they already know – so encourage them to cut to the analysis of their discoveries, not the reporting.

Even in the Dungeon…

A lot of this advice has been focussed on investigative games, but I should say it all applies just as much to more traditional fantasy games. How often do parties in F20 games send the rogue first to scout out the next room, and how often do they actually get separated? Take that as the consequence of a failed perception or find traps roll, and you’ve got an extra layer to your dungeoneering.

Have you ever split the party? Are your players reluctant to do so, or do they just need a bit of a push? Let me know in the comments.

The Curse of Clearview Forest – a 1st-level D&D one-shot

I’ve got another 1st level D&D adventure for you here, ready-to-run, and this one is even playtested – at Go Play Leeds last year. It’s pretty rough-and-ready, and contains a collapsible set of scenes in the middle so you can expand or contract to fill the available time. I’d be generous with any alternative plans that the PCs make to get to the dryad’s grove – but all paths will eventually lead to the druid. 

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

If you want to toughen up the fight, add a few twigblights into the mix – although the big bad Garrett, designed using Matt Collville’s villain actions, is pretty effective as a solo boss. Villain Actions take place out of initiative order after a player’s action – usually one per round in the first three rounds, although feel free to tweak this if they’re needed in order to survive. He also has a Bonus Action and a Reaction that make him a bit more survivable – I’d recommend a watch of Matt’s youtube video for some good examples of building boss monsters with Villain Actions.

In terms of NPCs, I got a lot of mileage from making Prince Kyle a feckless loser convinced of his own heroism, and Mayor Goodbarrow as a somewhat sinister leader. I used regular 1st level characters, using my simplified character sheets, for this.

Background

Twenty years ago, Green Goodbarrow, mayor of Clearview, struck a deal with the fey of Clearview Forest. In return for Clearview’s continued prosperity and protection, he offered the services of his son to the dryad Qualan – confident that he would be well looked after, and his wife would bear more children for him.

A difficult birth followed, and Gwen Goodbarrow gave birth to twins. Rushing both dying mother and twins to Qualan’s glade, he begged for the deal to be cancelled – but he had already been elected mayor, and bargains with fey cannot be undone. The mayor’s son, Garrett, was taken by the dryad into the Feywild, to serve her as an apprentice and guardian of the forests. The daughter, Gynnie, was left to grow up with her father.

Time passed and Clearview prospered – the bandits and goblins that had troubled the other villages of the forest never troubled Clearview, and it became wealthy and prosperous. Garrett was comfortable enough serving the fey, and his druidic magics grew, even as he wished to return to his own, human world.

Clearview’s prosperity will be sealed now – for the great beauty of Gynnie Goodbarrow has attracted the attention of Prince Kyle, who has courted her and arranged a marriage. As he and his love walked in the forest, the talking trees of the forest saw them steal a kiss – and reported it back to the fey court – where Garrett heard of it.

Enraged to be reminded of all he has missed, and the life he could have lived, he turned on his former wards, capturing the dryad in a feywild prison and breaking the vows that protected Clearview. Even now, though, Prince Kyle and his Kingsguard yomp through the forest for their wedding, unaware of what has happened – with Garrett no longer serving them, the forest will demand the other child…

Prelude – The Forest Path

There is a wedding in Clearview, where Gynnie Goodbarrow, daughter of the town Mayor, is to be wed to Prince Kyle – youngest and least impressive of the King’s son, but a Prince nonetheless! You are making your way there…

  • Ask each player:

Why have you got an invite to, or are attending, this wedding?

As they round a turn in the road, they come across quite a scene. A mean, one-eyed bandit brandishes a crossbow from the trees at a well-dressed travelling group – surely the Prince and his Kingsguard. In a plummy, high-pitched voice, the Prince speaks –

You would challenge me? Fair know it, that I am a master with the sword, and in fact I insist that my guards stand down and allow me to slay you single-handedly!

A crossbow bolt flies from the woods and slays a Kingsguard, and combat ensues.

It is assumed the PCs will join in. They will face 5 bandits (AC 12, hp 11, +3 club for 1d4 or +3 crossbow for 1d8+1) plus One-Eyed Isaac (same but hp 18) – the bandits will engage the dangerous-looking Kingsguard first until they have been attacked.

The Kingsguard are utterly useless, and the Prince is worse.

Once they are vanquished, the Prince introduces himself – and tells you how lucky that his two Kingsguard, Erlin and Harlin, were there to save them – despite them doing almost nothing.

They can then proceed to the wedding – allow them a long rest as they are fed and watered at Clearview.

Scene One – The Wedding Party

Before the wedding, there is a great, drunken, feast, around the Clearview Oak, a huge tree in the centre of the village. During the festivities, they can attempt to find out about the wedding

  • Clearview is richer than it has ever been – it is said the forest is blessed, and even bandits don’t dare to interfere with Clearview’s prosperity
  • Green Goodbarrow is a good mayor, but he’s been more and more melancholy as the wedding day has approached – maybe memories of his late wife – who died giving birth to Gynnie – have been bothering him
  • The mayor has been taking many long walks in the woods of late – last time he returned looking like he’d seen a ghost!
  • Clearview is blessed by the forest – even the beer is the best in the forest! (as she says this, she takes a big swig, frowns a little as if it’s not as she expected it, and then returns to pretending it is good)

At the height of festivities – from the Clearview Oak burst 1 Needle Blight and 8 Twig Blights. A pair of Twig Blights grab Gynnie and pull her into the oak – immediately she is in the Feywild and captured again. As they do, the wise woman Ernestine shouts out

They come to take their prize! What is owed to them?! Where is the other child?!

Once they are defeated, Green Goodbarrow is extremely upset. He demands that people go after and rescue his daughter – of course, the Prince and his Kingsguard immediately volunteer. He also eyes up the heroes and asks them to go, but the Prince will have no truck with it – nevertheless, he promises at least 200gp of his considerable wealth if they can ensure the wedding goes smoothly. He suggests they travel to the dryad Qualan, the guardian of the forest – maybe something has happened to her that means the forest’s blessing may be ended.

Scene Two – Forest Exploration

Clearview’s forest paths are dim and oppressive.

There are a number of encounters the players can have, depending on time available, until they find the dryad’s grove – if you are short of time, feel free to skip ahead to that.

Talking Trees

The Trees used to be a source of wisdom, but are grumpy and angered now the curse has landed. They must be entertained – with a joke, a dance, or similar – a DC 13 Performance or similar check – from all the PCs (group check, needs half successes) to talk to them.

They can tell the whole legend of a boy taken as a price for the prosperity of Clearview, and that there was another child – a beautiful girl – and a dying mother. 

The Pool

You come across a tranquil pool, with lilies floating on it and an idyllic bridge tripping over it beyond thick, impassible forest. As you take the first steps over it, though, strange bubbles emerge from the pool, and a thick mist begins to cloud your vision.

The PCs must all make Con saves to remain awake, and then succeed on a group check (half successes needed) of Athletics or similar to cross the bridge – further failed Con saves inflict 1d4 hp damage. If all PCs fall asleep, they awaken in the dryad’s grove in the Feywild, and are awoken by the dryad by it’s dying breath after Garrett soliloquises the reason for his anger.

The Webs

They hear weak shouting ahead – from the Kingsguard, trapped in spider’s webs – a proper chance to save them! Luckily the Giant Spider who snared them is out hunting, but his three children – stats as Giant Wolf Spiders – stalk and will attack. After three rounds, their mother arrives – hope they have saved the Kingsguard by then!

Scene Three – The Dryad’s Pool

The Dryad’s Pool is clearly in trouble. The water is stagnant and stinking, and the tree looks to be dying on it. Arcane symbols scratched around it indicate a passage to the Feywild, recently used.

A DC 10 Arcana or Religion check will allow them to enter the Feywild and confront Garrett – they emerge on a scene of Qualan tied to a tree, and Garrett will tell them the history and why he feels aggrieved. Qualan tells them he is right – that for the blessing to continue Gynnie must be taken by the forest instead. Either way, Garrett attacks – Qualan using her last energy to Long Rest the PCs, if needed. If it looks sketchy, one of the Kingsguard tosses a PC a healing potion – they are much too terrified to join in the actual fight. 

Garratt – corrupted Druid (villain monster, CR 2+)

AC 11 or  16 (assume Barkskin), hp 52 (40 if just 4 PCs)
Speed 30ft
Multiattack 2 of –
–        make one shillelagh attack (+4 reach 5ft. damage 1d8)
–        make a sling attack (+4 range 30ft, damage 1d4)
–        cast a spell (Entangle, Thunder Wave, or Dust Devil)
Spells – Thunderwave (15ft cube, Con save or 2d8 damage and pushed 10 ft away – save for half and no push) – Entangle is a 20ft cube – Dust Devil is a movable 5ft square
Bonus action – get an additional save vs. an effect
Reaction – when struck by an attack, cast Barkskin to raise AC to 16
Villain Action Round 1 – Cast Entangle on all opponents within 50ft, Str save or restrained
Villain Action Round 2 – Immediately cast Longstrider on himself and move (no attacks of opp) up to 40 feet
Villain Action Round 3 – Summon a Dust Devil (Str save or 1d8 damage and pushed 10 feet away) against all opponents engaged with him

Scene Four – Return

The wedding is back on – or is it? Will the PCs tell the village the truth, or will they keep their counsel. Prince Kyle, in a rare show of bravery, is determined to marry Gynnie no matter what – and can be persuaded to reveal the secret or not by the PCs.

End with a montage of the next scenes in the PCs’ lives, showing how they move on from these heroics.

Table Techniques: Sharing Narration

As I’ve blogged about before, my gaming is so deeply infested with indie/narrative approaches that I find it quite jarring to go back to a more traditional style of play – even when playing, say, D&D. One aspect of this approach is players describing more about their setting and actions – becoming more like directors of the scene than actors. It can add a lot to everyone’s enjoyment at the table, so here are a few techniques to get started on sharing player narration.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

I guess the first question is, why bother? What are the advantages? Well, I hope we’ve moved a long way from the GM-responsible-for-fun model of RPG delivery – everyone at the table needs to help. These structures let some of the description of the shared imagined space come from players, without jarring too much with the normal GM/player conversation. These techniques allow players to add awesomeness in really interesting ways, and for most of them there’s a sliding scale of how much invention they need to do. 

It’s more engaging – for everyone, since the GM isn’t always describing stuff, and adds ownership to the ongoing plot from your players too. Also, I wouldn’t save it up for experienced players – I’ve used all of these with folks new to the game, and they’ve not met with any resistance. If anything, it’s been more experienced grognards who’ve struggled with them sometimes. So, in a rough order of complexity from simplest to most advanced, here are four techniques to share narration around a bit.

Tell Me How The Orc Dies

Player: I swing my axe… and 18, and… 10 damage!

GM: Great, that’s the bugbear down – what does it look like?

Player: He lunges forward, but I duck to one side and stove the back of his head in!

The first step is to get players to narrate their successful final blows in combat. This lets us zoom in on the awesome shot of their victory like a slo-mo death move in a video game, and happens only occasionally enough to make it a non-onerous task. It also lets your players own their success, and takes away any nerves they may have about introducing complications – there’s no expectation that they do, just that they describe how their axe shatters the skull of their opponent.

If this technique has a down side, it’s that if used in isolation you can end up asking players for a lot of the same sort of narration. Players might start thinking they need a list of finishing blows ready, and feel put on the spot in an already high-adrenaline environment. Still, it’s an obvious way to get players to describe more awesome shizzle.

Why Didn’t You Cross the Chasm?

Player: Now, I’ll pick the lock on that door – and… a 12

GM: It’s DC 15, I’m afraid, you’re not going to get it open in time – why couldn’t you get it open, you’re a master thief, right?

Player: Ah… it’s been down this tomb so long, all the mechanisms are rusty – I’d need heavy-duty picks for that, and I lost mine down that chasm two weeks ago…

An alternative is to hand over the narrative reins when players fail their rolls. When they miss, or fail an important skill check, ask them how they failed – were they distracted, did they underestimate their foe, or did they succeed a bit too well so that it might as well be a failure?

This has the advantage that you’re giving something back – although they’ve failed the roll, they get a chance to control the manner of their failure still. I’ve used this and it’s led to some great background moments – in a recent WFRP game, their escape from the Guildmasters House was delayed by the halfling’s failed Stealth roll – he found the contents of the kitchen just too tempting to stop and raid the larder. Of such momentary flavour details, great sessions are made, and this certainly helps them.

This requires a bit more buy-in, particularly from more experienced trad players, since they may be wary to describe anything that might put them at a disadvantage later – and there’s often an expectation that, if you miss, that just happens and we move on – spotlighting moments of failure takes practice too.

Tell Me About The Elves…

GM: There’s a huge forge at the end of this chamber, although it’s not been lit in years – covered in offerings for Grundelin, the All-Smith.

Player 1: What sort of offerings?

GM: Ah – well, Darak Deathspeaker’s a dwarf, he might know about Grundelin – what kind of offerings?

Player 2: It’s mining and smithing tools, hammers and anvils – but they all have to be well-used, so broken or worn.

Player 1: I was hoping for piles of gold…

Another technique is to give players some ownership of their own PC backgrounds. If someone’s playing a dwarf and dwarvish customs or lore comes up, hand the question over to them – why do dwarves all drink beer then, Branwyn Fire-Druid? This has the benefit of taking place (usually) outside of pace-driven action encounters, so players may feel more comfortable taking time with descriptions and being given the spotlight, and it can add richness to cultures that (apart from said PC) may not be given much spotlight time in the world.

As a GM, of course, listen and reincorporate where you can down the line – plot hooks derived from these will be extra special for your players. This can be a tricky technique in lore-heavy games (or any game where “what year is it?” is a relevant question) – and be prepared to shoot down the adjacent player who pipes up with a canon answer. “Well actually, in the Forgotten Realms, Moon Elves wouldn’t eat meat….” “How would you know, you’re not a Moon Elf – continue”

Some Kind of Skill Check

GM: So, as you disrupt the ritual, the goblins flee in all directions as the roof caves in – you’ve got moments to get out of the cavern before you’re buried alive! How do you escape?

Player 1: I’ll leap between the falling rocks, dodging this way and that to the exit

Player 2: I’ll estimate where the safest route is – where the cavern looks most stable, using stonecunning.

Player 3: The goblins had Wargs, right? I’ll leap onto one of them and ride it out as it flees.

GM: Okay, that looks like Athletics and Animal Handling for sure. Stonecunning normally goes off Knowledge (History), sounds a bit weird but let’s go with it. DC 15 for each of you.

To use this, rather than having set skills or abilities in mind to tackle obstacles, give the players free rein as to how they tackle it. This requires some flexibility in obstacle design, but don’t overthink it – and don’t worry about making it too challenging. Combining this with a good method for perilous tribulations (see part 2 here) allows everyone a skill roll, and so democratises it a bit. It can work in published adventures too – in a recent D&D game in Icewind Dale (using the published Rime of the Frostmaiden adventure) the PCs escaped a frost giant skeleton-infested cave by slingshotting a cauldron over the ice. 

A potential disadvantage of this is that, while you want to keep the difficulties low enough that their clever plans succeed more than they fail, players may only want to use their good skills. To mitigate this, have some other skill rolls in the adventure that use set rolls, and don’t be flexible all the time – make them roll that Stealth check sometimes.

So there you have it, four techniques to bring player narration into your games. Have you any other approaches? Let me know in the comments.

D&D, My Way

As I’ve blogged before, one of my 2022 gaming plans is to run a ‘proper’ game of D&D – one of the big campaigns, or an Adventurer’s League series. I did this in 2020, managing to get up to about 10th level of the Eberron AL series of adventures, and I’ve got a pretty good idea of what my flavour of D&D would look like if I did it again. 

I’ve played enough different games now to know that D&D, while an excellent game, isn’t always to my tastes. So here are the things I’d do to run D&D, my way.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

Milestone, and Frequent, Leveling

I don’t have time to level up every 4 sessions, nor to track XP. We’ll level up when the game demands it, and it’ll probably be every 2 sessions at the slowest – I could easily be persuaded by 1 level a session. This gives the players new toys to play with quickly, and stops the game being samey in gameplay, which is a risk with D&D. It also makes campaign length manageable – 4-12 session seasons are my normal campaign length these days, with a chance to go back and revisit if needed.

Zoom in, Zoom out

There’ll be liberal use of montages for long journeys and ongoing scenes. PCs schmoozing at an important party? We don’t need to play out every moment of it, we’ll just zoom into the important NPC conversations. There are games that do journeys and travel well – for me, D&D is not one of them – so we’ll cut to the chase. Likewise, state intent and then roleplay a bit, make a roll, is how we’ll do social conflict.

No Shopping, No Encumbrance

Encumbrance is another idea we don’t need, as is lengthy equipment lists. PCs in my D&D have an adventurer’s kit of common useful items for their travels – if they want something that we think is a stretch, they can always make a skill check to see if they’ve got it. Likewise we’ll not spend any time roleplaying encounters with shopkeepers – you do your shopping off-table, and we only zoom in (as above) on the exciting stuff.

Player Ownership of Backgrounds

You’re playing a snow elf? Cool, you get to define as much as you want about snow elves in this world. You used to serve with the Imperial Navy? Cool, tell me about how they recruit new sailors. As long as I can spin it into any plot that I might have for the game, players are free to negotiate their backgrounds as part of their characters at the table.

One note, though – this happens in play. I don’t want anyone showing up with 500 words of backstory for their 1st level character – we can’t collaborate if we do that. It comes out at the table, so any ideas you might have need to be held onto lightly.

Begrudgingly, Grids

I’ve gone on record before to say that grids, maps and minis aren’t necessary, even for games like Pathfinder that pretend they are, but I’ll be using battle maps. I’m running online, so this isn’t really any extra prep, and – having played a sorcerer in a recent Theros run – without them you really lose some of the options for PCs (and monsters) when they hit area-effect attacks and movement around the battlefield.

I’ll not be using dynamic lighting though – I find it both unreasonably fiddly and complex not knowing what the players can see, but also weirdly making it feel a lot more like a mini skirmish game instead of an RPG – without really adding anything. I’ll begrudgingly use Fog of War if it means I can have one map for a big location, but that’s about it.

No Dungeon Expeditions

Yeah, we’ll go to dangerous underground locations, but we’ll be in and out in the day. I don’t think D&D supports the “try and camp in an empty room” jeopardy (at least not in 5th ed – this was a bigger deal in the OSR days) – and it screws with the fight economy. So we’ll just not do it – other games like Torchbearer and Trophy handle this a lot better anyway. This means some dungeons and adventure locations will be mixed up to remove non-essential rooms and encounters – we’ll fill those with…

Montages and Skill Challenges

13th Age-style Montages will let us cut some of the less essential bits out when we zoom out of the adventure, while still adding some epicness to the world. Likewise, some stuff we’ll handle with Skill Challenges, either using the 4e system or one of these here or here. The standard 5e Group Skill Check rules aren’t too bad, either, and they’re often underused, so we’ll have plenty of that.

Alternate Plot and Subplot

Given that we’re levelling every 2 sessions, we’ll aim to alternate between a big metaplot session and a more character-driven side quest once we get going. This won’t always fit in the narrative of the adventure I’m running, but where it does I’ve found it gives a really good balance in game between often quite railroady big plot sessions, and more flexible character-driven sessions. These might still be pretty linear, but they’ll be taken from player requests so will allow us to get more done.

Moar Magic Items

Despite my dislike for equipment tracking, I want to make magic items a bigger deal. I think I often forget about them as rewards, and when I was running the AL campaign some of the rewards were a big stingy, so I want to make them a feature even if they mean I have to adjust some of the opposition to balance them. They’re a key cool bit of D&D that I haven’t focussed on enough in the past, so I need to make more of them.

So, that’s how I’d run D&D my way. Anything you’d add, or think I’m being controversial about? I’m still musing on what to run, and who for – I’ve only got one player confirmed, so shout up if you’re interested! Currently thinking Rime of the Frostmaiden or Curse of Strahd, but could be persuaded by Witchlight as well – if you’ve got and recommendations, let me have them! I need to have a proper look at Tales from the Yawning Portal, too – I think that might break my no multi-day dungeoning rule, but it’s a way to cover a lot of classic adventures in turn. Saltmarsh may be a better option. As I said, I need recommendations!

Get A Village – Embedding Setting in One-Shots

It’s easy to ditch the setting if you’re prepping a one-shot; but part of the joy of a #TTRPG is exploring a fantastic world, isn’t it? As to what extent can you get this feeling in a one-shot, there are a few approaches. You could spend the first half-hour explaining the setting and context for your players, but that would be rubbish. How can you show setting through play, without sacrificing pace? Well, here’s one method.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

You Need A Village

The Classic D&D village

Set up a small, coherent, manageable place for your one-shot. A village is the right size for this – give it an obvious theme, and link it to the plot. Show how your inciting incident affects it – the terrible plots of the big bad should have affected the villagers, and let the PCs witness this.

Continue reading →

Prep Techniques: The Con Pitch

Previously on this blog I’ve talked about 5-Room Dungeons, Three Places, and Sly Flourish’s Lazy Dungeon Master method. Today I’m going to showcase another technique, which is my starting point for convention one-shots, but can be applied easily to any TTRPG session. It’s more of a pre-drinks technique rather than the actual prep pub crawl, but it’s a good way to go from a blank slate to a sketched-out session – and then you can get the beers in.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

What’s a Con Pitch?

At a convention, you’d write a snappy pitch for your game to entice players to sign up for it; this is either printed out on a sign-up sheet (maybe with some nice art to draw punters in) or posted online so that prospective players know what to sign up for. Like the blurb on the back of a book, it should sell the session and promise excitement and fun! As an example, here’s my pitch for a game of Sentinel Comics at the Owlbear & Wizards Staff convention that’s coming up:

In this terrifying issue, Ray Manta has hatched a devious plan to hold Freedom City to ransom, by kidnapping the hapless Mayor Thomas at the opening of Freedom City Aqualand. After dealing with the aftermath of his kidnapping, the heroes have to track down Ray Manta to his secret underwater base, find him, and battle him and his aquatic friends to save the mayor.

I also include a bit about what the system is, if there’s any PVP, etc – but that’s not relevant here. Writing this pitch is almost the very first thing that I do to prep for a con game – before pregens or scenes. Why? Because it focusses my thoughts into a simple specification for the session. I write this, then come back to it and make a session out of it – starting from this makes prep much more manageable!

What Do You Want From This? – Start with Goals

To get your con pitch ready, start by working out what you want to get out of it. If it’s a con game, you might want to showcase a system or a setting – what are the elements of that that you’d like to foreground?

If it’s for an ongoing campaign game, you might already have an idea of the next logical session that will follow on (in a sandbox game, ask your players at the end of each session what they do next and work from that). Or you might want to highlight or introduce an enemy or setting element they haven’t seen yet. Or highlight a PC; in a recent series of Star Trek Adventures I loosely modelled the first four sessions on spotlighting each of the PCs in turn.

In either case, you might also want to use a cool monster – by starting with an opponent, the rest can be fitted around it. For the purpose of an example, I’m going to pitch a D&D adventure set in Theros – the Greek-ish Magic setting they’ve recently put out (if you’re interested in Theros, as well as my review, check out this character primer and this supplement from Tim Gray – the first one in particular is invaluable for character creation). There’s a bunch of cool new monsters in it, but I’d like to run a one-shot featuring the Hundred-Handed Ones – giants surrounded by floating arms that serve as artisans and have beef with the archons. So let’s start from that point – we want them to fight a Hundred-Handed One at the climax of the adventure.

Notes, Notes, Notes

Before you write your pitch, you might need to fill in some details. For instance, if you’re running D&D or 13th Age, what level the PCs are is important (I’m completely not above reskinning stats to balance against the PCs, as in the 1st-level owlbear antagonist here). For a one-shot, you might work backwards based on your antagonist to work out the level you want your PCs to be – and then you can fill in some more potential opponents. Look at this post about fight rosters for inspiration – and my mantra is that fights are always easy or hard, never medium.

If you have that decided, look at any advice the game has for balancing fights and think about appropriate antagonists, and also exciting action scenes and interesting NPCs. Hold lightly onto these ideas – not all of them will make it, and you certainly won’t put them in your pitch, but it’ll get you in the right brain space to begin to have an idea of the shape of the session.

Look at the setting as well – both in terms of history and events, and what sort of terrain the session will be set in. A useful technique for me is to write down ten components you could put into it – ten might seem like a lot, but it’s in the stretching and uncomfortable thinking that you’ll get your best ideas. Again, not all of these will actually be used, but they give you a good framework.

Thinking about our Theros one-shot, a Hundred-Handed One is CR 15, so a quick eyeball of levels indicates 5 heroes should be at about level 11 or so for a big climactic fight with one and some minions. It’s Theros, so the Gods are everywhere, so let’s have Purphoros, God of the Forge, involved as well – this giant has stolen part of his forge, and seeks to remake the Archons work (which, inconveniently for many heroes, includes many of the cities of Theros) by his own hand in revenge. He’s taken over a Volcano Temple (map in the Theros supplement) and corrupted the priests and guardians to worship him.

Theros contains suggested monsters for Purphoros, so let’s have some CR4 Oreads (fire nymphs) to trick the party, and maybe a pair of CR5 Fire Elementals that can be tricked or bypassed. I like the idea of a four-armed hill giant guarding the entrance, too – should be a nice easy warm-up fight with some terrified cultists to start the session with.  A bit more daydreaming, and my  list of 10 components looks like this:

  1. Battling a hundred-handed giant in the bowels of a volcano-forge
  2. Riddling with corrupted fire nymphs through the temple innards
  3. Geseros, the flame-haired priest of Purphoros with a brass arm who entreats the players for help
  4. A treacherous climb through lava floes to the temple
  5. The forge’s steam-filled cooling system flooding corridors with scalding water
  6. A six-armed hill giant and his four-armed ogre companion who guard the temple for the Hundred-Handed One
  7. Terrified smiths of Purphoros that must be rescured or calmed
  8. A volcano being stoked to erupt and flatten a city – allowing the giant to remake it in their image
  9. A pair of pun-obsessed satyrs, the last explorers to visit the temple, who can offer hints of the terrors within
  10. A reassuring/terrifying intervention by Purphoros if the giant is defeated.

Write Your Pitch

Now, in less than 100 words, pitch your scenario. Start with a grabby opener – say what the key idea of the session is, and make it exciting! Go big with what the stakes are and what the PCs might face. Using questions is a good idea as well – Can you survive the treacherous Akorosian Sea? Will you defeat the mighty Kraken?

Oh, and give it a title – even if it’s a session in an ongoing game, session titles make them exciting and episodic, and give a hook to. If in doubt, just name it after a location – (Adjective) (Exciting Place) of (Noun) is as good a model as any.

Here’s our finished pitch for our Theros one-shot

The Doom-Forge of Purphoros

Purphoros, God of the Forge, calls for aid! His volcano-temple has been desecrated by an ancient, hundred-handed giant, who seeks to reform the city below in his own deadly image. Can you race up the lava floes, battling the corrupted forge-creatures and evading their deadly traps, to prevent the eruption? Or will you fall to Alekto, the Hundred-Handed One, renegade smith of the Archons? A D&D one-shot for five 11th level PCs.

What Next?

Next, wait. Leave the pitch at least overnight – and possibly for much longer, conventions often need games to be confirmed well in advance – and then flesh out the adventure using whatever more detailed prep technique you have. Let me know if you want me to develop the Doom-Forge into a full adventure – and maybe even run it for patrons – in the comments or on twitter @milnermaths.

Making a Session Out Of It – Unsure Footing (Rime of the Frostmaiden)

Ages ago, I started blogging about One Hour One Shots – a chance to get the gist of what a TTRPG was in just an hour, rather than needing a whole session of 3-4. I reviewed some, and even had one published (for free) as a demo scenario for Hunters of Alexandria. My thinking has moved on a bit since then.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

These days, the proliferation of online gaming means most of us are getting used to 2-3 hour long sessions as the norm; and, to be frank, when I get back to face to face gaming I’d be happy sticking with this length as the norm. Good online play is tighter; you tend to get as much done in 2-3 hours as you do in 4-5 hours face to face by minimising cross-chat.

And, while this is going on, Wizards of the Coast appear to be embracing the idea. A lot of 1st level adventures being published now present a series of mini-quests – each taking about an hour to play through – and I’m all in favour of this. The Essentials Box has a series of mini-quests that the PCs pick up in whatever order they want, and Rime of the Frostmaiden begins with a short quest in each of the towns where the action starts.

I’m going to explore drawing these mini-plots out to a full one-shot length in the next few blog posts, coving pulling a one-shot out of a published adventure – starting with expanding a shorter scenario into a full one-shot session.

Rime of the Frostmaiden: Unsure Footing

We’ll start with Unsure Footing, available at the link here from Wizard’s Stay In And Game promotion (under the D&D Celebration 2020 Header). It’s a starter adventure for Rime of the Frostmaiden, so it’s all frozen cursed north, but it also has lots of talking animals in, which is right up my street. It’s actually designed to be four 1-hour adventures where the PCs can complete up to 4 of them, but for this example we’ll just look at Unsure Footing, the first mini-quest they can do.

Fig. 1 – Unsure Footing Basic Structure

Summarising the plot as written, it looks like Fig. 1. The PCs are rescued from an avalanche by some awakened animals, and introduced to a talking walrus called Mother Tusk, who asks them to help her by rescuing some otters who have not returned. They track the otters to find them in a cave full of ice slides pursued by wolves, who they fight. They then have to try to warm up and survive the frozen trek back to safety with the otters. It’s designed to take about an hour.

To begin with, let’s look at what can be fleshed out easily here – the Avalanche scene at the start is a very quick, and peril-free, encounter – let’s make a bit more of that. While it sounds like an exciting scene, an awakened muskrat appears immediately and guides them to safety – there’s no need for the dice to hit the table at all, much less any actual peril.

And an arctic survival challenge to return isn’t much of a finale for a one-shot; the wolves fight could be, but I’m not sure if even on ice slides a fight with a few wolves is big enough. When you rescue the otters, they mention that they were running away from an owlbear, so let’s have him appear at the exit to the caves and a final fight with him. One big bad in D&D is often swingy (and let’s not worry about owlbears being CR 3 for our 1st level party for now), so let’s give him some minions – maybe a flock of evil owls who herald him.

Hacking the avalanche, we can have the muskrat ride to the rescue after a few rounds of avalanche peril – firstly requiring Acrobatics, Athletics, or Survival checks from everybody (keep these relatively easy at DC 8 for now) to avoid taking 1d4 damage from the buffeting snow, and then have a warm-up fight on the shifting snows for a couple of rounds. To foreshadow the ‘big bad,’ we’ll have a flock of owls attack them – at CR 0 they won’t be too much of a threat, but the need to make a skill check each round to maintain footing will be the real challenge. Again, this is more of a warm-up fight, but let’s have 5 owls attack – they can only do 1hp damage a round, so the avalanche is more of a threat than them.

Have the muskrat appear and rescue them on the third round no matter what, and take them to Mother Tusk, where – it is a one-shot after all – they get a slap-up meal of whatever awakened animals can muster and have a Long Rest so they’re all ready for the adventure proper. Not only does the walrus tell them about her otters, but speaks of a terrifying owlbear who has been stalking them, in a pretty-obvious foreshadowing of the big bad. Maybe she even talks of the flock of owls as his heralds.

They can track the otters, find them, and fight the wolves as normal – this is a really cool scene – and let’s have some clues available – the wolves seek to sacrifice the otters to the owlbear to appease them, leaving room for them to join forces when the owlbear attacks.

The ‘getting warmed up in the cave’ bit, I can take or leave. I think the point is meant to be to reinforce how deadly the environment is, but it reads a bit attritional to me – and they’ve got to have a tough fight after this, so I’d be loathe to give my PCs any exhaustion at this stage. I think I’d probably have, depending on the group, one of the below options

  • The “Trad” Option – getting warmed up and out of the ice slide cave is a skill challenge, 5 successes before 3 failures on a DC 10 check of an appropriate skill. On a success they make it out and can compose themselves before the fight – give everyone inspiration. On a failure, they still make it out but are tired and drained – they’ll have disadvantage on all rolls for the first round (including initiative)
  • The “Story” Option – ask the players to montage how they escape – maybe finding another route through the ice caves, encountering other creatures, and making inventive ways to climb up and get warm. You can use the 13th Age Montage system, or just go round and ask for mini-scenes.

And then let’s add a fight with the “owlbear.” Let’s reskin the owlbear as a CR 1 Brown Bear, but with Beak instead of Bite and darkvision. A quick calculation shows that having 6 CR 0 Owls with him should make for an encounter just between Hard and Deadly for 5 PCs, and if they have the wolves helping them we could beef up the number of owls a bit.

And there you are – a con-length one-shot from a short mini-encounter. In the next post I’ll dig into ways to do this more generally from mini-adventures (including looking at one for WFRP instead of D&D) and how this can work.