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.

 

D&D One-Shots, Part 3: Goblin Gully

In my last post, I talked about running a one-shot for six complete newcomers using an extended/modified version of Dyson Logos’ Goblin Gully one-sheet dungeon. I added some stuff to it, mainly to give a bit of an introduction to the core mechanics (with a straightforward battle against some bandits) and a chance for a bit of out-of-dungeon roleplaying (by interacting in the town before venturing to the dungeon).

It worked really well as a 1st-level introductory game. The dungeon is just complex and multi-layered enough to give a chance for tactical decisions, and the final encounter really emphasises that sometimes you don’t have to defeat the enemy, just capture them. My notes that I used, in addition to the original dungeon, are below. And check Dyson’s stuff out! There are loads of really good maps, geomorphs, and adventures on his website.

Synopsis

The PCs are young, thrusting adventurers out to earn their fortune. They have recently taken their first, exciting, job – escorting the merchant Donia and her husband Reaghan through the High Forest to the village of Stone Stand.

They are attacked by bandits, and Reaghan is wounded before they are able to chase them off, and they learn that there is much increased bandit activity – linked to the goblins near the Kalil Slave Pit. At the town, Donia and the innkeeper Jarrod engage them to investigate the Slave Pit and drive off the goblins.

Cast

Donia is an able and capable merchant, middle-aged with a steely stare and an eye for business.

Reaghan, her husband, is a feckless idiot, an ex-adventurer who doesn’t see why the PCs should have been hired since he can easily deal with a few bandits.

Jarrod, the innkeeper of the Wyvern’s Rest, is a stout and hearty barkeep who  just wants the best for Stone Stair.

Scene One – Ambush!

As the players round a corner in the depths of the High Forest, less than a day’s travel away, their cart sticks in the mud – closer inspection (DC 10 perception) shows that a groove has been hollowed out in the road deliberately to trap them. As they inspect, Spencer and his Bandits approach – Reaghan immediately challenges them, and is seriously wounded by an arrow for his troubles.

There is one Bandit for every PC, plus Spencer, the leader. They attempt to flee if the battle starts to clearly go against them, which it probably will.

Spencer: As a normal Bandit but hp 18.

Searching the bandits they find two potions of healing (regain 2d4+2 hp) and a map showing the details of the Kalil Slave Pit, with scrawled notes on it – Keep Adventurers Away from Stone Stand, and from the Pit – Maglubiyet will reward you (10 gp/adventure head – double if alive!).

Reaghan can be stabilized with a Wisdom (Medicine) DC 10 check, or any healing that restores even 1hp. If there isn’t a cleric or paladin in the party, consider them finding an extra potion of healing – maybe on Spencer. Once he is stabilized they can continue to the village.

Tracking the bandits

If they are keen to track them, they can make a Wisdom (Survival) DC 10 check to show that they have a basic camp about half a day’s march away. There they may be able to ambush the remaining bandits, or question them about the goblins

Questioning the bandits

Spencer and his men are opportunists – they dug the hole in the hope of a cart coming along because they’ve tracked the PCs for the past day. The goblin bounty has made ambushing carts much more lucrative as there are often adventurers amongst them. They will plead with the PCs to let them go, or failing that to at least take them back to town – Wisdom (Insight) DC 10 will reveal that what they are really scared of is being sent to the goblins.

Scene Two – Stone Stair

Stone Stair is a picturesque village in the middle of the wilderness, nestled on either side of stone steps up a hillside, making it very defensible but also reliant on imports for food. The one tavern, the Wyvern’s Rest, is run by Jarrod, a retired adventurer. As they are settled and rested, they will learn that Stone Stair has been beset by bandits – none have dared attack the village itself yet, but many supply carts have gone missing, and there are rumours of goblins abroud in the hills to the north as well.

Jarrod and Dorian will offer the PCs 200 gp to clear out and/or investigate the old Kalil Slave Pits – a mysterious wanderer, Kras, will tell them that he has seen the bridge has been restored to it.

Gathering Information

They can question any of the NPCs around town about the Slave Pits – on a successful DC 10 check of an appropriate skill they receive a True rumour from the Goblin Gully sheet, on a failed on they receive a False one – but will know it is questionable.

Scene Three – Goblin Gully

The PCs can make their way to the Kalil Slave Pits and explore Goblin Gully as per the one-sheet. Additional notes for each location are below.

By investigation, the goblins believe the black pudding to be an avatar of Maglubiyet, and have been throwing sacrifices in. They have been running short, so last week two goblins were pushed in, and their claw marks are visible on the walls as they tried to escape.

  1. Entrance – two Goblins up a tree. They attack with their shortbows.
  2. Antechamber
  3. Grand Hall – four Goblins guard here (or one per PC)  (Passive Perception 9 if sneak)
  4. Bridge Room – two Goblins will attempt to support combat in 3 – but not leave their posts.
  5. Bridge – to cross quickly is a DC 10 Dex save or they will be left hanging off a thread, a further save or they fall for 1d6 damage
  6. Gully Floor – the bodies carry a Scroll of Bless
  7. Empty Room – goblin in 8 to surprise
  8. Contains Graz’tur, a goblin boss, and three Goblins (XP 350)
  9. Secret Chamber. The door is trapped, and secret (DC 10 to find, DC 15 to disarm – or DC 15 Dex save or 1d10 damage from a dropped rock)
  10. Secret Storage. There is a +1 Longsword here, but if it is disturbed then the Animated Armor at the back of the room attacks with its ornate two-handed sword – this sword detects as magical.
  11. Four goblins, can be ambushed easily
  12. The Pit. Contains a black pudding. Required DC 15 Wisdom save to flee and shut the door. The door to the Pit is barred by heavy wooden bars, and the sword in 10 can be used to seal the portal permanently.

So, there are my notes for Goblin Gully (posted with Dyson’s permission, I should add). What are your favourite short dungeons to introduce D&D to newcomers?

Next post, I’ll talk about prepping one-shot games for D&D.