Spotlight Maintenance and the Three-Skill Trick: A One-Shot Prep Technique

After several cons in the last few weeks, I’ve come to realise how important spotlight sharing is in One-Shot games. In some games, a structured turn helps to make this happen naturally, especially in combat; in D&D, for instance, everyone has a role to play in combat, so generally a fight has the spotlight shared reasonably equally. But in games that are less combat-centric, such as investigative games, it can be easy to neglect some characters and favour others. And even in D&D, outside of combat it can be easy to make the game focus more on some PCs and not others.

So, in thinking about this, I present…

The Three-Skill Trick

You do this at some point in your prep after you have your pregens ready. You might only have the bare bones of your plot – in which case this might take you in unexpected directions – or you might have the game basically prepped – in which case this will add detail and options that will check that everyone has plenty to do.

Start by looking at your pregens and working out what they are really good at – this will include their “Apex skill,” whatever they are best at, but also anything that they have a Talent/Stunt/whatever your system calls them that can boost it. Sometimes talents can have specific instances – for instance in FFG Star Wars Talents sometimes just remove penalty dice – so consider if those instances can occur in the game.

Then list three places in the scenario for each pregen where these skills can shine. Make sure these are skill uses that hinge on success – passing them adds significant value and plot leverage to the game.

Why three? Well, not all of them may come up, no matter how obvious you think they might be. By having three, you’re guaranteeing as close as you can that it’ll come up at least once. This is easier to illustrate with an example, so let’s look at a classic/boring adventure structure, and let’s stick to D&D, the “Bandits on the Road” adventure.

Imagine this is as far as our prep goes for this 1st level D&D adventure: the PCs are hired to escort a caravan through the dangerous woods; part way through they are ambushed by bandits, who run off with a vital item. The PCs are offered double their fee to track the bandits and recover the item, from which they can then return to civilisation.

Just to stick to the cliche, let’s assume a bog-standard D&D party of Fighter, Magic-User, Thief, and Cleric, and let’s make them good at standard 1st Edition AD&D things – the Cleric can heal and speak to people, the Fighter can, er, Bend Bars and Lift Gates, and hit things with his sword; you get the idea.

Let’s look at each PC in turn and look at what we can add to give them a proper spotlight.

Fighter

  • during the ambush, the caravan is forced into a rut and loses a wheel – it needs lifting up and repairing
  • during the ambush, one of the bandits is carrying a shield bearing the heraldic crest of the Duke’s bastard son – foreshadowing that…
  • the bandits have a champion, the Duke’s disgraced bastard son, who seeks to duel the fighter in single combat

Thief

  • The camp is nestled up a cliffside – by climbing the (fairly easy) cliffs it can be scouted and alarms cut off
  • The bandits around the camp (or even during the ambush) carry obvious keys that can be pickpocketed from them
  • The camp has tripwire traps all around the approach to the forest

Cleric

  • At the start of the ambush, the merchant’s wife is shot and dangerously wounded – she needs healing
  • During the night – during which the PCs must travel to get to the bandit camp – restless spirits and ghosts stalk the forest
  • There are druids in the forest who are none too happy about the caravans coming through, but a friendly approach leads to their help against the bandits, who they are equally displeased with

Magic-User

  • the stolen item is an arcane box that can be magically tracked
  • during the camp ambush, there are lots of braziers and pots of oil (that can easily be mage hand-ed to cause distraction)
  • from the ambush, they find a map to the bandit camp – but it is in code

Obviously, this isn’t quite game-ready, but I’d argue it’s a significant improvement on the standard adventure already. All it needs is a re-arranging into order and a few stats and names, and it’s a pretty serviceable one-shot. Watch this space and I might even do that – after all, I did try and chisel a decent one-shot out of another classic/corny adventure plot, “The Orc And The Pie.”

What are your tricks for managing spotlight in one-shots? Have you tried a similar technique? And watch out for Part 2, where I’ll apply it to a more complex base adventure.

Ravnica Airship Heist – a 3rd level D&D One-Shot

In my review of the Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica, I talked about it’s amazing steampunky setting – and it made me think immediately of an airship heist. Well, I went ahead and designed one, and have run it twice now – once at Go Play Leeds and once at the excellent Airecon convention in Harrogate.

airship pic

Airship by Jonny Gray

It’s presented in fairly loose note form below (and here as a .pdf) – and in this post I’ve got links to the pregens that I used for it. You can probably get an idea about how I tend to run D&D5e from it – there’s no maps, for instance, and in particular the part of the one-shot where the PCs have to source flying mounts is left intentionally vague. In both occasions of running it, the Goblin player has decided instead to have his own experimental flying machine.

Let me know any feedback – particularly if you run it, or part of it.

Ravnica Airship Heist

(An Azorius Senate Ravnica One-Shot for five 3rd level PCs)

Background

There’s one airship out of the Tenth District that you need to get to; it’s got Lady Saves on it, a wanted Simic Combine ‘disappearer’ who is wanted for multiple Guildpact violations. She’s gone into deep hiding, but you know she’s still in the Tenth District, and you’re going to capture her.

She knows the Azorius are on to her, though, and has made plans. After exhausting a number of avenues, she has kidnapped Izzet league goblin inventor Grizmalgun and forced him to steal and pilot an airship for her. With this, she will flee to the faraway Sixth District and start her experiments again!

Setup

This one-shot assumes that the PCs are working with, or allied to, the Azorius Senate, and begins at the finale of their investigations into her practices. The adventure begins at the finale of their investigations into her – they have tracked her down to her laboratory on the edge of Zonot Seven, in Precinct Five of the Tenth District. Her crimes – kidnapping, experimentation without consent – are so foul that even the Simic Combine has stopped defending her, and so the Azorius have a warrant for her arrest.

With each PC, ask why they are dedicated to finding Lady Saves – what has she done to them, their Guild or their family. Let them know the terms of the warrant – it applies within the Tenth District, and so it is imperative that they don’t let her escape.

Then ask them which PC they have worked with before – what case they worked on, and what they thought of them.

Cast

Lady Saves is a cruel, heartless Simic biomancer who seeks only to further her own glory by a series of increasingly dangerous experiments. She appears as a beautiful, if otherworldly, woman, and has a thin pair of butterfly wings that are usually kept folded and hidden behind her back. Likewise, if she needs it, a pair of concealed tentacles can emerge from her body.

Grizmalgun is a scatterbrained and disorganised goblin inventor who usually works in the harnessing of elemental powers. He has worked many times on maintaining the Tenth District’s airships, and so is in a prime position to steal one. While he has no time for Lady Saves, the chance to actually fly one of his creations has made him relatively sympathetic to her cause – and the chance to start again in the Sixth District also appeals, as he has a long list of debts from previous experiments.

Scene 1 – Dawn Raid on Growth Chamber Alpha-3

The PCs enter the Growth Chamber to find it apparently deserted – there are two greenish pools in front of them, beyond which a desk of apparatus and notes lies in disarray. Another doorway leads to some abandoned living quarters All through the room is the thick smell of acid which stings the eyes. Within the pools, two Category 1 Krasis (p210 GGR) (both with the Acidic Skin power) lie ready to attacl the PCs. They will try to wait until the PCs have started to investigate the desk, trapping them in the chamber, but if anyone tries to explore the pools they will attack.

A thorough search of the chamber reveals –

  • A detailed plan for airship piloting, which has had several notes left in it
  • A list of Izzet league contacts – with notes next to them, each crossed out. Only one, Grizmalgun, a goblin airship inventor, remains
  • A guide book to the Sixth District, far across Ravnica

If Lady Saves makes it to the Sixth District, she will be well away from her crimes here – even the Guildpact takes a long time to enforce, and she belongs in your jurisdiction! They can follow up the leads

Airships

Research about airships shows that they are likely to be from the Airpship Station at the centre of Tenth District. They are slow but easily obtained with the right contacts, and asking around will reveal that there are unscrupulous Izzet Leaguers who are prepared to bypass security and wards and help people get them.

Scene Two – Grizmalgun’s Workshop

Grizmalgun is long gone, but Lady Saves’ Simic allies have left traps just in case somebody tries to come after him. A Hybrid Shocker and two Hybrid Spies (GGR p218) are hidden in the alleyways around the workshop – test the Spys’ stealth of +5 against the PC’s Passive Perception to see if they are detected, unless they search the outside thoroughly.

Upon entry, the Workshop is a two-story affair – you can use the map on p145 of GGR for it – but much of the walkways around the ground level above the generator have been removed or destroyed. A tripwire near entry triggers the first (mechanical) trap – the lower level begins to flood with water. Whoever enters first must make a DC15 Perception to spot the tripwire, followed by a DC15 Acrobatics to avoid being tipped into the lower level for 1d6 damage and to be within the water. The lower level will fill up within two rounds, and then begin to flood the ground floor. There is a cut-off switch on the far side of the basement floor – from which the water floods – which can be reached and turned off with a DC10 Athletics check.

When the trap is triggered, or when the PCs enter the workshop without it triggering, the Simic will attack. The Shocker can target everyone in the water with their Shocking Touch attack or Electrified Body reaction.

Upon questioning the Simic, they can reveal that Lady Saves is long gone – she is already on board the airship. Similarly, a thorough search of the workshop finds evidence of a fight – and calculations for a flight path and route. Checking the wind speeds and timings, the airship is already airborne – there is no time to lose to catch it!

Scene Three – Airborne Steeds

They need to use their contacts to get hold of either Griffins or Skyjek Rocs to ride onto the Airship, if they want to try and attack aerially. If any of the group have Izzet league contacts, they may be able to find their own Airships. Allow the players to make whatever plans they have for this – a skill check is only needed if you want to determine who has the best-maintained Griffin and who has a grimy beakless nag!

(optional) Scene Four – Aerial Battle

If you have time (allow about an hour for the final confrontation), have the PCs encounter some interference on their way to the fight. Three Harpies (MM p181)have been bribed by Lady Saves to run interference in case they are followed.

An appropriate Animal Handling check can make their Rocs or Griffins sing, which will counteract the Luring Song of the Harpies. As all combatants are mounted, feel free to use – or not use – the Mounted Combat rules, depending on your table preferences.

Scene Five – Airship Heist

On board the airship, there are Lady Saves – stats as a Cult Fanatic (MM p345 – but with a Flight speed of 40ft if she needs it), a Krasis Stage 1 (with Flight – p210 GGR), and Four Simic Thugs (MM p350). There’s also a very frightened-looking Grizmalgun (stats as Counterflux Blastseeker, p242 GGR) who is chained to a cage at the front of the Airship. He can be persuaded to help with an appropriate social skill, and joins in on the PCs side. This can be a difficult battle – particularly if anyone falls off their mounts – but the PCs have access to Grizmalgun, and also their Rocs / Griffons to help that they should be able to make use of.

Scene Six – Airship Crash!

As the battle rages, the Airship begins to pitch and toss, and if the fight is going against her, Lady Saves is likely to pull the bomb mechanism that Grizmalgun has installed and cut the cables. The mechanisms within the airship begin to whirr and the airship begins to lose altitude.

To level it out and crash-land the airship will take a series of skill checks. They need to get to 4 (same as no. of PCs) successes before they reach 3 failures, using a range of skills (generally DC is 10)

  • Use Dexterity (Thieve’s Tools) to repair the rigging
  • Use Intelligence (Arcana) to repair the air elemental holding wards
  • Use Strength (Athletics) to climb onto the rigging and hold it in place
  • Use Charisma (Persuasion) to get Grizmalgun to help – once the bomb goes off he is very keen on observing the carnage instead of helping
  • …and so on

With success, the ship crashes gently into a Rubble Pit – and with it come a group of Gruul. Judicious use of social skills, and explaining Lady Saves’ crimes, should enable them to get out successfully, and they can bring her to justice.

CSI: Tenth District – Ravnica Pregens

(update: I’ve added the link to the final pregen, a Goblin Fighter more geared towards magic than fighting, to use with the adventure itself here)

Following my post about Ravnica, I’ve been doing some prep for a game I’m going to run at Airecon in March (and probably a few other places, if it goes well). It’s for 3rd level characters loosely serving the Azorius Senate (the law-keeping guild in the game) and involves them chasing clues to try and recover a rogue biomancer. It’s heavily grounded in the pulp/action tradition, and includes an airship heist – because if there are airships in a setting, you’ve got to let the PCs heist one. The prep is still in development, but I’ve got a few tweaks that I’m excited about that I’ll share here including:

  • randomly-distributed NPC contacts that are key to the mission
  • establishing questions to determine the prior investigation and bring the PCs together as a team, and
  • ways to determine PC histories with key NPCs in the plot

I’m excited about it! Part of the joy of Ravnica is that by giving random tables instead of reams and reams of history, as DM you have the freedom to create interesting situations without worrying about canon (on the Smart Party Podcast, Baz and Gaz asked Kate Welch, Wizards Game Designer about this, and it certainly looks to be a part of their plans going forwards for new settings).

In the meantime, I’ve done a set of pregens for the adventure, and tried something a bit different in the character sheet design. I’ve tried to put the minimum of information on, and to make it as clear and easy as possible to use.

Some things have had to be sacrificed (not really any room for actual spells – I’ll be using the excellent spellbook cards at the table) – like non-proficient skills – but I’m curious to see how they run in play. I think that often pregen sheets have too much information on, and just look too complicated, which leads to things being missed if people aren’t familiar with the system; compare the Minotaur sheet above against the WFRP sheet I used for my Night of Blood game at Go Play Manchester.

 

So, anyway, here are the pregens – all 3rd level, and probably not as optimised as they would be if I’d played more D&D5e – but all ready to investigate crime in the Tenth District.

Vedalkan Wizard

Human Paladin

Minotaur Barbarian

Human Rogue

Goblin Fighter

Please let me know if you use them, or have any feedback with them – I’m working on making my pregens more functional, and I’ve usually got a bit of a tin eye for visual design. And I’ll share the rest of the prep on here soon.