Pull the Other Warhammer: Soulbound, the Age of Sigmar TTRPG

I’ve managed to get another new game to the table this week – Soulbound: Age of Sigmar, Cubicle 7’s RPG of the Games Workshop fantasy reboot. For a wargame-inspired game, it’s a surprisingly loose-limbed high fantasy game, and one session down I think it makes a great convention game. Here’s why…

Superheroes with Swords

This is proper high fantasy. You’re powerful heroes, and because your group is soulbound, you get tokens you can use to cheat death which you keep as a group. Every PC has at least 1 Mettle, which you can spend to get an extra action in a round, or boost your attack significantly – and PCs are properly high powered while still being pretty simple to play and run.

You Don’t Need to Sweat The Lore

As you’d expect from a GW property, there is a significant amount of lore you could delve into. But there’s no need, really. Chaos was all risen, it’s been sort of beaten back a bit, you’re heroes trying to finish the job. There’s monsters, chaos, undead everywhere, and you just need to do the right thing and kill them. We’ve seen this approach work really well in 13th Age Glorantha, where setting it in a more ballsy era means you don’t have to worry about history so much.

It’s a Zonal, Freewheeling Combat System

No minis. I repeat, no minis. It has a loose zonal combat system which I guess you could use a map and counters for, if you had them already – but it’s straightforward enough for theatre of the mind to work just as well. Simple rules for dangerous terrain are easy to implement, and combat is fast and fun with both sides potentially hitting hard.

There’s great one-shots out there

As well as the Starter Set, there’s also a couple of free RPG adventures. I ran Trouble Brewing, which while not free, is an excellent convention adventure. It’s worth giving the published adventures a read for how they structure and build combat encounters, too – you can really hit the PCs hard, and the terrain rules add a lot of options.
So, will I run Soulbound at conventions again? Strong yes! I’m looking at a Tzeentch-themed thing for Seven Hills 2023: Change, which as it happens is open for registrations if you’re near to Sheffield – or even if you aren’t.

Avatar Legends: A New Approach to Session Zero?

There’s a lot of buzz around Magpie Games’ PBTA Avatar Legends game – the usual stuff of people sharing their new kickstarter deliveries. It’s certainly a pretty game, but I managed to get session zero in with our regular Friday group the evening it arrived – and the session zero guidance is not only really interesting, but also easy to adapt to other games and systems.

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!

Avatar the what?

The game is an officially licensed RPG for the Avatar: The Last Airbender show, including Legend of Korra. If you’ve never heard of it before, they’re excellent shows, and although Avatar is aimed at kid, don’t let that put you off. It’s a fantasy-ish land where people from different lands can ‘bend’ elements to their advantage – so you have firebenders shooting gouts of flame, waterbenders skating around on sheets of ice, that sort of thing.

It’s heroic fantasy, and it suits PBTA well, as it’s as much about beliefs and principles as it is about cool fighting moves. In the game each playbook has a series of contrasting principles that can get shifted during the game (a lot like Mask’s stats) – so when The Icon’s Role principle goes up to +2, his Freedom drops to -2. Ever go more than +3/-3, and you suffer a crisis of confidence, probably leaving the scene, before it resets. There’s a funky combat system of stances and moves too, which I’ll write more about when I’ve seen it in action – it’s definitely second-gen PBTA with a bit of heft to the rules.

Session Zero

Before chargen, or even before players pick their playbooks, you make a few decisions. The first is to choose what Era you play in, and then what the campaign’s Scope is – is it set around a given area, or is it a picaresque game where you visit a new land every session. We went with the first era, Kyoshi, since there’s not much canon about it, and the players were keen for a narrow, but non-urban, scope – allowing recurring NPCs and locations to appear. So far, pretty standard session zero stuff.

You then pick your Group Focus – what you got together to do. Options range from “To Defeat [dangerous foe]” to “To Learn [idea, culture, training, history]” – we went with “To Protect…” and decided we wants to protect a village, since we’d thrown out some ideas about a bucolic, pastoral setting – a few of us in the groups have played fantasy city campaigns recently. Quickly, our group role becomes apparent, and we’ve got our village sketched out as well – Peony Blossom Falls, a village at a vital commercial crossroads that’s always the target of bandits.

I wasn’t too sure about this step initially – it felt like we were deciding from a blank slate – but the players had good ideas and some stuff just made sense immediately – we were unlikely to be picking “To deliver…” or “To rescue…” with a limited scope, and player ideas got built on by each other. One player realised it was very much like picking your Crew playbook in Blades in the Dark – it lets you decide what sort of stuff you’ll be doing – and gives the GM a big steer on what each session might look like.

The Inciting Incident

This is the bit that I’ve not seen before. As a group, you pick from a few options to decide the adventure that drove your PCs to adventure together. There are a few options for each of Act I, II, and III, which for me provided just enough of a framework to work it out. 

I added more structure and left it entirely to the players too – the first player picked the phrase (In our case for Act I “We did something fun, but drew the ire of [powerful figure] in the process”), the next player identified a specific from that (what the fun thing was), the next player who the powerful figure was, then on to Act II.

What did we end up with? Well, our heroes partied too hard in the waterfalls of Peony Blossom Village, drawing the ire of Fenfang the Magistrate before the Peony Blossom Festival. During the festival they stole a secret scroll of bending from Meng Shou, a wandering Fire Nation hero – without realising how valuable it was – but were rescued by Fenfang when he offered them a deal – defend the village for a year and a day, and their penance is served.

As a GM, this is brilliant. I’ve got just enough to see how the campaign will start – we talked about bandit gangs troubling the village, but they haven’t even appeared yet. What has appeared are two sort-of-antagonists who could be allies or enemies – Fenfang and Meng Shou – who are both tricky to deal with either socially or in combat. The first session almost writes itself from this prep!

Why It works

No hierarchy or player / GM split – I like that there aren’t really defined rolls for players and GMs in the procedures. You’re all just a group deciding what you’re going to do. I’d imagine that GM probably still has veto, but we didn’t really need it. It’s easy for the GM to set some parameters at the start (I’d picked the era, for instance) and then have players work within those boundaries.

No dice, not too fiddly – the process of the Inciting Incident doesn’t just plan your previous adventure, and give some idea of where the characters fit together – it also helps to plan the actual first session. With the consequences of their actions to work from, we can get into some drama immediately – which is often an issue with PBTA where you either jump into face-stabby blood opera or slow-burn around NPCs until somebody blinks.

Eras break the setting into manageable pieces – eras are a great idea to make a rich, fully detailed setting work at the table. There’s 63 pages of setting detail in the World of Avatar chapter – but I only really need to grasp about 12 of them, for the era we’re in. Each Era doesn’t just describe what’s happening and where nations are in their histories, but also what the key themes and stories you can tell in that era are – meaning you can grasp very quickly which one takes your fancy.

In summary, I’m really pleased with this approach, and I think it’s easily ported to any system or setting to add detail to a session zero and set your campaign in motion. I’ll be considering it with other games in the future. What approaches have you seen for session zeroes? Let me know in the comments.

Table Techniques: Reincoporation

If you want to make your #TTRPG one-shots memorable and feel personal to your players, this is absolutely the most effective technique you can use, and it also works in ongoing campaigns. One of the challenges of one-shot play is getting the PCs connected to your plot and giving them personality, and there are lots of tricks that GMs use for this – art, standees, bonds or inciting incident questions / love letters – but this is a resource-free one that can have impressive results.

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!

It’s what a lot of players miss from convention games – feeling a genuine connection to their character. Reincorporation really helps to make this happen. It also doesn’t require too much thought at the table, which is another thing in its favour.

What Is It?

This is simple as anything – all you have to do is refer back to cool, incidental details that were established earlier in the game. Ideally, these incidental details are provided by the players – whether they realise this or not. A few pointers

  • These can be as incidental as possible. Background details, seemingly unimportant parts of description
  • Make a note of them when they’re introduced – if, like me, you’re liable to forget
  • Sometimes, you might be able to tweak your planned scene to incorporate these details – if the players described themselves all meeting in a cool coffee shop at the start of the game, have the supervillains threaten that coffee shop in the final battle
  • There’s a few ways to seed them – we’ll cover that soon

So, in the first scene of the game, the ranger describes his wolf animal companion licking hungrily at a ham bone. Later in the game, when the wolf misses, you describe a ham bone poking out of the goblin’ sack nearby which distracted him.

Why Does It Work?

It’s a risk-free way to add the shared storytelling that tabletop RPGs offer because of their collaborative effort. And, because it’s incidental to the plot, it’s a lot safer for players to come up with narrative details – because they don’t know that they’re important. It also doesn’t require too much creation from the players – but it makes them feel like their description and colour mattered.

Player-Created

When you start the game, and ask players to describe their characters – listen out for any details you can use later and reincorporate. Fancy hat? That’ll get stolen by the goblins. Heavy clanking armour? That’s what happens when they fail a stealth check. Series of enemies across the galaxy? One of them turns out to be the main opponents’ lieutenant.

This has the advantage that you’ll get some personal connections to their characters that have come straight from the players, and you should be able to get something from everything. It can sometimes lead to players giving you more, or less, depending on how they describe. To address this, if you’re going round the table doing this at the start of the session, start with a player who you think will model how to do it – if they do it well, the rest will follow that model.

Seeded In-Game


Early in the game, you can create some conditions to get this. Usually this is with an open-ended encounter – and it can be the first big scene. In Beard of Lhankhor Mhy, my 13G scenario, the adventure opens when they rescue a Duck adventurer, Crontas, from a band of Broo. How they perform in that first combat determines how Crontas responds to them – and whether they want him to come along with them to rescue his friends or not. 

Having a talkative, even annoying ally, means that the players will come back to supply details, and this gives a bit more control over what emerges to reincorporate. Similarly, if you’re narrating failures and successes with the players, how that goes in the first combat might set the tone for the whole session – as with the ham-bone example earlier. 

In all of these, try and let the details be player-provided – you can add some yourself, but the ones that you come back to should ideally be player-created. Throw lots in though – you can always use more options!

Seeded Out-Of-Game

Some players may be uncomfortable adding narrative details in-game – instead, you can explicitly get them to do this out of the game. Use Bond questions, or pre-game questions / love letters, to establish facts out of character, and then weave these in.

These can be trickier to make throwaway – you’re attaching more importance to them, so don’t be surprised if players come up with big issues and problems to solve – try and focus on some of the details they supply for those rather than the issues themselves, which will come up anyway. A detail like “I’m in love with X PC” isn’t really ripe for reincorporation as-is – but them stealing glances across the table at them, or moving to save them in combat, is – think small for effective reincorporation.

So, lots of ways to develop this. I genuinely believe this is one of the best ways to improve your game – and as an at-table technique there’s not much with more bang for its buck. How have you used reincorporation in your games? Let me know in the comments.

Into the Underhang – A Heart: The City Beneath One-Shot

I’ve had some rum luck with illness recently – a chest infection a few weeks ago, and now Covid (I’m recovering, thankfully) have meant I’ve missed two #TTRPG conventions that are genuine highlights. Owlbear and Wizard’s Staff is excellent beery fun in Leamington Spa, while Furnace is a centrepiece of the Garrison Conventions and the place that first got me into convention GMing.

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!

So, I’ve been left with an excess of prepped games, and no-where to run them – so I’ll be putting them out on here. First up, a game that was planned for Owlbear, for Roward Rook & Decard‘s Heart: The City Beneath. In Heart, your desperate treasure-hunters delve into the living, beating dungeon beneath the occupied city of Spire to find eldritch treasures – and themselves.

Yes, the art is all this good – as you’d expect from RRD

Full disclosure – I haven’t actually run this, although I’m sure it will get an outing soon. If you’re Heart-curious, this might give you an idea what to expect in the game. If you’re a Patron, feel free to message (on here or twitter) and I’ll send you the pregens I did for it as well, giving you a fully ready-to-run game. Also, this is based on an adventure seed in the actual book – there are loads of them in there – but fleshed-out to be runnable for a one-shot. I’ve got more to say about prep for loose-improv games like Heart and Spire, but that’s another blog post.

Into the Underhang

A Heart: The City Beneath One-Shot

Into the Underhang is an independent production by Burn After Running and is not affiliated with Rowan, Rook and Decard. It is published under the RR&D Community License. Heart is copyright Rowan, Rook and Decard. You can find out more and support these games at rowanrookanddecard.com.

Scene 1 – Derelictus

We begin in the city between the cities, a sprawling, semi-underground mirror of Spire, Derelictus. From Platform 1, where all manner of equipment can be sourced, to Platform 2, where we find ourselves now – with Ostrer, a mad researcher, is cutting you a deal.

Hang Station was built as a tourist trap; suspended over a vast subterranean sea, so that aelfir could see the captured, sleeping monster beneath, captured from the far north. Hang Station is on Tier 2 of Heart – so will need at least a couple of delves, stopping off at a waypoint on the way. He wants to get a sample of the beast’s blood – and he needs your help.

There appear to be two notable routes towards Hang Station (a Technology) – through the singing, open railways of the Vermissian Railways – maybe hoping to catch a train some of the way, or a darker, lower way, through Sump Station (a Warren) – the flooded remains of an old station now submerged. Darker, but less likely to attract attention

In Derelictus, each PC has a chance to prepare – they can try and get hold of a D6 piece of equipment for the journey, or research another route – perhaps one going through a more favourable area for them. After a skill roll each, and potential stress (always D4 at this stage, and usually to Supplies or Fortune), they must set off

Scene 2 – Delve to Tier 1

This is a delve they will take to either Sump Station, Hang Station, or another location

Route: Between Derelictus and Sump Station

Tier: 1

Domains: Technology, Warren

Stress: D4

Resistance: 10

Description: A tramp through foot-deep, the knee-deep, flooded tunnels, in fading light and with labyrinthine corridors. Occasional relics of machinery or rails puncture through the floor – and occasionally pumps still churn. It smells bad initially, then turns to a warm, cleaner smell.

Events: Jonjak and his gang of gutterkin will track the PCs from Derelictus, and attempt to jump them to find out what they are doing; a sudden overflow means they have to wade chest-deep or lower; strange fluorescent fish swim under the water and circle the PCs; a warehouse of fishmongery where Mikkel the Fish waits to serve them

Connection: Capture the glowing fish for Mikkel and he will teach you the secrets of the eddies

Route: Between Derelictus and Hang Station

Tier: 1

Domains: Technology, Occult

Stress: D4

Resistance: 10

Description: A walk along high, ruined walkways alongside the tracks which have collapsed in places; crystals line the path eventually; the smell of incense and sulphur. Damaged rope-ways line each pathway

Events: Jonjak and his gang of gutterkin will track the PCs from Derelictus, and attempt to jump them to find out what they are doing; a clattering of a passing train requires jumping out of the way – or onto it; the singing of crystals in the ceiling above as one falls and shatters

Connection: Repair the rope-ways linking to the paths

Scene 3: The Mid-Point

At this point, they have arrived, either in Sump Station or Hang Station, and have a chance for respite. Ostrer insists that they need to purchase some supplies – ropes and pulleys – but at this point you encounter the rival delvers, Protector Baram and his men.

They accost the players as they explore the haven, asking them their business and mocking them. They know that the beast has laid eggs, and can see that Ostrer wants one as well. Depending on the PC’s approach, they may suggest an alliance, or try and sabotage their equipment. Either way, he will wish them luck.

As with Scene 1, PCs may make 1 test to try and recover equipment or preparations for the further delve.

Scene 4: Into the Underhang

From their location, they need to venture deeper into the Heart, to Hang Station and the underground lake.

Route: Between Tier 1 and Hang Station

Tier: 2

Domains: Cursed, Technology

Stress: D6

Resistance: 10

Description: Trekking through walkways suspended over still lakes, or raging torrents – creaking at the wind that blows through them. The smell of tar, and then of some big, fishy beast. The crackling of magical energy from long-decayed dampers and siphons. The echoes of fellow hunters, or ghosts, around them.

Events: A crackle of energy covers the ground in front with a web of occult power that must be bypassed; the walkway shatters and falls, meaning they must form a new route; Jonjak, still tracking, ambushes them on a walkway; Baram makes his move as they approach; a ghostly engineer seeks aid in repairing conduits and walkways

Connection: Repairing the conduits will allow them to lay the ghost to rest.

Scene 5: The Harvest

They emerge onto a vast creaking observation platform, a sparkling lake below them swaying gently. A huge whale-beast has broken the surface of the water below, and a light snore echoes around the cavern – but the eggs are on the other side.

They must

  • Somehow get down to the lake. There are maintenance rowboats and rafts available, ropes and pulleys, that could be fashioned
  • Recover the eggs from the egg sac beyond the creature – they could dive in, or trick it into rolling over
  • Avoid the attentions of the rival gangs, who will attempt to ambush them

At their moment of triumph, a roar echoes through the lake – the beast has awoken, and they must escape

NPCs

Ostrer the Mad Researcher

Motivation: Find and recover the eggs of the Hang Station beast

Sensory Details: Thick, clouded goggles with no light; the smell of dusty books mixed with oil; a dirty, flapping lab coat

At the Table: Close eyes when speaking

Jonjak the Tunnel Brigand

Motivation: Find a score big enough to retire on

Sensory Details: Filthy overalls and cloak; scarred face and hands; odd limp

At the Table: Speaks with a pirate accent (Arr!)

Difficulty: 0

Resistance: 10

Protection: 1

Resources: Stolen heirlooms (D8, Taboo), Poorly-written maps (D6 Delve)

Jonjak’s Gutterkin

Motivation: Gain freedom from Jonjak, or at least more pleasant employment with him

Sensory Details: A mob of 8 or 9 gullboys and heron-girls; squawking and clambouring over one another; rusted, broken knives with alarming speed

At the Table: Look this way and that while skwarking in semi-speech

Resistance: 8

Protection: 0

Stress: Knives D6, Unreliable

Mikkel the Fish

Motivation: Serve his narcotic fishes to the discerning

Sensory Details: A scale-clad shaved gnoll with rings everywhere; stares oddly at everything; the smell of oil and tar

At the Table: Keep mouth open when not speaking

Protector Baram, Drow Rival Delver

Motivation: Be the first to recover a beast-egg for his masters

Sensory Details: The smell of cheap perfume, a shiny well-maintained leather coat, the clip of heels on ground; accompanied by a pair of cackling gnolls, Forrad and Vorrad

At the Table: Alan Rickman-esque villainy

Difficulty: Risky

Resistance: 10

Protection: 1

Stress: Whip D8 Tiring, Pistol D6 Ranged One-Shot

The Hang Station Beast

Motivation: To eat, sleep and breed

Sensory Details: A thick smell of fur, fish and sweat; blue-grey skin covered in slick water; a light, echoey snore

At the Table: Describe the ground shifting

Difficulty: Dangerous

Resistance: 10

Protection: 2

Stress: Roll over D6

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.

Temporarily Living, Breathing NPCs – A Deep Dive of Shadows Over Bogenhafen, Part 2

As I talked about here, I’m committing to only reviewing RPG products I’ve actually used – so, run or played – and in Part 1 I talked about how I ran and adapted the second half of the first part of the classic WFRP Enemy Within campaign. If you’re interested in the first half of the first part, you’ll want to look at my deep dive of Mistaken Identity here and here. In this part, I’m going to more generally review the adventure, and see what gems we can steal for our own games from it. It’s in Enemy in Shadows, and is available from Cubicle 7 here.

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!

As with Part 1, below is full of spoilers – if you’re still wanting to play it “fresh,” 35+ years after it was first published, you might want to look away now!

This is, as you’d expect, a well presented adventure – and generally organised well to run it. I did find it a bit of an ovelarge sandbox to work with – as the adventure basically gives you access to the entire city to ask around – but every other section was relatively simple to parse and deliver at the table.

There Are Some Old-School Roadblocks

There’s a couple of structural things that stood out for me that I altered. The whole investigation segment relies on the PCs, after lengthy legwork, hitting a brick wall, and Magerius telling them everything that they’ve been trying to find out. This is weak, and I let my players have a shot at sneaking into the council meeting themselves to find out first hand – a shot that they singularly failed to succeed at, but a shot nonetheless. 

Similarly, when they disturb the Cult of Ranald, as written there’s a weird no-roll-to-prevent bit about being ambushed and tied up, which again is weak, and entirely unnecessary – the Cult are ideal allies later in the adventure. So, again, I took this out. The summoning circle in the sewers has an undetectable (and unopenable) secret door, and an odd roadblock to find where in the city it actually is, which I wasn’t able to find a way around – other than by making sure they had plenty of other leads to pursue when they got back to the surface.

There’s the odd other bit – like the goblin escaping with no roll possible to stop him – I can live with that as a plot necessity to kick the adventure off – but there are points where this adventure shows its age a bit. Indeed, the scene-by-scene progression which started in Mistaken Identity when they were literally point-crawling (or sometimes pub-crawling) along a sequence of encounters makes the loose sandboxing of the exploration segment sit oddly.

Great NPCs – While They Last

As with Mistaken Identity, there’s some great NPCs in here, sketched out well and fun to play at the table. This feels like a living, breathing world; except that many of those NPCs don’t breathe for too long after the PCs meet them. It’s a slight exaggeration to say that everyone dies shortly after encountering the players… but almost everyone does, which gives a grimdark edge that isn’t far from farce at the table. I tried to make sure that some plot-adjacent NPCs survived, just to give some continuity from game to game, but didn’t always manage.

Friedrich Magerius, a deus ex machina clue machine (deceased, obviously)

A Good Sewer Dungeon!

It’s a cliche now, but fighting rats in the sewers really is fun. There’s a plot reason for the sewers to be dangerous (the council has stopped the watch going there so they don’t find their summoning circle), and the sewers feel genuinely alien and weird – while still very close to the city, which as already established, is plenty dangerous enough on its own. 

Fighting a man-sized rat while knee-deep in effluent felt really desperate and dangerous at the table, in part because of the shadow of the disease rules hanging over the players. And encountering the Cult of Ranald’s cellar – and in fact the summoning circle – reinforced that the PCs were very close to the hustling, bustling, dangerous city above them.

Why Stay in Bogenhafen?

Given that Mistaken Identity ends with the PCs being nearly killed by a witch hunter and then saved by a ravening demon of Tzeentch, it’s not entirely clear why they’d want to stick around or poke their heads up investigating stuff around the town. While my players responded well to the expectation that the adventure’s name is Shadows Over Bogenhafen, not Shadows over Weissbruck, there was a bit of dissonance reported from them, with some commenting that even Altdorf felt safer. And they were really scared in Altdorf.

Overall, it’s a good adventure that has just about stood the test of time. I didn’t make as much use of the Grognard Boxes as I did in Mistaken Identity, mainly because they didn’t seem to address the problems I saw in the ways I wanted to, but it ran smoothly and came to a satisfying conclusion. We’ll be revisiting Death on the Reik next year, with a plan to do the whole adventure – so look forward to those write-ups!

Have you run or played Shadows Over Bogenhafen? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Cultists, Rats, and Yet More Pubs: A Deep Dive of Shadows Over Bogenhafen, part 1

Shadows Over Bogenhafen is the second half of the Enemy Within campaign for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and follows Mistaken Identity – which I looked at here and here. In the latest iteration of the campaign, the two are folded together as Enemy in Shadows. Enemy Within has a reputation as one of the “great” RPG campaigns, so I played through it with my Tuesday group – you can get hold of it from Cubicle 7 here.

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’ll start by giving you a session-by-session breakdown of how it went, and any alterations I made to the adventure as published. In part 2, I’ll discuss my overall impressions of the adventure. With my Tuesday group, part of our play culture is to share Stars and Wishes at the end of each session, so I’ve folded in some feedback from a player perspective here as well. Expect spoilers – so look away now if you don’t want plot reveals from a 35+ year old adventure!

Synopsis

I ran Shadows Over Bogenhafen over 5 sessions, immediately following the run of Mistaken Identity (5 sessions) – this included a session for character generation and learning the system, and a one-shot when a player was missing, so all told it was 8 sessions of play. We do tend to aggressively pursue plot threads and keep the game going in my Tuesday group (no game suffers from too much pace, as one player is wont to say) – so you might expect it to take a bit longer with a slower pace. 

Session 1 – What Happens in The Schaffenfest…

Following a hook I laid in the previous adventure from the Enemy in Shadows Companion, the PCs went to the Schaffenfest and wandered around trying to find Dieter Rundmann, bumping into various NPCs and being given clues and rumours as to what was going on. Eventually, they find themselves at the circus and agree to track the three-legged goblin into the sewers, in one of the all-time-classic adventure hooks.

I picked out an NPC for each player based on their background and interest, and selected rumours and hints that were actually relevant for this. The Schaffenfest supplies a lot of plot-unrelated trouble to get into, and I did tighten it up a bit with a mission to get them where they needed to go. I introduced a witch hunter as a side NPC at the fair who I failed to give proper importance to later on – I think the players wanted him to be a bigger deal than he turned out to be, but you live and learn.

Session 2 – Under Bogenhafen

They went into the sewers, disturbed some rats, fast-talked their way into the Cult of Ranald, fought a giant rat, and discovered a summoning circle. As expected, a demon appeared, that they fought, before running away to the surface. At some point, they found a dwarf’s body, and the bones of the three-legged goblin. Upon their return, they were assured that the goblin had been found at the docks and dealt with – despite their protestations.

This mini-dungeon sewer-crawl was actually a lot of fun! I ignored the Cult of Ranald advice in the book to have them knocked out and captured (a no-save fun-ruiner) to allow the halfling thief to blather his way into making them allies – a source of information they turned to later in the adventure. The demon fight was a bit of a damp squid with WFRP’s swingy combat swinging in the PC’s favour – the giant rat was more dangerous!

Session 3 – Chasing Shadows

Upon their return, the PCs embarked on a mammoth investigate-a-thon around Bogenhafen. They gradually uncovered the conspiracy in an action-light session that wasn’t really my best work as a GM. It ended with them being invited to dinner with the Guild leader to allay their concerns and a long list of clues that they were just starting to piece together.

The adventure has far, far, more information than even I shared with the players, and a lot more “verisimilitude-clues” than “story-clues” – that is, lots of hints and rumours that add more colour than plot direction. At a different point in the story this might have been fine, but in the context of “there’s a massive ritual about to be done in 2 days time” it fell a bit flat.

Session 4 – The Countdown Begins

After dining with Magirius, who reassured them that all of their solid evidence was merely coincidence, they continued their investigations. Resolving to sneak into the meeting of the Council that Magerius was attending, the fickle winds of WFRP dice rolling led to their discovery in the gardens and a brutal fight and a near-TPK – only Fate points spared their blushes. As they recuperated in a nearby pub, Magerius told them that they were right, and in fact a massive ritual was expected to be carried out – and begged them to stop it!

After the previous session, I shifted my prep notes to use Sly Flourish’s Lazy DM method for structure, and this helped me keep the pace up a lot. Dieter showed up at the start, trying to question them for smuggling, which was a good way to remind them they still hadn’t tied up that original quest and start with a bit of action. A defeat in combat was what we all needed after a few lucky fights, and it felt much more WFRP – and a good emergent story structure to be nearly killed just before the finale.

Session 5 – The Ritual

After finding Magerius dead, and framed for his murder – the least of their worries at this point – they raced to find the location of the ritual and eventually – after the Wizard had discovered some hidden knowledge (hidden in the magic chapter of the rulebook) managed to save the day and disrupt the ritual, saving the town. After which, they resolved to leave forthwith – and a hasty sailing back to Weissbruck, dreaming of a crawl between the three pubs.

As a finale to the adventure, this worked well – the initial scene and chase through the streets pursued by the guards went well, and added a sense of urgency that kept through a pacy finale. As with a lot of the adventure, while stopping a chaos cult ritual is a bit of a cliche, it’s a cliche because in part of this adventure, so we’ve got to forgive it that.

So – five sessions to save Bogenhafen. In part two, I’ll talk about overall impressions, and any big changes I made – or wished I’d made – to the adventure.

13th Age One-Shots, Revisited

It’s been a few years since I first wrote about 13th Age one-shots, and it’s a long time since I’ve run a system that used to be one of my trademarks. But, as I’ve been prepping Swords Against Owlbears for All Rolled Up’s Free RPG Day event, I’ve got more to say about how some specific aspects of 13A play can be made to work in one-shots.

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!

So, here goes:

One-Shot Unique Things

In 13th Age, each PC has a One Unique Thing (OUT) that sets them out from the rest of the populace. It’s the start of an expectation that players will help to define the world and setting. For one-shots, rather than being campaign-level (“I’m the last of the dwarves” “I’m half-dragon half-halfling”) these can just be specific to the session planned… guide the players when they’ve picked pregens to choose, for instance, why they personally have to track down the orc chieftain, or what the Priestess’s minions stole from them. 

I’ve previously been ambivalent about making players pick OUTs at the table, since sometimes they can just clam up, so have offered ready-made ones – but this links them to the play as well and helps to provide motivation for whatever gonzo plot you’ve got up your sleeve.

Dice Rolling Apps Are Your Friend

13th Age PCs are generally rolling their level number of damage dice – or more – each time they hit. Additional powers often add other dice to the mix, too – so unless you’re playing at 1st or 2nd level, encourage your players to use dice roller apps to do the arithmetic for them. Some players, of course, (the ones really quick with mental arithmetic) will want to add them up in their head – let them, but only if they really are quick enough for nobody else to get impatient. They will be the ones that thank you for it – it’s hard to resist adding up your neighbour’s totals for them if they’re struggling. 

Dice rollers unlock high level play for one-shots, which is (a) awesome, and (b) not all that complicated for players. A few more options emerge, but your barbarian and ranger characters are still going to be really accessible for players who don’t want to balance loads of options.

Pick Three Icons Each

In 13th Age, players have a set of Icon relationships that are rolled at the start of each session and interact with the play, bringing powerful setting NPCs into the game. 

Icon relationships in some of the published one-shots are left to be picked at the table. In my pregens, I’ve usually pre-populated them. Neither of these are really necessary. Just pick three Icons for each pregen that seem most likely for them – have the players do their icon rolls (either d6 for each of them, or just d3 for which Icon benefit they have if you want everyone to definitely have one – sometimes, I make sure they’ve all got one if somebody rolls none, sometimes I don’t.

Give them the icons on little cards to remind them to use them, too. And I’m fairly relaxed about them giving a system-based bonus in one-shots – they can

  • Allow an additional use of a Daily power
  • Punch up an auto-recovery if they drop to 0hp
  • Grant a cool magic item of the appropriate tier (+1 for Adventurer, +2 Champion, +3 Epic) – let the player design it and give it a quirk
  • Grant an extra turn in combat once

And so on. The best uses of Icon relationships are often in skill challenges or montages, but these give everyone a chance to own them and get some benefit from them, and the Icons interfering grounds the game in the world.

Campaign Losses – Limbs, Friends, or Items

Campaign Losses, generally, happen instead of Total Party Kills in 13th Age. The party can choose to retreat, lick its wounds, and try another way. In one-shots, this doesn’t make sense – and can mess with your pacing – so make them lose something important to them instead, and progress the story around the scene again. This might mean they still achieve the combat scene’s goal – so make sure what they lose is really big! You could even have an NPC captured, to set up a sequel one-shot! This comes directly from Swords Against Owlbears, where the titular battle in particular has some very nasty owlbear cub mooks (and a randomly-appearing owlbear mother) that could easily overwhelm players.

So, some more 13th Age tips – and a resolution from me to get 13A back on my circuit of convention games!

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!

Fearless Defenders – a One-Shot Structure

Our heroes are at a remote location, filled with cheerful and innocent NPCs. An army approaches, sure to overrun said location – unless our heroes can stop them! From Seven Samurai to Zulu, it’s a classic plot for fiction – and a great plot for a one-shot. The mixture of fight scenes, roleplaying opportunities, and player agency make it a winner. Here’s how to prep it.

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!

The Place

The place needs to be remote enough that defending it falls to the heroes, not any conventional militia or army. Or, there is an army, but it won’t arrive for several days – if the PCs can hold off the attack until then, the place will be saved. Alternatively, perhaps help won’t come even if it could – the local lord has rebelled against the tyrannical king, or the planet is in a neutral zone stopping a fleet from arriving.

It needs to have enough NPCs to give it a face – make them sympathetic, and as always – three is a good number. Making one of them a sympathiser or a coward is a good move, as this will create complications later – try not to make it the obvious one.

Seven Samurai – well, six of them at least

The Enemy

Although the enemy should be implacable and overwhelming for the place, try and give it a human face that the PCs can interact with – even if it’s a sinister necromancer leading the army of zombies! Be specific about why they want to overrun this Place in particular – do they have a history here, or is it strategically important – why? 

Alternatively, make your enemy leader have beef with one or more of the PCs; a past enemy, or an ally of a past enemy, will add some drama to the situation. Look at Auntie Wu’s Tea House, a one-shot for Hearts of Wulin, for some examples of upping the melodrama in a wuxia setting.

Initial Scene – The Threat is Revealed

You want to start your game with an exciting scene where the threat, and the timeline, is revealed. Maybe an encounter with a wounded villager, or an attack by scouts of the enemy, happens – generally, I’d make this lead into a simple fight for a one-shot, particularly for a con game – you need the ‘training combat’ for players who haven’t played the system before so they get an idea of how the system works without too much jeopardy, so you can go harder later on.

Zulu is another classic model in film. Bonus points if you get your players to sing.

After this scene, they should know that the advancing force is coming – and they have a short period of time to prepare or retreat. Establish that the force is overwhelming, even if this combat is itself easy, and that retreat should not be an option.

Middle Scenes – Training Montages etc

Once the threat is revealed, the adventure can open out for the players – present them with a number of options to prepare for the attack, and be open to other suggestions.

  • They can attempt to negotiate allies or additional reinforcements. Having one or more neutral, and difficult-to-please factions around in the area helps with this – and the players can always split up to negotiate separately with them. Some might ask for a simple favour, while some might need some roleplaying to convince them to help – try to keep these short mini-quests, resolved with a few skill rolls, to keep things moving. Allies that refuse to help might join the opposition forces!
  • They can prepare defences. The usual problem solving advice of “any reasonable plan” applies here – a successful check can give a one-off bonus in the battle is how I’d play it unless you’ve got a system with a better approach embedded.
  • They can spy on the enemy. Sneaking into the enemy camp is totally a thing they can do – to find their attack plans or even disrupt their preparations. Again, this can be resolved by zooming out or using some infiltration system, especially if the whole party isn’t doing this.
  • They can rally the defenders. This includes training montages for the villagers, and can be handled as above. If you’ve planned a betrayal or retreat, they could try and win that NPC round as well, or you can use this scene to foreshadow their betrayal.
  • They can deal with the opposition doing any of the above! To keep the pace going and add to the sense of peril, the enemy may send a scout to attack – a mid-preparation combat can keep things interesting. Maybe they send goblins in with fire-pots to set some houses on fire. Or enrage a bear to storm the walls through magic. Or bribe some pirates to blockade the starport. Either way, this provides a good prelude for the final scene.

Final Scene – The Big Fight

Once the preparations are done – or not – and the enemy’s attack has been dealt with, it’s time for the big finale. You need to give some thought to how you’ll resolve this. While some games have excellent mass battle rules (Savage Worlds for instance has one that’s really good for this), you may also want to look at another meta-resolution method from here or here.

You can make this more epic by pacing sequences of challenges with individual challenges for the PCs – prep a few of these that you can throw in, and maybe they can influence the overall battle as well. Don’t shy away from having a relatively involved challenge here – this is meant to be the big finale – and equally have lots of stuff ready to throw into the mix to keep things moving.

If the betrayal hasn’t happened already, after the first round of fighting is a good time for it to kick in – zoom in on individual PCs and allow them to deal with this (or not) before it turns the tide. Make sure the interaction with the enemy’s human face is there as well – have him spit words at the PCs as he’s fighting to encourage some roleplay in the course of this.

There you have it. Have you used a similar structure in your one-shot games? Are there any published adventures you’ve seen that do this well? Let me know in the comments.