Combat Clues

Often in one-shots, you see two broad types of trad TTRPG game – an investigation-heavy game, and an action- (or combat-) heavy game. Both have their pros and cons – in an investigation game you often get to interact with the setting a lot, have more roleplaying opportunities with NPCs, and have the satisfaction of solving a puzzle – but pace can slow as the most cautious player tries to leverage as much information as possible before proceeding. Likewise, a combat-heavy game rarely suffers from too little pace – but the breakneck speed can leave players wondering what the purpose was of rolling all those dice.

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!

A solution to both sides of this problem is to incorporate Combat Clues into your one-shots. They are clues that are discovered during a combat, skill challenge, extended task, or other perilous encounter – and they don’t replace the clues you have in the game, but they add to them.

RDJ’s Sherlock Holmes is the kind of investigative game I like to run – here he’s definitely finding out some combat clues

Why Combat Clues?

For reasons that are probably apparent to regular readers, I’m a fan of the action-heavy one-shot – I cut my teeth at conventions running 13th Age, which has only the lightest suggestion of an out-of-combat game system, and often use the Feng Shui 2 “Three Fights” adventure structure. But the issues suggested above are real problems – often a trail of clues is needed to make the session have narrative sense, and you’re faced with the option of interspersing combat with slower investigative scenes, or just making them find things out straight away. 

I also don’t like the post-fight interrogation scene – it never really plays out satisfactorily, and you end up with your ‘heroic’ PCs threatening the goblin with torture or worse as you frantically work out a reason why they won’t tell the entire plot to them at this point.

The other issue is that combat takes a long time in most games. If you’ve a 3-hour session of 13th Age, you’ll get two, maybe three fights in it – and maybe a montage – but you’re not going to have time for a lengthy roleplaying scene as well. Likewise, if you’ve got a murder mystery with 4 suspects, after the PCs talk to / encounter each one you’ll be struggling for time to get the action in to keep the player at the table who came for that (that’s usually me, by the way) to get it.

They also give fights a reason. I’ve written before about adding a ‘why’ to fights, and how effective this is – it’ll turn your combat-heavy tactical game into an epic exploration and mystery with multiple (well, more than one) layers of plot.

How To Prep Them?

The first step – and fair credit to Sly Flourish’s excellent Lazy DM’s Guide for this – is to dissociate your clues from locations and places. Just write a big list of what the players need to find out in the session. Ones where they need to find them to move the plot along, underline or put in a different colour or something – they’ll definitely find these, so you want to make these easy to find. We’ll call these Plot Clues – they can find these out in locations around the fight, or (if they don’t discover them through roleplay or skill checks) in combat.

Think too about clues that, while not necessary to advance the plot, will make the adventure more survivable, or give the PCs an edge in combat or a similar action scene. For example, the Living Statues are vulnerable to bludgeoning damage and resistant to slashing and piercing, to pick a fairly dull D&D-style one. Or that there are murder holes above the main chamber where goblins lair to drop oil on attackers (that can be avoided by canny PCs). Or that there’s a secret door to the crypt that bypasses the aforementioned statues. 

We’ll call these Boost Clues, and they make ideal combat clues – you can discover them in fights, in action scenes, or along the way as regular clues. Make a note next to each of them how they can be discovered; maybe the statues have dents and depressions on their armour, but no signs of stabbing or slashing wounds; maybe they can notice the ground-floor goblins glancing upwards and cackling as they raise their shields to advance, and that they avoid certain positions in the chamber. Or they may notice something in an earlier fight that benefits them later – the goblin sergeant has a sketch map that shows where the secret door is, or when he runs away he seems to vanish into thin air when he gets to the guard chamber.

Don’t push these – some just won’t work to find out in combat. You need a balance of combat clues and regular clues anyway. But just adding a few will make your combats deeper and more interesting, and add depth to your one-shots without adding extra time (or, conversely, make your investigative scenario more action-packed).

How To Use Them

At the table, armed with my list of clues and a few ideas about how to reveal them, I’ll try to be liberal in throwing them out there. Usually, this will happen at the end of the round – it’s an easy marker of time, and a good way to remember to do it (and, in 13th Age, to advance the Escalation Die – something I also always forget to do).

If Boost Clues aren’t revealed, or aren’t interpreted correctly, it doesn’t matter – they can just hang about in limbo. Plot Clues, though, probably need to be thrown at players if they miss them during combat. Don’t worry about being obvious with these, although allow the players to feel like they discover them due to their actions – that is, it’s better for them to find a map or a note than to have an NPC appear and tell them the answer. It’s always better to do this.

So, Combat Clues – how have you used them in your game? Have they been successful, or do your group prefer a clean break between investigation and action? Let me know in the comments.

Alas, poor Rolf: A Deep Dive of  Mistaken Identity from The Enemy Within, 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 first part of the classic WFRP Enemy Within campaign. 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!

Overall, I think this is an excellent adventure, with a few quirks which come from (a) its being written in another age, and (b) being designed to be the opening act of an enormous campaign. It pulls the PCs together well, with an quirky hook that gets them to travel to Altdorf, and then to Bogenhafen, and leave them at a loose end with a reason to stick together and a lot of potential threads to pick up.

Poor old Rolf Hurtsiss has seen better days

The art is consistently fantastic, and the writing manages to tread a tightrope and be both evocative and laugh-out-loud funny at times. In particular, the NPCs are sketched really well, and the character of the places you visit – from the Coach and Horses Inn, to Altdorf, to Weissbruck – really comes across.

Everyone has a name

The first ‘monster’ you meet on the road – the mutant Rolf Hurtsis – is an old acquaintance of one of the characters; but even after this, every character is drawn with a past, and every one is named. The rest of the mutant band – led by Knud – all have names (I made them call out to one another as the PCs – as expected – slaughtered them). Nobody appears on the scene without having a richer and fuller life outside the story they are in, and the world is richer for it; the road warden is tracking down his sister on the road to Altdorf, for example. And, even more so…

Everyone has character

The NPCs are so well drawn in here, it’s worth taking the time to give them some character at the table. I jotted down some of the 7-3-1 technique for each one, although that sometimes led me to “now what does Josef talk like again?” moments, it made their interactions – which are at the centre of this adventure – more interesting.

Playing online, there are a few tricks to make characters stand out. The first is to show their picture (and every NPC in the adventure has great art) when you talk as them – I used “Show to Players” with Handouts on Roll20, but there are lower tech versions like sharing a screen if you’re running without VTT. The second is to overact terribly. I exhausted my limited repertoire of accents after two sessions, but it does help to have Josef talk like a pirate king (Hans Pflaster, the aforementioned roadwarden – was Jason Isaac’s Marshall Zhukov from Death of Stalin, and just as short-tempered) to get a sense of versimilitude. That said…

It can be a bit Carry On

There’s an element of farce to the central conceit – and several of the key scenes – that might take some careful running. There are times when your players might be tempted to back out – when they follow Josef to the pub in Bogenhafen, and it’s quickly obvious they’re in a very dangerous place – so I think setting the tone is important. 

There’s a lot of Long Game Foreshadowing

I’ve never run a game before where I dropped a rumour in the first session that foreshadows Empire in Ruins, the fifth instalment of the campaign that sits maybe 40-50 sessions away. I’ll deal with if they remember the (false as it turns out) rumour then if and when it occurs. I took the approach of, whenever the book gave me a page of rumours, liberally spreading them out to my players, without showing them which were immediately relevant and which were flavour. This seemed to work well, and they’ve not led to too many red herrings yet.

It’s a bit Bait and Switch

Your group may vary with this – but I’d like to think that my players were under no illusions, when they found their lookalike body, that they weren’t actually going to collect 10,000 Crowns. By the time they get to Bogenhafen, and almost everyone they’ve ever associated with has turned up dead, more cautious players might be forgiven for being wary about heading to collect the inheritance. I presented this as if there weren’t many options – and in any case, it couldn’t be more dangerous than that dockside pub in Altdorf, right?

In Summary

It’s great. It’s not really like anything I’ve run before in a fantasy setting, and indeed it stands alone in terms of where its encounters come from. There’s no monsters to fight, or wilderness areas – it’s an entirely urban adventure, really – with a few interludes on canals or roads, but still well within reach of the Roadwardens. Given that it manages to still be terrifying even when in the midst of supposed safety, I’d recommend it to anyone – although tell your GM you’ve read this first so they can switch it up with the Grognard Boxes!

Have you played or run Mistaken Identity? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments!

Three Terrifying Pubs: A Deep Dive of  Mistaken Identity from The Enemy Within, Part 1

Mistaken Identity is the initial adventure from the Enemy Within campaign for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and acts as a prelude to Shadows Over Bogenhafen, the first adventure proper. 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 it through with my Tuesday group – you can get hold of it from Cubicle 7 here.

The first of many mutants in this adventure / campaign, and a former associate of our thief.

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!

In this first part I’ll give you a session-by-session breakdown of how I ran it, including what I changed from the published adventure. In Part Two, I’ll summarise what worked well, and what worked less well – and suggest what can be taken from it for other games. There are, of course, a huge number of spoilers below – if you’re still wanting to play it “fresh,” 35+ years after it was first published, you might want to look away now!

Synopsis

I ran Mistaken Identity over 5 online sessions of between 2 and 3 hours for 4 PCs, with the first session including character generation. The adventure as written has some very useful “Grognard Boxes,” ways to alter the adventure if your players are familiar with it already. I used them to just pick from if it looked more interesting – especially in the first session.

The adventure as written has chapters that are roughly one session long (if you play with a fair lick of pace) – and I’ve written them up below, along with the names I gave each session as part of my prep notes. If Patrons would like sight of my actual prep notes, feel free to get in touch – although I find the writing up of them is more useful to me than reading them, if that makes sense – the process of creating them revises and solidifies the game in my head. I used Roll20 (which has a bit of a fiddly WFRP interface for improving PCs, but it’s too late now for us to switch) and Google Meet for A/V, if people are interested in those things.

You’ll note as you read this that I have a crew of absolutely top-drawer players. In this, my regular Tuesday group, plots are aggressively pursued and roleplay opportunities are harvested from even the least interesting scenes. Situations like one PC not knowing a secret the other three are keeping from them (the player knows, obviously) are handled maturely and leaned into for maximum roleplaying fun – your mileage may vary, obviously – but it’s worth invested in play culture at the table if you want to be able to engage with an adventure like this that’s full of unresolved secrets and bait-and-switches.

Session 1 – The Coach and Horses

After character generation and session zero stuff, they montaged talking to some NPCs at the Coach and Horses and then fought a daemon summoned by one of the patrons.

I completely ditched the structure of the first session in the adventure, which is the coldest of cold opens – some gambling (out of budget for almost all starting characters as written), some meeting strangers who don’t like them – the only action is if and when they catch the gambler cheating. Oh, and we did chargen by the rules – and ended up with human nun, smuggler, and wizard’s apprentice, and a halfling thief.

I quite liked the NPC Phillipe Descartes, so didn’t want him to be an enemy, so had him merely regale them with tales in his outrageous Brettonian accent. Each PC got a single short scene where they made a skill check (usually Gossip) to impress an NPC, and then received 1 or 2 of the rumours supplied. We cut from PC to PC as they did this, before I triggered “The Rival Magus” from the Grognard Box and had a daemon appear.

After they’d fought the demon, of course, they were basically an adventuring party, and we’d got to know the interface and basic rules in session 1. All this took maybe an hour of play after characters were done – it’s my favoured approach for a session zero to get a bit of play in at the end to whet everyone’s appetite.

Session 2 – The Road to Altdorf

They fought a mutant, went further down the road, fought some more mutants, and discovered the adventure’s hook – a body looking identical to one of the PCs, with a will to collect from Bogenhafen and a signed affidavit that the bearer is indeed the long lost nobleman, and instructions to claim his inheritance in Bogenhafen.

I pretty much ran this as described – the players made it more interesting by three of them being in on the identity theft, but keeping it quiet from the fourth – a nun of Myrmidia – as they expected she’d not be in favour. Instead, they told her that Othelbert the apprentice actually was Kastor Leiberung, just travelling undercover to Bogenhafen – and swore her to secrecy.

Session 3 – Welcome to Altdorf

After a confusing encounter with some strangers, and surviving a theft attempt, they caught up with Josef – a boatman and old acquaintance who just happened to be going to Bogenhafen – and went with him on a very dangerous bar crawl. It becomes very obvious that everyone they meet at the moment seems to end up dead very quickly – and they see a shadowy figure tracking them.

I added in a quick chase scene at the start with some pickpockets for two reasons – firstly, to start with some action, and secondly to give a big of the ‘dangerous big city’ vibe. This happened at the same time as the Emperor’s procession, which the module stressed is important later. As they’d all been travelling to Altdorf, they each had a scene where they resolved that – the nun resolved to continue travelling in Myrmidia’s name, the halfling went to his uncle’s pie shop and made contact, the wizard’s apprentice tried to enrol at the university. These gave a bit more verisimilitude and allowed the players to drop their previous lives a bit as they seemed committed to be adventurers now.

The bar crawl I ran as written, with the halfling thief enthusiastically joining in with Brandy Bounce and them using their wits to navigate the situation. The whole bar scene is a great set piece – as they realised just how much danger they were in – and balanced off nicely by several of their NPCs being found dead the next morning.

Session 4 – Come Drown With Me

We were a player down, so with the finale approaching, I ran a fill-in session of Come Drown With Me from One Shots of the Reikland – the three remaining players survived a zombie attack and re-sealed the tomb of Kurgon Three-Eyes while they travelled down the Weissbruck Canal. Testament to how dangerous Altdorf felt that a potential zombie apocalypse was a welcome light relief.

The character art in the adventure is brilliantly evocative – e.g. this portrait of Maria Braund, the highwaywoman who I used as an extra link to the follow-up adventure

Session 5 – No Mister Lieberung, I Expect You To Die

After meeting a highwaywoman and agreeing to do her a favour on the canal, they went onwards to Weissbruck, where they tangled with their pursuer. Evading him, they went on to Bogenhafen – where they realised they’d inherited a setup meant to catch a cultist, and neither the inheritance nor the title were true. As a horrific beast appeared to ‘save’ them in the nick of time, they were left pondering what to do next – luckily, the Schaffenfest is in Bogenhafen, and they had an assortment of plot hooks leading them there!

Maria Braund, the highwaywoman, is from the Enemy in Shadows Companion, and I added her in to give a hanging plot hook to the Schaffenfest for when they arrived – the start of the session also had them avoid a robbery from their fellow riverfolk, who’d heard one of them was a nobleman in disguise. I had Adolfus smoke some distinctive cigarettes so they could tell he’d been around the pubs with them, and he fled when they confronted him and they fought his heavies.

The final scene, while a bit deus ex machina (daemonium ex machina?) is another great set piece – as they watch through the windows the splashes of blood, before finding the body of their pursuer ripped apart.

In Part Two, I’ll summarise what stood out about the adventure, what didn’t work as well, and what tricks and components of it we can steal for future one-shot (or campaign) play. Questions or feedback as always are welcome to @milnermaths on twitter.

Prep Techniques: The Boss Monster

Good antagonist design isn’t just essential for good TTRPG sessions, it can be something you base your whole session on – even if it’s a convention one-shot. I’m going to look at a method to build a session outwards from an antagonist, including looking at some rules tweaks that you might want to put in if your system isn’t as great at supporting solo monsters.

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. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

In previous Prep Techniques posts, I’ve looked at 5-Room Dungeons, Sly Flourish’s Method, Three Places, Con Pitches and a Bag of Tricks. Here, I’m going to talk about using an antagonist as a starting point for your one-shot or session. This turns traditional adventure prep on its head – and gives you a stock of prep material that should let you run a flexible session, with multiple routes to take down the antagonist.

First, the Fluff

Let’s talk about the boss’s background first. Who is he and what’s his plan? What does he want to do, why is it terrible, and why can’t the PCs ignore it? A good starting point is one or more of the PCs – can you link them to their backstory to make the players care about the antagonist? If you’re in an ongoing campaign, think about linking him with previous sessions, or foreshadowing future plans.

Your boss should be tough fight, even if they’re on their own. Clever plots or schemes from the players should have the option of getting to them without his supporters – and they should still be a challenge then. So think about levels of power – they need to be a threat!

They aren’t going to be alone though, so have between 1 and 3 lieutenants – minor monsters that support him, who can be a challenge with support themselves. These lieutenants should be distinct in terms of powers and personalities from the boss – if the boss is an archmage, make his lieutenants warlords or combat monsters.

Antagonist-based plotting is a staple of superhero gaming, but it can also be used for any TTRPG genre

Plan for the PCs to deal with a lieutenant first, maybe even as the hook to discover the boss’ plans. Also, think about what their weakness is – even if it’s a tendency to monologue – and a way the PCs can find this out and use it to their advantage.

Next, the Crunch

To have a truly effective boss in a fight, you might need to bend or break your game’s action economy. In D&D, consider using Matt Colville’s excellent Villain Actions hack, so your boss can act multiple times a round – and in another system consider giving them 2 or more actions each round. If you don’t feel like doing this, or your boss has multiple attacks already, consider spreading them out across the round – you want to keep the spotlight on them during the fight, rather than it feeling like the PCs have all the actions.

They also need to be hard to kill. This might mean just more hp, or some sort of special rule. I’m a fan of Feng Shui 2’s boss rule – when they would go down, roll 1d6, and you need to get an odd result to actually defeat them. It adds a level of jeopardy and pressure to a fight and distinguishes them from lesser enemies.

As you’ve got the lieutenants sorted, almost any boss should have a numberless supply of minions – these can be added to any encounters liberally to balance to the right level of challenge you desire. With minions, I like them to sometimes be much easier to defeat than normal – don’t be afraid to send your 5th level PCs up against hordes of kobolds – often with the boss’ supporting powers they might be a challenge, and usually some PCs will still want to deal with the minions.

Third, the Adventure

Now, you want to think about some key scenes. I’d recommend having a starting scene fully prepped, where they learn about the boss’ plans in some way – maybe a fight with some minions, or one of the lieutenants. And think about mid-scenes, where they might take down a lieutenant or learn the boss’ weakness. By combining lieutenants and minions in a few different ways, you can have some options for different opposition they could face along the way.

You’ll want around 3 locations along the way that could lead to the showdown, and some things that could happen to the environment there. Some of these – or some of the lieutenants – can lend themselves to non-combat challenges (if you’re looking for rules to support these, try here or here) – that you can steer towards. Make some plans for the final confrontation – this needs to be a showcase fight scene, so bear in mind the advice here for building it.

So far, your adventure prep will look a bit like this list… next week, I’ll post up some examples for a few different systems!

BOSS PROFILE

Name:

Goal & why the PCs care:

“Secret” weakness:

Description:

Lieutenants (1-3):

Mid-range Antagonists:

Minions:

Locations:

Potential non-combat challenges:

Rough Games and Hard Fights – How To Run WFRP (4e) One-Shots

I’ve had a chance recently to run a few one-shots of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, at both Furnace and online, and it’s a game with a lot of love from the UK RPG community especially. It’s a great example of grim low fantasy, and as such takes a careful hand to run a satisfying one-shot of it. So, here are my top tips for delivery.

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.

Take out the safety net

WFRP is deadly, and brutal. To help ensure their continued existence, PCs have one-shot Fate and Resilience points, that let them cheat death or avoid a mutation respectively. These are very limited-recovery, and are part of the game balance of starting characters (humans get loads of them, elves get very few – but have generally better starting attributes).

In a one-shot, remove these. Keep the per-session resources, Fortune and Resolve – they’ll need them to survive – but take the Fate and Resilience off. When I’ve run it, I’ve asked the players to cross them off their character sheets – this gives (a) a clear message that this game could be deadly, and (b) makes them more conscious of the Fortune and Resolve points which they might want to spend.

Flavour is everything

WFRP is a game of grim, dirty humanity in a losing battle against corruption, goblinoids, and foul magics. Although it’s got its fair share of monsters and traditional antagonists, a lot of WFRP’s aesthetic comes from human failures – even chaos thrives as a result of humanity surrendering to its temptations. The noble houses are corrupt and terrifying while the peasantry toil in back-breaking labour. You get the idea.

With this in mind, use the excellent source material for this – WFRP is not a game that works without the Old World behind it. The publications  from Cubicle 7 are dripping in flavour – use them liberally. If I’d recommend one purchase beyond the core book, I’d go with the Starter Set for a plot hook-sprinkled guide to the city of Ubersreik.

Combat is rare, and dangerous

A bad roll – or a good one – can be the end of a fight, for either side. In a recent con game, the PCs triumphed largely due to their main opponent (a skaven leader) fumbling their attack. It could have gone the other way just as easily. Combat also involves tracking Advantage, which means that once things start to go badly (or well) for a combatant, the odds begin to be stacked in their favour. For Advantage in a F2F game, I used some Campaign Coins – online I’ve used a token that explains what it is as well.

For this reason, outside of the final confrontation of the one-shot, don’t worry about making your combats pushovers. A few humans (WS 30) with a dagger (damage SL+4 for you S 30 thugs) will still feel dangerous for your PCs when one good hit can make a mark on them. For the final confrontation, feel free to throw stuff at them, but bear in mind that numbers (because of the Advantage rule) and size make a big difference to players. I’ve run Slaughter in Spittlefeld three times so far and the final confrontation, with a single underpowered vampire, is consistently perilous.

Use the Published Stuff

WFRP is rare among trad games in that it comes with loads of ready-made adventures that are either one-shots already, or easily adapted.

Night of Blood is a classic spooky inn ‘mystery’ where things start horrific and just get worse – I’ve run this at least three times, and would recommend. In the Ubersreik Adventures supplement, Slaughter in Spittlefeld is the most obvious one-shot for a tight con game – the PCs are locked in a tenement and have to solve it’s problem – but Mad Men of Gotheim and If Looks Could Kill are also great con-length one-shots.

And there’s a pdf-only One Shots of the Reikland supplement, too – I’d suggest these might need framing scenes beforehand to give a satisfying con experience, but it’s usually easier to add than take away. To run Curd Your Enthusiasm, I added a scene at the start where they meet Tomas, their patron, when they both he and one of the PCs are pickpocketed by a pair of thieves in Ubersreik – a chase ensues, and it serves as a good system- and character-intro to get everyone ready for the cheese-based investigations that ensue.

So, WFRP has become one of my go-to one-shot systems, and one I’ll certainly stay with. I keep musing about running the classic Enemy Within campaign – especially now it’s been rebooted by Cubicle 7 – but I think it remains a solid one-shot game, just simple enough – but fun enough – to give a satisfying experience.

Zero to Zero – running 1st level D&D one-shots

Sly Flourish is a genius, and I agree with him about nearly everything D&D-related. He’s wrong about skill challenges, though (they’re one of my favourite things in any game, as these posts will testify) – and he’s wrong about 1st level adventures. I’ve run most of my D&D5e one-shots at 1st level, mostly for people new to the hobby, and I’m posted a few on here – check out The Goblins and The Pie Shop, The Rats of Rothsea, and Tower of the Stirge – and the pregen sheets I use to try and make things simpler.

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.

But there’s a particular set of advice that I’d suggest for 1st level D&D. It’s really not that deadly, if done right, and while players don’t have quite as many options as they do by 3rd level, they do have options in the right place. For me, 1st level one-shots come down to three things – Support, Survivability, and Stakes.

Support

You can ignore this, to some extent, if you know you’ve got seasoned D&D vets. But usually, when I’m running 1st level D&D, I’m expecting some players new to the hobby. The Starter Set and Essentials Kit are great, but… their character sheets are ridic. You need less detail, and more help, on them – and so I made these, which I stole from (I think) an insta post from someone from Critical Role… sorry I can’t give a more exact credit, but in fairness it was in the background of a photo.

For spellcasters, I’ll first of all steer newbies away unless they’re up for a bit of reading what spells do, and/or resource management. Otherwise I’ll have spell cards, or a handout with the details clipped from the SRD. Certainly nobody should be looking stuff up in the Player’s Handbook at the table.

Survivability

A 1st level, your PCs need plenty of rests. I sort of run D&D like this at higher levels like this, anyway – trying to face a challenging combat with 1 spell slot left is no fun when some classes’ long rest abilities run out. I normally go for a ‘training’ encounter, then a long rest, and another (sometimes inserted in with handwavey magic refreshing) before the final fight with the big bad.

I think you also need to be careful with enemy damage – challenge ratings are generally a fairly good indicator of challenge, but my rule of thumb is to avoid any attack that can take a PC out in one hit – that’s just too swingy for me. I’m a great fan of the starter adventure in Theros, but the initial encounter is with creatures that do 1d8+3 +2d6 poison damage – that’s not 1st level compliant, for me. Oh, and I generally roll enemy damage – it gives a bit more threat and jeopardy to know that one arrow could do 8 points of damage and really worry them.

Stakes

Even at 1st level, keep the stakes high

Clearing out giant rats is no fun, despite me writing an adventure about it. Give your 1st level one-shot serious stakes – one of my very favourite DCC adventures, The Hole In The Sky, pits the 0-level funnel PCs against a 200 foot tall demon! At the very least, their failure should have somebody’s life on the line, or the well-being of a village or town that will then hold them up as heroes.

Bridge the gap between the PCs and these stakes by getting them to answer questions that tie them to the background. In my latest 1st level one-shot, it begins with a wedding, and the players describe how they’ve got an invite. In playtest, this led to some great emergent NPCs, and a genuine interest in the event passing well – which served as a baked-in motivation.

In terms of in-game scene-by-scene stakes, have failure conditions in mind. 1st level is swingy as hell, and you can end up with a TPK with a run of bad (or good) rolls… have a plan in mind where they wake up in the goblin’s dungeons (or wherever) and get one last chance to escape.

I certainly aren’t going to stop running D&D at 1st level any time soon, and I’ve got a lot of good work out of it so far. I haven’t talked about it here, but worth noting that a lot of the AL stuff has 1st level players doing 2-4 one-hour mini-adventures, which as you’d expect I’m a fan of – this helps the long rests situation. 

What’s been your experience of 1st level D&D? Let me know in the comments. 

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.

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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.

Cut to the Chase Scene – 5 In Medias Res Starts for your One-Shot

I’ve blogged before about the importance of a strong start in your one-shots, and a good way to achieve that is to start in medias res – in the midst of the action.

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In Medias Res as a term was coined by Horace in his Ars Poetica, when he pointed out that Homer’s games of D&D he was running down the Parthenon didn’t start ab ovo – with the dragon hatching from the egg – but right in the middle of a pitched battle against orcs. Or something like that. What it means for us is a reliable way to get dice rolling within the first twenty minutes – and get the pace tripping along right from the start.

So, here are 5 In Medias Res’s to get your one-shots off to a bang.

The Previous-Quest-Maguffin

Gamma World’s famous flow-chart – more fun to look at than play through, in my experience

Begin at the end of the last adventure – where they find a fantastical item that spurs them on to the main quest. A good chance for an ‘easy’ section of dungeoning – a ‘training level’ – to get the item, and then some problem solving / roleplay to interpret the item and pick up the trail.

Credit to Dirk the Dice of The Grognard Files who did this in a memorable Gamma World one-shot that I’ve shamelessly stolen (both here, and in other con games) – in that game we used the infamous artifact flowchart to decipher the mission.

Trapped in the Tomb

Don’t just start at the door to the dungeon, have the party on the wrong side of it as the trap triggers and the door closes behind them. You might want to have another peril activate at the same time, just to lay it on thick that they need to find a way out – as well as whatever they came here for in the first place.

Note that if you’re doing this you’ll need some NPCs or other roleplaying opportunities in the tomb/dungeon/derelict space station in order to make this more interesting – so throw in a chatty mummy/off-message AI/reactivated golem for the PCs to interact with and help/hinder them as well.

The Contest

You don’t think just anyone gets to represent the king while plundering the treasures of the forgotten jungles? No, every year you must compete for the privilege against the nations most foolhardy heroes. Feel free to have some of the failed contestants travel over there anyway as a rival adventuring party – that the PCs will eventually have to save and/or fight.

In terms of pacing, don’t make the contest too long, or it might become the focal point of the whole session – a few skill checks or a simple combat should be enough. Last year I started a Legend of the 5 Rings campaign with each PC describing the gift they’d brought for the daimyo they’d appeared to serve, and then make a skill check for how successful their gift had been – and one bushi’s terrible sake became a recurring theme for the whole campaign.

In Medias Res-ervoir Dogs

The heist (dungeon crawl, assassination, saving the city, etc…) went wrong – or at least drew a lot of heat. Now they’re on the run, trying to escape and fix things. A good way to start with a chase scene – either using the RPGs chase mechanics or just some opposed skill checks or a fight.

This is a good example of a fight with a clear objective – and an opportunity to intersperse the scene with flashbacks of the actual job they’re running from. Note that in Reservoir Dogs they just lie low and chew scenery at each other – diverge from the film in your game and have them carry out the even bigger score that will make things right, hunt down the contact who betrayed them, or finally get the jewels back.

Zombies Attack!

Wherever the PCs are at the start (tavern, castle, space station, etc…) is suddenly subject to an invasion. A recent session of Deadlands I played in started with zombies crawling through the saloon floor, and it’s a well tested method for starting with a bang.

As with Trapped in the Tomb, you’ll need to make sure there’s a few NPCs for the PCs to interact with during the session so it’s not just a string of fights, but having the call to action be an actual invasion is a classic trope. See here for more ideas about managing invasions – you might want to think about what weakness of the attackers can be exploited, and how they can find it, for instance.

So, five ways to start your one-shot with a bang – what other ways have you seen a one-shot started? Let me know in the comments.

Low Fantasy RPGs – Part Two

In the last post, we looked at some of the options for Low Fantasy gaming – here are three more if you want some one-shots where magic is awful and terrifying, and the players are rooted in mud.

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Wolves of God

Cleanse yourself of any lingering anti-Saxon sentiment from Pendragon with this Sine Nomine game from Kevin Crawford where you play brave Saxons exploring Roman ruins and skirmishing with the Welsh in England. With a system that’s sort of OSR-based, with some heavy shifting, it’s well grounded in the setting and you can feel the mud seep off it.

Pros: It’s a straightforward system, and the game comes with loads of tables and guidance for populating a low fantasy sandbox – applicable to any of the games we’ve talked about.

Cons: For the one-shot, Sandboxing is tricky – you want to add some structure and plan to the exploration to prevent any turtling or getting stuck in a rut. Get them rescue a lost herdsman from the Roman ruins, or parlay with the Wealh to defend your common lands from the undead. Kevin Crawford’s stuff deserves a future post about this, after I’ve run some one-shots with his system.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay

This is one of the originals, and a heavy touchstone for TTRPG gaming for any (especially British) gamers of a certain generation. With 4th ed, there’s a system that works well for one-shot play, and it’s a brilliantly realised world that manages to be quasi-European without being awful. There’s even a review of 4th edition on this very blog.

Pros: There’s loads for this – including loads of one-shots already done, some of which are awesome. Night of Blood is great, there’s a .pdf of One-Shots (soon to be reviewed here), and lots of resources even for previous editions that are easily adapted. Tons of art, rich lore and a rich history are all there to help you.

Cons: It’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness – it can be difficult to make a WFRP game feel new, when there are so many already out there. It can get a bit Monty Python, as well – such a commonly referenced touchstone can be hard to make serious. Personally, I’m not a fan of comedy *orcs or chaos cultist conspiracies, either (largely due to them being overdone in WFRP) – there’s plenty more to use here, so look a bit further away from the “classic” antagonists.

Wolf’s Head

This is a FATE World, set in feudal Britain with no magic in it as written – but it’s super easy (it’s FATE, after all) to add evil sorcerers and savage beasts roaming through Norman England alongside the oppressive authority the game is based around. Lean into this by making the Baron have all the cards where magic and weirdness is concerned, thus keeping to the theme of it being a terrifying and inaccessible practice.

Pros: It’s heroic and easily modded. I see this as a basis for a wide range of semi-Historical low fantasy games, and FATE is a great ruleset for mixing it up (see advice for running it as a one-shot here).

Cons: Alone, there’s not as much fluff as you might want – you’ll have to use other sources (or other games on this list) as sources if you run out of inspiration.

So, a selection of six RPGs you can use to bring the mud and guts into your games. Next week, we’ll look at low fantasy-ing a more traditional fantasy RPG, to bring some of the feel for this into a more high fantasy game, and the advantages that gives a one-shot. What have I missed off? Message me on Patreon, or on twitter @milnermaths, to make your suggestions!

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

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

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

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

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

The Fluff

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

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

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

The Crunch

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

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

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

The One-Shot

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

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

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