“Which PC do you most want to die?” – Setup Questions in One-Shots (and Grogmeet 2018)

I’ve just returned from Grogmeet 2018, a one-day convention organised by Dirk the Dice at the Grognard Files – it’s almost a spin-off con from his podcast; I doubt there was anyone in attendance who didn’t regularly follow the ‘cast. It was unusual, and refreshing like a warm pint of bitter, and threw up some interesting game points that I’ve tried to cobble together into a post.

An Odd Bunch – and no, I mean the games

hitthenorth

Great to be back in Manchester, too

As befits an event steeped in nostalgia for the games of yesteryear, there was a wide selection of games that I don’t think you’d see at any other convention; from Tunnels and Trolls, to Flashing Blades, to new releases of old favourites like Runequest Glorantha and Warhammer FRP 4th edition, to the extreme niche (Price of Freedom? You might remember it from old copies of White Dwarf – it’s the game with a massive picture of Lenin on the front of it).

I would be very surprised if a more diverse (and frankly bonkers) selection of games is on offer at any other convention. And all were run with enthusiasm, and received with enthusiasm. I go to a lot of cons, and I’m don’t think I’ve seen a convention with so much enthusiasm for the hobby. It practically oozed out of everyone, particularly after a few beers. I played in an excellent game of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (4th edition) from Gaz from the Smart Party in the morning, and in the afternoon I ran Twilight 2000.

Indie-ing Twilight 2000

Before I go on, let me preface that I won’t be running T2000 again, and I can’t recommend that you do. I don’t want to spend too long going through my issues with the game, but have a few bulletpoints that I just need to get off my chest:

  • extremely low skill levels (at least if you generate PCs who aren’t in their 50s – good old GDW lifepath systems, eh?) As a d10 roll-under system, apart from combat skills it’s reasonable to have a character sheet that looks much like a Gumshoe game – lots of skills of 1 and 2. So lots of failure
  • difficulty is represented by doubling or halving your skill value. This is… swingy. So most shots in Combat are Easy (doubling) but that gets knocked down to Average because even if you spend an action Aiming, it only applies to the first bullet fired. Difficult actions are virtually impossible; Easy actions are often trivially easy.
  • a boringly overpowered initiative system. Initiative is a static value. If you have Initiative 3, you act in Phase 3, Phase 2, and Phase 1 (phases count down – because that’s obvious, right?). If you have Initiative 5, you get 5 actions, starting in Phase 5. If you have initiative 1, you not only act last, but only get one action.
  • automatic fire is independent of skill and requires a bucketload of d6s, with each 6 counting as a hit. I’m all for rolling a handful of dice, but once you hit double figures it starts to get less fun. There is a rule to avoid rolling too many which restricts the number you might have to roll for emptying the magazine to a maximum of 50d6; because otherwise our machinegunner could have had to roll 250d6 at the table.
  • there’s no Search skill. Like, seriously. I guess I could have used Observation, but as that’s the only perception skill, I felt like I was calling for rolls on that quite often too.

In short, you could sketch a system blindfold on the back of a fag packet right now that would still be smoother and more consistent than T2000. It was even worse in play than I was expecting – so in order to mitigate that I tried to make plenty of the session not be about the rules. To do this I used two sets of questions – and I’m going to share the technique here as a system-neutral tip for any game (even if you have a game system that actually works!)

Setting Questions

twilight 2000 pic

Pregens – with requisite gun porn and service history

After my pregens were handed out (and a brief summary given of the implied setting – post-apocalypse nuclear fallout, game set in South American jungles, isolated settlements beset by nomadic raiders) – I went with this set of questions, asked to the whole table but with the expectation that they were to be quickly decided rather than discussed and mused on. There were a couple of quick vetoes used (“No, that sounds rubbish”) – and I tried to join in about as much as the other players with new ideas, while also guiding and pulling together their discussions

  • What is your home community like? What is its name? Who’s in charge?
  • What does your community have in abundance? What does it lack?
  • There are rebels who live wild and want to steal from your community. What are they after?
  • There’s another community – you used to get along but not any more. Who are they? Why did you fall out?

I had a few other questions, about where they got their ammo, and who else they knew, but these provided enough of a setting – an old cocaine farm, rich in resources and defences but short of food and leadership, led by Vega (I think) – who’s first establishing Q&A of “What’s he like?” “He’s an arsehole,” set the tone for the whole community.

I then introduced another key NPC for the adventure, Old Isaac, a trader who has gone missing, and they decided on some facts about him – then they made three NPCs that they cared about – this was the patrol that went to investigate before them.

I was hoping that by asking the players to design the NPCs (even though I had stats for them and a rough idea what would happen to them) they would actually care about them. In the final scene (spoilers!) they had to battle against the three of them mind-controlled, and while it wasn’t a moment of world-shaking pathos and tragedy, it did lead to some interesting roleplaying, even if they only managed to save one of them.

PC-PC Questions

Neither of these ideas is original, of course, and this one in particular was taken mostly from Dungeon World Bonds. Basically, as you want the PCs to function as a team, by getting them to say how they feel about each other, the PCs get rounded and well-defined not just by their own player but the others around them. And it was dead simple.

Every PC had these questions on their character sheet – they just went through them after everyone had given a brief character description.

  • Who do you trust most on the team? Who’s always got your back?
  • Who do you always keep an eye on? Why?
  • Who’s pulled your shit out of the fire more than once?
  • Who is out of their depth and needs protecting for their own good?

Some of the players were pleasantly surprised when this threw up some asymmetrical relationships (one player trusting another who didn’t trust them back); I’ve seen that happen every time I’ve used this technique, and it’s golden.

Did it work?

I think it did. I won’t be running T2000 again – the disconnect between system and play was too much – but it felt like everyone had fun – including me. The two question techniques above can be used for any game, and I’m sure will have similar effects. It’s mostly about shared ownership of setting – which leads to investment in the adventure, which might make the players actually care a bit more about their characters. I’d be interested if anyone has had any success running T2000 in, like, the past 10 years or so, and how they found the system. I can’t quite bring myself to write up my prep notes or pregens into a publishable form, but I’ll try and get round to it if people are interested in it.

It was also a first for me in ages at running a mostly-investigative game. I’m not sure I’m very good at them yet, but it gave me enough food for thought that I might trot out some more at cons or Go Play Leeds in the future, and I’m sure they’ll make it onto the blog.

Tenra Bansho Zero One-Shots

TenraIt’s been a long time coming, but I finally got my head around running Tenra Bansho Zero, an RPG of hyper-Asian fantasy lovingly translated from the Japanese by Andy Kitkowski. It’s a beast. But an awesome, gonzo, emotionally charged beast, like a Kaiju with laser cannons being ridden into war by your long-lost son to avenge your disappearance. The path to bringing this to the table wasn’t painless, but it was worth it. I hope any prospective GMs are persuaded to give it a go with the advice below.

Pregens all the way

You need to pre-select (or let your players pre-select) their characters. I recommend using the sample characters in the book, unless you have a very specific archetype in mind for your plot; I made this one-sheet for my players to help them pick. Reassure your prospective players that they’ll get to evolve and customise their character in-game, so starting with templates isn’t as restrictive as in other games.

Don’t use the Onimyuji – it’s just too complex to have a shiki-summoning sorcerer in the party unless they already know the rules – in which case, why aren’t they running the game?

My players picked Samurai, Kijin, Shinobi, and Kugutsu – a good balance, and easy on the rules – I filled in character sheets with their abilities and printed off the Dark Arts section for the Shinobi to manage, as they can buy extra powers in-game and it handed over management of those rules to the player instead of me.

Incidentally, for NPCs I just used the sample characters too, adding 2 to each Attribute and the extra Vitality described (double it, add 2 per player in the game, or 5 per player if they are a solo boss, add a Dead box but no Wound boxes).

Get your stuff together

You will need piles of d6s. You will need piles of counters, or paper chits, for Aiki and Kiai. I was lucky and found a few in the sale at Dice Shop Online; otherwise improvise, but bear in mind it’s not an exaggeration to say you might need 100+ Kiai chits, and players may well find themselves rolling 30d6+. I put my Aiki and Kiai out on All Rolled Up dice trays in the centre of the table to remind the players that they should be awarding them.

There are some really useful rules summaries out there, and I found some other advice on the internet (this, from Deeper In The Game, was really useful); print them out and use them, and expect some hard-to-find rules – for me, it was how quickly Soul points recover (it’s one point per hour, FYI).

Keep your main plot simple

You only need a straightforward plot for Tenra. Use the examples available – Tragedy in the Kose Art District is good, as is Lotus Blossom’s Bridal Path – which I don’t seem to able to find online now. Honorable mention to Rinden Snarls, which I played to get me into running it – quite a few years ago now. I’ll be writing up the scenario I ran soon too, expect to see it on the download pages in a few days time.

I went with a basic Seven Samurai plot; a village was under threat from bandits to the East and a warlord from the West, and had called to neighbouring provinces for help. Each of the PCs was a representative from one province, brought together to help the village. I added a nearby Oni village, a treacherous villager, and a forest demon who had corrupted the lands nearby and subjugated the Ayakashi river spirit who guarded the village.

Think symbolism and theme; I had cherry blossoms running as the theme of the village, and they reappeared at the end of each act – either falling or blooming in the trees. Corny, but it worked.

Prep Zero Act

In the Zero Act, every player should get to showcase their PC, and it’s a good opportunity to roll on the Emotion Matrix, which is going to provide all the subplots you need. I picked the zero act from each of the sample characters that I found most melodramatic, and we rattled through them with an encounter with an important character, a roll on the Emotion Matrix, and a fade out once that conflict had been resolved (or left juicily hanging!)

I deliberately didn’t use the PCs being recruited as the zero act for any of them – this was entirely about establishing their characters as protagonists, not introducing the mission. My Destinys were much more about the characters than the mission itself.

The Rule of Reincorporation: Chekhov’s NPC

This is a specific case of a general one-shot rule, which will no doubt spawn its own blog post, but any NPCs that appear in the Zero Act need to reappear during the game, unless they are boring and/or dead (and even dead ones might reappear).

The warrior who defeats the samurai and leaves him for dead, inspiring him to undergo the painful samurai transformation? Of course they will be on the antagonists’ side in the final conflict. These call-backs are essential to make an epic story feel fully-resolved.

Scene One (and Two)

I’d recommend having the players meet gradually as your first scene. That way you can roll the Emotion Matrix each time a new PC arrives and have a pause for them to roleplay and internalise these relationships. Be aware this may create some (temporary or otherwise) PvP situations – and require some interpreting of the results.

As with most of my one-shots, I made scene two a ‘training combat’ – straightforward opposition that let the players get to grips with the rules and allowed a break in the scene pattern below.

Two Types of Scene

You will have scenes that are epic combat, where dice will hit the table. You will have scenes of roleplaying, where players will push their Fates. In the roleplay scenes, in my experience, dice rarely hit the table. All you need to do to get the pace right is have a good balance of these scenes. During the roleplay scenes, it’s fine to sit back and watch; if your players are chewing the scenery with each other (and the Emotion Matrix will no doubt push them to do this), let them do it.

With roleplay scenes where they were petitioning an NPC, I usually waited until a key moment in the conversation happened, cut it off, and asked for a Persuasion check (or other social skill). Be prepared for the players to make these rolls easily – they are rolling a lot of dice, and if it’s a roll they care about they have lots of Kiai to spend for bonus dice, skill, or successes.

Don’t Panic; Embrace the Gonzo

At the end of the day, Tenra is a game almost without balance, with hard mechanical systems to encourage the scenery-chewing social interactions. The Emotion Matrix is up front and centre for everyone, and it should provide all the drama you need as long as you provide enough antagonists and mooks to fight.

I’ll be publishing Four From Dragonscale, my own scenario, in a few days on here, and there is already Tragedy in the Kose Art District and Lotus Blossom’s Bridal Path available. Take one of these (they’re pretty much complete playkits, given that they include pregens and all you need to run) and use it, mine it, copy it, or make your own adventure. And good luck!

Have you got any further advice about running Tenra? Comment away! And watch out for Four From Dragonscale, appearing on this blog soon!

Manchester, 1997 – An Urban Shadows City

As promised here, below is the city guide I used for my Manchester, 1997 game of Urban Shadows at Revelation. The inspiration was to use a not-quite-familiar city that could evoke a sense of nostalgia while still allowing some distance and oddness. I’ll confess that I did pretty minimal research for it other than my own experience – I lived in Manchester from 1999 when I went there to University, I’ve seen the excellent Steve Coogan vehicle 24 Hour Party People plenty of times, and a few wikipedia pages supplied the rest.

So, the dating is almost certainly off, and although the 1996 bombing really did have no direct fatalities, this should be credited to a substantial and quick response from emergency services rather than a gang of undead protectors. Similarly, Tony Wilson was never, to mine or anyone’s knowledge, a Chaos Magician seeking to harness the ley lines beneath the city. The best NPCs are of course those that the players themselves bring to the game, of course, but I couldn’t bring myself to include the demon-tainted Hazel Blears MP in the write-up.

The write up is below, or here in handy .pdf form. I’d say that it’s probably read-to-run if you pick some Playbooks and follow the procedures in my previous post.

The City

Manchester in 1997 is a city on the cusp of tomorrow; the music scene has exploded and is the envy of the North, if not London quite yet. The Hacienda nightclub and Factory records sound like they could last forever, and the punks and hipsters walk around like they own the place now. The city centre feels vibrant, edgy, as if the longed-for prosperity of the days when the Industrial Revolution built this city are just around the corner.

The city centre is also a maze of building sites and new developments; last year’s IRA bombing has left vast parts of the city straining to rebuild, and the shining bricks are a sign of the prosperity to come. Things really can only get better, in the words of Tony Blair’s successful election campaign.

Just outside the city lie some of the most dangerous parts of Britain. Moss Side, Rusholme, and Salford hold back-to-back terraces that have changed little since the Communist Manifesto was written in them by a shocked Marx and Engels. Trams run to Altrincham and Bury, linking both sides of the city but leaving vast areas at the mercy of crumbling buses.

South of the city, in Altrincham, Sale, and Didsbury, the wealthy middle classes – stayers-on from University or well-heeled Cheshire inheritors – carry on as they always have. These socialites and old money dealers have little truck with the regeneration of the city, unless there’s money in it for them.

To the North in Bury and Oldham the straining past of industry still stalks the streets – the dark satanic mills around here haven’t been made into flats or offices, and an older, deeper Manchester hides.

The largest population of students outside of London flood the streets of Fallowfield and Withington on the south side of the city, while the city’s four universities – Manchester, UMIST, Manchester Metropolitan, and Salford – tussle over long-held rivalries.

City Moves

  • Open a new development, bar, or shop
  • Reveal a deep industrial past
  • Shock the public with an unexpected display of violence
  • Discuss secrets on public transportation
  • Hold a powerful meeting in an aging bar or nightclub

Images and Hooks

A drunk staggers around Piccadilly, muttering something incomprehensible in an unknown language. Students flood the streets for a protest or festival. Groups of youths in tracksuits start trouble in a shop. A couple argue in the street. A cold pint of lager. A bag of drugs. A nice cup of tea.

Faction Mapping

Night

The City Ghosts

Astonishingly, in a bomb attack causing £700 million of damage last year, there were no fatalities. None that were mortal, at least. The media credited the fast response of the emergency services, but in truth, below Piccadilly in the old water routes and storage containers of the city’s industrial path, the people that built Manchester still guard it.

The City Ghosts started as men and women who died during the city’s building, but as an open association of Spectres they were augmented in both wars. They have one goal – for Manchester to endure – and watch over them from their pits around Cornbrook. The cities’ tram lines – even those yet to be built – mostly use old railway lines, and these routes let the city ghosts traverse the whole of greater Manchester.

Their ‘interference’ in last year’s bombing has ruffled a few feathers, most notably of the City’s Fae, many of whom have sympathies with the mortal bombers, but nobody dares move against them yet as a group so obsessed with their own self-endurance.

Sample Night NPC: Dead Fred, a rogue City Ghost who acts as a go-between between the city’s mysterious spectral protectors and the other factions of the city.

Power

The Seers of Affleck

A loose organisation of wizards, oracles, and hedge-mages, based from a sprawling tower of shops and cafes in the city’s Northern Quarter, the Seers of Affleck dream as they always have. They dream of a rebuilt Manchester, of Britain’s first city, of London and Leeds and Birmingham fading to insignificance as the hermetic patterns grow.

Manchester sits on a confluence of energy, they would tell you, making it like no other city on earth. They whisper in the ears of musicians and artists, architects and drug dealers and nudge them in the direction of their planned futures.

Students from the city’s universities follow them, particularly the city’s University of Manchester, who even designed their Mathematics Tower according to their own mystical geometries. Rumours abound about the latest influx of undergraduates, about how the Seers may have found their next great archmagi.

Sample Power NPC: Tony Wilson, CEO of Factory Records, a dangerous chaos mage channeling the life energy and forces of music to his own ends with scant regard for the safety of the city.

Mortality

The Bridgewater Club

In the city centre, there are well-heeled gentleman’s clubs still, where new money up-and-comers can drink and read the Express and forget about the dirty city streets around them. The Bridgewater Club is not one of those. It maintains private rooms in several bars around the city, but its main base is in Sale, south of Manchester and nestled in Cheshire money.

The wealth of these socialites is tied up in ‘protecting’ the city from supernatural threats – and liberating those threats of any valuable assets to ensure the survival of the Club. Part monster hunting club, part relic collectors, part tomb robbers, their activities are tolerated by the other factions as long as they only target individuals and do not openly move against the factions.

The Bridgewater, for itself, recognises the benefit in the balance of power for the city – and for their continued existence – and recognise that the Vampires of London and the Scottish Wolves are unlikely to offer them as much freedom as they have here in Manchester. So they plan their heists, track the movements of the supernatural around the city, looking for any hints of instability, to strike and take just enough. Of course, individual members do not always share the organisations careful approach to supernatural politics.

Sample Mortality NPC: Jack Firness, established Bridgewater Club Veteran and collector of supernatural ephemera. Jack may be a bit long in the tooth now but he isn’t above dusting down the old crossbow and going to kill some vampires.

Wild

The Oldham Tinkers

They aren’t all from Oldham, of course. They aren’t all from anywhere in this world, or the next. But any city with such a high influx of Irish settlers is bound to have a high fae presence, and the Celtic spirits have formed an alliance with the spirits of the hills and bogs of Lancashire North of the City to ensure that the city’s growth doesn’t compromise the earth.

All these huge buildings being rebuilt now are sometimes covering up important Glamour sites, and the Tinkers are frustrated that the City Ghosts seem to be doing nothing to prevent this. The life that’s recently come to the city with the new music and nightclubs is a welcome source of energy, but it’s drug-fuelled and tainted – something about the rise of the city just isn’t right, and the Tinkers will do anything to slow it – or even perhaps to destroy it.

Sample Wild NPC: Feargal O’Shaugnessy, leader of the Monkey Town Boys, a group of Redcaps and violent fae operating out of Heywood, Lancashire. Feargal and his boys have recently been posted in Manchester to keep tabs on the current situation in the city.

Like what you see? Want a peculiarly British take on urban fantasy with a straightforward simple system and a great team of some of the best UK RPG game designers and writers, and me? The Liminal kickstarter is funding! Back it and make me write a supplement on vampires and more Case Files!

Urban Shadows One-Shots

Urban Shadows (US) is Magpie Games’ Powered by the Apocalypse (PBTA) game of urban fantasy; if political manoeuvrings with wizards, vampires, and demons is your jam, it’s a great game. It’s a great game whatever, actually, which is why I’ve developed a few tips  for one-shot play that should help you if you want to bring it to a one-shot table.

I’m going to present this in two stages – what you do before it hits the table, and what you do at the start of play. Note that the book does have some great advice for one-shots in it already, but I’ve extended some of the advice to hit my particular sweet spot between player-driven and GM-prepped narrative. If you’d like more details on running PBTA one-shots generally, there’s a post here, as well as specific advice for Dungeon World.

Before Play

Pre-select Playbooks

You can make things easier for yourself by restricting the playbook selection for your players. This has two advantages – one, you avoid any chance of selection paralysis at the table, and two, you can focus your prep towards the playbooks selected. One from each faction is ideal – and I’d go with The Aware, The Vamp, The Tainted, and The Wizard for my choices – the Hunter has potential for some nasty PvP that some of your players may find uncomfortable, and The Fae has to keep track of promises as well as Debt which can be fiddly. If you have players pre-signed or know who’s going to play, you can let them pick, of course – but this helps to focus your thoughts on where they will be relevant. If you haven’t got anyone playing the Vamp, for instance, you don’t need to think about complex vampire politics.

Pick a City

Either use one of the cities already developed in Dark Streets, the setting sourcebook for US, or come up with one yourself. All you need for this is a defined group for each of the factions – for instance, when I wrote up Manchester 1997 for the Revelation convention I had the City Ghosts as my Night faction – a group of industrial-age spectres that keep the city surviving, and The Bridgewater Club as a group of hunters and graverobbers who sought to maintain the status quo – and represented the Mortality faction. If you’re able to, you could share your city write-up with your players in advance of the session. It’s also useful to develop broad brush strokes of one NPC for each faction. You need to be careful about introducing too many NPCs in your one-shot, but it helps to have some to start with so the players can generate them. Resist the temptation to have more than one NPC for each faction! Your players will generally invent more of them, and you can always create more on the fly for them if you need to.

Think of a Bang to Start With

Before play starts, think about an unavoidable event that can be happening that will bring the PCs together. Maybe something that threatens the whole city, or something that you know the PCs will hold dear – a reason for them to stick together. In play, the start of session move will give them more stuff to do as well, so your incident might be a backdrop or might be the key action of the session, but it should be unavoidable and with clear consequences.

Good ideas are an important area or location in the city being under threat, a massive monster being released or summoned, or a deadly NPC arriving and tipping the status quo. Even if it ends up being a backdrop, it should be something that sets multiple events in motion – it’s OK to have a deadly vampire killer on the loose, but make sure that his murders trigger an all-out Vamp-Werewolf gang war in the city, and have the wizards summoning blood demons to take out the most dangerous Vamp threats to them.

As well as an inciting incident, have a few ideas about how this event will climax towards the end of the session – the battle / binding of the demon, the restoring of the status quo, the NPC being chased off. Clearly it’s a good idea to have this as loose as you can make it, but it should be a clear endgame where the threat gets resolved one way or another.

Start of Play

Do Character Generation by the book

Get the players to fill in their Playbooks as per the rules on them. Follow the book advice on one-shots (one extra advance, 3 points of Corruption, one Corruption advance). Get them to go around and briefly introduce their characters after you give a brief overview of the city and the four factions you created. For each NPC, write their name and faction onto an index card and throw them in the middle of the table.

Do Debt – and make it a massive deal

Get the players to take turns in deciding Debt, and make a big deal of it. The book does advise this, but it helps to explicitly refer to Debt a key currency in the game – this is a game of factional manipulation and politics, so who owes whom is really important. I like to stress that 2 Debt is a big deal – you owe them big time, and they can call in a suitably big favour for this – anyone who owes 2 Debt to someone has a ticking time bomb of something being called in. In play, remember to remind them when they ask for something that Debt is the way to leverage it – and that they can always refuse to help with the appropriate Debt Moves.

Start of Session Moves

It’s easy to think that the start of session move doesn’t work for one-shots, but it really sings, especially if somebody rolls a Miss. I avoid giving any hints of my inital scene before they have done the session move, so that the PCs already have a lot on their plate before their unavoidable event happens.

Don’t pull punches! If they roll a Miss, it’s entirely appropriate to start them in a terrible situation. PBTA games are really resilient at letting PCs go from tragedy to glory, and back again, in just a few Moves, so don’t feel bad about starting with your Wizard captured by a recalcitrant demon he was trying to summon. When they mark their Faction, explain how the Advancement system works and that they are just 3 interactions away from advancing – they should be actively hunting down other factions to get their ticks. In the course of the Session Move, the players might suggest additional NPCs. Write them on an index card with their faction and put them in the middle of the table.

Check your NPCs

Before you launch your starting scene, take a look at the NPCs on the table and see if you can ditch any of them. If there’s one without any debt who doesn’t seem to be of interest to the group, suggest to the players that they might not feature in the game. They might have future plans for them – which is fine – but otherwise try to trim your NPC list down as much as you can. If this means ditching all four of your starting NPCs, so be it! The players inevitably come up with much more interesting characters.

Play!

Often PBTA games suggest you take a break now and collate your notes, look at how factions interact, and check you are ready to play. My own experience is that after the start of session moves I’m often fizzing with ideas, and the players are ready to go, so it’s better to start with the inciting incident now and have a break straight after it.

One piece of pay advice I’m terrible at following myself – make your hard moves soon! In a one-shot, once that first miss gets rolled in a risky situation, it’s fine to hit the player with unavoidable consequences; the “warn someone of impending danger” move is often slow. I prefer, in a one-shot, to “put someone in danger.”

So that’s a quick write-up of how I do Urban Shadows one-shots. It’s a cracking game and a great urban fantasy experience to bring to conventions. I’ll be posting up my Manchester 1997 setting shortly, so watch out for that – and putting up more one-shot advice soon enough.

Oh, and if urban fantasy is your bag, you should check out the kickstarter for the Liminal RPG. I’m involved in editing and producing some Case Files (adventures) for the system, and possibly more content depending on how far the stretch goals go. It’s already funded, so any extra Backers just mean more stuff gets written and produced for everyone!

The Forest of Doom – a Dungeon World One-Shot

Forest of Doom imageIt’s one thing to blog about prep, but here’s some actually finished prep, ready for you to use yourselves, either as an actual session plan or as a framework. I present to you a ready-to-run one-shot for Dungeon World (DW), adapting the classic Fighting Fantasy gamebook The Forest of Doom.

There’s an awful lot of love for the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks (in the UK gaming scene anyway) – an awful lot of us had our first experience of fighting goblins and exploring dungeons in the paperbacks by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone.

In adapting it to Dungeon World, I went with a couple of Fronts about the evil forest and the impending troll army, and tried to sprinkle a few clues into the encounters in the forest in order to make them feel a little less random than the original game.

The download for the notes is here – be warned that it’s very much as many notes as I need to run it, and you might find the previous article to be useful in order to make sense of it.

In terms of how I adapted it, I started by playing through the gamebook four or five times (never successfully, may I add – some of the early FF games are really unforgiving!). I then made a list of the most interesting / iconic encounters, and made them the set pieces for the adventure. It was a lot of fun, and it really sang at the table – all of my players were really into the shared narration part of it, and DW does a great job of creating the camaraderie (in-jokes even) of a group of adventurers in only a few hours of play.

I ran it at Revelation, a convention entirely consisting of Powered by The Apocalypse (PBTA) games in Sheffield, UK. I also ran Urban Shadows, which I’ll blog more about soon, and played in an excellent game of Undying.

Right now, I’m tempted to adapt some more FF books for Dungeon World, since it seems such a good fit. Any requests? And if by any chance you do use this at the table, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

Dungeon World One-Shots

Edit: If you’re interested in an actual real-life one-shot set-up, my Forest of Doom setup is available here.

 

I’m mid-way between running a Dungeon World (DW) one-shot, and prepping one at the moment, so I’m thinking a lot about how to make DW hot for one-shot play. John Aegard has some excellent advice here, and I’ve blogged more generally about prepping Powered by the Apocalypse (PBTA) games before, but here’s a few other tips that I’ve developed that are DW-specific. For me, running DW at conventions means I need a bit more meat on the bones of that the PCs will actually do, while still letting them freewheel and develop the narrative situation themselves.

Let them choose

Unlike in other PBTA games, there’s no need to pre-book players in Classes. In other games, the choices they make here have significant impact on the focus of the game and how it plays out – if your Apocalypse World group includes a Hardholder, for instance, you’re going to need to put their settlement front and centre of the action and aggressively threaten and develop it.

In Dungeon World, regardless of the choices made, the players are going to be an adventuring team – so there’s no need to do this. In fact, at the start of play I try to be really explicit that the balance of classes really isn’t important in this game, just to make sure they don’t feel like they need (for instance) a Fighter to tank and a Cleric to heal people. So encourage players to have a free rein in picking their Classes and Races. I tend to restrict mine to the classes in the DW book, just because there’s more than enough there, but if one of the players has a burning desire to play a 3rd-party Class, I’d probably let them.

Pitch your Sitch

For convention games, you usually need to advertise your game in advance, and for that you need to write an exciting teaser trailer for your upcoming game. Get this set in advance and not only can you give your PCs a problem they can’t ignore, but you can also tie them into this story right at the start with link questions.

The game I’m prepping at the moment is riffing off the classic Fighting Fantasy gamebook Forest of Doom by Ian Livingstone, and so to promote my game (and set my situation), I’ve just used the text on the back of the book:

A war is raging and your help is needed to vanquish the evil trolls. To save the dwarfs, you must find the Grand Wizard Yaztromo and track down the pieces of a legendary war hammer lost in the depths of Darkwood Forest, where gruesome monsters lurk.

Now, once this situation is prepared, I write a list of link questions to ask the PCs – at least one per player, but you might want a few more. They ask the PCs about their relationship with this crisis – and allow them to define twists, NPCs, or aspects of the situation within a comfortable framework.

For Forest of Doom, my link questions look like this:

  • You served in the dwarf army before, defending Stonebridge from the trolls. Why did you leave?
  • You’ve wandered Darkwood Forest before. What dangerous beast did you encounter?
  • What have you done to earn the Grand Wizard Yaztromo’s ire?
  • Gillibran, the dwarf leader in Stonebridge, leads a demoralized and divided army. What happened to bring the dwarf military so low?
  • And so on…

I try to make these questions about what has gone before, rather than what is happening now, so that players don’t feel like they might step on narrative toes, and so that I can keep my prep useful. In play, I go through them straight after Bonds.

Fronts, Dangers, and a Map

For a single 2-4 hour one-shot, you’re not going to want more than one Adventure Front. This is the backbone of the adventure, and the closest thing to a pre-determined plot you have. Likewise, your Dangers give structure to the encounters and opposition that the PCs face; without them they might feel they’re aimlessly wandering from monster to monster. For my current prep, that’s pretty much what playing the Forest of Doom gamebook feels like, so I’m especially keen to avoid that!

I’ve not run my Forest of Doom adventure yet, so I’ll publish my Fronts and Dangers separately at a later date to avoid any spoilers for my players, but suffice to say I tend to just follow the procedures on p185 of the DW book, including adding in stakes questions (which might sometimes already be answered by your link questions above).

A lot of the available adventure starters and modules for DW include several Custom Moves for each game. Personally, I try to avoid them – DW does not need new rules for a one-shot. The only time I put them in is when I don’t see an obvious fit with the Basic Moves for how to resolve something – very often one of those moves will fit. They give great flavour in an ongoing game as the party encounters new areas and foes – and ultimately with custom moves, new rules – but I really don’t think they’re necessary in a one-shot.

Forest of Doom map

The Ideal Level of Detail on your map – Darkwood Forest

I like to have a sketch map to put in the centre of the table during play. This doesn’t contain encounter locations or details, but it grounds the players in w

hat they’re doing and makes it feel a bit less like you’re pulling encounters and events out of thin air based on how they’re doing and the pacing needs of the game – which is pretty much what you’re going to be doing, except informed by the Fronts and Dangers. This map from the gamebook is exactly the level of detail I want for my game

 

Set Pieces

In play, I tend to follow the player’s leads, offer them choices as to which paths and routes to take, and respond accordingly. I do like to have 5-6 ‘set piece’ encounters lined up that I hope they’ll take – usually these will be where they find items or clues that move the adventure along. In Forest of Doom, where the quest is to find the lost two parts of a war hammer, obviously two of the encounters will result in finding the parts of the hammer – but unlike the book I’m going to seed clues in the rest of the encounters to show where the hammer might be, rather than rely on random wanderings through the forest.

These don’t have to combat encounters, and should have a number of options to resolve them. You can use linked questions (eg, “Tell me one thing all gnomes hate” when they first meet a gnome) to give narrative control.

You don’t have to use all of them, but they will provide a backdrop of things to use if you suffer the dreaded PBTA “Move Freeze” when an MC move doesn’t immediately occur to you. DW is already pretty forgiving in this – in no small way because it’s easier in the fiction and implied setting to have a sudden change of pace (orcs attack!) to bring up the energy levels at the table and even buy you some time to figure out what’s going on.

So those are my emerging tips for DW one-shots. I’ll conclude by saying that it’s my belief that Dungeon World really is the most forgiving PBTA game to start MCing, and encourage you to try it if you’re at all interested in these kinds of games. I spent several months trying to grok Apocalypse World and Monsterhearts before a game of Dungeon World made me chill the hell out and realise that they were easier to run than I was thinking. What are your top tips for Dungeon World one-shots? And look out for the full prep notes for Forest of Doom after the Revelation convention at the end of February.

Xanathar’s Guide to Random Tables – adding story to D&D5e

D&D 5th edition is a bit of a gap in my gaming experience. While it’s hardly explicitly designed for one-shots (for me D&D hews pretty closer to the zero-to-demigod progression than any other levelled game), I’ve had great experiences playing it. It captures the sweet spot of nostalgia and actually working. I’ve never actually run it, but certainly intend to set that right in the new year. And, like Starfinder, it certainly can support one-shot play – a lot of its complexity is hidden in easily-parsed references to older editions!

Storifying D&D: it can / can’t / should / shouldn’t be done!

A common thread about ten years ago on various Indie game communities used to be how to add storygaming elements to ‘trad’ games like D&D. It was met with a range of responses, from the zealous “you shouldn’t bother, just play a game that will actually support what you want to do” to more helpful suggestions, like John Aegard’s excellent piece on making D&D 4th edition a player-led sandbox.

The foundation for story-based games lies in character (or pregen) generation – if you have characters with links to the world and NPCs in it, beliefs and motivations to act beyond money and orcslaying, everything else will come, and feel natural. So after a preorder of the new Xanathar’s Guide to Everything arrived and sparked a guilt about how little attention I’d given 5th edition, I decided to give it a run through.

Xanathar’s deserves a proper review on here when I’ve fully dissected it for one-shot play, because apart from a bunch of sub-classes, encounter design guidelines, additional uses for equipment, it also contains a few pages of shared campaign guidelines (which are absolutely golden if you want to design a one-shot, brief though they are). But what initially caught my eye were the piles of random tables.

A lot has been made of the random tables that have returned for D&D5e, and I can’t get enough of them. Right there, using the ones in the PHB alongside those in Xanathar’s, you can randomly generate characters with rich, punchy backstories. I tested them out by rolling up a 1st level human fighter, Robert (oh yeah, his name was random as well – there’s 18 pages of random name tables at the back of the book as well). The tables for family backstory, combined with the backgrounds from the PHB, have made my ‘standard issue peasant fighter’ into something much more exciting, an army deserter using adventuring to find his estranged father. Don’t believe me – here’s his rough character sheet, with the table results combined with a pre-written backstory (NB: I’ve kept any links to the background and location deliberately vague, with only a dubious-evil Baron for Robert to rage against)

Robert

Race: Human (5′ 7″, 154 lbs)

Class: Fighter

Background: Folk hero

Alignment: Neutral Good

S 16, D 15, C 15, I 11, W 14, Ch 11

Languages: Common, Orc

HP 12; AC 19

Proficiencies: All armour, shields; simple weapons, martial weapons; carpenter’s tools, vehicles (land)

Saving Throws: S +5, D +2, C +4, I +0, W +2, Ch +0

Skill Proficiencies: Animal Handling, Athletics, Perception, Persuasion

Fighting Style: Defense (+1 to AC when wearing armour)

Second Wind: Use a bonus action to regain 1d10+1 hp each short/long rest

Combat: Longsword +5; 1d8+3 slashing. Light crossbow +4; 1d8+2 piercing. Dagger +5; 1d4+3 piercing.

Equipment: Chain mail, longsword, shield, light crossbow (20 bolts), explorer’s pack, carpenter’s tools, shovel, iron pot, common clothes, belt pouch with 18gp, dagger.

 

Origin: Know who your parents are; born at home; no siblings. Raised by single mother (father was imprisoned); modest lifestyle with no permanent residence – you moved around a lot; others saw you as different and strange, so you had few companions

Background decision: A mad old hermit spoke a prophecy when I was born, saying I would accomplish great things

Fighter training: I joined the army and learned how to fight as a group

Defining Event: You broke into a tyrant’s castle and stole weapons to arm the people

Personality: If someone is in trouble, I’m always ready to lend help

Ideal: Sincerity – there’s no good in pretending to be something I’m not

Bond: I have a family, but I have no idea where they are. One day, I hope to see them again

Life Events: A relative bequeathed you a simple weapon, spent time working in a job’

Flaw: I have trouble trusting my allies

 

Born to simple carpenters, the prophecy that the mad gnome Oppleby spoke when Robert was born would prove to be his downfall. His father stayed at home from the work-gang to care for Robert following the prophecy, and though they tried to evade the Baron, Robert’s father was captured and imprisoned soon after by the Baron’s men. As Robert and his mother Emma moved from town to town, earning what little they could from odd jobs and the kindness of strangers, Robert’s heartbreak at seeing his father dragged away led to steely resolve to find his captors and bring them to justice.

Knowing he would need a strong sword arm to bring the Baron to justice, he joined the army, where he quickly became successful as a carpenter in the engineering division while his martial expertise grew. But seeing the lash of his sergeant’s whip on his comrades, Robert fled the army, defecting with his squad after stealing from the company supplies. In the escape his squad-mate Manfred was fatally injured, and he gave Robert the engraved dagger his own father had given him, begging Robert to continue his quest.

Robert found himself again moving from town to town, and making use of what carpentry skills he had, until the opportunity for adventure and making good on his prophecy came to him. He knows he will only bring danger to his mother if he returns to her, but still seeks to find his father, and free him from the Baron’s oppression.

See what I mean? It’s corny, and I guess a little obvious, but the table results just determined that juicy backstory naturally. Later I’ll be blogging here about adapting published adventures, but for a party including Robert you can bet that either (i) the Baron’s men are all over town getting in his way, and/or (ii) the adventure’s big bad has links to the Baron. Have you got any examples of how random tables can develop grabby character backgrounds?