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. 

Day of the Manta Ray – a Sentinel Comics One-Shot

Last weekend, I was at the Owlbear and the Wizard’s Staff, an improbably-named convention in Leamington Spa – and this was the scenario I ran for it. I’d previously playtested it online with my pick-up Supers Gaming group, and made quite significant changes to some of the encounters based on how that went. I thought I’d share it here as a verbatim example of my notes for a one-shot game, along with a few explanatory things.

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.

I designed this scenario for the pregen group Daybreak in the Sentinel Comics rulebook – they are teen superheroes, and I played up their lesser status in Freedom City by having lots of spectators and NPCs wearing Legacy merch (the other, more established, superheroes). Sentinel has a really structured encounter/scene structure, which I stuck to for the set pieces, but I freeformed a lot of the investigation scene by just asking for 6 successes and giving them some plot hooks when they made their Overcome rolls.

I knew I had 3 players, but added an extra into each scene to allow for an extra player to arrive. I’ll be following this up with a Sentinels review, and probably something on playtesting con scenarios, so watch this space!

Intro / Con Pitch

In this terrifying issue, Ray Manta (p400) 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.

SCENE ONE -THE GRAND OPENING

Easy/Medium Action Scene

The heroes are guests of honour, or just there for a day out, at the opening of Aqualand, the Freedom City aquarium. It’s been rebuilt after a terrible incident of collateral damage that the heroes were somehow involved in. Standing in front of the prize pool is Mayor Thomas, his too-tight suit and the blazing sun making his hair dye drip onto his collar. As he readies to cut the ribbon, Orca and Morca, the aquarium’s prized killer whales, jump a pirouette behind him. 

A great day for the fishes! A great day for the city! As I always say, with cod on our side, we’re always sure to have a whale of a time! I’ve always been a fin of the aquarium, and I’ve often said this day was manta be! 

As Mayor Thomas giggles at his terrible puns, the fireworks go off – and smoke fills the area. Slightly confused, there are soon some secondary explosions – and screams!

Ray Manta has set off his trap – his squid-bots have been waiting in the wings, and his shark-bots have already replaced the beloved Orca and Morca.

As the smoke clears, Mayor Thomas is nowhere to be seen, and man-sized squidbots terrorize the assembled crowds. An explosion under a stand has left the assembled people tumbling into the pool, where a now-enraged Morca has been dropped from the sky.

Scene Tracker – Standard

3 Players:

ELECTRIC EEL – D8 Lieutenant

Herman Gyros got caught in an oil rig accident and given the ability to turn into living electricity – now he works for Ray Manta after a hastily-arranged re-image to fit his fish theme

Ability: Can ATTACK and HINDER a target with the same die roll if making a ranged attack with his ELECTRO-SHOCK

Tactics: Flies around from zone to zone targeting the most dangerous-looking opponent. Flees if the fight turns.

HAMMERHEAD – D8 Lieutenant

One of King Shark’s followers, Hammerhead has been loaned out to Ray Manta for this mission. He is utterly clueless and doesn’t understand much of what is going on

Ability: At home in the water – +2 to close-combat attack or defend actions when in the water

Tactics: Keeps fighting until the bitter end – like we said, clueless.

ROBOCTOPI

These look like unconvincing plexiglass octopi

Ability: 16 arms are better than 8! They get a +2 to Boost fellow octopods

(H) D6 Minions

ENVIRONMENT – The Bombing Campaign

Frequent random explosions D8

Escaping wild aquatic animals D6

Hacked water cannons and fire trucks D8

Green – a few explosions happen towards the edges of the scene – the whole place has been booby-trapped!

Minor: Explosions fire at one hero on the ground of the scene, making an Attack using the Mid die

Minor: Another roboctopi activates!

Major: Two heroes are buried under a pile of rubble – Hinder at Mid, Attack at Min

Yellow – spectators are dropped into the orca tank, as fish swarm from all directions

Minor: A wave of water targets everyone on the ground who isn’t aquatic – Attack with Min vs. everyone

Minor: One hero is covered with mating octopi – a persistent and exclusive Boost action

Major: Advance the scene tracker by one space as the ground begins to creak under the water

Red – the stand collapses into the city’s water system – there are sharks all over the city now!

Minor: Water sprays up, a Hinder (Mid) on everyone – including the flyers

Minor: An arc of electricity flies up to Electric Eel and restores him to full strength!

Major: Waves of water stand between the heroes and their opponents – a Max Defend action

4 players:

ADD

SAVE THE SPECTATORS

OO Right the stand

O Calm the enraged killer whale

SCENE TWO – AFTERMATH

Montage Scene

As the scene clears, a message has been scorced into the grass in front of the aquarium – unless THREE MILLION DOLLARS is delivered to an unmarked post office box downtown, they will never see the mayor – or Orca – again. Commissioner Brown is beside himself

But the people of Freedom City – they love that goddam dolphin! And Mayor Thomas, of course. Him as well. But, how will poor Morca cope without her mate?

Players can narrate their scene to heal/help/boost as usual.

SCENE THREE – INVESTIGATIONS

Easy Action Scene

As they race to find the location the mayor (and the beloved killer whale) is hiding, they need a total of 6 successes on Overcome actions to do so.

Possible approaches –

Hack the robots to find their ‘homing location’ somewhere in Freedom Bay

Investigate the PO box – where they find a terrified employee who says a ‘fat man who smelled of fish’ asked him to set it up, then crawled back into the river

Look into the aquarium contractors – where there are a lot of contracts given to on Mandy Tallahasie Raynham – with the location of the warehouse that he used

Go bust some heads at the warehouse – where they can reveal Ray Manta’s underwater base

SCENE FOUR – PREPARATIONS

Montage Scene

They know where Ray Manta’s base is, and they know how to get there -and that it’s underwater. How do they prepare to get there?

Players can narrate their scene to heal/help/boost as usual.

SCENE FIVE – SHOWDOWN

Moderate Action Scene

As they burst into Ray Manta’s base, they find the mayor and the Orca already tied to a laser cutter, and the swarms of bots all around them

Scene Tracker – Standard

3 Heroes:

SAVE THE WHALE!  (AND THE MAYOR)

OOOO Defuse the laser

RAY MANTA (see full profile, with upgrade suit, in the Sentinel Comics core book)

ELECTRIC EEL (AGAIN!)

D10 LIEUTENANT

Can Attack and Hinder the with one action

KING ORCA

A man in a shark suit just as unconvincing as Ray Manta’s costume, King Orca is nevertheless a dangerous villain

D10 LIEUTENANT

+2 to Boost actions

4 heroes – ADD

HORDES OF FLYING FISHBOTS

(H) D8 MINIONS

Annoying blighters: +1 to Hinder Actions

Once the scene is finished, the heroes are victorious! They have saved the mayor, and the beloved Killer Whale, Orca! Narrate a closing scene where they celebrate their victory.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

How to Play One-Shots

Looking on the horizon to the tentative return of in-person conventions, it’s worth talking about how to be a good player at a convention. As I’ve said before, in order to run good one-shots, the best thing you can do is play lots of them, and I certainly try to have a 50% running / 50% playing in my campaign and one-shot play (current 2021 figures show a 49%/51% running/playing split, which I can live with!)

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.

A convention is a great opportunity to experience different GMing styles, see a system in action, and consider how you would run a similar game – and it’s great to try to be the best players we can be. So, here goes – my top 5 tips to be a great player in a one-shot TTRPG.

Be Prepared

Standard stuff here: arrive on time, talk to the other players, introduce yourself and them, try to make the start of the game as smooth as it can be. I know GMs should do this as well, but your GM has the next three hours to worry about as well, so cut them some slack if they don’t remember everything – pick up the slack.

An empty game table with lots of dice, notes, character sheets, card names, and D&D books
Don’t rely on the DM to bring all those dice!

Bring pencils, dice, that sort of thing. Be helpful about suggesting breaks – it can be difficult to read the energy of the table if you’re GMing. In terms of rules, if you’re familiar, feel free to suggest – but remember it’s the GMs game. If there’s a fumble for a ruling, or a need to look stuff up – volunteer to do it, or if you’ve a suggested fix, suggest it – you can help to keep the pace flowing. If you know the system, you can always volunteer to track initiative or do any of those little housekeeping things that come up sometimes.

Be a Good Plot-Hook Doggo

I went through a six month period of running a lot of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4e (WHFRP) at cons when it first came out. I always included a rat catcher in the pregens, as a nod to a classic WFRP trope – they begin play with a “small but vicious dog.” I didn’t realise until I started running, but that dog was a godsend. Any time the players needed a nudge in the direction of plot, their dog would run off – often after real or imagined sausages (lean into the tropes, everyone).

And as a player, you should be that dog. Tilt for likely plot hooks – don’t turtle, and pull your fellow PCs with you. Presented with a hook, your job is to wolf it down and try and swallow the fishing line, and don’t hold back. Pursue where you think the plot is aggressively, and you’ll help everyone at the table.

Play Up

“Playing Up” is a concept from LARP about supporting other players by giving them cool opportunities to shine. You ask the other character questions, try to give them opportunities to show their character off, make the spotlight time for them.

One of the hardest things to encourage as a con GM is speaking in character – take this on-board and help to encourage it. Rather than comment on what your character sees, ask another PC about it. Do the same in combat, too – speak while doing your action in-character to make your spotlight shine, and suggest tactics in-character (if it’s that sort of game).

Have A Shtick

Similar to this, it helps to have a “shtick” for your PC – pick up on a roleplaying quirk like you would an NPC and lean into it a little. It’s unlikely to be annoying over the three hours as long as you keep pointing towards the plot, and it will encourage everyone else to bring something to the game as well.

Standard improv advice says, incidentally, to always do the obvious thing unless you’ve got an obviously better idea – so do this. Orcs burst through the door – attack them! Your other players can be the voices of reason – be prepared to tilt at windmills.

Show You’re Having Fun

Listen actively – especially if online, smile and nod, and help to bring some energy to the table. Look, I know at F2F cons this can be difficult on the second or third day, when sleep deprivation and the energy of running games and drinking beer hits – but you’ve been there as a GM when the table looks back at you like they’d rather be asleep. Help you GM out by showing enthusiasm and responding positively to his ideas, especially at the start. GMing at cons is hard – the best of us get nervous about it at the time. So help them out by being the best player you can be.

There you go, five tips to be a better player. What would you add to this? Let me know in the comments or at @milnermaths.

Fighting Talk, Part One – Know Their Enemies

Particularly in one-shots, building battles is a bit of an art. Most crunchy games include some guidance on balancing encounters (and those that don’t should), but I’ve found some general principles that will improve almost any fighting encounter that you have. In Part Two we’ll look at the battlefield itself, but in this post we’ll look at your opponents.

For this post I’ve given examples based around 5th edition D&D, because it has guidance for balancing encounters in the DMG that is both thorough, and also a bit misleading – but the same principles apply to other games.

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.

Balancing Your Opposition

I’ve said this a few times on the blog already, but I’ll say it again – fights, especially in one-shots, should be easy or hard – not “medium.” An easy fight at the start of a session to help everyone learn the rules is a fine thing, or an opportunity for the players to show how awesome they are, but a ‘medium difficulty’ fight is, generally, weak. If you play D&D or Pathfinder, the majority of the fights you’ll find in published scenarios are at this level – just cut some of them out and beef up the ones that are left to make it at least “hard” by whatever difficulty metric they give.

The reason that games often give a ‘medium’ difficulty level is about attrition. The classic D&D resource management game is that you will gradually use resources through the adventuring day, meaning a selection of averagely difficult fights will wear you down and provide a tactical challenge. I don’t really agree with this approach, even in long-term play – a few big battles are better than lots of middling ones, and I think resource management like this is overrated.

You Need More Than You Think

One opponent per PC is an absolute minimum if you want an exciting battle. There’s tricks and ways to make a fight against one big opponent work, which I might talk about in a later post – but if you’re looking for an exciting fight, you probably want the number of opponents to be between 1.5 and 3 times the number of PCs.

How do you do a big fight against, e.g., a dragon then? Simple, just add in some low-level supporters. If you’ve got 4 6th level D&D characters, a “hard” fight can be a Young White Dragon (CR 6) and 5 or 6 Scouts (CR ½) – the scouts won’t be as big a threat as the dragon, but they’ll still harry and whittle away at the party’s resources ensuring that they won’t just be able to mob the dragon from the start. It’s easy in D&D to fall into the trap to think that low CR monsters aren’t suitable for mid- or high-level parties, but they absolutely are – which brings us to…

Minions, Mooks, and Hordes

Big fight scenes need a big cast – which means more enemies

If you’re going to have lots of opponents without swamping the PCs, some of those opponents might have to be quite low-level. A group of low-level minions is an excellent set of opponents to add to a challenging fight. They’ll draw the PCs’ fire, get between them and the main opponents, and give the players a chance to show their awesomeness by going down easily.

If you’re worried that there might be too many, give some thought to morale options – maybe once their leader is killed they’ll run off into the hills, or half of them hang back as they attack in waves. With lots of opponents you have a few ways to pace battles you can use depending on how it’s going – make it logical, and don’t hold back, but you don’t have to have them all charge in at once.

Make Them Individual

Give your opponents identifying traits, names, or other characteristics. On a VTT, it’s easy to drop name labels on to each of your mooks – it feels much cooler when the goblins they pick off have names. Otherwise, even just listing a characteristic of each of them – this one has one eye, this one is overweight and limping –helps it to feel like a TTRPG instead of a video game. Generally, I’d not recommend altering any of their game statistics for this – keep it simple for yourself – but you can use it in their descriptions.

Another more general way to improve individuality is to reskin monsters liberally. Bestiaries will act like they’ve gone to loads of trouble to make monsters individual, but it’s so easy to reskin monsters to make similar opponents. Need stats for Big Baz, the slow-moving henchman of the chief bandit for your bandit encounter? Baz is a zombie with no undead traits. A low-level evil sorcerer can easily be a reskinned Sea Hag  with his claws a magical bolt and the Horrific Appearance a fear spell.

And one of D&D’s great secrets is page 274 of the DMG, the “Building a Monster” section, that lets you design monsters from the ground up – also perfect if you want a slightly stronger monster to lead a pack of them – just go to the next level up and increase its CR.

Putting it All Together – An Example

With this in mind, let’s set up the personnel of encounters for a D&D one-shot, exploring a group of goblins who’ve hidden in a cave and are harrying villagers. I’ll be talking about the “3 Fights” one-shot structure in a later post, but you can probably grasp the basic idea of it from the name, so for our three encounters – balanced for a 2nd level party of 5 PCs – we’ve got:

Fight 1 – The Guards (at the entrance, or patrolling) – a DMG “easy” fight, although we’ve gone a little over budget – it’s likely the PCs will get some sort of surprise on them, and they’ll be fighting them fresh, so this should be straightforward for them.

2 Goblins (CR ¼) and 3 Goblin Hounds (Mastiffs – CR 1/8)

Even for an easy encounter, having enough 5 opponents will still mean that they’ll have to think about who they engage, and if they can afford to protect a ranged-based character or wizard.

Fight 2 – The Kennels  – this is a “hard” fight, and again it’s a little over budget – we’ll have the worg hang back for the first round, and only arrive to defend its pups in round 2.

2 Goblins (CR 1/4), 1 Worg (CR 1/2), 4 Goblin Hounds (Mastiffs – CR 1/8)

More opponents this time, and a big beast that they might want to join forces to handle – but by arriving on Round 2, they’ll already be engaged with the hounds and goblins. Depending on how the PCs are looking at this stage, we have some tactical options to balance this – we could always throw everyone in at once, or have the goblins hang back in cover and fire arrows at the party.

Fight 3 – The Boss Fight – this is a DMG “deadly” fight – we want to try to engineer that the PCs are pretty healed up and ready for this fight, which shouldn’t be too much of a problem as it’ll be the climactic battle of the one-shot

1 Goblin Tribe Leader (a Hobgoblin – CR ½), 1 Goblin Champion (a non-undead Zombie – CR ¼), 3 Goblins (CR ¼), 4 Goblin Rabble (stats as  Bandits) (CR 1/8)

Nine opponents make this fight challenging, and the Rabble/Bandits and the Champion can get between the big boss and the goblins who can pick players off with missile weapons – while the bandits will be quickly dealt with, this will pace the fight so that they still have to face the main opponents – the leader and the champion.

So, now that we’ve looked at building our opposition, the next post will deal with locating this in the session – both in terms of plotting, and in terms of the actual physical battlefield.

Prep Techniques: Three Places

Last time in this series, I talked about using 5-Room Dungeons to structure your sessions or one-shots. Today, I’m going to discuss something I’m calling 3 Places. I first read about this on The Alexandrian’s blog about Node-Based design, and it is also featured in a lot of Free League’s scenario advice for Tales from the Loop and Vaesen. I used it myself in The Goblins and the Pie Shop, my reimagining of the orc and pie “scenario” for 1st level D&D.

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.

This structure gives limited autonomy to the players while making prep manageable, and works well for investigative games where you want the players to uncover a mystery or secret before a final confrontation. It works less well if you’ve got a more straightforwardly linear plot in mind, or if you want the players to encounter set pieces in order.

Overview

In this structure, the PCs are investigating an area – a town, a wilderness region, even a dungeon – which has three key places relevant to the scenario. They can explore 1, 2, or all 3 of these to lead to a final confrontation.

Each of the three places contains clues not only to the final confrontation, but also to the other two places. At the start of the session, an inciting incident (an action scene) will point them towards one or more of these places. They can then be explored in whatever order the players want, before finally hitting the final confrontation.

In general, the more information they gather from the three places, the better an idea they have what’s going on and how to tackle it – but don’t worry too much about encouraging or planning for this. They might decide to explore all three, or after one or two they might decide they know enough to move to the finale.

Example

Let’s start with a classic fantasy example, and one that isn’t always easy to translate to play – a beast is stalking the farms hereabouts, and the players are asked to investigate it. I’m thinking a dire wolf or hell-touched bear or something, and I’ve decided it’s going to be normally immume to normal weapons – so that nearby inhabitants can’t just raise a militia to flush it out.

Inciting Incident – the players are ambushed by desperate bandits (a training fight – a way to learn the system while they are easily despatched). When questioned, they are trappers from the forest who’ve had to resort to banditry because a beast now stalks their lands. Their camp was attacked head-on by it, and they worry their wounded are still there in hiding – the abandoned trappers camp location. When they proceed to the nearest village, they are asked to investigate the beast – there is a old wise woman in the forest who might be able to help locate it

Place 1 – At the abandoned trappers camp they find desperate, wounded trappers who – once found in their hiding place, and suitably healed – can tell them the beast came out of nowhere, and they can find tracks leading to the perilous caves where it (presumably) lairs. The signs of its attack are all around – including a tree nearby where it rubbed some of its fur off, which glistens grey in the sunlight. Their weapons and arrows did not seem to harm it – maybe the old wise woman could help prepare a blessing?

Place 2 – At the old wise woman’s hut, they must first convince the suspicious hermit they mean her no harm. She will augur the ways of the forest, and identify the beast – a vast wolf, impervious to wood and steel. She can produce an ungeant meaning they can harm it, but she’ll need some of its fur. She can see it in the perilous caves as well and direct the PCs towards there.

Place 3 – At the perilous caves, they can sneak in and find enough fur to make the ungeant, but the area is guarded by lesson wolves who they must drive off.

Finale – Armed with the ungeant, they can track and ambush the beast – either in the perilous caves, or by laying a trap for it where they know it stalks. Although now they can injure it, it will still be a challenging fight to defeat the beast.

Notice that any of the three places can lead to any others, and that they players can take multiple routes through it. There are a few core clues – that its not able to be hurt by normal weapons, and that its fur can be used to make the ungeant – but these can be discovered in a few different ways.

Advantages of This Approach

One of the big advantages of this approach is that you can modify the pace to suit your time slot. Particularly in a convention game, this is really useful – I’ve blogged before about having a collapsible dungeon, but it’s even easier if you have these key places. It also makes setting an adventure in a city or town much easier – in the Goblins and the Pie Shop, the PCs wander between the town, the pie shop, and the forest pretty much at will – which is especially useful in a low-level scenario where one bad fight can knock some players out a bit.

I find this approach relatively easy to adjust on the fly, as well. If the players spend much longer than expected at the trappers camp, it’s easy to make the wise woman more helpful and volunteer her information sooner. If they show now interest at all in the wise woman, you can share the info about needing the ungeant from one of the trappers – or even have the beast attack, and show them they can’t harm it.

Things to Consider

It’s generally a good idea to have something exciting to do at each of the locations – either a fight, a social scene, or skill challenge / exploration (with skill checks and twists ready if they fail). In the example above, there’s one of each of these at each location. The wolf guardians are a floating encounter that can be dropped in wherever needed if the PCs need slowing down or reminding of the danger of the situation – likewise, having some genre-appropriate “men with guns” to appear if the pace is slowing is a good idea.

You also need to provide some motivation and time pressure for this. Whether this is by an actual countdown of what will happen if they dawdle, or just an obvious implication – that the beast will continue to attack cattle, and eventually the village itself – this will provide the motivation to decide quickly which locations to go to.

For more ideas, the whole of the Alexandrian’s node-based design posts are the foundational work on this. Have you used a similar technique to plot out adventures? Look out for more Prep Techniques later in June!

Do This, First – 5 ways to improve your one-shot during prep

In this post, I gave 5 things to do while running your one-shot to improve it. In this post, I’m going to give 5 tips to do before you play – during your prep, whether its for a convention, meetup, or just as a change of pace from your usual game. I’ve posted before about prep, where I tried to split it into three stages – the advice sits around all these stages, and is applicable if you’re taking a different approach.

Start With Pregens

Thugs by Jonny Gray

An evocative group of pregens can really make your game pop – art by Jonny Gray

Early on in your prep, if it’s a new game in particular, you should be thinking about the characters you’ll have in the game. If this is your first time with the system, you can use this to get your head around the rules as well – character generation usually gives some indication of what different skills and approaches are, and it’ll help when you come to plot out your game.

I wrote more about pregens here, if you want more advice on making strong pregenerated characters.

Get The Rules Right

If I’m running a game for the first time, for all but the simplest games I like to do a one-sheet of notes of the basic rules, just to help me internalize them. Running a one-shot, you’ll usually have to do some teaching of the rules unless you’re running a really popular game, so you need to know them well enough to explain them to your group. Making notes really helps.

If it’s a particularly complex game, I’ll often run myself through a mock-up conflict as well, just to familiarize myself with how combat (especially) flows. I’ll take two or three of the pregens I’ve just made, and try to run them through a quick battle to internalise the structure of actions.

Also, see here for more notes on running crunchy games.

Structure Your Notes

I’ve said it before, looking at published adventures for sample structures for one-shots isn’t a good idea. Preparing a game for publication and preparing it for play are two different things – in fact if I’m running a published adventure I’ll usually write down some bullet points even if I’m going to have the text in front of me.

I talked about a structure for notes here which I know some others have found useful, but really it’s as much as this

  • Have a well-prepared start and (potential) climax
  • Have a list of cool things that can happen between them
  • Have a list of NPCs with any brief notes you’ll need to differentiate them.

The last one is vital for me. I tend to lose track of NPCs when I’m running, and so I over-prep to make sure I know where they are and what their relationship to the plot is.

Check for Skill Matching

Nobody wants to play a game where their character sucks, so first of all, make sure that every pregen is at least broadly competent at the core activity of the adventure. In a Call of Cthulhu game, none of your pregens should have no ways to investigate and follow up leads, and in an F20 game it’s taken as read that everyone can fight well.

But look a bit closer at the secondary skills that your PCs have, and see if there are opportunities to put them into the game. Likewise, look at the challenges you’ve put into each scene and see if there’s an obvious pregen that can show their skills off in that challenge – you can adjust in either direction to help.

I posted about this – the “three-skill trick” here in more detail.

Check for Plot Matching

For one-shots, I’m a huge fan of having a heavy incentive on following the plot for the whole group, but look to make threads that tie individual pregens into the adventure as well. The fighter’s parents were kidnapped when they were a child? Make it the evil baron who did it, so when they meet him in the finale they’ve got a hook to hang on. A pregen has a long-lost sister? Make them a helpful  NPC they’ll meet along the way – or the evil sorceress serving the aforementioned baron.

As with skill matching, this can be done in either direction – but try to find a thread to link each pregen to the plot so that they get a good chance to advance their own personal story as well as that of the game. This helps to ground them in the setting, so things happen before and after the game, and make the one-shot feel more like a slice of something bigger.

Think and Dream

Alongside the 5 tips above, there’s the core activity of prep – thinking of scenes and challenges that make for an exciting game. Give yourself time to think of these – prep can just as well be done in the shower or while out running as you dream and percolate ideas in your head – just remember to write them down before you forget them!

With these, you’ve got a good chance at making any one-shot really sing. If you want tips to do during play, see this post. If you want to listen to me talking about some of these techniques, I was on the Smart Party podcast talking to Gaz about one-shots here.

I’m going to be doing some more system-specific posts over the next few weeks – as always, if there’s something you’d like to see more (or less) of, get in touch in comments here or on twitter (@milnermaths).

Do This, Now – 5 Ways to Improve any One-Shot

In this post, I’m going to summarize a lot of things that are scattered around the blog, and share 5 things any GM can do to make their TTRPG one-shots rock, whatever the system. If you want examples of most of these (1 and 5 in particular) there’s a stream on YouTube of me running 13th Age Glorantha here (you’ll want Part 3 for the final scenes)

  1. Get your players to introduce their characters in a scene

Don’t ask your players to just describe who they are playing – it’s boring, open-ended (some will take forever, some will just read out their background and – in one “memorable” con game I played in – their equipment list) – ask them to show their characters in a scene. For pulpy, high-fantasy, I describe it as like the opening credits of an old TV show, where they used to show the best bits of the season at the start as the music played. So we might see the barbarian boldly vanquish an orc before downing a pint, or the bard wooing a fair princess. Hand this over to your players and it’ll both introduce them to each other, and set the scene for high action.

In more low-key settings, give a few more parameters. Maybe we see the PCs killing time during a star-system jump, or trudging across the woods on a journey, and zoom in on each one in turn – but ask the players to show, not tell, what their character is like, and you’ll help them to describe their characters’ action better for the rest of the one-shot.

  1. Do some bonds

As described here, get your players to describe links to other PCs – as simple as “who do you trust, and why?” or even describing in turn their previous quest. This really works in a one-shot as it sets the action you’re about to play through in a continuing narrative, making it feel like a episode in an ongoing series rather than a one-off activity.

  1. Have a training conflict

As early as possible in the game, have a skill check or combat for everyone where the stakes – although they are there – are relatively low. In a lot of fantasy games this can just be a combat, and it can be a pretty straightforward one, but it could also be one of the skill challenges described here. By engaging with the system straight away you can get players new to the game up to speed with the system and demonstrate how it works. A lot of running one-shot games at conventions with different systems is teaching the system itself, so don’t neglect this responsibility as GM.

  1. Take breaks

Seriously, take breaks, or they’ll happen anyway during play. Online, I recommend every hour or so, face to face, every 1.5-2 hours, even if only briefly. This helps to keep everyone on board during play and focused and prevent players’ attention wandering. Have them at opportune moments like the end of a scene/act, or even on a cliffhanger – you’ll keep your players (and yourself) fresh to keep your minds focused on the game.

  1. Have a ‘credits roll’ final scene

After the players have completed the one-shot, and they’ve rescued the princess, saved the galaxy, or stolen the jewels, have each player describe a scene from their PCs immediate future – they might be celebrating the recent victory, ruing missed chances, or picking up a loose thread. Like (2), this puts the one-shot into an ongoing narrative, and is a good way for players to sign off playing their PC from the session.

So, that’s my top 5 tips for improving one-shots during the game. Later on I’ll give you 5 things to do during prep that can improve any one-shot. What are your top tips for in-game awesomeness?

What Year Is It? – Running Historical RPG One-Shots

1066 calendar

1066 calendar from timeanddate.com – I’d maybe run it through Photoshop before using it in a game

Historical one-shots are something I’ve historically (ha) avoided playing (and running) at conventions. Too much risk of experts, or historical diversions, or putting accuracy ahead of fun. But recently (inspired by an excellent Mythic Babylon game from @thetweedmeister) I’ve begun dipping my toe into them again, helped by the realisation that Glorantha is to all intents and purposes a historical setting given the wealth of detail about its timeline.

 

I think at the outset I should say that historical gaming should emulate historical fiction, not actual history. History, inconveniently, doesn’t even fit into the pattern of an ongoing RPG campaign, much less a one-shot. It helps to think of each session as a TV series episode, with a tightly-defined arc in its 3-4 hour time-frame. Where historical games help with one-shots is that they can set your one-shot in something bigger – there’s stuff happening before and after the game, and it’s easy to see where the characters and plots go next when the game is over.

And while we’re on the subject, think carefully about how to handle the more problematic elements of historical settings. If you want to include the sexism, racism or homophobia of a historical setting in your game, I guess that’s your business, but please don’t do it anywhere near my table. Most historical periods were much more diverse and varied than some corners of the RPG hobby would have you believe, anyway.

Do Your – Minimum – Research

In no way do you need to be the smartest person in the room, but at a convention or other one-shot, if you know nothing about the period of history your game is set in, you’re going to come undone at some point. You are probably going to have to read the sourcebook before play – in a way that you probably don’t have to if you’re running a game in a fantastical setting.

Before getting too far into research, remember you really do only need broad brush strokes. Also, research doesn’t just mean boring old books. There are history podcasts you can listen to while doing other things, and TV series are often better for a feel of historical fiction than actual history. If you’re going to run Duty & Honour, watching a few episodes of Sharpe will help you much more than reading accounts of the Peninsula War. If you want to run Hunters of Alexandria, you’d do as well to play some Assassin’s Creed: Origins to get a feel for the city and its opportunities for adventure.

Additionally, it probably helps to own your inaccuracies – check at the start of the game if you have any period experts in (it’s likely you could have, if you’ve advertised the game for sign-ups at a con) and ask them to add flavour/colour, but not to go on historical divergences until after the game. I’ve heard of using an H-Card (as well as an X-Card) for historical off-game chat, which is an interesting idea – you need to remember that the game is the primary thing, not the history lesson.

Pick Your Game For The Genre You Want

There are lots of historical RPGs out there – make sure you pick a game where the system supports the kind of play you want. If you want to run a one-shot in the Dark Ages, then Age of Arthur, Mythic Britain, and Wolves of God will all give very different play experiences, even with the same basic scenario. There’s nothing to stop you, of course, using a generic system with a play style you enjoy, and adapting it – and there are some excellent historical setting books, the pick of which are the GURPS sourcebooks and Design Mechanism’s Mythic Earth series. Dark Ages Savage Worlds, anyone?

Points of Divergence

If you’re running a historical game on Earth, you probably do need to know what year it is. Those enormous timelines that setting books have – pick a year and find something interesting that the PCs can act around.

Think of this point as a point of divergence. Before that, history was as it is in the timeline described – scholars today would recognize the world. From the moment that play starts, though, that needs to change. Put the PCs right in the center of the action – they might not be working directly for the King or leading the armies, but their actions will certainly affect the outcomes of these events, and might leave the world looking very different.

Don’t Spectate

Along similar lines, the PCs should be actively doing things. Nobody wants to watch the pyramids being built – the PCs should be negotiating with laborers and work-gangs, protecting the site from evil spirits, and dealing with betrayal and uprisings. If the pyramids are already there, they should be dueling bandits on the slopes, or heading into the tombs to work out what has escaped from them and whether it needs banishing.

It can be tempting to site the one-shot a long way from recorded history, to protect the timeline, but I tend to think that if you’re running history you should put some history in it. So don’t be afraid to introduce historical figures (and don’t give them any plot protection – let your PCs kill Caesar and win the hand of the princess – just not in the same game).

With all that in mind, I’m thinking of stretching my games out into the historical waters for some of my one-shot offerings now. Thanks to everyone on Twitter who offered their advice on this, by the way – you’ll be first in line when I get some online one-shot offerings prepped up!