The Score – a one-shot plot structure

After a couple of games where I realised I might be stuck in a rut a bit when plotting out (trad) one-shots, and a pleasant day playing Scum & Villainy at North Star convention in Sheffield, I came up with this. It’s pretty formulaic – but does manage to teach the rules of a system concentrically, assuming that your order of complexity almost-matches the order here. I think it’s more suited to sci-fi or modern settings, as the final scene implies a chase or vehicle/starship combat, but I can see it working in fantasy setting too.

I’m a little bit obsessed with game/plot structure, especially in one-shots, as you can tell from this post about the basic one-shot plot, and this about location-based one-shots. Also, if you want to stretch it out to 3-sessions, there’s part 1 and part 2 of a post discussing that.

Scene 1: Get the Score

Start the game with the PCs having agreed the job and just negotiating their terms. They must negotiate with an unreliable patron – characterised by your best hammy acting as GM

Challenge: They must make some sort of social skill – success will give them extra resources for the mission and additional payment (which is irrelevant in a one-shot), failure will lead them to nothing. It’s a basic way to introduce the core mechanic that only offers additional benefits on success, with no real penalties for failure.

Scene 2: Case the Joint

The PCs then research the job using their own investigative skills. They might ask around, sneak around looking for secret entrances after dark, or rustle up contacts to help.

Challenge: Each player should get a chance at a skill check, with success getting them info from a list of relevant information, or additional benefits on the next roll.

Scene 3: Getting in

Give the PCs an obvious route in to avoid the turtling over-planning that you might get otherwise. This will not be straightforward – will their disguise hold, will they scale the walls of the tower, will they evade the magical traps?

Challenge: They will need to make an “engagement roll” – to borrow a term from Blades in the Dark – to see how their approach goes. This may be one roll, or there may be a sequence of them. Either way, the consequences are likely to tell in the next scene – the obvious way is whether they get the jump on their opponents

Scene 4: Fight!

At some point, they will encounter proper opposition – guards, droids, or whatever guards what they seek. Who has the upper hand initially can be determined by the previous scene – or whatever ambush rules your game favours

Challenge: The opposition – given that this is the only “straight” combat encounter in the game, and that the PCs stand a fair chance of gaining the initiative – can be a little tougher than the game normally recommends – and play hard, don’t be afraid to offer a genuine threat of injury or death to the players.

Scene 5: Getting out

The PCs get what they want – the bounty, the steal, whatever – and now need to get away. This will be a follow-up conflict, either using chase rules (all games should have chase rules, IMHO, don’t get me started on this – it’s why Call of Cthulhu 7th edition is the best edition), starship/vehicle combat, or just a plain old fight.

Challenge: This conflict should be balanced as per the regular rules – so that the players get to end the game on a high and bearing in mind some might be injured from your kick-ass fight earlier.

The End

You can then end the game with a denouement, in which they meet their patron again, to either back-slapping or criticism. There’s of course nothing to stop them betraying them and keeping the score for themselves, which they may well choose to do.

I’ll be posting some examples of this structure here for specific systems, but I’d be curious to hear how you’ve used, adapted, changed it for your own one-shots too.

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!

#1H1S Mk. 2 – More Thoughts on the 1 Hour 1 Shot

So, a few more thoughts on the 1 Hour 1 Shot idea. There have been a few developments about this, and I’ve had time to think through a few ideas to help move this forward. The original post is here. I won’t duplicate that post, but the idea was that you should be able to have a satisfying RPG experience in an hour or less. Here’s a few more thoughts on how to make that happen.

The first thing was to try and gather everything in one place – so I’ve started a page here to collect together resources and 1 hour adventures.

stopwatchSimon Burley, one of my gaming buddies, has been on a crusade to get more people into tabletop RPGs, and has toured tangentially-related conventions doing 1-hour demo slots, mostly using his own systems. He’s blogged about the process here and most of what he says it completely transferable to all but the most quirky systems. So, non-RPG conventions are a good start, if you can recruit the players.

I’m convinced that there are huge numbers of nearly-RPGers, either involved in adjacent hobbies like boardgames, video games, or wider geek culture, or viewing RPG sessions online. I think most of these folks would spare us an hour to get a taster of the hobby, and that can only be a good thing?

I also often find myself wanting to try a new system out to get a grasp of it before running it myself. This happened recently – it’s been a shamefully long time before I could get into a game of Blades in the Dark, and now I wish I’d tried it sooner as I’m sure it’s a game I’m going to run again and again. It would have been great if I could have found an hour to get a grasp of the system and setting from a GM who’d already done the heavy lifting of learning the system and setting.

The question of when to run #1H1S games is tricky, because a lot of our scheduled times are designed to fit around our idea of the ‘regular length’ session. If we want to introduce new gamers to the hobby, we need to be able to provide structures to change this. A few ideas

  • A face-to-face Games on Demand system at the bigger conventions – even non-RPG ones. This already happens at UK Games Expo and some of the US conventions (although it isn’t really sustainable at the smaller cons over here) and it would provide a great chance to showcase new games.
  • Online Games on Demand – I’m not really up to speed with the online gaming community and getting hold of games – all of the ones I’ve played have been word of mouth rather than publicly invited. But it might be worth setting up a slot where a GM is ready to spend an hour showcasing a game, either for gamers unfamiliar with the system or just people who want a short burst of RPG action.
  • A speed dating system at smaller conventions. Say instead of signing up for one 3-hour session at a convention where 5 players have 1 GM, you sign up to 3 1-hour sessions with 15 players and 3 GMs. Every hour the bell rings, and you move on to the next game. The GMs can either run the same game 3 times, or mix it up and run different games. Would there be interest in this? We’ll never know until we try!

I’m sure there will be more ideas and thoughts to follow on this, but in the meantime keep a lookout for more #1H1S resources and comment below if you have more ideas about how to run these.

One-Hour One-Shots: Starfinder: Into the Unknown

SF into the unknown picI’ve blogged before here about trying to prep and deliver an effective one-hour introductory game (and attempted to use the #1H1S abbreviation!), so I was pleasantly surprised to find out about the Starfinder Quests packaged together as Into the Unknown (ITU). The link takes you to Paizo’s website, but it’s a free download, and it’s worth a look even if you’re not keen on Starfinder (although you shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it) – as we’ll talk about here (If you want to see another example of a #1H1S, written by yours truly, head to D101 games and download (also free) Bite of The Crocodile God, my 1-hour game for Hunters of Alexandria).

The product consists of five linked adventures (“Quests”) designed to take an hour of game time for five 1st-level characters (and of course there are pregens available separately – along with some useful guidance about what starship roles they will be most effective at in the ship combats.

The adventures are simple and straightforward – three are ground combats with a mixture of exploration/investigation, and two are starship battles. I can see why Starfinder wants to show off its space combat, but I’d imagine these are the weakest to run on their own – they do just consist of a battle against another starship with a bit of plot context (and it doesn’t sell me on Starfinder – although the system is I’m sure fun – that these will take an hour on their own!)

If I was to run a few of them in sequence, the first three, in which the PCs follow a trail of clues (and a starship battle) to discover a missing starship, is a great 3-hour set, and if you were to run one on its own as a one-hour game, the first one would work well – there’s a good opportunity for roleplay as well as an interesting but relatively simple (as in complexity, not challenge) combat. It’s a good, tight design, and I’ll be stealing the structure to plot out similar traditional games for #1H1S.

Stick to One Set-Piece – but Seed with Roleplaying

With any kind of crunchy system (and see this post for more generic advice), in an hour you will only tackle one rules-heavy scene. That probably means if you’re planning one #1H1S, it’ll be a combat, so try and make it challenging and interesting and build stuff around it. For instance, in ITU’s first quest Station, there’s a neat investigation with an NPC leading to the confrontation, and probably an interrogation afterwards – so the combat is set in a context that justifies it.

Highlight the Best Crunch of the Game

As above, this is likely to be combat, but if you’re allowing yourself the luxury of a set of #1H1S games to piece together, you might like to expand. For instance, if I was planning something with Modiphius’ Star Trek Adventures (and I really should, given the popularity of the franchise), I’d probably want to include some sort of Extended Task scientific challenge for one of the segments – my scenes probably have a starship combat, a science-y extended task, and a ground combat – and maybe another extended task which is a negotiation or similar.

Either way, think about the rules you are showcasing as you prep. I’m sure that the Starship combat is deliberately showcased in ITU, which is why 2 whole Quests consist of an extended space battle. In other games, you might want to show how great social conflict can be (Burning Wheel springs to mind) – so include it if you can.

Episode it up and embrace the railroad

There’s a lot of guff spoken about railroading, especially when it comes to one-shot play, and even more if you’ve only got an hour to play with. Yes, in an extended campaign, forcing your players’ hands either explicitly or on the sly is certainly not good practice, but it’s necessary – advantageous even – in a one-shot to guide the players towards the good bits.

Also, try and make each #1H1S a complete and distinct chapter. This isn’t always easy, and it’s a stretch for some of ITU’s sections (I’ll come back again to the starship combat sections – yes, starship combat is a neat system in Starfinder, but I can’t see why you wouldn’t just play X-Wing for an hour if that was your jam).

Go forth and #1H1S

I must admit, since posting about them last year, I was a bit stymied about the #1H1S project – but finding ITU has got me seriously thinking about them now. Watch this space for further developments – and probably ready-to-play modules – and feel free to comment or contact me to suggest or request systems. As I said, Star Trek Adventures feels like a good fit for it. And let me know if you’re doing anything with them yourselves!

Hillfolk One-Shots

Hillfolk_Cover_reduced1Hillfolk is an amazing RPG. I’ve normally got a bit of a problem with what can be seen as “stone soup” RPGs, where the mechanics are limited to almost nothing, but there are two exceptions I make. One is Fiasco, where the complete absence of a resolution mechanic forces players into a hard director stance – you’ve got to embrace the feel of the films you are emulating and push your protagonists into difficult situations. And the other is Hillfolk. Hillfolk is a quieter, more contemplative kind of game; every time I’ve run it we’ve hit pathos, character development, and difficult decisions. And it does that because you don’t have to think about hit points.

 

It’s also a game that, unusually, benefits from a larger player group than I’d normally pick (I think the sweet spot is 5-6), and is explicitly designed for campaign play. But, like every game designed for campaign play (see my series on Powered by the Apocalypse games), with a few tweaks and procedures you can get a satisfying one-shot experience from it.

Skip Character Generation

Character generation in Hillfolk is awesome. It’s a whole session of setting up your series, where you’ll develop themes, dramatic poles, and potential story arcs. It takes a full 3-4 hour session. It does not benefit from being shortened. Instead, I’d recommend skipping it and setting up a tight initial situation yourself. There’s loads of information in the Series Pitches supplied with the game to develop your own with a little research, or there are some great ones already done. If you’re looking to run your first Hillfolk one-shot, I can’t recommend enough picking up Jon Cole’s character packs from the Pelgrane website (here, towards the end of Forms). There’s also a set of playbooks for The Secret of Warlock Mountain on the same site. And tons of advice and support; seriously worth a read.

Start with the Ensemble

Begin with a scene where (much like my advice for Urban Shadows) all the protagonists are present, and a looming threat emerges. This helps to coalesce the players towards working in one direction, even if PvP develops naturally. The classic Hillfolk set-up is that a nearby village has burned down your grain store, or the ailing Chief seeks a successor, but you can pick your own for the Series Pitch of your design. For my Hollywoodland game, I start with a party with all the protagonists present and have a police chief (either Charles Sebastian, or, if he’s a PC, a rival cop) shut it down and state that with the mayoral run coming up they’ll be coming down hard on the drugs and booze excesses of the movie industry. Depending on their reaction, one or two of them could get arrested, and you’re good to go. My own Hollywoodland start-up is a bit less flexible than the two examples linked, but that’s in part because the players are portraying real(ish) historical figures.

Listen, Prompt, Be a Fan

Because scene calling happens in rotation, your players will need to be ready to call the next scene. Give them the time and space to do this, and try not to prompt them too hard – I try to repeat the classic improv mantra that the most obvious thing to do is usually the best thing, and that they needn’t try to be original or flashy – the awesome will come naturally. If other players aren’t convinced of this, model it – be a fan of everyone’s scenes, and if you have players who haven’t played before you’ll see them blossom before you as they grow into the system, even if they’ve never played before.

Sample Set-Up

Here’s my own set-up for a Hollywoodland one-shot. Hollywoodland is a series pitch by Jason Morningstar set in the incipient movie industry of 1914.

I hope it’s useful to you, either to run yourself (and let me know how it goes!) or as a model for how to develop a one-shot set of characters for Hillfolk. I’ve tried to include as much detail as I can while still leaving the overall plot and scenes up to the players – there are scene notes and ideas for what to do to further their interests, and enough imbalanced relationships to hopefully lead to some slow-burn confrontations.

Bear in mind that the set-up can go to some difficult places, particularly if the film Birth of a Nation ends up being a backdrop, so I’d strongly recommend using an X-Card with this game (and almost any game with shared narrative authority that has any chance of similar things happening).

Afterword

I’ve got a few one-shot advice posts up now – for Dungeon WorldThe ‘Hood, Fate, Urban Shadows – as well as a piece on general “crunchy system” prep. I’ve got one-shot advice posts for 7th Sea (2nd edition) and 13th Age in the pipeline already, and I’m running Tenra Bansho Zero next month and will certainly blog about that, but I’m open to requests – what systems (even those that everybody says never work in a one-shot) would you like to hear about? Just tweet me or put it in the comments section.

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.