“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.

Gringle’s Pawnshop – a 13th Age Glorantha One-Shot adventure

Like all of our community, I was very saddened to hear of Greg Stafford’s sad passing. As just the week before I’d been running a ‘tribute one-shot’ to one of his classic adventures, it felt only right tidy it up a bit to share it here. Greg was the creator of Glorantha, which I’ve talked about here, and also (by all accounts – I never got to meet him myself) a thoroughly nice bloke – so many of the tributes to him have talked as much about how friendly and welcoming he was as well as his innovations in game design and worldbuilding.

Last weekend, at Furnace convention in Sheffield, UK, I ran three games of 13th Age Glorantha. I had planned to run two, but a few GMs had to pull out so I offered up another game in one of the slots. The first was Beard of Lhankor Mhy, for 2nd level PCs and published in Hearts in Glorantha 7 from D101 Games (along with the pregens). The second was a 3rd level one-shot, Into The Wasps’ Nest, where the PCs had to petition both the trolls of Troll Wood and the Wasp Riders of Wasp Nest to aid the Sartarite tribes.

This was the third – an update of the classic Apple Lane scenario by Greg Stafford for 1st level 13G characters. I set it a month after the original adventure, when the PCs have to clear up after the last adventurers, and tried to make it a lighthearted pastiche of the elements of the first adventure. I trust Greg would see the funny side – I mean, he did invent Ducks, after all, so he can’t blame me for putting one in a tuxedo, surely? The adventure is also here as a .pdf if you want to print it out.

Gringle’s Pawnshop

A 13th Age in Glorantha Adventure for 1st-level PCs

Introduction

As your band of heroes wanders out in search of adventure, you seek out the Runelord Gringle, proprietor of his Pawnshop in Apple Lane. But upon arrival at the hamlet, you find it overrun by trollkin, with Gringle and his faithful Duckservant Quackjohn trapped in the Pawnshop. After rescuing them, they tell you of their problem – Apple Lane has fallen into ruin since the temple of Uleria was ransacked by a tribe of baboons. The priestesses have been kidnapped and taken into the hills – the players must rescue them!

Dramatis Personae

Gringle is a white-bearded man obsessed with his stock and the hoarding of magic items. A Runelord of Issaries, he enjoys nothing more than the hustle and bustle of trade, but this has all but dried up since the baboons ransacked the town. His collectors nature has, in fact, proven to be his undoing. A tribe of baboons returned last month to claim their stolen necklace of Toothsharp from the shop, easily dispatching the rookie adventurers Gringle had employed to guard it. So easy was the recovery that they also saw fit to set fire to the Tin Inn and kidnap the three priestesses of Uleria while they were at it, leading to his present predicament. Gringle is a pleasant fellow who speaks kindly to adventurers – but he dislikes getting his hands dirty, hence his propensity for hiring adventurers to do his dirty work.

Quackjohn is Gringle’s longsuffering duckservant. He speaks rarely, and when it is it is often to remind Gringle in weary tones of something obvious he has forgotten. He is usually clad in a worn and battered tuxedo. He has pulled Gringle’s neck out of more than a few scrapes, and grows weary of his time serving his eccentric master.

The three kidnapped priestesses are the true power keeping Apple Lane going. They have manged to ensure that the regular visitors to the pawnshop spent their money freely with the local businesses, and kept the bickering farmhands in line. It is no surprise that without them Apple Lane has fallen to ruin.

  • Avareen Bosom is a hard-nosed and fearsome woman, and the true leader of the town – a stern yet kindly woman in late middle age.
  • Pretty Aileena is indeed pretty, but also the shrewdest of the three. Gringle in particular has learned several times not to trifle with her quick wit.
  • Bingoood is the youngest, barely out of her teens but already possessed of powerful magic and a temper to match

Khochaz the baboon cannot believe his luck. A minor tribal leader, he has managed to not only reclaim his prized Toothsharp necklace but also capture three human females who he hopes he can ransom to the strange shopkeeper from the village. He’s good at leadership and keeping his crew in line, but less good on details like keeping close eyes on the hostages or making sure his baboons guard the camp properly.

Biglaugh Bigclub is the mercenary Khochaz employed to help him loot the pawnshop. He has stayed with the Baboons (along with Pinfeather, a duck thief) in order to try and double-cross them, and steal both the humans and the Toothclaw pendant. Both him and Pinfeather are neither bright nor brave, however, and are prevaricating over the best moment to escape with the prize – maybe when some heroes attack the Baboon camp?

Scene One – Apple Lane

As the heroes approach Apple Lane, they find it very different to what they expected. The Tin Inn lies in ruins, and the Temple of Uleria has been trashed. Print out and place one of the many available maps of Apple Lane into the middle of the table (there’s a good one in the RQG GM’s pack) and draw the destruction on with a sharpie. As they explore the town, they hear skittering and screeching – before a group of Trollkin ambush them!

There is one Dark Troll Warrior, Shuffle, and 9 Starving Trollkin Wretches. If the Dark Troll is killed, make a Save for the remaining Wretches – they will attempt to flee. If you have fewer or more than 5 players, add or subtract 3 trollkin per player. Their statistics are in 13G p295.

Scene Two – Meeting Gringle

As the scene clears and the trolls and/or trollkin flee, a white-bearded man emerges from his ruined Pawnshop, followed by an elderly duck in a tuxedo. He introduces himself as Gringle, and states that he was just about to deal with the trolls himself using his “powerful Issaries rune magic.” Quackjohn rolls his eyes and coughs politely.

He explains the situation – Apple Lane is in a sorry state, and he is forced to admit it is since the priestesses were captured. He had acquired a necklace of Toothsharp through perfectly legal means, but the tribe of baboons who claimed it decided to raid his shop. Thinking it prudent to employ some protection, he employed a group of adventurers, who failed so poorly at defending his shop that the baboons (and their allies, who were led by a centaur) then set about looting the town and carried off the priestesses.

If questioned about where he was with his powerful magic while this was going on, he was involved in an important Issaries ritual in the basement of his shop, which also required Quackjohn’s attendance. When he emerged in the morning he was dismayed to find that the adventurers had fled, leaving him with a disunited village, many of whom started to flee to neighbouring towns since their protectors had so abandoned them. The troll raids started shortly afterwards.

He implores them to rescue the priestesses – he knows that the baboons tribe will be in the hills to the southeast, towards Highwyrm.

Scene Three – The Journey

As the heroes set off on their journey, and they have the directions from the adventurers who sold Gringle the Toothsharp necklace. Play this scene as a 13th Age montage – each player in turn narrates an event on the journey. Begin by narrating their first obstacle as they set off – the bridge across the river to the foothills has been cut by the trollkin as they ransacked the village, and they now stand at one bank of a mighty rushing river. Pass to a player who narrates how the party manage to overcome the obstacle – add a twist yourself if you wish to, to remind them that they are entering the wilderness and that chaos is afoot – and they then narrate the next obstacle. Proceed until every player has taken a turn – further examples of this are in the 13th Age GM Screen pack.

In your twists as GM, play up how dangerous the terrain is and add in any additional monsters just to add to the peril – they are venturing into dangerous mountains. The hills should gradually turn into mountains as they approach, until they come across the Baboon’s camp, nestled in a rocky valley and well defended.

Scene Four – Baboon Camp

The Baboons have taken up their camp in an old abandoned Dragonewt temple. The Baboon camp is as well-defended as it can be by a tribe of semi-sapient monkeys. Bigclub has attempted to organise some sort of watch system, but he knows he might need to sneak out one night so hasn’t bothered too much when the Baboons keep wandering off and losing interest.

As the players approach, they can see the chaotic attempts at guarding, and there are many opportunities to formulate a plan; judicious use of runes may work here. The baboons guard in pairs before they inevitably begin to wind one another up and fall about fighting or arguing, before Khoshaz jumps on them with his big stick to whip them into line.

If you like, sketch a map of the area and allow the players to think about their approach; any reasonable plan should be able to give them the advantage of surprise, or of not having to fight all the Baboons at once, particularly if the players make judicious use of runes.

If they vacillate, have matters come to a head for them. As they watch, a patrol of Baboons spots them, and a round later, they see Bigclub and Pinfeather attempting to carry the priestesses off.

There are a total of 10 Baboon Troopers from 13G p244, plus the NPCs detailed below.

This is a double-strength fight, so could be dangerous for the PCs if they don’t have their wits about them. There are a few ways to manage this

  • If the players are finding it too easy, more Baboons rush to their fellow’s aid – add an extra three Baboon Tribesmen
  • If they look to be finding it hard, allow Avareen breaks out of his bonds and runs across to them. A glow of love suffuses the battlefield, and all involved can heal using a recovery; this may also cause Bigclub and/or Pinfeather to be occupied for the next round chasing after her and re-capturing her

 

Khochaz, Baboon Leader

2nd level leader

Initiative: +8

Long spear: +8 vs AC – 5 damage

Natural 16+: Other baboons gain a +2 damage bonus against the target until the end of the battle

R: Sling +8 vs AC (one nearby or far away enemy) – 5 damage

Surviving: When an attack hits Khochaz and he’s staggered, roll a normal save. If it succeeds, it hits the other baboon instead.

AC 18                     PD 17                     MD 14                   HP 40

Bigclub, Centaur Raider

3rd level troop

Initiative: +9

Charging Lance: +9 vs AC – 12 damage, and the target pops free from the centaur

Hit ‘em hard: The crit range expands by 2 (18-20) and instead deals 16 damage on a hit if Bigclub first moves before attacking a new enemy

Natural 18+: The target is also dazed (-4 to attack) until the start of its next turn

Big Club: +8 vs AC – 10 damage

Natural even hit: Bigclub can Kick as a free action

Kick: +7 vs PD (1d2 enemies engaged with Bigclub) – target takes 4 damage and      pops free from Bigclub

Harnessed speed: +4 AC bonus vs opportunity attacks

AC 19                     PD 16                     MD 13                   HP 48

Pinfeather, duck thief

3rd level archer

Initiative: +9

Daggers: +9 vs AC (two attacks) – 6 damage

R: Shortbow +11 vs AC – 8 damage

Natural even hit or miss: Pinfeather can make a second shortbow attack as a free action

Quick shot: When Pinfeather is unengaged and an enemy moves to engage it, roll a normal save. If successful, Pinfeather can make a Shortbow attack as a free action just before he is engaged

AC 15                     PD 14                     MD 11                   HP 46

 

 

Scene Five – Victorious Return

The heores can now escort the three priestesses back to Apple Lane. Once their equipment is recovered, they cast a ritual that returns them to their temple; and as they harness the power of the Toothclaw necklace to do so, it crumbles into dust while the walls of the temple are rebuilt.

The find Gringle in good spirit as they return – he had found a few charms in his store, and has set about rebuilding the Tin Inn – riding into town is Bulster Brewer, the landlord, who says that now the baboons have been defeated he plans to reopen. He reckons there are still a few barrels in the cellar that should be good, and opens them while the players, Gringle, Quackjohn, Avareen, Aileena, and Bingoood drink to celebrate Apple Lane’s return to prosperity!

 

 

The Training Mission – Blades in the Dark One-Shots Part 2

Welcome to the second part of my thoughts on running Blades in the Dark as a one-shot game.

In Part One, I talked about using a structured Training Mission, similar to the introductory levels in video games, to introduce the game in the first half of a one-shot. Here, I’ll talk about the changes to Downtime and the transition to the second mission.

Payoff, Heat and Entanglements

Once the first mission is finished, give the PCs their payoff – be generous, and make sure that you describe what it looks like, since the Coin descriptor is arbitrary for new players to Blades – a couple of heaving chests of coins and a bracelet you can hawk to Mordis in the Night Market is much more rewarding than just “4 Coin”.

The next time I run Blades, I’m going to have a bowl in the middle of the table for Heat with counters for the expected amount of Heat for the mission, and add to it as complications and devil’s bargains occur – but I’ve found that for the first mission Heat can be quite tricky to engage with. Still, roll for Entanglements from the Heat generated, and be prepared to be brutal in interpreting it; it’s quite possible in the first mission that PCs still have plenty of Stress left, so giving them some heavy Entanglements gives them something obvious to do during Downtime.

Downtime

Between the missions I run a simplified “Training Downtime” that just gives the players a taste of the mechanic. The reasons for this are twofold – firstly, in an ongoing campaign downtime can bloat to a very enjoyable, but time-consuming, player-led exploration of the factions and setting of Duskwall. Secondly, the players haven’t had chance to make much trouble yet, so they are unlikely to have many schemes of their own to accomplish. As with any one-shot, we want to avoid players wandering around aimlessly, so this shortened version allows the players to achieve their goals and have some agency while still keeping it moving; I aim for 30-40 minutes for Downtime, and then take a break and introduce the next mission. My modified one-shot Downtime rules are below.

In Downtime, you can pursue one action from the list below. This is a change from RAW Blades where each PC gets two actions, but don’t worry, you’ll be generous with some of the actions. A couple of them have changed as well – since starting a Long-Term Project in a one-shot is a bit dissatisfying.

  • Indulge Vice: As the regular Blades rules. If anyone overindulges, either add an additional entanglement (if there are players left to take their action, since this gives them a chance to overcome their crewmate’s actions) or add Heat to the next score.
  • Work on a Project: This replaces the Acquire Asset and Long Term Project actions from the regular Blades rules. Ask the player what they want to achieve, checking it fits with the fiction, and start a countdown clock (in almost all cases, I’d make it a 4-segment one, to give them a good chance of achieving it in this downtime). Progress is as the regular rules on the roll of a Trait (1-3: one, 4/5: two, 6: three, Crit: five). Other players can also work on already started projects, rolling an appropriate trait and adding sectors as above. This allows the players to work together to achieve projects during Downtime and have them take effect during the one-shot.
  • Recover: If anyone needs Healing, they can choose this option as per the regular Blades rules
  • Reduce Heat: It’s unlikely that players in a one-shot will be careful enough to want to keep their Heat down, but they can do using the regular Blades rules.

You’ll notice that there’s no Train option. This is because there are a few options for experience in one-shot Blades games that I have yet to explore and will explain below.

The Next Mission

notes for Gaddoc Rail

My notes for Gaddoc Rail – pencil were added during play

After Downtime is done, take a comfort break and introduce the next mission – this is a regular mission, but be sure to reincorporate any established facts about the setting – use NPCs already established and factions already introduced.

In terms of prepping for this mission, I like to keep it as loose as possible – I write four lists:

  • A list of descriptors of the main location of the mission. For Gaddoc Rail, this is the station itself, but it could be the base they are infiltrating, the party they have to explore, and so on.
  • A list of options for what the score could actually be / any opponenets. For Gaddoc Rail, since what you are stealing is not defined, this was examples of what it could actually be.
  • Obstacles – all the possible obstacles I can think of to oppose the PCs during the score
  • Some possible Complications. In the past I’ve found this the hardest part to prep, but I’ve got a lot better by not dismissing obvious suggestions – sometimes the obvious thing is the best

With these four lists, I have plenty of options to draw from when the players look at me expectantly. It also makes it much easier to pace the game in a one-shot, since I can use as many or as few as I want to make the score enjoyable but keep to time. I’ve used a similar approach in lots of PBTA games, and talked about it in a post here, and it’s a really useful one-shot technique.

Gaddoc Rail map

Gaddoc Rail station map, mid-score – spot the “Explosion” Complication

XP and Training

I’ve not had chance to explore/hack the XP system in Blades for one-shot play, usually because I always forget about it – and there’s quite a lot for players to get their heads around anyway, but if I do, these are the options I’d explore

  • Just ignore it. There is no experience or advancement. This, the default, is what I’ve generally used
  • Use it as in the Blades rules. It’s very unlikely that you’ll get any advancement in the session, but that keeps it simple, and prepares the players for the full system. It also makes it easy to transition to the regular Blades. If I used this, I’d give everyone a bonus “Train” action in Downtime, giving the 1 XP to an attribute of their choice
  • Hack it for advancement. Start everyone with 2 XP marks on each XP track, and double all XP awards – 2 XP for each Desperate roll, and 2 XP for Training in downtime. It’s up to you if you give the bonus Train action, but if I’m going to the trouble of this, I might well. With this, a few of the players will advance during the one-shot

In summary, while Blades is a fantastic campaign game, it’s also a lot of fun in a one-shot setting; as I stated in the first post, I’ve managed 3 scores in a 5 hour session using these guidelines and it certainly felt like the players engaged with both the rules and the setting – they achieved quite a lot in-game in those three scores. For further reading, check out the Forged in the Dark games which are emerging using the same rules set. There’s far too many of them to try them all, but I can certainly recommend Scum & Villainy for Star Wars-style “ashtrays in space” space opera.

Railroading in One-Shots

Over on twitter, Mike Mearls posted a great thread talking about railroading – and the bad reputation it has ended up with. I’ll let you read the whole thread for yourself, but it made me think about one-shot prep; if we want a satisfying experience in 4 hours or less, is railroading unavoidable?

In short, yes, it pretty much is. It’s less of a problem than in ongoing campaigns, because there’s usually player buy-in that they’ll have to engage with the problem given (and the GM’s prep) – but it’s hard to avoid some level of structure  to ensure it works out in the time available. Our challenge is trying to make it not be a problem in the game, so the players still have agency to approach the problem how they want to.

I’ll outline three techniques that I use to make railroading less of an issue in my one-shots. All are usable in any “trad” game – for games with more player agency, see my posts on PBTA games and GMless games, for starters. For the sake of examples, I’m going to describe how I’d use them in a one-shot for FFG’s Force And Destiny Star Wars game. Our basic one-sentence pitch is that the PCs, all Jedi Knights and their allies, have to recover a holocron that has recently been discovered before the Empire can find and destroy it.

Technique: Tight Horizons

Holocron2_CVD(1)

Jedi Holocron – image from Wookieepedia

If you are going to offer players a taste of a sandbox to play in during your one-shot, you need to keep the boundaries of the sandbox tight. I’ve posted before about the perils of too many NPCs in a one-shot game, and usually go with a rule of thumb that you very rarely need more NPCs than you have PCs at the table who have any sort of meaningful interaction. You might have may more ‘background characters’, and in a political / social game you might want to have more named NPCs, it’s still good pratice try to keep the numbers that will be interacted with properly as low as you can.

In our Star Wars game, let’s establish some parameters – let’s say that the holocron is found on Ossus, a planet detailed in the Nexus of Power sourcebook, a barren wastleland ravaged by lightning storms and hidden from the rest of the Galaxy by astronomical phenomena. In order to keep our play tight, let’s restrict our horizons to a particular patch of wastleland leading up to a cave system in the mountains, and the space around Ossus’ orbit. The PCs have no reason to go to another planet, and their scope for exploring Ossus is limited to the regions described. In terms of factions – and hence NPCs, let’s say there are the native Ysanna, who will try to prevent the PCs from taking the holocron, and the Imperial forces; and let’s keep an independent treasure hunter in as well, who could work either for or against the PCs.

Technique: The Swell

the swell

The diagram to the left shows the plot structure I use in most of my ‘trad’ convention games; it begins with a tightly structure opener, which throws the PCs into the action straight away, and incites action towards the main event. After this, it opens out a little – they have multiple options to follow in whatever order they want, some of which are dictated by choices they make, some of which I choose based on how the pace of the story is going (if the PCs are vacillating and taking too long, or trying to avoid trouble, the trouble is likely to come to them – never underestimate the effectiveness of a bad guy with a gun/blaster to wake up a flagging game). These then push towards a confrontation which I’ve structured as tightly as I can to make it memorable.

In our Jedi game, let’s begin with our PCs attempting to land on Ossus (their mission can be delivered in flashback, or just introduced as background) only to be struck by one of the lightning storms that ravage the planet. They need to crash land safely, and then fight off some native beasts that have been attracted by the disturbance. In a one-shot this kind of start not only makes sure that the players are involved right from the start but serves as a useful rules tutorial. Of course, the ship will now need parts to leave the planet, making sure they need to proceed towards their goal.

As they set off towards the caves in the hills, we’ll have a range of options for them for the middle part of the one-shot. Do they attempt to find shelter in the nearby settlements, aware that the Ysanna might not trust them? Will they follow the tracks of other treasure hunters? There’s an Imperial patrol waiting to ambush them – or be ambushed – as they get to the foothills. Another ruined ship from many years ago will hold resources that might make entering the caves easier – if they can bypass it’s still-functioning defences. Will they be contacted by the treasure hunters or make contact with them as they discover their existence? When prepping this section, I try not to have these building blocks joined together – I’ll have notes and stats for the Imperials, the treasure hunters, and the natives, and locations for the wreck, the native settlement, and the outer cave systems – and depending on the player’s decisions which faction is encountered where. If I’m particularly organised each of these blocks is written on an index card so I can pull it out when I need (I’ve not gone into FFG’s swanky-looking NPC cards yet, but these could easily save me some time)

All of this of course leads to a confrontation to get the holocron – in this adventure I might well let the players recover it, and the missing parts, relatively easily, in time for a race to leave the system that has been blockaded by the Imperials – because space combat is as good a finale as anything, and there’s probably been quite a lot of planetside action for a science fiction game.

Technique: Hard Scene Framing

When the players make a decision about what their action is, cut straight to it. Travelling between destinations (unless your game system makes this an exciting part of play, like The One Ring or Mouse Guard) can be quickly handwaved to allow as much time as possible interacting with the nodes presented. If it’s a dangerous area, I’ll either resolve it with one skill roll, or frame a montage (a great idea from 13th Age that is portable into any system or setting).

Either way, I like to cut to it. By all means allow a moment to establish the setting and offer verisimilitude (or even immersion) but don’t be afraid to cut quickly into action.

For our Ossus Holocron-chase, the long and perilous journey across the wilderness is going to just require a straightforward Survival role to navigate (and maybe a Piloting – Planetary if they manage to secure speeders or Kirruk Riding Beasts from the crashed ship or the Ysanna). In my notes I’ll have a list of bullet points of flavour that I’ll drop into my descriptions as they do it, but – lightning strike inciting incident aside – I don’t intend to spend time faffing around with the weather as a major player when there are more exciting blocks like the NPCs and factions to interact with.

Disclaimer

Of course, I’m sure some of the above techniques could be derided as illusionism – or even railroading by those who consider it a bad thing. But in the balancing act of prepping a time-limited one-shot, I’ll prioritise action – and making sure that aimless wanderings don’t happen – over loftier goals. I’m interested in other techniques readers may have – let me know in the comments or on social media what those are. I’m going to properly prep this Force and Destiny game now – FFG (and WEG) Star Wars are always a big draw at Go Play Leeds, and there’s one coming up this Sunday!

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.