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?

Headphones and Dice – playing One-Shots Online

OK, in the interesting times we’re living in now, there’s suddenly a lot of interest in online RPGs. For myself, I started doing some online gaming at the start of the year, and it’s become a fixture of my gaming schedule since then – even more so now we’re all in lockdown.

A chance twitter shout-out to play some One Ring led to a group, originally to play One-Shots, that have ended up playing through most of the adventure anthology Tales from the Wilderland. The One Ring deserves a whole post of its own – but one of the things that has helped to keep us together is the style of play that online roleplaying has led us into. In short 2-hour sessions, we’re all on it; serious and alert to play up the rest of the party. Every session has brought a moment of greatness, often emergent from TOR’s sometimes fiddly mechanics, and the PCs are now a well-loved fellowship. Next session, they’re probably going to meet Gandalf – and I’m reminding myself how nice it is to have ongoing games as well as One-Shots.

But, if you want to play or run one-shots, here’s a brief guide to it if you’re starting out

Online Packages

There’s a lot of discussion of virtual tabletops out there, Roll20, Fantasy Grounds, and Astral Tabletop all touted as decent products for different things. If you’re just starting, I’d ask that you ignore all that, though.

All you need is a stable set of video conferencing software.

My favoured setup is Google Hangouts (yes, it still exists) – but I’ve played with Zoom or Discord, and I know groups who play using Skype or even Facebook messenger. You need to be able to communicate with each other. As long as you trust each other (and if you don’t, you should find another group), it works just fine if everyone just rolls their own dice and lets you know what they are.

While you’re on these, you also need headphones – a mic you can do without, but without headphones your laptop microphone is likely to create an annoying echo every time another player speaks. It’ll be annoying to everyone else, not to you, so you won’t realise it’s happening – until someone has to awkwardly remind you.

I’d also say that laptops > tablets > phones for online gaming. On a laptop or a decent sized tablet, you can have your character sheet (or whatever neat piece of art the GM has shared on his tabletop) on the screen as well – my practice is to have the video call off to one side, or in the corner, so the screen isn’t dominated by the pixellated face of my fellow players.

Like this:

Roll20 Sample 2

The One Ring art by John Hodgson – the Dwimmerhorn looms out of the fog

The advantage of an online tabletop is the ability to share art and pictures initially – they also have inbuilt dice rollers, and if you want to get technical they can have all kinds of macros and stuff built in for different games. If you’re playing Pathfinder or a similar ‘griddy’ game, you can get a map up and track everything with player tokens.

But, to stress again, you don’t have to do this. Start simple with Hangouts. Eventually, like me, you’ll start to dip your toe into showing some pretty pictures.

Recruiting

Finding players for online games used to sometimes be a bit tricky – it’s easy to flake out of a game if you don’t have to leave the house for it, which made one-shots difficult to schedule unless you found yourself a regular group.

Every cloud, though – the current lockdown means there’s a lot of interest in online gaming again, and lots of people moving their own groups to online for social distancing. There are a number of virtual cons springing up now, too – Go Play Manchester and Go Play Leeds are both going virtual, and following the cancellation of Seven Hills and North Star conventions we’re looking at a virtual con in their stead. As with most things, playing in a game prior to running something virtually is a good idea, and most online cons have some more experienced GMs around to help.

In general, prior to lockdown my approach for recruitment seemed to work well – a twitter shout-out led to about 10 interested parties, and then setting an evening and schedule whittled that down to the 5 of us who could make it. Right now I’d have some confidence in posting something on twitter and getting a group together – although usual stuff applies.

“Who wants to play Savage Worlds Rifts on Monday at 7pm GMT?”

is more likely to work than

“Who wants to play some online games soon?”

It’s usually better to have a slightly smaller group than you might for a face-to-face game – 3 or 4 is ideal, while for me 5 is a hard maximum. You have to be much stricter with turn-taking and listening, and so it gets exponentially harder the more players you have.

Playing / Running

As I’ve said before, prior to running an online game I’d really recommend you play – even if you’re only using Hangouts or Zoom, it’s easier to not worry about the technical side if you’re the player instead of the GM. Prior to the game, the GM (or whoever is hosting) will send out a link – whatever the platform, you should be able to join in with that.

Don’t fret over technical difficulties – as long as everyone has headphones and is careful you’ll be fine. About every other session for me there’s something that crops up – lag on a virtual tabletop, audio interference on a player, or – a couple of sessions ago – me hanging up the whole Hangouts call (I was GMing) by accident while fiddling around with windows. As long as you’re all playing generously you can probably muddle through and fix it – usually the classic IT solution of logging out and then in again will fix most things.

Generally 2 hours, with maybe 30 minutes each way, is a good time limit for online play – you remove table chatter, so you’ll be surprised how much you can get through in that time. It’s a bit more intense, weirdly, as everyone is on the game, and one person having the spotlight at once adds to this. As a GM, it pays to be super-conscious of this spotlight – even out of combat, I try to invite players in turn – so if you’re roleplaying, try to take turns so one player doesn’t dominate too much.

And have fun! There’s tons of online gaming going on right now – and there’s loads of blog posts like this, from people who know their shizz like Paul Mitchener, Dom Mooney, and many more. There’s also a Smart Party podcast just landed about online play – which I’m off to listen to right now.

If you know more links, please share them below – and maybe I’ll see you across a web browser soon!

Where I’m At – Seven Hills, Liminal, Go Play Leeds and other stuff

Burn After Running is nearly a year old! I thought I’d share what I’ve been up to recently, and what is coming in the immediate future.

Seven Hills

At the end of March I attended Seven Hills, a games convention in Sheffield. Paul Mitchener has organised it for the past 5 years, and announced prior to the convention that he’s stepping back from this – and I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be taking over from him! I’ve got a team of people who actually know what they’re doing behind me, of course, and Paul has left a very successful format that I don’t intend to mess with, but it’s exciting and daunting in equal measure. We’ve tried to revitalise the “themed” format of the convention by making an executive decision about next year’s theme – so Seven Hills 2019 will be Historical.

I ran two games at Seven Hills 2018, and both went well, from what I can tell. Unusually for me, I didn’t follow the name of this blog, and ran games that I’d previously run – which made my prep significantly easier. I ran the Emerald of the Ice Queen for 7th Sea 2nd edition, which I’ve blogged about here, and it went sufficiently smoothly for me to start writing up my notes to share on here. 7th Sea really is a loosey-goosey system, which holds together more from shared enthusiasm and keeping the plot moving, and my players were very helpful in making sure this happened. I’m going to be running much more 7th Sea, and I’m happy that I managed to get a ‘starter set’ adventure written that was a lot of fun. I’m going to write up the adventure into a playable form and stick in on here in due course – the pregens are already available to download here.

Crontas-The-Duck-for-Web

Crontas the Duck – as featured in The Beard of Lhankhor Mhy, in 13th Age in Glorantha (art by John Ossoway, one of my players the first time round)

I also ran 13th Age Glorantha, which was a blast, and similarly an ‘introduction to the system’ sort of game. I’m tidying this up to send off to be published in Newt Newport’s Hearts in Glorantha fanzine, so watch out for that, but I’m pleased that I managed to combine explaining the system with blagging my limited knowledge of the basket-weaving mythic nonsense that is Glorantha.

I got to play as well of course, although I had to leave early so dropped out of a chance to play Mutant Year Zero Mechatron, which I hear went really well. I’ve been meaning to run Blades in the Dark for ages, and so jumped at the chance to play it with Pete Atkinson at the helm, and it confirmed my suspicions that it is a game right up my street. I didn’t expect the setting to ooze through quite as much as it did – but we couldn’t help but feel the steampunk desperation vibe as our created-at-the-table crew staged an ill-fated raid on a rival gangs coffers. I got to play the Face of the group and I got to spam my character’s disguise skills.

And I got to play Earthdawn, the styled “greatest RPG ever made,” with Gaz from the Smart Party in the GM’s chair. It was a lot of fun, although also a great reminder of what 90s games were like, as we all remembered what Perception checks – and not making them – meant. Earthdawn has a slightly funky – and almost certainly uneven – dice ranking system, meaning that any bonuses or penalties result in you rolling a completely different set of dice for every ability, but it didn’t seem to slow us down too much, even if I did pick a Nethermancer (wizard) with 4 pages of character sheet. The plot was an interesting investigation into betrayal and familial guilt that surprised me in its complexity, and we had much more roleplaying than rolling dice – probably for the best given the shonky system.

Other gaming

I’ve started playing some online D&D (5e) over Roll20 – one session in, and it’s great. I have loads of tactical options every round, and this is even playing a cleric! By picking the War domain I’ve managed to be a fairly capable front-line fighter, although I don’t think I can dole out as much healing as the rest of the party was hoping for. I’m still iffy about the square-countiness of the grid, but I’m getting there with it.

Go Play Leeds has had a minor hiatus while we source a new venue, but we have a great one lined up which will be revealed in good time. The start of this year has seen a big rise in people coming who are returning to RPGing or have never played before, and so many new faces makes me feel positive about the hobby.

It’s not tabletop RPGing, but I’ve just started getting my head down in Assassin’s Creed Origins; I’ve just got to Alexandria and hit the open-world segment proper of the game. Can’t help but get a hankering to run some Hunters of Alexandria now!

Liminal

And I’ve just sent off my first piece of writing for the Liminal RPG, which I’m involved in with a team of great UK RPG designers (and me). The team is already overflowing with ideas for our British Urban Fantasy setting, and as we bounce folk tales off each other and build on one another’s ideas it feels like we’ll have a really great RPG at the end of it.

I’m involved in editing, writing some Case Files (adventures), and a sourcebook on Vampires. What started as a kickstarter for a new RPG has turned into an entire game line, with books on Mages, Fae, Werewolves, and specific location books for London and Newcastle as well as  big gazetteer of the setting, and it should keep us all busy for a while!

The 3-Session Campaign Part 2 – Build to the Finish!

In Part 1 of this series, I talked about setting up and planning a 3-session mini-campaign, with a focus on online play specifically (although most of the techniques are just as applicable to face-to-face play). Here, I’ll talk about what to put in Sessions 2 and 3, and where to shift focus.

Between 1 and 2 – Review, Check Focus, Get Feedback

After Session 1, you’ll have a good idea how well your drafted plot is going to fit into the group of players you have. It’s a good chance before the next session to look at your plans for Sessions 2 and 3 and see if they will fit. Also, if the players have established or given detail to any NPCs or parts of their backstory in Session 1, you should try and incorporate them into the coming sessions, to give them a sense of placement in the world.

I’m terrible (which GM isn’t?) at getting feedback from players, and now is a chance to check in with them if there’s anything they like or don’t like about the way the game seems to be going. If any want to tweak their characters, this is a point where I’d let them, after they’ve seen them in play. I’d also be quite generous with experience and rewards as PC development also makes the campaign feel more epic.

Session 2 – Walk Across Middle Earth and Have Some Fights

As the subtitle suggests, you’re looking at The Two Towers here; characters should be developed enough their personalities should be emerging through play, so this session should be a fast-paced series of challenges and activities that give context for character development and roleplay.

In terms of pacing this session, it’s likely that if you gave the characters multiple options at the end of Session 1 you have to make whichever solution they pick the most interesting, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this in this format of game (or, basically, ever – but I think that’s another discussion to have!). By the end of this session, the PCs should be in no doubt that they are approaching the climax of their quest – if your game calls for a climactic confrontation at the end, feel free to end Session 2 just before it – don’t feel you need to save extra content for Session 3.

Session 3 – Final Confrontation, then Jumping on Frodo’s Bed

By this stage, you probably have a fair idea of any subplots that your PCs have developed in advance of the final climactic battle, and it’s a good idea prior to this to have a look through this and try and re-incorporate any loose ends into the session. The majority of this session will be the final confrontation with the ‘enemy’ you have set up, and you should pull out all the stops for this. This is the stage at which you can, and should, put up the “death flag” and be prepared for PCs to make the ultimate sacrifice; leave the players in no doubt that this is the end of the campaign.

But leave enough time for a look at the world after the end of the campaign too, to set it in context and provide some finality for the characters that your players have invested in. It doesn’t have to be quite as corny as the scenes in Return of the King where they all visit Frodo, but short vignettes of each PC’s life immediately following, and perhaps further in the future from, the climax of the adventure help to set the game in context.

Conclusion

So, that’s my plan to get more online play into my life – although most of the plans are taken from running short campaigns in real life. What are your online gaming plans to make finite-length campaigns easy to schedule? Do you have any other preferred methods for online play, or have a favourite medium to use for it? Hope to see some of you at games in the future – either round a table or at the other end of a Hangouts screen!

The 3-Session Campaign Part 1 – stretching the One-Shot format

I’ve blogged before about making the one-shot RPG ultra-short, and also about how a one-shot can be slightly longer form. One of the things I’m pondering as we come to the new year is how I’m going to get more online gaming done next year (via Hangouts / Skype), and I’ve come across the crux of the dilemma (for me anyway, but I suspect a lot of gamers).

Thing is, I don’t have the time to commit to a weekly (or even fortnightly) game – either face to face or over G+ – and so an ongoing campaign seem unlikely. And my own limited experience suggests that one 2/3-hour online session doesn’t quite have the hit of a regular convention one-shot. The medium means you don’t get quite as much contact, even if you’re playing with folks you know in real life, and it takes a while for characters to develop and become enjoyable to play.

So, I’m going to propose myself a solution: the 3-session Campaign. Three 2-hour online sessions, preceded by a not-necessarily-concurrent chargen and setup session. I’m hoping that this format will let me get more online gaming done, and that it might work for people with similar scheduling difficulties to me. I should note that this is advice I’ve largely gathered from my experience running face-to-face for 3-sessions, but I’ve put it in the context of online play because I think it provides a useful solution to the scheduling difficulties above.

The Pre-Session: Chargen and Links

In this session, which I’d go over a chat app like Facebook Messenger or a private G+ community, I’d get my players to generate characters (or generate them myself with their guidance / support if they aren’t familiar with the system) and build links between the PCs. I’d try in generating characters to follow good examples from one-shot play to ensure, for instance, that there are sufficient differences between characters and the group fits together with some consistency, as there won’t really be scope for this to develop during play to iron it out.

While some games have structures for this (Dungeon World’s Bonds, Apocalypse World’s Hx splits) that require some turn taking, the order of these is mostly arbitrary, so there’s no real need for everyone to be online at once – or, if they are, they can be sat doing something else with the phone/tablet at their side carrying out the process.

For games without this process, I’d try and establish connections – maybe with focused questions, which could be as basic as “how do you know X?” or, for instance, “when was the last time you brought a PC back from the brink of death?” (for a cleric PC). While this is going on, I’ll scribble it all onto a relationship map that I’ll then share so everyone has an up-front picture of the rest of the party – it especially helps in online play to know who the face at the bottom of the screen is pretending to be. In terms of sharing resources, for online play I think it’s helpful to have a precis of the setting and access to at least the basic rules so that players can engage with these and be ready to go from the off.

Session 1 – Your Regular One-Shot

The structure I tend to use for 3-session play is the movies of The Lord Of The Rings; for this first section, you’ve already done a substantial chunk of the exposition in the pre-session prep chat. I’d follow the regular introductory one-shot format for this: a task set for them to do, a practice combat/action sequence (to clear out any rusty rules), some investigation, and a final conflict that can be a little harder and reveals the extent of the problem facing them.

Pacing is key here; although in my experience, while online play does demand more focus from the players, the interface encourages it – everyone really does have to listen to every other player speaking, because if you don’t pay attention, you’ll be lost. Any rules clarifications, pass them to another player to resolve in text chat – and feel free to make notes of anything in that chat as well. My best experiences of online play have been basic in terms of technical aptitude – there’s nothing wrong with letting players roll their own dice and telling you what they get, and I’ve enjoyed having that physical connection to the game rather than using a dice roller (until I have a run of bad luck – then I usually switch to the dice roller).

I’d also recommend Session 1 being fairly obvious in terms of what the PCs should do and what the campaign is about. Chekov’s Gun applies here as it does in all one-shots; if you introduce an NPC, a location, or a faction at play in Session 1, if the players are interested in it you should make sure it re-appears in Sessions 2 and 3.

Well, that’s how to set up and run the first session of a 3-session campaign; tomorrow I’ll look at Sessions 2 and 3 and the prep between them.