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.

Review: Invasions: Target Earth

Invasions target earthI know, I know, I’m reviewing a supplement from over 25 years ago. I blame finding it on the All Rolled Up stall at Student Nationals last weekend. Invasions: Target Earth (I:TE) is a supplement for Champions, 4th edition, from 1990. It is available in .pdf here. It’s a cracking book, which I’m glad to have reclaimed a print copy of – particularly since it’s a very good supplement for any sort of invasion plot, whether superhero roleplaying is your bag or not.

The Fluff

I:TE presents a review of how to structure a plot involving invasions, giving a solid list of events that you can expect to happen in an invasion storyline, modified for whether it’s an open invasion (aliens rampaging through the streets) or a secret one (subversive shapechangers taking over Earth’s military). It has a useful breakdown of the likely command structure of invading forces, and several examples of both superhero and more mundane invasions.

It then gives a full-length example of an invasion, which is very… 1990s. Demonicus Rex and his army of Demons and Demon Lords (including ratlike Kobolds and flying Furies) have come from an alternate dimension to invade earth. The Demons look and feel an awful lot like Rocksteady and Bebop from the old Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles cartoon, and it gives a quirky Saturday morning cartoon feeling to what could have been pretty dark subject matter.

The Crunch

This being a Champions sourcebook, the majority of the crunch lies in stat blocks for the demon invaders, along with details for some weird Breeder aliens, anodyne “Space Invaders,” giant animals, and robots that could be used with multiple invasion foces. Honestly, unless you’re a the particular type of grognard who still actually runs Champions 4th edition, I can’t see this being very useful. Hero System doesn’t just feel like an algebra textbook, it also reads like it, so don’t expect to be able to make sense of phrases like “1 pip HKA (1/2d6 w/STR), bite” in the Breeder Hatchling description. You’re better off using the pictures to convert some stats.

Don’t buy this for the crunch.

The One Shot

Buy it for the story structure! Seriously, this gives a very good structure for a short, or longer mini-campaign dealing with an invasion. The 10 steps it gives for plotting an invasion, together with numerous examples, are easy to adapt to whatever system you’re running with and give a nice structure to work on.

For a 3-4 hr one-shot, I’d simplify the sections to these 4 (which I’ve picked from the longer list):

  • Arrival
  • Invaders win Battles
  • The Defenders get Organised
  • Final Battle

This gives a good, if tightly railroaded, structure to use as a basis. As with one-shots everywhere, though, the key to making it not feel like a railroad is to make everything else flexible.

The idea of The Defenders get Organised is that you rally enough support or manufacture a special weapon that the invaders are vulnerable to, so I would have several options there. Likewise, the location and environment of the Final Battle and the vignettes you use for Invaders Win Battles can be flexible and informed by player choice.

With a few stat blocks (with or without phrases like “Transform 5 1/2 d6, Area (1250 hexes), any shape Non-selective target”) and settings, there’s your superhero alien invasion sorted. I’m very pleased that the plot sections of this supplement seem to hold up as well as they do, and it makes me wonder what other gems are lurking in the 1990s supplement time machine.