13th Age One-Shots

13th Age coverI run a lot of 13th Age One-Shots; I like the balance of narrative player-led stuff and tactical combat. But it is a pretty crunchy system that can take some getting used to – especially if your point of reference is D&D – so here are my top tips for running it at conventions

By the way, if it’s 13th Age in Glorantha (13AG) you’re planning on running, you might want to check here for my advice on running Glorantha one-shots. 13AG is slightly crunchier even than regular 13th Age, so you might want to start by running a one-shot in the Dragon Empire before you encounter the brain-melting exceptions of Storm Bull Berserkers and Tricksters.

It all starts with the pregens

With any crunchy game, how you set up the PCs can make your job much easier. I tend to use this array for attributes, and pre-calculate the bonus+level for my players – and explain in my quick tour of the character sheet that the bonus+level is what you’ll be rolling.

I fill out One Unique Things, but give players license to change them at the start of the game. I know that there are lots of one-shot GMs who ask their players to pick them, but I’ve found that this can leave players confused by the wide range of options. So I pre-populate them, and tell them they can change them, and usually one or two players will.

For Backgrounds, I half-bake them; I give each PC 3 points of Background in a broad, narrative skill (like “Dragon Pass Wanderer,” or “Smartest Elf in the Room”) and let them assign the remaining points however they want, at the start or even during the game. Again, Backgrounds can be picked completely by the players at the table, but they often just aren’t that big a deal in 13th Age One-Shots, so it’s often not worth players worrying too much about them.

I add on any descriptions of powers on the character sheets, either paraphrasing them in as simple language as I can manage or cutting and pasting from the SRD. Most of my prep is spent getting these pregen sheets ready, but that’s no problem because 13th Age is very player-facing in its complexity; most of the tactical heft and rules exceptions are carried by the players.

…and carries on with the pregens

I tend to go low-level with my 13th Age games – level 1-3 is a good level for standard heroics, and even 1st level characters have plenty of tactical options. For higher levels (and I have run as high as level 5) I’ve combined a few optional rules for damage – I let players choose to either inflict average damage with their weapons or flip a coin for max/min damage with each hit. I make Crits work exactly the same – they can choose when they roll a crit whether to double average, or flip a coin to risk it. I add a “Damage Track” under any attacks on the sheets that looks like this:

Damage Track: Average 26, Coin Flip 48/13, Miss 5

It’s worth taking care at the start of the game when you hand out the pregens. Some classes are significantly more complex than others, and it’s a good idea to be open with your players about this. I never say that they need to have played the game before, but if they are playing a Bard or Sorcerer they’ll need to be up for engaging with some rules to make the most of their characters in ways they won’t have to if they are playing a Barbarian or Ranger. I also try to remind them the Fighter is towards the more complex end of the scale, because it can sometimes still be seen as the easy option – which in 13th Age it definitely isn’t.

Get your kit out

escalation die

my escalation die – normal-sized d6 for scale

Central to 13th Age is the escalation die, a d6 that goes up every round and gives the PCs bonuses to attacks. It’s a great device for pacing battles, and it’s such a simple idea that it can be easy to forget to update it at the start of the round. My solution is to get a BIG d6. Mine is pictured here – it’s 7cm on a side and weighs about a pound, and it’s not easy to ignore. It wasn’t cheap, but you can get big foam dice cheaply, or just a whiteboard to write the bonus on – bear in mind that if you have a Trickster PC in 13th Age in Glorantha they sometimes get to roll the escalation die so you might want it to be an actual die.

I avoid maps for 13th Age – it’s loose range band system doesn’t use them, and they can actually discourage the kind of freeform swashbuckling action that works so well in the game. Non-gridded maps, like those that come with the Battle Scenes, can be useful, but even with these I’d be reluctant to let my players put figures on them – they are much more about a feel for the location rather than precise locations.

For Icon Relationships, I like to write them out onto cards and give them to my players after rolling – either plain index cards or these dry-wipe ones from All Rolled Up. Giving the relationship rolls on cards encourages the players to “spend” them during the one-shot, and that they won’t forget them. I usually give my players the option of spending at the start of the session for magic items or boosts (and prep a few ideas about what these might be) but also keep them for interventions in the game. I’m super loose in what they can get with them, trying generally to say “yes” to anything that sounds cool – this is a cinematic action game after all. (For Glorantha, the same applied to Runes, although they can’t spend them at the start of course).

Use a Montage

13th Age GMs screenThe montage technique is absolutely brilliant in a 13th Age one-shot, adding a sense of the epic and letting you fit much more ‘plot’ into your one-shot, so it makes it a satisfying game. There’s a brief summary of it from Pelgrane’s Wade Rockett here, but there are more details in the GM’s Kit – which is probably the most useful resource you can get if you plan on running 13th Age one-shots a lot, even more so than the Bestiary.

Even a basic dungeoneering adventure can be improved with a montage – and I’ve used it exactly for that, the party battling the initial guardians of a ruin and the montage-ing their way through the twisted tunnels and subsidiary monsters until they run up against the big bad at the end. In my module The Beard of Lhankor Mhy for 13AG the entire journey across Snake Pipe Hollow is run as a montage – and for me as a writer, it was a good workaround for covering an iconic part of Gloranthan adventuring lore without stepping on canon. In play, the Glorantha experts can go to town introducing whatever chaos monsters they like, and coming up with inventive runic ways around obstacles.

There’s Loads of Stuff

There really is. All the organised play adventures are excellent either to use or steal, and unusually for published adventures are actually easy to use in play. Oh, and they’re all free. There are lots of published adventures, including the Battle Scenes which contain short adventures based around the icons. All of these are very easy to steal or borrow set-pieces from, and literally a couple of these and a montage (and maybe a couple of interesting NPCs to interact with) and your one-shot is prepped). You might spend a while planning the pregens, but the rest of your prep should be fairly straightforward.

Enjoy! I think 13th Age is a great game for one-shots, and a game I keep coming back to again and again. Because the players come up with so much narrative, different games can give surprising developments which is always a nice feeling as a GM.

Gloranthan One-Shots – Ducks, Broo, and Basket-Weaving

I’m a relatively new convert to Glorantha, Greg Stafford’s legendary mythic fantasy setting, having come at it from 13th Age in Glorantha (and an extremely fun Heroquest campaign run by Newt Newport of D101 Games). It’s a big setting, and quite distinctive, and it carries with it challenges for the one-shot GM. To explore the history, the culture, the excitement, without the game turning into a mythology seminar, is a challenge.

Choose Your (Bronze) Weapons Wisely

Crontas-The-Duck-for-Web

Crontas the Duck, true spirit of Glorantha, by John Ossoway

There are now a wide range of systems available for your Glorantha game. If you want a high-falutin action game of mythic heroes, I’d suggest Heroquest Glorantha (HQ) or 13th Age in Glorantha (13AIG). The former is rules-light narrative – of the sort that can turn off a particular kind of trad gamer; the latter is D&D-esque rules-crunchy narrative. In either case, you can expect to put some players off with your system if you’re running at a convention – but you always run this risk. I have run 13AIG for at least one dyed-in-the-wool D&D-hater and they loved it, so you never know.

If you prefer proper trad, you want to turn to either RuneQuest Classic (RQC) (which is an old-school game in the truest sense, a reprint of an old edition from back when Hit Locations were the new shiny thing) or Runequest Glorantha (RQG) (the latest Chaosium release, which walks a tightrope – largely successfully, although I am working my way up to a review here – between old-school hit location simulationism and mythic rune-channelling excitement). RQG feels a lot like an old-school game redesigned to work in this day and age, and it’s no bad thing for that.

My own one-shot preferences veer toward 13AIG or HQ, but that’s because I like high-action, resilient heroes, and am not very good at running games where combat can end quickly with a lucky roll and a severed limb. Whatever you’re running, be sure to use the rules to inform the one-shot – 13AIG works best with set-piece battles like any other 13th Age game, whereas RQG and RQC work best where combat is possible but avoidable, and the players have ways to use clever play to mitigate the awful risks of adventuring through using their cunning.

Stick a Myth on It – the Backstory is the Story

I have a tried-and-tested method for Glorantha adventure / one-shot design. Design a normal fantasy one-shot, then write a myth from the old times of the Gods that relates to it. Add in references and throwbacks to that myth with a heavy hand, so that towards the climax of the adventure the PCs could almost be following that very myth, and proceed as usual.

Think of it in comparison to a ‘standard’ D&D adventure – you might explore an old ruin full of goblins, to discover the evil sorcerer who has gathered them around him. In your D&D adventure, you might have that the ruin was built by an ancient civilisation, and throw in weird frescoes on the walls of the ruins, living quarters, suggestions of the previous occupants.

In Glorantha, the previous occupants, and the history of the ruins, should be up front and personal in every room. It won’t be goblins, of course (broo?), and the sorcerer might well be possessed by the spirit of one of these ancient builders when they meet him. As they venture deeper into the ruins, they will almost come alive again for them, as if the civilisation lives again and they are exploring it anew.

Use the Cool Stuff

There’s a lot of  very cool ‘stuff’ in Glorantha. Disease-ridden chaos broo, Jack O’Bears with maddening gazes, gorps, those weird humanoid tapir things – even ducks! If you’re running a one-shot, try and add a few of these in to your game to make it feel more ‘Glorantha.’

And a note on the Lunars – the Roman/Persian-ish civilised invaders who are often the default human enemy. Try to make them simultaneously sympathetic (as fellow humans just like the PCs) and disturbingly alien (with their strange sorceries and cities). In all those other fantasy RPGs, the PCs are the lunars, fighting the strange barbarians with their shamans and weird rune rituals.

Source Some Resources

HIG7-Front-Cover-web

HiG 7 cover by Stewart Stansfield

When I first started getting into I joined a G+ forum about it, and the first query that hit me from it was a question about dentistry in Orlanthi culture. I kid you not. My innocent query about a good introduction to general Gloranthan culture was met with a recommendation to read a long-out-of-print supplement. Glorantha used to be, relatively speaking, inaccessible.

This is not the case now. Chaosium’s website has links to not only all the games above, but a wealth of supplements, some of which focus more on playable adventures and less on dentistry practices. Chaosium also have a great presence now on forums and social media – questions on their Facebook group often get answers from the game designers, for instance, so it’s easy to engage with them.

The single publication that made me ‘get’ Glorantha was Gloranthan Adventures 1, from D101 Games. It is a selection of short one-shot adventures for HQG, and an in-depth article on writing Gloranthan adventures, all of which serve to demystify the setting and put it in terms that a novice can understand. My other formula for prepping Gloranthan one-shots is just to run or adapt one of these adventures, if I’m honest.

And finally, you’ll forgive me for plugging the writing that inspired this post. Available for pre-order, and highly likely to be in print before the game it’s written for, my own adventure The Beard of Lhankor Mhy is published in Hearts in Glorantha 7, a fanzine from D101 Games. It’s a straight-up 13AIG adventure for 2nd-level heroes that tries to bridge the standard fantasy one-shot with the mythic, and it even comes with a set of pregenerated Orlanthi characters. So snap it up!

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.