Hillfolk One-Shots

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

 

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

Skip Character Generation

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

Start with the Ensemble

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

Listen, Prompt, Be a Fan

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

Sample Set-Up

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

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

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

Afterword

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

Dungeon World One-Shots

Edit: If you’re interested in an actual real-life one-shot set-up, my Forest of Doom setup is available here.

 

I’m mid-way between running a Dungeon World (DW) one-shot, and prepping one at the moment, so I’m thinking a lot about how to make DW hot for one-shot play. John Aegard has some excellent advice here, and I’ve blogged more generally about prepping Powered by the Apocalypse (PBTA) games before, but here’s a few other tips that I’ve developed that are DW-specific. For me, running DW at conventions means I need a bit more meat on the bones of that the PCs will actually do, while still letting them freewheel and develop the narrative situation themselves.

Let them choose

Unlike in other PBTA games, there’s no need to pre-book players in Classes. In other games, the choices they make here have significant impact on the focus of the game and how it plays out – if your Apocalypse World group includes a Hardholder, for instance, you’re going to need to put their settlement front and centre of the action and aggressively threaten and develop it.

In Dungeon World, regardless of the choices made, the players are going to be an adventuring team – so there’s no need to do this. In fact, at the start of play I try to be really explicit that the balance of classes really isn’t important in this game, just to make sure they don’t feel like they need (for instance) a Fighter to tank and a Cleric to heal people. So encourage players to have a free rein in picking their Classes and Races. I tend to restrict mine to the classes in the DW book, just because there’s more than enough there, but if one of the players has a burning desire to play a 3rd-party Class, I’d probably let them.

Pitch your Sitch

For convention games, you usually need to advertise your game in advance, and for that you need to write an exciting teaser trailer for your upcoming game. Get this set in advance and not only can you give your PCs a problem they can’t ignore, but you can also tie them into this story right at the start with link questions.

The game I’m prepping at the moment is riffing off the classic Fighting Fantasy gamebook Forest of Doom by Ian Livingstone, and so to promote my game (and set my situation), I’ve just used the text on the back of the book:

A war is raging and your help is needed to vanquish the evil trolls. To save the dwarfs, you must find the Grand Wizard Yaztromo and track down the pieces of a legendary war hammer lost in the depths of Darkwood Forest, where gruesome monsters lurk.

Now, once this situation is prepared, I write a list of link questions to ask the PCs – at least one per player, but you might want a few more. They ask the PCs about their relationship with this crisis – and allow them to define twists, NPCs, or aspects of the situation within a comfortable framework.

For Forest of Doom, my link questions look like this:

  • You served in the dwarf army before, defending Stonebridge from the trolls. Why did you leave?
  • You’ve wandered Darkwood Forest before. What dangerous beast did you encounter?
  • What have you done to earn the Grand Wizard Yaztromo’s ire?
  • Gillibran, the dwarf leader in Stonebridge, leads a demoralized and divided army. What happened to bring the dwarf military so low?
  • And so on…

I try to make these questions about what has gone before, rather than what is happening now, so that players don’t feel like they might step on narrative toes, and so that I can keep my prep useful. In play, I go through them straight after Bonds.

Fronts, Dangers, and a Map

For a single 2-4 hour one-shot, you’re not going to want more than one Adventure Front. This is the backbone of the adventure, and the closest thing to a pre-determined plot you have. Likewise, your Dangers give structure to the encounters and opposition that the PCs face; without them they might feel they’re aimlessly wandering from monster to monster. For my current prep, that’s pretty much what playing the Forest of Doom gamebook feels like, so I’m especially keen to avoid that!

I’ve not run my Forest of Doom adventure yet, so I’ll publish my Fronts and Dangers separately at a later date to avoid any spoilers for my players, but suffice to say I tend to just follow the procedures on p185 of the DW book, including adding in stakes questions (which might sometimes already be answered by your link questions above).

A lot of the available adventure starters and modules for DW include several Custom Moves for each game. Personally, I try to avoid them – DW does not need new rules for a one-shot. The only time I put them in is when I don’t see an obvious fit with the Basic Moves for how to resolve something – very often one of those moves will fit. They give great flavour in an ongoing game as the party encounters new areas and foes – and ultimately with custom moves, new rules – but I really don’t think they’re necessary in a one-shot.

Forest of Doom map

The Ideal Level of Detail on your map – Darkwood Forest

I like to have a sketch map to put in the centre of the table during play. This doesn’t contain encounter locations or details, but it grounds the players in w

hat they’re doing and makes it feel a bit less like you’re pulling encounters and events out of thin air based on how they’re doing and the pacing needs of the game – which is pretty much what you’re going to be doing, except informed by the Fronts and Dangers. This map from the gamebook is exactly the level of detail I want for my game

 

Set Pieces

In play, I tend to follow the player’s leads, offer them choices as to which paths and routes to take, and respond accordingly. I do like to have 5-6 ‘set piece’ encounters lined up that I hope they’ll take – usually these will be where they find items or clues that move the adventure along. In Forest of Doom, where the quest is to find the lost two parts of a war hammer, obviously two of the encounters will result in finding the parts of the hammer – but unlike the book I’m going to seed clues in the rest of the encounters to show where the hammer might be, rather than rely on random wanderings through the forest.

These don’t have to combat encounters, and should have a number of options to resolve them. You can use linked questions (eg, “Tell me one thing all gnomes hate” when they first meet a gnome) to give narrative control.

You don’t have to use all of them, but they will provide a backdrop of things to use if you suffer the dreaded PBTA “Move Freeze” when an MC move doesn’t immediately occur to you. DW is already pretty forgiving in this – in no small way because it’s easier in the fiction and implied setting to have a sudden change of pace (orcs attack!) to bring up the energy levels at the table and even buy you some time to figure out what’s going on.

So those are my emerging tips for DW one-shots. I’ll conclude by saying that it’s my belief that Dungeon World really is the most forgiving PBTA game to start MCing, and encourage you to try it if you’re at all interested in these kinds of games. I spent several months trying to grok Apocalypse World and Monsterhearts before a game of Dungeon World made me chill the hell out and realise that they were easier to run than I was thinking. What are your top tips for Dungeon World one-shots? And look out for the full prep notes for Forest of Doom after the Revelation convention at the end of February.

The Goblins and The Pie Shop – a 1st-level D&D adventure

Following on from my posts on D&D 5e and review of Xanathar’s Guide, I present for you a light-hearted introductory adventure, showing what happens when you take the classic The Orc and The Pie encounter and try and flesh it out into an actual adventure. Rather than structure it as a dungeon, this is a loosely-structured investigation into what has gone on at Mrs Miggins’ pie shop, and it contains some pre-setup questions that are designed to embed the PCs in the situation and involve them in creating some of the setting and background. The structure of the adventure uses Justin Alexander’s Adventure Nodes.

If you’re looking for a more traditional dungeon-crawling 1st level module, I have to recommend Matt Colville’s The Delian Tomb (the link is a youtube video of him explaining how to design it).

If you want it as a .pdf, you can download it from here. Otherwise, read on!

The Goblins and the Pie Shop

A 1st-level introductory adventure for D&D 5th Edition

Mrs Miggins’ pie shop is the first place any self-respecting adventurer would head to on their way out to seek their fortune in the world… her delicious meat and flaky crust are the talk of every frontier tavern, and many carefree ventures into the wilderness have started here. Naturally, as you venture into the Dark Forest, you’d stop here first… but when goblins have stolen her secret spice mix, you must rush to Mrs Miggins’ aid so that adventurers will be sustained.

This is an introductory adventure for 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons. It’s designed to take around 2-3 hours to play through, although there are guidelines at the end to condense this to 1-2 hours. It’s balanced for four 1st-level adventurers generated using Adventurer’s League guidelines; again the appendix contains details to scale the encounters for smaller or larger groups.

It is designed to give a simple introduction to D&D5e and fantasy roleplaying outside of a dungeon setting, and to demonstrate how a loosely-plotted adventure can be structured.

Background – DM’s Eyes Only

Symon “The Pieman” has a pie shop in town, and he’s brutally jealous of Mrs Miggins’ success. He uses the same alchemist to ward his own shop – so once he learned how to bypass the magical wardings, he sent his goons in to steal her secret spice recipe. He then paid Holg the Orc to break in and kick about the shop the following day to cover up the theft and make it look like a random goblin raid.

Scene 0: Pre-Set Up

Allow the players to choose characters and introduce them briefly. Explain the starting situation to the players. In brief:

  • They have decided to seek their fortune in the Dark Forest, for the reasons determined previously
  • They are rookie adventurers, having just banded together as like-minded young heroes
  • It is traditional amongst new adventurers to call at Mrs Miggins’ Pie Shop, on the edge of the forest, for some fortifying snacks to take with them on the way to the Forest
  • The forest is dangerous in the centre, but at its boundaries is less dangerous. There are goblins, orcs, and brigands wandering around it though, as well threats the players will now define

They have some background already, but spend a few minutes asking each of them one of the questions from the list below.

  • Why are you venturing into the Dark Forest? What great riches await you there?
  • What is said to guard these riches?
  • What has made you leave your comfortable home to take up a life of adventure?
  • (insert name), you have a mentor, a veteran adventurer. Who is he and what has he told you of Mrs Miggins pie shop?
  • (insert name), a friend of yours growing up was Mrs Miggins’ grandson. What pie filling did he recommend that you just had to try?
  • (insert name), you’re not sure you even like pies. You had one of Symon the Pieman’s pies back in the village and it made you sick. What have the others done to convince you to stop at Mrs Miggins’?

As the players answer these questions, make brief notes of them – if you can, on a big piece of paper in the middle of the table so that all the players can see it. If you can incorporate these answers into the game as it plays, so much the better – and encourage the players to do so as well!

Scene 1: Mrs Miggins’

As they approach the Pie Shop, a tumbledown cottage from which you would normally expect the smell of delicious baking, it is mid-morning and something is clearly wrong. The door hangs ajar from its hinges and the gates to the cottage garden appear to have been torn from their hinges. There are signs of a scuffle inside, and as they approach cautiously, they discover a group of goblins engaged in ransacking the place.

Combat: there are three Goblins (MM, p166), Elg, Melg, and Thom. They wield curved knives as scimitars from the standard stat block, and are extremely cowardly – they will run as soon as they have lost a total of half their hit points – this is 12 hp for 3 PCs, 16 hp for 4 PCs, and so on. Of course, the PCs may well decide to give chase, which will allow them (if anyone speaks goblin) to work out who sent them.

Treasure: The goblins carry only loose change – they carry 15 cp each and their wretched scimitars, and are clad in rough rags.

Mrs Miggins is tied up, badly injured (DC 10 Wisdom (Medicine), or a Spare the Dying / Cure Wounds spell to stabilize, otherwise she will be groggy and uncommunicative, and unable to provide them with any pies), and says that she came down this morning to find the goblins rooting around. She has freshly paid-up magical wards from the Alchemist’s Guild in town, so she was surprised to see them, but they quickly overwhelmed her. There’s no way they could have bypassed those wards – she often finds drunken adventurers trying to sneak in and steal pies, and the wards always knock them out cold.

Any surviving goblins can be easily persuaded with a DC 10 Charisma (Intimidation or Persuasion) check to surrender what information they know. They were tipped off by Holg the Orc to raid the shop, and told there would be no magical defences. There weren’t, and the door was unlocked, which they thought was unusual. Holg oftens throws good jobs to their tribe (the Dark Forest Goblins) in return for odd jobs and help with distracting adventurers. He’s a herbalist who lives not far from here on the edge of the forest. Mrs Miggins knows him as a regular customer, and is very upset if she learns that he has had any hand in the raid. She doubts that he is skilled enough to remove her magical protections.

Mrs Miggins is in shock when it emerges that her secret spice mix has also been stolen – the goblins know nothing about it, but when she checks her cupboards it’s nowhere to be seen. She offhandedly remarks that, while she has no competitors because her product is so good, Symon “the Pie Man” in the village would dearly love to get his hands on her spice formula, and he has been visiting recently asking her about what goes into it – she never reveals anything, and has told him he will just have to devise his own formula! She of course begs the PCs to help her recover the secret spices; she can offer lifetime credit at her pie shop, 100 gp, and also a couple of potions of healing that they can take with them if they agree to help.

A really thorough search of Mrs Miggins’ spice cupboard reveals a scrap of black velvet that has been caught on the side of the wall – and which certainly doesn’t belong to any goblins.

From this point, the players may decide to investigate their leads in whatever order they choose – they can visit the Alchemist’s Guild (scene 2), or head over to Holg’s dwelling (scene 3). Either of these may lead them to scene 4 or to the final confrontation in scene 5.

Scene 2: The Alchemists’ Guild

The Alchemists Guild sits on the edge of town, and it is straightforward to get an appointment with Crawford Ellison, the wispy-bearded wizard who set up Mrs Miggins wards. If persuaded (DC 15 Charisma (Persuasion)) he will reveal that they are standard-issue wards, given to regular business customers, and a DC 10 Intelligence (Arcana) or Wisdom (Insight) check, as they check his records, that the wards only appear to be changed weekly – so that a customer who had the wards installed in the same week could in theory bypass them. If Crawford refuses to talk to them (failed persuasion roll) they can see the warding roster and invoices sat in the back office of the Guild – a DC 15 Dexterity (Stealth) or Intelligence (Investigation) should be enough to find them by stealth and discover the same information.

The customers from the same week include Rezzik the Half-Orc’s Wagon company, The White Lion public tavern, and Symon “the Pie Man” for his pie shop at the edge of town… again, if Crawford is friendly he will reveal that Symon still hasn’t paid for his wards, as he said he had a big business venture coming up which would mean he could pay them off easily. He has also asked for another job to be completed, and they are currently debating whether to ask for the money up front this time – for a small shack further into the forest (“A godforsaken place – that surely can’t be his next business venture, unless he’s setting up some sort of goblin mercenary company haha!”). A sketched map to this shack is held with the other files for the wards, which Crawford will share with the PCs if he is friendly.

Scene 3: Holg the Orc

Holg lives in a isolated, tumbledown cottage deeper into the woods. He’s a solitary herbalist, and while he has no great love for adventurers, he’s no fool. He has had a bad feeling about organising the goblins to raid Mrs Miggins ever since he was party to it, and is keen to try and make amends so he can enjoy her delicious pies again. Holg isn’t easy to persuade, ut a DC 15 Charisma (Intimidation) will be enough to make him share what he knows, or any show of force that shows him the PCs mean business. Once this happens he will reveal that Symon used him as a go-between to get the goblins to ransack the shop

Combat: Holg is a standard Orc (MM p246) with no additional abilities save his contacts and reasonable nature. He surrenders as soon as the combat turns against him – which includes having taken more damage than the PCs have at any time.

  • Symon just said that the magical protections would be down for the day, and asked that Holg go and ransack the place. Holg is quite fond of Mrs Miggins, so he didn’t go himself, but he got the Dark Forest goblins to go, on the condition they didn’t hurt her
  • He knows nothing about the secret spice mix, or even that Symon’s men had raided the shop previously
  • He can give them directions to the shack that Symon has set up in the forest, and everyone knows where the Symon “the Pie Man”’s shop is

Scene 4: The Shack in the Forest

Symon has set this up as a secret laboratory to try and duplicate the results of his theft. The shack is lined with herbs and spices, and different crust mixtures sit in an ice-box alongside packets of Mrs Miggins’ pies. Hidden away in the shelves (DC 15 Wisdom (Perception)) is Mrs Miggins’ secret mix, with the label half-peeled off.

(optional) Scene 4a: Symon’s Thugs

Depending on the time available, the confrontation may take place here (see the listing for Symon and his associates in Scene 5) or you may need an additional conflict to stretch out the adventure. If this is the case, a squad of Symon’s guards arrive to dissuade the PCs to call off their search; they are all human thugs, but one carries a swatch of black velvet on his shoulder which can be seen to be ripped.

Combat: There are 6 Guards (MM p347) and one guard dog (stats as Wolf (MM p341)) who has tracked the PCs here.

Scene 5: Symon “the Pie Man”’s Shop

Symon’s shop is freshly painted a new, but the aroma of pastry that comes from it is stale, and the meat in his pie fillings is under-seasoned. His shelves groan with unsold pies – truth be told, Symon is not a gifted baker, and unless he is able to successfully duplicate Mrs Miggins’ spice mix, it is unlikely that his business will survive.

If the PCs arrive here without solid proof that Symon is implicated in this, he will present himself as a reputable businessman and tell them that the attack on Mrs Miggins is a result of random goblin raids. Only the evidence of the secret spice mix (if they have recovered it from the shack), or compelling evidence like the torn black velvet, will force him into a confrontation, where he and his guards will attempt to silence the PCs.

Combat: Symon is a Thug (MM p350) and he is accompanied by his Guard Dog, Gnash (stats as Wolf, MM p341) and 2 Guards (MM p347).

Treasure: Symon and his men carry 40 gp and 200 sp, and Symon has a potion of greater healing (which he drinks if he has to) and a potion of climbing.

He fights to the death as he realises his entire business empire is at risk, peppering the battle with references to Mrs Miggins’ terrible pies and how she only made her fortune serving dishonest adventurers.

Once dispatched, the town guards will be certain to arrive and take Symon and his men to be imprisoned and tried by the village magistrate. Having rescued the secret spice mix, it is probably time for the PCs to return to Mrs Miggins where she will be fulsome with her praise and generous with her pies!

Appendix A: Running in Less Time

The adventure is designed to run to completion in around 2-3 hours; if you have less time, cut out some of the options for the investigations in the middle of the adventure to have just one of scenes 2-4 happen. Some options are presented below, depending on which lead the players follow:

  • The Alchemist’s Guild will implicate Symon fully in the break-in, and will give them the details of the shack in the forest that he has also asked to be warded by them. They can head over there where they interrupt Symon and his crew and can have the showdown with him.
  • If the PCs go straight to Holg the orc, have Holg spill the whole story as soon as he knows he has adventurers on his back; he has a note signed by Symon asking him to break into the shop, and was given the keys to the arcane wards as well. He is meant to be meeting Symon that afternoon, and will happily take the PCs with him to allow them to ambush him
  • If they go to The Shack, they interrupt Symon and his crew in the process of duplicating the spice mix – once they notice they have been seen they go to attack the PCs to cover up their secret.

In all cases, be prepared to guide and assist the players if they don’t quite follow the sequence of events. The goblins in Scene 1 will readily admit that the place was already broken into when they arrived – and maybe one of them is carrying a prepackaged meat pie from Symon’s place!

Appendix B: Running With More of Fewer Players

The adventure as written is designed to provide a challenge for four players. With fewer (or more) players, use the following table to adjust the number of opponents in each of the (potential) combat scenes:

Scene 2 PCs 3 PCs 5 PCs 6 PCs 7+ PCs
1 – Goblins 1 Goblin 2 Goblins 4 Goblins 5 Goblins 6 Goblins
3 – Holg Give Holg stats as a Goblin (p166) – he is old and infirm 1 Orc 1 Orc 1 Orc and Holg has a pet Wolf as well 1 Orc and Holg has a pet Wolf as well
4a – Guards 3 Guards 4 Guards 6 Guards

1 Wolf

6 Guards

2 Wolves

6 Guards

2 Wolves

5 – Symon 1 Thug

1 Guard

1 Thug

1 Wolf

1 Guard

1 Thug

1 Wolf

1 Guard

1 Thug

1 Wolf

2 Guards

1 Thug

2 Wolves

2 Guards

 

Review: Lone Wolf Adventure Game

In Lone Wolf, psychic rangers fight Darklords – eventually, after first dealing with colourful – if clichéd – low-level quest fodder. Cubicle 7 has published this, a neat little box set full of goodies to play with; a complete RPG set in the fantasy world of Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf series of gamebooks. The product itself is lovely – a set of counters, a nicely illustrated set of pregens, three books – one player-focused, one GM-focused, and one with two starter adventures in it, a map and a couple of reference tables. It’s all very slick – and I do appreciate a full box when I buy a boxed set.

The Fluff

Although the Lone Wolf world of Sommerlund started out, apparently, as Joe Dever’s own D&D campaign world, it’s always felt a little darker, edgier, and, weirdly, more pastoral than a regular fantasy world. It’s got some distinctive elements – you’re basically playing psychic rangers who venture forth from their monastery to right the wrongs of the world, and defend it from the Darklords of Naar away to the West who are constantly trying to corrupt the land.

As Kai Lords, the PCs are generally respected – in the starter adventure most of the NPCs are falling over themselves to offer them room and board – and have a heavily implied moral code, reinforced awkwardly as said NPCs also keep offering the PCs rewards for their heroic behaviour – which the adventure then reminds the GM they should turn down. When I ran it, in the way of D&D clerics through the ages, the coffers of the “Kai monastery maintenance and upkeep fund” were kept well topped up by their generous donations.

It’s a nice balance of the familiar and the original – I like the players being respected heroes, although without their supplement Heroes of Magnamund a party composed entirely of Kai Lords is likely to struggle for niche protection as the PCs can all be a bit samey.

The Crunch

The system is very light. And comes in two levels of complexity, one ultra-, ultra-light. Skill rolls, in an homage to the gamebooks they are based on, are made by flipping a token into the inside of the box, where a matrix of numbers from 0 to 9 are laid out. If this sounds fiddly, and potentially clumsy, it is. The book does suggest that you can use a regular ten-sided dice, and that is likely to be an easier option, particularly if you’re precious about losing any of the tokens. For a normal test, you just need to get a 6 or more, and there are no modifiers – which is quite a nice touch.

Luck tests are neat too – you flip one of the coin-like luck tokens and if Kai, god of the sun results you pass – if Naar is uppermost you fail. It’s a pretty neat, and quick, way of resolving luck tests. Combat is resolved by looking at a table – at which point I begin to yawn – but this resolves damage to both parties, making an already quick system twice as fast. With this inbuilt folding of the exchanges it’s easy to work some narrative of what is actually happening in the battle into it.

The Master level rules, while still around the complexity of, say, Dragon Warriors, add a touch more nuance and some combat maneuvers which should make combat a bit more interesting.

The One Shot

The set comes with a starter adventure – that I’d advise following only loosely as it makes a couple of massive one-shot pitfalls. To its credit, it aims to teach the system – and it meets this goal admirably; I read the adventure before running it, but not really either of the other books. The players have to track down a missing caravan, which has, it turns out, been taken by bandits – there’s no complex subplot or theme for the GM to hold in their head while they’re trying to remember the rules.

The problem is, there’s no subplot at all. There are no reasons for the bandits to have captured the caravan, other than their general bandit-ness, nor why this wagon or merchant were their target. Running it, I added a loose reason – still not massively original, but it added the investigative bit to the adventure that was missing.

There’s also two encounters – if they can be called that – that happen for no discernible reason. Near the start of the adventure the PCs encounter an injured deer, and can attempt to free it or put it out of its misery – ostensibly a scene to teach the players how to make tests, but it can be resolved without any tests at all. There are no consequences for their action, nor any signposts that the course of action my players took – putting the deer out of its misery, then taking it as an offering to the merchants – is going to lead to the post-adventure admonishment that it instructs.

There’s a similar miss-step where the PCs see a bandit scout spying on them, and if they give chase they, er, find his body – he runs away from them, trips over a log, and instantly dies. It doesn’t make sense – the only reason I can see for it is to avoid the GM having to run an interrogation scene with the bandit (which is unlikely anyway given the implied lethality of combat) – I let them catch him and fight him, when I ran it.

There is a follow-up adventure, which has a bit more oomph in it; and some roleplaying opportunities – and I wouldn’t complain too much as everything else about this product makes it great for one-shot play. But when I run it again, I’ll have a mixed party of different cultures, use the master rules, and write my own – straightforward – adventure.

Viking Hats All Round! – Prepping GMless Games

Fairly regularly, I run games at conventions or other meet-ups that function without the traditional GM role. GM-less is a bit of a misnomer, as really the GM role is shared out between the rest of the group; some writers prefer the term GM-full, but that just reminds me how much terrible food I eat at conventions, so I prefer GM-less.

Over the past few years, I’ve run, among others, Fiasco (Jason Morningstar’s Coen brothers movie emulation game), The Final Girl (Brett Gillan’s game of Survival Horror – a low-key gem of a game), and most recently Melancholy Kaiju (Ewen Cluney’s slice-of-life giant monster soap opera).

It’s not quite the easy ride you might assume to run games like this at a con – with your name at the top of the sign-up sheet, you still feel responsible for everyone’s fun at the table, and you are devolving even more of the power to make or break that to your players. Often what I think I’ll gain in not having to prep pregens and plot I make up for in stress about the system. Here’s my advice for doing it as painlessly as possible:

1. Advertise honestly

Make sure that you state in your game ad that it’s GM-less, and that players will be expected to contribute to the plot. Playing a game like this at a convention is a great way for gamers used to traditional games to experience it, but not if it grabs them by surprise. Give some indication of the resolution system, or lack of it, and whether the players will keep the same characters or not.

For example, in Fiasco there isn’t really a resolution system at all – just a feeling from the rest of the table for a positive or negative outcome – but players are always playing their own PC if they are in the scene (if they aren’t, they’ll be picking up an NPC, but they have final say over their own PC’s actions). In The Final Girl, there’s a direct resolution system with cards to decide who dies, and the PCs aren’t ‘owned’ by anyone – at the start of a scene you can pick any character card up and play it. Some folks will find one, or the other, of these things weird, and will want to know in advance if that’s the case. So tell them.

2. Know the rulesMelancholy Kaiju prep

Absolutely essential that you know the rules, and in particular, the procedures of play, in the game. These games have a formalised sequence of play and events, and this is what you need to know inside out, like you would know the plot of the adventure you were running in a more traditional game. Personally, I like to write out bullet point summaries for the sequence of play. I have these in front of me at the table to refer to, but usually I don’t need to look at them – the act of writing them out internalises them enough that after a couple of scenes we all know what’s happening. To the right are my notes for running a game of Melancholy Kaiju last weekend – I think I wrote these out before breakfast on the morning I was running it.

3. Set Tone and Tropes

Make sure you’re clear to the players what kind of game this is likely to produce, and ask them to reinforce it. This can be tricky depending on genre – for instance, in Fiasco, it’s absolutely essential that you pick a playset that all the players are familiar and comfortable with. Every time I’ve had a sightly flat game of Fiasco, it’s been directly because of us not quite gelling with the genre. Good ones for first time players are Gangster London (at least in the UK, everyone can do a Guy Ritchie movie), Touring Rock Band (again, Spinal Tap is etched pretty deep in our national consciousness), or one of the Cthuhu / D&D playsets. Bring a selection and get the rest of the table to pick – it does actually say in Fiasco to do that, but I’ve certainly ignored that advice in the past.

Alongside the tone in the fictional setting, set the tone in real-life as well. Call breaks when needed, check everyone is okay with the pace and the plot, and take the lead in explaining and/or adjudicating. Usually the procedures of play will moderate between player disagreement, but be prepared to be the referee yourself if needed – or if one player is dominating or fading into the background.

4. Play hard

Important advice for every game, but remember that you’ve got to model player behaviour as well in a game like this. Pursue your PC’s goals and embrace the situations they will end up in, and you will encourage the other players to do likewise.

Remember to be an audience as well – and model this. When you have a good scene, break character to point it out, so that other players do too; this feedback loop is important in GM-less games, as players will often be wondering if they are ‘doing it right’ if they introduce elements. Reassure them they are by pointing out awesome stuff as it happens.

As I said at the start, running GM-less games at conventions are a great way to mix up your experiences – they also feel quite different to run from games with a traditional GM role, so it gives you a bit of a break as a GM if you’re running a few. What have been your experiences of running GM-less games at conventions? Any positive – or negative – experiences we can learn from?

The Ur-Plot

Every time I sit down and prep a one-shot game, I tend towards the reliable plot structure that I’ve used, especially if it’s my usual style – a pulpy action/adventure. It might sound like this is a boring constraint, but it’s also a useful one – it can be easy to over-think structure in one-shot games.

I should note that there are plenty of games that this structure doesn’t apply to – PBTA games, for example, lend themselves to a much more loose prep style that allows the players to relax into their PCs and follow their noses much more, as I’ve suggested here.

In short, I build my plot around three parts (I’m not a fan of calling them “Acts” – it all seems a bit am-dram) –

Part 1 – is a big, actiony open. It’s probably a fight scene, but it might be a chase or a tense investigation. It should set up the situation the PCs find themselves in and where they could be heading.

Part 2 – is really a collection of options. Here it can be quite loose – a few clues from Scene 1 might lead them around different places, adding up evidence or just covering ground. These mini-scenes can be quite short, flavour scenes that reinforce the tone of the game, or simple skill checks that can be overcome and allow some peripheral characters to shine. Eventually, though, they will all lead to…

Part 3 – a big climactic fight. The PCs should be stretched by this fight – the one-shot mortality rule is that it’s OK to kill the PCs in the last fight, but before this is usually a poor show.

And that’s it. Whatever your premise, whatever your system, a tight one-shot game probably boils down to the sequence above. Quite often, when I review my own games and the plot hasn’t really sung, it’s been a reluctance to follow this 3-part structure (such as here, where I pretty much missed out Step 2).

Over-simplification? Or am I just stating the obvious? Credit where it’s due, there’s a lot more detail on this here, on The Alexandrian.

Under The ‘Hood – Lanchester Set-Up

In this post, I promised I’d share my actual prep sheet for the game of The ‘Hood that I ran at Revelation. To recap what I did in advance of the con, I knew my players had prebooked so had them pick playbooks on a loose premise of a northern town estate.

When I had that, I read the playbooks properly that they’d picked and bashed out the text below as a rough guide to what I needed to remember on the day. I’d imagine there’s probably enough for somebody else to use, although if it’s your first time I’m not sure if the combination of playbooks makes either the MC or the players’ jobs easier – The Matriarch and The Bastion are both ‘support’-y characters, while The Blur messes around with The Heat mechanic in a way that might make it tricky to pick up.

I should also mention, before sharing the setup below, that the most important piece of prep I did was to get myself in a game of The ‘Hood run by somebody else who knew their stuff – in this case James Mullen, the game’s designer.

The Hood: Lanchester

A piss-poor, former mining town somewhere in the North of England. The dizzy metropolis and bright lights of Sheffield and Leeds yawn off in the distance, but up here it’s pretty much as it’s been since the 1980s… you keep your heads above water, you scratch each other’s backs, you try and keep the cops off your back. It’s a hard knock life.

The PCs:

 The Bastion

  • Operating out of a greasy spoon.
  • Pick 3 NPCs that are part of your crew (your regulars)
  • Who is causing the most trouble for you at the moment, and why?

The Blur

  • Can tipp-ex out other PCs heat
  • Pick 3 scams that you have been, or are, running to keep ends meet
  • Which scam is currently causing you the biggest headache, and why?

The Matriarch

  • Pick 3 NPCs who are your kids
  • Why are they each in trouble?

The Fallen

  • Name your partner, plus 2 other NPCs who you are in cahoots with – one from The Bastion, one from The Matriarch
  • Which of them has been giving you grief recently, and why?

SetUp

  • Everyone begins with 2 Heat and 3 Experience
  • Explain / negotiate how they got this – it’s probably linked to their love letters established previously
  • Draw a big street name on a sheet; everyone goes round and adds their home street onto it
  • Everyone labels their home on the sheet; The Bastion gets to label his base as well.
  • Then add each of these locations inturn:
    • Corner shop
    • Church
    • The pub
    • The bookies
    • The health centre
    • The skate park
    • ….
  • Then list any important locations that aren’t there; these become locations outside of the Hood.
  • Each location should have an NPC attached to it – these can be the NPCs established  previously

Establish The Threat: Thin Rob, a cockney in a stolen suit

He represents a Syndicate – East End gangsters from the big city looking to put the screws on Landchester to get their dues. Him and his two lackeys, Dave Small and Eric the Beast, start moving around the hood.

They figure that they first need to try and get rid of any movers and shakers around the area, so will make the PCs an offer they can’t refuse… a tip off to hold up the corner shop in the next town over, West Ealing. They say the cameras haven’t worked for months, and they don’t clear the tills at the end of every night, so there should be a decent raid money available. For a cut (10%) they’ll let the PCs have the info, gratis, along with their operator, Ivan, who will check the cameras are off.

Naturally they will set up the PCs – the cops will be tipped off as soon as they carry out the raid, botched as it is likely to be.

Following this, they carry out moves as established to move the PCs out and take over the turf of the Hood, as per the rules in the main rulebook:

  • Make an offer to go into business (as above, or they start paying off the Bastion to use his greasy spoon to hold their meetings)
  • Take down a resident of the Hood (the biggest fish apart from the PCs – make it a beloved NPC first, then one of the Matriach’s kids)
  • Threaten to cause pain (as above)
  • Operate in the Hood (start selling grass outside the corner shop, meat in the pub, that sort of thing. 
  • Provide what’s needed, at a price (when the chips are down, they’ll offer to save the PCs, or their loved ones, skins, in return for a leg up, all honest-like in Lanchester).