Prep Techniques: A Bag of Tricks

In earlier prep technique posts, I’ve talked about 5 Room Dungeons, Sly Flourish’s method, using 3 Places, and starting with a con pitch. Most of those are focussed toward more traditional GM-prepped games – where you have a clear idea of the scenes and sequence of play the players will encounter in game. Today I’m going to share a technique I’ve been using to prep for Blades in the Dark, John Harper’s game of steampunk heists in a cursed city. 

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With Blades (and other less GM-led games, including a lot of PBTA games – although some of those have other prep processes) – you don’t really know where the PCs are going to go. You prep a score, and some things that might happen in it – and then roll with the punches and dice rolls of the players. This can be intimidating if you’re used to a more traditional setup – and indeed, I’ve shown here how a more traditional setup can work with Blades as a one-shot – but it can really sing if you’ve done your prep to be ready to respond to players in a few different ways.

The idea behind this technique is to produce a bag of stuff that can be used during the session to keep it ticking along, in systems that do some (but not all) of the improv heavy lifting for you.

What’s This For?

In the examples below, I’ll be talking about Blades, and this definitely works for mission-based Forged in the Dark games. Some PBTA games like Masks and Monster of the Week have similar approaches – MOTW has a mystery countdown and a monster, and Masks needs your Supervillain statted up – and I think it generally works for more directly-plotted PBTA games. 

If I was running, for example, Thirsty Sword Lesbians, Monsterhearts, or Apocalypse World as a one-shot, I’d definitely use this – because I’d want a strong inciting incident and a finite stage of locations for the action. In an ongoing campaign, I might be less constrained by the first step below, but I’d probably use the same process described below for Locations and Characters and Moments for each session.

Think About the Score

Disclaimer: in any post about how to prep a John Harper game, the first advice is – do what John Harper tells you to do. This is right there in the book, but it is a bit hidden away on p188 in the GM Actions section. Maybe it’s not hidden away – but I’d run Blades a few times before reading it.

In it, you need to consider the mission you’re offering the players – it has a structure of things to think about, like the target location, some secrets to be discovered, an obvious and non obvious approach vector – but nothing too concrete. Often the first scene – where a faction offers the score – is the only fully-prepped scene in the session, and this is where this tends to come out.

To tell the truth, sometimes I follow this process, and sometimes I just write a con pitch-style overview for the score. Generally the secrets and factions come out through the rest of the process.

One or Two Locations, Plenty of Characters

You’ll need to think about the main location where you expect play to take place, and you’ll need a cast of characters for the PCs to interact with. Generally I’ll try and prep more NPCs than I need so I can throw extra ones in when needed – and in an ongoing game those leftover characters will just reappear later. I use something like the Gauntlet’s 7-3-1 technique for this, and 7 is a good number total for these things.

In particular, having a way to portray NPCs at the table is really useful to make them more interesting – it’s only at the am-dram level, we’re not Critical Role – but it really helps to model a little bit of in-character dialogue from the players as well.

Moments

Moments are your Batman Utility-Belt of cool descriptions – including shark-repellant spray!

Moments is an idea lifted directly from Trophy – I think – although other Gauntlet games feature them now, and they’re a great idea. Basically, they’re background, system and setting neutral-ish things that happen to reinforce the tone and style of the game. If that sounds too fancy, these were what I had for an Infirmary raid score in Blades a few weeks ago:

  • A scream from a nearby room as a pair of drunken Billhooks play a deadly game of amateur surgery on one another and come running out
  • A covered body that appears to still be breathing
  • A neatly arranged table of surgical tools and chemicals
  • A panicked orderly desperately trying to ignore the chaos around them
  • Rows and rows of Bluecoats setting up to raid the Skovlanders

They don’t have to be amazingly original or interesting, but they help you to come up with something that gives the locations and setting more verisimilitude as you play without requiring boxed-text style prep.

So, with a score/opening scene, some locations and characters, and a few moments, you should be good to go. Extras to consider are – if you haven’t already covered them in the score prep – what sort of twists could arrive to complicate matters, and what secrets about their target could be revealed. Usually when I use this method, these come out organically from the locations and characters as I think about their motivations. What other prep techniques have you used for FITD / PBTA / other more loosely controlled systems?

Great Train Journeys – In Defence of the Railroad

Last weekend, at Grogmeet, I found myself apologising as my One Ring 2e game started –

I’ve adapted this from the Starter Set adventures… it might be a bit linear…

Many of my one-shots are, I realise. Read prep posts here and you’ll find discussions of scenes, pre-planned for trad games, that often take place in a set order. I think I run a lot of railroads at cons. 

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So, should I be apologising? Well, no – because first of all, a good railroad knocks the socks off a poor sandbox – it’s easier to pace and easier to prep if you know where the game is going. Also, there are some ways to make your railroad much less railroady, so your players don’t feel they’ve been shoehorned into a plot. Here are my top tips for making linear one-shots better.

An actual railroad track. Don’t use this.

Multiple Resolutions

If you need scenes to happen in a set order, give each scene a flexible way to resolve it. For example, if your investigators have to find out that the Hell’s Angels were hired to threaten your murder victim, consider how the players can

  • Beat up on them to get their respect
  • Trick the information out of them
  • Negotiate with them for the clue

Come up with three ways to resolve the scene, and make each one exciting – but be open at the table to other reasonable requests; the thinking about different ways will make it easier for you to respond to other unexpected ways at the table.

Be flexible about scene transitions (what Robin Laws in Feng Shui 2 calls ‘connective tissue,’ too – have multiple ways to get to the next set piece scene, that can happen in a few ways. A 13th Age montage, or One Ring’s Journey system, are good approaches for this – as they create unpredictability, either from the players or the dice.

Flexible Ordering and “the Swell”

Another way to mix up the railroad and make it feel less linear is, well, to make it less linear. While you might have a clear idea of the start and end of your session, and possibly a key scene in the middle, intersperse this with scenes that can take place in any order.

So the players encounter the bandits raiding the village and fight them (KEY SCENE), learn of an opposing force massive to strike on the village (CONNECTIVE TISSUE), then recruit allies and prepare the village defenses (FLEXIBLE SCENES), then fight off the attack (KEY SCENE).

For the flexible scenes, it can help to think of them as short challenges, and think of a ‘normal approach’ (which might just be a simple skill check or challenge) that will get it done. Combine this approach with the one above – with multiple approaches for each task likely to be successful. Chain this between three key scenes, and you’ve got yourself an epic adventure. The example above was largely the plot of @the_smart_party ‘s Deadlands game I played at Grogmeet, where we foiled an actual railroad – following the mass battle (Savage Worlds, it turns out, has a great abstracted mass battle system) we tracked the real villain into his cult and fought him as a final key scene. 

Make Them Pop

The truth is, if your scenes are really entertaining, and transitions between them logical, nobody will care that they are linear. In a campaign, yes, you’ll find this unsatisfying after a couple of sessions, but in a one-shot the strong pull of a linear plot will keep everyone engaged.

Make sure each scene has some genuine stakes though – maybe they make subsequent scenes easier or harder, or feed into the final confrontation. Scenes do still need stakes, and you need to find a way to do this when the scenes that follow are pre-determined. And, whatever you do, don’t start the session sharing a map with one road going one way – a literal railroad out for everyone to see.

This was all I did with One Ring – the starter set has 5 adventures, so I stuck together two of them and tried to stick to the best bits and Spend Hope that the players enjoyed themselves – and I think they did.

What are your views on the railroad? Is anyone going to rush to the defense of the sandbox? Either way, let me know in the comments.

Prep Techniques: The Con Pitch

Previously on this blog I’ve talked about 5-Room Dungeons, Three Places, and Sly Flourish’s Lazy Dungeon Master method. Today I’m going to showcase another technique, which is my starting point for convention one-shots, but can be applied easily to any TTRPG session. It’s more of a pre-drinks technique rather than the actual prep pub crawl, but it’s a good way to go from a blank slate to a sketched-out session – and then you can get the beers in.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

What’s a Con Pitch?

At a convention, you’d write a snappy pitch for your game to entice players to sign up for it; this is either printed out on a sign-up sheet (maybe with some nice art to draw punters in) or posted online so that prospective players know what to sign up for. Like the blurb on the back of a book, it should sell the session and promise excitement and fun! As an example, here’s my pitch for a game of Sentinel Comics at the Owlbear & Wizards Staff convention that’s coming up:

In this terrifying issue, Ray Manta has hatched a devious plan to hold Freedom City to ransom, by kidnapping the hapless Mayor Thomas at the opening of Freedom City Aqualand. After dealing with the aftermath of his kidnapping, the heroes have to track down Ray Manta to his secret underwater base, find him, and battle him and his aquatic friends to save the mayor.

I also include a bit about what the system is, if there’s any PVP, etc – but that’s not relevant here. Writing this pitch is almost the very first thing that I do to prep for a con game – before pregens or scenes. Why? Because it focusses my thoughts into a simple specification for the session. I write this, then come back to it and make a session out of it – starting from this makes prep much more manageable!

What Do You Want From This? – Start with Goals

To get your con pitch ready, start by working out what you want to get out of it. If it’s a con game, you might want to showcase a system or a setting – what are the elements of that that you’d like to foreground?

If it’s for an ongoing campaign game, you might already have an idea of the next logical session that will follow on (in a sandbox game, ask your players at the end of each session what they do next and work from that). Or you might want to highlight or introduce an enemy or setting element they haven’t seen yet. Or highlight a PC; in a recent series of Star Trek Adventures I loosely modelled the first four sessions on spotlighting each of the PCs in turn.

In either case, you might also want to use a cool monster – by starting with an opponent, the rest can be fitted around it. For the purpose of an example, I’m going to pitch a D&D adventure set in Theros – the Greek-ish Magic setting they’ve recently put out (if you’re interested in Theros, as well as my review, check out this character primer and this supplement from Tim Gray – the first one in particular is invaluable for character creation). There’s a bunch of cool new monsters in it, but I’d like to run a one-shot featuring the Hundred-Handed Ones – giants surrounded by floating arms that serve as artisans and have beef with the archons. So let’s start from that point – we want them to fight a Hundred-Handed One at the climax of the adventure.

Notes, Notes, Notes

Before you write your pitch, you might need to fill in some details. For instance, if you’re running D&D or 13th Age, what level the PCs are is important (I’m completely not above reskinning stats to balance against the PCs, as in the 1st-level owlbear antagonist here). For a one-shot, you might work backwards based on your antagonist to work out the level you want your PCs to be – and then you can fill in some more potential opponents. Look at this post about fight rosters for inspiration – and my mantra is that fights are always easy or hard, never medium.

If you have that decided, look at any advice the game has for balancing fights and think about appropriate antagonists, and also exciting action scenes and interesting NPCs. Hold lightly onto these ideas – not all of them will make it, and you certainly won’t put them in your pitch, but it’ll get you in the right brain space to begin to have an idea of the shape of the session.

Look at the setting as well – both in terms of history and events, and what sort of terrain the session will be set in. A useful technique for me is to write down ten components you could put into it – ten might seem like a lot, but it’s in the stretching and uncomfortable thinking that you’ll get your best ideas. Again, not all of these will actually be used, but they give you a good framework.

Thinking about our Theros one-shot, a Hundred-Handed One is CR 15, so a quick eyeball of levels indicates 5 heroes should be at about level 11 or so for a big climactic fight with one and some minions. It’s Theros, so the Gods are everywhere, so let’s have Purphoros, God of the Forge, involved as well – this giant has stolen part of his forge, and seeks to remake the Archons work (which, inconveniently for many heroes, includes many of the cities of Theros) by his own hand in revenge. He’s taken over a Volcano Temple (map in the Theros supplement) and corrupted the priests and guardians to worship him.

Theros contains suggested monsters for Purphoros, so let’s have some CR4 Oreads (fire nymphs) to trick the party, and maybe a pair of CR5 Fire Elementals that can be tricked or bypassed. I like the idea of a four-armed hill giant guarding the entrance, too – should be a nice easy warm-up fight with some terrified cultists to start the session with.  A bit more daydreaming, and my  list of 10 components looks like this:

  1. Battling a hundred-handed giant in the bowels of a volcano-forge
  2. Riddling with corrupted fire nymphs through the temple innards
  3. Geseros, the flame-haired priest of Purphoros with a brass arm who entreats the players for help
  4. A treacherous climb through lava floes to the temple
  5. The forge’s steam-filled cooling system flooding corridors with scalding water
  6. A six-armed hill giant and his four-armed ogre companion who guard the temple for the Hundred-Handed One
  7. Terrified smiths of Purphoros that must be rescured or calmed
  8. A volcano being stoked to erupt and flatten a city – allowing the giant to remake it in their image
  9. A pair of pun-obsessed satyrs, the last explorers to visit the temple, who can offer hints of the terrors within
  10. A reassuring/terrifying intervention by Purphoros if the giant is defeated.

Write Your Pitch

Now, in less than 100 words, pitch your scenario. Start with a grabby opener – say what the key idea of the session is, and make it exciting! Go big with what the stakes are and what the PCs might face. Using questions is a good idea as well – Can you survive the treacherous Akorosian Sea? Will you defeat the mighty Kraken?

Oh, and give it a title – even if it’s a session in an ongoing game, session titles make them exciting and episodic, and give a hook to. If in doubt, just name it after a location – (Adjective) (Exciting Place) of (Noun) is as good a model as any.

Here’s our finished pitch for our Theros one-shot

The Doom-Forge of Purphoros

Purphoros, God of the Forge, calls for aid! His volcano-temple has been desecrated by an ancient, hundred-handed giant, who seeks to reform the city below in his own deadly image. Can you race up the lava floes, battling the corrupted forge-creatures and evading their deadly traps, to prevent the eruption? Or will you fall to Alekto, the Hundred-Handed One, renegade smith of the Archons? A D&D one-shot for five 11th level PCs.

What Next?

Next, wait. Leave the pitch at least overnight – and possibly for much longer, conventions often need games to be confirmed well in advance – and then flesh out the adventure using whatever more detailed prep technique you have. Let me know if you want me to develop the Doom-Forge into a full adventure – and maybe even run it for patrons – in the comments or on twitter @milnermaths.

Prep Techniques: Three Places

Last time in this series, I talked about using 5-Room Dungeons to structure your sessions or one-shots. Today, I’m going to discuss something I’m calling 3 Places. I first read about this on The Alexandrian’s blog about Node-Based design, and it is also featured in a lot of Free League’s scenario advice for Tales from the Loop and Vaesen. I used it myself in The Goblins and the Pie Shop, my reimagining of the orc and pie “scenario” for 1st level D&D.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

This structure gives limited autonomy to the players while making prep manageable, and works well for investigative games where you want the players to uncover a mystery or secret before a final confrontation. It works less well if you’ve got a more straightforwardly linear plot in mind, or if you want the players to encounter set pieces in order.

Overview

In this structure, the PCs are investigating an area – a town, a wilderness region, even a dungeon – which has three key places relevant to the scenario. They can explore 1, 2, or all 3 of these to lead to a final confrontation.

Each of the three places contains clues not only to the final confrontation, but also to the other two places. At the start of the session, an inciting incident (an action scene) will point them towards one or more of these places. They can then be explored in whatever order the players want, before finally hitting the final confrontation.

In general, the more information they gather from the three places, the better an idea they have what’s going on and how to tackle it – but don’t worry too much about encouraging or planning for this. They might decide to explore all three, or after one or two they might decide they know enough to move to the finale.

Example

Let’s start with a classic fantasy example, and one that isn’t always easy to translate to play – a beast is stalking the farms hereabouts, and the players are asked to investigate it. I’m thinking a dire wolf or hell-touched bear or something, and I’ve decided it’s going to be normally immume to normal weapons – so that nearby inhabitants can’t just raise a militia to flush it out.

Inciting Incident – the players are ambushed by desperate bandits (a training fight – a way to learn the system while they are easily despatched). When questioned, they are trappers from the forest who’ve had to resort to banditry because a beast now stalks their lands. Their camp was attacked head-on by it, and they worry their wounded are still there in hiding – the abandoned trappers camp location. When they proceed to the nearest village, they are asked to investigate the beast – there is a old wise woman in the forest who might be able to help locate it

Place 1 – At the abandoned trappers camp they find desperate, wounded trappers who – once found in their hiding place, and suitably healed – can tell them the beast came out of nowhere, and they can find tracks leading to the perilous caves where it (presumably) lairs. The signs of its attack are all around – including a tree nearby where it rubbed some of its fur off, which glistens grey in the sunlight. Their weapons and arrows did not seem to harm it – maybe the old wise woman could help prepare a blessing?

Place 2 – At the old wise woman’s hut, they must first convince the suspicious hermit they mean her no harm. She will augur the ways of the forest, and identify the beast – a vast wolf, impervious to wood and steel. She can produce an ungeant meaning they can harm it, but she’ll need some of its fur. She can see it in the perilous caves as well and direct the PCs towards there.

Place 3 – At the perilous caves, they can sneak in and find enough fur to make the ungeant, but the area is guarded by lesson wolves who they must drive off.

Finale – Armed with the ungeant, they can track and ambush the beast – either in the perilous caves, or by laying a trap for it where they know it stalks. Although now they can injure it, it will still be a challenging fight to defeat the beast.

Notice that any of the three places can lead to any others, and that they players can take multiple routes through it. There are a few core clues – that its not able to be hurt by normal weapons, and that its fur can be used to make the ungeant – but these can be discovered in a few different ways.

Advantages of This Approach

One of the big advantages of this approach is that you can modify the pace to suit your time slot. Particularly in a convention game, this is really useful – I’ve blogged before about having a collapsible dungeon, but it’s even easier if you have these key places. It also makes setting an adventure in a city or town much easier – in the Goblins and the Pie Shop, the PCs wander between the town, the pie shop, and the forest pretty much at will – which is especially useful in a low-level scenario where one bad fight can knock some players out a bit.

I find this approach relatively easy to adjust on the fly, as well. If the players spend much longer than expected at the trappers camp, it’s easy to make the wise woman more helpful and volunteer her information sooner. If they show now interest at all in the wise woman, you can share the info about needing the ungeant from one of the trappers – or even have the beast attack, and show them they can’t harm it.

Things to Consider

It’s generally a good idea to have something exciting to do at each of the locations – either a fight, a social scene, or skill challenge / exploration (with skill checks and twists ready if they fail). In the example above, there’s one of each of these at each location. The wolf guardians are a floating encounter that can be dropped in wherever needed if the PCs need slowing down or reminding of the danger of the situation – likewise, having some genre-appropriate “men with guns” to appear if the pace is slowing is a good idea.

You also need to provide some motivation and time pressure for this. Whether this is by an actual countdown of what will happen if they dawdle, or just an obvious implication – that the beast will continue to attack cattle, and eventually the village itself – this will provide the motivation to decide quickly which locations to go to.

For more ideas, the whole of the Alexandrian’s node-based design posts are the foundational work on this. Have you used a similar technique to plot out adventures? Look out for more Prep Techniques later in June!

Prep Techniques: The 5-Room Non-Dungeon

In this series, I’m going to be looking at ways to get started when prepping a one-shot – although, as I talk about here, I use pretty much the same techniques for prepping sessions of ongoing games. Some of these will be my own ideas, some of these are references to other people’s stuff, and some are reviews of products.

Since you’re here, I should point out that you could have read this a week earlier if you were one of my Patreons – you can subscribe here, and for a trifling fee of £2 a month you get access to blog posts a week before they appear on the blog, the option to request topics for posts, the chance to play in one-shots online with me, and the warm glow of satisfaction of helping keep this blog alive.

To start with, we’re going to look at the 5-Room Dungeon. Created by Johnn Four at roleplayingtips, you can find an overview and some great examples of it here. To summarise, your ‘dungeon’ has 5 rooms – in sequence, as below

  • Room One: Entrance and Guardian
  • Room Two: Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge
  • Room Three: Trick or Setback
  • Room Four: Climax, Big Battle or Conflict
  • Room Five: Reward, Revelation or Plot Twist

I don’t intend to spend any time talking about each of these stages here – the link above goes into detail far better than I could. Instead I’m going to discuss the pros and cons of the structure, and my own hack of it that I often use prepping sessions.

Pros and Cons

The 5 Room Dungeon is about the exact right length for a single session; it keeps your prep focussed and compact and helps you to avoid throwing in additional time-wasting encounters or scenes. It’s also easy to translate into lots of other settings apart from the dungeon – more on that later. It gives a good balance of combat and role-playing. And it’s a great starting point – using this as a basic structure, it’s easy to add bits to it (even optional bits to give you flexibility with pacing) or move things around; between Room 1 and Room 4 you can kind of do what you want.It does have some limitations for me. I’m not a huge fan of the “Trick or Setback” room without giving PCs a chance to avoid or overcome it, and I don’t think Room Five really needs its own room – certainly, in a one-shot, an end-of-game Plot Twist is a bit weak. And, I don’t think it works very well for dungeons. Anything else, it’s a solid structure, but I think dungeon design is its own thing (I’ve blogged in the past about it briefly) and deserves more than this linear-ish structure. So, I’ve hacked it a bit to the structure below

The Five-Room Non-Dungeon

Scene One: Inciting Incident or Action (skill checks, challenges, or combat)

Scenes Two – Four

– A Combat scene

– A Roleplaying scene

– A Skills-based scene

Scene Five: The Finale

Scenes two-four can happen in a pre-determined order, have options for the players to pursue in whatever order they want, or can be left for you to decide the order during play based on what it looks like the players need.

The 5-Room Non-Dungeon In “Flowchart” Form

In more detail

In scene one, you start the session off with action. Even if later on they’ll be asked to save the  village / explore the caves / hunt the werewolf, you want to begin the game with the dice rolling and players getting to grips with the rules. A bandit attack is the go-to old fantasy trope, but it’s a good way to start – give the bandits some clues as to the looming threat, or at least some link to the rest of the adventure, and it’s a great way to hook the players into the plot.Scenes Two-Four should show a range of challenges as your setting or system supports. The roleplaying scene is the only one that might be system-free – and is contrasted with the “Roleplaying Challenge” from above – it might be a friendly character you discover, or a monster that can be charmed or talked into helping them.

To really make these scenes sing, think about an alternative approach for each of them – and be flexible for the players taking this approach. Maybe the thieves’ guild ambush, that you’d imagined as a combat scene, could be tricked into leaving them alone (maybe some good roleplaying ideas with or without a skill roll), or maybe they can bypass the corridor of traps (planned as a skills scene) by getting the goblins to help disarm them.

Scene Five is probably a fight. Have stuff going on in the environment and a good mix of big bads, lieutenants, and mook opponents to make it a satisfying scene, and make it as challenging as your group’s tastes are. For my D&D5e preferences, this is a touch above what it says in the DMG for “Hard” – although if you’re running a one-shot and the players clearly know what they’re doing in terms of system mastery you could go higher.

Examples

If you want an example of the 5-Room Dungeon, apart from those on the roleplayingtips website, there’s Tower of the Stirge on this blog. This is a bit between the two approaches – and ‘cleverly’ disguises its linear plot by setting it in a tower. I’ve got another post lined up with a couple of examples of this structure – but as I haven’t run them yet, I’ll have to keep them behind the wall in case my player’s see them!Have you used the 5-Room Dungeon format successfully? Anything you’ve found that works well or poorly about it? Feel free to comment below – or suggest any prep problems or techniques you’d like to see explored in future.