Metaplots of the Apocalypse – one-shot structure in PBTA/FITD games

Last weekend I was at Revelation, the convention for Powered By The Apocalypse (PBTA) and PBTA-adjacent games in Sheffield. I ran Fistful of Darkness (FoD), an in-playtest Blades in the Dark hack, over 2 slots on the Saturday, and faced some challenges as the game has a fairly baked-in metaplot. I’m going to share what I did to pace the session and ensure we had a satisfying conclusion and gradient of doom.

The Basics

4RidersOfDoomV2As I talked about here, in PBTA you can make things easier for yourself by either pre-booking or limiting (depending on if you know your players) the playbooks available. Luckily I knew I had a Shot and a Wrench & Saw playing, so I knew that gunfights and steampunk mad science were going to feature heavily. I spent about forty minutes on prep at the table, getting some NPCs from each player, laying them out on index cards on the table, and getting some features of the town. As I always do with these games, during the seven hour run I had a couple of times where I took a break and asked the players to leave me alone while I did some mid-game prep – mainly involving trying to fold existing stuff into the plot, but more on that later.

Get Your Beats In

FoD has an in-built metaplot – the discovery of Hellstone is releasing monsters, and eventually the Four Horsemen, across the land, leading to an inevitable apocalypse. In play it has a Doom mechanic that triggers this, but I quickly realised that wasn’t going to work for a one-shot session. I decided to keep Doom as a track, but leave it similar to Heat in Blades in the Dark – if it gets too high, monsters will start actually hunting the PCs – and decide myself when the Horsemen made an appearance.

I then thought about the time I had. I wanted to start with an introductory mission that dusted off the system and introduced some core concepts to the players, and made this a ‘mundane’ mission – a completely regular wild west train robbery, with no magical content save for the discovery of Hellstone in the safe and discovery of plans for a Hellstone claim. At the end of the first (3-hour) session I wanted the First Horseman to appear, and then the other three were to appear in the second act – one at first fairly early, and then two at once to herald the apocalypse proper about an hour from the end, to propel the PCs to the final action to try and prevent it.

Chekhov’s Apocalypse Horsemen

In play I tried to steer everything to make the appearance of the Horsemen tied to their own actions – any chaos they created, or NPCs they killed, inevitable came back to bite them as the situation got worse. Neatly, they managed to frame one NPC for murder almost by accident, so when he was hanged in the centre of town he came back as the Hanged Rider. As the players interacted with the town and its environs, the chorus of NPCs responded in kind, becoming more angry and bestial, so hopefully the final breakdown of the barriers between worlds felt natural.

There were also mundane re-incorporations; as part of the initial setup two PCs determined they were in town to compete in a poker tournament, so when we fleshed that out as a riverboat tournament it became a centrepiece scene.

Be Prepared! (to ignore your prep)

As well as an overall sketch, I had six jobs ready for the PCs that, while not directly related to the metaplot, could be twisted and folded into it. As it was maybe two made an appearance, and heavily modified at that, but several of them were options for the PCs to explore – they just chose not to, as there were always more pressing matters to attend to. I’d like to think that, like the side missions in an open world videogame, they added depth to the world, and I felt better as a GM knowing I had some prep I could fall back on. These were literally randomly rolled on the FoD tables.

Enjoy Yourself!

One of the true pleasures of these sorts of games is the unexpected scenes that come up, often from failed rolls. There were at least three of those scenes that I never could have expected in this session, and that made it all worthwhile. I do find running PBTA/FiTD games more exhausting than more traditional games – it’s the feeling of having to stay on top of everything and focus your moves all the time – but it’s worth it.

In my other games at Revelation, I played the fantastic PvP space fantasy epic Spacewurm vs. Moonicorn, and an excellent British millenial superhero romp of Masks. All excellent fun – and it’s happening next year as well. Have you used any techniques to embed metaplot or story advancement in otherwise improvised games? Comment below, or find me on twitter.

CSI: Tenth District – Ravnica Pregens

Following my post about Ravnica, I’ve been doing some prep for a game I’m going to run at Airecon in March (and probably a few other places, if it goes well). It’s for 3rd level characters loosely serving the Azorius Senate (the law-keeping guild in the game) and involves them chasing clues to try and recover a rogue biomancer. It’s heavily grounded in the pulp/action tradition, and includes an airship heist – because if there are airships in a setting, you’ve got to let the PCs heist one. The prep is still in development, but I’ve got a few tweaks that I’m excited about that I’ll share here including:

  • randomly-distributed NPC contacts that are key to the mission
  • establishing questions to determine the prior investigation and bring the PCs together as a team, and
  • ways to determine PC histories with key NPCs in the plot

I’m excited about it! Part of the joy of Ravnica is that by giving random tables instead of reams and reams of history, as DM you have the freedom to create interesting situations without worrying about canon (on the Smart Party Podcast, Baz and Gaz asked Kate Welch, Wizards Game Designer about this, and it certainly looks to be a part of their plans going forwards for new settings).

In the meantime, I’ve done a set of pregens for the adventure, and tried something a bit different in the character sheet design. I’ve tried to put the minimum of information on, and to make it as clear and easy as possible to use.

Some things have had to be sacrificed (not really any room for actual spells – I’ll be using the excellent spellbook cards at the table) – like non-proficient skills – but I’m curious to see how they run in play. I think that often pregen sheets have too much information on, and just look too complicated, which leads to things being missed if people aren’t familiar with the system; compare the Minotaur sheet above against the WFRP sheet I used for my Night of Blood game at Go Play Manchester.

 

So, anyway, here are the pregens – all 3rd level, and probably not as optimised as they would be if I’d played more D&D5e – but all ready to investigate crime in the Tenth District.

Vedalkan Wizard

Human Paladin

Minotaur Barbarian

Human Rogue

Please let me know if you use them, or have any feedback with them – I’m working on making my pregens more functional, and I’ve usually got a bit of a tin eye for visual design. And I’ll share the rest of the prep on here soon.

Breadcrumbing: Part 3 – After Action Report

In Part 1, I described an investigative adventure for Urban Jungle (UJ), an anthro noir game by Sanguine. In Part 2, I dug into why I’d planned it how I did. This is the final installment – for now – of my series of posts on running investigative games.

I got to run the game a couple of weeks ago at Go Play Leeds, the monthly one-shot meetup I run in Leeds, Yorkshire. Pleasingly I managed to get signups even with the slightly niche pitch (“It’s 1930s New Orleans gangsters… you’ll be investigating an underworld murder. Oh, and you’re all anthropomorphic animals.”) I had 5 players who threw themselves into the game. It all raced along at pace, and I got positive feedback at the end of it as well.

running urban jungleWhat Seemed to Work

The RDJ Sherlock Holmes method of clue discovery worked well – each scene and it’s main discovery had some action or roleplaying attached to it; along with the unfolding breadcrumbs the PCs also explored the city and came up with some good in-party japes. We managed a brawl, a car chase, and a couple of inventive uses of skills along the way to the big shootout at the end.

Getting player investment in character by asking them who they trust the most and least in the group worked as well as it has for the last few games, and is now going to be added (along with the introductory montage) firmly to my one-shot utility belt. Asking the players to define their link to the nightclub also helped, as they fleshed out their starting situation, and the nightclub, with every answer they gave.

The general structure seemed to work well, too, with a bang of an inciting incident and then a few options that all led (with clue-heavy links) to the finale in the hotel. I used my usual finale structure of “any reasonable plan works, but not as you expect it,” and they came up with an elaborate distraction by befriending the crocodile gang to deal with some of the guards, just leaving the villain and his henchmen to defeat.

The system! I was really impressed with UJ, especially how it handles non-combat characters. By making them hard to hit but giving them options to use social skills in combat (which, crucially, are balanced against regular combat), it really captured the feeling of a noir game where guns are a last resort. I’m stoked to try out Ironclaw and even their bonkers-looking anime sci-fi, Myriad Song, now.

What I Had to Tweak

A gap in my planning (obviously, the players are going to ask about the police, even if they don’t go to them) and I had to improvise a coyote policeman being paid off by their nightclub – he gave them 24 hours to fix the case themselves before he’d have to pass it up to the station. This was so obvious an omission that I just made him up, but I will add him to the adventure now. I can’t even remember what I called him – but he definitely needs to be rolled into the prep now.

One other thing that was certain was everything was very broad brush strokes – I think that some more definition in my descriptions (senses, feelings, weather) would have helped. These things are hard for me to improvise, despite always thinking I can do it on the fly. One of my descriptions might have showed my influence a bit strongly (the nightclub, with a private room viewing the dancefloor, prompted one player to say “I’m picturing Harlem’s Paradise in Luke Cage;” I had to admit that was what I was picturing in describing it.) But maybe that’s not a bad thing.

“Would Run Again”

So as one of my 2019 plans, I’m trying to repeat-run games I’ve prepped rather than run them once and consign them to history. This will definitely get a run-out again – it’s definitely a reserve game for Seven Hills, and I’ll look for opportunities to test my anthro noir pitch in future too. Maybe even online, if I get any interest – seen as that’s something I’m trying to do more of as well.

I’m also going to be developing some more investigative games, and I’ll share them in an occasional ongoing Breadcrumbing series, so watch this space.

Breadcrumbing: Part 2 – Design Principles

In Part 1, I introduced my plans to run more investigative games, and shared my notes for an Urban Jungle (UJ) adventure, Round About Midnight (RAM). In this part I’ll discuss the principles that informed that prep, and what I’m hoping to achieve with them.

magnifying glassIn general, I want all the usual stuff from good one-shot play to be present in an investigative scenario. I want pace, in-fiction investment from the players, and a tight start that force the players into action. In all of the disappointing investigative games of my past, these are what have been missing. I also want to avoid any clueless wandering. This isn’t restricted to investigative games, but it is a common trap to fall into in games like Call of Cthulhu – where a lack of obvious leads (or ones that the PCs have noticed) can leave the PCs aimlessly waiting for another NPC to die and hopefully supply them with clues. Here are the principles I’m applying to my investigative prep.

Clues are Obvious

In order to facilitate this, I want clues to be obvious and clear when the PCs find them. If they go to a location, they might find a challenge (either a social challenge, a puzzle, or a fight) but after that, I want the relevant information to appear to them clearly. Red herrings should be obvious too -and obviously false leads. In play, there will be plenty of time for the players to come up with their own theories without me needing to plan and encourage this.

In RAM, there are three obvious leads after the starting incident, I’ve tried to make it easy to deduce that the set up (that either the nightclub owner’s brother or his lover shot him) just doesn’t add up – the attack on the nightclub is an obvious distraction tactic, and there must be more behind that coincidence.

Player Character Investment

One thing I’m doing in all my games is building in some bonds-style world-building into the pregens. All the players need to have a link to the starting situation and each other, and it’s much more interesting to let them come up with those links themselves. In my adventure, I’ve put trigger questions (described in this post) onto the pregen sheets, but I’ll also be asking them to give three details about the nightclub and its patrons, and hoping that those patrons can reappear later in the adventure.

(As an aside, if you want to see examples of this light-touch player-led worldbuilding in play, the new Campaign podcast uses this in almost every episode – it’s also a great example of how a fairly trad game can be ‘indied up’ by giving players additional agency and responsibility for the plot.)

Action! Pace! Men with guns!

I think the main inspiration for my investigation games is the RDJ Sherlock Holmes movies. In these, for every clue discovered, there’s challenge – a chase, a tense negotiation, a fight – to be won. I’ve tried to mirror this approach in a few games – and a range of approaches is usually a good way to run it. There’s nothing to stop the PCs hitting the internet or the library to find out more about what’s going on, but I don’t consider that an actual scene in the adventure – that’s just an advantage gained for the following scene, or a final confirmation of the crime or perpetrator. Nothing gets solved without pounding the streets – or the faces of some thugs.

In UJ, this is fairly easy to enforce – it’s a lawless 1920s noir setting where the police are unlikely to help you if you have any ties to the underworld without favours and negotiation (and it’s during prohibition, so you could do without investigation from the police around a nightclub). I think I still need to develop what the police do / don’t do in RAM, but they are clearly set up as not being the main allies in the game, and searching the city archives is an unlikely course of action to take when there are clear suspects and leads to follow up in the city.

Everything Else Applies

Like any one-shots, I think the usual points about structure – a tight open, a loose middle and a tight finale usually suit this sort of game really well. I’m a big fan of “The Swell” as a one-shot structure, and I follow it for most of my one-shots with traditional prep structures.

In the next instalment I’ll talk about good examples of investigative one-shots I’ve seen and how they manage to structure play effectively. Anything to add? Comment below.

Breadcrumbing: Part I – Round About Midnight, an Adventure for Urban Jungle

New year, new GM, they say. One thing I’ve never really embraced is running investigative games; all that breadcrumb-laying, clue-ordering, never really floated my boat. I’ve also played in games in my past where these were a massive disappointment; PCs flailing around desperately to get to some sort of conclusion, to be informed gleefully by the GM of all the clues we’d missed, often due to something as straightforward as a failed skill roll or not being in the right place at the right time. Call of Cthulhu, I’m looking at you.

But I’ve played in some decent investigative games at conventions recently, so I’m going to give it a go. I’ve even drafted an investigative scenario into an almost-baked form (that is, it’s enough notes for me to run it, although your mileage may of course vary).

Urban Jungle gameAnd because I want to make things difficult for myself, I’m using a system I haven’t used before as well – Urban Jungle, which is a game of anthropomorphic noir from Sanguine Games. Anthro noir isn’t a genre I’m particularly keen on, but I’ve always thought Gangbusters needed something a bit more to it – magic, the occult, everyone being animals – and the system is neat and crunchy and has some interesting mechanics about avoiding combat or surrendering. For example, there’s a Gift, Coward, which many characters start with which gives a massive bonus to Dodge and to escape combat – as long as your character is Panicked, which means you’ve taken some damage and are unable to attack – you can also choose to become Panicked to get this bonus to Dodge – making Non-Combat characters significantly hardier in combat at the cost of not being able to directly attack enemies. I’ll give it a full review when I’ve seen it in play.

In this first instalment, I present to you the adventure itself – along with the attached beer mat synopsis of its structure. In my next post, as well as providing a .pdf version of this, I’ll try to dissect how I’ve tried to balance investigation with action. The setting, on the off chance you’re not familiar with UJ’s three city settings, is Bellegard, a pseudo-New Orleans, in 1930. The basic structure of these notes, as you’d expect, is like I mentioned here.

Round About Midnight

Introduction

As midnight falls across Bellegarde, creatures of the night make their move. An unprovoked attack on the Savanna Room nightclub ends with Vince Renoit, noted entrepreneur and the most successful rum-runner in the city, dead. Who could have done it? His jealous fiance Lorna Devin, jilted and neglected by the lion of Bellegard? Tubs L’Phant, jazz performer in too deep? His scheming brother Pierre? All the while the Bellegard Crime Syndicate waits to make their move, and up-and-coming rat Dollar Bill Mizzoni looks to light the powder keg beneath Bellegard.

In order to take Renoit out, Dollar Bill has paid the Swamp Gators Gang to hold up the Savanna Room. In the ensuing chaos, Vince has been shot – with clues left pointing to a few different suspects. As allies and associates of Renoit, the PCs must find the murderer before the city’s nightlife descends into all-out war.

Cast

Vince Renoit is a lion entrepreneur. He’s gregarious and friendly, and has built his speakeasy up from being honourable and keeping a clean reputation with everyone he deals with. If you’re using your own PCs or Pregens, each of them should have something to link them to Vince – and make it in their interests to bring his murderers to justice.

Dollar Bill Mizzoni is a mouse mobster. In a few years he’ll run half the city – unless the PCs take him out now. He’s quiet, thoughtful, and incredibly cruel – he’ll try to avoid even speaking directly to the PCs, and plays a role in the background of this adventure for the most part.

Lorna Devin is a cat femme fatale. She’s betrothed to Vince but with him being so occupied with the nightclub recently has taken to stepping out with Dollar Bill. She can’t deny that it’d be easier for her if one of her paramours was to be out of the picture, but she didn’t shoot Vince.

Tubs L’Phant is the hot draw in the Savanna Room, an elephant trumpet player. He’s deep into a spiralling booze and gambling addiction, and when Dollar Bill offered him big bucks to get a way into the Savanna Room, he couldn’t help but sell out his boss.

Pierre Renoit is a shifty lion accountant, and Vince’s brother. He manages the business side of the nightclub and suspects it could be an inside job – he’s thought about pulling one himself enough times. It’s possible that Pierre is a pregen – in which case his innocence is definite – but he should have close links to the PCs. He’s been rather obviously set up for the murder, and so the players should be discouraged from assuming his guilt.

Dime Store Danny is a mouse hit man and, along with Nickel Nitkowski, a shrew mobster, Dollar Bill’s right hand man. He shot Vince in the back room while the Savanna Room was being attacked.

Clay Cotton is a crocodile thug and leader of the Swamp Gators. Mizzoni paid him to attack the Savanna Room to create a distraction for Dime Store Danny to shoot Vince.

Plot

UJ adventure plot structureTo summarise – Dollar Bill is behind it all. He got a pass into the back room of the Savanna Rooms from Tubs L’Phant, offering to pay his gambling debt off for him. He gave the pass to Dime Store, then got the Crocodile Rocks to hold up the nightclub so that Dime Store could sneak into the back room and shoot Vince with Lorna Devin’s pistol, then plant the pistol in Pierre’s desk. He’s hoping that this will cause the whole Renoit crime empire to collapse, and he can move in on their turf. Unfortunately for him, he’s picked a night when the PCs are in the nightclub.

Scene One – The Savanna Rooms

It is nearing midnight at the turn of a sweltering Bellegard evening. The jazz is hot and the whisky sodas are ice cold as the Savanna Room parties on and on. The PCs will be various locations around the nightclub, drinking or fraternising. They should be in the main part of the nightclub – if one of them starts in the back rooms, as soon as the commotion starts Vince will insist they go and investigate.

The music shudders to a halt as a group of crocodiles come in –

“Nobody tries anything stupid, nobody has to get hurt. Jewelry, watches, cash, all in the holdalls, nice and easy…”

The speaker is an immense crocodile, and his gang circle the room clearing out cash from partygoers. Remind the players that they are in a speakeasy that’s technically illegal – it’s not exactly realistic to call for the cops. The crocodiles that circulate are thugs, but they aren’t covering the room very well – and apart from the leader don’t appear to be armed.

Assuming the PCs intervene, run a round or two of combat before they hear a shot fired from the back room followed by a scream. Anyone who moves to investigate immediately manages to see a shadowy figure running away. At the shot, there is one more round of combat before either the cops arrive, or the crocodiles flee.

Scene Two – The Back Room

Vince Renoit, the nightclub owner, lies in a pool of blood slumped against his leather sofa. He’s been shot through the head from somebody shooting from a lower vantage point to him – there doesn’t seem to be sounds of a struggle. Lorna is nowhere to be seen – she had a feeling this might be Dollar Bill and is worried she’ll be implicated. Pierre arrives straightaway, flustered and with a cut on his lip. Obviously if Pierre is a PC, he’ll arrive on the scene with the other PCs – he will notice that his desk has been disturbed.

A search of the crime scene reveals an engraved compact pistol that has been hastily stuffed in Pierre’s desk. The handle has been wiped down but the barrel is still warm. They have their murder weapon. Pierre or anyone associated with the club will reveal that the back room doors are usually kept locked, with only a few regulars having access to the keys – Pierre, Lorna, Tubs L’Phant (as a regular in the club he often takes drinks with Vince in the back room, although they had recently fallen out), and if appropriate one or two of the PCs.

Scene Three – The Streets of Bellegard

If they chase, or track, the fleeing figure, they can corner Dime Store Danny. He says he went to hide in the back room and found the door unlocked, but disturbed Lorna and Pierre having an argument, and when Vince intervened, he saw Lorna shoot Vince. He tells them that he knows Lorna used to hang around with the Swamp Gators Gang – maybe she set it up? – and will tell the PCs of their base in the Undercity. He’ll say anything and implicate anyone to avoid being captured – up to and above calling the cops and getting them to take him in (Dollar Bill can easily bail him out with his connections on the force) – and will also try to work out what the PCs already know.

Pacing the next three scenes

There are three scenes that will provide various clues to the murderer next, and you should aim to provide a range of play experiences in each one – broadly speaking it works for one to be a roleplaying challenge, one a fight, and one a chase – and you can select which one is most appropriate for each based on both the fiction and the level of energy at the table.

There are three clues for them to discover in these scenes – the default is that they find Dollar Bill’s involvement in each, and also rule out the Swamp Gators, Lorna Devin and Tubs L’Phant as actual murderers. It’s possible that they decide to go straight to Dollar Bill after finding out of his involvement – in order to do this they’ll need to learn that he’s based at the Phillips and get access to him – for which any one of the other scenes can get them – either Cotton, Tubs, or Lorna, can get them access to the suite by arranging to meet with Mizzoni.

Scene Four – The Undercity

The PCs find the headquarters of the Swamp Gators Gang in a partially-flooded warehouse in the Undercity. Clay Cotton, leader of the gang, sits in a beach chair sipping pina coladas surrounded by his lackeys.

The default is that this is a roleplaying scene – Cotton has little to gain by denying the source of his work, and either he or his lackeys can be easily persuaded to reveal that the raid was financed by Dollar Bill. He was paid a substantial sum to raid until the gunshot, and then get out of there – and given the password for the door as well (High Water Rising), which meant they could get in armed. A couple of days ago, Dollar Bill also got them to deliver a package to Tubs L’Phant, the jazz trumpeter regular at the club, which he thought was unusual – he doesn’t work for Dollar Bill.

If questioned about Lorna, he admits that he doted on her “half a lifetime ago,” but says that she’s moved up in the world now – and wouldn’t be seen dead with a two-bit thug like him. He can give them her address, a flat overlooking Spanish Park in an exclusive area of the nicest part of the city.

If they need a fight, have Cotton’s thugs be more belligerent and make them beat it out of them. Cotton will just watch, amused, before revealing the details. For a chase, have one of the crocs slip away obviously to tell Dollar Bill – he can reveal everything once caught.

Scene Five – Lorna Devin’s apartment

Lorna is terrified and has already called Dollar Bill, who has sent round Nickel and his mobsters to guard her. The default is that the PCs have to fight them to get to Lorna, who then reveals that she has been seeing Dollar Bill, and he knows about her gun, but that she lost it a couple of nights ago and hasn’t seen it since. She didn’t shoot Vince, but has grown apart from him and is also terrified of Dollar Bill – especially his two lackeys, Nickel and Dime. She tells them that the only other person that had access to the back room key was Tubs L’Phant – he’s a regular drinker with Vince and her, and the jazz-man hadn’t been the most reliable lately. Him and Vince had an argument after Vince implied that his performances had deteriorated, and challenged him about arriving to his spot late and drunk.

If they need a chase, have Lorna flee in her automobile (or on foot through a crowded department store if the PCs do not have a jalopy). For a roleplaying scene, have them stumble into Lorna outside her apartment – and have them both avoid the minders.

Scene Six – Tubs L’Phant

The PCs can find Tubs in the Greasy Parrot, a dive bar in the Finny Gramoo, drowning his sorrows. The default is that this is a chase scene – as the PCs approach, they see him ruefully looking at an envelope of money – before some of Dollar Bill’s thugs grab it off him and make off into the night. The washed up elephant can only scream “My money! Somebody help me! And hope the PCs give chase (on foot, or by car if they have a car).”

When questioned, he reveals he gave a copy of the keys to Dollar Bill – he was told they were going  to rob the register, not kill the owner. He is deeply in debt from gambling and just needed the money – he regrets what he has done. He shows them their (handwritten) agreement and is prepared to testify.

Scene Seven – Confrontation

Once the players have found out about this, they have enough evidence to confront Dollar Bill. He rents a suite at the Phillips Hotel. Either Tubs, Cotton, or Lorna can get them access to him. He’s sat in a plush leather chair, and tells them that a change is coming to this city, and that they have no chance but to follow him – he offers reasonable terms to them, and is prepared to forgive them for any of his minions they have knocked out of the picture. This is likely to be a fight, and Dime Store and Nickel are both there to back him up, along a group of other Normal NPCs to make up the numbers to one more than the number of PCs. At the first sign of trouble, Dollar Bill flees out to the back room and tries to get away and call the cops. If he does this, they arrive to see him flee the city, paying out of the Phillips, his designs on the Renoit family for the moment frustrated.

NPC Statistics

Swamp Gators Gang Members – normal crocodiles

All Common Traits d6, Swimming, Fighting d6
Punch 2d6 Dmg +1 / Baseball Bat 3d6 Dmg +2
Counter w/Baseball Bat 3d6 @ Close / Dodge d6 / Soak d6
Initiative d6, Panic Save -2

Clay Cotton – elite crocodile gangster

All Common Traits d8, Brawling, Danger Sense, Swimming, Endurance d8, Fighting d8
Pummel 3d8 Dmg +2
Dodge d8 / Soak 2d8
Initiative d8 d12, Panic Save -2, Injured Save -4

Lorna Devin – normal lion femme fatale

All Common Traits d6, Noncombatant, Stealth, Observation d6, Presence d6, Transport d6
Punch d6 Dmg +1
Dodge d6 (+d12 if nonviolent)/ Soak d6
Initiative 2d6, Panic Save -2

Tubs L’Phant – normal elephant jazzman

All Common Traits d6, Noncombatant, Singing (with trumpet), Academics d6, Evasion d6, Negotiation d6, Presence d6
Punch d6 Dmg +1
Dodge d6 (+d12 if nonviolent)/ Soak d6
Initiative d6, Panic Save -2

Mizzoni’s Minders – normal rodents

All Common Traits d6, Brawling, Evasion d6
Pummel 2d6 Dmg +2 / Pocket Knife 2d6 Dmg +1 Blade / Service Pistol d6 Ammo d4 Dmg +2
Dodge 2d6 / Soak d6
Initiative d6, Panic Save -2

Dime Store Danny – elite mouse hoodlum

All Common Traits d8, Endurance d8, Evasion d8, Fighting d8, Shooting d8, Coward, Veteran
Punch 2d8 Dmg +1 / Service Pistol 2d8 Ammo d4 Dmg +2
Dodge 2d8 (+ d12 when Panicked) / Soak 2d8
Initiative 2d8, Panic Save -2, Injury Save -4

Nickel Nitkowski – elite shrew hoodlum

All Common Traits d8, Veteran, Evasion d8, Fighting d8, Shooting d8,
Punch 2d8 Dmg +1 / Tommy Gun 3d8 Ammo d6 Dmg +2, Sweep (if you hit, attack another different target as well)
Dodge 2d8 / Soak 2d8
Initiative 2d8, Panic Save -2, Injury Save -4

Dollar Bill Mizzoni – superior mouse mobster

All Common Traits d10, Coward, Contortionist, Evasion d10, Shooting d10, Tactics d10
Magnum Pistol 2d10 Ammo d4 Dmg +3
Dodge 2d10 (+d12 if Panicked)/ Soak d10
Initiative d10 , Panic Save -2, Injury Save -4

One-Shot Prep: Structuring My Notes

I’ve spent quite a bit of time oscillating between different ways of presenting my prep for one-shots. Particularly at conventions, I like to have all my information to hand in an at-a-glance format, and so it helps to have a consistent structure – but it’s only in the last couple of months that I’ve settled on one. You can see this format in Gringle’s Pawn Shop, my 13G adventure, and I’ve used it for all of my recent ‘trad’ one-shot games. Here’s what it looks like

Introduction

Wizardstowera3 JOHNNY GREY

Wizards Tower by Johnny Gray

This starts with the ‘pitch,’ which is sometimes the game description that I sent off to the con / printed out on a sign-up sheet to advertise the game. I always begin my prep by pasting this across – sometimes I’ve written this text several months earlier and need to be reminded of what I said – it’s a useful creative constraint!

Then there’s overview of the background of the adventure in one paragraph maximum. I grew up on Dungeon Magazine adventures where you’d get a whole page of background explaining why the goblins settled in this particular tomb, what happened to the dwarf king who used to be buried here, but I don’t need – or care – about all that guff. Brevity is a strength, and by writing this first it helps to structure the game in my mind.

Cast

This section is a recent addition to my prep, and I’ve been surprised by how useful it is to have all my NPCs in one place. On one level, it’s useful to check there are a reasonable number of them – I think that 3-5 NPCs for a one-shot is about the sweet spot for the players to remember and interact with them all – and it’s very easy to prep a one-shot with more, or fewer, than these. Generally, fewer than 3 and the players don’t get enough chance to roleplay outside their own party, and more than 5 are too many for the players to remember and interact with meaningfully.

They get a really brief description of anything distinctive about them, and any roleplaying notes if I’m going to be doing a silly voice for them. It helps with all of these to have really simple physical notes on them – a blue dress, an eyepatch, a gravelly voice – just one thing that the players might remember about them.

Scenes

Then I list each scene out – each gets a description of what happens at the start, and any game stats / information needed. These aren’t always linear – as I’ve posted before, I like to have a set middle and end and be a bit more loosey-goosey in the middle (the ‘swell’ is described here), so often these scenes can proceed in any order. I like to get game stats here as well so it’s all in one place, which I usually snip from .pdfs – including any game mechanics that are likely to get used. Obviously the games shared on here won’t have the snipped game statistics, but it’s worked much better for me to have each scene with everything on it, so there is only one document that I need to flip at the table.

A tip that I picked up from the Smart Party is to add descriptors to any group of similar monsters – especially as I always run combat as ‘theatre of the mind’ without minis, it’s useful to be able to refer to ‘fat goblin’ and ‘eye patch goblin’ during the game.

Except for short scenes, these are often printed out one to a page, and then the whole document is stapled (and printed out single-sided – flipping sides of paper can be fiddly at the table in the heat of battle). Any information or clues that can be found in scenes is put in bullet points so it stands out from the rest of the information.

So that’s my current format for one-shot prep. Later this week I’ll post a fuller example – of a one-shot I’m prepping for Starfinder where you have to liberate android gladiators from the slave pits – but for now, what format do you use when prepping one-shots?

The Training Mission – Blades in the Dark One-Shots Part 2

Welcome to the second part of my thoughts on running Blades in the Dark as a one-shot game.

In Part One, I talked about using a structured Training Mission, similar to the introductory levels in video games, to introduce the game in the first half of a one-shot. Here, I’ll talk about the changes to Downtime and the transition to the second mission.

Payoff, Heat and Entanglements

Once the first mission is finished, give the PCs their payoff – be generous, and make sure that you describe what it looks like, since the Coin descriptor is arbitrary for new players to Blades – a couple of heaving chests of coins and a bracelet you can hawk to Mordis in the Night Market is much more rewarding than just “4 Coin”.

The next time I run Blades, I’m going to have a bowl in the middle of the table for Heat with counters for the expected amount of Heat for the mission, and add to it as complications and devil’s bargains occur – but I’ve found that for the first mission Heat can be quite tricky to engage with. Still, roll for Entanglements from the Heat generated, and be prepared to be brutal in interpreting it; it’s quite possible in the first mission that PCs still have plenty of Stress left, so giving them some heavy Entanglements gives them something obvious to do during Downtime.

Downtime

Between the missions I run a simplified “Training Downtime” that just gives the players a taste of the mechanic. The reasons for this are twofold – firstly, in an ongoing campaign downtime can bloat to a very enjoyable, but time-consuming, player-led exploration of the factions and setting of Duskwall. Secondly, the players haven’t had chance to make much trouble yet, so they are unlikely to have many schemes of their own to accomplish. As with any one-shot, we want to avoid players wandering around aimlessly, so this shortened version allows the players to achieve their goals and have some agency while still keeping it moving; I aim for 30-40 minutes for Downtime, and then take a break and introduce the next mission. My modified one-shot Downtime rules are below.

In Downtime, you can pursue one action from the list below. This is a change from RAW Blades where each PC gets two actions, but don’t worry, you’ll be generous with some of the actions. A couple of them have changed as well – since starting a Long-Term Project in a one-shot is a bit dissatisfying.

  • Indulge Vice: As the regular Blades rules. If anyone overindulges, either add an additional entanglement (if there are players left to take their action, since this gives them a chance to overcome their crewmate’s actions) or add Heat to the next score.
  • Work on a Project: This replaces the Acquire Asset and Long Term Project actions from the regular Blades rules. Ask the player what they want to achieve, checking it fits with the fiction, and start a countdown clock (in almost all cases, I’d make it a 4-segment one, to give them a good chance of achieving it in this downtime). Progress is as the regular rules on the roll of a Trait (1-3: one, 4/5: two, 6: three, Crit: five). Other players can also work on already started projects, rolling an appropriate trait and adding sectors as above. This allows the players to work together to achieve projects during Downtime and have them take effect during the one-shot.
  • Recover: If anyone needs Healing, they can choose this option as per the regular Blades rules
  • Reduce Heat: It’s unlikely that players in a one-shot will be careful enough to want to keep their Heat down, but they can do using the regular Blades rules.

You’ll notice that there’s no Train option. This is because there are a few options for experience in one-shot Blades games that I have yet to explore and will explain below.

The Next Mission

notes for Gaddoc Rail

My notes for Gaddoc Rail – pencil were added during play

After Downtime is done, take a comfort break and introduce the next mission – this is a regular mission, but be sure to reincorporate any established facts about the setting – use NPCs already established and factions already introduced.

In terms of prepping for this mission, I like to keep it as loose as possible – I write four lists:

  • A list of descriptors of the main location of the mission. For Gaddoc Rail, this is the station itself, but it could be the base they are infiltrating, the party they have to explore, and so on.
  • A list of options for what the score could actually be / any opponenets. For Gaddoc Rail, since what you are stealing is not defined, this was examples of what it could actually be.
  • Obstacles – all the possible obstacles I can think of to oppose the PCs during the score
  • Some possible Complications. In the past I’ve found this the hardest part to prep, but I’ve got a lot better by not dismissing obvious suggestions – sometimes the obvious thing is the best

With these four lists, I have plenty of options to draw from when the players look at me expectantly. It also makes it much easier to pace the game in a one-shot, since I can use as many or as few as I want to make the score enjoyable but keep to time. I’ve used a similar approach in lots of PBTA games, and talked about it in a post here, and it’s a really useful one-shot technique.

Gaddoc Rail map

Gaddoc Rail station map, mid-score – spot the “Explosion” Complication

XP and Training

I’ve not had chance to explore/hack the XP system in Blades for one-shot play, usually because I always forget about it – and there’s quite a lot for players to get their heads around anyway, but if I do, these are the options I’d explore

  • Just ignore it. There is no experience or advancement. This, the default, is what I’ve generally used
  • Use it as in the Blades rules. It’s very unlikely that you’ll get any advancement in the session, but that keeps it simple, and prepares the players for the full system. It also makes it easy to transition to the regular Blades. If I used this, I’d give everyone a bonus “Train” action in Downtime, giving the 1 XP to an attribute of their choice
  • Hack it for advancement. Start everyone with 2 XP marks on each XP track, and double all XP awards – 2 XP for each Desperate roll, and 2 XP for Training in downtime. It’s up to you if you give the bonus Train action, but if I’m going to the trouble of this, I might well. With this, a few of the players will advance during the one-shot

In summary, while Blades is a fantastic campaign game, it’s also a lot of fun in a one-shot setting; as I stated in the first post, I’ve managed 3 scores in a 5 hour session using these guidelines and it certainly felt like the players engaged with both the rules and the setting – they achieved quite a lot in-game in those three scores. For further reading, check out the Forged in the Dark games which are emerging using the same rules set. There’s far too many of them to try them all, but I can certainly recommend Scum & Villainy for Star Wars-style “ashtrays in space” space opera.