The Score – a one-shot plot structure

After a couple of games where I realised I might be stuck in a rut a bit when plotting out (trad) one-shots, and a pleasant day playing Scum & Villainy at North Star convention in Sheffield, I came up with this. It’s pretty formulaic – but does manage to teach the rules of a system concentrically, assuming that your order of complexity almost-matches the order here. I think it’s more suited to sci-fi or modern settings, as the final scene implies a chase or vehicle/starship combat, but I can see it working in fantasy setting too.

I’m a little bit obsessed with game/plot structure, especially in one-shots, as you can tell from this post about the basic one-shot plot, and this about location-based one-shots. Also, if you want to stretch it out to 3-sessions, there’s part 1 and part 2 of a post discussing that.

Scene 1: Get the Score

Start the game with the PCs having agreed the job and just negotiating their terms. They must negotiate with an unreliable patron – characterised by your best hammy acting as GM

Challenge: They must make some sort of social skill – success will give them extra resources for the mission and additional payment (which is irrelevant in a one-shot), failure will lead them to nothing. It’s a basic way to introduce the core mechanic that only offers additional benefits on success, with no real penalties for failure.

Scene 2: Case the Joint

The PCs then research the job using their own investigative skills. They might ask around, sneak around looking for secret entrances after dark, or rustle up contacts to help.

Challenge: Each player should get a chance at a skill check, with success getting them info from a list of relevant information, or additional benefits on the next roll.

Scene 3: Getting in

Give the PCs an obvious route in to avoid the turtling over-planning that you might get otherwise. This will not be straightforward – will their disguise hold, will they scale the walls of the tower, will they evade the magical traps?

Challenge: They will need to make an “engagement roll” – to borrow a term from Blades in the Dark – to see how their approach goes. This may be one roll, or there may be a sequence of them. Either way, the consequences are likely to tell in the next scene – the obvious way is whether they get the jump on their opponents

Scene 4: Fight!

At some point, they will encounter proper opposition – guards, droids, or whatever guards what they seek. Who has the upper hand initially can be determined by the previous scene – or whatever ambush rules your game favours

Challenge: The opposition – given that this is the only “straight” combat encounter in the game, and that the PCs stand a fair chance of gaining the initiative – can be a little tougher than the game normally recommends – and play hard, don’t be afraid to offer a genuine threat of injury or death to the players.

Scene 5: Getting out

The PCs get what they want – the bounty, the steal, whatever – and now need to get away. This will be a follow-up conflict, either using chase rules (all games should have chase rules, IMHO, don’t get me started on this – it’s why Call of Cthulhu 7th edition is the best edition), starship/vehicle combat, or just a plain old fight.

Challenge: This conflict should be balanced as per the regular rules – so that the players get to end the game on a high and bearing in mind some might be injured from your kick-ass fight earlier.

The End

You can then end the game with a denouement, in which they meet their patron again, to either back-slapping or criticism. There’s of course nothing to stop them betraying them and keeping the score for themselves, which they may well choose to do.

I’ll be posting some examples of this structure here for specific systems, but I’d be curious to hear how you’ve used, adapted, changed it for your own one-shots too.

Tenra Bansho Zero One-Shots

TenraIt’s been a long time coming, but I finally got my head around running Tenra Bansho Zero, an RPG of hyper-Asian fantasy lovingly translated from the Japanese by Andy Kitkowski. It’s a beast. But an awesome, gonzo, emotionally charged beast, like a Kaiju with laser cannons being ridden into war by your long-lost son to avenge your disappearance. The path to bringing this to the table wasn’t painless, but it was worth it. I hope any prospective GMs are persuaded to give it a go with the advice below.

Pregens all the way

You need to pre-select (or let your players pre-select) their characters. I recommend using the sample characters in the book, unless you have a very specific archetype in mind for your plot; I made this one-sheet for my players to help them pick. Reassure your prospective players that they’ll get to evolve and customise their character in-game, so starting with templates isn’t as restrictive as in other games.

Don’t use the Onimyuji – it’s just too complex to have a shiki-summoning sorcerer in the party unless they already know the rules – in which case, why aren’t they running the game?

My players picked Samurai, Kijin, Shinobi, and Kugutsu – a good balance, and easy on the rules – I filled in character sheets with their abilities and printed off the Dark Arts section for the Shinobi to manage, as they can buy extra powers in-game and it handed over management of those rules to the player instead of me.

Incidentally, for NPCs I just used the sample characters too, adding 2 to each Attribute and the extra Vitality described (double it, add 2 per player in the game, or 5 per player if they are a solo boss, add a Dead box but no Wound boxes).

Get your stuff together

You will need piles of d6s. You will need piles of counters, or paper chits, for Aiki and Kiai. I was lucky and found a few in the sale at Dice Shop Online; otherwise improvise, but bear in mind it’s not an exaggeration to say you might need 100+ Kiai chits, and players may well find themselves rolling 30d6+. I put my Aiki and Kiai out on All Rolled Up dice trays in the centre of the table to remind the players that they should be awarding them.

There are some really useful rules summaries out there, and I found some other advice on the internet (this, from Deeper In The Game, was really useful); print them out and use them, and expect some hard-to-find rules – for me, it was how quickly Soul points recover (it’s one point per hour, FYI).

Keep your main plot simple

You only need a straightforward plot for Tenra. Use the examples available – Tragedy in the Kose Art District is good, as is Lotus Blossom’s Bridal Path – which I don’t seem to able to find online now. Honorable mention to Rinden Snarls, which I played to get me into running it – quite a few years ago now. I’ll be writing up the scenario I ran soon too, expect to see it on the download pages in a few days time.

I went with a basic Seven Samurai plot; a village was under threat from bandits to the East and a warlord from the West, and had called to neighbouring provinces for help. Each of the PCs was a representative from one province, brought together to help the village. I added a nearby Oni village, a treacherous villager, and a forest demon who had corrupted the lands nearby and subjugated the Ayakashi river spirit who guarded the village.

Think symbolism and theme; I had cherry blossoms running as the theme of the village, and they reappeared at the end of each act – either falling or blooming in the trees. Corny, but it worked.

Prep Zero Act

In the Zero Act, every player should get to showcase their PC, and it’s a good opportunity to roll on the Emotion Matrix, which is going to provide all the subplots you need. I picked the zero act from each of the sample characters that I found most melodramatic, and we rattled through them with an encounter with an important character, a roll on the Emotion Matrix, and a fade out once that conflict had been resolved (or left juicily hanging!)

I deliberately didn’t use the PCs being recruited as the zero act for any of them – this was entirely about establishing their characters as protagonists, not introducing the mission. My Destinys were much more about the characters than the mission itself.

The Rule of Reincorporation: Chekhov’s NPC

This is a specific case of a general one-shot rule, which will no doubt spawn its own blog post, but any NPCs that appear in the Zero Act need to reappear during the game, unless they are boring and/or dead (and even dead ones might reappear).

The warrior who defeats the samurai and leaves him for dead, inspiring him to undergo the painful samurai transformation? Of course they will be on the antagonists’ side in the final conflict. These call-backs are essential to make an epic story feel fully-resolved.

Scene One (and Two)

I’d recommend having the players meet gradually as your first scene. That way you can roll the Emotion Matrix each time a new PC arrives and have a pause for them to roleplay and internalise these relationships. Be aware this may create some (temporary or otherwise) PvP situations – and require some interpreting of the results.

As with most of my one-shots, I made scene two a ‘training combat’ – straightforward opposition that let the players get to grips with the rules and allowed a break in the scene pattern below.

Two Types of Scene

You will have scenes that are epic combat, where dice will hit the table. You will have scenes of roleplaying, where players will push their Fates. In the roleplay scenes, in my experience, dice rarely hit the table. All you need to do to get the pace right is have a good balance of these scenes. During the roleplay scenes, it’s fine to sit back and watch; if your players are chewing the scenery with each other (and the Emotion Matrix will no doubt push them to do this), let them do it.

With roleplay scenes where they were petitioning an NPC, I usually waited until a key moment in the conversation happened, cut it off, and asked for a Persuasion check (or other social skill). Be prepared for the players to make these rolls easily – they are rolling a lot of dice, and if it’s a roll they care about they have lots of Kiai to spend for bonus dice, skill, or successes.

Don’t Panic; Embrace the Gonzo

At the end of the day, Tenra is a game almost without balance, with hard mechanical systems to encourage the scenery-chewing social interactions. The Emotion Matrix is up front and centre for everyone, and it should provide all the drama you need as long as you provide enough antagonists and mooks to fight.

I’ll be publishing Four From Dragonscale, my own scenario, in a few days on here, and there is already Tragedy in the Kose Art District and Lotus Blossom’s Bridal Path available. Take one of these (they’re pretty much complete playkits, given that they include pregens and all you need to run) and use it, mine it, copy it, or make your own adventure. And good luck!

Have you got any further advice about running Tenra? Comment away! And watch out for Four From Dragonscale, appearing on this blog soon!

Review: Invasions: Target Earth

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

The Fluff

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

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

The Crunch

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

Don’t buy this for the crunch.

The One Shot

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

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

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

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

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

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

#1H1S Mk. 2 – More Thoughts on the 1 Hour 1 Shot

So, a few more thoughts on the 1 Hour 1 Shot idea. There have been a few developments about this, and I’ve had time to think through a few ideas to help move this forward. The original post is here. I won’t duplicate that post, but the idea was that you should be able to have a satisfying RPG experience in an hour or less. Here’s a few more thoughts on how to make that happen.

The first thing was to try and gather everything in one place – so I’ve started a page here to collect together resources and 1 hour adventures.

stopwatchSimon Burley, one of my gaming buddies, has been on a crusade to get more people into tabletop RPGs, and has toured tangentially-related conventions doing 1-hour demo slots, mostly using his own systems. He’s blogged about the process here and most of what he says it completely transferable to all but the most quirky systems. So, non-RPG conventions are a good start, if you can recruit the players.

I’m convinced that there are huge numbers of nearly-RPGers, either involved in adjacent hobbies like boardgames, video games, or wider geek culture, or viewing RPG sessions online. I think most of these folks would spare us an hour to get a taster of the hobby, and that can only be a good thing?

I also often find myself wanting to try a new system out to get a grasp of it before running it myself. This happened recently – it’s been a shamefully long time before I could get into a game of Blades in the Dark, and now I wish I’d tried it sooner as I’m sure it’s a game I’m going to run again and again. It would have been great if I could have found an hour to get a grasp of the system and setting from a GM who’d already done the heavy lifting of learning the system and setting.

The question of when to run #1H1S games is tricky, because a lot of our scheduled times are designed to fit around our idea of the ‘regular length’ session. If we want to introduce new gamers to the hobby, we need to be able to provide structures to change this. A few ideas

  • A face-to-face Games on Demand system at the bigger conventions – even non-RPG ones. This already happens at UK Games Expo and some of the US conventions (although it isn’t really sustainable at the smaller cons over here) and it would provide a great chance to showcase new games.
  • Online Games on Demand – I’m not really up to speed with the online gaming community and getting hold of games – all of the ones I’ve played have been word of mouth rather than publicly invited. But it might be worth setting up a slot where a GM is ready to spend an hour showcasing a game, either for gamers unfamiliar with the system or just people who want a short burst of RPG action.
  • A speed dating system at smaller conventions. Say instead of signing up for one 3-hour session at a convention where 5 players have 1 GM, you sign up to 3 1-hour sessions with 15 players and 3 GMs. Every hour the bell rings, and you move on to the next game. The GMs can either run the same game 3 times, or mix it up and run different games. Would there be interest in this? We’ll never know until we try!

I’m sure there will be more ideas and thoughts to follow on this, but in the meantime keep a lookout for more #1H1S resources and comment below if you have more ideas about how to run these.

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.

Manchester, 1997 – An Urban Shadows City

As promised here, below is the city guide I used for my Manchester, 1997 game of Urban Shadows at Revelation. The inspiration was to use a not-quite-familiar city that could evoke a sense of nostalgia while still allowing some distance and oddness. I’ll confess that I did pretty minimal research for it other than my own experience – I lived in Manchester from 1999 when I went there to University, I’ve seen the excellent Steve Coogan vehicle 24 Hour Party People plenty of times, and a few wikipedia pages supplied the rest.

So, the dating is almost certainly off, and although the 1996 bombing really did have no direct fatalities, this should be credited to a substantial and quick response from emergency services rather than a gang of undead protectors. Similarly, Tony Wilson was never, to mine or anyone’s knowledge, a Chaos Magician seeking to harness the ley lines beneath the city. The best NPCs are of course those that the players themselves bring to the game, of course, but I couldn’t bring myself to include the demon-tainted Hazel Blears MP in the write-up.

The write up is below, or here in handy .pdf form. I’d say that it’s probably read-to-run if you pick some Playbooks and follow the procedures in my previous post.

The City

Manchester in 1997 is a city on the cusp of tomorrow; the music scene has exploded and is the envy of the North, if not London quite yet. The Hacienda nightclub and Factory records sound like they could last forever, and the punks and hipsters walk around like they own the place now. The city centre feels vibrant, edgy, as if the longed-for prosperity of the days when the Industrial Revolution built this city are just around the corner.

The city centre is also a maze of building sites and new developments; last year’s IRA bombing has left vast parts of the city straining to rebuild, and the shining bricks are a sign of the prosperity to come. Things really can only get better, in the words of Tony Blair’s successful election campaign.

Just outside the city lie some of the most dangerous parts of Britain. Moss Side, Rusholme, and Salford hold back-to-back terraces that have changed little since the Communist Manifesto was written in them by a shocked Marx and Engels. Trams run to Altrincham and Bury, linking both sides of the city but leaving vast areas at the mercy of crumbling buses.

South of the city, in Altrincham, Sale, and Didsbury, the wealthy middle classes – stayers-on from University or well-heeled Cheshire inheritors – carry on as they always have. These socialites and old money dealers have little truck with the regeneration of the city, unless there’s money in it for them.

To the North in Bury and Oldham the straining past of industry still stalks the streets – the dark satanic mills around here haven’t been made into flats or offices, and an older, deeper Manchester hides.

The largest population of students outside of London flood the streets of Fallowfield and Withington on the south side of the city, while the city’s four universities – Manchester, UMIST, Manchester Metropolitan, and Salford – tussle over long-held rivalries.

City Moves

  • Open a new development, bar, or shop
  • Reveal a deep industrial past
  • Shock the public with an unexpected display of violence
  • Discuss secrets on public transportation
  • Hold a powerful meeting in an aging bar or nightclub

Images and Hooks

A drunk staggers around Piccadilly, muttering something incomprehensible in an unknown language. Students flood the streets for a protest or festival. Groups of youths in tracksuits start trouble in a shop. A couple argue in the street. A cold pint of lager. A bag of drugs. A nice cup of tea.

Faction Mapping

Night

The City Ghosts

Astonishingly, in a bomb attack causing £700 million of damage last year, there were no fatalities. None that were mortal, at least. The media credited the fast response of the emergency services, but in truth, below Piccadilly in the old water routes and storage containers of the city’s industrial path, the people that built Manchester still guard it.

The City Ghosts started as men and women who died during the city’s building, but as an open association of Spectres they were augmented in both wars. They have one goal – for Manchester to endure – and watch over them from their pits around Cornbrook. The cities’ tram lines – even those yet to be built – mostly use old railway lines, and these routes let the city ghosts traverse the whole of greater Manchester.

Their ‘interference’ in last year’s bombing has ruffled a few feathers, most notably of the City’s Fae, many of whom have sympathies with the mortal bombers, but nobody dares move against them yet as a group so obsessed with their own self-endurance.

Sample Night NPC: Dead Fred, a rogue City Ghost who acts as a go-between between the city’s mysterious spectral protectors and the other factions of the city.

Power

The Seers of Affleck

A loose organisation of wizards, oracles, and hedge-mages, based from a sprawling tower of shops and cafes in the city’s Northern Quarter, the Seers of Affleck dream as they always have. They dream of a rebuilt Manchester, of Britain’s first city, of London and Leeds and Birmingham fading to insignificance as the hermetic patterns grow.

Manchester sits on a confluence of energy, they would tell you, making it like no other city on earth. They whisper in the ears of musicians and artists, architects and drug dealers and nudge them in the direction of their planned futures.

Students from the city’s universities follow them, particularly the city’s University of Manchester, who even designed their Mathematics Tower according to their own mystical geometries. Rumours abound about the latest influx of undergraduates, about how the Seers may have found their next great archmagi.

Sample Power NPC: Tony Wilson, CEO of Factory Records, a dangerous chaos mage channeling the life energy and forces of music to his own ends with scant regard for the safety of the city.

Mortality

The Bridgewater Club

In the city centre, there are well-heeled gentleman’s clubs still, where new money up-and-comers can drink and read the Express and forget about the dirty city streets around them. The Bridgewater Club is not one of those. It maintains private rooms in several bars around the city, but its main base is in Sale, south of Manchester and nestled in Cheshire money.

The wealth of these socialites is tied up in ‘protecting’ the city from supernatural threats – and liberating those threats of any valuable assets to ensure the survival of the Club. Part monster hunting club, part relic collectors, part tomb robbers, their activities are tolerated by the other factions as long as they only target individuals and do not openly move against the factions.

The Bridgewater, for itself, recognises the benefit in the balance of power for the city – and for their continued existence – and recognise that the Vampires of London and the Scottish Wolves are unlikely to offer them as much freedom as they have here in Manchester. So they plan their heists, track the movements of the supernatural around the city, looking for any hints of instability, to strike and take just enough. Of course, individual members do not always share the organisations careful approach to supernatural politics.

Sample Mortality NPC: Jack Firness, established Bridgewater Club Veteran and collector of supernatural ephemera. Jack may be a bit long in the tooth now but he isn’t above dusting down the old crossbow and going to kill some vampires.

Wild

The Oldham Tinkers

They aren’t all from Oldham, of course. They aren’t all from anywhere in this world, or the next. But any city with such a high influx of Irish settlers is bound to have a high fae presence, and the Celtic spirits have formed an alliance with the spirits of the hills and bogs of Lancashire North of the City to ensure that the city’s growth doesn’t compromise the earth.

All these huge buildings being rebuilt now are sometimes covering up important Glamour sites, and the Tinkers are frustrated that the City Ghosts seem to be doing nothing to prevent this. The life that’s recently come to the city with the new music and nightclubs is a welcome source of energy, but it’s drug-fuelled and tainted – something about the rise of the city just isn’t right, and the Tinkers will do anything to slow it – or even perhaps to destroy it.

Sample Wild NPC: Feargal O’Shaugnessy, leader of the Monkey Town Boys, a group of Redcaps and violent fae operating out of Heywood, Lancashire. Feargal and his boys have recently been posted in Manchester to keep tabs on the current situation in the city.

Like what you see? Want a peculiarly British take on urban fantasy with a straightforward simple system and a great team of some of the best UK RPG game designers and writers, and me? The Liminal kickstarter is funding! Back it and make me write a supplement on vampires and more Case Files!

Urban Shadows One-Shots

Urban Shadows (US) is Magpie Games’ Powered by the Apocalypse (PBTA) game of urban fantasy; if political manoeuvrings with wizards, vampires, and demons is your jam, it’s a great game. It’s a great game whatever, actually, which is why I’ve developed a few tips  for one-shot play that should help you if you want to bring it to a one-shot table.

I’m going to present this in two stages – what you do before it hits the table, and what you do at the start of play. Note that the book does have some great advice for one-shots in it already, but I’ve extended some of the advice to hit my particular sweet spot between player-driven and GM-prepped narrative. If you’d like more details on running PBTA one-shots generally, there’s a post here, as well as specific advice for Dungeon World.

Before Play

Pre-select Playbooks

You can make things easier for yourself by restricting the playbook selection for your players. This has two advantages – one, you avoid any chance of selection paralysis at the table, and two, you can focus your prep towards the playbooks selected. One from each faction is ideal – and I’d go with The Aware, The Vamp, The Tainted, and The Wizard for my choices – the Hunter has potential for some nasty PvP that some of your players may find uncomfortable, and The Fae has to keep track of promises as well as Debt which can be fiddly. If you have players pre-signed or know who’s going to play, you can let them pick, of course – but this helps to focus your thoughts on where they will be relevant. If you haven’t got anyone playing the Vamp, for instance, you don’t need to think about complex vampire politics.

Pick a City

Either use one of the cities already developed in Dark Streets, the setting sourcebook for US, or come up with one yourself. All you need for this is a defined group for each of the factions – for instance, when I wrote up Manchester 1997 for the Revelation convention I had the City Ghosts as my Night faction – a group of industrial-age spectres that keep the city surviving, and The Bridgewater Club as a group of hunters and graverobbers who sought to maintain the status quo – and represented the Mortality faction. If you’re able to, you could share your city write-up with your players in advance of the session. It’s also useful to develop broad brush strokes of one NPC for each faction. You need to be careful about introducing too many NPCs in your one-shot, but it helps to have some to start with so the players can generate them. Resist the temptation to have more than one NPC for each faction! Your players will generally invent more of them, and you can always create more on the fly for them if you need to.

Think of a Bang to Start With

Before play starts, think about an unavoidable event that can be happening that will bring the PCs together. Maybe something that threatens the whole city, or something that you know the PCs will hold dear – a reason for them to stick together. In play, the start of session move will give them more stuff to do as well, so your incident might be a backdrop or might be the key action of the session, but it should be unavoidable and with clear consequences.

Good ideas are an important area or location in the city being under threat, a massive monster being released or summoned, or a deadly NPC arriving and tipping the status quo. Even if it ends up being a backdrop, it should be something that sets multiple events in motion – it’s OK to have a deadly vampire killer on the loose, but make sure that his murders trigger an all-out Vamp-Werewolf gang war in the city, and have the wizards summoning blood demons to take out the most dangerous Vamp threats to them.

As well as an inciting incident, have a few ideas about how this event will climax towards the end of the session – the battle / binding of the demon, the restoring of the status quo, the NPC being chased off. Clearly it’s a good idea to have this as loose as you can make it, but it should be a clear endgame where the threat gets resolved one way or another.

Start of Play

Do Character Generation by the book

Get the players to fill in their Playbooks as per the rules on them. Follow the book advice on one-shots (one extra advance, 3 points of Corruption, one Corruption advance). Get them to go around and briefly introduce their characters after you give a brief overview of the city and the four factions you created. For each NPC, write their name and faction onto an index card and throw them in the middle of the table.

Do Debt – and make it a massive deal

Get the players to take turns in deciding Debt, and make a big deal of it. The book does advise this, but it helps to explicitly refer to Debt a key currency in the game – this is a game of factional manipulation and politics, so who owes whom is really important. I like to stress that 2 Debt is a big deal – you owe them big time, and they can call in a suitably big favour for this – anyone who owes 2 Debt to someone has a ticking time bomb of something being called in. In play, remember to remind them when they ask for something that Debt is the way to leverage it – and that they can always refuse to help with the appropriate Debt Moves.

Start of Session Moves

It’s easy to think that the start of session move doesn’t work for one-shots, but it really sings, especially if somebody rolls a Miss. I avoid giving any hints of my inital scene before they have done the session move, so that the PCs already have a lot on their plate before their unavoidable event happens.

Don’t pull punches! If they roll a Miss, it’s entirely appropriate to start them in a terrible situation. PBTA games are really resilient at letting PCs go from tragedy to glory, and back again, in just a few Moves, so don’t feel bad about starting with your Wizard captured by a recalcitrant demon he was trying to summon. When they mark their Faction, explain how the Advancement system works and that they are just 3 interactions away from advancing – they should be actively hunting down other factions to get their ticks. In the course of the Session Move, the players might suggest additional NPCs. Write them on an index card with their faction and put them in the middle of the table.

Check your NPCs

Before you launch your starting scene, take a look at the NPCs on the table and see if you can ditch any of them. If there’s one without any debt who doesn’t seem to be of interest to the group, suggest to the players that they might not feature in the game. They might have future plans for them – which is fine – but otherwise try to trim your NPC list down as much as you can. If this means ditching all four of your starting NPCs, so be it! The players inevitably come up with much more interesting characters.

Play!

Often PBTA games suggest you take a break now and collate your notes, look at how factions interact, and check you are ready to play. My own experience is that after the start of session moves I’m often fizzing with ideas, and the players are ready to go, so it’s better to start with the inciting incident now and have a break straight after it.

One piece of pay advice I’m terrible at following myself – make your hard moves soon! In a one-shot, once that first miss gets rolled in a risky situation, it’s fine to hit the player with unavoidable consequences; the “warn someone of impending danger” move is often slow. I prefer, in a one-shot, to “put someone in danger.”

So that’s a quick write-up of how I do Urban Shadows one-shots. It’s a cracking game and a great urban fantasy experience to bring to conventions. I’ll be posting up my Manchester 1997 setting shortly, so watch out for that – and putting up more one-shot advice soon enough.

Oh, and if urban fantasy is your bag, you should check out the kickstarter for the Liminal RPG. I’m involved in editing and producing some Case Files (adventures) for the system, and possibly more content depending on how far the stretch goals go. It’s already funded, so any extra Backers just mean more stuff gets written and produced for everyone!