Spotlight Maintenance and the Three-Skill Trick: A One-Shot Prep Technique

After several cons in the last few weeks, I’ve come to realise how important spotlight sharing is in One-Shot games. In some games, a structured turn helps to make this happen naturally, especially in combat; in D&D, for instance, everyone has a role to play in combat, so generally a fight has the spotlight shared reasonably equally. But in games that are less combat-centric, such as investigative games, it can be easy to neglect some characters and favour others. And even in D&D, outside of combat it can be easy to make the game focus more on some PCs and not others.

So, in thinking about this, I present…

The Three-Skill Trick

You do this at some point in your prep after you have your pregens ready. You might only have the bare bones of your plot – in which case this might take you in unexpected directions – or you might have the game basically prepped – in which case this will add detail and options that will check that everyone has plenty to do.

Start by looking at your pregens and working out what they are really good at – this will include their “Apex skill,” whatever they are best at, but also anything that they have a Talent/Stunt/whatever your system calls them that can boost it. Sometimes talents can have specific instances – for instance in FFG Star Wars Talents sometimes just remove penalty dice – so consider if those instances can occur in the game.

Then list three places in the scenario for each pregen where these skills can shine. Make sure these are skill uses that hinge on success – passing them adds significant value and plot leverage to the game.

Why three? Well, not all of them may come up, no matter how obvious you think they might be. By having three, you’re guaranteeing as close as you can that it’ll come up at least once. This is easier to illustrate with an example, so let’s look at a classic/boring adventure structure, and let’s stick to D&D, the “Bandits on the Road” adventure.

Imagine this is as far as our prep goes for this 1st level D&D adventure: the PCs are hired to escort a caravan through the dangerous woods; part way through they are ambushed by bandits, who run off with a vital item. The PCs are offered double their fee to track the bandits and recover the item, from which they can then return to civilisation.

Just to stick to the cliche, let’s assume a bog-standard D&D party of Fighter, Magic-User, Thief, and Cleric, and let’s make them good at standard 1st Edition AD&D things – the Cleric can heal and speak to people, the Fighter can, er, Bend Bars and Lift Gates, and hit things with his sword; you get the idea.

Let’s look at each PC in turn and look at what we can add to give them a proper spotlight.

Fighter

  • during the ambush, the caravan is forced into a rut and loses a wheel – it needs lifting up and repairing
  • during the ambush, one of the bandits is carrying a shield bearing the heraldic crest of the Duke’s bastard son – foreshadowing that…
  • the bandits have a champion, the Duke’s disgraced bastard son, who seeks to duel the fighter in single combat

Thief

  • The camp is nestled up a cliffside – by climbing the (fairly easy) cliffs it can be scouted and alarms cut off
  • The bandits around the camp (or even during the ambush) carry obvious keys that can be pickpocketed from them
  • The camp has tripwire traps all around the approach to the forest

Cleric

  • At the start of the ambush, the merchant’s wife is shot and dangerously wounded – she needs healing
  • During the night – during which the PCs must travel to get to the bandit camp – restless spirits and ghosts stalk the forest
  • There are druids in the forest who are none too happy about the caravans coming through, but a friendly approach leads to their help against the bandits, who they are equally displeased with

Magic-User

  • the stolen item is an arcane box that can be magically tracked
  • during the camp ambush, there are lots of braziers and pots of oil (that can easily be mage hand-ed to cause distraction)
  • from the ambush, they find a map to the bandit camp – but it is in code

Obviously, this isn’t quite game-ready, but I’d argue it’s a significant improvement on the standard adventure already. All it needs is a re-arranging into order and a few stats and names, and it’s a pretty serviceable one-shot. Watch this space and I might even do that – after all, I did try and chisel a decent one-shot out of another classic/corny adventure plot, “The Orc And The Pie.”

What are your tricks for managing spotlight in one-shots? Have you tried a similar technique? And watch out for Part 2, where I’ll apply it to a more complex base adventure.

Fly-Traps and Capitalists – a Fate One-Shot

Red PlanetLast weekend, at North Star convention in Sheffield, UK, I ran two games of Fate. This was my Sunday afternoon end-of-the-con offering, a pulp Soviet sci fi raygun romp using Jess Nevins’ excellent Red Planet Fate World. I’ve written up my prep notes and post it here both as an example of what my current prep structure looks like, and also a look at what Fate can do for the Fate-curious. I used the pregens included in Red Planet itself – like all the Fate Worlds series, it’s PWYW at DriveThruRPG.

I’ve got another post cogitating that’s a sequel to my Fate one-shot advice post – since I’ve seen and stolen some more really good ideas since then – but for now, please join the Progressive Materialists of the Martian Union in finding out what happened to Trotsky IV.

Introduction

The Martian Exploratory Force Trotsky IV has disappeared in the Venusian jungles; their last contact said they had found an ancient relic and were concerned about Geometrist involvement, but they haven’t been heard of in a week. You are dispatched to sneak into the jungles on the far side of Venus and explore the jungles, but the Americans have also intercepted the message and are already on the scene.

Upon arrival the PCs find a crashed Geometrist ship, and must overcome its security systems to unlock the computer core before finding a town of native Venusians in league with the Americans have captured the Expeditionary Force. They must show the villagers the error of their ways and help them defeat the Americans, dealing with the double-agent in their midst who led the Americans to the village.

Cast

Sarah Bannon is the American Spy leading the forces on the Venusian Jungles. She is a devoted capitalist who grew up hunting deer on her father’s ranch before serving in the “quiet war.” A zealot, she has no time for the Martian communists with their socialist ideals.

Felk Yath is the commander of the town of Hath’met, in the Venusian jungle. His guards were attacked by Bannon’s forces and he was asked to capture the Martians and hold them; he’s been offered the riches of America and better weaponry for his forces, to allow him to conquer the nearby villages of Reth’met and Yess’met, and to defend against the robots that keep guard at the crash site. Yath is a typical Venusian frog-man, and he has eschewed the American trappings of his lieutenants.

Yath’s Guards wield a mixture of crude spears with shiny American Reagan-class Rifles. They are old models and prone to misfiring, but they are very proud of them. The sergeants wear baseball caps and weirdly-made baseball jackets, and call each other “Chuck” and “Buddy”

Paskin Petrovich is the leader of Trotsky IV – he’s grizzled and injured, walks with a limp and is out of his depth.

Kinyev Kusya is Petrovich’s lieutenant – she’s angry and doesn’t trust the Americans, and doesn’t know how they managed to capture her.

Vladlen Krupin is a double agent. He has been in contact with Bannon since the start, and revealed their location to the Americans so they could be captured. He hopes that a rescue mission (such as the PCs) will decipher the Geometrist’s code so he can take the weaponry himself for the Americans. He’s a physically massive man, part of the early New Man program that grafted muscle onto its subjects.

Arz Vangodal is a Geometrist who is currently trapped in the computer system of the crashed spaceship. He only really wants to return home to his own dimension, but to do this he needs his computer core to be repaired, and so far every 3D being he’s encountered has wanted to kill or rob him. He’s paranoid but could become an unlikely ally.

Scene One – Approach to Venus

The PCs will attempt to avoid the patrolling ships – there are many American forces patrolling around the far side of Venus, and they need to try and sneak in to the planet and make a safe landing

Aspects: Cloud cover and Venusian Storms, Lots of Spaceships

This is a Challenge, involving, in turn

  • A Pilot roll against +2 (Fair) to avoid the patrolling ships
  • Stealth or Crafts against +3 (Good) to evade the on-site sensors
    • If this is failed, their ship takes a consequence “Engines Damaged” as it is fired on
  • Finally, a +3 (Good) Pilot roll to land – the jungle is too thick, but they can find a clear spot and land safely
    • If this is failed, take a “Position Compromised” aspect – people know they are there

Once they have landed, safely or otherwise, they can make their way to the co-ordinates that Trotsky IV gave them for the Geometrist site

Scene Two – Jungle Attack

As the PCs venture into the thick jungle, they have to contend with the natives – a Venusian Tooth Beast, as they venture into a clearing of Venusian Fly-Traps. The Tooth-Beast looks like a 2m tall velociraptor, and is clearly enraged by activity around the site. The Fly-Traps are man-sized carnivorous plants.

Aspects: Thick jungle vines; Even the plants hate us

Venusian Tooth-Beast: stats are on p37 of Red Planet
Physical: ††††                     Mental: †††
Mild (2):
Mild (2):

Venusian Fly-Trap: Fair (+2) Fight, 2 stress per plant (default 4 plants)
††                           ††                           ††                           ††

Once they are dispatched, a search of the area reveals papers and polystyrene debris around the Tooth Beast – a Fair (+2) Lore check reveals these as wrappings of burgers and other American fast foods – and that this is what must have sent the Tooth-Beast into an even more deadly rage.

Scene Three –The Spaceship

The PCs can find the crash site now; a circular ship – think classic flying saucer design – has crashed here, and is clearly damaged. As they explore the bridge, it is clearly of alien design – there are no life support systems, and there are no signs of the robots that crewed it – they must be around the area. The doors have been brutally jury-rigged to seal them by the Venusians – it is a +3 (Good) overcome action from Craft or, a +4 (Great) Physique or Shoot to get them open – failure leads to a 3-stress explosion. Inspecting the mechanism finds that it is of American design – it’s a Bush Mk II Grenade.

Aspects: Geometry not meant for 3D people; Remnants of defence systemsBigger inside than outside – or is it smaller?

The main bridge is deserted and has clearly been for some time. They can find the state-issued insignia of their Martian comrades here, along with traces of blood which shows this is where they were attacked.

The computer core is where the geometrists, Arz Vangodal, is currently hiding. There are powerful sensors that would be able to find their comrades, and a loose CCTV -type system which Arz uses to understand the actions on the bridge, but they will have to unlock it.

This is a Contest of whichever players attempt to hack the system against Arz.

Arz Vangodal has the standard Geometrist profile from p33 – his most important skills are Will +7 (which he will use to defend against any attempt to persuade him to let them access the systems) and Craft +4 (which he uses to try and stop any attempts to hack his systems)

As soon as the contest begins, a group of security robots arrive and attack. Two arrive in each exchange until they are defeated or the area is hacked. They show evidence of self-repair from the jungle around; Arz’ ship is able to do this as well once the core is online, something that Arz has not noticed yet.

Security Robots: Fair (+2) Shoot, Average (+1) Notice; Weapon: 1

This is likely to play out as a parallel contest / conflict with some PCs attempting to hack the core while others fight off the robots.
                                                       

Scene Four: Captured!

As they are dispatching (or being defeated by) the robots, a Venusian patrol happens upon them, alerted by Bannon’s monitoring of them. They speak through awkwardly-translated voices (with American accents) that the PCs must surrender and come with them – if they want to see their friends alive. One of them carries a crackly monitor showing the three Martians at gunpoint, to reinforce this threat.

If they succeeded in bringing the core online, Bannon herself appears – and thanks the PCs for helping her to hack the system.

“This will prove very useful for the President and our ambitions on Venus – I guess you commies must be good for something! All that free education and healthcare you waste your money on I guess!”

As the PCs are having to concede, they each earn 1 fate point, plus 1 for each consequence they took in the conflict, as they are taken to the Venusian village.

Scene Five: An Audience With Trotsky IV

As they arrive in the village, they are taken to Yath, who explains the situation; he has all three members of Trotsky IV, but he needs to give them to the Americans or they will destroy his village. He has seen the technology they have, and that they will stop at nothing to get what they want. He is a formal and careful leader – but it is obvious that he is uncomfortable with the deal with the Americans. He takes the PCs out to see his men working in the jungles, distilling spirits from the Fly-Traps “A technique the Americans have already given my people,” they pass Venusians feasting on chocolate bars and drinking Bud.He speaks to  The Americans have armed his people well, he tells them – and he should be able to conquer the surrounding villages with the arms and armour he has.

As they do this, they see Venusians bringing the parts of the spaceship back, along with robot parts that are being deactivated.

They can meet Trotsky IV, who tell them, separately, that there is no hope – the Americans have a strong force here – their best hope is to try and escape.

Scene Six: Finale

There are a few options for the PCs to resolve this. It should be obvious that the Venusians are ripe for conversion – use the rules on p25 of Red Planet for this. As they turn the Venusians against their forces, they might also have an ally in Arz to trigger his robots.

It is expected that the start of this scene will be a Conversion roll to get the Venusian village on side, but other options are a Contest to sneak out of the village – use Yath’s Great (+4) Village Leader to oppose this. On a failed attempt, Yath won’t fight them himself, but he’ll use his alarm to alert Bannon, and they must fight both his village guards and Bannon.

As they do this, Vladlen’s treachery will trigger – as they see him communicate to Bannon what is happening, and a force of Americans attack!

Sarah Bannon: American spy
Aspects: Veteran American Spy; Carries a torch for Vladlen Krupin; For Mom and Apple Pie!; Deadeye Shot; Exploit the Exploitable
Skills: Fantastic (+6) Shoot, Deceive; Superb (+5) Athletics, Fight, Physique; Great (+4) Investigate, Notice, Will
Stunts: Mook Shield – spend a fate point to divert an attack to a nearby GI; No Taste for Personal Danger – +2 to create an advantage with Athletics by diving behind cover
Stress: Physical  Mental 
Mild (2):
Moderate (4):

Vladlen Krupin: Martian Double-Agent
Aspects: Super-tough super-spy; In love with Bannon
Skills: Fantastic (+6) Physique; Superb (+5) Fight, Shoot
Stunts: Poison grenades – by spending a fate point you can physically attack everyone in a zone
Stress: Physical  Mental 
Mild (2):

GI’s: Good (+3) Shoot, Average (+1) Athletics – Weapon +2
†††    †††    †††    †††    †††    †††

As always, let me know if you find this useful – or even run it – and watch out for more one-shots in future. I’m trying to write up as many of my convention games and put them on here as I can, so let me know if there’s anything you’d like to see.

Ravnica Airship Heist – a 3rd level D&D One-Shot

In my review of the Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica, I talked about it’s amazing steampunky setting – and it made me think immediately of an airship heist. Well, I went ahead and designed one, and have run it twice now – once at Go Play Leeds and once at the excellent Airecon convention in Harrogate.

airship pic

Airship by Jonny Gray

It’s presented in fairly loose note form below (and here as a .pdf) – and in this post I’ve got links to the pregens that I used for it. You can probably get an idea about how I tend to run D&D5e from it – there’s no maps, for instance, and in particular the part of the one-shot where the PCs have to source flying mounts is left intentionally vague. In both occasions of running it, the Goblin player has decided instead to have his own experimental flying machine.

Let me know any feedback – particularly if you run it, or part of it.

Ravnica Airship Heist

(An Azorius Senate Ravnica One-Shot for five 3rd level PCs)

Background

There’s one airship out of the Tenth District that you need to get to; it’s got Lady Saves on it, a wanted Simic Combine ‘disappearer’ who is wanted for multiple Guildpact violations. She’s gone into deep hiding, but you know she’s still in the Tenth District, and you’re going to capture her.

She knows the Azorius are on to her, though, and has made plans. After exhausting a number of avenues, she has kidnapped Izzet league goblin inventor Grizmalgun and forced him to steal and pilot an airship for her. With this, she will flee to the faraway Sixth District and start her experiments again!

Setup

This one-shot assumes that the PCs are working with, or allied to, the Azorius Senate, and begins at the finale of their investigations into her practices. The adventure begins at the finale of their investigations into her – they have tracked her down to her laboratory on the edge of Zonot Seven, in Precinct Five of the Tenth District. Her crimes – kidnapping, experimentation without consent – are so foul that even the Simic Combine has stopped defending her, and so the Azorius have a warrant for her arrest.

With each PC, ask why they are dedicated to finding Lady Saves – what has she done to them, their Guild or their family. Let them know the terms of the warrant – it applies within the Tenth District, and so it is imperative that they don’t let her escape.

Then ask them which PC they have worked with before – what case they worked on, and what they thought of them.

Cast

Lady Saves is a cruel, heartless Simic biomancer who seeks only to further her own glory by a series of increasingly dangerous experiments. She appears as a beautiful, if otherworldly, woman, and has a thin pair of butterfly wings that are usually kept folded and hidden behind her back. Likewise, if she needs it, a pair of concealed tentacles can emerge from her body.

Grizmalgun is a scatterbrained and disorganised goblin inventor who usually works in the harnessing of elemental powers. He has worked many times on maintaining the Tenth District’s airships, and so is in a prime position to steal one. While he has no time for Lady Saves, the chance to actually fly one of his creations has made him relatively sympathetic to her cause – and the chance to start again in the Sixth District also appeals, as he has a long list of debts from previous experiments.

Scene 1 – Dawn Raid on Growth Chamber Alpha-3

The PCs enter the Growth Chamber to find it apparently deserted – there are two greenish pools in front of them, beyond which a desk of apparatus and notes lies in disarray. Another doorway leads to some abandoned living quarters All through the room is the thick smell of acid which stings the eyes. Within the pools, two Category 1 Krasis (p210 GGR) (both with the Acidic Skin power) lie ready to attacl the PCs. They will try to wait until the PCs have started to investigate the desk, trapping them in the chamber, but if anyone tries to explore the pools they will attack.

A thorough search of the chamber reveals –

  • A detailed plan for airship piloting, which has had several notes left in it
  • A list of Izzet league contacts – with notes next to them, each crossed out. Only one, Grizmalgun, a goblin airship inventor, remains
  • A guide book to the Sixth District, far across Ravnica

If Lady Saves makes it to the Sixth District, she will be well away from her crimes here – even the Guildpact takes a long time to enforce, and she belongs in your jurisdiction! They can follow up the leads

Airships

Research about airships shows that they are likely to be from the Airpship Station at the centre of Tenth District. They are slow but easily obtained with the right contacts, and asking around will reveal that there are unscrupulous Izzet Leaguers who are prepared to bypass security and wards and help people get them.

Scene Two – Grizmalgun’s Workshop

Grizmalgun is long gone, but Lady Saves’ Simic allies have left traps just in case somebody tries to come after him. A Hybrid Shocker and two Hybrid Spies (GGR p218) are hidden in the alleyways around the workshop – test the Spys’ stealth of +5 against the PC’s Passive Perception to see if they are detected, unless they search the outside thoroughly.

Upon entry, the Workshop is a two-story affair – you can use the map on p145 of GGR for it – but much of the walkways around the ground level above the generator have been removed or destroyed. A tripwire near entry triggers the first (mechanical) trap – the lower level begins to flood with water. Whoever enters first must make a DC15 Perception to spot the tripwire, followed by a DC15 Acrobatics to avoid being tipped into the lower level for 1d6 damage and to be within the water. The lower level will fill up within two rounds, and then begin to flood the ground floor. There is a cut-off switch on the far side of the basement floor – from which the water floods – which can be reached and turned off with a DC10 Athletics check.

When the trap is triggered, or when the PCs enter the workshop without it triggering, the Simic will attack. The Shocker can target everyone in the water with their Shocking Touch attack or Electrified Body reaction.

Upon questioning the Simic, they can reveal that Lady Saves is long gone – she is already on board the airship. Similarly, a thorough search of the workshop finds evidence of a fight – and calculations for a flight path and route. Checking the wind speeds and timings, the airship is already airborne – there is no time to lose to catch it!

Scene Three – Airborne Steeds

They need to use their contacts to get hold of either Griffins or Skyjek Rocs to ride onto the Airship, if they want to try and attack aerially. If any of the group have Izzet league contacts, they may be able to find their own Airships. Allow the players to make whatever plans they have for this – a skill check is only needed if you want to determine who has the best-maintained Griffin and who has a grimy beakless nag!

(optional) Scene Four – Aerial Battle

If you have time (allow about an hour for the final confrontation), have the PCs encounter some interference on their way to the fight. Three Harpies (MM p181)have been bribed by Lady Saves to run interference in case they are followed.

An appropriate Animal Handling check can make their Rocs or Griffins sing, which will counteract the Luring Song of the Harpies. As all combatants are mounted, feel free to use – or not use – the Mounted Combat rules, depending on your table preferences.

Scene Five – Airship Heist

On board the airship, there are Lady Saves – stats as a Cult Fanatic (MM p345 – but with a Flight speed of 40ft if she needs it), a Krasis Stage 1 (with Flight – p210 GGR), and Four Simic Thugs (MM p350). There’s also a very frightened-looking Grizmalgun (stats as Counterflux Blastseeker, p242 GGR) who is chained to a cage at the front of the Airship. He can be persuaded to help with an appropriate social skill, and joins in on the PCs side. This can be a difficult battle – particularly if anyone falls off their mounts – but the PCs have access to Grizmalgun, and also their Rocs / Griffons to help that they should be able to make use of.

Scene Six – Airship Crash!

As the battle rages, the Airship begins to pitch and toss, and if the fight is going against her, Lady Saves is likely to pull the bomb mechanism that Grizmalgun has installed and cut the cables. The mechanisms within the airship begin to whirr and the airship begins to lose altitude.

To level it out and crash-land the airship will take a series of skill checks. They need to get to 4 (same as no. of PCs) successes before they reach 3 failures, using a range of skills (generally DC is 10)

  • Use Dexterity (Thieve’s Tools) to repair the rigging
  • Use Intelligence (Arcana) to repair the air elemental holding wards
  • Use Strength (Athletics) to climb onto the rigging and hold it in place
  • Use Charisma (Persuasion) to get Grizmalgun to help – once the bomb goes off he is very keen on observing the carnage instead of helping
  • …and so on

With success, the ship crashes gently into a Rubble Pit – and with it come a group of Gruul. Judicious use of social skills, and explaining Lady Saves’ crimes, should enable them to get out successfully, and they can bring her to justice.

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

(update: I’ve added the link to the final pregen, a Goblin Fighter more geared towards magic than fighting, to use with the adventure itself here)

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

Goblin Fighter

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.