Zero to Zero – running 1st level D&D one-shots

Sly Flourish is a genius, and I agree with him about nearly everything D&D-related. He’s wrong about skill challenges, though (they’re one of my favourite things in any game, as these posts will testify) – and he’s wrong about 1st level adventures. I’ve run most of my D&D5e one-shots at 1st level, mostly for people new to the hobby, and I’m posted a few on here – check out The Goblins and The Pie Shop, The Rats of Rothsea, and Tower of the Stirge – and the pregen sheets I use to try and make things simpler.

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

But there’s a particular set of advice that I’d suggest for 1st level D&D. It’s really not that deadly, if done right, and while players don’t have quite as many options as they do by 3rd level, they do have options in the right place. For me, 1st level one-shots come down to three things – Support, Survivability, and Stakes.

Support

You can ignore this, to some extent, if you know you’ve got seasoned D&D vets. But usually, when I’m running 1st level D&D, I’m expecting some players new to the hobby. The Starter Set and Essentials Kit are great, but… their character sheets are ridic. You need less detail, and more help, on them – and so I made these, which I stole from (I think) an insta post from someone from Critical Role… sorry I can’t give a more exact credit, but in fairness it was in the background of a photo.

For spellcasters, I’ll first of all steer newbies away unless they’re up for a bit of reading what spells do, and/or resource management. Otherwise I’ll have spell cards, or a handout with the details clipped from the SRD. Certainly nobody should be looking stuff up in the Player’s Handbook at the table.

Survivability

A 1st level, your PCs need plenty of rests. I sort of run D&D like this at higher levels like this, anyway – trying to face a challenging combat with 1 spell slot left is no fun when some classes’ long rest abilities run out. I normally go for a ‘training’ encounter, then a long rest, and another (sometimes inserted in with handwavey magic refreshing) before the final fight with the big bad.

I think you also need to be careful with enemy damage – challenge ratings are generally a fairly good indicator of challenge, but my rule of thumb is to avoid any attack that can take a PC out in one hit – that’s just too swingy for me. I’m a great fan of the starter adventure in Theros, but the initial encounter is with creatures that do 1d8+3 +2d6 poison damage – that’s not 1st level compliant, for me. Oh, and I generally roll enemy damage – it gives a bit more threat and jeopardy to know that one arrow could do 8 points of damage and really worry them.

Stakes

Even at 1st level, keep the stakes high

Clearing out giant rats is no fun, despite me writing an adventure about it. Give your 1st level one-shot serious stakes – one of my very favourite DCC adventures, The Hole In The Sky, pits the 0-level funnel PCs against a 200 foot tall demon! At the very least, their failure should have somebody’s life on the line, or the well-being of a village or town that will then hold them up as heroes.

Bridge the gap between the PCs and these stakes by getting them to answer questions that tie them to the background. In my latest 1st level one-shot, it begins with a wedding, and the players describe how they’ve got an invite. In playtest, this led to some great emergent NPCs, and a genuine interest in the event passing well – which served as a baked-in motivation.

In terms of in-game scene-by-scene stakes, have failure conditions in mind. 1st level is swingy as hell, and you can end up with a TPK with a run of bad (or good) rolls… have a plan in mind where they wake up in the goblin’s dungeons (or wherever) and get one last chance to escape.

I certainly aren’t going to stop running D&D at 1st level any time soon, and I’ve got a lot of good work out of it so far. I haven’t talked about it here, but worth noting that a lot of the AL stuff has 1st level players doing 2-4 one-hour mini-adventures, which as you’d expect I’m a fan of – this helps the long rests situation. 

What’s been your experience of 1st level D&D? Let me know in the comments. 

Day of the Manta Ray – a Sentinel Comics One-Shot

Last weekend, I was at the Owlbear and the Wizard’s Staff, an improbably-named convention in Leamington Spa – and this was the scenario I ran for it. I’d previously playtested it online with my pick-up Supers Gaming group, and made quite significant changes to some of the encounters based on how that went. I thought I’d share it here as a verbatim example of my notes for a one-shot game, along with a few explanatory things.

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

I designed this scenario for the pregen group Daybreak in the Sentinel Comics rulebook – they are teen superheroes, and I played up their lesser status in Freedom City by having lots of spectators and NPCs wearing Legacy merch (the other, more established, superheroes). Sentinel has a really structured encounter/scene structure, which I stuck to for the set pieces, but I freeformed a lot of the investigation scene by just asking for 6 successes and giving them some plot hooks when they made their Overcome rolls.

I knew I had 3 players, but added an extra into each scene to allow for an extra player to arrive. I’ll be following this up with a Sentinels review, and probably something on playtesting con scenarios, so watch this space!

Intro / Con Pitch

In this terrifying issue, Ray Manta (p400) has hatched a devious plan to hold Freedom City to ransom, by kidnapping the hapless Mayor Thomas at the opening of Freedom City Aqualand. After dealing with the aftermath of his kidnapping, the heroes have to track down Ray Manta to his secret underwater base, find him, and battle him and his aquatic friends to save the mayor.

SCENE ONE -THE GRAND OPENING

Easy/Medium Action Scene

The heroes are guests of honour, or just there for a day out, at the opening of Aqualand, the Freedom City aquarium. It’s been rebuilt after a terrible incident of collateral damage that the heroes were somehow involved in. Standing in front of the prize pool is Mayor Thomas, his too-tight suit and the blazing sun making his hair dye drip onto his collar. As he readies to cut the ribbon, Orca and Morca, the aquarium’s prized killer whales, jump a pirouette behind him. 

A great day for the fishes! A great day for the city! As I always say, with cod on our side, we’re always sure to have a whale of a time! I’ve always been a fin of the aquarium, and I’ve often said this day was manta be! 

As Mayor Thomas giggles at his terrible puns, the fireworks go off – and smoke fills the area. Slightly confused, there are soon some secondary explosions – and screams!

Ray Manta has set off his trap – his squid-bots have been waiting in the wings, and his shark-bots have already replaced the beloved Orca and Morca.

As the smoke clears, Mayor Thomas is nowhere to be seen, and man-sized squidbots terrorize the assembled crowds. An explosion under a stand has left the assembled people tumbling into the pool, where a now-enraged Morca has been dropped from the sky.

Scene Tracker – Standard

3 Players:

ELECTRIC EEL – D8 Lieutenant

Herman Gyros got caught in an oil rig accident and given the ability to turn into living electricity – now he works for Ray Manta after a hastily-arranged re-image to fit his fish theme

Ability: Can ATTACK and HINDER a target with the same die roll if making a ranged attack with his ELECTRO-SHOCK

Tactics: Flies around from zone to zone targeting the most dangerous-looking opponent. Flees if the fight turns.

HAMMERHEAD – D8 Lieutenant

One of King Shark’s followers, Hammerhead has been loaned out to Ray Manta for this mission. He is utterly clueless and doesn’t understand much of what is going on

Ability: At home in the water – +2 to close-combat attack or defend actions when in the water

Tactics: Keeps fighting until the bitter end – like we said, clueless.

ROBOCTOPI

These look like unconvincing plexiglass octopi

Ability: 16 arms are better than 8! They get a +2 to Boost fellow octopods

(H) D6 Minions

ENVIRONMENT – The Bombing Campaign

Frequent random explosions D8

Escaping wild aquatic animals D6

Hacked water cannons and fire trucks D8

Green – a few explosions happen towards the edges of the scene – the whole place has been booby-trapped!

Minor: Explosions fire at one hero on the ground of the scene, making an Attack using the Mid die

Minor: Another roboctopi activates!

Major: Two heroes are buried under a pile of rubble – Hinder at Mid, Attack at Min

Yellow – spectators are dropped into the orca tank, as fish swarm from all directions

Minor: A wave of water targets everyone on the ground who isn’t aquatic – Attack with Min vs. everyone

Minor: One hero is covered with mating octopi – a persistent and exclusive Boost action

Major: Advance the scene tracker by one space as the ground begins to creak under the water

Red – the stand collapses into the city’s water system – there are sharks all over the city now!

Minor: Water sprays up, a Hinder (Mid) on everyone – including the flyers

Minor: An arc of electricity flies up to Electric Eel and restores him to full strength!

Major: Waves of water stand between the heroes and their opponents – a Max Defend action

4 players:

ADD

SAVE THE SPECTATORS

OO Right the stand

O Calm the enraged killer whale

SCENE TWO – AFTERMATH

Montage Scene

As the scene clears, a message has been scorced into the grass in front of the aquarium – unless THREE MILLION DOLLARS is delivered to an unmarked post office box downtown, they will never see the mayor – or Orca – again. Commissioner Brown is beside himself

But the people of Freedom City – they love that goddam dolphin! And Mayor Thomas, of course. Him as well. But, how will poor Morca cope without her mate?

Players can narrate their scene to heal/help/boost as usual.

SCENE THREE – INVESTIGATIONS

Easy Action Scene

As they race to find the location the mayor (and the beloved killer whale) is hiding, they need a total of 6 successes on Overcome actions to do so.

Possible approaches –

Hack the robots to find their ‘homing location’ somewhere in Freedom Bay

Investigate the PO box – where they find a terrified employee who says a ‘fat man who smelled of fish’ asked him to set it up, then crawled back into the river

Look into the aquarium contractors – where there are a lot of contracts given to on Mandy Tallahasie Raynham – with the location of the warehouse that he used

Go bust some heads at the warehouse – where they can reveal Ray Manta’s underwater base

SCENE FOUR – PREPARATIONS

Montage Scene

They know where Ray Manta’s base is, and they know how to get there -and that it’s underwater. How do they prepare to get there?

Players can narrate their scene to heal/help/boost as usual.

SCENE FIVE – SHOWDOWN

Moderate Action Scene

As they burst into Ray Manta’s base, they find the mayor and the Orca already tied to a laser cutter, and the swarms of bots all around them

Scene Tracker – Standard

3 Heroes:

SAVE THE WHALE!  (AND THE MAYOR)

OOOO Defuse the laser

RAY MANTA (see full profile, with upgrade suit, in the Sentinel Comics core book)

ELECTRIC EEL (AGAIN!)

D10 LIEUTENANT

Can Attack and Hinder the with one action

KING ORCA

A man in a shark suit just as unconvincing as Ray Manta’s costume, King Orca is nevertheless a dangerous villain

D10 LIEUTENANT

+2 to Boost actions

4 heroes – ADD

HORDES OF FLYING FISHBOTS

(H) D8 MINIONS

Annoying blighters: +1 to Hinder Actions

Once the scene is finished, the heroes are victorious! They have saved the mayor, and the beloved Killer Whale, Orca! Narrate a closing scene where they celebrate their victory.

Get A Village – Embedding Setting in One-Shots

It’s easy to ditch the setting if you’re prepping a one-shot; but part of the joy of a #TTRPG is exploring a fantastic world, isn’t it? As to what extent can you get this feeling in a one-shot, there are a few approaches. You could spend the first half-hour explaining the setting and context for your players, but that would be rubbish. How can you show setting through play, without sacrificing pace? Well, here’s one method.

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

You Need A Village

The Classic D&D village

Set up a small, coherent, manageable place for your one-shot. A village is the right size for this – give it an obvious theme, and link it to the plot. Show how your inciting incident affects it – the terrible plots of the big bad should have affected the villagers, and let the PCs witness this.

Continue reading →

Heard About The Dungeon? – A Rumour Tables Hack

A staple of the TTRPG adventures I grew up on (mostly from Dungeon magazine) was the rumour table. Before venturing out of the safety of the town to explore the dangerous area (usually a dungeon, obviously), PCs could ask around and get some useful clues about what was going on. Usually, this table contained a mixture of true, false, and almost-true rumours – and which rumour was heard was entirely random.

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

I like this idea – a random table is a good way to abstract an evening spent asking around the tavern before the mission. It prevents over-preparation if you have a finite number of rolls on it – and I also like the jeopardy of potentially hearing a false rumour, and the confusion that could cause.

But I’m not as keen on it being entirely random, or the pay-off for a false rumour not being clear. If PCs expect every rumour to be true, they’ll feel cheated when they act on a false one – and similarly, once they realise some are false, they’ll be reluctant to act on actually true rumours in case they turn out to be incorrect.

So, here’s a proposed solution, which I came up with while messing around with my notes for the a potential DM’s Guild submission

The Rumour Check

When you ask around the town for details of the dangerous place, or research such a place in the town records, make a skill check for an appropriate social or research skill. On a success, roll 1d6 on the Rumour Table; on a failure, roll 1d12.

On the Rumour Table, entries 1-6 are filled with TRUE rumours about the place; entries 7-12 are filled with FALSE, HALF-TRUE, or USELESS rumours. It’s worth considering, particularly with the 7-12 entries, whether your rumours will at or subtract from the fun – dire warnings and instructions to, e.g., stay away from the pit traps – are likely to lead to over-cautious players. Try and make them a call to do things in the site rather than not do them.

Why is this an improvement? Well, on a failed roll, the player (and his PC) knows he hasn’t been successful. Maybe he’s chanced upon the town drunk who previously was claiming to be a high elf heir, or the book he’s found is full or lurid, unlikely, or patently false information. Nevertheless, the information gleaned might still be true – there’s a choice to be made as to whether to act on it, knowing it could be false. A successful roll gets rightly rewarded, and the players can be relatively confident that rumour is true.

Of course, you could always roll 1d4 or 1d8 on a 1-8 table, if you’re stuck for ideas – but coming up with 12 is an interesting thought exercise in grounding your dungeon in the rest of the world – what have people heard about it? What has happened before?

Here’s an example, for the freely-available Tomb of the Serpent Kings adventure (which is designed as an intro to OSR-style adventuring, and is excellent – well worth a read even if you never run it).

Result (d6/d12)Rumour
1Tombs of that age were often built with a false tomb to deter robbers – the real treasures lie deeper (true)
2Tombs like this often show mechanical traps near their entrance to deter robbers – in particular anywhere that people don’t travel down, so look out for locked doors and check them for traps (true)
3You might want to pack some holy water and symbols of St Cuthbert – or take a cleric with you – one thing you find in tombs is undead, and I’ve heard of them stalking around the tomb (true)
4Rumours are the serpent people who built the tomb had fell magics, and could even keep themselves alive beyond death – there might still be undead serpent people down there – and who knows what they would make of this world? (true)
5The caves near to the tomb had some raids a few years back – weird fungus-covered goblins, who disappeared as soon as some adventurers sorted them out (true)
6Some adventurers did come and plan to raid the tomb last year, and never returned – either they got too scared to come back to town, or there’s something or someone in those tombs (true)
7There’s an underground chasm near those ruins – who knows what monsters might haunt those depths? (while true, this is of no use)
8If there’s one thing serpent people were scared of, it was fire – they can’t approach a burning torch, so I’ve heard (false, and certainly dangerous)
9There’s a stone golem somewhere down there – disturb the tomb and it’ll wander the world and seek revenge for its snake-masters! (true-ish, but the stone guardian can’t escape)
10We ran an old wizard out of town twenty years ago for necromancy – no doubt he now lairs in the tomb in the hills (false)
11There’s snakes around the hills and in the tomb. Luckily, I’ve got some antidote here – 2gp for a bottle, it’ll sting a bit going down but should help to pass the poison (false, and of course the antidote is cheap liquor cut with boot polish)
12The whole tomb is cursed – if you stay in there on the full moon, you’ll see the snake-men walk out of it and never return (false)

I’ll be using this the next time I write up a dungeony adventure – let me know what you think in the comments or at @milnermaths.

Prep Techniques: The Con Pitch

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

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

What’s a Con Pitch?

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

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

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

What Do You Want From This? – Start with Goals

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

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

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

Notes, Notes, Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Write Your Pitch

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

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

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

The Doom-Forge of Purphoros

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

What Next?

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

Making a Session Out Of It – Unsure Footing (Rime of the Frostmaiden)

Ages ago, I started blogging about One Hour One Shots – a chance to get the gist of what a TTRPG was in just an hour, rather than needing a whole session of 3-4. I reviewed some, and even had one published (for free) as a demo scenario for Hunters of Alexandria. My thinking has moved on a bit since then.

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

These days, the proliferation of online gaming means most of us are getting used to 2-3 hour long sessions as the norm; and, to be frank, when I get back to face to face gaming I’d be happy sticking with this length as the norm. Good online play is tighter; you tend to get as much done in 2-3 hours as you do in 4-5 hours face to face by minimising cross-chat.

And, while this is going on, Wizards of the Coast appear to be embracing the idea. A lot of 1st level adventures being published now present a series of mini-quests – each taking about an hour to play through – and I’m all in favour of this. The Essentials Box has a series of mini-quests that the PCs pick up in whatever order they want, and Rime of the Frostmaiden begins with a short quest in each of the towns where the action starts.

I’m going to explore drawing these mini-plots out to a full one-shot length in the next few blog posts, coving pulling a one-shot out of a published adventure – starting with expanding a shorter scenario into a full one-shot session.

Rime of the Frostmaiden: Unsure Footing

We’ll start with Unsure Footing, available at the link here from Wizard’s Stay In And Game promotion (under the D&D Celebration 2020 Header). It’s a starter adventure for Rime of the Frostmaiden, so it’s all frozen cursed north, but it also has lots of talking animals in, which is right up my street. It’s actually designed to be four 1-hour adventures where the PCs can complete up to 4 of them, but for this example we’ll just look at Unsure Footing, the first mini-quest they can do.

Fig. 1 – Unsure Footing Basic Structure

Summarising the plot as written, it looks like Fig. 1. The PCs are rescued from an avalanche by some awakened animals, and introduced to a talking walrus called Mother Tusk, who asks them to help her by rescuing some otters who have not returned. They track the otters to find them in a cave full of ice slides pursued by wolves, who they fight. They then have to try to warm up and survive the frozen trek back to safety with the otters. It’s designed to take about an hour.

To begin with, let’s look at what can be fleshed out easily here – the Avalanche scene at the start is a very quick, and peril-free, encounter – let’s make a bit more of that. While it sounds like an exciting scene, an awakened muskrat appears immediately and guides them to safety – there’s no need for the dice to hit the table at all, much less any actual peril.

And an arctic survival challenge to return isn’t much of a finale for a one-shot; the wolves fight could be, but I’m not sure if even on ice slides a fight with a few wolves is big enough. When you rescue the otters, they mention that they were running away from an owlbear, so let’s have him appear at the exit to the caves and a final fight with him. One big bad in D&D is often swingy (and let’s not worry about owlbears being CR 3 for our 1st level party for now), so let’s give him some minions – maybe a flock of evil owls who herald him.

Hacking the avalanche, we can have the muskrat ride to the rescue after a few rounds of avalanche peril – firstly requiring Acrobatics, Athletics, or Survival checks from everybody (keep these relatively easy at DC 8 for now) to avoid taking 1d4 damage from the buffeting snow, and then have a warm-up fight on the shifting snows for a couple of rounds. To foreshadow the ‘big bad,’ we’ll have a flock of owls attack them – at CR 0 they won’t be too much of a threat, but the need to make a skill check each round to maintain footing will be the real challenge. Again, this is more of a warm-up fight, but let’s have 5 owls attack – they can only do 1hp damage a round, so the avalanche is more of a threat than them.

Have the muskrat appear and rescue them on the third round no matter what, and take them to Mother Tusk, where – it is a one-shot after all – they get a slap-up meal of whatever awakened animals can muster and have a Long Rest so they’re all ready for the adventure proper. Not only does the walrus tell them about her otters, but speaks of a terrifying owlbear who has been stalking them, in a pretty-obvious foreshadowing of the big bad. Maybe she even talks of the flock of owls as his heralds.

They can track the otters, find them, and fight the wolves as normal – this is a really cool scene – and let’s have some clues available – the wolves seek to sacrifice the otters to the owlbear to appease them, leaving room for them to join forces when the owlbear attacks.

The ‘getting warmed up in the cave’ bit, I can take or leave. I think the point is meant to be to reinforce how deadly the environment is, but it reads a bit attritional to me – and they’ve got to have a tough fight after this, so I’d be loathe to give my PCs any exhaustion at this stage. I think I’d probably have, depending on the group, one of the below options

  • The “Trad” Option – getting warmed up and out of the ice slide cave is a skill challenge, 5 successes before 3 failures on a DC 10 check of an appropriate skill. On a success they make it out and can compose themselves before the fight – give everyone inspiration. On a failure, they still make it out but are tired and drained – they’ll have disadvantage on all rolls for the first round (including initiative)
  • The “Story” Option – ask the players to montage how they escape – maybe finding another route through the ice caves, encountering other creatures, and making inventive ways to climb up and get warm. You can use the 13th Age Montage system, or just go round and ask for mini-scenes.

And then let’s add a fight with the “owlbear.” Let’s reskin the owlbear as a CR 1 Brown Bear, but with Beak instead of Bite and darkvision. A quick calculation shows that having 6 CR 0 Owls with him should make for an encounter just between Hard and Deadly for 5 PCs, and if they have the wolves helping them we could beef up the number of owls a bit.

And there you are – a con-length one-shot from a short mini-encounter. In the next post I’ll dig into ways to do this more generally from mini-adventures (including looking at one for WFRP instead of D&D) and how this can work.

Cut to the Chase Scene – 5 In Medias Res Starts for your One-Shot

I’ve blogged before about the importance of a strong start in your one-shots, and a good way to achieve that is to start in medias res – in the midst of the action.

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In Medias Res as a term was coined by Horace in his Ars Poetica, when he pointed out that Homer’s games of D&D he was running down the Parthenon didn’t start ab ovo – with the dragon hatching from the egg – but right in the middle of a pitched battle against orcs. Or something like that. What it means for us is a reliable way to get dice rolling within the first twenty minutes – and get the pace tripping along right from the start.

So, here are 5 In Medias Res’s to get your one-shots off to a bang.

The Previous-Quest-Maguffin

Gamma World’s famous flow-chart – more fun to look at than play through, in my experience

Begin at the end of the last adventure – where they find a fantastical item that spurs them on to the main quest. A good chance for an ‘easy’ section of dungeoning – a ‘training level’ – to get the item, and then some problem solving / roleplay to interpret the item and pick up the trail.

Credit to Dirk the Dice of The Grognard Files who did this in a memorable Gamma World one-shot that I’ve shamelessly stolen (both here, and in other con games) – in that game we used the infamous artifact flowchart to decipher the mission.

Trapped in the Tomb

Don’t just start at the door to the dungeon, have the party on the wrong side of it as the trap triggers and the door closes behind them. You might want to have another peril activate at the same time, just to lay it on thick that they need to find a way out – as well as whatever they came here for in the first place.

Note that if you’re doing this you’ll need some NPCs or other roleplaying opportunities in the tomb/dungeon/derelict space station in order to make this more interesting – so throw in a chatty mummy/off-message AI/reactivated golem for the PCs to interact with and help/hinder them as well.

The Contest

You don’t think just anyone gets to represent the king while plundering the treasures of the forgotten jungles? No, every year you must compete for the privilege against the nations most foolhardy heroes. Feel free to have some of the failed contestants travel over there anyway as a rival adventuring party – that the PCs will eventually have to save and/or fight.

In terms of pacing, don’t make the contest too long, or it might become the focal point of the whole session – a few skill checks or a simple combat should be enough. Last year I started a Legend of the 5 Rings campaign with each PC describing the gift they’d brought for the daimyo they’d appeared to serve, and then make a skill check for how successful their gift had been – and one bushi’s terrible sake became a recurring theme for the whole campaign.

In Medias Res-ervoir Dogs

The heist (dungeon crawl, assassination, saving the city, etc…) went wrong – or at least drew a lot of heat. Now they’re on the run, trying to escape and fix things. A good way to start with a chase scene – either using the RPGs chase mechanics or just some opposed skill checks or a fight.

This is a good example of a fight with a clear objective – and an opportunity to intersperse the scene with flashbacks of the actual job they’re running from. Note that in Reservoir Dogs they just lie low and chew scenery at each other – diverge from the film in your game and have them carry out the even bigger score that will make things right, hunt down the contact who betrayed them, or finally get the jewels back.

Zombies Attack!

Wherever the PCs are at the start (tavern, castle, space station, etc…) is suddenly subject to an invasion. A recent session of Deadlands I played in started with zombies crawling through the saloon floor, and it’s a well tested method for starting with a bang.

As with Trapped in the Tomb, you’ll need to make sure there’s a few NPCs for the PCs to interact with during the session so it’s not just a string of fights, but having the call to action be an actual invasion is a classic trope. See here for more ideas about managing invasions – you might want to think about what weakness of the attackers can be exploited, and how they can find it, for instance.

So, five ways to start your one-shot with a bang – what other ways have you seen a one-shot started? Let me know in the comments.

Fighting Talk, Part One – Know Their Enemies

Particularly in one-shots, building battles is a bit of an art. Most crunchy games include some guidance on balancing encounters (and those that don’t should), but I’ve found some general principles that will improve almost any fighting encounter that you have. In Part Two we’ll look at the battlefield itself, but in this post we’ll look at your opponents.

For this post I’ve given examples based around 5th edition D&D, because it has guidance for balancing encounters in the DMG that is both thorough, and also a bit misleading – but the same principles apply to other games.

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Balancing Your Opposition

I’ve said this a few times on the blog already, but I’ll say it again – fights, especially in one-shots, should be easy or hard – not “medium.” An easy fight at the start of a session to help everyone learn the rules is a fine thing, or an opportunity for the players to show how awesome they are, but a ‘medium difficulty’ fight is, generally, weak. If you play D&D or Pathfinder, the majority of the fights you’ll find in published scenarios are at this level – just cut some of them out and beef up the ones that are left to make it at least “hard” by whatever difficulty metric they give.

The reason that games often give a ‘medium’ difficulty level is about attrition. The classic D&D resource management game is that you will gradually use resources through the adventuring day, meaning a selection of averagely difficult fights will wear you down and provide a tactical challenge. I don’t really agree with this approach, even in long-term play – a few big battles are better than lots of middling ones, and I think resource management like this is overrated.

You Need More Than You Think

One opponent per PC is an absolute minimum if you want an exciting battle. There’s tricks and ways to make a fight against one big opponent work, which I might talk about in a later post – but if you’re looking for an exciting fight, you probably want the number of opponents to be between 1.5 and 3 times the number of PCs.

How do you do a big fight against, e.g., a dragon then? Simple, just add in some low-level supporters. If you’ve got 4 6th level D&D characters, a “hard” fight can be a Young White Dragon (CR 6) and 5 or 6 Scouts (CR ½) – the scouts won’t be as big a threat as the dragon, but they’ll still harry and whittle away at the party’s resources ensuring that they won’t just be able to mob the dragon from the start. It’s easy in D&D to fall into the trap to think that low CR monsters aren’t suitable for mid- or high-level parties, but they absolutely are – which brings us to…

Minions, Mooks, and Hordes

Big fight scenes need a big cast – which means more enemies

If you’re going to have lots of opponents without swamping the PCs, some of those opponents might have to be quite low-level. A group of low-level minions is an excellent set of opponents to add to a challenging fight. They’ll draw the PCs’ fire, get between them and the main opponents, and give the players a chance to show their awesomeness by going down easily.

If you’re worried that there might be too many, give some thought to morale options – maybe once their leader is killed they’ll run off into the hills, or half of them hang back as they attack in waves. With lots of opponents you have a few ways to pace battles you can use depending on how it’s going – make it logical, and don’t hold back, but you don’t have to have them all charge in at once.

Make Them Individual

Give your opponents identifying traits, names, or other characteristics. On a VTT, it’s easy to drop name labels on to each of your mooks – it feels much cooler when the goblins they pick off have names. Otherwise, even just listing a characteristic of each of them – this one has one eye, this one is overweight and limping –helps it to feel like a TTRPG instead of a video game. Generally, I’d not recommend altering any of their game statistics for this – keep it simple for yourself – but you can use it in their descriptions.

Another more general way to improve individuality is to reskin monsters liberally. Bestiaries will act like they’ve gone to loads of trouble to make monsters individual, but it’s so easy to reskin monsters to make similar opponents. Need stats for Big Baz, the slow-moving henchman of the chief bandit for your bandit encounter? Baz is a zombie with no undead traits. A low-level evil sorcerer can easily be a reskinned Sea Hag  with his claws a magical bolt and the Horrific Appearance a fear spell.

And one of D&D’s great secrets is page 274 of the DMG, the “Building a Monster” section, that lets you design monsters from the ground up – also perfect if you want a slightly stronger monster to lead a pack of them – just go to the next level up and increase its CR.

Putting it All Together – An Example

With this in mind, let’s set up the personnel of encounters for a D&D one-shot, exploring a group of goblins who’ve hidden in a cave and are harrying villagers. I’ll be talking about the “3 Fights” one-shot structure in a later post, but you can probably grasp the basic idea of it from the name, so for our three encounters – balanced for a 2nd level party of 5 PCs – we’ve got:

Fight 1 – The Guards (at the entrance, or patrolling) – a DMG “easy” fight, although we’ve gone a little over budget – it’s likely the PCs will get some sort of surprise on them, and they’ll be fighting them fresh, so this should be straightforward for them.

2 Goblins (CR ¼) and 3 Goblin Hounds (Mastiffs – CR 1/8)

Even for an easy encounter, having enough 5 opponents will still mean that they’ll have to think about who they engage, and if they can afford to protect a ranged-based character or wizard.

Fight 2 – The Kennels  – this is a “hard” fight, and again it’s a little over budget – we’ll have the worg hang back for the first round, and only arrive to defend its pups in round 2.

2 Goblins (CR 1/4), 1 Worg (CR 1/2), 4 Goblin Hounds (Mastiffs – CR 1/8)

More opponents this time, and a big beast that they might want to join forces to handle – but by arriving on Round 2, they’ll already be engaged with the hounds and goblins. Depending on how the PCs are looking at this stage, we have some tactical options to balance this – we could always throw everyone in at once, or have the goblins hang back in cover and fire arrows at the party.

Fight 3 – The Boss Fight – this is a DMG “deadly” fight – we want to try to engineer that the PCs are pretty healed up and ready for this fight, which shouldn’t be too much of a problem as it’ll be the climactic battle of the one-shot

1 Goblin Tribe Leader (a Hobgoblin – CR ½), 1 Goblin Champion (a non-undead Zombie – CR ¼), 3 Goblins (CR ¼), 4 Goblin Rabble (stats as  Bandits) (CR 1/8)

Nine opponents make this fight challenging, and the Rabble/Bandits and the Champion can get between the big boss and the goblins who can pick players off with missile weapons – while the bandits will be quickly dealt with, this will pace the fight so that they still have to face the main opponents – the leader and the champion.

So, now that we’ve looked at building our opposition, the next post will deal with locating this in the session – both in terms of plotting, and in terms of the actual physical battlefield.

Prep Techniques: Three Places

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

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

Overview

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

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

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

Example

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advantages of This Approach

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

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

Things to Consider

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

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

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

Prep Techniques: The 5-Room Non-Dungeon

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

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

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

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

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

Pros and Cons

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

The Five-Room Non-Dungeon

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

Scenes Two – Four

– A Combat scene

– A Roleplaying scene

– A Skills-based scene

Scene Five: The Finale

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

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

In more detail

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

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

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

Examples

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