Pull the Other Warhammer: Soulbound, the Age of Sigmar TTRPG

I’ve managed to get another new game to the table this week – Soulbound: Age of Sigmar, Cubicle 7’s RPG of the Games Workshop fantasy reboot. For a wargame-inspired game, it’s a surprisingly loose-limbed high fantasy game, and one session down I think it makes a great convention game. Here’s why…

Superheroes with Swords

This is proper high fantasy. You’re powerful heroes, and because your group is soulbound, you get tokens you can use to cheat death which you keep as a group. Every PC has at least 1 Mettle, which you can spend to get an extra action in a round, or boost your attack significantly – and PCs are properly high powered while still being pretty simple to play and run.

You Don’t Need to Sweat The Lore

As you’d expect from a GW property, there is a significant amount of lore you could delve into. But there’s no need, really. Chaos was all risen, it’s been sort of beaten back a bit, you’re heroes trying to finish the job. There’s monsters, chaos, undead everywhere, and you just need to do the right thing and kill them. We’ve seen this approach work really well in 13th Age Glorantha, where setting it in a more ballsy era means you don’t have to worry about history so much.

It’s a Zonal, Freewheeling Combat System

No minis. I repeat, no minis. It has a loose zonal combat system which I guess you could use a map and counters for, if you had them already – but it’s straightforward enough for theatre of the mind to work just as well. Simple rules for dangerous terrain are easy to implement, and combat is fast and fun with both sides potentially hitting hard.

There’s great one-shots out there

As well as the Starter Set, there’s also a couple of free RPG adventures. I ran Trouble Brewing, which while not free, is an excellent convention adventure. It’s worth giving the published adventures a read for how they structure and build combat encounters, too – you can really hit the PCs hard, and the terrain rules add a lot of options.
So, will I run Soulbound at conventions again? Strong yes! I’m looking at a Tzeentch-themed thing for Seven Hills 2023: Change, which as it happens is open for registrations if you’re near to Sheffield – or even if you aren’t.

You Can Run Anything As A One-Shot

Last year, one of my one-shot highlights was playing in a game of Ars Magica, run by the @Asako_Soh at Grogmeet. Ars Magica, as many of you will know, is the TTRPG game that invented troupe play – you follow a covenant of magi through the seasons in quasi-Medieval Europe, alternating between wizards, companions, and grogs. It’s also famously one of the games that people say you can’t run a one-shot of.

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 of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

There are lots of games like this. “It runs better it an a campaign, I can’t see how it’d work,” people say. But how often do games like this actually get played? I want to see how a game plays before I invest multiple sessions in it, and I refuse to believe any game can’t be run as a one-shot.

Burning Wheel? Done it. Hillfolk? Done it. Apocalypse World? I’ve played in a few, and there’s a recommended method here by Vincent and Meg Baker for how to do it. You can run anything as a one-shot, and I’d recommend that you do – I’m convinced that no matter what the game is, it can be run as a one-shot at a convention or as a break from regular gaming.

However, there are a few things you can do if you want to run an un-one-shottable game as a one-shot. Here’s my top tips for it: –

Be Prepared to Limit The Scope

You’re likely to get one solid mission/story beat, with a twist, through. So now is not the time for your Pendragon-like exploration of multiple generatioms – just head to the monastery and find out what happened to the monks. Additional complexities can come up from the system anyway, and you don’t need to make it over-complicated – you generally just need three things, whether they are NPCs, monsters, or factions at play – keep it simple.

Do Roleplaying Scenes in Pairs of PCs

This particularly applies if you’re adapting a published adventure to one-shot it. Investigative scenes, as I’ve talked about earlier, are best done with the party split. Cut between the two groups and you’ll get more screen time and more productive investigation from everyone. With that in mind.

Start Late, Get Out Early

If you’re working with a baroque system/setting, you might be tempted to front-load information. Avoid this and instead hard frame scenes to put PCs in the action right away. Your Apocalypse World Hardhold is in danger? Have the gang show up with an NPCs head right at the start, don’t start with the usual “follow everyone around” stuff. You can always flashback if you need to – and keep these flashbacks narration-only to avoid engaging the rules where not needed.

If you’re running an investigative game, you might really want to start at the crime scene – but try to make any initial scene like this hold threat; maybe as you stand over the body you spot somebody watching who runs off, or perhaps there’s another group nearby who want to cause trouble – try to avoid scenes that are entirely stationary.

Use The 1-2-1 Structure for Multiple Passage of Play

If your game has multiple different structures (for instance Mouse Guard alternates between Player’s and GM’s Turns) – try doing GM’s – Player’s – GM’s to showcase both of these. Likewise, if you’re running The Between, start with a shortened Night Phase (maybe the final encounter with a previous enemy), then go through a Day Phase and another Night Phase. By structuring like this you’ll still get a satisfying conclusion and be able to end on an exciting scene, and keep some control over timings.

Take Care With Pregens

Even with PBTA games, I’d want to do some pregen work. Pre-pick playbooks, and you can even partially complete them without compromising player choice too much – you don’t want to have to teach chargen as well as the system.

For a more trad game of course, you’ll be doing full pregens – do yourself a favour and only make one or two of them remotely challenging to play. For our Ars Magica game, there were two Magi available – and players who had some idea of the system already picked them up, leaving the rest of us quite happy with our companions and grogs.

Cut to the Chase

When you’re running an involved game, it can be hard to get to that final scene if the players get bogged down in the middle parts of the game. If they do, though, just cut to the finale – you can remove encounters and obstacles from their way, or just hard frame into a satisfying conclusion. You’ll need to have some idea how long a big climax will take in the game you’re running – but that time before the end of the slot, be prepared to get the players together and cut to the finish. A satisfying ending is more important than finishing your middle scenes – your start and finish should be the best anyway.

And so, I reckon with these in mind, you can run any TTRPG as a one-shot. Should you? Well, yes – I think so – there’s lots of games out there and this is a great way to experience them. I’ll lay down the challenge now – any games you think can’t be run as a one-shot, I’ll run them over the course of 2023, if I haven’t already run or played them – I might even record them as proof it can be done. Who’s in?

Avatar Legends: A New Approach to Session Zero?

There’s a lot of buzz around Magpie Games’ PBTA Avatar Legends game – the usual stuff of people sharing their new kickstarter deliveries. It’s certainly a pretty game, but I managed to get session zero in with our regular Friday group the evening it arrived – and the session zero guidance is not only really interesting, but also easy to adapt to other games and systems.

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 of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

Avatar the what?

The game is an officially licensed RPG for the Avatar: The Last Airbender show, including Legend of Korra. If you’ve never heard of it before, they’re excellent shows, and although Avatar is aimed at kid, don’t let that put you off. It’s a fantasy-ish land where people from different lands can ‘bend’ elements to their advantage – so you have firebenders shooting gouts of flame, waterbenders skating around on sheets of ice, that sort of thing.

It’s heroic fantasy, and it suits PBTA well, as it’s as much about beliefs and principles as it is about cool fighting moves. In the game each playbook has a series of contrasting principles that can get shifted during the game (a lot like Mask’s stats) – so when The Icon’s Role principle goes up to +2, his Freedom drops to -2. Ever go more than +3/-3, and you suffer a crisis of confidence, probably leaving the scene, before it resets. There’s a funky combat system of stances and moves too, which I’ll write more about when I’ve seen it in action – it’s definitely second-gen PBTA with a bit of heft to the rules.

Session Zero

Before chargen, or even before players pick their playbooks, you make a few decisions. The first is to choose what Era you play in, and then what the campaign’s Scope is – is it set around a given area, or is it a picaresque game where you visit a new land every session. We went with the first era, Kyoshi, since there’s not much canon about it, and the players were keen for a narrow, but non-urban, scope – allowing recurring NPCs and locations to appear. So far, pretty standard session zero stuff.

You then pick your Group Focus – what you got together to do. Options range from “To Defeat [dangerous foe]” to “To Learn [idea, culture, training, history]” – we went with “To Protect…” and decided we wants to protect a village, since we’d thrown out some ideas about a bucolic, pastoral setting – a few of us in the groups have played fantasy city campaigns recently. Quickly, our group role becomes apparent, and we’ve got our village sketched out as well – Peony Blossom Falls, a village at a vital commercial crossroads that’s always the target of bandits.

I wasn’t too sure about this step initially – it felt like we were deciding from a blank slate – but the players had good ideas and some stuff just made sense immediately – we were unlikely to be picking “To deliver…” or “To rescue…” with a limited scope, and player ideas got built on by each other. One player realised it was very much like picking your Crew playbook in Blades in the Dark – it lets you decide what sort of stuff you’ll be doing – and gives the GM a big steer on what each session might look like.

The Inciting Incident

This is the bit that I’ve not seen before. As a group, you pick from a few options to decide the adventure that drove your PCs to adventure together. There are a few options for each of Act I, II, and III, which for me provided just enough of a framework to work it out. 

I added more structure and left it entirely to the players too – the first player picked the phrase (In our case for Act I “We did something fun, but drew the ire of [powerful figure] in the process”), the next player identified a specific from that (what the fun thing was), the next player who the powerful figure was, then on to Act II.

What did we end up with? Well, our heroes partied too hard in the waterfalls of Peony Blossom Village, drawing the ire of Fenfang the Magistrate before the Peony Blossom Festival. During the festival they stole a secret scroll of bending from Meng Shou, a wandering Fire Nation hero – without realising how valuable it was – but were rescued by Fenfang when he offered them a deal – defend the village for a year and a day, and their penance is served.

As a GM, this is brilliant. I’ve got just enough to see how the campaign will start – we talked about bandit gangs troubling the village, but they haven’t even appeared yet. What has appeared are two sort-of-antagonists who could be allies or enemies – Fenfang and Meng Shou – who are both tricky to deal with either socially or in combat. The first session almost writes itself from this prep!

Why It works

No hierarchy or player / GM split – I like that there aren’t really defined rolls for players and GMs in the procedures. You’re all just a group deciding what you’re going to do. I’d imagine that GM probably still has veto, but we didn’t really need it. It’s easy for the GM to set some parameters at the start (I’d picked the era, for instance) and then have players work within those boundaries.

No dice, not too fiddly – the process of the Inciting Incident doesn’t just plan your previous adventure, and give some idea of where the characters fit together – it also helps to plan the actual first session. With the consequences of their actions to work from, we can get into some drama immediately – which is often an issue with PBTA where you either jump into face-stabby blood opera or slow-burn around NPCs until somebody blinks.

Eras break the setting into manageable pieces – eras are a great idea to make a rich, fully detailed setting work at the table. There’s 63 pages of setting detail in the World of Avatar chapter – but I only really need to grasp about 12 of them, for the era we’re in. Each Era doesn’t just describe what’s happening and where nations are in their histories, but also what the key themes and stories you can tell in that era are – meaning you can grasp very quickly which one takes your fancy.

In summary, I’m really pleased with this approach, and I think it’s easily ported to any system or setting to add detail to a session zero and set your campaign in motion. I’ll be considering it with other games in the future. What approaches have you seen for session zeroes? Let me know in the comments.

Running Feng Shui One-Shots

I’ve recently managed to get Feng Shui 2 to the table at a few conventions – Summer Kraken and Grogmeet to name two – and it’s reminded me what an excellent one-shot game it is. It’s a game of high-gonzo Hong Kong action movies, and it leans heavily into the genre allowing players to have a great time pissing about with tropes and scenes.

It’s also a relatively complex beast for what it is, and there’s some nuance to how to approach it – so here are five tips for prepping and running one-shots. If you don’t want to prep it, feel free to snag one of the demo games from Atlas Games website, or Ape Attack! from this blog.

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 of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

Make Fortune Dice Explode

Rules as written, spending a Fortune point gives you a non-exploding extra dice. I’ve tried it both ways, and for a one-shot it really works better if these explode – the chance of your negative dice exploding and the Fortune being wasted leads to some player disappointment. It does increase player effectiveness a bit, but encouraging Fortune point use is all good, and it leads to some big results.

Pick a Small Selection of Archetypes

There’s no character generation in Feng Shui, which saves the pregen stage of one-shot prep, but it’s worth trimming down the archetypes you offer your players – you don’t need more than a couple more than the players you have, and it’ll help you to be familiar with any of the special rules they have. After the players have picked, make them decide on their names and melodramatic hooks there and then – and then go into a montage opening of a previous film. 

Ones to be careful with are the Big Bruiser (who hits hard and can take a beating, but often acts last in the initiative system) and the Killer (whose mook-killing power means they might be acting frequently as long as the player targets mooks). Also note that the Sorcerer (which is an excellent choice as it has some healing ability) has a default power that lets them use any Sorcery schtick in the book, which you might want to change depending on the player. I’ve always avoided the Driver as I’m not the biggest fan of the Chase rules, but feel free if you want to use them.

Pick a Just One Juncture

There’s 4 main settings in the core rulebook, and a bunch of pop-up junctures… you don’t have to use more than one. Most of my one-shots cover two, and one of them is modern-day – either starting in a normal setting and travelling back in time to a juncture to solve problems, or starting in the past and ending up in the present day. Just one juncture is fine, and getting there via a Netherworld trip is fine if you must, but there’s enough in each of them to make them solid one-shot settings.

In Play, Model Descriptive Action

Feng Shui 2 isn’t a game where “I try to hit him” will work. You need the players to describe awesome hijinx and fight scenes, so you need to lead from the front with this and encourage them to do the same. Feel free to go as big as you can – destroy scenery, break the fourth wall, have your villains monologue.

Another trick that works for me is to describe the action as if it’s a terrible movie – having the mooks in the second fight be played by the same extras as in the first, or the same three extras play all 30 street thugs in the big mook fight. Describe the music starting up, the framing of shots, the shonky camerawork. All this works well in other pulpy high-action games too, of course – it’s just it especially works in Feng Shui.

Do Initiative Verbally

Look, I know that Atlas Games produces a shot counter you can put trackers on to show when people next go – I just find having that in the middle of the table a bit cluttered. At the start of the first fight, briefly cover Feng Shui’s distinctive initiative system, and tell players that their attacks will take 3 shots – and then just count down yourself and have them shout out when it’s their go.

While I wouldn’t use the shot counter, I would recommend using the pre-rolled attack pages for mooks, and also pre-rolling initiatives for each sequence (you can see what I mean by this in Ape Attack). To be honest, I’ve started pre-rolling initiative for all of my one-shots where I can – it’s certainly one thing I can do ahead of time in games.

Make Fights (A Little Bit) Easier

The Feng Shui advice for prepping sessions is golden one-shot plotting advice, but I’d caution that their battle balance is designed for quite meaty fights with players who know what they’re doing. You won’t get through 3 full-strength fights in a one-shot game, particularly as the first one will be slower as the players get used to their abilities. I usually go with fights with just two or three featured foes and a bunch of mooks, or all mooks, until the end boss fight, and even that doesn’t have to have quite as many featured foes as the system suggests. 

If you want a boss or featured foe to be ‘sticky’ and not vulnerable in the first sequence, give them the Ablative Lackey schtick where they can sacrifice a mook to avoid damage (and make sure you’ve got a ready supply of mooks, especially if the Killer is in play).

And, one of the ‘connective tissue’ links between fights can, and should, be a 13th Age style montage – I’m fond of this for trips through the Netherworld, far future desert treks, or sinister caves in Ancient china.

So, I hope this inspires you to run more Feng Shui 2 one-shots, at conventions or just as a break from regular gaming – it’s a great system that deserves to get more play.

APE ATTACK! – a Feng Shui 2 One-Shot

Something I’m determined to do more of is post some ready-to-run one-shots here. So, here’s one that might not be quite ready to run without some system (and setting) mastery, but might give some interesting insight into the creative process. This is at a level slightly above the ‘back of a cigarette packet’ level of prep that I’d do for a convention game – I ran this at Kraken 2022, and I’m sure I’ll get to run it again.

Of note:

  • I don’t list interesting things that can happen in each fight, as recommended in the core rules. I find that if I have a complex, messy enough setting for the fight, and clear permission for the players to make shit up, they fill in the blanks well enough
  • You’ll see that the stats (and pre-rolled initiatives) for the opponents take up quite a bit of space on the page; this is deliberate, as this is what I’ll be looking at in play.
  • If this looks like a series of fight scenes held together by a paper-thin plot and some bad ape puns, you’d be right. There’s a future post coming about running Feng Shui 2 one-shots, and I’d recommend leaning in to both Robin Laws’ excellent prep advice, and the pulpy ridiculousness of the whole setting.
  • If game balance is your jam, this was for 5 players using standard FS2 archetypes. I tend to reduce down the number of opponents for all but the final battle, just because in a con game you want fights to be pretty fast (and the default for FS2 is hard-ish; so you want some easy-ish fights as well)

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 of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

Enjoy! Kudos to my “playtesters” at Kraken, and let me know if you get any play out of it!

Ape Attack!

There is an ancient battle across the junctures for control of Feng Shui sites, which give unimaginable power. From 1st-century China, to 19th century China, to modern Hong Kong, to a devastated future, time-shifting Chi Warriors fight to keep enough of these under control to keep the Chi War in a delicate balance.

You are such warriors! As the music swells up, describe your character in an action scene from the previous mission.

Scene 1 – PARIS, present day

That mission was a great success, and you’re now taking some well-earned downtime in Paris – city of Love! You’re all sat around the general area of the Eiffel tower – are you sipping coffee, or wine, or maybe visiting the attractions? Where are you in the scene?

As you relax, a loud crack sounds – and you see an eruption from the ground. It’s a portal – and from it, you see a pair of cobbled-together WWII planes, piloted by apes, fly up to the Tower, as a huge beast claws its way out of the ground – a giant ape, with a cybernetic arm! They slowly begin an assault on the Eiffel tower as tourists scream for help. Taking in the situation, you see several of the Parisiens around you remove their faces – to reveal they are actually apes in disguise! Gunfire peels out – what do you do??

Initiative Rolls

FOES1S2S3S4
Messerschmidt9131211
Giant Gorilla1291211
Apes7696
Sorcerers9610

Featured Foe – Gorilla Messerschmidts (there are two, but one is taken out at the end of the first sequence by the sorcerers)

GUNS 14 / DEF 14 / TOU 6 / SPD 8 Machinegun 11

Featured Foe – Giant Gorilla

CREATURE 14 / DEF 11 / TOU 6 / SPD 6 Ape-arms 11

Furious Wrath – if last attack missed, gains +1 Attack and +3 Damage

ATK 8 / DEF 13 / SPD 5

Mooks – At the start of the scenario, 5 Gorillas are engaging the PCs (dam 10)

After Sequence 1, 5 more Gorillas take off their gorilla masks to reveal Ancient sorcerers! (dam 9)

In the aftermath, they can take stock of what has happened – they know the Eiffel tower is a Feng Shui site, and anyone with any magical connection will know that, although that assault was unsuccessful, the Feng Shui site isn’t connected to the Dragons any more – they’ve already got hold of it!

Scene 2  – INVESTIGATION -> FIGHT!

There’s a portal to a pop-up juncture somewhere in Paris that will lead them to the site of the original assault – estimated to be Paris 1889, in the middle of the Belle Epoque, when the Eiffel Tower was being built!

EVENTUALLY, their investigations will throw up two leads – a recent circus has arrived on the outskirts of Paris with many performing chimpanzees, and men in gorilla suits – some of whom have been seen asking questions about the Eiffel tower. At the same time, a group of men in odd robes with high-pitched voices have based themselves in the luxury Art Deco Four Seasons hotel (google it) and have been hanging around the Tower.

Whichever lead they follow, there’s a fight on their hands to discover the portal(s) – there’s one in each location!

This is an all-mook fight. In order for this to work, you will have 25 mooks stationed around and  about the general area – in the circus, one PC can be fighting apes on the Dodgems while another climbs the Ferris wheel to try and catch their leader. In the Hotel, while some PCs might head up to their room there will be disguised sorcerers in the restaurant and kitchen – and even the streets outside – to fight.

FOES1S2S3S4
APEs or SORCERERs91198

APEs or SORCERERs (mooks) –

ATK 8 / DEF 13 / SPD 5 either Blast 9 or Improvised Circus Stuff 9

Scene 3 – Into the Netherworld

MONTAGE through the Netherworld to get to the Belle Epoque

Use the 13th Age Montage method for this, pointing out that multiple junctures can be crossed to get to the Belle Epoque.

Scene 4 – Belle Epoque Paris!

You need to sneak into the opening of the Eiffel Tower, and defeat the apes. As you approach, you see an exhibit from the Paris Zoo has been delivered, full of chimpanzees and monkeys clad in hilarious human clothes, juggling and having hijinx. A bespectacled man, Erik Satie, plays impressionistic music on his piano. 

Satie pauses, and acknowledges you as he continues to play

You’re too late – we have the area surrounded. Literally everyone in this exhibition is ready to seize control of the tower.

The humans dancing and watching pull off their human faces and are revealed to be monkeys. The apes in the exhibition pull off their monkey faces and are human sorcerers!

FOES1S2S3S4
KONG1213119
Furious G1010119
Grenadier1210812
Satie9131112
Gorillas101078
Sorcerers116118

Boss – KING KONG (massive gorilla)

CREATURE 17 / DEF 13 / TOU 8 / SPD 7 Ape-arms 14

Back to the Wall – if attacked by more than 1 character in a sequence, shot cost drops to 2 until the end of the sequence

FF – Furious George

SCROUNGETECH 14 / DEF 12 / TOU 7 / SPD 7 Metal bite 11

Furious Wrath – if last attack missed, gains +1 Attack and +3 Damage

FF – La Grenadier, explosives expert, ape disguised as human

SCROUNGETECH 14 / DEF 12 / TOU 7 / SPD 7 Boom-gun 11

Explosive Vest – all nearby heroes take a smackdown of 12 when the foe goes down

FF – Erik Satie, eunuch sorcerer

SORCERY 13 / DEF 13 / TOU 5 / SPD 7 Blast 10

Anti-Tech – +1 Def vs. Guns, Scroungetech and Mutant powers

Mooks

ATK 8 / DEF 13 / SPD 5

1H = 8 Gorilla flappers (Guns 10)

1H = 8 sorcereous cabals (Blast 9)

Grand Theft Auto Sandboxing

I don’t really like “sandbox” play – where a setting or location is provided with NPCs, some interactions, and the players are left to wander around finding an emergent plot. I think it’s some youthful games of Traveller where my fellow players just traded and avoided any kind of danger, but they’ve always been slow, unwieldy things where the emergent plot hasn’t been satisfying. 

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 of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

But genuine choice is a real feature of one-shots, which can easily be railroaded affairs, so I’d like to get better at them. So, for one-shots or longer-form games, I present my solution – or at least, the solution to my problem with sandboxes – the Grand Theft Auto Sandbox.

I’ve named it after GTA as that’s the first video game I encountered that looked like this, but it’s generally how open world games are structured now, and I’m sure GTA3 wasn’t the first. In it, as the world opens up, you always have a few missions on your plate, that you can follow in whatever order, some main plot and some side quests. The choice and setting makes for an entertaining game where you really feel in charge of your characters destiny. 

As it’s been developed, in games like Red Dead Redemption you have side quests that turn out to be main quests, and a few branching storylines – all immersing you in the world, and making your characters choices feel important even though they aren’t always.

What’s Wrong With Sandboxes?

Well, there’s a few things, in my experience. Some of these, to some players, may be more feature than bug, but for me they do my head in:

  • PCs, faced with a dangerous and less dangerous option, will always choose the less dangerous first
  • The sandbox often doesn’t change. Whenever you go to the town, it’s often the same location they saw before
  • Side quests are either not present, or too independent of the main plot – they’re either too tempting or not tempting enough
  • The players disagree about what to do. With too many options, it’s hard to see what to do

Building Your Sandbox

  • Have a limited, bounded location. Give some interesting-sounding adventure sites – these can just be names for now
  • Imagine an antagonist, and the plot your PCs will work against. Sketch out some possible escalations of their plan that can happen during the sandbox
  • Add a couple of neutral/antagonistic factions that aren’t the main antagonist that the players can butt up against. Work out how they feel about the other factions, and what they want
  • Prep a straightforward, action-oriented first session that introduces the main factions and locations and sets up a the next two or three options for quests

Playing Your Sandbox

  • Give two or three missions at once. Missions that aren’t picked up may stay available, or may vanish as they pursue others.
  • Steal published adventures for quests – either with or without the serial numbers filed off
  • Have some side quests ready that the players can do at any time. Maybe these have a simple twist ready that link them to the main antagonist – or maybe they don’t
  • Ask the players what they do next time at the end of the session. This way, you only have to fully prep what they’re doing next, rather than the whole shebang.
  • Lay out tracks in front as you go. You might know where you’re heading, but you might also want to play to find out – especially if you’re running a more player-driven game.
  • Occasionally, interrupt and put them on rails – especially if the antagonist reacts. If they’ve been particularly successful against them (or another faction), have the trouble come to them and them have to deal with it

So, there’s my basic principles of GTA Sandboxing. I’m going to provide some more examples later in the week of how to use this in action, and how it applies to a one-shot. If there’s any particular settings or systems you’d like to see use this method, let me know in the comments.

Into the Underhang – A Heart: The City Beneath One-Shot

I’ve had some rum luck with illness recently – a chest infection a few weeks ago, and now Covid (I’m recovering, thankfully) have meant I’ve missed two #TTRPG conventions that are genuine highlights. Owlbear and Wizard’s Staff is excellent beery fun in Leamington Spa, while Furnace is a centrepiece of the Garrison Conventions and the place that first got me into convention GMing.

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 of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

So, I’ve been left with an excess of prepped games, and no-where to run them – so I’ll be putting them out on here. First up, a game that was planned for Owlbear, for Roward Rook & Decard‘s Heart: The City Beneath. In Heart, your desperate treasure-hunters delve into the living, beating dungeon beneath the occupied city of Spire to find eldritch treasures – and themselves.

Yes, the art is all this good – as you’d expect from RRD

Full disclosure – I haven’t actually run this, although I’m sure it will get an outing soon. If you’re Heart-curious, this might give you an idea what to expect in the game. If you’re a Patron, feel free to message (on here or twitter) and I’ll send you the pregens I did for it as well, giving you a fully ready-to-run game. Also, this is based on an adventure seed in the actual book – there are loads of them in there – but fleshed-out to be runnable for a one-shot. I’ve got more to say about prep for loose-improv games like Heart and Spire, but that’s another blog post.

Into the Underhang

A Heart: The City Beneath One-Shot

Into the Underhang is an independent production by Burn After Running and is not affiliated with Rowan, Rook and Decard. It is published under the RR&D Community License. Heart is copyright Rowan, Rook and Decard. You can find out more and support these games at rowanrookanddecard.com.

Scene 1 – Derelictus

We begin in the city between the cities, a sprawling, semi-underground mirror of Spire, Derelictus. From Platform 1, where all manner of equipment can be sourced, to Platform 2, where we find ourselves now – with Ostrer, a mad researcher, is cutting you a deal.

Hang Station was built as a tourist trap; suspended over a vast subterranean sea, so that aelfir could see the captured, sleeping monster beneath, captured from the far north. Hang Station is on Tier 2 of Heart – so will need at least a couple of delves, stopping off at a waypoint on the way. He wants to get a sample of the beast’s blood – and he needs your help.

There appear to be two notable routes towards Hang Station (a Technology) – through the singing, open railways of the Vermissian Railways – maybe hoping to catch a train some of the way, or a darker, lower way, through Sump Station (a Warren) – the flooded remains of an old station now submerged. Darker, but less likely to attract attention

In Derelictus, each PC has a chance to prepare – they can try and get hold of a D6 piece of equipment for the journey, or research another route – perhaps one going through a more favourable area for them. After a skill roll each, and potential stress (always D4 at this stage, and usually to Supplies or Fortune), they must set off

Scene 2 – Delve to Tier 1

This is a delve they will take to either Sump Station, Hang Station, or another location

Route: Between Derelictus and Sump Station

Tier: 1

Domains: Technology, Warren

Stress: D4

Resistance: 10

Description: A tramp through foot-deep, the knee-deep, flooded tunnels, in fading light and with labyrinthine corridors. Occasional relics of machinery or rails puncture through the floor – and occasionally pumps still churn. It smells bad initially, then turns to a warm, cleaner smell.

Events: Jonjak and his gang of gutterkin will track the PCs from Derelictus, and attempt to jump them to find out what they are doing; a sudden overflow means they have to wade chest-deep or lower; strange fluorescent fish swim under the water and circle the PCs; a warehouse of fishmongery where Mikkel the Fish waits to serve them

Connection: Capture the glowing fish for Mikkel and he will teach you the secrets of the eddies

Route: Between Derelictus and Hang Station

Tier: 1

Domains: Technology, Occult

Stress: D4

Resistance: 10

Description: A walk along high, ruined walkways alongside the tracks which have collapsed in places; crystals line the path eventually; the smell of incense and sulphur. Damaged rope-ways line each pathway

Events: Jonjak and his gang of gutterkin will track the PCs from Derelictus, and attempt to jump them to find out what they are doing; a clattering of a passing train requires jumping out of the way – or onto it; the singing of crystals in the ceiling above as one falls and shatters

Connection: Repair the rope-ways linking to the paths

Scene 3: The Mid-Point

At this point, they have arrived, either in Sump Station or Hang Station, and have a chance for respite. Ostrer insists that they need to purchase some supplies – ropes and pulleys – but at this point you encounter the rival delvers, Protector Baram and his men.

They accost the players as they explore the haven, asking them their business and mocking them. They know that the beast has laid eggs, and can see that Ostrer wants one as well. Depending on the PC’s approach, they may suggest an alliance, or try and sabotage their equipment. Either way, he will wish them luck.

As with Scene 1, PCs may make 1 test to try and recover equipment or preparations for the further delve.

Scene 4: Into the Underhang

From their location, they need to venture deeper into the Heart, to Hang Station and the underground lake.

Route: Between Tier 1 and Hang Station

Tier: 2

Domains: Cursed, Technology

Stress: D6

Resistance: 10

Description: Trekking through walkways suspended over still lakes, or raging torrents – creaking at the wind that blows through them. The smell of tar, and then of some big, fishy beast. The crackling of magical energy from long-decayed dampers and siphons. The echoes of fellow hunters, or ghosts, around them.

Events: A crackle of energy covers the ground in front with a web of occult power that must be bypassed; the walkway shatters and falls, meaning they must form a new route; Jonjak, still tracking, ambushes them on a walkway; Baram makes his move as they approach; a ghostly engineer seeks aid in repairing conduits and walkways

Connection: Repairing the conduits will allow them to lay the ghost to rest.

Scene 5: The Harvest

They emerge onto a vast creaking observation platform, a sparkling lake below them swaying gently. A huge whale-beast has broken the surface of the water below, and a light snore echoes around the cavern – but the eggs are on the other side.

They must

  • Somehow get down to the lake. There are maintenance rowboats and rafts available, ropes and pulleys, that could be fashioned
  • Recover the eggs from the egg sac beyond the creature – they could dive in, or trick it into rolling over
  • Avoid the attentions of the rival gangs, who will attempt to ambush them

At their moment of triumph, a roar echoes through the lake – the beast has awoken, and they must escape

NPCs

Ostrer the Mad Researcher

Motivation: Find and recover the eggs of the Hang Station beast

Sensory Details: Thick, clouded goggles with no light; the smell of dusty books mixed with oil; a dirty, flapping lab coat

At the Table: Close eyes when speaking

Jonjak the Tunnel Brigand

Motivation: Find a score big enough to retire on

Sensory Details: Filthy overalls and cloak; scarred face and hands; odd limp

At the Table: Speaks with a pirate accent (Arr!)

Difficulty: 0

Resistance: 10

Protection: 1

Resources: Stolen heirlooms (D8, Taboo), Poorly-written maps (D6 Delve)

Jonjak’s Gutterkin

Motivation: Gain freedom from Jonjak, or at least more pleasant employment with him

Sensory Details: A mob of 8 or 9 gullboys and heron-girls; squawking and clambouring over one another; rusted, broken knives with alarming speed

At the Table: Look this way and that while skwarking in semi-speech

Resistance: 8

Protection: 0

Stress: Knives D6, Unreliable

Mikkel the Fish

Motivation: Serve his narcotic fishes to the discerning

Sensory Details: A scale-clad shaved gnoll with rings everywhere; stares oddly at everything; the smell of oil and tar

At the Table: Keep mouth open when not speaking

Protector Baram, Drow Rival Delver

Motivation: Be the first to recover a beast-egg for his masters

Sensory Details: The smell of cheap perfume, a shiny well-maintained leather coat, the clip of heels on ground; accompanied by a pair of cackling gnolls, Forrad and Vorrad

At the Table: Alan Rickman-esque villainy

Difficulty: Risky

Resistance: 10

Protection: 1

Stress: Whip D8 Tiring, Pistol D6 Ranged One-Shot

The Hang Station Beast

Motivation: To eat, sleep and breed

Sensory Details: A thick smell of fur, fish and sweat; blue-grey skin covered in slick water; a light, echoey snore

At the Table: Describe the ground shifting

Difficulty: Dangerous

Resistance: 10

Protection: 2

Stress: Roll over D6

Prep Techniques – Round-Up

Last year, I started writing about Prep Techniques – ways to structure your prep for a one-shot session to build a good structure for your session. One-shot and short-form play is all about having a clear structure of ideas so you’re not left floundering at the table, and these were designed to encourage that, with practical advice to turn an idea into a ready-to-run set of prep.

I contrast these with Table Techniques, which are things you do during the game that often don’t need any prep beyond creating the conditions for their deployment – Shared Narration is an example of this (well, several examples) – and I’ll be providing more examples of them over the next few months.

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 of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

There hasn’t been a full list of my Prep Techniques posts before now, so here’s a summary of what’s here. If you’re just starting prepping a one-shot and not sure what to do first, you could do worse than pick one of these and follow the method described.

Essential prep – gathering your props

The 5-Room Non-Dungeon is Johnn Four’s 5-Room Dungeon method, applied more broadly to give a series of linked scenes. This is a great place to start if you’re beginning running one-shots. I actually think it works better out of the dungeon than for dungeon games.

Three Places is a way to structure investigative, location-based play where you want your players to have genuine choices as to how they approach the problem.

Another one that’s not mine, I did a deep dive of Sly Flourish’s Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master prep method here – even if you don’t use the whole method, the list of unconnected secrets and clues is a great technique to have in your back pocket, or to go through before a session to give things for the players to discover.

Another good way to get started is to write a convention pitch for the game, and use that to focus your thoughts – guidance here. Technique also applies for writing actual convention pitches!

For a more loosely-structured game, where you expect to think on your feet, you need a bag of tricks to throw at the players. The guidance in this post is relevant for PBTA, FitD, and other similar games like Spire and Heart. It’s easy to try and go in raw with these sorts of games, but in my experience having some prep thoughts done beforehand really help to make them sing in a one-shot.

Or for a more simple structure, start by thinking about the Boss Fight and work backwards from there. There’s a couple of examples of this approach here.

I’m not saying there won’t be more Prep Techniques shared in the future, but here’s all there are for now. My focus for the next few months is two things – putting out ready-to-run one-shots for a few systems (most of which are my own con game sessions from over the summer) and Table Techniques, which will give techniques that can be done during play to add interest and excitement to your games. Let me know if there’s anything you’d like to see!

Running Games At Conventions

We are well into the RPG convention season – a big range of residential cons and one-day meetups are happening, and the schedule seems to be recovering well in the aftermath of Covid restrictions. It’s over 5 years since I first posted about running at conventions, so I thought I’d revisit this, more focussed now on the convention as a whole rather than individual games.

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 of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

I’m talking here about going beyond just running one or two games at meetups or cons, to being an actual ‘convention GM’ – running multiple games at events, and being a part of delivering the experience of conventions. If you want to do this, here are some tips.

Go To Multiple Conventions

Don’t just restrict yourself to the one meetup – explore online options, too. To get better at convention GMing, you need to practise it, so make a commitment to some conventions and book some games in. Don’t just think of the bigger face-to-face conventions (in fact, these can sometimes be frustrating to GM at) – look at online options and small local one-day cons as well. 

Play (At Least) As Much As You Run

Time was when some convention GMs would sign up to run every slot. You still see this model encouraged by some big cons – UK Games Expo offers free accommodation to GMs who complete such a punishing schedule of GMing. Running every slot is a terrible idea. Conventions shouldn’t be supporting it – I’d be happier if they had a limit on how much one person can GM. Play convention games at the same time, and use this time to research and craft how to run your games.

Run Games More Than Once

As you might think from the name of the blog, I used to just run my convention games once. I happily avoid that now – I have plastic folders filled with prep notes ready to run that I can pull out and revisit for a pickup game with minimal prep. If you’ve got pregens, consider laminating them if you want to use them again to save printing again, and buy some cheap dry wipe markers for players to use. If you’re thinking you’ll run a game multiple times, consider this in your prep and think about multiple means of resolution to keep it interesting for you as well.

One Game A Day

I’d go further than the above and say that one game per day is the standard, baseline you should be aiming for if you want to be a con GM. It’s what I try to stick to, and it helps keep all of those games fresh and perky, and you won’t lose your voice. I occasionally get carried away and make exceptions (running 6 games out of 10 at The Kraken was the result of offering additional games at the event, and even then I did duplicate some systems and prep), but I always regret it if I end up running two games in a day.

Run Parallel / Linked Games

As well as running games multiple times, you can make things easier for yourself by running the same (or similar) systems multiple times. I’ve offered, for instance, three 13th Age games before – which helped me get the system internalised really easily. You can also re-use pregens, and even if you get the same players this will be as much a feature as a bug as they get to see what another character plays like. Again, laminating these is a good move.

So, some tips for convention GMing to step up to being a regular. Conventions need GMs, and it’s great to get more people stepping up to run regularly. Is there any other advice you’d give, or concerns? Let me know.

Starting a New Campaign

Over at Patreon, one of my backers requested a post about starting a new campaign. I’m always happy to take requests from my noble backers, so here’s a step by step of what I do when I’m starting to set up a campaign or longer-form game. To give my bona fides, until 2020 I don’t think I’d ever run what I’d consider a successful campaign game – but the advent of lockdown, and a dive into online gaming, has changed that. I’m currently running an ongoing D&D game, a Star Trek Adventures game (where we are skirting around the Shackleton Expanse campaign), and in the process of pulling together a One Ring game. So – what do I do to start with, when I’m about to launch a campaign?

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 of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

  1. Set the Scope

Firstly, think about how long the campaign is going to last, and agree with your group. I’d strongly recommend splitting a longer campaign into seasons of max 8-12 sessions in order to keep things fresh, and I’d consider starting with even fewer sessions than that. Having a defined end point will stop your campaign from fizzling out, and keep everyone in the game and focussed.

Based on how often your group meets, work out how long real-time this will last for – and make sure you’re up for that. If you meet once a month and want to run a 12-session campaign, that’s a year’s worth of gaming for the group! If you’re weekly, 12 sessions is still 3 months of play. Make sure that you – and your players – are clear about that commitment and happy with it.

Of course, you might have an in-game end in mind – for my D&D campaign, we’re running through Rime of the Frostmaiden; that campaign finishes when they’ve brought the sun back to Icewind Dale and defeated Auril the Frostmaiden. Even with that, I’ve worked out that with 2 sessions at each level of character, this is about 20 sessions. I’d planned a mid-season break after 10, but as it happens we ended up cancelling some sessions anyway, so we’re good to go with the second part of it.

  1. Get the Big Picture

The approach to this stage varies a little depending on whether you’re plotting your own campaign or running something pre-written. In either case, though, you will sketch out the broad picture of how you expect the campaign to play out.

If you’re rolling your own, a great tool to use (taken from Dungeon World) is Fronts. Consider your campaign’s big bad, and sketch out some steps that it might take. Sly Flourish also has a discussion of using this for D&D that streamlines the process a bit.

Having a campaign finale in mind helps – even if your Roll20 presentation isn’t up to much

If you’re using a published adventure, this is when you need to skim read the whole thing. If you’re running something popular (like a D&D campaign) it’s also well worth googling it to see if folks like Sly Flourish or Justin Alexander have notes on how to run it. There will be some of these on here soon as my ‘Deep Dive’ series extends – currently I’ve got Rime of the Frostmaiden Chapter 1, Shadows over Bogenhafen, and the first Vaesen adventure compendium A Wicked Secret to write up. 

Once you’ve got this, sketch out how the sessions might look – for instance, I expected for Rime we’d probably hit one of the Ten-Towns quests per session, along with some additional personal stuff, for the first 6 sessions before hitting Chapter 2 and the more open-ended part of the game. As it happens in a couple of sessions we doubled up adventures, but we were able to mesh some of the scenarios into the PC backstories anyway (for a session-by-session report written by one of my players – and ongoing – check out Fandomlife’s blog here).

Running published campaigns requires slightly different prep to rolling your own

If the start of your campaign is going to branch off and be more of a sandbox, think about how you’ll structure this. I’m a big fan of getting players to decide what they’ll do next time at the end of a session, so I can focus on those bits for the following session. Also, think about how long you’re prepared to let them play in the sandbox – is there an element in your Front, or a lead you can drop, that will force them to leave and stop them wanting to talk to every NPC and find every secret?

  1. Imagine Some Specifics

Once you’ve got your big picture, you could run right away, but now I like to start thinking about specific scenes, encounters, locations, and NPCs that might come up. These can be just sketches to start with, but by having a file ready to note these in before the session zero, you can add to it. For example, in a campaign of Legend of the Five Rings I ran a couple of years ago, I had a few scenes in mind before chargen started – but when one of the PCs had a morbid fear of dogs, of course the bandits were led by a dog-faced demon who took an instant dislike to them. 

With a published adventure, you might want to think about a few NPCs using the 7-3-1 technique if they are likely to recur or be important – I’ve got a wizard lined up for the next couple of sessions who I sketched out a personality for right at the start – or how some encounters might play out in the first few sessions. This isn’t unlike the Bag of Tricks prep technique I’ve used for one-shots – it gives you some go-to scenes and moments that you’ll be able to use later in the campaign.

  1. Session Zero

At this point, you’re ready to get the players involved. My personal agenda for a session zero covers Content / Chargen / Play, but sometimes fitting in all of these can be tricky. If character generation is something that will be dreary to all sit round and do together, get your players to come to the table with something lightly sketched out, and do a bit of in-character bonding in that first session instead. Absolutely would recommend the final part though – getting a bit of play in makes it all worthwhile!

For Content, you want to discuss any safety tools you’ll be using, as well as invite your players to contribute to Lines and Veils and Tone – again, The Gauntlet has an excellent blog on all of this. Alongside this, you want to cover housekeeping – how often you meet, who brings the snacks, what to do if you can’t make it, that sort of thing. For my games I generally have a hard rule that if 3 players and the GM can make it, we play – and we’ll work out a way for the others to catch up later. This does fall down a bit if I can’t make a session, but it gives a bit of insulation against having a run of cancellations.

For the Play bit, just a half-hour encounter is fine – but I’d go with something action-y that involves rolling the dice instead of something roleplay-focussed. Start them around a camp, and have some goblins attack, and then the goblins tell them about the problems in the area. Getting some dice rolled makes the session zero fun, and starts to build momentum for the game proper.

  1. Session-By-Session

Now you can run it! For me, I’m never more than a session ahead of where the party is up to, and I prep in between sessions – I can’t imagine doing it any other way. I’ve blogged before about session prep for campaigns being like for one-shots, but to summarise – I’d recommend making each session a coherent episode if you can, even going so far as to give it a name. 

6 sessions of prep files – complete with corny titles

In my prep, each session gets a Google doc, and follows a fairly similar format, which is either a scene-by-scene breakdown followed by NPC notes, or a Sly Flourish Lazy DM set of notes. I’ve found that for my own prep, I like a defined scene-by-scene breakdown, but for published games that I’m running the Sly Flourish technique works best. I think this helps me to break down components and be a bit more prepared for players going in different directions – whereas with my own games I’m already able to do that without any help.

I’m conscious of my own practice as well (or at least try to be) – and one of the things I’m trying to work on is more memorable NPCs – so at the moment I make sure there’s a few ‘tells’ for each one in my prep notes to make sure I put the effort in to try and do this.

Be sure at the end of each session to get some feedback – either as Stars and Wishes (now rebranded to Spangles and Wangles by my Friday group) or a more informal method, and be prepared to tweak where the campaign is going if needed. I’d also recommend having some ongoing contact with your players, whether about the game or not, between sessions – it helps to keep momentum, which is one of the main things you need to keep a campaign going.

So, step by step campaign planning! I’ll try and get a couple of examples down too, and as always happy to accept Patreon post requests! Let me know in the comments if you’d like to see more.