Breadcrumbing: Part 2 – Design Principles

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

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

Clues are Obvious

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

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

Player Character Investment

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

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

Action! Pace! Men with guns!

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

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

Everything Else Applies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Round About Midnight

Introduction

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

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

Cast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plot

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

Scene One – The Savanna Rooms

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

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

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

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

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

Scene Two – The Back Room

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

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

Scene Three – The Streets of Bellegard

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

Pacing the next three scenes

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

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

Scene Four – The Undercity

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

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

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

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

Scene Five – Lorna Devin’s apartment

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

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

Scene Six – Tubs L’Phant

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

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

Scene Seven – Confrontation

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

NPC Statistics

Swamp Gators Gang Members – normal crocodiles

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

Clay Cotton – elite crocodile gangster

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

Lorna Devin – normal lion femme fatale

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

Tubs L’Phant – normal elephant jazzman

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

Mizzoni’s Minders – normal rodents

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

Dime Store Danny – elite mouse hoodlum

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

Nickel Nitkowski – elite shrew hoodlum

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

Dollar Bill Mizzoni – superior mouse mobster

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

2018: The Year in Review

I’d like to spend some time talking about my gaming year in review. It’s been great, and I’ve managed to not just get lots of gaming in, but also expand what I’ve done – try some new stuff, if you like. Big thanks to everyone I’ve gamed with, who’s run games for me, or with whom I’ve set the industry right with – never have I felt more part of a UK RPG community than this year.

Conventions – Running Games

Not counting Go Play Leeds, the monthly gaming meet-up I run locally, I think I’ve made it to seven conventions this year. Most of them have been documented through the year – although there were two conventions, Dragonmeet and UK Games Expo, that I didn’t run or play anything at.

At Revelation I ran a Dungeon World adaptation of Forest of Doom, and 24 Hour Party People, an Urban Shadows game set in Britpop Manchester. North Star’s first incarnation saw me finally run Tenra Bansho Zero, a white whale of gaming put to bed (for now – although I’m tempted to get it out again sometime this year). At Seven Hills I ran 7th Sea (which now, makes me realise how much I liked it – must get it out again in 2019) and 13th Age in Glorantha (13G). At Continuum I went with 13G again and Blades in the Dark, and at Furnace I ran three different games of 13G. At Grogmeet, I ran Twilight 2000, a fun game despite a very dated system. I had a lot of fun trying to make it more enjoyable for my own style of GMing – although it’s not a system I think I’ll be returning to any time in the future.

One thing I did at Furnace I’m going to do more of – to make sure when I’m running multiple games at a con (I usually do) they are the same system, even if not the same scenario. Carrying around just one set of rules in my head made the weekend much less stressful than even if I’d run two games with different systems. I’ve also taken Simon Burley‘s advice and re-run some con scenarios; I think Beard of Lhankhor Mhy has seen three outings at least, and I’ve just finished running Night of Blood for WFRP4e for the second time. Simon is dead right about the benefits of this in terms of producing quality game time and being much more relaxing for the GM, and I wish I’d listened to him sooner.

Conventions – Games Played

I’ll start this off by saying that there are very few bad convention games, that even if it’s a game that I haven’t enjoyed I’ve always found it useful, and I haven’t had any real stinkers this year. I try to play as much as I run at cons and I think I’ve achieved that.

That said, the mark of a great game played for me is often that I go off and want to run it myself, and I’ve had memorable games of Blades in the Dark (from Pete Atkinson) and Warhammer 4th Edition (from Evilgaz) that have made me do just that.

I’ve also managed to get some ongoing play this year, in the form of a game of D&D5e playing through Waterdeep Dragon Heist. Scheduling has become tricky for this game – my job means committing to a weekly evening difficult – but it’s been great to see our PCs develop, and remember the fondness you develop for characters that emerge with a history and backstory – a great group of players and a great DM help with this too.

Plans for 2019

Looking forwards to 2019, I feel like I’ve got a few things already in mind to achieve in the coming year. Continuing with this blog, which has settled down into a mixture of game commentary and actual game material; I started this thinking I’d never look at hits, but you can’t help but do it and it’s pleasing that the number of people reading my words has increased to a level where this feels worthwhile! As always, feel free to suggest topics or games to look at either here or on other internet ventures (I’m @milnermaths on twitter).

I’ve got some writing and editing to do early in the year, with the Liminal RPG being released early in the year – I’ve got some case files, some locations, and a book on vampires to get down. There’s also a little project for the Cthulhu Hack, some stuff for 13G with D101 Games, and I plan on getting more one-shots up on here for people to play with for other systems. One of these is appearing in Role-Play Relief, a charity project from Simon Burley and others.

In terms of gaming, I plan to get some more online games under my belt, both one-shots and short 3-session minicampaigns. Go Play Leeds continues to grow, and it’s now got to the point where I no longer worry about having enough players, but having enough GMs to accommodate them, and I’ve taken up the reins with helping to organise the 7 Hills convention in Sheffield. I play to go to Airecon and Expo properly this year, and actually run some games. Go Play Leeds has also spawned a sister event, Go Play Manchester, which launches in January – which I aim to get to when I can. I seem to have a pretty full schedule already.

So, more games, more writing, and more stuff in the new year. People used to talk about the decline of the hobby, but it’s surely in another golden age now, yeah? Hope everyone has a great new year, and any gaming-related (or other) resolutions are easy to stick to!

Review: Warhammer Fantasy Role Play (4e)

WarhammerFor a certain demographic of gamer, Warhammer Fantasy Role Play (WFRP) will always have a special place in their heart. The first edition was the very first RPG I owned, probably bought with some Christmas money, and first read sat on a crowded diesel train back from Leeds, rat-catchers, road wardens, and stevedores pressed up to my eager eyes.

If you’re not familiar with the hold WFRP has over gamers, you could do well to listen to the Grognard Files episodes about it. It’s history is storied; it was a lumpy, workable but odd (although it felt fine at the time) 1st Edition, and a tidied-up and well-supported (which also took some magic out of it) 2nd edition, before Fantasy Flight debuted the funky-dice shenanigans they would later scale down for Star Wars with a massive boxed set of 3rd edition. The system was completely different (although recognisable now with FFG Star Wars being a stripped-down variant) and the idea of £70 for a base game was sniffed at by many in the hobby. Oh, those innocent years, before slipcases and Invisible Sun and kickstarter add-ons (and postage) made such a price seem mainstream.

But, anyway, the 4th edition is out, from Cubicle 7, and it stays closer to the original system while tidying it up and making it work. A few key design tweaks make it a much better game, in my opinion, and it’s crawling with C7’s usual high presentation standards. But is it one-shot suitable? Let’s see…

The Fluff

This is proper grimdark fantasy. Late medieval pseudo-europe is great for a one-shot, and all the Germanic names give plenty opportunity for accents at the table (always a winner form me). Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, and an assortment of colourful Careers make characters easy to inhabit for players, and the setting is realistically grimy while still leaving plenty to do for erstwhile protagonists. The 1st edition supplements are now available in .pdf, which detail locations full of plot hooks, and there are rumours that the classic Enemy Within campaign is to be updated for 4th edition.

It’s a great example of system wedded to setting; it’s clear when you look at a WFRP pregen what kind of world they’ll be adventuring in. The Reikland (the default setting) is beset on all sides by skaven, orcs and goblins, and the insidious taint of chaos in the form of beastmen and chaos cultists, so there’s lots of obvious opportunities for adventure and low-down heroics. And, as you’d expect from C7, the book is a thing of beauty – the art is lovely and harks back to the old 1st edition illustrations.

The Crunch

WFRP has always been a percentile system; where it differs from other D100 games is that you roll against characteristics, with bonuses for skills, rather than skills themselves. Historically combat in particular could be a drag; when you’ve both got a 30% chance to hit and a 30% chance to parry it can take a while for somebody to score a blow. A small tweak has solved all of that and made combat much more exciting – it is now opposed rolls, so you only have to score a better success (or a less-worse miss) than your opponent to make contact. Degrees of success determine damage, so no extra dice roll, and damage takes from Wounds until those are used up and a set of amusingly lethal critical hit tables are rolled on.

Combat is lethal, and rightly so, but it plays out as giving plenty of options in the game. PCs have a Career rather than a Class, and these ground them very much in medieval society rather than setting them up for orcslaying (excepting the Slayer, of course). In contrast to previous editions, each Career is given 4 levels of expertise, so your Townsman can progress from a lowly Clerk to a powerful Burgomeister. Each level unlocks new Talents and Skills, and manages to capture a level of progression while still remaining very much low fantasy.

The One-Shot

There’s a few reasons why you might think is a long-form game rather than a one-shot; the richness of career progression, the wealth of lore about the world, and the prospect of the legendary Enemy Within campaign being some of them. But I’d urge you to try it as a one-shot too. I played it at Grogmeet run by Evilgaz of the Smart Party and it was an excellent game.

Firstly, the setting is so familiar and cosy to so many gamers it really does feel like slipping on a comfortable pair of slippers to adventure in the Old World. Having so much of the setting baked into the characters makes it easy for players to inhabit the setting, and the streamlined combat system of opposed rolls makes combat fun and fast. And never mind Enemy Within, C7 have released Night of Blood, a classic one-shot from the days of old White Dwarf, as a free download, with more to come.

So I’d heartily recommend a doom-laden adventure with WHFRP. It’s definitely something I’ll be bringing to the table soon at Go Play Leeds, and you should too.

One-Shot Prep: Structuring My Notes

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

Introduction

Wizardstowera3 JOHNNY GREY

Wizards Tower by Johnny Gray

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

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

Cast

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

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

Scenes

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

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

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

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

“Which PC do you most want to die?” – Setup Questions in One-Shots (and Grogmeet 2018)

I’ve just returned from Grogmeet 2018, a one-day convention organised by Dirk the Dice at the Grognard Files – it’s almost a spin-off con from his podcast; I doubt there was anyone in attendance who didn’t regularly follow the ‘cast. It was unusual, and refreshing like a warm pint of bitter, and threw up some interesting game points that I’ve tried to cobble together into a post.

An Odd Bunch – and no, I mean the games

hitthenorth

Great to be back in Manchester, too

As befits an event steeped in nostalgia for the games of yesteryear, there was a wide selection of games that I don’t think you’d see at any other convention; from Tunnels and Trolls, to Flashing Blades, to new releases of old favourites like Runequest Glorantha and Warhammer FRP 4th edition, to the extreme niche (Price of Freedom? You might remember it from old copies of White Dwarf – it’s the game with a massive picture of Lenin on the front of it).

I would be very surprised if a more diverse (and frankly bonkers) selection of games is on offer at any other convention. And all were run with enthusiasm, and received with enthusiasm. I go to a lot of cons, and I’m don’t think I’ve seen a convention with so much enthusiasm for the hobby. It practically oozed out of everyone, particularly after a few beers. I played in an excellent game of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (4th edition) from Gaz from the Smart Party in the morning, and in the afternoon I ran Twilight 2000.

Indie-ing Twilight 2000

Before I go on, let me preface that I won’t be running T2000 again, and I can’t recommend that you do. I don’t want to spend too long going through my issues with the game, but have a few bulletpoints that I just need to get off my chest:

  • extremely low skill levels (at least if you generate PCs who aren’t in their 50s – good old GDW lifepath systems, eh?) As a d10 roll-under system, apart from combat skills it’s reasonable to have a character sheet that looks much like a Gumshoe game – lots of skills of 1 and 2. So lots of failure
  • difficulty is represented by doubling or halving your skill value. This is… swingy. So most shots in Combat are Easy (doubling) but that gets knocked down to Average because even if you spend an action Aiming, it only applies to the first bullet fired. Difficult actions are virtually impossible; Easy actions are often trivially easy.
  • a boringly overpowered initiative system. Initiative is a static value. If you have Initiative 3, you act in Phase 3, Phase 2, and Phase 1 (phases count down – because that’s obvious, right?). If you have Initiative 5, you get 5 actions, starting in Phase 5. If you have initiative 1, you not only act last, but only get one action.
  • automatic fire is independent of skill and requires a bucketload of d6s, with each 6 counting as a hit. I’m all for rolling a handful of dice, but once you hit double figures it starts to get less fun. There is a rule to avoid rolling too many which restricts the number you might have to roll for emptying the magazine to a maximum of 50d6; because otherwise our machinegunner could have had to roll 250d6 at the table.
  • there’s no Search skill. Like, seriously. I guess I could have used Observation, but as that’s the only perception skill, I felt like I was calling for rolls on that quite often too.

In short, you could sketch a system blindfold on the back of a fag packet right now that would still be smoother and more consistent than T2000. It was even worse in play than I was expecting – so in order to mitigate that I tried to make plenty of the session not be about the rules. To do this I used two sets of questions – and I’m going to share the technique here as a system-neutral tip for any game (even if you have a game system that actually works!)

Setting Questions

twilight 2000 pic

Pregens – with requisite gun porn and service history

After my pregens were handed out (and a brief summary given of the implied setting – post-apocalypse nuclear fallout, game set in South American jungles, isolated settlements beset by nomadic raiders) – I went with this set of questions, asked to the whole table but with the expectation that they were to be quickly decided rather than discussed and mused on. There were a couple of quick vetoes used (“No, that sounds rubbish”) – and I tried to join in about as much as the other players with new ideas, while also guiding and pulling together their discussions

  • What is your home community like? What is its name? Who’s in charge?
  • What does your community have in abundance? What does it lack?
  • There are rebels who live wild and want to steal from your community. What are they after?
  • There’s another community – you used to get along but not any more. Who are they? Why did you fall out?

I had a few other questions, about where they got their ammo, and who else they knew, but these provided enough of a setting – an old cocaine farm, rich in resources and defences but short of food and leadership, led by Vega (I think) – who’s first establishing Q&A of “What’s he like?” “He’s an arsehole,” set the tone for the whole community.

I then introduced another key NPC for the adventure, Old Isaac, a trader who has gone missing, and they decided on some facts about him – then they made three NPCs that they cared about – this was the patrol that went to investigate before them.

I was hoping that by asking the players to design the NPCs (even though I had stats for them and a rough idea what would happen to them) they would actually care about them. In the final scene (spoilers!) they had to battle against the three of them mind-controlled, and while it wasn’t a moment of world-shaking pathos and tragedy, it did lead to some interesting roleplaying, even if they only managed to save one of them.

PC-PC Questions

Neither of these ideas is original, of course, and this one in particular was taken mostly from Dungeon World Bonds. Basically, as you want the PCs to function as a team, by getting them to say how they feel about each other, the PCs get rounded and well-defined not just by their own player but the others around them. And it was dead simple.

Every PC had these questions on their character sheet – they just went through them after everyone had given a brief character description.

  • Who do you trust most on the team? Who’s always got your back?
  • Who do you always keep an eye on? Why?
  • Who’s pulled your shit out of the fire more than once?
  • Who is out of their depth and needs protecting for their own good?

Some of the players were pleasantly surprised when this threw up some asymmetrical relationships (one player trusting another who didn’t trust them back); I’ve seen that happen every time I’ve used this technique, and it’s golden.

Did it work?

I think it did. I won’t be running T2000 again – the disconnect between system and play was too much – but it felt like everyone had fun – including me. The two question techniques above can be used for any game, and I’m sure will have similar effects. It’s mostly about shared ownership of setting – which leads to investment in the adventure, which might make the players actually care a bit more about their characters. I’d be interested if anyone has had any success running T2000 in, like, the past 10 years or so, and how they found the system. I can’t quite bring myself to write up my prep notes or pregens into a publishable form, but I’ll try and get round to it if people are interested in it.

It was also a first for me in ages at running a mostly-investigative game. I’m not sure I’m very good at them yet, but it gave me enough food for thought that I might trot out some more at cons or Go Play Leeds in the future, and I’m sure they’ll make it onto the blog.

Gringle’s Pawnshop – a 13th Age Glorantha One-Shot adventure

Like all of our community, I was very saddened to hear of Greg Stafford’s sad passing. As just the week before I’d been running a ‘tribute one-shot’ to one of his classic adventures, it felt only right tidy it up a bit to share it here. Greg was the creator of Glorantha, which I’ve talked about here, and also (by all accounts – I never got to meet him myself) a thoroughly nice bloke – so many of the tributes to him have talked as much about how friendly and welcoming he was as well as his innovations in game design and worldbuilding.

Last weekend, at Furnace convention in Sheffield, UK, I ran three games of 13th Age Glorantha. I had planned to run two, but a few GMs had to pull out so I offered up another game in one of the slots. The first was Beard of Lhankor Mhy, for 2nd level PCs and published in Hearts in Glorantha 7 from D101 Games (along with the pregens). The second was a 3rd level one-shot, Into The Wasps’ Nest, where the PCs had to petition both the trolls of Troll Wood and the Wasp Riders of Wasp Nest to aid the Sartarite tribes.

This was the third – an update of the classic Apple Lane scenario by Greg Stafford for 1st level 13G characters. I set it a month after the original adventure, when the PCs have to clear up after the last adventurers, and tried to make it a lighthearted pastiche of the elements of the first adventure. I trust Greg would see the funny side – I mean, he did invent Ducks, after all, so he can’t blame me for putting one in a tuxedo, surely? The adventure is also here as a .pdf if you want to print it out.

Gringle’s Pawnshop

A 13th Age in Glorantha Adventure for 1st-level PCs

Introduction

As your band of heroes wanders out in search of adventure, you seek out the Runelord Gringle, proprietor of his Pawnshop in Apple Lane. But upon arrival at the hamlet, you find it overrun by trollkin, with Gringle and his faithful Duckservant Quackjohn trapped in the Pawnshop. After rescuing them, they tell you of their problem – Apple Lane has fallen into ruin since the temple of Uleria was ransacked by a tribe of baboons. The priestesses have been kidnapped and taken into the hills – the players must rescue them!

Dramatis Personae

Gringle is a white-bearded man obsessed with his stock and the hoarding of magic items. A Runelord of Issaries, he enjoys nothing more than the hustle and bustle of trade, but this has all but dried up since the baboons ransacked the town. His collectors nature has, in fact, proven to be his undoing. A tribe of baboons returned last month to claim their stolen necklace of Toothsharp from the shop, easily dispatching the rookie adventurers Gringle had employed to guard it. So easy was the recovery that they also saw fit to set fire to the Tin Inn and kidnap the three priestesses of Uleria while they were at it, leading to his present predicament. Gringle is a pleasant fellow who speaks kindly to adventurers – but he dislikes getting his hands dirty, hence his propensity for hiring adventurers to do his dirty work.

Quackjohn is Gringle’s longsuffering duckservant. He speaks rarely, and when it is it is often to remind Gringle in weary tones of something obvious he has forgotten. He is usually clad in a worn and battered tuxedo. He has pulled Gringle’s neck out of more than a few scrapes, and grows weary of his time serving his eccentric master.

The three kidnapped priestesses are the true power keeping Apple Lane going. They have manged to ensure that the regular visitors to the pawnshop spent their money freely with the local businesses, and kept the bickering farmhands in line. It is no surprise that without them Apple Lane has fallen to ruin.

  • Avareen Bosom is a hard-nosed and fearsome woman, and the true leader of the town – a stern yet kindly woman in late middle age.
  • Pretty Aileena is indeed pretty, but also the shrewdest of the three. Gringle in particular has learned several times not to trifle with her quick wit.
  • Bingoood is the youngest, barely out of her teens but already possessed of powerful magic and a temper to match

Khochaz the baboon cannot believe his luck. A minor tribal leader, he has managed to not only reclaim his prized Toothsharp necklace but also capture three human females who he hopes he can ransom to the strange shopkeeper from the village. He’s good at leadership and keeping his crew in line, but less good on details like keeping close eyes on the hostages or making sure his baboons guard the camp properly.

Biglaugh Bigclub is the mercenary Khochaz employed to help him loot the pawnshop. He has stayed with the Baboons (along with Pinfeather, a duck thief) in order to try and double-cross them, and steal both the humans and the Toothclaw pendant. Both him and Pinfeather are neither bright nor brave, however, and are prevaricating over the best moment to escape with the prize – maybe when some heroes attack the Baboon camp?

Scene One – Apple Lane

As the heroes approach Apple Lane, they find it very different to what they expected. The Tin Inn lies in ruins, and the Temple of Uleria has been trashed. Print out and place one of the many available maps of Apple Lane into the middle of the table (there’s a good one in the RQG GM’s pack) and draw the destruction on with a sharpie. As they explore the town, they hear skittering and screeching – before a group of Trollkin ambush them!

There is one Dark Troll Warrior, Shuffle, and 9 Starving Trollkin Wretches. If the Dark Troll is killed, make a Save for the remaining Wretches – they will attempt to flee. If you have fewer or more than 5 players, add or subtract 3 trollkin per player. Their statistics are in 13G p295.

Scene Two – Meeting Gringle

As the scene clears and the trolls and/or trollkin flee, a white-bearded man emerges from his ruined Pawnshop, followed by an elderly duck in a tuxedo. He introduces himself as Gringle, and states that he was just about to deal with the trolls himself using his “powerful Issaries rune magic.” Quackjohn rolls his eyes and coughs politely.

He explains the situation – Apple Lane is in a sorry state, and he is forced to admit it is since the priestesses were captured. He had acquired a necklace of Toothsharp through perfectly legal means, but the tribe of baboons who claimed it decided to raid his shop. Thinking it prudent to employ some protection, he employed a group of adventurers, who failed so poorly at defending his shop that the baboons (and their allies, who were led by a centaur) then set about looting the town and carried off the priestesses.

If questioned about where he was with his powerful magic while this was going on, he was involved in an important Issaries ritual in the basement of his shop, which also required Quackjohn’s attendance. When he emerged in the morning he was dismayed to find that the adventurers had fled, leaving him with a disunited village, many of whom started to flee to neighbouring towns since their protectors had so abandoned them. The troll raids started shortly afterwards.

He implores them to rescue the priestesses – he knows that the baboons tribe will be in the hills to the southeast, towards Highwyrm.

Scene Three – The Journey

As the heroes set off on their journey, and they have the directions from the adventurers who sold Gringle the Toothsharp necklace. Play this scene as a 13th Age montage – each player in turn narrates an event on the journey. Begin by narrating their first obstacle as they set off – the bridge across the river to the foothills has been cut by the trollkin as they ransacked the village, and they now stand at one bank of a mighty rushing river. Pass to a player who narrates how the party manage to overcome the obstacle – add a twist yourself if you wish to, to remind them that they are entering the wilderness and that chaos is afoot – and they then narrate the next obstacle. Proceed until every player has taken a turn – further examples of this are in the 13th Age GM Screen pack.

In your twists as GM, play up how dangerous the terrain is and add in any additional monsters just to add to the peril – they are venturing into dangerous mountains. The hills should gradually turn into mountains as they approach, until they come across the Baboon’s camp, nestled in a rocky valley and well defended.

Scene Four – Baboon Camp

The Baboons have taken up their camp in an old abandoned Dragonewt temple. The Baboon camp is as well-defended as it can be by a tribe of semi-sapient monkeys. Bigclub has attempted to organise some sort of watch system, but he knows he might need to sneak out one night so hasn’t bothered too much when the Baboons keep wandering off and losing interest.

As the players approach, they can see the chaotic attempts at guarding, and there are many opportunities to formulate a plan; judicious use of runes may work here. The baboons guard in pairs before they inevitably begin to wind one another up and fall about fighting or arguing, before Khoshaz jumps on them with his big stick to whip them into line.

If you like, sketch a map of the area and allow the players to think about their approach; any reasonable plan should be able to give them the advantage of surprise, or of not having to fight all the Baboons at once, particularly if the players make judicious use of runes.

If they vacillate, have matters come to a head for them. As they watch, a patrol of Baboons spots them, and a round later, they see Bigclub and Pinfeather attempting to carry the priestesses off.

There are a total of 10 Baboon Troopers from 13G p244, plus the NPCs detailed below.

This is a double-strength fight, so could be dangerous for the PCs if they don’t have their wits about them. There are a few ways to manage this

  • If the players are finding it too easy, more Baboons rush to their fellow’s aid – add an extra three Baboon Tribesmen
  • If they look to be finding it hard, allow Avareen breaks out of his bonds and runs across to them. A glow of love suffuses the battlefield, and all involved can heal using a recovery; this may also cause Bigclub and/or Pinfeather to be occupied for the next round chasing after her and re-capturing her

 

Khochaz, Baboon Leader

2nd level leader

Initiative: +8

Long spear: +8 vs AC – 5 damage

Natural 16+: Other baboons gain a +2 damage bonus against the target until the end of the battle

R: Sling +8 vs AC (one nearby or far away enemy) – 5 damage

Surviving: When an attack hits Khochaz and he’s staggered, roll a normal save. If it succeeds, it hits the other baboon instead.

AC 18                     PD 17                     MD 14                   HP 40

Bigclub, Centaur Raider

3rd level troop

Initiative: +9

Charging Lance: +9 vs AC – 12 damage, and the target pops free from the centaur

Hit ‘em hard: The crit range expands by 2 (18-20) and instead deals 16 damage on a hit if Bigclub first moves before attacking a new enemy

Natural 18+: The target is also dazed (-4 to attack) until the start of its next turn

Big Club: +8 vs AC – 10 damage

Natural even hit: Bigclub can Kick as a free action

Kick: +7 vs PD (1d2 enemies engaged with Bigclub) – target takes 4 damage and      pops free from Bigclub

Harnessed speed: +4 AC bonus vs opportunity attacks

AC 19                     PD 16                     MD 13                   HP 48

Pinfeather, duck thief

3rd level archer

Initiative: +9

Daggers: +9 vs AC (two attacks) – 6 damage

R: Shortbow +11 vs AC – 8 damage

Natural even hit or miss: Pinfeather can make a second shortbow attack as a free action

Quick shot: When Pinfeather is unengaged and an enemy moves to engage it, roll a normal save. If successful, Pinfeather can make a Shortbow attack as a free action just before he is engaged

AC 15                     PD 14                     MD 11                   HP 46

 

 

Scene Five – Victorious Return

The heores can now escort the three priestesses back to Apple Lane. Once their equipment is recovered, they cast a ritual that returns them to their temple; and as they harness the power of the Toothclaw necklace to do so, it crumbles into dust while the walls of the temple are rebuilt.

The find Gringle in good spirit as they return – he had found a few charms in his store, and has set about rebuilding the Tin Inn – riding into town is Bulster Brewer, the landlord, who says that now the baboons have been defeated he plans to reopen. He reckons there are still a few barrels in the cellar that should be good, and opens them while the players, Gringle, Quackjohn, Avareen, Aileena, and Bingoood drink to celebrate Apple Lane’s return to prosperity!