Seeing the Light – Running Illuminated by LUMEN one-shots

LUMEN, developed by Spencer Campbell of Gila RPGs, is a rules framework for action TTRPGs that’s inspired a veritable horde of games based on its core system. Well, strictly speaking, LIGHT was the first game, and the SRD came later, but you get what I mean. Its combination of fast-play action and easy-to-spin system make it a really fantastic convention game, and I thought I’d put down some tips for making sure a one-shot really hits the right buttons.
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 ran Gunfucks at North Star recently, and am planning on running LIGHT and Deathless soon. Gunfucks is a Borderlands-riffed shooter-looter (I’ll share my prep notes in the next post), while LIGHT feels sort-of-Destiny, and Deathless is a Highlander-style immortal warrior battles game. If all of these seem high-action and pretty frenetic, that’s the sort of play that LUMEN leans towards – and it’s useful in general to think of them emulating video games as their source material, as you’ll see later.

It’s All About the Fights

LUMEN isn’t quite a game with a combat system and nothing else (and that’s not a dig – I’m a huge fan of Sentinel Comics, Marvel Heroic, and even Feng Shui 2 that largely subsist on set piece action scenes) – but it is built towards big, powerful heroes fighting set piece battles, and most of the rules support this.

With this in mind, fight scenes with some attention and planning made to them pay off well. Make sure that your fights take place in Dangerous Places – so the battlefield has lots of things to interact with that either side can turn to their advantage. It’s also worth thinking of fights in terms of goals and victory conditions, rather than everyone fighting to the death.

Because the resolution mechanic is relatively simple, encourage and model your players to describe their actions cinematically – because success criteria (the highest dice rolled) is out in the open, they should be able to follow the start description -> roll dice -> describe success or failure pretty smoothly.

Gunfucks has a cool idea (which I’ll be stealing for other games) where in the GM’s turn there’s a battlefield shift – something changes each turn to make the fight interesting. Easy ways to do this in LUMEN games is to shift some range bands, or introduce some more hazards. It can also move some enemies or call in reinforcements – which you might need, as balancing combat isn’t as straightforward as you might think.

It’s Not All About the Fights

It’s easy to think that LUMEN games don’t really have a system for skill checks – but they absolutely do, with the Approaches rolls functioning just as well for investigative or social conflict. A simple skill challenge where the party need to get a total of 5 successes across the rolls will work fine, with them taking consequences for each 1-4 roll.

But, as combat can be pretty frenetic with dice-rolling and power-checking, it works just as well to have interludes between fights that are just free roleplaying. This will add depth to the game, and by prepping some interesting NPCs with conflicting goals (a good approach is the 7-3-1 method) you can have some good scenery-chewing interludes. In play, LUMEN often feels like a video game – and these are the cut scenes that provide a break from the relentless shooting and fighting.

In all of these games, PCs are high-powered badasses, so don’t be afraid to make the stakes big – the safety or otherwise of a country or a planet could rest on their shoulders. Enemies, likewise, should be dangerous, and give them plans and motivations the players can riff off. A pre-game relationship building exercise where you work out bonds between the PCs would help in a one-shot to encourage inter-PC dialogue, even if it’s a simple one like this

Practicalities

There’s a few practical tips at the table that can help prep and delivery. For starters, you can afford to really throw enemies at your players. For games with 5 or 6 players, you can be prepared to give lots of low-level enemies for them to defeat before they can get to the big bad, or you risk fights being over very quickly. As long as your mooks only do 1 or 2 Harm you’ll be fine – quite a few of the classes can resist 1 Harm anyway, and if they’ve got 1 Health they’ll go down in one hit anyway.

Many LUMEN games have both Health and some sort of power resource – in Gunfucks its Bullets, for instance. Having counters to represent this really helps at the table – I favour poker chips for health, as it’s pretty visible in one stack to you and the other players how much the other PCs have left.

I touched on it earlier, but these games also really benefit from getting PC narration in. They’re not just rules-light but very setting-light as well – a lot of depth will come from the table, and 5-6 imaginations are better than one for this. So use the techniques here to help develop player narration and give the setting – and scenes – some depth.

Have you played or run any LUMEN games? Any recommendations for what I should try next? Let me know in the comments.

In Praise of the Supplement

I’ve just picked up (from kickstarter) Rowan Rook and Deckard’s SIN – a fantastic supplement for the SPIRE RPG, where every page seems to have plot hooks and gameable material leaping off it. It got me thinking about what a really good RPG supplement looks like. For these purposes, I think a supplement should have a bit of everything – some player-facing stuff, maybe new rules, new setting material and background – but most importantly, tons of stuff that can be dropped into an ongoing campaign or inspire a one-shot. 

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!

SIN hits the jackpot on all of these – but I won’t be talking about it yet, in accordance with my review policy, because I haven’t actually used it in play yet. So instead, here are 4 supplements – I’ve tried to restrict myself to things nominally in print at least (although getting physical copies of one of these might be a challenge!) – that are top-drawer and have seen action at my table recently.

Strongholds of Resistance (for FFG’s Star Wars: Age of Rebellion)

This is the one you might struggle to find in print. It’s worth it though – a selection of planets, a selection of rebel bases (including, of course, Echo Base on Hoth), three new player species (including the squid-faced Quarren as featured in the Mandalorian) and some equipment and options. What makes this stand out are the planets and bases – they are all dripping with gameable content, and even include a “what if this base is discovered / falls” section. The bases all have maps which can be used here, or even transplanted to another setting or system.

This book entirely inspired Snowblind, a one-shot around Echo Base, which is linked here.

Book of Demons (for 13th Age)

This is absolute gold. It kicks off with the Demonologist class, which has three very different options (if you’re familiar with the 13th Age Druid, it’s similar to that in that the role in the party can be anything depending on what you pick). There’s a great section on gamemastering demons, and then “Six Hell Holes” – adventure locations at different levels of challenge full of demons. Explicitly designed to be dropped into the game anywhere, this would be useful for any kind of fantasy game. 13th Age products somehow manage to make even their fluff easily usable in other games, and this doesn’t disappoint.

I’ve thrown stuff from this into 13th Age one-shots (although not for a while – I haven’t run 13th Age for too long!), including adding a melee-focussed demonologist as a pregen. 

Beta Quadrant Sourcebook (for Star Trek Adventures)

For those with limited Star Trek knowledge, the Beta Quadrant is probably what you’re expecting if you think Trek – the baddies are Romulans and (depending on the era) Klingons, you’ve got Orions and (my favourite) Gorn rolling around – it’s a wild frontier region of space, ripe for exploration yet still bucking up against other civilisations in the form of the Romulan Neutral Zone. Apart from details of each of these civilisations and some new player species, there’s some extra starships, and some adventure locations. The Briar Patch and the Shackleton Expanse (although for the latter you might want to get the bigger – and more adventure-led – book of the same name) are full of danger and peril.

Overall it’s just a great starter region for Star Trek, where the core book is a bit limited by offering any era of play. If you’re running Original Series or Next Generation, this is your essential next purchase.

I used this a lot in the first season of my ongoing Star Trek Adventures campaign, where they tussled along the Neutral Zone with a recurring Romulan Captain.

Starter Set (for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4th edition)

Is it cheating to put a starter set in here? Not in this case. Apart from the usual pregens, dice and an excellent adventure (Doing the Rounds), the 64-page Guide to Ubersreik is what sets this apart. Full details of the city, with adventure hooks in every location, both dripping in flavour and instantly gameable. Add to this that fully half of the Adventure Book is given over to single-page short adventures, this is the perfect primer for both what WFRP is all about, and how to make a city breathe and sing.

My WFRP one-shots have all been set in and around Ubersreik – there’s just enough material in here to expand one or more of them into a satisfying game.

So, what fantastic supplements can you recommend? Link them in the comments.

Auntie Wu’s Tea House – a Hearts of Wulin One-Shot

Hearts of Wulin is Gauntlet Publishing’s PBTA game of wuxia melodrama – swords, romance, and, crucially, inner conflict. A lot of the APs available (and there are loads on the Gauntlet’s YouTube channel) focus on campaign play – so I sketched out a one-shot and ran it twice. Once face-to-face, at Revelation, and once online at Virtual Grogmeet 2022.

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!

Revelation is a PBTA con (report here), so I was assuming some relative knowledge of these kind of games – so we did character generation at the table, exactly as in the book. The notes below assume this. For Virtual Grogmeet, I couldn’t be as sure (and indeed, I had one player entirely new to PBTA) – so, inspired by the Avatar: Legends adventure book, sketched out some pregens.

Entanglements are the Bonds / Hx / whatever of Hearts of Wulin, and they’re absolutely key to getting the sorts of games it generates – in play I think the plot was about 40% external forces, and 60% players pursuing them. They’re really cleverly designed – you get a few to pick from for each playbook, and everyone gets one “general” and one “romantic” one. Each one has one PC and one NPC in it. They took a bit of time at Revelation, so for the second play-through, I sketched them out – picking the NPC but allowing the players to choose which PC they wanted in it.

For example, one of the PCs, Eagle Sentinel, an Aware (Travelling Teacher), had the following Entanglements:

  • I love Wu Chao (Aunti Wu’s ward), who I have overlooked too long; now they love [PC]
  • I suspect my friend [PC]’s parent is the villain White Fang Chu

They could, of course, swap the PC and NPC positions in these. This worked really well to get everyone on the same page quickly, and they always lead to excellent play. One tip if you’ve only got 3 players (which I had for both games) is to read the familial ties loosely – siblings need not be related, parents need be parents in name only – since you’ll have quite a tight web of romance. For Virtual Grogmeet, I used the Gauntlet’s excellent Character Keeper, and just let them roll their own dice.

So, below are my prep notes – I hope these are useful if you want to run it yourselves, or at least it helps for those “how exactly do you prep PBTA?” questions.

Auntie Wu’s Tea House

A One-Shot for Hearts of Wulin

Nestled in an isolated pass, the only route through the World’s Edge Mountains for miles, Auntie Wu’s has been a staple of the Wulin world. Warriors come to meet, drink tea, and … occasionally… to fight. But now, with the Army of the North massing behind the World’s Edge, you’ve been sent to persuade Auntie Wu and her household to withdraw – for surely the Army will overrun her. Will she listen to her? Will you obey your orders? Who among the encroaching army do you know already, and why did you not expect to fall in love with them again?

PCs & Setup

Follow the usual procedure after creation (no extra moves yet)

  • Go round and introduce their PC’s look and style
  • Go round and do Entanglements 1 each. Make a note of any new NPCs – the others can be on the table with their descriptions. Note that each Entanglement must involve 1 PC and 1 NPC
  • Choose a Bond with 1 of the characters in each Entanglement

In the opening scenes, get any extra NPCs on screen ASAP.

TWO PCs (A and B) have been sent from Magistrate Chen with a message for Auntie Wu – the army is already engaged on the Eastern Front, and they should fall back. Auntie Wu should evacuate her tea house and flee.

A – Why have you been trusted with this mission, and B – why are you reluctant to carry it through?

TWO PCs (C and D) have just escaped from capture in the Army of the North, and have been creeping up to safety

A – How did you escape from this mighty army, and B – what is their greatest weakness?

Opening Scenes 

In both of these make sure to bring in any additional NPCs from Entanglements as soon as possible – 

We begin with A and B as they settle in at the tea house and are brought soup. They can see the tea house shift into the evening, as baiju and beer is brought out, and Stone Ox Wu approaches them

Will you share your mission immediately, or wait and enjoy the hospitality of the evening?

Stone Ox Wu approaches them and asks their business – he then asks them to drink with him! This could well be an Impress move, or perhaps a Hearts and Minds if they stake their mission straightaway

Meanwhile, C and D are approaching from the North, climbing through the mountains. As they move through the quiet village towards Auntie Wu’s, they are not alone – there are soldiers here, carrying weapons and fire sticks. It seems that they are interrupting an ambush!

Do you alert the inhabitants or take out the ambushers yourself

As the ambush strikes, the tea house roof is (probably) set on fire – an Overcome move to tackle. Hordes of soldiers provide more than enough for some PCs to Deal with Troops, and they are led by Peerless Falcon and/or Sergeant Cheng and any other NPCs who could conceivably be with the Army of the North

Middle Scenes

After a period of respite,

  • The PCs could get aid from the Bandits, led by Number One Sword – could he help to protect, or shelter the villagers
  • They may want to seek help – or wisdom – from Harmonious Jade in his monastery
  • Both of these could provide allies 
  • They could investigate and try and sabotage the advancing army. The outer camps are run by Sergeant Cheng who has them in good order but could be convinced
  • Encourage them to also pursue their Entanglements, and remember to trigger Inner Conflict when appropriate

Possible additional “bangs” for these scenes include

  • Auntie Wu / another NPC has fallen ill! She needs herbs from the gardens at the foothills – near the army’s camps… or maybe Harmonious Jade can help her
  • Constable Cheng arrives, angry at A and B for failing to carry out their orders – why has the village not been evacuated?
  • Betrayal is discovered! A guest left an army seal, and a map of the grounds has been found on a messenger. Should they be punished or sent as a message?

Finale

The likely end point is a pitched battle – try and pair PCs off with potential scenes individually, including rallying the peasant army (Impress would be the move for this), fighting various NPCs or Troops, or dealing with betrayal

Possible Finale Bangs include

  • An ally (Number One Sword / Wu Chao / Stone Ox Wu) switches sides – for reasons established in previous narrative – can they be convinced of their error or punished?
  • Fire sticks! The houses around the Tea House are on fire! Villagers panic and rush to save their belongings instead of defending against the army
  • Any remaining Entanglement NPCs show up and cause trouble

NPCs

Auntie Wu, middle aged proprietor – wants only for things to stay the same, her tea house to be safe, and her daughters to be happily married off

Hunchbacked, carries a tray of tea or a walking stick

Sensory: The smell of jasmine, a calming influence

Schtick – crouch low and hunchbacked and nestle your hands around an imaginary cup of tea

Wu Chao, Auntie Wu’s neice – wants to escape her Aunt’s clutches and seek adventure – which probably doesn’t involve being married

Beautiful, porcelain-skinned, fights with flowing robes

Sensory: Serene and quiet, with a twinkle in her eye

Schtick: Winks conspiratorially at anyone (e.g. the PCs) who might be fun

Number One Sword – chief of the World’s Edge bandits, wants his tribe to be safe and money and riches

Bearded, powerful, wields a curved blade with symbols down its length

Sensory: Shouts orders as he appears suddenly, smells of sweat and booze

Schtick: Sit up straight and shout slightly at all times

Peerless Falcon – Captain of the Army of the North, charged with capturing the pass

SCALE 2 FIGHTER

Slender, armored, glowing – wields a pair of curved knives which he also throws

Schtick: Pauses for thought before replying slowly

Sergeant Cheng – a junior officer in the Army of the North

Stout, careful, taciturn. Wields a curved halberd. Is not entirely convinced of the Army’s cause.

Schtick: Looks worried and plays with his moustache

Stone Ox Wu, Auntie Wu’s son- wants to protect the Tea House at all costs

Huge, bald-headed, angry – wields a massive hammer

Schtick: Bellows and drinks Baiju from a glass whenever he can

Harmonious Jade – monk who lives in the World’s Edge mountains, whose monastery is famously neutral

SCALE 2 FIGHTER

Tall, portly, laughing – quick to smile. Fights unarmed

Schtick: Laughs and giggles at all times

Constable Cheng – imperious busybody constable who just likes to check on order

Fights with a staff

Schtick: Looks down on everyone and everything

If It All Goes Quiet…

Use these options at any time when it looks like there’s nothing going on, or if the PCs are reluctant to engage

Men with Knives!

  • A group of bandits/audacious soldiers have snuck into the camp to steal what they can before the serious looters arrive – have a PC discover them and them be offered a share of the loot

Big Blade Huang

  • A warrior of audacious skill visits the tea house; he has no interest in defending it, seeing beating an army as beneath him
  • Trigger the Deal With Misunderstanding move on p110 of the book (nb this is also where the Deal With Grief move is, which you’ll need if someone wanders off)

Avalanche!

  • The army’s explosives have triggered an avalanche to crush the tea house – can they get the villagers to safety?

Prep Techniques: A Bag of Tricks

In earlier prep technique posts, I’ve talked about 5 Room Dungeons, Sly Flourish’s method, using 3 Places, and starting with a con pitch. Most of those are focussed toward more traditional GM-prepped games – where you have a clear idea of the scenes and sequence of play the players will encounter in game. Today I’m going to share a technique I’ve been using to prep for Blades in the Dark, John Harper’s game of steampunk heists in a cursed city. 

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. In addition, for this post, Patrons have access to my prep notes for the two sessions of Blades play that inspired this post – so they can see it in action!

With Blades (and other less GM-led games, including a lot of PBTA games – although some of those have other prep processes) – you don’t really know where the PCs are going to go. You prep a score, and some things that might happen in it – and then roll with the punches and dice rolls of the players. This can be intimidating if you’re used to a more traditional setup – and indeed, I’ve shown here how a more traditional setup can work with Blades as a one-shot – but it can really sing if you’ve done your prep to be ready to respond to players in a few different ways.

The idea behind this technique is to produce a bag of stuff that can be used during the session to keep it ticking along, in systems that do some (but not all) of the improv heavy lifting for you.

What’s This For?

In the examples below, I’ll be talking about Blades, and this definitely works for mission-based Forged in the Dark games. Some PBTA games like Masks and Monster of the Week have similar approaches – MOTW has a mystery countdown and a monster, and Masks needs your Supervillain statted up – and I think it generally works for more directly-plotted PBTA games. 

If I was running, for example, Thirsty Sword Lesbians, Monsterhearts, or Apocalypse World as a one-shot, I’d definitely use this – because I’d want a strong inciting incident and a finite stage of locations for the action. In an ongoing campaign, I might be less constrained by the first step below, but I’d probably use the same process described below for Locations and Characters and Moments for each session.

Think About the Score

Disclaimer: in any post about how to prep a John Harper game, the first advice is – do what John Harper tells you to do. This is right there in the book, but it is a bit hidden away on p188 in the GM Actions section. Maybe it’s not hidden away – but I’d run Blades a few times before reading it.

In it, you need to consider the mission you’re offering the players – it has a structure of things to think about, like the target location, some secrets to be discovered, an obvious and non obvious approach vector – but nothing too concrete. Often the first scene – where a faction offers the score – is the only fully-prepped scene in the session, and this is where this tends to come out.

To tell the truth, sometimes I follow this process, and sometimes I just write a con pitch-style overview for the score. Generally the secrets and factions come out through the rest of the process.

One or Two Locations, Plenty of Characters

You’ll need to think about the main location where you expect play to take place, and you’ll need a cast of characters for the PCs to interact with. Generally I’ll try and prep more NPCs than I need so I can throw extra ones in when needed – and in an ongoing game those leftover characters will just reappear later. I use something like the Gauntlet’s 7-3-1 technique for this, and 7 is a good number total for these things.

In particular, having a way to portray NPCs at the table is really useful to make them more interesting – it’s only at the am-dram level, we’re not Critical Role – but it really helps to model a little bit of in-character dialogue from the players as well.

Moments

Moments are your Batman Utility-Belt of cool descriptions – including shark-repellant spray!

Moments is an idea lifted directly from Trophy – I think – although other Gauntlet games feature them now, and they’re a great idea. Basically, they’re background, system and setting neutral-ish things that happen to reinforce the tone and style of the game. If that sounds too fancy, these were what I had for an Infirmary raid score in Blades a few weeks ago:

  • A scream from a nearby room as a pair of drunken Billhooks play a deadly game of amateur surgery on one another and come running out
  • A covered body that appears to still be breathing
  • A neatly arranged table of surgical tools and chemicals
  • A panicked orderly desperately trying to ignore the chaos around them
  • Rows and rows of Bluecoats setting up to raid the Skovlanders

They don’t have to be amazingly original or interesting, but they help you to come up with something that gives the locations and setting more verisimilitude as you play without requiring boxed-text style prep.

So, with a score/opening scene, some locations and characters, and a few moments, you should be good to go. Extras to consider are – if you haven’t already covered them in the score prep – what sort of twists could arrive to complicate matters, and what secrets about their target could be revealed. Usually when I use this method, these come out organically from the locations and characters as I think about their motivations. What other prep techniques have you used for FITD / PBTA / other more loosely controlled systems?

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

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

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

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

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

The Previous-Quest-Maguffin

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

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

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

Trapped in the Tomb

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

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

The Contest

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

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

In Medias Res-ervoir Dogs

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

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

Zombies Attack!

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

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

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

How to Play One-Shots

Looking on the horizon to the tentative return of in-person conventions, it’s worth talking about how to be a good player at a convention. As I’ve said before, in order to run good one-shots, the best thing you can do is play lots of them, and I certainly try to have a 50% running / 50% playing in my campaign and one-shot play (current 2021 figures show a 49%/51% running/playing split, which I can live with!)

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

A convention is a great opportunity to experience different GMing styles, see a system in action, and consider how you would run a similar game – and it’s great to try to be the best players we can be. So, here goes – my top 5 tips to be a great player in a one-shot TTRPG.

Be Prepared

Standard stuff here: arrive on time, talk to the other players, introduce yourself and them, try to make the start of the game as smooth as it can be. I know GMs should do this as well, but your GM has the next three hours to worry about as well, so cut them some slack if they don’t remember everything – pick up the slack.

An empty game table with lots of dice, notes, character sheets, card names, and D&D books
Don’t rely on the DM to bring all those dice!

Bring pencils, dice, that sort of thing. Be helpful about suggesting breaks – it can be difficult to read the energy of the table if you’re GMing. In terms of rules, if you’re familiar, feel free to suggest – but remember it’s the GMs game. If there’s a fumble for a ruling, or a need to look stuff up – volunteer to do it, or if you’ve a suggested fix, suggest it – you can help to keep the pace flowing. If you know the system, you can always volunteer to track initiative or do any of those little housekeeping things that come up sometimes.

Be a Good Plot-Hook Doggo

I went through a six month period of running a lot of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4e (WHFRP) at cons when it first came out. I always included a rat catcher in the pregens, as a nod to a classic WFRP trope – they begin play with a “small but vicious dog.” I didn’t realise until I started running, but that dog was a godsend. Any time the players needed a nudge in the direction of plot, their dog would run off – often after real or imagined sausages (lean into the tropes, everyone).

And as a player, you should be that dog. Tilt for likely plot hooks – don’t turtle, and pull your fellow PCs with you. Presented with a hook, your job is to wolf it down and try and swallow the fishing line, and don’t hold back. Pursue where you think the plot is aggressively, and you’ll help everyone at the table.

Play Up

“Playing Up” is a concept from LARP about supporting other players by giving them cool opportunities to shine. You ask the other character questions, try to give them opportunities to show their character off, make the spotlight time for them.

One of the hardest things to encourage as a con GM is speaking in character – take this on-board and help to encourage it. Rather than comment on what your character sees, ask another PC about it. Do the same in combat, too – speak while doing your action in-character to make your spotlight shine, and suggest tactics in-character (if it’s that sort of game).

Have A Shtick

Similar to this, it helps to have a “shtick” for your PC – pick up on a roleplaying quirk like you would an NPC and lean into it a little. It’s unlikely to be annoying over the three hours as long as you keep pointing towards the plot, and it will encourage everyone else to bring something to the game as well.

Standard improv advice says, incidentally, to always do the obvious thing unless you’ve got an obviously better idea – so do this. Orcs burst through the door – attack them! Your other players can be the voices of reason – be prepared to tilt at windmills.

Show You’re Having Fun

Listen actively – especially if online, smile and nod, and help to bring some energy to the table. Look, I know at F2F cons this can be difficult on the second or third day, when sleep deprivation and the energy of running games and drinking beer hits – but you’ve been there as a GM when the table looks back at you like they’d rather be asleep. Help you GM out by showing enthusiasm and responding positively to his ideas, especially at the start. GMing at cons is hard – the best of us get nervous about it at the time. So help them out by being the best player you can be.

There you go, five tips to be a better player. What would you add to this? Let me know in the comments or at @milnermaths.

Review: Mythic Odysseys of Theros

So, continuing on from reviews of Ravnica and Eberron, here’s D&D’s latest setting sourcebook. Theros, apparently, is a setting from Magic: The Gathering that’s a Mythic Greece style fantasy. I’ve written here before about how good this setting is for fantasy (see my review of Agon here), so it’s interesting to see how Wizards have transplanted this to D&D.

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The Fluff

Theros map

Map of Theros from the MTG wiki

First up, I must admit I’m a fan of these Magic setting books. They carry their content in a much more manageable way – there aren’t bags and bags of setting history to digest, and the areas covered are more modest. For campaigns as well as one-shots, I like the focus that provides.

The key conceit of Theros is that the Gods take a great personal interest in the heroes and villains of the Mortal Realm – and indeed, travel beyond the Mortal Realm is relatively easy.

The Gods correspond to the Greek pantheon, although everything has been slightly changed – I’m not sure if I’d rather have the original group, although they’ve added some twists to make each one have potential as a patron and an antagonist and give them some flavorful hooks and details. Like Ravnica’s guilds, each God gets a section looking at potential adventures involving them, with a linked map of their temple that could be an encounter location. This is an excellent presentation decision – show don’t tell your setting to GMs! As I’ve said before, I’m also all in favor of D&D moving towards random tables for everything – it’s a neat presentation choice, even if you pick from them.

There’s a discussion of Omens as well, and some other similar background touches in the setting. Particularly interesting are the Returned, the dead who’ve escaped the Underworld, left with few memories of their previous lives, and no faces – they wear ornate golden masks to deal with mortals. It’s refreshing to find a new take on the undead, and – given their memories also haunt the world as Eidolons – a great opportunity for plot.

The Returned feature in the sample adventure, too – which is, I have to say, an absolute corker. A action-packed start, a range of encounters that could be solved by combat or roleplay in different interesting ways, and a hook for the next stage. A little tweaking would make it an excellent one-shot.

The Crunch

Mythic Odysseys of Theros coverFirst up, the new rules stuff – well, apart from humans you have centaurs, satyrs, tritons, minotaurs, and leonine (cat-people, like Tabaxi but significantly less annoying) – each gets the full treatment and goes a long way towards making Theros feel different, even though I’m pretty sure they could have snuck some dwarves in. There’s an extra Bard College (Eloquence), a Paladin Oath (Glory), and an additional Backgroun (Athlete) as well.

Each PC also has a Supernatural Gift, in addition to their Background, which shows how the god have touched them. These are great, and at 1st level give a significant boost to make players more heroic – they include the Anvilwrought – you were crafted in Purphoros’ (Hephaestus) Forge, so appear as a metallic creature, or the Unscarred – like Haktos (Achilles) you’re resistant to physical damage.

It’s assumed that heroes will follow one of the Gods, and there’s a system for them advancing in powers as they gain Piety – a measure which increases and decreases as they follow their God’s whims. I’m not quite as keen on this – it strays close to “good roleplaying” doggy biscuits, and leans a bit on DM judgement, and to not encourage difficult player behavior – this feels a bit looser than I’m used to from D&D.

The One-Shot

I think this is an excellent setting for a one-shot, and the heavy focus on heroes as devotees of the Gods provides keen hooks to motivate them. The Greek focus provides a good bank of tropes players can lean into, and the Gods’ attentions can lead them into all sorts of trouble, from a simple “slay the hydra” plot to more political machinations in the polis presented.

Crucially for D&D settings, it’s sufficiently distinct from Greyhawk / Forgotten Realms/ etc. to feel like a change of scenery. This would be an excellent setting for a break from your regular game or to offer at a game day (virtual or real) where there will be a lot of D&D-focused players there. As I mentioned before, the starter adventure provides an excellent structure for a one-shot, too, with multiple resolution methods for each encounter. If nothing else, I’ll be stealing the encounter with Broken King Antigonos – no spoilers, but he might be my favourite NPC in a published 1st level adventure.

So, I’d heartily recommend Theros, for high fantasy Greek-inspired derring-do. And while honestly I’d be happy with Dark Sun getting the 5e treatment, I’m really enjoying the MTG settings that are being put out by Wizards. Grognards need to stop bitching about Dragonlance and Birthright and embrace the new D&D settings coming out – they bring something genuinely different to the game.

Do This, First – 5 ways to improve your one-shot during prep

In this post, I gave 5 things to do while running your one-shot to improve it. In this post, I’m going to give 5 tips to do before you play – during your prep, whether its for a convention, meetup, or just as a change of pace from your usual game. I’ve posted before about prep, where I tried to split it into three stages – the advice sits around all these stages, and is applicable if you’re taking a different approach.

Start With Pregens

Thugs by Jonny Gray

An evocative group of pregens can really make your game pop – art by Jonny Gray

Early on in your prep, if it’s a new game in particular, you should be thinking about the characters you’ll have in the game. If this is your first time with the system, you can use this to get your head around the rules as well – character generation usually gives some indication of what different skills and approaches are, and it’ll help when you come to plot out your game.

I wrote more about pregens here, if you want more advice on making strong pregenerated characters.

Get The Rules Right

If I’m running a game for the first time, for all but the simplest games I like to do a one-sheet of notes of the basic rules, just to help me internalize them. Running a one-shot, you’ll usually have to do some teaching of the rules unless you’re running a really popular game, so you need to know them well enough to explain them to your group. Making notes really helps.

If it’s a particularly complex game, I’ll often run myself through a mock-up conflict as well, just to familiarize myself with how combat (especially) flows. I’ll take two or three of the pregens I’ve just made, and try to run them through a quick battle to internalise the structure of actions.

Also, see here for more notes on running crunchy games.

Structure Your Notes

I’ve said it before, looking at published adventures for sample structures for one-shots isn’t a good idea. Preparing a game for publication and preparing it for play are two different things – in fact if I’m running a published adventure I’ll usually write down some bullet points even if I’m going to have the text in front of me.

I talked about a structure for notes here which I know some others have found useful, but really it’s as much as this

  • Have a well-prepared start and (potential) climax
  • Have a list of cool things that can happen between them
  • Have a list of NPCs with any brief notes you’ll need to differentiate them.

The last one is vital for me. I tend to lose track of NPCs when I’m running, and so I over-prep to make sure I know where they are and what their relationship to the plot is.

Check for Skill Matching

Nobody wants to play a game where their character sucks, so first of all, make sure that every pregen is at least broadly competent at the core activity of the adventure. In a Call of Cthulhu game, none of your pregens should have no ways to investigate and follow up leads, and in an F20 game it’s taken as read that everyone can fight well.

But look a bit closer at the secondary skills that your PCs have, and see if there are opportunities to put them into the game. Likewise, look at the challenges you’ve put into each scene and see if there’s an obvious pregen that can show their skills off in that challenge – you can adjust in either direction to help.

I posted about this – the “three-skill trick” here in more detail.

Check for Plot Matching

For one-shots, I’m a huge fan of having a heavy incentive on following the plot for the whole group, but look to make threads that tie individual pregens into the adventure as well. The fighter’s parents were kidnapped when they were a child? Make it the evil baron who did it, so when they meet him in the finale they’ve got a hook to hang on. A pregen has a long-lost sister? Make them a helpful  NPC they’ll meet along the way – or the evil sorceress serving the aforementioned baron.

As with skill matching, this can be done in either direction – but try to find a thread to link each pregen to the plot so that they get a good chance to advance their own personal story as well as that of the game. This helps to ground them in the setting, so things happen before and after the game, and make the one-shot feel more like a slice of something bigger.

Think and Dream

Alongside the 5 tips above, there’s the core activity of prep – thinking of scenes and challenges that make for an exciting game. Give yourself time to think of these – prep can just as well be done in the shower or while out running as you dream and percolate ideas in your head – just remember to write them down before you forget them!

With these, you’ve got a good chance at making any one-shot really sing. If you want tips to do during play, see this post. If you want to listen to me talking about some of these techniques, I was on the Smart Party podcast talking to Gaz about one-shots here.

I’m going to be doing some more system-specific posts over the next few weeks – as always, if there’s something you’d like to see more (or less) of, get in touch in comments here or on twitter (@milnermaths).

What Year Is It? – Running Historical RPG One-Shots

1066 calendar

1066 calendar from timeanddate.com – I’d maybe run it through Photoshop before using it in a game

Historical one-shots are something I’ve historically (ha) avoided playing (and running) at conventions. Too much risk of experts, or historical diversions, or putting accuracy ahead of fun. But recently (inspired by an excellent Mythic Babylon game from @thetweedmeister) I’ve begun dipping my toe into them again, helped by the realisation that Glorantha is to all intents and purposes a historical setting given the wealth of detail about its timeline.

 

I think at the outset I should say that historical gaming should emulate historical fiction, not actual history. History, inconveniently, doesn’t even fit into the pattern of an ongoing RPG campaign, much less a one-shot. It helps to think of each session as a TV series episode, with a tightly-defined arc in its 3-4 hour time-frame. Where historical games help with one-shots is that they can set your one-shot in something bigger – there’s stuff happening before and after the game, and it’s easy to see where the characters and plots go next when the game is over.

And while we’re on the subject, think carefully about how to handle the more problematic elements of historical settings. If you want to include the sexism, racism or homophobia of a historical setting in your game, I guess that’s your business, but please don’t do it anywhere near my table. Most historical periods were much more diverse and varied than some corners of the RPG hobby would have you believe, anyway.

Do Your – Minimum – Research

In no way do you need to be the smartest person in the room, but at a convention or other one-shot, if you know nothing about the period of history your game is set in, you’re going to come undone at some point. You are probably going to have to read the sourcebook before play – in a way that you probably don’t have to if you’re running a game in a fantastical setting.

Before getting too far into research, remember you really do only need broad brush strokes. Also, research doesn’t just mean boring old books. There are history podcasts you can listen to while doing other things, and TV series are often better for a feel of historical fiction than actual history. If you’re going to run Duty & Honour, watching a few episodes of Sharpe will help you much more than reading accounts of the Peninsula War. If you want to run Hunters of Alexandria, you’d do as well to play some Assassin’s Creed: Origins to get a feel for the city and its opportunities for adventure.

Additionally, it probably helps to own your inaccuracies – check at the start of the game if you have any period experts in (it’s likely you could have, if you’ve advertised the game for sign-ups at a con) and ask them to add flavour/colour, but not to go on historical divergences until after the game. I’ve heard of using an H-Card (as well as an X-Card) for historical off-game chat, which is an interesting idea – you need to remember that the game is the primary thing, not the history lesson.

Pick Your Game For The Genre You Want

There are lots of historical RPGs out there – make sure you pick a game where the system supports the kind of play you want. If you want to run a one-shot in the Dark Ages, then Age of Arthur, Mythic Britain, and Wolves of God will all give very different play experiences, even with the same basic scenario. There’s nothing to stop you, of course, using a generic system with a play style you enjoy, and adapting it – and there are some excellent historical setting books, the pick of which are the GURPS sourcebooks and Design Mechanism’s Mythic Earth series. Dark Ages Savage Worlds, anyone?

Points of Divergence

If you’re running a historical game on Earth, you probably do need to know what year it is. Those enormous timelines that setting books have – pick a year and find something interesting that the PCs can act around.

Think of this point as a point of divergence. Before that, history was as it is in the timeline described – scholars today would recognize the world. From the moment that play starts, though, that needs to change. Put the PCs right in the center of the action – they might not be working directly for the King or leading the armies, but their actions will certainly affect the outcomes of these events, and might leave the world looking very different.

Don’t Spectate

Along similar lines, the PCs should be actively doing things. Nobody wants to watch the pyramids being built – the PCs should be negotiating with laborers and work-gangs, protecting the site from evil spirits, and dealing with betrayal and uprisings. If the pyramids are already there, they should be dueling bandits on the slopes, or heading into the tombs to work out what has escaped from them and whether it needs banishing.

It can be tempting to site the one-shot a long way from recorded history, to protect the timeline, but I tend to think that if you’re running history you should put some history in it. So don’t be afraid to introduce historical figures (and don’t give them any plot protection – let your PCs kill Caesar and win the hand of the princess – just not in the same game).

With all that in mind, I’m thinking of stretching my games out into the historical waters for some of my one-shot offerings now. Thanks to everyone on Twitter who offered their advice on this, by the way – you’ll be first in line when I get some online one-shot offerings prepped up!

D&D One-Shots Done Right – Review: Uncaged, volume 1

If there’s one thing that is like looking for a needle in a haystack, it’s decent one-shots for D&D 5th edition. There are hundreds of them out there on DMs Guild, but picking through them to find those with good quality and the style of play that I like is a challenge. After I spent last summer running D&D one-shots, I’ve kept D&D as a regular source of one-shot fun, particularly for newcomers to the hobby (read the posts linked above for my reasoning why I think D&D is right for this).

Uncaged CoverSo, there’s Uncaged (this review is of Volume 1 – there are now three more volumes). From it’s own product description, it’s a set of folklore-themed adventures that “subvert tropes around female mythological creatures.” If that sounds a bit complex, in layman’s terms each adventure is focused around a female creature of myth, and does interesting stuff with them.

So there’s a hag adventure, a lamia adventure, a banshee adventure, and so forth. RPGs have had, and continue to have, some issues with representation, so this is a great concept for a product – a book around female monsters produced by a team of female writers and artists.

In volume 1 there are a total of 26 adventures – 14 Tier 1, 7 Tier 2, 4 Tier 3 and a single Tier 1. I’m not surprised that there are more for lower tiers, and that suits me to be fair.

The Fluff

First out, these are proper one-shots. They’re each 2-4 hours of play, and contain just enough setting to make sense. The advantage of this is that they can be slotted in anywhere – I’d put some of these in to Ravnica or Eberron without any trouble at all – which makes them useful as drop-in adventures. In some cases, the setting is pretty integral to the adventure, so this makes them harder to drop into an ongoing campaign, but it’s great if you’re looking for one-shots.

Because of this, though, it helps when you run it to try and embed the PCs into the adventure and setting a bit deeper – I’ve used Backstory cards when I’ve run them to make sure the PCs feel like they have a shared past. It’s also a good opportunity to share out some of the fleshing out of the stuff that isn’t always in the adventures – in case they encounter some town guards, the PC who used to be in them can describe how the guards work in this city.

Each adventure comes with a featured piece of art, and the book is nicely laid out without being too fussy – there’s also a printer friendly version of each adventure you can print out individually to have at the table, and separate files for player maps. There’s a hardcopy POD option from Drivethru, but I haven’t explored that yet – I just downloaded the .pdf. Also worth noting that any content warnings are up front at the start of each adventure, again really useful if you’re running one-shots for people you don’t know.

The Crunch

First up, although the adventures are all by different authors, and there’s a refreshing diversity in their plot structure, they are generally excellent. None of these are dungeon-crawling adventures, and all involve investigation and roleplaying, presented in an easy-to-use way with skill DCs up-front and clear. The adventures aren’t long, either – and they have had a solid edit to take out any unnecessary waffle.

There is combat in them (this is D&D after all), but the conclusion of an adventure is as likely to be a negotiation or compromise, or discovering a secret, as a pitched battle. The combat encounters, in the ones that I’ve run (all Tier 1), have been balanced and fair for D&D5e – which is to say, I’d recommend running the CR numbers through the D&D system and beefing them up a bit. In most of the adventures there are, at most, 2-3 combat encounters, so you might want to make key battles more challenging. Likewise, some of the adventures have adjustments for different level parties, while some are just for the set level stated – all are easy enough to adjust up and down.

There’s also quite a few bits where skills are tested and investigations take place. This is an opportunity, if you’re inclined, to try out one of the skill challenge systems here – how they are presented in each adventure varies.

The One-Shot

This is a really good book if you want to run D&D one-shots. Particularly for new players, they showcase the social interaction aspect of play really well, in a way that can be missing in more ‘traditional’ D&D adventures – it is one of the three pillars of D&D play after all. Because they are tightly presented and edited, they are also easy to disassemble, rearrange, and adapt. In all honesty, many of these would be excellent run with different systems as well – and easy to adapt.

So far, I’ve run Maid in Waterdeep (level 1), Lai of the Sea Hag (level 2) – twice, and A Wild Hunt (level 2) – and all have been really satisfying. A Wild Hunt features the kumiho, shapeshifting fox-women from Korean folklore, and manages to make them both frightening and sympathetic.

Fully recommended – and I’m sure the other 3 anthologies are similar. These are also an excellent source of plots and explorations of creatures for systems other than D&D, which is testament to its quality. A great source of one-shot D&D adventures – and a great toolkit to pull apart and reuse in pieces too.