One-Hour One-Shots: Starfinder: Into the Unknown

SF into the unknown picI’ve blogged before here about trying to prep and deliver an effective one-hour introductory game (and attempted to use the #1H1S abbreviation!), so I was pleasantly surprised to find out about the Starfinder Quests packaged together as Into the Unknown (ITU). The link takes you to Paizo’s website, but it’s a free download, and it’s worth a look even if you’re not keen on Starfinder (although you shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it) – as we’ll talk about hereĀ (If you want to see another example of a #1H1S, written by yours truly, head to D101 games and download (also free) Bite of The Crocodile God, my 1-hour game for Hunters of Alexandria).

The product consists of five linked adventures (“Quests”) designed to take an hour of game time for five 1st-level characters (and of course there are pregens available separately – along with some useful guidance about what starship roles they will be most effective at in the ship combats.

The adventures are simple and straightforward – three are ground combats with a mixture of exploration/investigation, and two are starship battles. I can see why Starfinder wants to show off its space combat, but I’d imagine these are the weakest to run on their own – they do just consist of a battle against another starship with a bit of plot context (and it doesn’t sell me on Starfinder – although the system is I’m sure fun – that these will take an hour on their own!)

If I was to run a few of them in sequence, the first three, in which the PCs follow a trail of clues (and a starship battle) to discover a missing starship, is a great 3-hour set, and if you were to run one on its own as a one-hour game, the first one would work well – there’s a good opportunity for roleplay as well as an interesting but relatively simple (as in complexity, not challenge) combat. It’s a good, tight design, and I’ll be stealing the structure to plot out similar traditional games for #1H1S.

Stick to One Set-Piece – but Seed with Roleplaying

With any kind of crunchy system (and see this post for more generic advice), in an hour you will only tackle one rules-heavy scene. That probably means if you’re planning one #1H1S, it’ll be a combat, so try and make it challenging and interesting and build stuff around it. For instance, in ITU’s first quest Station, there’s a neat investigation with an NPC leading to the confrontation, and probably an interrogation afterwards – so the combat is set in a context that justifies it.

Highlight the Best Crunch of the Game

As above, this is likely to be combat, but if you’re allowing yourself the luxury of a set of #1H1S games to piece together, you might like to expand. For instance, if I was planning something with Modiphius’ Star Trek Adventures (and I really should, given the popularity of the franchise), I’d probably want to include some sort of Extended Task scientific challenge for one of the segments – my scenes probably have a starship combat, a science-y extended task, and a ground combat – and maybe another extended task which is a negotiation or similar.

Either way, think about the rules you are showcasing as you prep. I’m sure that the Starship combat is deliberately showcased in ITU, which is why 2 whole Quests consist of an extended space battle. In other games, you might want to show how great social conflict can be (Burning Wheel springs to mind) – so include it if you can.

Episode it up and embrace the railroad

There’s a lot of guff spoken about railroading, especially when it comes to one-shot play, and even more if you’ve only got an hour to play with. Yes, in an extended campaign, forcing your players’ hands either explicitly or on the sly is certainly not good practice, but it’s necessary – advantageous even – in a one-shot to guide the players towards the good bits.

Also, try and make each #1H1S a complete and distinct chapter. This isn’t always easy, and it’s a stretch for some of ITU’s sections (I’ll come back again to the starship combat sections – yes, starship combat is a neat system in Starfinder, but I can’t see why you wouldn’t just play X-Wing for an hour if that was your jam).

Go forth and #1H1S

I must admit, since posting about them last year, I was a bit stymied about the #1H1S project – but finding ITU has got me seriously thinking about them now. Watch this space for further developments – and probably ready-to-play modules – and feel free to comment or contact me to suggest or request systems. As I said, Star Trek Adventures feels like a good fit for it. And let me know if you’re doing anything with them yourselves!

Review: Starfinder – or, how I learned to stop worrying and love d20 again

I’ve been sniffy about Pathfinder for years, and I have to admit it’s jealousy. I played, and ran, a ton of D&D3.5 back in the day, but Pathfinder’s release coincided with me finding other gamers to play with whose tastes were broader and more in tune with my own expectations of gaming – I was discovering Fiasco, playing Spirit of the Century for the first time. Why, I asked myself, would I ever go back to counting squares and moving minis? And it simmered inside me as I watched game store shelves groan under their beautiful books with their great artwork and, and… And so many Pathfinder players seemed to play only Pathfinder, I couldn’t help but feel a bit above them – what did they know of shared imagined spaces, or GM-full improv techniques, or the freewheeling narration of 13th Age between-combat montages?

But last week, I bought Starfinder. And it’s great. So many of my feelings towards its fantasy forerunner, I realise, are unjustified. So, if you’re like me and haven’t touched d20 with a bargepole since you started buying FATE dice and freewheeling narration, here are 5 reasons you should give Starfinder a whirl:

1: The gonzo gauge is carefully calibrated

Okay, science fantasy is inherently gonzo. Do you come down on the He Man side (for which you’ll be looking at Master of Umdaar as the ideal game), or do you try for mystery and technology and magic as interchangeable (it’s post-apocalypse, but Numenera is probably the gold standard for getting this right). Starfinder walks a careful path between these – yes, it’s got magic and technomancy and priesthoods and, er, space goblins, but it’s also got a consistent background that makes these fit together in a somewhat-logical way.

Paizo did excellently with Pathfinder in reinventing a kitchen-sink D&D world in Golarion, and by setting Starfinder in Golarion’s far future they leave the door open for Pathfinder monsters to be used/adapted as well. They have space-elves, space-dwarves, and such, but wisely put them at the back of the book, leaving their more sci-fi themed races at the start. There are half-human Androids, insectoid Shirrens, and anthropomorphic rats called Ysoki, among others. The Ysoki can store small items in their cheek pouches; they do bring to mind the legendary Giant Space Hamsters of 2nd Ed. AD&D’s Spelljammer setting (talking of gonzo…), and for me that’s a good thing.

2: Everything else in the game is carefully calibrated

When Paizo set out to make Pathfinder, they took D&D3.5 and fixed it, trying to make it smoother and cleaner. Smoother I’m not sure, but it is perfectly balanced. They’ve changed a few things in Starfinder (like having Hit Points and Stamina Points, and giving equipment levels) – but it all fits together lovingly. Yes, there are those that will obsess over builds, trying to find the most powerful game-breaking character, but the fact that this generates so much discussion just goes to show how tightly balanced it generally is. While it’s not quite mastery-proof, with a little common-sense it looks to be very difficult to accidentally generate a significantly sub-optimal character.

And the classes look fun. There are Solarians, who generate spectral weaponry and armour, and Mechanics who all get funky drones to follow them around and do their bidding. It’s fantasy, so the Mystic and Technomancer are classes too. PCs get to choose Themes as well, which add another layer to the character so that several different options exist for similar characters.

3: You don’t have to use minis and count squares

This is one of the best-kept secrets of Pathfinder. It is entirely possible to play Pathfinder, and by extension Starfinder, without using miniatures or a grid. Just replace it with, well, common sense. A rough idea of encounter ranges helps, as does players who are happy with this approach, but it’s easy to negotiate, for instance, how many opponents are in an area of effect attack or whether you are flanking an opponent.

Obviously, you lose a bit of tactical grit if you do this, but you have to make the judgement that you do gain a bit more narrative flexibility with this system – I guess it goes down to how you picture a combat in your mind, and having minis and squares can help that in some ways, or hinder it in others. But genuinely, if the grid is the problem, trust me and try it without.

4: You can totally use minis and count squares

If you haven’t seen the Pathfinder Pawn collections, they are a great idea. You get a box of thick card standees with bases, and Paizo has started producing Pawn sets for its Adventure Paths as well… so if you want to run through one of its campaigns you can get the standees for everything the PCs are likely to face in the adventure. It’s cheap, easy, and all you need is one of those roll-up latex mats and some OHP pens and you can get your mapping on. The first Pawn collection for Starfinder is out now, and I’m sure Paizo will continue to support them. Worth noting that you can get the Pathfinder ones pretty cheap on Amazon and Ebay if you keep an eye out for them.

5: It can be played one-shot

The default play style for D&D 3.5, and by extension Pathfinder, was the long campaign. The progression from 1st to 20th level was carefully mapped out, and for me this meant that one-shot play was off the table. Another factor was the general encounter approach – which focused on lots of small encounters to wear down player resources without many big, dangerous fights.

Just a few tweaks can make it much more one-shot friendly though. Getting rid of the minis and maps helps if you’re cool with that, for a start. Reducing the number of fights, and making them each more challenging, is a good idea, as is having plenty of skill-based encounters – which of course is a little easier in a science fantasy setting than a dungeon-crawling fantasy one. I’d also ditch 1st level too; the sweet spots for one-shot play are about 3rd-8th level in D&D, and I’m sure Starfinder will be the same. You can, of course, use the collapsible dungeon advice from this blog to make sure you keep to time, and I’d recommend following the advice for crunchy games here.

So, you can probably expect to see some content for Starfinder appearing on here. I’ll begin hawking it at conventions, and Go Play Leeds – and especially at North Star, a newly-birthed Science Fiction RPG con in Sheffield next year. What do you think? Have I been charmed by the high production values and anthropomorphic hamsters? Or is there something in this? If it helps, the .pdf is only $9.99 at the moment from Paizo… although you’ll want the big, shiny print version once you see it.

Review: Fate Worlds – Camelot Trigger

Questing knights fight a posthuman AI threat across the solar system in this Fate World that sets gonzo to Flash-Gordonesque and gives a great mixture of options at a carefully curated level of complexity. Detailed exploration of the Arthurian legends this is not – think of changing the names to be more sci-fi (or more Paranoia – you’ll see) and adding in giant armour. This Fate World came out pretty early and is, I think, only available in the Volume Two: Worlds in Shadow anthology, and I’m kicking myself I didn’t give it a proper read through earlier.

The Fluff – Arthurian Knights… in spaaaaace!

When insane AI MerGN-A attacked Earth, humanity was scattered and defeated until John Arthur found MerLN, another AI, and worked together to turn the tide of conflict. Now Arthur, Valerie Le Guin, and (wait for it) L4-NC3-L07 lead brave knights in giant mecha suits crossing the solar system trying to fight the remnants of MerGN-A’s hidden base and defeat her remaining Exurgent armies. As I said, Pendragon in mecha this is not.

There’s lots to do, all described in enough detail to get you there and going – Mars is a manufactory dedicated to war machines, with arenas where hopeful knights can battle it out, the Asteroid belt is home to brigands and Edge Knights who have been cast out – maybe because of chivalrous misdeeds – and Saturn is wealthy and successful but refuses to acknowledge Arthur’s claim to the throne. Each planet gets a paragraph of description, and each has lots of plot hooks – there’s a reason why adventurous knights would go to each one, and what problems they could find there.

It’s a great setting, if it could just get past those clunky names. L4-NC3-L07, apparently, has kept the alphanumeric name he had as a slave in honour of all those beaten down, and… well, it’s my one problem with the setting. How do you say it? I’m guessing like “Lancelot.” So why not call him Lancelot? What’s wrong with the AIs being called Morgana and Merlin? It’s not like the original IP is in copyright. Other conceits – like Knights usually inheriting their Armour, and so keeping heraldic designations on them – feel like they fit the setting, but the names just grate for me.

The Crunch – Giant Mecha Combat Rules!

There’s an allure now about new FATE supplements as the rules have evolved to cover lots of different scenarios, whether it’s steampunk combat that actually gives great rules for Age of Sail ship battles, or trapped-in-a-flooding-room traps that emulate the best pulp scenarios, and it’s wise to remember that Camelot Trigger came out relatively early in FATE’s lifetime. Nevertheless, the mecha rules are refreshingly smooth, giving just enough complexity without adding too much handling time.

Your Armour has systems (normally 5, one in each body location) that can have either skills – which replace the pilot’s skill if it is less – or stunts, which function just like stunts in regular FATE. You use your pilot’s stress tracks, but can shut down systems on your Armour like Consequences to avoid them. You might be accompanied by air support, in which case you’ll get some extra stress boxes – it’s all very streamlined and simple, and actually makes me want to see it in action. There’s a very sensible discussion on scale where humans are fighting Armour – that it should be resolved as a contest and not as a combat encounter, and a reminder that chivalry means this is unlikely to happen in an open battle. There’s a whole pack of sample Armours, as well, which neatly show off how the design system works, and rules for tweaking it to allow transforming mecha and combination mecha.

The One-Shot – Knights or Lords?

This game would work great as a one-shot – the setting is complex and weird while still having enough classic tropes to get players on board quickly. There’s loads to do and I can easily see a range of missions for a group of questing knights. But the game also includes write-ups for Arthur, Valerie (the Guinevere analogue), L4-NC3-L07, and MerLN – and I can see a great one-shot where 4 players each play one of these big movers and shakers in the setting dealing with MorGN-A’s return. It’s rare that I read a setting and want to jump in so immediately – again, I’m disappointed this has been sat on my bookshelf unplayed for so long!