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 here (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!

Hillfolk One-Shots

Hillfolk_Cover_reduced1Hillfolk is an amazing RPG. I’ve normally got a bit of a problem with what can be seen as “stone soup” RPGs, where the mechanics are limited to almost nothing, but there are two exceptions I make. One is Fiasco, where the complete absence of a resolution mechanic forces players into a hard director stance – you’ve got to embrace the feel of the films you are emulating and push your protagonists into difficult situations. And the other is Hillfolk. Hillfolk is a quieter, more contemplative kind of game; every time I’ve run it we’ve hit pathos, character development, and difficult decisions. And it does that because you don’t have to think about hit points.

 

It’s also a game that, unusually, benefits from a larger player group than I’d normally pick (I think the sweet spot is 5-6), and is explicitly designed for campaign play. But, like every game designed for campaign play (see my series on Powered by the Apocalypse games), with a few tweaks and procedures you can get a satisfying one-shot experience from it.

Skip Character Generation

Character generation in Hillfolk is awesome. It’s a whole session of setting up your series, where you’ll develop themes, dramatic poles, and potential story arcs. It takes a full 3-4 hour session. It does not benefit from being shortened. Instead, I’d recommend skipping it and setting up a tight initial situation yourself. There’s loads of information in the Series Pitches supplied with the game to develop your own with a little research, or there are some great ones already done. If you’re looking to run your first Hillfolk one-shot, I can’t recommend enough picking up Jon Cole’s character packs from the Pelgrane website (here, towards the end of Forms). There’s also a set of playbooks for The Secret of Warlock Mountain on the same site. And tons of advice and support; seriously worth a read.

Start with the Ensemble

Begin with a scene where (much like my advice for Urban Shadows) all the protagonists are present, and a looming threat emerges. This helps to coalesce the players towards working in one direction, even if PvP develops naturally. The classic Hillfolk set-up is that a nearby village has burned down your grain store, or the ailing Chief seeks a successor, but you can pick your own for the Series Pitch of your design. For my Hollywoodland game, I start with a party with all the protagonists present and have a police chief (either Charles Sebastian, or, if he’s a PC, a rival cop) shut it down and state that with the mayoral run coming up they’ll be coming down hard on the drugs and booze excesses of the movie industry. Depending on their reaction, one or two of them could get arrested, and you’re good to go. My own Hollywoodland start-up is a bit less flexible than the two examples linked, but that’s in part because the players are portraying real(ish) historical figures.

Listen, Prompt, Be a Fan

Because scene calling happens in rotation, your players will need to be ready to call the next scene. Give them the time and space to do this, and try not to prompt them too hard – I try to repeat the classic improv mantra that the most obvious thing to do is usually the best thing, and that they needn’t try to be original or flashy – the awesome will come naturally. If other players aren’t convinced of this, model it – be a fan of everyone’s scenes, and if you have players who haven’t played before you’ll see them blossom before you as they grow into the system, even if they’ve never played before.

Sample Set-Up

Here’s my own set-up for a Hollywoodland one-shot. Hollywoodland is a series pitch by Jason Morningstar set in the incipient movie industry of 1914.

I hope it’s useful to you, either to run yourself (and let me know how it goes!) or as a model for how to develop a one-shot set of characters for Hillfolk. I’ve tried to include as much detail as I can while still leaving the overall plot and scenes up to the players – there are scene notes and ideas for what to do to further their interests, and enough imbalanced relationships to hopefully lead to some slow-burn confrontations.

Bear in mind that the set-up can go to some difficult places, particularly if the film Birth of a Nation ends up being a backdrop, so I’d strongly recommend using an X-Card with this game (and almost any game with shared narrative authority that has any chance of similar things happening).

Afterword

I’ve got a few one-shot advice posts up now – for Dungeon WorldThe ‘Hood, Fate, Urban Shadows – as well as a piece on general “crunchy system” prep. I’ve got one-shot advice posts for 7th Sea (2nd edition) and 13th Age in the pipeline already, and I’m running Tenra Bansho Zero next month and will certainly blog about that, but I’m open to requests – what systems (even those that everybody says never work in a one-shot) would you like to hear about? Just tweet me or put it in the comments section.

Dungeon World One-Shots

Edit: If you’re interested in an actual real-life one-shot set-up, my Forest of Doom setup is available here.

 

I’m mid-way between running a Dungeon World (DW) one-shot, and prepping one at the moment, so I’m thinking a lot about how to make DW hot for one-shot play. John Aegard has some excellent advice here, and I’ve blogged more generally about prepping Powered by the Apocalypse (PBTA) games before, but here’s a few other tips that I’ve developed that are DW-specific. For me, running DW at conventions means I need a bit more meat on the bones of that the PCs will actually do, while still letting them freewheel and develop the narrative situation themselves.

Let them choose

Unlike in other PBTA games, there’s no need to pre-book players in Classes. In other games, the choices they make here have significant impact on the focus of the game and how it plays out – if your Apocalypse World group includes a Hardholder, for instance, you’re going to need to put their settlement front and centre of the action and aggressively threaten and develop it.

In Dungeon World, regardless of the choices made, the players are going to be an adventuring team – so there’s no need to do this. In fact, at the start of play I try to be really explicit that the balance of classes really isn’t important in this game, just to make sure they don’t feel like they need (for instance) a Fighter to tank and a Cleric to heal people. So encourage players to have a free rein in picking their Classes and Races. I tend to restrict mine to the classes in the DW book, just because there’s more than enough there, but if one of the players has a burning desire to play a 3rd-party Class, I’d probably let them.

Pitch your Sitch

For convention games, you usually need to advertise your game in advance, and for that you need to write an exciting teaser trailer for your upcoming game. Get this set in advance and not only can you give your PCs a problem they can’t ignore, but you can also tie them into this story right at the start with link questions.

The game I’m prepping at the moment is riffing off the classic Fighting Fantasy gamebook Forest of Doom by Ian Livingstone, and so to promote my game (and set my situation), I’ve just used the text on the back of the book:

A war is raging and your help is needed to vanquish the evil trolls. To save the dwarfs, you must find the Grand Wizard Yaztromo and track down the pieces of a legendary war hammer lost in the depths of Darkwood Forest, where gruesome monsters lurk.

Now, once this situation is prepared, I write a list of link questions to ask the PCs – at least one per player, but you might want a few more. They ask the PCs about their relationship with this crisis – and allow them to define twists, NPCs, or aspects of the situation within a comfortable framework.

For Forest of Doom, my link questions look like this:

  • You served in the dwarf army before, defending Stonebridge from the trolls. Why did you leave?
  • You’ve wandered Darkwood Forest before. What dangerous beast did you encounter?
  • What have you done to earn the Grand Wizard Yaztromo’s ire?
  • Gillibran, the dwarf leader in Stonebridge, leads a demoralized and divided army. What happened to bring the dwarf military so low?
  • And so on…

I try to make these questions about what has gone before, rather than what is happening now, so that players don’t feel like they might step on narrative toes, and so that I can keep my prep useful. In play, I go through them straight after Bonds.

Fronts, Dangers, and a Map

For a single 2-4 hour one-shot, you’re not going to want more than one Adventure Front. This is the backbone of the adventure, and the closest thing to a pre-determined plot you have. Likewise, your Dangers give structure to the encounters and opposition that the PCs face; without them they might feel they’re aimlessly wandering from monster to monster. For my current prep, that’s pretty much what playing the Forest of Doom gamebook feels like, so I’m especially keen to avoid that!

I’ve not run my Forest of Doom adventure yet, so I’ll publish my Fronts and Dangers separately at a later date to avoid any spoilers for my players, but suffice to say I tend to just follow the procedures on p185 of the DW book, including adding in stakes questions (which might sometimes already be answered by your link questions above).

A lot of the available adventure starters and modules for DW include several Custom Moves for each game. Personally, I try to avoid them – DW does not need new rules for a one-shot. The only time I put them in is when I don’t see an obvious fit with the Basic Moves for how to resolve something – very often one of those moves will fit. They give great flavour in an ongoing game as the party encounters new areas and foes – and ultimately with custom moves, new rules – but I really don’t think they’re necessary in a one-shot.

Forest of Doom map

The Ideal Level of Detail on your map – Darkwood Forest

I like to have a sketch map to put in the centre of the table during play. This doesn’t contain encounter locations or details, but it grounds the players in w

hat they’re doing and makes it feel a bit less like you’re pulling encounters and events out of thin air based on how they’re doing and the pacing needs of the game – which is pretty much what you’re going to be doing, except informed by the Fronts and Dangers. This map from the gamebook is exactly the level of detail I want for my game

 

Set Pieces

In play, I tend to follow the player’s leads, offer them choices as to which paths and routes to take, and respond accordingly. I do like to have 5-6 ‘set piece’ encounters lined up that I hope they’ll take – usually these will be where they find items or clues that move the adventure along. In Forest of Doom, where the quest is to find the lost two parts of a war hammer, obviously two of the encounters will result in finding the parts of the hammer – but unlike the book I’m going to seed clues in the rest of the encounters to show where the hammer might be, rather than rely on random wanderings through the forest.

These don’t have to combat encounters, and should have a number of options to resolve them. You can use linked questions (eg, “Tell me one thing all gnomes hate” when they first meet a gnome) to give narrative control.

You don’t have to use all of them, but they will provide a backdrop of things to use if you suffer the dreaded PBTA “Move Freeze” when an MC move doesn’t immediately occur to you. DW is already pretty forgiving in this – in no small way because it’s easier in the fiction and implied setting to have a sudden change of pace (orcs attack!) to bring up the energy levels at the table and even buy you some time to figure out what’s going on.

So those are my emerging tips for DW one-shots. I’ll conclude by saying that it’s my belief that Dungeon World really is the most forgiving PBTA game to start MCing, and encourage you to try it if you’re at all interested in these kinds of games. I spent several months trying to grok Apocalypse World and Monsterhearts before a game of Dungeon World made me chill the hell out and realise that they were easier to run than I was thinking. What are your top tips for Dungeon World one-shots? And look out for the full prep notes for Forest of Doom after the Revelation convention at the end of February.

Xanathar’s Guide to Random Tables – adding story to D&D5e

D&D 5th edition is a bit of a gap in my gaming experience. While it’s hardly explicitly designed for one-shots (for me D&D hews pretty closer to the zero-to-demigod progression than any other levelled game), I’ve had great experiences playing it. It captures the sweet spot of nostalgia and actually working. I’ve never actually run it, but certainly intend to set that right in the new year. And, like Starfinder, it certainly can support one-shot play – a lot of its complexity is hidden in easily-parsed references to older editions!

Storifying D&D: it can / can’t / should / shouldn’t be done!

A common thread about ten years ago on various Indie game communities used to be how to add storygaming elements to ‘trad’ games like D&D. It was met with a range of responses, from the zealous “you shouldn’t bother, just play a game that will actually support what you want to do” to more helpful suggestions, like John Aegard’s excellent piece on making D&D 4th edition a player-led sandbox.

The foundation for story-based games lies in character (or pregen) generation – if you have characters with links to the world and NPCs in it, beliefs and motivations to act beyond money and orcslaying, everything else will come, and feel natural. So after a preorder of the new Xanathar’s Guide to Everything arrived and sparked a guilt about how little attention I’d given 5th edition, I decided to give it a run through.

Xanathar’s deserves a proper review on here when I’ve fully dissected it for one-shot play, because apart from a bunch of sub-classes, encounter design guidelines, additional uses for equipment, it also contains a few pages of shared campaign guidelines (which are absolutely golden if you want to design a one-shot, brief though they are). But what initially caught my eye were the piles of random tables.

A lot has been made of the random tables that have returned for D&D5e, and I can’t get enough of them. Right there, using the ones in the PHB alongside those in Xanathar’s, you can randomly generate characters with rich, punchy backstories. I tested them out by rolling up a 1st level human fighter, Robert (oh yeah, his name was random as well – there’s 18 pages of random name tables at the back of the book as well). The tables for family backstory, combined with the backgrounds from the PHB, have made my ‘standard issue peasant fighter’ into something much more exciting, an army deserter using adventuring to find his estranged father. Don’t believe me – here’s his rough character sheet, with the table results combined with a pre-written backstory (NB: I’ve kept any links to the background and location deliberately vague, with only a dubious-evil Baron for Robert to rage against)

Robert

Race: Human (5′ 7″, 154 lbs)

Class: Fighter

Background: Folk hero

Alignment: Neutral Good

S 16, D 15, C 15, I 11, W 14, Ch 11

Languages: Common, Orc

HP 12; AC 19

Proficiencies: All armour, shields; simple weapons, martial weapons; carpenter’s tools, vehicles (land)

Saving Throws: S +5, D +2, C +4, I +0, W +2, Ch +0

Skill Proficiencies: Animal Handling, Athletics, Perception, Persuasion

Fighting Style: Defense (+1 to AC when wearing armour)

Second Wind: Use a bonus action to regain 1d10+1 hp each short/long rest

Combat: Longsword +5; 1d8+3 slashing. Light crossbow +4; 1d8+2 piercing. Dagger +5; 1d4+3 piercing.

Equipment: Chain mail, longsword, shield, light crossbow (20 bolts), explorer’s pack, carpenter’s tools, shovel, iron pot, common clothes, belt pouch with 18gp, dagger.

 

Origin: Know who your parents are; born at home; no siblings. Raised by single mother (father was imprisoned); modest lifestyle with no permanent residence – you moved around a lot; others saw you as different and strange, so you had few companions

Background decision: A mad old hermit spoke a prophecy when I was born, saying I would accomplish great things

Fighter training: I joined the army and learned how to fight as a group

Defining Event: You broke into a tyrant’s castle and stole weapons to arm the people

Personality: If someone is in trouble, I’m always ready to lend help

Ideal: Sincerity – there’s no good in pretending to be something I’m not

Bond: I have a family, but I have no idea where they are. One day, I hope to see them again

Life Events: A relative bequeathed you a simple weapon, spent time working in a job’

Flaw: I have trouble trusting my allies

 

Born to simple carpenters, the prophecy that the mad gnome Oppleby spoke when Robert was born would prove to be his downfall. His father stayed at home from the work-gang to care for Robert following the prophecy, and though they tried to evade the Baron, Robert’s father was captured and imprisoned soon after by the Baron’s men. As Robert and his mother Emma moved from town to town, earning what little they could from odd jobs and the kindness of strangers, Robert’s heartbreak at seeing his father dragged away led to steely resolve to find his captors and bring them to justice.

Knowing he would need a strong sword arm to bring the Baron to justice, he joined the army, where he quickly became successful as a carpenter in the engineering division while his martial expertise grew. But seeing the lash of his sergeant’s whip on his comrades, Robert fled the army, defecting with his squad after stealing from the company supplies. In the escape his squad-mate Manfred was fatally injured, and he gave Robert the engraved dagger his own father had given him, begging Robert to continue his quest.

Robert found himself again moving from town to town, and making use of what carpentry skills he had, until the opportunity for adventure and making good on his prophecy came to him. He knows he will only bring danger to his mother if he returns to her, but still seeks to find his father, and free him from the Baron’s oppression.

See what I mean? It’s corny, and I guess a little obvious, but the table results just determined that juicy backstory naturally. Later I’ll be blogging here about adapting published adventures, but for a party including Robert you can bet that either (i) the Baron’s men are all over town getting in his way, and/or (ii) the adventure’s big bad has links to the Baron. Have you got any examples of how random tables can develop grabby character backgrounds?

An Xmas Mixtape (a Mixtape is like a Spotify Playlist from olden times)

This blog is now 8 months old. While I’ve not maintained it with as much regularity as I’d foolishly expected, I’ve spent a bit of time reviewing my content – and taken the step to actually shell out some cash to make this ad-free (sorry, those of you who were wanting the chance to win an iPhone 10 every time you clicked the link).

I’ve got big(ish) plans for the blog next year, and am planning to get serious about writing (and editing) RPGs more widely – while it’s only a tiny one-shot, seeing Bite of the Crocodile God get art and layout has convinced me to get my act together a bit more.

My plan in the new year is to continue with a mixture of different things, all through the lens of one-shot play. In the meantime, in case you’ve missed them, here’s a mixtape of what you can expect more of:

Reviews, with a particular focus on one-shot play – I started trying to do all of the Fate Worlds series, but I got a bit distracted – this is probably my favourite, of the frankly bonkers Masters of Umdaar

Prep and play advice, such as this post which I’ll be rereading before Revelation (the Powered-by-the-Apocalypse convention in Sheffield, UK) on prepping PBTA one-shot games

Rules tweaks, like this for making Cypher system (and other games’) experience system fun

And the occasional beard-stroking bit of sentimentality, like this post about the nature of the hobby, and why you shouldn’t feel guilty about all those game books on your shelves.

I’m hoping to get some actual ready-to-play one-shots on the blog as well, and have several percolating in various stages ready for editing and uploading. I haven’t forgotten about the #1H1S thing, either – so expect more about running 1 hour RPG sessions soon too.

And, in case I haven’t said before, thanks for reading. I hope you continue to enjoy it. Anything else you’d like to see, stick it in the comments!

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.

When you hack advancement, mark XP – PBTA experience in other games

In one-shot games, we often just accept that character advancement isn’t going to happen. But it’s a key feature of play in some systems, and allowing PCs to grow and develop (alongside their emergent character development) makes the game more epic. The sole exception is in Powered By The Apocalypse (PBTA) games, where the sequence of checks mean that players can, and often do, clock up a number of incremental advances even in a 4-hour slot. As a player, it’s one of my big draws of playing a PBTA game that I get to unlock new abilities quickly.

In this online article, Mike Mearls proposes replacing the somewhat arcane D&D experience system with a simpler 3-Pillar system. PCs gain experience points from discovering locations and/or liberating treasure, swaying influential NPCs, and defeating monsters, and these are equally weighted in his system. Leaving aside my biggest issue with it (the imbalance in D&D having lots of rules to support defeating monsters, slightly fewer for exploring locations, and very few for interacting with NPCs), it’s a good move. If I run D&D for in the future, I’ll certainly use it.

But I’m not sure it goes far enough. I’d like to replace this with an Apocalypse World-style XP system for D&D, as below:

Experience Checks

You have 10 XP check boxes. Write them on your character sheet

Check an XP box when

  • You defeat a worthy opponent
  • You liberate a valuable treasure
  • You explore a dangerous location
  • You win the backing of an important NPC

When you have checked all 10 off, erase all the boxes and level up.

That’s the basic system. For one-shots, I’d be tempted to reduce the number of checks to 5; this virtually guarantees that PCs will level up during the session –you may want to pre-level your pregens if this is the case in order that levelling up doesn’t take too long at the table.

Hacking for other systems

For 13th Age, I’d have a mark on the 5th check box (3rd if I was levelling up on a the 5th) for an incremental advance – with 10 checks levelling up anyway.

For Cypher System games such as Numenera or The Strange, I’d keep it at 5 and allow an advance when they’re checked off. I’d give out what the rules refer to as XP as Bennies (giving them out 2 at a time to a player and asking them to pass one on as per the rules) and only allow the players to spend them on rerolls, not on advancement.

For games that aren’t limited to levels, I’d set the track at 5 and then award a ‘package’ of advancement points that they spend all at once however they like – again, if the system is complex I’d add in a pre-levelled option for PCs.

Hacking the Triggers

Of course, it’s easy to modify what you get checks for. For instance, in a Star Trek-style space opera game you might want the following:

Check an XP box when:

  • You overcome a problem with ingenuity
  • You encounter a new planet, species, or technology
  • You defend the Federation’s values against threat

Or, just as simply, for any game you could borrow from Dungeon World and have simply

Check an XP box when:

  • You fail at an important skll check
  • You miss an attack (only award once per combat)
  • You play your character in accordance with their alignment (only award once per combat)

I should give these a slight health warning, in that I’ve not playtested these at all – but I’m planning to use them in all my relevant one-shot games in the near future, especially when using level-based systems. Are there any other XP hacks that you are keen on? And what would you set your XP triggers as?