Review: Warhammer Fantasy Role Play (4e)

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

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

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

The Fluff

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

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

The Crunch

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

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

The One-Shot

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

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

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

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

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

An Odd Bunch – and no, I mean the games

hitthenorth

Great to be back in Manchester, too

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

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

Indie-ing Twilight 2000

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

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

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

Setting Questions

twilight 2000 pic

Pregens – with requisite gun porn and service history

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

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

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

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

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

PC-PC Questions

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

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

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

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

Did it work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gringle’s Pawnshop

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

Introduction

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

Dramatis Personae

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scene One – Apple Lane

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

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

Scene Two – Meeting Gringle

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

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

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

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

Scene Three – The Journey

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

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

Scene Four – Baboon Camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Khochaz, Baboon Leader

2nd level leader

Initiative: +8

Long spear: +8 vs AC – 5 damage

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

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

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

AC 18                     PD 17                     MD 14                   HP 40

Bigclub, Centaur Raider

3rd level troop

Initiative: +9

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

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

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

Big Club: +8 vs AC – 10 damage

Natural even hit: Bigclub can Kick as a free action

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

Harnessed speed: +4 AC bonus vs opportunity attacks

AC 19                     PD 16                     MD 13                   HP 48

Pinfeather, duck thief

3rd level archer

Initiative: +9

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

R: Shortbow +11 vs AC – 8 damage

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

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

AC 15                     PD 14                     MD 11                   HP 46

 

 

Scene Five – Victorious Return

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

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

 

 

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?