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?

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.