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.


The Process of Prep – Three Stages

I’ve been doing some thinking lately about how I tend to break down prep for a new one-shot game. I’ve come to think that there’s a fairly common process that produces the best results, and when I don’t follow it I don’t end up with a convincing finished product. This usually means that my creative juices fizzle out and I end up wasting whatever time I’ve put into the project already. So, here are the three stages:

1: Cogitation

This is usually done in an armchair or sofa, with a cup of tea (or something stronger) and some source material – a supplement or reference book, or even the RPG rules I’m using. I spend most of my time here reading and thinking, and avoid making too many notes, but I do sometimes jot things down if I can’t remember links. These are always pretty rough, and usually on whatever scrap paper is to hand.

For simple settings or areas, it’ll just be subheadings and bullet points. When I ran Vampire Dark Ages set in Constantinople, the labyrinthine factions of that city led to a mind map over an A4 sheet that laid out everything. Either way, this is something I do with a pen or pencil, never on a laptop or tablet.

2: Imagination

Following the first stage, I’m ready to actually get an idea of the one-shot and what it will involve. This is usually done at my desk, or dining table, with a notepad and pen. I’ll look at, and think about, my stage 1 prep and try as early as possible to constrain what the game will be about – even if that’s just one monster, NPC, or area I want to feature.

In a game of Ironclaw I’m half way through prep for, it was a rumour of a buried sword in some dangerous swamps; in an Eclipse Phase game I ran at the Furnace convention a few years back, it was the conceit that all the PCS would shift morphs half way through the session into combat-ready synthetic bodies.

Once the constraints are set, I sketch out areas, encounters, and possible threads, writing them down into the notebook. This stage is written neatly, and in one of several notebooks; where stage one is often scruffy, this is neat, and sometimes colour-coded. These are notes that I save and look at again.

I also sketch out what I want my pregens to look like at this stage, so I can make them on autopilot in stage 3.

3: Preparation

This is when the laptop comes out. I take all the stuff from stage 2 and try and work out how it interacts with the system. This part can feel like the heavy lifting, so I try to have done all the creative work first so I’m just building with system now. Obviously with some systems this is easier than others, and it’s independent of the complexity of the system; 13th Age, for example, is a very crunchy system that gives lots of support to make this stage easier.

I’ll make pregens here, usually last, and then do a quick stress test if there’s time that all of them have plenty of stuff to do in each scene, and modify them if necessary.

I’ve found that by breaking down my prep into these three stages, I stand a much better chance of completing my prep to the point where I have a finished one shot ready to go. What are your creative methods?

Review: Fate Worlds – Camelot Trigger

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

The Fluff – Arthurian Knights… in spaaaaace!

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

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

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

The Crunch – Giant Mecha Combat Rules!

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

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

The One-Shot – Knights or Lords?

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


The Collapsible Dungeon – location-based one-shots

I’m going to sketch out here the procedures that allow you to keep to time and a swift pace even using a traditional dungeon design. I’ve called it the Collapsible Dungeon, and (to give credit where it’s due) adapted the idea of plot keys from the excellent Cypher System adventure anthologies Weird Discoveries (for Numenera) and Strange Revelations (for The Strange). These are probably some of the best examples of ready-to-run one-shot games out there, so they are well worth a look.

So much of old-school adventure design relies on a location-based structure, and when you play in one your pacing is often at the mercy of the players; with your home group you can probably predict how fast they’ll eat up the locations, but at a con game it’s much harder to know. I’ve run games where the players slowed to a crawl, insistent on searching every door and cautiously risk assessing every option before proceeding, and also games where the players charged through rooms keen to get to the climactic encounter ignoring all my carefully-laid reveals.

The First Location: The Entrance to The Dungeon

As the first location, everyone is going to explore this area, so make it as exciting and punchy as you can to start the session with a bang. There should be a puzzle or challenge here, or preferably both. Lay out the thematic content of the dungeon – if you’re exploring a Yuan-Ti lair, maybe the doorway is embossed with snakes, or there’s poison traps everywhere – or maybe just a huge snake across the doorway’s arch that springs to life and attacks as they approach.

The Middle Locations: The Collapsible Bit

Now prep between 5 and 10 locations (in a dungeon, these are likely to be rooms, but could also be corridors or even wandering encounters). Start the PCs with a fork in the corridor, or two mysterious doors, and allow them to encounter the rooms and encounters prepped is as logical an order as you care to make them. You do not have to cover all the locations needed to make your dungeon consistent – establish that they can fast forward through empty rooms – each of these middle locations should contain a challenge or puzzle to solve, or a secret to discover, and be linked to the overall theme.

Useful props for this section to consider in your prep are to have each location on one sheet of paper or index card, so you can select the next one quickly and put it to one side when the location has been explored. You can also do this with an (un-labelled) map, indicating the rooms the PCs progress through even as you decide on the spot what to encounter in them.

Sprinkle these middle encounters with 2-3 plot keys, adding them in according to the pace and timing of the game.

Plot Keys: The Steps to the Climax

Plot keys are the macguffins that lead to the final resolution of the adventure – they could be literal keys, or clues to the dungeon’s back story, or useful items in the final challenge. These are not tied to specific locations as prepped above, but you should decide when they are encountered. When all the keys are collected, you should be ready to push swiftly to the final encounter, and by pacing this carefully it should be easy enough to do that.

As for timing, in a 3 hour con slot I’d probably want 2 keys, one to be found on the 1hr mark and another at the 2hr mark or so – depending on the system and how long you think the final confrontation could be. Similary, for a 4 hour slot I’d probably have 3 keys spaced evenly as above.

The Final Location: Climactic Battle

This is the boss fight, the encounters that will lead to the resolution of the dungeon and completion of the adventure. This encounter should be foreshadowed with plot keys and locations in the middle section, and should be a challenging fight for the PCs even with any plot keys that will give them a boost against it. By keeping to time and doling out keys as the players progress you should be able to make it all come together in a satisfying conclusion.

Now, I’m quite prepared to admit that this ignores many of the long-standing traditions of OSR play and dungeon exploration, but I think that there’s more to gain in getting pacing right than there is by the procedural exploration of a hidden map. After all, it’s just another procedure, right? What do you think?

And keep an eye here for an example of a fully prepped one-shot OSR dungeon designed according to these principles.

Review: Thews of Iron – and Three Kinds of Resource Economies – Conan 2d20

I’m forced to admit I was wrong. I tried to be polite about it when I appeared on The Smart Party podcast and was innocently asked about the 2d20 system from Modiphius games – but it was pretty clear I wasn’t a fan. A couple of games, and a few hours spent trying to navigate character generation in Mutant Chronicles (MC), had left me switched off to this new hotness of a system.

I guess I need to admit that some of my problem with MC probably isn’t the system on its own – but there’s probably a whole other, much more snarky, blog post about that. So I gave it more time, and after playing a game of Star Trek 2d20 that left me, well, ambivalent, I had a go at running their Conan game.

And it was great. I enjoyed myself as a GM, and as far as I can tell the players had a blast as well. I might have been wrong. True, it’s crunchy as hell and relies on an awful lot of bean-counting to achieve, but it combines multiple tactical options with the opportunity for players to do pulpy awesomeness all the time.

The Fluff

I ran the adventure The Red Pit, from the Jewelled Thrones of the Earth adventure supplement, using the quickstart PCs. I had 6 players – one arriving later – and at least one of them hadn’t had much experience of gaming since D&D in their past. For balance, another of my players was Remi Fayoumi, indefatigable 2d20 evangelist and Modiphius fanboy. The adventure is a classic pulp that I know many GMs would dismiss – the players start weaponless and shackled as slaves in the Red Pit and have to fight their way out to the surface. It’s one great big series of linked combat encounters, but works surprisingly well with a few hacks. I did add in a neutral/sympathetic NPC in the form of a suspicious fellow slave who might or might not join their rebellion, and cut out some of the relentless dice rolling of the constant arrow fire, but it still allowed enough opportunity for heroics and roleplay – in part because the system is rich enough to make it interesting.

I also started the game with a pulp montage by telling the players to imagine they are playing characters in a TV series – and asking the players to describe the opening credit scene where their PC is introduced. They just have to say what they look like and what they are doing when their name appears below the credits – it helps get everyone in the right frame of mind, and set the tone for the game. I did the same for the villains too, including the ominous shadow of an animatronic giant lizard.

The Crunch – It’s a Dice Pool System

At its core 2d20 has more in common with dice pool systems than it admits to. Your dice pool is just normally two twenty-siders. You roll your pool and count successes – one for each die equal to or under your skill, and two if equal to or under your Focus – usually much lower and often just 1. You might need just 1 success, or you might need more – up to 5 for Epic tasks, which clearly you don’t have much chance of succeeding on if you’re just rolling two dice. So in order to succeed in difficult tasks, or to make sure you are really effective (extra successes generate Momentum which can be spent immediately to improve your outcome – say, more damage in combat, or extra effect on a skill roll), you’ll have to buy more dice.

The Crunch – Three Resource Separate Resource Economies

You buy extra dice in three ways – by spending Momentum or Fortune, or by adding to the GM’s Doom pool. Fortune is straightforward and gives you an extra die set to 1 – so almost always guaranteeing 2 extra successes. You start with 3 Fortune points and although there are some rules for refreshing them, I didn’t let my PCs refresh in the one-shot.

Momentum is trickier – after you generate extra successes, you can either spend them on extra effect – more damage and the like – or bank them into Group Momentum. This resource can be spent by the players to add an extra dice up to 5d20 on a one-for-one basis – but these dice, you have to roll. There’s a maximum of 6 Momentum points in the Group pool at any one time, and it reduces by 1 at the end of every combat turn, so there’s an incentive to use it or lose it.

Doom is the GM’s pool, and it starts at 3 x the number of players – the same as the total number of Fortune points. The GM can spend it like Momentum, or the players can get extra dice by adding points back into the Doom pool. Players also need to add to Doom to react to attacks – by Parrying or Dodging – and the GM needs to spend it for almost anything, so there’s a good flow of Doom throughout the game. I kept my Doom on show so the players could see it grow and fall through the session – and allowing some tactial play where one player took a telling blow rather than avoid it using Doom so that my pool was run down before the final confrontation – and there’s clearly some tactical nuances to running games with it which I like as well.

The One-Shot

In order to make it work as a one-shot, you need some straightforward resources, I think, in order to help the players make sense of a particularly crunchy system (also see this post on running one-shots with crunchy systems). I had some of these, but not all of them

  • You need 3 different sets of counters. I used skull tokens from All Rolled Up, and glass beads for Momentum, and I wish I’d had something else – maybe poker chips – for Fortune. I kept my Doom in one place in front of the players, and chucked Group Momentum in the middle of the table, but ideally two different bowls would have been great – maybe one skull-like and evil and one, er, pristine and heroic.
  • A sheet with what you can spend Doom and Momentum on would have been great. There are nuances with Momentum spends – you don’t always have to spend it on extra damage – and it would have been good to have it out in front of the players to encourage more creative use of this.
  • An actual copy of the rules. I realized half way through the game that I hadn’t downloaded the rulebook onto my tablet – while the Quickstart rules covered nearly everything, I couldn’t find the recovery rules in there and had to busk them when it came up halfway through the game.
  • You need well-marked-up, clear pregen sheets. The Quickstart PCs are great for this.

So, I’m prepared to admit my own mistakes and will certainly be running 2d20 again – Conan for sure, but almost certainly Star Trek as well, and maybe even Infinity or John Carter when they get released. Mutant Chronicles, maybe not – but that’s for a future post.

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

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

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

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

Experience Checks

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

Check an XP box when

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

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

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

Hacking for other systems

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

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

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

Hacking the Triggers

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

Check an XP box when:

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

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

Check an XP box when:

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

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

I’m Lawful Evil Now – Emergent Character

I’ve recently started playing an online game of The One Ring. It’s a sort of short-form campaign, and we’ve just finished the second session. We’re playing over hangouts, which requires focus during the 2.5 hours we have, so the sessions feel tight and intense, and it’s great. The system really drives the setting and the narrative – but that’s for a future post. I’m playing a Ranger of the North – like Aragorn, but not quite as badass. I thought it would be cool to play a dishevelled, down-on-his luck wandered, like Strider at the start of the Lord of the Rings if that was what he actually was. And I designed him like that – oh, and to be lethal with a bow.

And that was the extent of my character development pre-play. In just two sessions, he’s already got a murky past that’s beginning to show – we’ve just rescued another ranger who we’ve decided I turned my back on – I’m even wearing the cloak I took from him when I left him for dead – and although we’ve made up now with the rescue (and sharing a hobbit-pipe – judicious use of my “Smoking” trait – did I mention how much the system embeds the setting?) – I’m sure we’ve not heard the last of it. I also seem to not really know my way around the area of Middle Earth we’re exploring; most of my rolls to navigate for the party seem to fail…

This is one of my favourite things that can happen at the table; a bare-bones PC becomes a character with depth and history, sometimes just as a result of at-table banter. It’s great when it emerges in one-shot play, too… so how can we encourage it?

Don’t Give Pregens Any Background

There’s no need for more than 3 sentences of background for a pregenned character. The setting and expectations can be communicated beforehand, and the rest can be up to the player. A page of background information is unnecessary and actively unhelpful; the character belongs to the player now – just give them enough to push them into an outline of a personality and let them run with it. And for goodness sake don’t give players a sheet telling them what they think of the other PCs – tell them if they have history with them, yes, if you have to (if you’re prepping a heavily PvP game you might have to) – but not how they feel.

Ask Questions

“So, most dwarves have a problem with elves. How does Balin feel about them, now that they are your only way across the Silken Sea?” Questions like that. Nothing too special, or edgy.

“When was the last time you were underground?” can be good too. Use what they answer, and if you can replace any of your prep with any of their answers, do so.

One massively adaptable technique from Dungeon World is to give the PCs bonds – tell them how they feel about their fellow PCs, but not which ones. Go through these with the players at the start of the game, and let them change them half way through if they want to.

Give NPCs multiple relationships

One-shots usually need fewer, better NPCs. Make them people that 2 or more of your PCs know, and let them work out how they know them. If you’re not running a game with explicit PvP focus, the main way the PCs will disagree and develop by is through how they respond to NPCs. I’d say that your absolute maximum number of NPCs for a one-shot is the same as the number of players – and you can easily have less than that. The other people they encounter are extras; they might have names, but they aren’t going to interact with the PCs in important ways – they have no agency to really change the protagonists.

Offer moral dilemmas

Again, don’t over-think this. “Do you let the villain get away so you can save the bystanders?” is absolutely as complex as it needs to be; these are the choices that can define a character, if you place it naturally towards the end of the session.

Use the same pregens

If you’re running the same system multiple times, there’s no shame at all in using the same pregens; I used the same Mouse Guard party about 6 times when I was running it at every con I went to, and plenty of players came back to the same character when they signed up again – sometimes referencing previous games. It’s important that you don’t put too much of previous games in the actual plot of the game, mind – or you’ll just turn off players who’ve just joined for this episode.

What are your best examples of emergent character, and are there any more ways to encourage it?