The Long And The Short Of It

I’ve recently been in the position to plan (and in one case deliver) one-shots that have stretched the time constraints common to one-shot play. In the first, I ran a game of Vampire: Dark Ages over a full day; in the second, I prepped a 30-45 minute demo game of Hunters of Alexandria, a FATE-based historical fantasy game from D101 games.

The Long Game

A few months ago we hatched the plan for the Vampire game; a two-part, weekend-long game where I would run in the Dark Ages on Saturday and my co-GM would run (with the same PCs) a modern-day Vampire: The Masquerade game on the Sunday. What started as an epic plan led to a fair bit of chin-scratching at the challenges of it; apart from a few terrible experiences as a player in my teens, I had never run or played Vampire. All of my fellow players / GM had a wealth of experience with it. Part of my choice of Dark Ages was that I didn’t need to learn the extensive Camarilla bureaucracy or pretend to know what, for instance, a Primogen was (I still don’t – I think it’s a sort of clan boss or something? I smiled and nodded when it came up in game).

I began by reading my source book (the excellent Constantinople by Night) and making a massive R-Map of all the factions at work, and then started working out which bits I should focus on. I’m not sure I gave the authentic Vampire experience with my game, which was a race against time to find the four relics stolen from the Hagia Sofia, but I think they had fun – and it led to a more satisfying conclusion in the modern day as they re-tracked down their enemy.

In terms of what I did differently to a normal one-shot, I just had more stuff and didn’t push as hard. I put in a couple of encounters that weren’t immediately resolved, and basked in the opportunity to call back to them three or four hours later. I couldn’t quite shake my one-shot conditioning, starting the PCs in a prison cell and having them broken out by a mysterious NPC, which in retrospect was probably an unnecessarily hooky hook, but it all calmed down once they had their mission.

What would I do differently? I might, well, prep a bit more. I pulled more of the plot out of thin air than I would have preferred to; I joked at the time that I was running Vampire using Apocalypse World – I had Fronts and Countdowns for all my factions, and tried to bat through whatever choices the PCs made, but a few more ‘scripted’ encounters could have set up a more satisfying conclusion. I’d do it again, though, and am even now planning some shorter con games of Vampire (again probably Dark Ages so there’s more sword-fights with witch-hunters and fewer cocktail parties).

The Short Game

I spent last weekend at UK Games Expo, working on the D101 Games stall; we had space for demo games, so I prepped one for the FATE-based Hunters of Alexandria (HoA), a monster-hunters historical fantasy game. This was much easier prep. I didn’t actually get to run the demo, and am trying to work out when I will, but it was a blast to prep and I’m looking forward to when that opportunity arises.

I took a 3-scene approach and used the pregens in the book – they come with a range of skills, and some character portraits that looked grabby. There’s a skill check / overcome task to research some murders, a chase, and then a showdown. I’d be confident I can run it with in 45 minutes for up to 3 players; shorter for fewer, and that it gives a good overview of the FATE system. I’d post it here but there’s still a chance it might see the light of day in publication, so watch this space.

I found prepping the shorter game much easier, and I’m tempted to try it for a few more games in advance for conventions etc (aren’t there some Games on Demand things offering similar short offerings? Interested in these) as I think it can be a good taster for games.

Have you run, or played, in a particularly long or short one-shot? What was your experience?

Review: Fate Worlds – The Three Rocketeers

In a sentence: Musketeers in space. Or in space, powered by SCIENCE!! Rocket packs, force swords, and outrageous accents unite in P K Sullivan’s Fate setting The Three Rocketeers (TTR), available here in .pdf and also gathered in the Worlds Take Flight print supplement. It also manages to hack Fate to do away with Skills entirely, and create something with about the complexity of Fate Accelerated (FAE), and in some ways cleaner. It’s not quite as lovably gonzo as Masters of Umdaar, but it comes close.

The Fluff

Musketeers in space! That is pretty much all you need to know. France, Britain, The Holy Roman Emperor, and Spain are planets instead of countries, but everyone behaves pretty much like they did in 1625 in Dumas’ Three Musketeers. The PCs are Rocketeers, guarding Queen Marie-Helene of Gallia (France), and carry rocket packs and force blades (which are often based on 17th century fencing designs). They do exactly what the musketeers do, but in space. There’s minimal setting information, but definitely enough; it’s handwavey space opera where economics and long-term consequences of space travel are not things to worry ourselves about.

Oh, and the Holy Roman Empire has a Star-Pope, of course. And a Simian Guard of Cyber-Apes. Who carry force halberds. It’s great, or awful, depending on your tastes, that it is literally the plot and conceit of The Three Musketeers in Space (FYI, I think it’s great).

The Crunch

There are two big rules hacks in this Fate World; the first is Aspect-only play. PCs in TTR don’t have skills, instead picking 6 guided Aspects. Each action, they decide how many of these are relevant to the action, and get +1 per Aspect (+2 for their Rocketeer aspect, because, well, musketeers in space). They can roll against a fixed opposition, or against NPCs who are dealt with just as in FAE – which saves the GM having to add up modifiers or worry how many Aspects are relevant. These Aspects can also be invoked as normally in Fate for rerolls or bonuses.

I like the idea, and I’m surprised it’s restricted to just this setting – I can see it working for any high-pulp Fate game of derring-do. It’s going to lead to some stretchy definitions unless your players are good at self-regulating, but it’s not as if FAE doesn’t require that as well; I think on balance I probably prefer it to FAE’s loose Approaches style.

The second one is Conspiracies – the GM stats up their opposition as if it were a FATE character, allocating a Skill pyramid to Conspiracy-ish approaches like Secrecy and Influence. These then provide static opposition as the PCs try to uncover the Conspiracy, and the GM can also spend a Fate point to use a Conspiracy Approach instead of an NPCs ability.

It’s a really clear explanation of the FATE Fractal that is high on concept but light on concrete examples, and it’s followed in the starter adventure included. I will definitely use this as a reference for other settings and games – but more on that later.

The One-Shot

You might have gathered by now that this is a setting that lends itself to a one-shot well; I can’t really imagine running it for longer without players starting to think about, well, space travel, or the interstellar economy, or why the Star-Pope is guarded by uplifted gorillas.

The starting adventure captures the feel of the game nicely – it’s a 3-act conspiracy where they first discover (and are evaded by) a lieutenant of the conspiracy, then infiltrate a palace to confront them, before learning of the real threat and having a massive showdown with them.

I think there might be a touch too much content even for a 4-5 hour session, so if running it I’d be prepared to narrate or montage some of the middle scenes to allow for the structure to stay as tight and epic as it is. It’s as railed as it needs to be to hew to the plot structure, but you need that many rails for a one-shot, and there’s a few investigative bits to break up the action.

But, what I can’t help but think is that it would be too easy to take out the space stuff and run a ‘straight’ 17th-century musketeers game full of pulpy action. Or, to use a more familiar reference (to me at least), a Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds adventure.

I should add, if you want a good taste of the setting, system, and gonzo-potential of the setting, I would recommend checking out the One Shot podcast where they play this setting, run by P K Sullivan. I’m usually no fan of listening to Actual Play – it’s a poor substitute for, well, actually playing, but this is something else.

Review: Fate Worlds – Masters of Umdaar

In a sentence: There are Lazer-Wolves in the sample adventure.

This tells you all you need to know, and it’s not a bad thing. Lazer-Wolves. With a “z,” like you came up with them before you knew how to spell “laser”.

The Fate Worlds of Adventure supplements are some of my favourite resources to turn to for one-shot planning; they each present a setting, rich in adventure and possibilities, with Fate rules guidelines (always including some variant rules for the setting), and a starter adventure. There’s a lot of them out there, so I’m going to be posting some snapshot reviews of them – they’re all really good one-shot fodder, but there’s rather a lot of them and so it can be tricky to get your head around what they are good for.

Masters of Umdaar is available from RPGNow as Pay-What-You-Want for the .pdf; if you want it in print, it’s also part of the “Worlds Rise Up” Fate Worlds collection, along with three other Worlds of Adventure.

The Fluff – Archaeonauts Assemble!

Masters of Umdaar (MOU) presents a science fantasy world where tyrannical Masters rule a fantasy world; you play the brilliantly-named Archaeonauts, hunting down lost technologies to try and defeat the Masters and restore freedom to the land.

In tone and style, at least to someone of my age and cultural origin, this reads and plays like a more-gonzo He Man and the Masters of the Universe game – PCs will be one of 15 bioforms including Mutabeasts, Chimeras, and the relatively mainstream Amazons and Mutants, and are certain to be employing a mixture of magic, technology, and anything else that can be easily handwaved. The setting and sample adventure are unashamedly gonzo; the adventure includes Lazer-Wolves, only a slight shift from the flying laser-eyed bears of the lovably bonkers World of Synnibarr RPG.

The Crunch – Cliffhangers and Random Gonzo-ness

MOU uses the Fate Accelerated (FAE) system as its base, but adds some tweaks. Character generation adds an optional random bioform element, random tables for Powers, Weapons and Adaptations (basically Stunts) and gives some suggested “class”-based allocations of Approaches. This, with FAE’s adaptability, comes up with interesting characters and pushes your players (or you, if you’re making pregens for a one-shot) towards embracing the gonzo in your game.

It also includes a new type of Scene, the Cliffhanger, which is an absolutely excellent way to model deathtraps / skill challenges / just about any extended scene in FAE. By allocating which Approaches will be most succesful, it allows flexibility for players to choose how to solve problems while still allowing the GM to be prepared for the scene to work. Even if the thought of laser-tailed canines leaves you rolling your eyes, if you have any intention of running a high adventure FAE game, this supplement is worth buying for these rules.

The One-Shot – Like Wolves, but with Lasers, sorry, Lazers

It’s the ideal setting for a one-shot; the Saturday morning cartoon feel means the tropes and high-pulp action are easy to get into, and the laughably simple premise points the players directly at whatever adventure goals you have planned. While the character generation rules are fun, I’d still provide pregens for this game though – even with the random rolls, Fate is most fun when you’re playing, and the stunts and aspects add a bit of crunch that will slow the game down to the speed of the most leisurely player when you really should have your PCs fighting mutants and hanging from metaphorical cliffs.

Having run the sample adventure as written as a one-shot, I’d recommend it with one caveat – it is quite quickly over. There’s a social Challenge scene, a fight, a Cliffhanger, and a big fight at the end – but the implied pace of the encounters is unlikely to give your players much pause for thought. If you want to fill a slot with it, while you could add more sections to the plot, I would be tempted to tack on a follow-up adventure to find another Starblade of Su’ul (honestly…) and weave this into the original plot.

Have you had any experience of running or playing in MOU as a one-shot? Or looked at importing Cliffhangers into a more vanilla FAE game?

He’ll Rip Your Lungs Out, Jim! – Monster of the Week at Seven Hills (spoiler-free)

In less than a week’s time, I’ll be running a one-shot game of Monster of the Week (MOTW) at Seven Hills, an RPG convention in Sheffield, UK. Each year Seven Hills has a theme, and this year’s is Urban Legends, so for inspiration I’ve turned to a Warren Zevon song, Werewolves of London. I’m imagining the tone to be a bit Rivers of London, a bit Charles Stross, a bit Neverwhere – here’s my pitch.

Something is afoot on the other side of London – there’s been six bodies found this week, and it’s only so much you can cover up about the claw slashes and tooth marks before the press get hold of it. Clearly somebody has upset somebody over at the Isle of Dogs, and it’s up to you, the Metropolitan Occult Crime Squad, to investigate. In fact, of course it’s up to you, because somehow police cuts means that four humans should be enough to keep all of the gods, vampires, werewolves, fairies and associated spirits in the most mystically potent city in western Europe from bothering the man on the Clapham Omnibus… all without said man finding out about their existence.
A game using Monster of the Week, a powered-by—the-Apocalypse game of occult investigation, set in an occult London mashed up from Neverwhere, Rivers of London, and Warren Zevon lyrics. No knowledge of the source material is needed, and it doesn’t matter if you haven’t played an Apocalypse World-style game before.

Every time I prep a convention game I get to this point less than a week before the con – the feeling like I’ve got lots still to do. The one thing I have done is decide how I’m going to tweak the game to make it work in a One-Shot, adapting some of the stuff I talked about here from running The ‘Hood in a similar 3-hour session. I don’t expect we’ll do quite as much setup at the table as we did for that game, but I’m still doing playbook stuff and creating NPCs and locations with the players.

Rules Changes

Monster of the Week does offer really clear procedures for running a one-shot. The main one that jumps out is restricting Luck – every Hunter starts with a pool of Luck points that they can spend for an auto-Hit on a move. MOTW suggests reducing the 7 that you normally get to 1-3; I’m going with 2, as I think just 1 will mean my players hoard them until the last ten minutes of the game and then spend them.

The other change is to make the equipment fit the concept of it being set in the UK; players are only going to be able to pick weapons that make sense that fit with the concept. I’m not going to do make any changes other than just restrict the guns; the Professional, for instance, might be able to get a sidearm, but there will certainly be a lot of paperwork to fill in to actually use it. Of course, he’ll be able to call on tactical support if the situation calls for it; but of course, these officers aren’t members of OCS, so might react unpredictably to the supernatural.

I’m also going to start the players off with 3 experience; this way, they will get to Level Up much earlier in the game.

Restricted Playbooks

My game has ended up being fully pre-booked (Seven Hills has a mixture of pre-bookings and sign-ups on the day) so while I could contact my players before the game and get them to pick Playbooks, instead I’m just going to restrict them. The Met’s Occult Crime Squad (OCS) is pretty much “The Unexplained Cases Team” described in the rules, so I’m going to have the following playbooks for the four players to choose from:

  • the Professional, as the liaison with the regular police force and assumed ‘leader’ of the team. The Professional gets to design the Agency; we’ll do this at the table for the OCS, with this player having final say.
  • the Mundane – I see this as a newly-assigned regular policeman who, perhaps due to some administrative error, has ended up investigating vampires and werewolves in London
  • the Spooky, for the Rivers of London reference I think it helps if there’s someone who can actually do “magic” on the team
  • the Expert, another character with a different flavour of magic who can handle research and occult investigation

The other suggestions for the Case Team (the Flake, Wronged, and Crooked) don’t really grab me as fitting as neatly with the concept; I think if I had 5 players I’d include the Crooked, as a streetside contact, but the other two just don’t seem British enough.

I plan that the players will pick their playbooks, do the prep associated with them in their History, and then we’ll go round and make up some friendly NPCs and contacts, either back at the office or out on the streets. I kinds see the OCS as being just the four characters here out in the field, so the problems they encounter are for the players to solve themselves.

The Rest of The Prep

I’ve got as far as working out what I’ve done and need to do for the game; I’ve printed out the Basic Moves and Playbooks, and the lyrics to the song to inform the rest of my prep. I’m going to be following the regular Mystery Creation guidance in MOTW, and then get a list of locations that could appear in the mystery.

After the players have done their playbooks, they’ll each be describing a couple of NPCs and a location that’s important to them, and when they’ve done that we’ll take a 10 minute break and I’ll check that I can target these NPCs and places as much as possible. MOTW includes “Classic Werewolf” stats which I’ll adapt for the likely antagonists, and I’m going to have a think about possible weaknesses / foibles for the likely opponents as well. I’m also going to try to work out some pictures for the players to pick from, and I’ve been trawling through websites on The Bill to get hold of these – but this goes down under “extra prep” – it’d be a nice touch to have it, but I don’t need it done before I start running the game – so I’ll see how much time I have to do it.

I’ll post the rest of my prep around this time next week, along with a report of how it goes – but for now those notes need to be kept hidden from my players! Is there anything you’d do differently, or that I’ve missed?

Making the Crunchy Smooth – 5 tips for running system-heavy one-shot games

Quite often, I run fairly crunchy systems as one-shots or at cons. Part of this, I guess, is that I like to see the moving parts work out – it’s also about giving people what they want, as often if people want to try out a new game it’s to see what the mechanics are like. If you’ve only got 3 hours to get people up to speed with a new game, you’ve got to have a plan for it. Here are a few tips that I’ve used successfully for a few system-heavy games:

Tip 1: Make sure you actually know the rules

This sounds obvious, but every time I’ve had disappointing games at cons, this has been an issue, crunch or not.

The best way to learn the rules is to convince somebody who knows the rules to run a game for you. This is ideal, but not always practical.

The second best way to learn the rules yourself (as well as making the pregens, which you’ll presumably do as well) is to condense them onto a one-page handout for players. For games that I’ve run more than once I have a folder of handout stuff – I have a Mouse Guard handout of how to spend Fate and Persona points (the game’s bennies/fate points – a finite resource to aid actions) because if you don’t remind players they can spend them they don’t, and making unskilled rolls using Nature, because that seems to come up a lot and it helps players to have an understanding of what they need to do with it. When I run 13th Age, I have a one-page description of the Icons so players can reference what they might be able to use their Icon rolls for.

Tip 2: Do your own pregen PCs with everything on the sheets

It takes time, but when you’re creating characters, add a note for what each special power / trait actually does – likewise generate any secondary statistics like combat damage in advance and put it on the sheet. You don’t really want to be looking up what Medichines are when you’re in the middle of running Eclipse Phase, or have your players interrupting your flow to ask what Frenzy actually does.

On the subject of pregens, it’s worth having a few ‘easy to play’ characters if your crunchy system allows that. For instance, in 13th Age, I always throw in a Barbarian and a Ranger, as these are the easiest (and some of the most fun!) classes to play. Likewise, you can put in a Wizard or a Sorcerer, but it’s usually worth getting a player who either enjoys getting their hands in the cogs of the system or has played it before. Note to GMs: I’m one of those players.

Tip 3: Give your players a training level

One of the most obvious steals from video games design is to give players a chance to see the rules in action fairly soon. For most systems, this means you want some skill checks to get your head around the system followed by a short combat against low-challenge adversaries where lack of system knowledge or sub-optimal choices won’t make much of a difference.

If you really want to simplify it, start the game on rails. I ran a Mouse Guard game once where the PCs began captured by weasels, and were immediately ‘rescued’ and had to sneak out – so they had a check to sneak past the guards, a check to climb the walls, and then a short combat with the final guards on the gates – I did it so they didn’t have to even really think about what their PCs were going to do – leaving all their attention on learning the system. After that first scene they had meaningful choices and could start to have some engagement with the world, but – like the first level in a video game – first they learned what the system was, what the stakes were, and what danger felt like in terms of dice and numbers on sheets.

Tip 4: Use your players – at least, use some of them

The first thing I do when I sit down to run a crunchy system is scan my players, and identify the players that have either played before or are willing to get their hands into the system. Those players not only get guided towards playing the more complex PCs, they also almost invariably get my copy of the rulebook. And usually get asked to look up stuff later in the game; if I can possibly avoid having the book in my hand during the game I will, and that includes getting players to do my dirty work for me.

Tip 5: Use the rules your players want to see

While I’m a great believer that if you’re running a game at a con, you should actually run the game, it pays to have some idea of what  crunch is an interesting part of the game and what isn’t. For example, I’d hate to see a Mouse Guard game without the scripted combat feature, because it’s a unique element of the game… using Factors to work out difficulty for skill checks, I’m afraid, isn’t, and I’ve never used it in one-shots. I’ve just picked a difficulty for the task at hand based on what felt right (usually Ob3, if you’re familiar with the system). Similarly, if you’re running a Star Wars FFG game for me, I’ll be disappointed if you’re not using the RAW initiative system, because it’s an embedded feature of the game… using the Duty / Motivation system at the start of the session, I’m not really bothered about, as it’s not likely to come up in a one-shot anyway for more than one PC.

To summarise, all of these tips basically come back to the first one – you need to know your game, which is probably the first piece of advice for running any one-shot game. You won’t have time to learn it at the same time as the players, which you might have if you are running an ongoing campaign. What other tips do you have for running crunchy systems as one-shots?