His Hair Was Perfect – Monster of the Week at Seven Hills

Over on this post I talked about how I approached my prep for my game of Monster of the Week (MOTW) at the Seven Hills RPG convention in Sheffield, UK, and since the con was last weekend I’ve had time to reflect on how it went and some of the highlights (and low-lights).

I had a great set of players. Their characters were created easily, and (in a way that wasn’t obvious without reading the game) the History step (where players describe a link to each of the other PCs) really fleshed them out as characters. What it didn’t do was provide much scope for inter-party conflict – not too surprising, I guess, given the premise of the game – but more on that later.

In prep, I’d decided on a loose premise in the background, and sketched out, as per the guidance in the book, a Countdown for the enemy’s plans. Lee Ho Fuk, legendary Chinese sorcerer and restauranteur, was possessing hapless customers with his delicious black bean sauce and turning them into werewolves, and triggering the beast-spirits within to hunt down enemies of the restaurant – initially, bad TripAdvisor reviewers. He had a plot to launch his range of home-cook sauces, attack the Blue Dragon conference of Chinese Food with his werewolf-possessors, and eventually take over the world!

He got to stage 2 of his Countdown; the players rolled really well on their initial investigations, limiting the number of hard moves I felt justified in doing to advance his plot, and meaning they worked out the twist (that it wasn’t your traditional, infected lycanthrope werewolf) quickly. They went from the crime scene to the restaurant directly and, after some edgy spirit banishment, eventually defeated Lee Ho Fuk and his dragon-spirit demonic soul. Partly this was due to some good rolling, but I think I also made a crucial error in my prep, showing my lack of experience at running mystery games; I had one level of clues, and after they’d explored everything, it was obvious that the restaurant was the place to go. Better mystery construction would have led them to an intermediate location or scene where the clues there lead them to the restaurant. Still, the timings worked well – we finished about 15 minutes early (as far as I can remember) in a 3 hour slot.

It was still a satisfying game; as I talked about here, part of the attraction of one-shots of Powered by the Apocalypse (PBTA) games is the shared fictional universe creation, and although I had clear guidance for the kind of agency the PCs worked for, it helped the players get comfortably into character after the hour or so of at-table prep. Another area where I showed some naivety was in the amount of plot the players could eat up without any real in-party conflict; in every PBTA game I’ve run previously, barring Dungeon World, there’s an edge of PvP conflict that self-generates addition subplots.

I’ll blog more about mystery creation and investigative one-shots as I get better at running them; I can admit that my usual genre to run is all-action pulp where the scenes, if not on rails, are at least signposted very clearly to everyone involved. I’m beginning to think that the mystery plot for a one-shot is to point very clearly towards one thing at first, and then when that thing is confronted to point very clearly towards the actual thing that resolves the adventure. But I might be over-simplifying.

I know there are a lot of readers with much more experience of running mystery one-shots and investigative games than me – does that sound correct? Or am I howling at the wrong moon with this one. Anyway, I’ll certainly be running more one-shots of MOTW – with the same or different premises.

Advertisements

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?

Under The ‘Hood – Lanchester Set-Up

In this post, I promised I’d share my actual prep sheet for the game of The ‘Hood that I ran at Revelation. To recap what I did in advance of the con, I knew my players had prebooked so had them pick playbooks on a loose premise of a northern town estate.

When I had that, I read the playbooks properly that they’d picked and bashed out the text below as a rough guide to what I needed to remember on the day. I’d imagine there’s probably enough for somebody else to use, although if it’s your first time I’m not sure if the combination of playbooks makes either the MC or the players’ jobs easier – The Matriarch and The Bastion are both ‘support’-y characters, while The Blur messes around with The Heat mechanic in a way that might make it tricky to pick up.

I should also mention, before sharing the setup below, that the most important piece of prep I did was to get myself in a game of The ‘Hood run by somebody else who knew their stuff – in this case James Mullen, the game’s designer.

The Hood: Lanchester

A piss-poor, former mining town somewhere in the North of England. The dizzy metropolis and bright lights of Sheffield and Leeds yawn off in the distance, but up here it’s pretty much as it’s been since the 1980s… you keep your heads above water, you scratch each other’s backs, you try and keep the cops off your back. It’s a hard knock life.

The PCs:

 The Bastion

  • Operating out of a greasy spoon.
  • Pick 3 NPCs that are part of your crew (your regulars)
  • Who is causing the most trouble for you at the moment, and why?

The Blur

  • Can tipp-ex out other PCs heat
  • Pick 3 scams that you have been, or are, running to keep ends meet
  • Which scam is currently causing you the biggest headache, and why?

The Matriarch

  • Pick 3 NPCs who are your kids
  • Why are they each in trouble?

The Fallen

  • Name your partner, plus 2 other NPCs who you are in cahoots with – one from The Bastion, one from The Matriarch
  • Which of them has been giving you grief recently, and why?

SetUp

  • Everyone begins with 2 Heat and 3 Experience
  • Explain / negotiate how they got this – it’s probably linked to their love letters established previously
  • Draw a big street name on a sheet; everyone goes round and adds their home street onto it
  • Everyone labels their home on the sheet; The Bastion gets to label his base as well.
  • Then add each of these locations inturn:
    • Corner shop
    • Church
    • The pub
    • The bookies
    • The health centre
    • The skate park
    • ….
  • Then list any important locations that aren’t there; these become locations outside of the Hood.
  • Each location should have an NPC attached to it – these can be the NPCs established  previously

Establish The Threat: Thin Rob, a cockney in a stolen suit

He represents a Syndicate – East End gangsters from the big city looking to put the screws on Landchester to get their dues. Him and his two lackeys, Dave Small and Eric the Beast, start moving around the hood.

They figure that they first need to try and get rid of any movers and shakers around the area, so will make the PCs an offer they can’t refuse… a tip off to hold up the corner shop in the next town over, West Ealing. They say the cameras haven’t worked for months, and they don’t clear the tills at the end of every night, so there should be a decent raid money available. For a cut (10%) they’ll let the PCs have the info, gratis, along with their operator, Ivan, who will check the cameras are off.

Naturally they will set up the PCs – the cops will be tipped off as soon as they carry out the raid, botched as it is likely to be.

Following this, they carry out moves as established to move the PCs out and take over the turf of the Hood, as per the rules in the main rulebook:

  • Make an offer to go into business (as above, or they start paying off the Bastion to use his greasy spoon to hold their meetings)
  • Take down a resident of the Hood (the biggest fish apart from the PCs – make it a beloved NPC first, then one of the Matriach’s kids)
  • Threaten to cause pain (as above)
  • Operate in the Hood (start selling grass outside the corner shop, meat in the pub, that sort of thing. 
  • Provide what’s needed, at a price (when the chips are down, they’ll offer to save the PCs, or their loved ones, skins, in return for a leg up, all honest-like in Lanchester).

 

Under The ‘Hood – PBTA One-Shots

A few weeks ago I ran a one-shot game of James Mullen’s The ‘Hood at Revelation in Sheffield, a convention devoted entirely to Powered by the Apocalypse (PBTA) games. Now, to read over the internet, PBTA games come with some very clear received wisdom about them – that they work best over a short to mid-length campaign, allowing for character development, deepening relationships, and a sense of engagement with some of the longer-term moves. I guess that’s why at cons you often see them in linked 2- or 3-slot mini-campaigns, rather than in stand-alone 4 hour slots.

Myself, I’ve struggled a bit with running these games before at conventions – the lack of prep and ‘play to see what happens’ left me on edge in a game of Monsterhearts that I ran a few years ago – it worked, I think, but I felt two steps away from a cliff of not knowing what would happen at all times, having to dance around on my feet to keep an interesting plot around the PCs. Running The ‘Hood (and some games in between), I modestly think I might have cracked some of these ‘myths’ about PBTA games, and about some of the ways they can work in a 3 hour slot.

Myth 1: A one-shot PBTA game will not be a satisfying experience – FALSE

You do need to do some legwork to make this happen, but there are a few straightforward tricks that work for this.

(a) Start the PCs on 3 experience. A couple of failed rolls / hitting triggers, and somebody is going to get an Advancement after about an hour, particularly if you’ve got XP on failure and they are rolling poorly. Advancement is a great feature of PBTA games, and really easy for players to do, and this brings it into the mix and makes it an actual feature of the game.

(b) Start the PCs with some ‘trouble’. In The ‘Hood, you have a Heat track that measures – I guess – social damage, how much trouble you’re in. When it hits 5, you’re in over your head and out of the game – arrested, killed, whatever. After seeing James Mullen do this in a game at Spaghetti Conjunction previously, I started everyone on 2 Heat. It meant that this was a credible threat, and somebody did get Burned by the end of the 3 Hour session. I know that the team behind Urban Shadows have given similar advice about Corruption moves – make sure the players start with some Corruption.

(c) Love Letters. These originated (in the heady days when the only PBTA game was, well, Apocalypse World) as letters to each player asking them about what they’d been doing previously, often with a move attached or some game choices to embed them in a situation. This seemed awkward in my game not knowing much about how the players had imagined their characters, so I went with a few scripted questions to cement them in some ongoing plots – you’ll see them on my prep sheet which I’ll be posting here next week. On the day I didn’t use all of them – but I had them ready to add more stuff.

Myth 2: You should do zero prep in advance of running a PBTA game, and “play to see what happens” – FALSE

I’m completely behind the idea that a plotted adventure will lead to a not-satisfying PBTA experience, and I’ve played in a few where this happened – games where we were playing a traditional game with a rules-light 2d6 system and a lot of handwavey stuff around initiative and other implicit elements of traditional games. But you can do situations, and lists, and stuff. Some games in advance of Revelation tried to get players to do pre-game setup, but I just went as far as getting them to pick playbooks. This was really useful for me, because I could then work out some ‘love letter’ type things and come up with a very basic plot – a dubious collection mission for some bailiffs with no questions asked – and a few NPCs.

I did all the Neighbourhood design stuff in The ‘Hood at the table – I put out a big piece of paper and we followed the game’s procedures to design the immediate setting and some juicy NPCs. Then as the loose plot set off – based from a hard-framed starting scene – I just used these NPCs whenever I could.

So, to put some detail on it, I had a patron / antagonist approach them and offer them the job – I imagined this would be in the PC’s local boozer, and had some idea what that would look like. By asking questions of the players and putting their NPCs (established in setup), this happened during the pub quiz that The Matriarch was running, where The Fallen (a corrupt policeman playbook) was out having an awkward drink with his do-gooding partner and her friend – a newly-working-in-the are social worker who was onto The Blur’s scam running at the old folks’ home down the road. I made sure they were all in the same location by just saying to the players that we were going to all start in the pub and letting them work out why and how they were there – from which it emerged that The Matriarch obviously ran the quiz every week.

Myth 3. PvP interactions are part and parcel of PBTA games – well, actually, TRUE

Unless maybe you’re playing Dungeon World, but even then there’s a lot of scope for ‘soft’ PVP where the party will end up making decisions that some players aren’t happy with. There are some ways to try and moderate the game from going full blood opera, though – mainly by having obviously antagonistic NPCs (to all or just some of the players) that mean the players will head for them first rather than immediately turning on each other.

On the subject of NPCs, I think that probably 2-3 per PC is probably enough – you won’t use them all, but it’s worth giving some options so you can see which ones are most interesting. All of my NPCs, apart from the antagonist, were created with the players – and this meant they were much more interesting than I could have created.

I do think that you’d do well to make it clear that PVP might happen at the start of (or even in advance of) the game – some players really don’t like it and will have a poor experience playing if it features – and it’s good to give players permission to do things like this to avoid any awkwardness if they think one of the players is just being annoying.

To finish up, a few other quick observations:

4. You need to print out enough Basic Moves sheets for everyone at the table to have one – including yourself. Sounds obvious, but you really really need to do this!

5. Restricting the playbooks is fine, and makes your prep easier if you don’t have the luxury of pre-booked players you can get to choose in advance, but I’d really recommend doing character generation at the table, as well as any procedural setup to do with relationships / bonds / other players – it’s worth spending a decent chunk of your play time on this, because it’ll make the rest of it better. In a 3 hour session, we spent about 50 minutes doing setup – then had a 10 minute break for me to look back and my prep and work out where their NPCs fitted in – and then played for 2 hours.

As I said, the game went well, and I’ll certainly be running it – and other PBTA games – at conventions again. What are your experiences of PBTA one-shot games, and is there any further advice I’ve missed? Next week, I’ll share my actual prep notes for the game – all 2 pages of them.