Except even shorter!
So in this post earlier I explained a framing device for campaigns. I used it for a one-shot as a test tonight, though. The players liked the premise of being gunslinger lawmakers in a fantasy desert land. They started in the little border town of Rozwood near the Badlands. We had little back-and-forth exchanges before and during the game to establish setting details as needed, and with that extra encouragement the players were more prone to adding their own twists to scenes or leaning into the description of their successes (not failures as that was usually my prerogative - out of habit more than intention really).
Here's a quick recap of what went down: the adventure began properly when a rebel soldier walked into the saloon grieviously wounded. He was of the Bone Folk, a people with transparent skin, muscles and organs, which brought to him a mix of cruel apathy and underlying hatred from the backwater locals. Things quickly turned rowdy with three desperadoes when Judge Bill intervened to protect the wounded soldier. A quick and tense fight mixing brawling, knife throwing and gun-totting went down - we played beat by beat, in slow-motion. After one guy got his throat slashed the barman "defused" the situation with a shotgun and the Judges ran off to get the wounded soldier to a doctor. Later on that day when he came back to his senses, they learned that he was a scout for General Rex of the rebel army, and that they were on their way here, on a train. He had been attacked by people from the woods wielding spears and bows. They decided to go investigate the woods on lizardback on the same night, bringing along Robert McNorf, an anthropologist from Leng, to the eastern, more urbanized part of the country. The talks with the wood people went well, offerings of crabs and alcohol were made, and the judges were invited to meet She Who Looks to the Sky for Answers, a venerable woman living in symbiosis with an ancient tree growing inside the inhabited caves. They were invited to a banquet, ate some medicinal/sacred plants and drinks, had a little freakout moment when it seemed like the game turned into Call of Cthulhu, then realized they were tripping balls and avoided any faux-pas. Eventually it was agreed that the train would be left alone as long as the woods were left undisturbed and tributes were paid regularly since the passage of the train would disturb the hunts. In addition, Looks to the Sky also asked the Judges to go hunt some monstrous beasts that had taken the lives of some of her warriors. They agreed, but decided to first go meet General Rex. At his camp by the stopped train, they explained everything that went down and he refused to pay tributes, giving them dynamite instead and asking them to betray the tribesfolk's trust. They said yes to get the dynamite, grabbed a few soldiers to help in the hunt, and went on to fight the beasts. The beasts' fight was also pretty exciting and horrific, they looked like barnacles with human heads and crab legs, with long spindly arms and massive hands, and they were magically strong to an extent that whatever living thing they touched tore like paper with the slightest pressure. Lots of dynamite and gunpowder later, the pair of beasts were dead and Judge Billy's face and right hand were scorched. Bringing back the corpses, they were offered rewards as well as thanks: the priestess carved the symbol of the Black Goat of the Woods on Bill's cheek, speeding up his recovery, and Judge Guy got some junk, I forgot what exactly. Since they still had a rebel soldier alongside them they gave up on offering the dynamite to the tribesfolk and sold it on the market place instead, arming rozwood for later troubles. They also arranged with the mayor and townsfolk for a tribute to be regularly paid and for the wood people to be left alone.
So when I said I'd do a fantasy western, I meant I wanted to play with guns and the wild west mythos stuff while extracting the difficult historical baggage around it. Turns out, it's not that easy, as I felt the general social dynamics between the people of the woods and the rebel army were a little iffy to play out. So palette-swapping and trying to not bring up some stuff just plain did not work, lesson learned. Other than that, the general atmosphere was fun and visually dense, although players remarked everyone was kind of one-note and pretty much a cliché character from a spaghetti western. It's sort of a setting idea that I love on paper but have very little actual understanding of the context thereof to really do justice to.
Mechanics-wise, for mysterious reasons I can't really explain, doing a 2d6 vs 2d6 roll-off thing led me to intuitively rely more on dice rolls than usual. It's not that the specific dice thing doesn't work, it's that some system frameworks make me want to roll more, some less. The players liked it a lot, while I thought it kind of made resolutions more "wishy washy"? It's unclear what exactly bothered me there, but I know I prefer to avoid rolling in most cases. Made me want to do more 24XX again as so far that one has been working for everyone in my group.
I know my update schedule isn't reliable but for once I figured I'd let people know - I'll be away doing some training for my black belt (for September, fingers crossed) for a week, so I won't have time for tRPGs let alone blogging. Maybe after that I can try and force myself to post a bit more regularly or something, I've been craving more tRPG goodness in my life lately.
Here is a process for running and playing adventure games in a Free Kriegsspiel manner that borrows from collaborative storytelling games and aims to minimize prep work. We start with nothing. It's a back-and-forth between Referee and Players.
1. Elevator Pitch
The Referee gives some broad strokes ideas about what the setting could be.
So this is a Desert Punk Fantasy world with gunslingers and ritual magic.
You could be wandering lawmakers from some ancient order.
Players pitch in with their takes on these ideas or specific details they want to add.
We'd rather be desperadoes, also guns & rituals sound fun, but could there also be pulp science stuff?
If that wasn't made clear before, establish what the group is, and who the characters are. Put a limit like 30 words or even 3-ish words (background, talent, weakness? two good things and a bad thing?) to set up characters quickly. What are their relationships, what makes them interesting, and names. We do this before the setting of play so that the players have time to get an idea of who these characters are and that'll also give them a frame of mind through which they'll think about the rest.
3. Local History/Geography
Again, the Referee starts with a pitch, this time for the setting of play - where and when is the game actually happening within that world?
You all have drifted into the frontier town of Rozvood, on the border of the blasted wastes known as the Badlands.
Then you ask them to add their own details to the place, pointed questions can help.
And again, players pitch in with stuff they're interested. We're doing two things here: 1-creating a shared understanding of what the world is like, 2-curating the prep for the players' interests.
This method still assumes the Referee runs the world while Players run their characters, you can detail things more and you probably should be taking notes as ideas hopefully come rushing from these exchanges.
Set up not only a place in space but in time, what's happened recently that upset the status quo or what is threatening to do so?
About a month ago a rich water tycoon called William Van Lordes settled near Rozvood and has been agressively buying land from farmers. Yesterday he came in town with his posse of armed thugs and threatened to take the land by force from anyone who wouldn't run off with their "compensation" of $30.
There's been sightings of the outlaw Kriss Krimson and his boys, the Howlers, in the hills north-east of town. They're probably hiding in the old silver mines. I bet the ghost of old Tom Backany will keep them company. They've got nice bounties on their heads too, would be a shame if their corpses were lost to the mine.
Maintenance on the old railway in the region has been bringing a lot of new blood in the area, there's even a small workers' shantytown with a name now, Rattlesnake, was it? Anyways, rumour is, train's crossing all the way from Leng to the Green Land to the west. Train-robberies are old-fashioned I know but if the money's good...
See what the players seem to take an interest in, and ask them questions as if their characters had already done some legwork. They might set up some obstacles themselves or give you ideas about them. Don't forget to also write down surprises without prompting them. The idea is only to help prepare the opening session, too. The rest of your prep should then naturally emerge from the events of that charged first session (don't be afraid to set up hooks for later adventures during that first session, too).
4. The Game Proper
So far, I haven't mentioned rules. That's because I want you to "make it up" but in a smart way. Start with nothing or some intentionally bland and basic notion like "we roll d6, high is good". Don't worry about how the characters tie into the mechanics. You can do it diceless for the beginning too, in practice it'll probably be so for most of the session.
Then, when a situation comes up and you realize that referee adjudication and table consensus truly aren't enough, OR you get a fun idea about how to resolve it WITH a mechanic, use that mechanic. Don't write it down, just make use of it now and either forget about it, or realize later on that it sticks and works well with the setting of play and style of your table. Or change it if it doesn't. After the first session you may want to commit it to paper, or not.
Throughout multiple sessions of play, you'll naturally tinker with the mechanical framework, add things, remove things, change stuff etc. Try to avoid doing so without direct input from something that happened in the game as playtesting material. That is, don't go "I'm going to add a rule for shooting off hats" unless you've 1) been in a situation where it warranted dice rolling and 2) you actually tried making it work with what you already had at your disposal and it wasn't enough fun. And even then, you probably should do that kind of tinkering during the session. Consider using a Referee Screen so you don't have to worry the players with whatever you're rolling. This means you can keep a solid pacing in running the game, while also doing various playtesting experiments during the adventure.
Eventually you will reach a point where either the game lost steam, or you wrapped it up neatly, or maybe it's still an ongoing thing after months or even years. Regardless, you now have a living document that includes a custom made setting and rules that go with it. Congratulations, you've run a campaign and became a game designer while doing so.
For today's one-shot, I'm going to use the examples I pitched above, plus maybe, just maybe, a 2d6 vs 2d6 roll mechanic because Perfected is very fun.
iHunt is a fantastic urban fantasy book/novellas series by Olivia Hill.
It's about marginalized millenials killing monsters in the gig economy.
There's this app you see, where people can set up bounties on monsters, and you can make some money on it but its design is predatory and there's a ton of fuckery around the algorythm and very little security for the independent contractors. Like Uber except you kill draculas, but really it's about how scary being in debt and not being sure how you'll pay rent next time around because you got fired from being a Junior Executive Surface Cleaning Operator at Amazon after taking a bathroom break. And also killing monsters.
The stories are quick-paced and furious, often hot, and fairly funny and/or depressing at times. I like them a lot, and am still reading through the last novel, "Chosen One" which is about the main character having to deal with Totally Not Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and deals with privilege.
And there's a tabletop game, using FATE rules, also written by the author!
It is an excellent ressource even if you don't do FATE, with solid writing and a lot of interesting details about the setting without falling into the pit traps of other modern day urban fantasy games with vampires in them *cough* metaplot overdose *cough*. Instead you get a good evocative picture of the lives of iHunters, of San Janero (not Los Angeles, where the stories and game are set), and a bunch of short fiction that's actually really cool to read (I usually skip these in tRPG books) which can serve as adventure seeds. Heck, for my first session I straight up stole the gremlins story.
The thing is, I don't do FATE because I don't really do big rulebooks anymore, and more than a few pages (ideally a page) of rule stuff takes too much CPU from my ADHD millenial brain. Free Kriegsspiel's about worlds, not rules and this here is an excellent sourcebook to play in the setting of the books. I've also been very much into Jason T's 24XX series lately, and so after asking for Olivia's permission, I've written down some notes on how to run iHunt with 24XX. It's pretty sparse, cause like I said, the FATE version is really good and full of useful stuff even if you don't use the mechanics. So I'm assuming you're riffing off that book like I am. Here's what you'll need for the hack:
PLAY: Players describe what their characters do. The game moderator (GM) advises when an action is impossible, requires extra steps, demands a cost, or presents an avoidable risk. Players only roll to avoid risks.
ROLLING: Roll a d6 skill die — higher with a relevant skill, or d4 if hindered by injury or circumstances. If helped by circumstances, roll an extra d6; if helped by an ally, they roll their skill die and share the risk. Take the highest die.
1–2 Disaster. Suffer the full risk. GM decides if you succeed at all. If risking death, you die.
3–4 Setback. A lesser consequence or partial success. If risking death, you’re maimed.
5+ Success. The higher the roll, the better. If success can’t get you what you want (you make the shot, but it’s bulletproof!), you’ll at least get useful info or set up an advantage.
LOAD: Carry as much as makes sense, but more than one bulky item may hinder you at times.
ADVANCEMENT: After a job, increase a skill - none > d8 > d10 > d12, and gain 1$.
It's not actually one buck, it's an abstract notion that allows you to avoid growing hungry, cold and/or homeless for a little while. Say, one week if you're playing every week (you can have play time follow real time). If you need to get special gear or call in favours or what not, you ought to find the really good gigs, or skip meals and whatnot. This is assuming your PC has a regular day (or night) job, too.
DEFENSE: Say how one of your items breaks to turn a hit into a brief hindrance. Broken gear is useless until repaired.
HARM: Injuries take time and/or expensive medical attention to heal. If killed, make a new character to be introduced ASAP. Favor inclusion over realism.
RUNNING THE GAME: Lead the group in setting lines not to cross in play. Fast-forward, pause, or rewind/redo scenes for pacing and safety, and invite players to do likewise. Present dilemmas and problems you don’t know how to solve. Move the spotlight to give everyone time to shine. Test periodically for bad luck (e.g., run out of ammo, or into guards) — roll d6 to check for (1–2) trouble now or (3–4) signs of trouble. Offer rulings to cover gaps in rules; double back during a break to revise unsatisfying rulings as a group.
►Choose your character’s specialty.
THE 66: Skilled in Reading People (d8), Connections (d8). Take an extensive disguise wardrobe.
KNIGHT: Skilled in Hand-to-Hand (d8), Running (d8). Take two weapons.
EVILEENA: Skilled in Occult (d8), Alchemy (d8). Take an occult library (digital or scrapbook) and a totebag full of magical paraphernalia.
PHOOEY: Skilled in Hacking (d8), Electronics (d8). Take repair tools and a customized laptop.
WILDCARD: Apply two skill increases. Take two pieces of stuff.
► Apply 3 skill increases (from no skill > d8 > d10 > d12).
You can take new skills and/or increase skills you already have. I urge you to customize your skills by naming them something interesting like "Kung Fu Fighting" instead of "Hand-to-Hand". Flavour.
Alchemy, Climbing, Connections, Deception, Driving, Electronics, Explosives, Hacking, Hand-to-hand, Intimidation, Labor, Occult, Persuasion, Running, Shooting, Stealth, Tracking, etc.
SESSION ZERO & FRAMING SUGGESTIONS
Like the OG (Origingal Game, ya know) suggests, I frame the game as a TV Show. That means ad breaks, flashbacks, flashforwards (all pacing tools and potential safety tools that we share as a group). One particularly important piece of advice I've found is the notion of cutting as soon as possible. That's what brings the punchy-ness and frantic pace of the cool TV shows and of the short stories and novels.
For characters, I don't go as detailed as the FATE version, but still want some drama fuel, so I ask players to come up with questions they want to answer through play about their characters, as well as questions on the relationship between each character. Then we play to find out what happens and try to keep these in mind for the more character developing scenes.
I haven't been able to sleep lately. I figured I might as well do something productive. So I tried something a little different - I've always wanted to write a one-page adventure. I usually jot down a minimal key that only makes sense for me and difficult-to-parse hand-written maps. Here I tried to just write out the whole thing as (hopefully) evocative gothic horror. It's literally just a page of prose, but I tried to get a useful-at-the-table word-to-idea ratio. It'll most likely need work on the Referee's part, which is why I call it an adventure seed in the description. It's enough for me to run a 3-4 hours game if I take my time setting up atmosphere, but it's hard to gauge what'd be deemed enough material or not.
If you want to support me, you can get the PDF on itch.io for a dollar.
It’s an unpleasantly cold night in Gloomburg. The rain batters their hooded cloaks as they prowl the gardens, narrowly avoiding the royal hounds growling in the dark. They crawled out of the sewers - the only unguarded way to get anywhere fancy without stumbling upon the watch. These stank with rot, feces, death. There was something hungry in the water. They’ll either need to get through there again, unlock the passage to the cursed catacombs or fight their way out (the worst idea really) to get out once they secure the eyes of greed. On the first floor of the castle is a grotesque masquerade of decadent nobles, overworked servants and an unwelcome guest. The crust of society is celebrating harvest season while the masses starve. Perhaps tonight, the riffraff will finally snap and march in wielding torches and pitchforks, indiscriminately butchering those that gloat inside the gilded prison of their misery. Perhaps not.
The second floor is quieter, with treasonous machinations whispered in dimly lit rooms of velvet tapestries and ominous potraits whose gaze seem to follow the unwary. The torture room lies next to the archives. Its keeper is a coward, and bitter about it. The king’s jester wanders the halls, with bloodied gloves and a gleeful smile on their face. One of the bedrooms is a testament to their life’s work.
The third floor is well-guarded by the King’s most trusted men. He has yet to give up on bringing back his one true love, and may be find in his study, buried beneath profane tomes and torn letters from distant enemies. Sometimes her ghost comes to him in nightmares. The guards pretend to not hear his screams. He longs for death, but his life on the battlefield has cursed him with instincts of self-preservation, and while grizzled, he has never suffered from starvation or disease, like the thieves have.
He wears wears one of the eyes on a silver necklace. While worn, it grants him visions of the future. The other is sealed in a small chest behind the Queen’s portrait above his bed. When held, it tears at the veil between worlds. If one were to gouge their eyes out and place the eyes of greed in the sockets, they would know immortality and forget how to feel.
At dawn, the guests will return to their own gilded cages in drunken stupor. Well rested guards will take the next shift. Some servants will collapse from exhaustion in dark corners.
The unwelcome guest will turn into a wolf and run through the streets back to its lair.
If the people attacked, there will be corpses littering the ballroom and gardens, the revolution not one step closer, but the city’s power dangerously aware of dissent amongst their lesser.
The thieves’ patron is a masked elfin aesthete, perhaps glimpsed by watchful thieves at the masquerade, unwilling to leave loose threads hanging. They carry enough crowns to keep hunger away for a week, or to live like royalty for a night.
These assume the 24XX SRD although you should be able to use your rules of choice easily.
1 - Rat-Catcher (whose life did you accidentally save?)
Skilled in traps (d8) and shooting (d8)
Take a sling and a small but vicious dog.
2 - Agitator (who did you stood up for to impress your love interest?)
Skilled in blather (d8) and flee! (d8)
Take political leaflets and a feathered cap.
3 - University Student (who did you screw over, but they haven’t realized yet?)
Skilled in carouse (d8) and forgery (d8)
Take bad poetry and 1C (for Crowns)
4 - Boatman (who do you think might be your child?)
Skilled in piloting (d8) and drinking (d8)
Take a fishing pole and a bottle of rhum.
5 - Mime (who are you secretly in love with?)
Skilled in acrobatics (d8) and stealth (d8)
Take an invisible rope and a grappling hook, also invisible.
6 - Dwarf (who are you trying to keep from getting themselves killed?)
Skilled in intimidation (d8) and slaying (d8)
Take a brightly dyed mohawk, prison tattoos and a two-handed axe.
7 - Penitent (who do you want to be punished?)
Skilled in labor (d8) and matters of faith (d8)
Take a penitent’s crown and robes.
8 - Burglar (you are only in it for yourself)
Skilled in stealth (d8) and sleight-of-hand (d8)
Take a shiv and lockpicks.
My SO had run a game once in the past, which went poorly. The other night I made a 1400 Quest character, a goth warrior lady called Kayne for a solitaire game, but at some point asked "hey can you run a game for me? Like fantasy stuff." and she just started improvising. We played around 6 hours over two day I think, maybe a little more, and it's been a blast. Here's what happened and some thoughts (from the player's perspective this time).
Let Me Tell You About My Character! (it's a fighter)
Kayne is a gothic lo chick in her late twenties with a cliché mercenary/child soldier background because I initially planned to use her for something more like modern 5e fantasy. She's very good at fighting and athleticism, rolls her eyes up while sighing "whatever" at stuff but has a good heart.
- Kayne woke up at the foot of a fortress in the mountains - she remembered her job as a courrier, to deliver a letter to the soldiers in Havrenoir, which supposedly would be this fortress. But nobody was around.
- Exploring the place, she found it deserted, except for a feisty little girl accompanied by a bunch of goats and three great pyrenee dogs. Ellin (that's her name) explained how the soldiers left a few weeks ago, and then a week later her village was attacked and she hid here according to her father's instructions, while waiting for him to come back to get her.
- Above the fortress was a remote tower that the kid hadn't been able to access. Kayne made good use of ropes and an axe to get inside, only to discover the place had been used by an evil wizard/alchemist type dude for wicked sacrifices and torture. She grabbed his remaining notes and some expensive looking books, threw the bloated corpses and body parts through the window for the vultures to take care of, and left, telling the kid never to go up there.
- The following morning, Kayne went to explore the village, finding out through clever environmental storytelling about what had happened: an axe jammed in a table here, a church barricaded from the outside with the smell of rotting bodies oozing from it, a burned home with a letter. The kid's parents had escaped alongside some of the villagers before a group of soldiers came to raze the village while looking for the sorcerer. Hector, the father, assured her kid that he would come back for her. At this point I decided I would have to go get the kid and bring her along with me to the military camp to keep her safe, and let the commander know that nobody was at Havrenoir.
- We got to the camp safely, noticing another burning town nearby on the journey there, and after leaving the kid to a mother's care (who was already handling like 10 local kids), I reported back to the commander, warning him about the soldiers' attack as well as the whole sorcerer thing. He was surprised and shocked, and decided to open the letter he had sent for Havrenoir, telling me it came directly from the Emperor. In the letter, it was revealed that the old man was trying to bring his dead wife back, by any means necessary, and that the local sorcerer was an apprentice of the Court Alchemist. Also Commander Hopkins knew Hector and sent a messenger to him so that he could come back and find his daughter safely at camp. I offered to help find the sorcerer back, and Hopkins told me to be ready next morning for a recon mission: alongside Captain Merle and a Spy named Pasarola, plus about fifteen trustworthy soldiers, we'd go and try to make contact with the imperial soldiers that had been burning down villages.
- The next morning I met with the Captain and her troop, and we went on horseback towards the second burning town. On our way there, we found strange metallic residues sprinkled on the ground at certain points on the road, as well as more and more traps: caltrops and bear traps. We assumed the soldiers that had deserted were hostile, and decided to camp near the road for the night, and send a small troop (Merle, Pasarola, two trackers and Kayne) to investigate the town and see where the deserters would be if they were still around, quietly.
- We snuck through the deserted town, noticing the church was barricaded from the outside. Eventually we found the soldiers' camp a bit outside of town, and snuck into a watermill to spy on them for a day. They were led by an uppity rich kid from the imperial family accompanied by a veteran commander, and two weird teens with hooded robes. Later that day there was a big ritual with chanting and the likes, revealing that the whole company of deserters were religious zealots following an old local faith, worshipping the "Holy Couple", a God of Wrath and a Goddess of Fertility. The teens then brought lightning from the sky, striking all the places that had been covered with the metal residues.
- Before we snuck out, we tried taking some prisoners but nearly got caught and had to kill three soldiers. We managed to save the people from the church (those of them that were still alive at least) and brought everyone back (minus one scout and half a horse) to Camp, where Kayne got paid.