Monthly OneShots: The D&D Christmas Special

With the festive season in full swing, it made perfect sense to run a Christmas themed game as my monthly one-shot adventure. Many years ago I ran one such adventure for my group in Glasgow, using the lightweight, and now largely forgotten Big Eyes Small Mouth system. It was chaotic and immense fun so I decided to revive it like the ghost of Christmas past for this year’s game. Only rather than BESM, I’d run it in D&D 5th Edition. This was partially because I knew I would get more players but also because I feel like I need more experience with the system. Between Pale Reach and the upcoming Immortals campaign, 2019 is likely to be D&D heavy, with a one-shot I could experiment and play with encounter expectations.

The setup was simple, a caravan had gone missing during the depths of winter and a small group of adventurers had set out into the wilderness to find it. Becoming disorientated in the snow they stumbled upon a modern Santa’s lair, which had been taken over by a young dragon and her minions. Inside a clan of elves worked away as slaves, constructing toys and trinkets for the dragon’s horde.

Overall the adventure ran well, with the chaos that I had expected as the adventurers delved deeper into the workshop. Due to last minute cancellations, I was once again short of two players, which threw the balance out completely. The easy initial encounter became rather challenging (especially as it was the more martial characters that were missing) while the final boss fight would have been a TPK if two of the players hadn’t taken an unexpected approach, which resulted in offering to serve the dragon by taking on the role of Santa!

It was the middle encounter that I was happiest with as realising that they were outmatched in a fair fight the players tried cunning which we played out as an impromptu skill challenge. For something put together on the fly it worked really well and ended with the PCs freeing the elves and inciting a mini-rebellion to take out the ogres overseeing the production line.

All in all, I feel like the game was fun but also highlighted that I need to re-read the rules, especially for the rarer situations that can come up surprisingly often in D&D. Given I’ll be running a regular campaign full of new people I think this is a must, when it comes to running such an iconic game I want to ensure that they get an authentic experience and come out of it wanting more.

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Monthly OneShot Reflections: Demon Hunters A Comedy of Terrors

Disclaimer: Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a massive fan of the Demon Hunters setting, to the extent that I have self-published multiple adventure starters for the game. I was also a high-level backer of the original Kickstarter, to the extent that I was able to submit a chapter for inclusion in the upcoming Players Guide. Take that into consideration when reading this reflection as a review of the game.

A World of Dimness

With its close proximity to Halloween my choice for November’s Monthly OneShot was easy – Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors. Built on a drift of Fate Core, the setting is one of supernatural comedy.

In a world where gods, wizards, vampires and werewolves are real the forces of good fight have come together to fight as one, as the Brotherhood of the Celestial Torch. Demon Hunters. They fight and die in the shadows, so the world can go on, drinking overpriced mocha-frappe-chino lattes in the light. Blissfully unaware that the world ended last Tuesday, only to be dragged kicking and screaming back into existence by a well-placed subclause snuck into a demonic contract.

It’s a dangerous job, but somebody has to do it.

Just not you. To new Agents go the thankless tasks. Negotiating with sentient forests, chasing goblins off of the 18th tee, delivering pizza, locating missing pets.

The OneShot: Missionary Opposition

Called in to investigate an unusually large number of missing pets in a small village the team got to work, enthusiastically knocking on doors under the cover of being missionaries from an obscure church. Their blunt approach of simply holding a bible up and intoning the word ‘God…’ didn’t go down so well. Until they knocked on number 37, whose occupant was all too relieved to have somebody, anybody, to talk to.

It didn’t take long to discover that there had been strange comings and goings during the night, or that people were gathering in the abandoned house at the end of the street. While Gabriel, Jim and Bijoux took off to investigate that Albrecht followed his nose, literally, as he tracked down a scent he knew all too well. Fresh blood, originating from the boot of a nearby car. Inside, another pet and files from the local veterinary clinic.

Over at the abandoned house, the rest of the Chapter came face to face with what they had been seeking, a skinless creature the size of a bear, layer upon layer of muscle twitching in anticipation. It proved no match for the Chapter and was quickly dispatched back to whatever hell it had been pulled from. A quick investigation of the house discovered its gruesome origins, the decaying body of a man inside a ritual circle. While his wallet had been emptied the Agents found a scrunched up business card inside his pocket. Carl Jackson, Personal Injury Attorney. The address was local, and as it turned out only doors away from the Veterinary Clinic.

A bungled attempt to break into the attorney’s office triggered a silent alarm, drawing the attention of a trio of… irate middle-aged businessmen who were quickly dealt with. Drawing from Bijoux’s knowledge of human anatomy the Chapter concocted a basic, yet surprisingly effective, truth serum to conduct a quick interrogation. They learned that the trio were following orders from a woman going by the names of Lilith and Jackie. Bitter at some perceived slight by the local community she had gathered a small group to get revenge… by summoning the creature and letting it loose during the upcoming Summer Fayre. A subsequent investigation of the veterinary clinic revealed Jackie to be not only a member of staff but the wife of the deceased Carl Jackson.

The Chapter hightailed it to Lillith’s home, where they discovered that she had already begun the ritual to once again summon the beast. Quick thinking by Bijoux put an end to that, as she hit redial on the mobile taken from the man they had interrogated. The ritual chants of “Ix’Kalla, Ix’Kalla, Ix’Kalla” that had been calling out were disrupted by a familiar sound – the Nokia ringtone.

Then came the screaming.

With the cultists being devoured by the beast the Chapter leapt into the fray, knowing that they had to banish the abomination before it broke free of the ritual circle. Albrecht dived after Lillith and the tome she was carrying, while RM, Jim and Bijoux worked to contain the creature. Securing the Tome of Ix’Kalla from Lillith the Chapter used its forbidden knowledge to banish the beast from the mortal plane.

Having saved this little corner of the world the Chapter started the long walk back to base… they’d missed their ride and their calls to HQ kept going to voicemail.

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The Roundup: Riotous Fun

I love Demon Hunters. I love both the setting and the system and once again this session reminded me why. In contrast to many of my previous adventures the game didn’t descend towards slapstick, but the absurdity of the setting shone through. From the opening where the players had to improvise at being missionaries but didn’t know which church they belonged to right through to disrupting a ritual summoning by ringing the villains mobile at a critical moment. Possibly the only downside was that one player took a little bit longer than the others to grasp the humorous potential and thus spent the first half of the game worrying about the police arriving. With a sillier adventure (such as Channel Surfing) this wouldn’t have been an issue but it did highlight the difficulty of running adventures that rely on a dry sense of humour.

From a mechanical perspective, the players picked up the system quickly, though I do feel like a cheat sheet would have helped with some of the finer details of invoking aspects. Demon dice were particularly fun, the players were nervous about using them, which helped add to the tension of the rolls and more than one action failed because they were paranoid about what I might do with the dice if I added them to my pool. I’m still not sure that I put them to proper use, I struggle in particular with the concept of needing to spend them to have events happen (represented mechanically by adding aspects) rather than just declaring that it happens.

While preparing the adventure I took some time to reread the core rules. The book is a fun and relatively easy read but there are a few points where the text is confusing or even contradicts other parts of the book. For example, the rules on recovering conditions state at one point that succeeding with style on the action automatically clears a condition while a different page states that it clears two conditions. There are also a couple of sections that would benefit from some additional examples. The prime candidates are spells and badness tables. I appreciate why the writers didn’t want to include lists of spells or tables but personally, I would have really benefitted from additional guidance and examples.

Overall though? The book is great and full of detail. There’s a detailed setting including a secret history of the world, plenty of artwork and a full range of sample NPCs to drop into your game. The best part of the book may be the mission generator, which breaks the process down into a series of simple steps. A basic mission profile can be generated in as little as five minutes and if you get stuck? Just roll on one of the random tables for inspiration. Want even more guidance? Then pick up the first supplement for the game, Demon Hunting Manual A771, which takes a deep dive into mission planning and organisation.

The Demon Hunters RPG can be purchased from DriveThruRPG via:
Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors (PDF and Print on Demand)
Demon Hunting Manual A771 (PDF and Print on Demand)

While my adventure outlines for the game are available as Pay What You Want downloads from LunarShadow Designs on DriveThruRPG

Monthly OneShot Reflections: Firefly RPG

For the last few months I’ve been running monthly one shots at Sugar & Dice, one of the gaming cafes in Liverpool. I managed to post my Reflections on The Sprawl pretty quickly, while the first languished in my drafts folder. Until now.

I do the job…

From the outset, one of my prime motivations in establishing the Monthly OneShots was to promote settings and systems that weren’t D&D. I’ve always been pretty up-front the fact that I consider D&D to be, at best, an OK game. While 5th Edition has provided a massive boost to the hobby, in general, it frustrates me when I encounter groups playing nothing but D&D. Or worse, playing non-fantasy settings using quick reskins of the game.

That meant my first OneShot had to be something special. For that, I turned to what may be my all time favourite system in one of my favourite settings. Firefly, powered by Cortex Plus Action. For the adventure, Niska’s Race, my convention scenario that I have run close to a dozen times.

The setup for the adventure is simple, the infamous gangster Adelai Niska has hired the crew to recover one of his weapons shipments that had been impounded by the Alliance. The twist? It was so valuable to him that he had employed multiple crews, each competing to get to the cargo and earn his favour.

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…and then I get paid.

With a scenario I’ve run multiple times and a system I know backwards I was confident that I could put on a good show. The players dived into the characters and while they were all new to the system picked it up pretty quickly. Overall, I was happy with how the game played out. The scenario is designed to be pretty open ended, with each of the competing crews offering different complications that the GM can throw at the party. Each and every time I have run the scenario the players have taken a different approach. I’ve had crews seduce the ranking Alliance officer for information, steal a gunship to break into the impound yard and even some turn on Niska by becoming Alliance informants. This crew was no different, inciting a full on riot just because they needed a distraction.

And then came the final twist, which caught them completely off guard (I won’t spoil it). That was when I knew the session had gone well. It was also when I decided the scenario had finally run its course. I knew it backwards and while no two games of it had ever played out the same, there was little left to surprise me.

Overall, I would class the session as a success. The players were great and reminded me why I enjoy GMing so much. I get a real buzz from running a good game, enough to lift my mood for days afterwards.

So Monthly OneShot number 1 – success.

Monthly OneShot Reflections: The Sprawl

Last week I ran the second of my Monthly OneShots at the fantastic Sugar & Dice gaming cafe here in Liverpool. System of the month: The Sprawl.

Unlike the first month where I had run a well polished adventure for the Firefly RPG this was my first time running The Sprawl, or any PbtA game for that matter. I’d read through the rules and completed some minimal prep, focused around the setup and a couple of possible locations to introduce early on. I’d also jotted down a few notes on possible Corporations to introduce into play. While this goes against the general flow of the rules I’d taken the idea from the introductory ‘Downtown Dataheist’ adventure. Looking back I wish I’d gone further and followed the structure of that mission entirely. Or, in what would have been a smarter move, run that mission.

The Job

The mission was relatively simple. Infinitive Cascade, an up and coming RetroSynth DJ with the N/A/R Corporation had approached a rival Corp about a possible lucrative switch. All the team had to do was extract them before they completed their sold-out set the next day, with a substantial bonus if they could leak the first track from Cascades new album, Millennial MashUp.

Due to a number of last minute drop-outs the team was down to only two. Binary, an infiltrator and the tech head Jim Jones, who preferred to operate remotely through his twin drones. Hitting the streets Jones successfully tracked down Cascades hotel by tapping into the fan following that had grown up around the young DJ. Binary meanwhile acquired tickets to the gig through a fixer they had previously worked with. The price? The head of a rival fixer and triad member operating out of the Liverpool Automated Docks. That proved no match for their skills and yielded the bonus of discovering a concealed, two seater microlite used by the gangs to move goods in and out of the city.

Binary, supported by the drones, infiltrated the arcology in which Cascades hotel could be found via an old drainage system. A lack of research into the tunnels meant they were caught unaware by the automated security turret and Binary took a trio of flechette rounds to one shoulder in the process of destroying it. With Binary making his way to the hotel penthouse Jones’ drones ran interference, they succeeded in distracting the security team but in doing alerted them to the presence of trouble. With time running out Binary was forced to skewer two security guards on his katana before dragging Cascade to the roof for extraction via the microlite.

The job complete, albeit in a rather noisy manner, the team retreated to their hideout. Arriving at the pre-arranged exchange point they were surprised to find themselves paid in full, no questions asked. The reason soon became apparent, as the Corporate fixer put a bullet in Cascade’s head, calmly remarking that “posthumous albums always sell so well” before departing.

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Reflection on the mission

I came out of the game with extremely mixed feelings as to how it had gone. Part of this was down to how well the previous Monthly OneShot had gone and I had to remind myself repeatedly that that was using an adventure I had run 6+ times. My frustration stemmed from a couple of points.

Firstly, the players. We had some last minute drop-outs, which threw me somewhat. One of the players was also on the verge of being a problem. I wouldn’t go as far as saying he was disruptive, more like irritating. He kept trying to explain aspects of the genre and talked over myself and the other player more than once. It got on my nerves and is something I shall have to watch for in the future. Both were also new to PbtA, so drawing them on adding to the world was difficult.

As for the system, I found parts of it difficult. For a 4 hour game I think trying to do full character creation, plus generating Corporations and a mission is going to near impossible without a table of players that know the flow of PbtA games (and ideally know The Sprawl). I glossed over entire sections of the game, sections that are interesting and make it stand out such as the links between characters and the Corporations in play. I had written a few notes as to possible Corporations but with how the mission played out they weren’t required.

The players made no attempt to dig deeper that they had to and completed only the minimal amount of legwork required. Part of this was my mistake, during the legwork phase we played out a few scenes in more detail than was probably required. Looking over Downtown Dataheist again I should have gone with a quicker tell me what you do, roll, tell me how it turns out approach. It sacrifices detail but would have allowed them to get through more legwork in the limited time available.

During the Action phase I struggled the most with the Clocks. When to progress the Action clock was the main one and I wish the game had some more concrete rules for doing so. As it is I could see myself never pushing it to midnight as that’s an instant fail for the team based on an arbitrary decision. Instead I suspect I’d just keep throwing more at them until they decided the mission was a bust or died trying. Which isn’t fun. I may need to write my own directives in future for when to raise it, off the top of my head I think I would go with:

When a player rolls a double 1.
When a character takes out a corporate asset that will be missed.
When the characters act against a Corporation in the open.

I don’t know when I’ll get a chance to play the system again. I would like to. I love the genre and based on reading alone I want t love the system. Ideally I think I need to find a table of PbtA players, unfortunately those are few and far between around here.