Tag Archives: writing

Nicodemus the Archmage

Here’s that model I painted. He’s turned out not too bad considering I’ve not picked up a brush in years. Took about an hour, and it looks ‘good enough’ which is all I need it to do. Given that I only want to paint minis I feel like doing (as opposed to armies or competition), I might as well stat them up for D&D. So, here’s Nicodemus the Archmage*

Nicodemus is big. He is an old human wizard, who has the stature of a retired prizefighter. He stands at 6’6″, and that’s without his battered blue hat. He leans heavily on a staff made of solid stone, which he wields as easily as a rapier when angered.

His temperament  is as grizzled as his visage. He answers queries with beetled brows before offering the applicant a salvo of explosive and creative swearing, backed up with a prodding finger to the recipients forehead. The only topic of conversation that seems to pique his interest in that of the Feywild. Nicodemus has made a lifelong study of the bright plane, and is perhaps the most learned of all scholars on the sunject. However, his knowledge is strictly theoretical, as he claims he is too old, and too busy to go on field trips.

Nicodemus will pay well for first hand knowledge of the Feywild, in particular news of hitherto unknown crossings. He has plenty of gold on hand, though no-one knows where that wealth comes from. Potential thieves would do well to consult with the spirits of those rogues who have crossed him in the past.

Nicodemus has a secret. He is in fact a juvenile gnome. Years ago, as a precocious apprentice illusionist, the young gnome wished for power, and for the appearance of power. He made a bargain with a dark and capricious power to make him a mighty arch mage. The patron did no more than asked, and since that time Nicodemus has been cursed to appear as an elderly human wizard, replete with travel worn robes, beard and hat. Worse, the bargain also means Nicodemus can never return to the Feywild while the curse persists. Of course, his patron resides there chuckling to itself for eternity.


*Name blatantly nicked from Mordheim. Cheers!

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Bloodsand Arena Revised

I’ve been busy prepping for LemurCon recently. I’ve managed to convince some old friends to give 4e a slot and we’ve gone with Dark Sun. This is a one shot, so I wanted to hit as many of the setting’s key notes as possible, while also telling a self contained story, and having the traditional elements that make any D&D game great. In 5 hours. No easy task. At time of writing, I don’t know how this eventually went down, but here’s some of the things I’ve done in the making.


I almost exclusively DM so I haven’t done much more than dabble wiith characters. I have the builder, and I wouldn’t attempt anything above 1st level or non-Essentials with pen and paper.  I wanted 6th level, it’s just right for one-shots in my experience. I fired up the builder and tried out a few things. I don’t know why but I was a bit surprised that Essentials classes and races don’t really suit Dark Sun in the main. I’d polled my players on their wants (I sent them a little primer on race, class, theme and the world) and they wanted Thri-Kreen, gladiators, Sorcerer-King warlocks and all the rest. Great stuff, but it meant using the classic 4e set up. Mostly not a  problem, just had to take care to pick powers and abilities that didn’t have too much conditional stuff. I like themes, but I don’t know if I went overboard with them and thus didn’t get enough original class flavour in. We’ll see. Feats. Oh my god,  feats. There is an absolute skipload of them, and after 15 minutes of reading I wished I didnt have to take them at all. I’ve tried to go for something DS in feel, but lord only knows if they’re in the slightest bit effective. Again, we’ll see.

I do like the inherent bonus system. It’s quick, and effective, and saves adding in a bunch more power cards for my newbie players. I hit auto-select for shopping to see what I would get, it’s pretty random, I got Eberron items and things for water breathing! Not recommended. I had to delete them all, and when I tried again I got different items, so it’s definitely random.

I’ve also been looking at character sheets. The internet failed me, as it looks like people really don’t do their own sheets so much anymore. I’m not a huge fan of the ones the builder currently offers, and the classic one is too busy. I wanted to keep the power cards though, so there wasn’t a lot left to do. I customised my old Word doc sheets, and picked an appropriate colour scheme, and it’s done. Some manual input needed, but that’s not particularly onerous.

I’ve added in one of the sheets to the Free Stuff page. http://rpgtreehouse.files.wordpress.com/2009/06/lakta-cho.docx

Next: The Scenario

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Paizo of the Coast modules

I’ve been asking a lot of questions about companies’ approaches to adventure design recently, but I haven’t been supplying many of my own answers. Some of that is because I don’t really know the answers! However, there’s a few observations I do have.

 At time  of writing I’m running my weekly group through WotC’s Orcus modules. We’re deep into E1, Death’s Reach. It’s been good fun so far, and we’re one session into the final section, which is a dungeon called the Reliquary of Timesus. Simultaneously, my current read is part 5 of Paizo’s Legacy of Fire Adventure Path. It’s also a dungeon, based in a palace complex set within the City of Brass. It’s called The Impossible Eye. It’s a good read, full of flavour, but looks very tricky to run. 

There has to be a middle ground between WotC’s dry/linear adventures, and Paizo’s complex/verbose ones. What would a product that took the best of both worlds look like? Let’s take the Reliquary, and reformat it the Paizo way.

On the WotC side, they utilise(d) a two book format. The first book has the overview, and the extras like new monsters and treasures, and art work. The second book has the encounters all laid out in a delve format for ease of play. The folder also contains a double sided poster map of some of the big locations in the adventure. (I should say that WotC have moved away from this format in the last year or so, but only in that they bundle all this together into a single book, otherwise it’s broadly the same).

Paizo are much more traditional in their formatting. It’s written in a travel-guide fashion, with a brief overview at the front and then it takes the reader through the adventure, location by location. It does mean having to flick back and forth a lot to see how various parts link up. The art is sprinkled through the adventure. In the APs, they give a big chunk of the product to supplementary material, fiction, new monsters etc.

WotC try to separate the encounter information from the plot exposition. The trouble is, there’s too much bleed over. There are 13 encounters in the Reliquary spread over 19 locations. All the locations are summarised over a mere two pages, with references to the combat pages in book two. The entire dungeon is presented over just 4 pages. There’s a lot of story/plot elements that only appear when you get to the encounter format itself, or worse, it’s duplicated. Those encounter maps are keyed with starting monster locations.

Paizo blend all the mechanics into the prose sections of their keyed entries.  They have a tendency to start with some boxed  text that concentrates on the architecture and the furnishings. If there are any adversaries present, they get introduced right at the end of the entry. The description can be wide ranging about histories and relationships. Adversaries can be flagged up that don’t get explained until later in the book. Each entry rewards repeat reading and notetaking so that nothing gets missed, like the monsters.

My blended approach would be to stay with the single book, but to separate it into sections to facilitate play at the table, and to make the inevitable page flicking easier. I would spread the art through the book. That gives it context and the company website or a scanner allows the images to be shown to players as required. I would put the stat blocks and tactics directly into the main body of the adventure. The delve format has only one pro (to not have to flick pages in the middle of a combat) and too many cons (repeated, or discreet, story info; the keyed map which can’t be printed; lots of white space; repeated environmental info and more). Fourth edition encounter design means that groups of opponents are far more likely to be encountered than solitary monsters or traps. The delve format brings all those stats to one place, but frankly, a 3e statblock for a single creature easily takes up half a full page. I don’t think it’s completely necessary to separate out the encounter info. At worst, the encounter info might run onto another page, but that’s a small price to pay for legibility and read-flow.

Similarly, there’s no need to repeat the encounter map with starting positions. These positions should be apparent from the description, either the boxed text (enabling the DM to place the monster as they read) or within the description for hidden monsters and traps. These starting positions are wasted post the initiative roll anyway. Same with environmental effects like tables, chairs, doors, fires etc. All common environmental effects can be boxed out in an appendix or at the start of the adventure.

The dungeon overview provided by WotC is actually fine, it’s concise and gives the DM what he needs, the story and enough to improvise on should the party enquire. This should be followed by the dungeon map. The Paizo maps  are like architects drawings, they’re fascinating, inspiring even, but they are extraordinarily difficult to describe or map out at the table. They also have verisimilitude, with barracks, kitchens and kennels. There are more ‘empty’ rooms than inhabited ones. Some of those empty rooms contain clues or history, but others are there just to fill out the map. There are lots of linked levels, and the DM has to be careful to see how inhabitants hear and see the other locations. It’s very pretty, but low on utility.

On the other hand, the WotC map of the reliquary is made up of scanned dungeon tiles, and it’s squeezed into the A4 page. There are no dead ends, only 3 empty rooms, and it’s a largely straight sequence of chambers. There’s no sense that this was designed and built by anyone but a  WotC employee. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it’s eminently playable. The DM and players won’t get lost and no-one needs to worry about what the surrounding locations are doing. It’s almost brutally functional.

The meat of the adventure is in the keyed locations. This is where WotC have again, gone for the functional approach. They make a nod towards story by having every chamber covered in sculpted reliefs that slowly tell the story of the Dawn War between the Gods and the primordials. They even back this up with art depicting the same. There’s a skill check noted on occasion to translate the carvings. This is the best part of any location description as it’s almost all of it. the room will only ever have one or two more sentences of description outside of the encounter book. For example, the final room:

“This chamber, the prison of Timesus, shows signs of a methodical excavation.”

That would have been fine back in the days of 1st edition, but the modern audience is entitled to more. In fairness, the encounter book expands on this and gives read aloud text as well as tactics, but even then it errs on the side of sparsity.

This is where the biggest change could be made. the locations should be able to be read as if part of a story, or at least a travel guide. Paizo go too far too often by including text that’s irrelevant to the adventure at hand, and tenuous in it’s relationship to anything the characters are likely to encounter. The happy medium would be for the text to be explanatory first and interesting second with inspiring a third priority. If it is only one of those three things, it’s missing the key element of a role playing game scenario.

Lastly, and this isn’t in Death’s Reach, WotC have made strides to make the treasure placement more customisable in latter adventures. This is a great use of an appendix, and needs to help the beleaguered DM keep their game, and campaign, on track.

In summary, I’d hugely expand the first book from WotC, using the best writing from the Paizo styles, and I’d contract the delve book into the body of the adventure. At every stage I’d look to see that the book remains a gameable product, and not something to be read in lieu of a novel.


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The Ultimate Tavern

“You all meet in a tavern…”

The original unoriginal beginning to adventure. But what if you did all meet in a tavern, and what if that tavern was the most fantastic place in the world? What would that look like?


My plan is to make the ultimate tavern for fantasy worlds. It will be the place to meet patrons, swap stories, hear tall tales, cement reputations, make legends, get roaring drunk and have one of those lovely little bowls of spiced nuts they do. 

I need your help and inspiration. I have the physical place all mapped out, and I have some plots, history, schemes and organisations all ready to go. I want to populate this place with (ir)regulars of all stripes, and that’s where I could do with a hand.


So tell me about your character.

 It can be any fantasy character. It might be the one from your gaming history, or one you play today, or one you’ve always wanted to. System is irrelevant (I don’t want numbers). I only ask that you use the following template if you can (and if you can’t, I’ll get over it).


  • Occupation: what’s your way of life?
  • Physical description: just briefly, including any quirks
  • Attributes and skills: anything markedly above or below the norm
  • Values and motivations: what spurs you to action?
  • Behaviour: traits that stand out
  • Useful knowledge: perhaps a hook?
  • Mannerism: something memorable 

As they come in, don’t be afraid of putting in links to other characters. Enmities and alliances are all grist to the mill.


My long term plan is to gather this cast into a game resource. Eventually I’ll publish it. Contributors will be credited of course, and if there is anything physical to come from this I’ll get you a copy gratis. That’s all I can offer. I know it’s not much.  

Over to you.


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Quoted For Truth

I was catching up on my reading and came across this from James Wyatt:

Did you ever read a novel where the world was a barrier? Maybe you felt like you had to earn a master’s degree in the history of this fictitious place to make sense of the story you were trying to read, or you had to keep referring to a glossary in the back to keep track of all the made-up names for the most mundane details of the world. “What the heck is a Quelarian star-fruit, and why do I care? Why doesn’t the hero just eat a banana?”

I’ve read that book, or tried to. And I’ve run that D&D campaign, or tried to. It turns out that my players didn’t have any more interest in the campaign than I had in the novel. This time around, I’m letting the world get out of the way and concentrating on the big picture: the themes.

I wholeheartedly agree. I’m currently running the HPE series, and there’s really no setting to speak of in our games. I once referred to the world as Generica as a laugh and it kind of stuck. A great setting can really help colour in the game, our occasional Eberron game being a great example. But sometimes too much ‘world’ gets in the way.

I’d recommend reading the whole article I’ve snipped that quote from. You’ll have to be a subscriber, but the entire Dungeoncraft series is worth checking out.

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A novel idea for a setting

I found myself in the public library today, which is a rare occasion. I was scanning the fantasy/sci fi/horror section, surprised at how much stuff they had, and wondering why on earth I spend what I do in bookstores. I checked a few back covers for a precis that sounded interesting. While doing that I came round to thinking about how my reading tends to be mosty gaming related, and that includes the novels I pick up. It struck me then that I’d been slowly coming to a decision over recent months and it goes a little something like this.

I’ve got loads of RPGs, about 5 or 6 times as many as you can see in the banner for this site. The vast majority of them have a setting as part of the game. Consequently, I’ve internalised an awful lot of imaginary worlds. Add to that the weird predilection I have for trying to see everything in the real world as potential gaming fodder and you might begin to see how full my head is. Novels and comics are an obvious source of gaming maaterial, but as time has gone on I’ve realised I’m never ever going to sit down and write a setting bible based on a novel, I’m just not. It’s way to much work and frankly, if my players aren’t as invested in the setting as I am then it’s never going to see time at the table. Let’s not even think about publishing it, not going to happen. Last time I tried to do this was with the Night’s Dawn trilogy by Peter F Hamilton, my favourite author. It’s absolutley ripe for gaming and I sincerely hope someone will do it one day. But it’s more than 3000 pages long and the cast of characters, locations, kit etc is absolutley enormous. Even the really hard core wiki builders struggle with that challenge.

So I don’t do it. I don’t even really build my own settings out of whole cloth, nor do I really pay a huge amount of attention to game worlds so much any more. The reason being, there’s just too much stuff, often of little relevance and too little of it ever reaches the ears of my players. Where’s the utility in a 300+ page book where 297 pages are just dry historical detail?

Let me give you an example. I recently bought Eclipse Phase after reading some reports and reviews online. It’s fans are vocal and passionate to say the least. Just browse RPGnet, you’ll see what I mean. When a poster said I could do Night’s Dawn with it I was totally sold. However, after an hour reading it from the first page I started to flick, never a good sign. ten minutes after that, I’d shelved it. The reason was I felt I would be better off reading a novel as I’d get the same giant infodump but in a more entertaining medium. Believe me when I say this isn’t a dig at the game, I’m sure it’s as brilliant and innovative as people say, but it’s not for me with the way I want to approach gaming these days. The short fiction at the start seemed like something from Shadowrun circa 1994, while the rest of the book was a patchwork of the authors favourite transhumanist scifi of recent years. again, it’s a perfeectly valid approach to a game book, but actually I found myself wishing I’d read the source material instead.

So I noticed a section of books by Charles Stross in the library, and his works are mentioned in Eclipse Phase. My interest piqued, I checked out the splash page. turns out the one I’d picked up is his first published work called The Atrocity Archives and I don’t think it’s one of the transhuman books. Here’s the back page for you:

Bob Howard is a low-level techie working for a super-secret government agency. While his colleagues are out saving the world, Bob’s under a desk restoring lost data. None of them receive any thanks for the jobs they do, but at least a techie doesn’t risk getting shot or eaten in the line of duty. Bob’s world is dull but safe, and that’s the way it should have stayed; but then he went and got Noticed. Now, Bob Howard is up to his neck in spycraft, alternative universes, dimension-hopping nazis, Middle Eastern terrorists, damsels in distress, ancient Lovecraftian horror and the end of the world. Only one thing is certain: it will take more than control-alt-delete to sort this mess out…

There’s enough there for a whole campaign no? And the preface makes it even more succint. In it Ken MacLeod points out:

Think, for a moment, what the following phrase would call to mind if you’d never heard it before: ‘Secret intelligence’

And there’s about 20 of the games on my shelf summed up. Except those books then give me another 13 chapters of explanation and detail which is mostly unnecessary and has the effect of dulling and diluting the original concept. Bringing it back to RPGs proper, the worst offender for me was The Iron Kingdoms, a superb setting from Privateer Press originally for d20 gaming. It started with a trilogy of adventures which gave the DM just enough to go on, and  crucially it all came out at the table as the party progressed. Three modules later and everyone knew as much as everyone else at the table without having to study for hours and without losing any immersion either. I think it was better than most settings just because of that ‘reveal during play’ approach. Obviously the fans wanted more and the publishers got to work. The first book was Lock and Load, really just a conversion supplement for standard D&D. It came with maps and geography and history, all in 64 pages. Brilliant. And then a long, long wait while the big hardback sourcebooks were produced, weighing in at 600 pages over 2 hardbacks, all as dry as dust. They’d utterly explained away all the magic. A crushing disappointment, especially when you consider their minis game in the same world, Warmachine, had exactly the same job to do, yet managed it in colour with barely a third of the page count. 

Now, this post haas gotten way too long and is in some danger of becoming a rant. So part 2 tomorrow…


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Taking the world building plunge after 30 years

Over the years I’ve played loads of games, and loads of campaigns too, yet I’ve rarely come up with my own world before 4e came along. To help me (and others) understand why that is, I’ve had a look back at some prior experiences.

I think you have to love the system, and I love 4e. This is because, for me, I like the setting assumptions to be present in the system itself as much as possible. Take Burning Wheel for example, it’s what I call a strong implied setting and because of that, it’s the sort of engine that people like to try out with their own worlds. With 4e, it’s a looooong way from being a generic system and maybe that’s why I find it easier to world build with.

Continue reading


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The Digital GM

If you are in any way a fan of digital tools at your tabletop, or when you’re deep into your prep then you need to pay attention.

Get Onenote.

It’s packaged in with MS Office 2007 and frankly, it’s worth the price of admission on it’s own. I’ve only scratched the surface of it’s capabilities and it’s spurring me on to create more gaming goodness than I really have time for.

Any tips or tricks you know of?


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Monster builder

The beta is live and available on DDI now. I’ve had it for 2 minutes. It’s awesome.

Until now I’d been wrangling different ways to get monsters onto paper that works for me. I’d actually resorted to manually typing them out. No more. What I love so much about this is that it is designed to help me run my games, not just to be flashy, or a good read, or just fun. It’s sheer utility and it’s just made every other D&D purchase slightly more useful. Awesome.

I’m greedy though. I want to be able to do skill challenges, and maps, and wikis and, and, everything! I just might then be able to write my own stuff and not have it be such an effort.

Well done WotC. Impressive.

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Writing scenarios for conventions

My gaming group now has a website: http://smartparty.wordpress.com/

This is my first serious contribution to it. feedback is more than welcome.

So, you want to write a Convention game?

I’ve a confession to make, I don’t write many of my own scenarios. There’s a couple of reasons for this. First, there are professionals who will do it for me, and second, because I can’t bring myself to do a half assed job of it. If I had my way I’d get every scenario I write fully edited, typeset, proofread and professionally illustrated as well as pubished (to huge acclaim naturally). What this means, is that when I do set my mind to writing a game I give it everything I’ve got. I usually write in preperation for an upcoming Con. I get huge pleasure out of running games at Cons. I believe it’s something everyone should have a go at. I’m fortunate enough to get good responses to my games. If you’re thinking about writing something yourself then you might find it useful to see the steps I go through to get my scenario up and running. Obvously this is not the only, or the best way to approach Con scenario writing, but it’s one way that works for me.

I’m going to work through this process stage by stage in the same order I did it myself, from start to finish. I’m using a D&D 4e game I ran at DragonMeet in 2008. 4e has many advantages, not least of which is it’s structured approach to adventure design. Nevertheless I’ll try to keep the lessons I learned system neutral as far as possible.

Step one: Select your Con

Jargon buster: Con = a convention, a meeting of gamers to talk about, play, buy and sell games. With beer.

So, I’ve made the decision to attend DragonMeet, a London one day Con that takes place in November each year. It’s a fair sized Con for the UK and has a well deserved reputation for friendliness.
I checked out the DragonMeet website and tapped into UK Roleplayers too, to see what people were talking about, and what was getting them excited. Of course you also want to see what other GMs might have planned, so you don’t cover exactly the same bases. Most Cons have web support, to one degree or another, and it’s well worth checking. Before you can even think about getting creative, or picking the perfect marriage of setting and system, you need to get the logistics sorted. For starters you need to get yourself booked in as a delegate, sort accomodation and travel. Every Con is different in this respect and you need to get organised early. The same is true of the procedures for booking in as a GM for the Con. You need to check and then decide whether you’ll be running a game that will be pre-promoted (and possibly pre-booked) or whether the Con allows, and you want to do this, turn up on the day with a game under your arm and take what players you can find. I like to have a few things straightened out in advance so I always go with booking my slots in advance with the Con organisers. If it’s your first time, I’d recommend you do the same.

Con organisers are a varied bunch of individuals but I’ve always found them to be passionate about gaming at least. Sometimes this means they can be a bit disorganised but don’t let it put you off. By and large Cons are run by volunteers (you’re about to be one yourself after all) so if necessary, cut them a break and be patient but persistent.

Step 2: How many slots?

Jargon Buster: Slot = a timeslot for gaming in. Averages about 4 hours, tend to be morning, afternoon or evening.

You need to put yourself down for a slot, or more than one. Here’s the next decision point. For DragonMeet there’s really only 2 slots, one in the morning, one in the afternoon. I wanted to be able to see a bit of the Con myself, so I opted for running a single slot in the afternoon. Previously, at longer Cons with 3 or 4 slots available per day, I’ve found my perfect balance to be run one, play one, socialise one, each day. I know of some crazy types who run games for 12 hours a day. I wouldn’t. I’d rather put my efforts into getting one good game sorted than 3 weaker ones. I’m going to write the rest of this essay on the basis that we’re just prepping one game. So there you are.

How long is your slot? Knowing this is absolutely vital, and something that’s very easy to overlook or ignore. DragonMeet slots are 4 hours long, so that’s how long my game had to last. Except it isn’t. I’ll come back to this point, but for now just remember, you need to know how long the slot is for, when it starts and when it finishes.

Step 3: Pick your game

Back to the prep. What game do you want to run, and is the same as the game you should run? The difference being that you may well want to run your decades long, homebrew space fantasy game, but will you be able to attract any players, and will they be able to understand it? Probably not. Again, do your research. If you’re going to Tentacles, then you’ll want to at least give a nod to Chaosium systems. You’ll get players, and they’ll know what they’re getting into. If you’re running at D&D Experience, it’s not going to go down well if you want to run Champions or GURPS is it? This is where the website comes back in. Ask questions on the forums and look for interest levels in your game.

I first put out feelers to see if anyone was interested in Golden Heroes and Dragon Warriors. I got only a handful of responses, and a couple of flat out refusals. This feedback was invaluable, it would have been embarassing to have turned up to an empty table, so I’d rather know in advance than be too afraid to ask. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s no point being popular if it’s a game youre not personally interested in. If there’s high demand to play Dogs in the Vineyard but it doesnt float your boat, don’t put yourself forward for it.

So I looked at the games that had me excited that year. Recent releases always seem to get attention at Cons. (Classics work too. You will always get players for Cthulhu and AD&D). This does mean your game tends towards demo rather than straight play but thats a topic for another essay, dont worry about it now. That year I’d picked up Trail of Cthulhu, Mongoose Traveller, StarSIEGE and D&D 4e. I plumped for D&D on the basis that I already had a weekly game I’d been running very successfully, there were all kinds of cool props I could use, and I thought there would be interest in it. I also knew I could write for it, and I wanted to try out that process as a Con experiment. You’re reading the results right now.

Step 4: What’s the concept?

So I’ve got my game. Just need to write it now. First things first, get a concept straight in your head. Write it down now so you can refer to it later if you start to go off track. This is important. You’ve got a limited time in which to run your game, so what do you want to showcase? Let’s say you want to run Earthdawn, which bit of it will you focus on? Therans? Horrors? Exploration? You really won’t be able to do the lot, and you need to recognise that early. It’s not enough to want to run a Cthulhu game, you need to pick a theme and nail it hard. Don’t try to do a world tour of the setting, you won’t be able to do it. Similarly, are you going to be showcasing a part of the game that actually exists or are you going off piste? What I mean is you might want to run Vampire: The Requiem. In space. Totally fine! but it will have consequences, just so you know.

My concept was, I wanted it to involve a conflict with a dragon. Simple as that. I was inspired by the Con itself, it’s called DragonMeet, so I thought it would be cool to, you know, meet a dragon.

Step 5: Get your timings sorted

Jargon buster: one shot = a single game that has no follow up
sessions, and usually has pregenerated characters to play with.

That done, now what. This is where you need to go back to the slot demands. I had 4 hours to run a game. It needed to finish witin 4 hours. This is important. It’s better to have a great game in 3 and a half hours than an ok game that overuns by half an hour. People have other commitments at Cons, and will have things to do. Don’t overrun. Just don’t. Though you will.

Given that most Con games are one shots you need to fit a beginning, a middle and an end into the slot. You also have to allow for set up, breaks and wrap up. So I sketched out the timings. It would take me about 10 minutes to find the players, the table and to get our stuff out and ready to go. That’s being conservative. I’ve had sessions that took 30 mins to set up in the past, but from prior knowledge of DragonMeet, I thought I could get it done in 10. Then theres the rules briefing. Earlier I mentioned the notion of demo gaming. Every game I’ve ever run has had at least one player at the table who didn’t know a thing about the game, or knew about the setting but not the rules or vice versa. You need to get these people up to speed, and that takes a little time. Even if your table is full of veterans, they’ll need to look over their characters and sometimes that can be a lengthy operation. Given that 4e was only a few months old, I knew I’d have a mix of players, so I allowed 20 minutes of rules stuff. That’s half an hour gone and we haven’t started yet. I also knew I wanted to take a 15 minute break in the middle to get a break and to have a drink. Finally, I wanted to aim to end 15 mins before the end of the slot, to allow for contingencies and to have a chance to chat to my group and seek feedback. (This last part is a Smart Party practice, we always ask for and act on feedback, it’s fundamental to the way we roll).

Now my 4 hour game is actually 3 hours long. This is perfectly alright, no-one is being short changed by this, because those 3 hours will be a complete gaming experience.

Step 6: Brainstorm your scenario

D&D 4e is very helpful on writing scenarios, and the advice can apply to most RPGs. The session is best broken up into parts, called encounters in D&D. This makes it easier for you to run, and in some ways easier to play. In 4e, each (combat) encounter will take 45 – 60 mins, depending on number of players. With this in mind I knew I had room for 3 encounters (happily thats a beginning, a middle and an end). I also wanted to put in a skill challenge, and I knew that wouldn’t take up much time and would help showcase the system. To help keep to time I opted for 6 players (most D&D games recommend 5). The 6 players would help to make the combat encounters a little bit shorter, and I like the idea of an even number of players. I also knew the way the tables are laid out at DragonMeet, and it’s worth checking it out for your Con. Some have circular tables that only take 6 people max. You need to take this into account.
I started at the end of the game and worked back towards the beginning. This is a great way of ensuring your game ends with a bang, and that you keep to your concept. So, for my game the final scene would be a conflict with a dragon. The rest of the game would be a way of getting to that point. Be warned, some people have an issue with this type of game design. They believe that such ‘railroading’ is bad for the players. That’s a valid viewpoint, and one I have a lot of sympathy with. However, for Con gaming I think you are better off with a strong structure to your game. You’ve already got limitations on time, players and location, so you may not have the freedom to improvise a plot around your players actions. Leave it for your weekly games at home, where you can enjoy the freedom.

Now. At this stage, before getting too wrapped up in the nitty gritty of the scenario, I wanted some inspiration and advice. So I hit the net and asked. RPGnet has a lot of traffic on it, and the guys on there are very happy to help, criticise and discuss. If you want opinions it’s the place to ask. Smaller forums are great too, as you tend to get tailored advice form people who know your game better. All feedback is good feedback, take it from where you can. I guarantee constructive feedback from Smart Party members. Ask your home players what they’d like. Ask on the Con forums. You won’t be giving away any secrets, don’t worry, at this stage you just want raw information.

I asked on a few fora and got all kinds of responses, from encounter types, to characters for the game, to offers of help with promos, to being told to not bother. Don’t take anything personally, just take what you can from it, and mix it into your scenario if it makes it better and/or easier for you. In the end, I didn’t use any of the ideas wholesale, I took little nuggets of goodness and used them as a springboard for my own ideas.

At this stage I was also thinking about presentation. I like to have good visuals at the table. One of the strengths of D&D is the ready availability of great props, but all games benefit from stuff like this. I looked through my gaming kit to see what I already had and this informed my choices for the scenario, I had dungeon tiles, some minis, some cool maps from other games, all sorts of things. As I looked through images on the net, in my books, and remembered what I’d got from the forums, things started to crystallise. I found a great picture of a dragon rising from a magic circle surrounded by cultists, as if it were being summoned. I also had a mini of a young green dragon. Thirdly, I had a poster map of a jungle with a stepped pyramid at the centre. I wanted to use these and I tried a few combinations of encounters, levels and different locations. Every time I had something sketched out, I stepped back from it and tried to look at it with new eyes, the eyes of a player at DragonMeet a couple of months down the line. Would it look good? was it too complicated? too subtle? too simple? could I handle the numbers? would the NPCs be memorable? did I have the props? did the characters form a team? could newbies enjoy it? could veterans enjoy it? and finally, did it absolutely nail my central concept? I double checked my ideas with my weekly group and on various forums. And then I could start to put it together properly.

Step 7: The cast

Games need characters, both PCs and NPCS. I’m going to set out my stall right here, you need to do pre-generated characters. With a tiny number of exceptions, this is absolutely the way to go. You simply don’t have time to generate characters with the players on the day. You can still provide a bit of flexibility, you can always leave the name and physical descriptions up to the players. With some systems there’s opportunity to let some rules stuff come out of play too, I’m thinking of aspects in Fate particularly. A key reason for doing the pregens is that you can tailor the PCs to the scenario. If you know there’s a scene that involves tracking through a jungle, then it pays to have a character with those skills. Similarly, why write up a character with total mastery of driving speedboats if your game is set in a desert. (I’ve seen both these instances before, seriously)
If writing 6 characters up seems like a bunch of work, that’s because it is. I won’t lie to you, you have to put the time in. Again, the net can help you. Lots of game sites have lists of characters, form fillable character sheets, all sorts of time saving devices. Use the fans too, I asked for help and ideas for the characters for my game on RPGnet. Within 2 hours I had 6 characters all statted up, ready for me to put my spin on them. As a thank you, I named the characters after their creators.

While you’re thinking about your characters, why not think about what ‘level’ you want them at? As a one shot you have the freedom to choose. Want to have a crack at 30th level D&D? 5000pt HERO? Legendary Savage Worlds? Now you can, just be aware that high level PCs tend to be more complex, and they take longer to make in the first place. Make your choices now, then check that they fit your concept. I went with 5th level PCs for my game. That’s heroic without being superhuman, plenty of meaty options but not overwhelming. I went with a good mix of character roles, and did my best to ensure there would be no obviously good or bad choices. For example, don’t include a pilot if there’s no piloting, and if you’re going to include lots of combat, make sure your PCs can handle it.

When it comes to character sheets we’re into the realms of ‘more art then science’. Sheets are a very personal preference kind of thing, so I’ll just offer up a couple of suggestions. Don’t have anything on the character sheet you don’t need. Usually this means doing your own sheets in a kind of on shorthand. For instance, official sheets usually have a space for experience points. Unnecessary in your Con game. same for any ‘workbook’ type elements where you can see how a number was arrived at. You only need to know the bottom line on modifiers for a one shot. Instead, use the space you’ve saved to include little rules summaries or explanations. Players new to the game will appreciate your efforts.

I used the D&D online character generator, which at the time only went to level 3. I then levelled up the characters and downloaded some friendly sheets and power cards. Most of this stuff came from ENWorld.

Step 8: Get your kit organised

I knew that for my first encounter I needed a couple of extra minis. I hit ebay and a week later I had exactly what I needed for a couple of quid. Things like this matter, I knew it would help me and my players on the day far more than tokens or scrap paper would. Essentially, I believe if you’re going to use this stuff, then go the whole hog or not at all. I also got my tiles and maps in order, and I’d made sure that everything fit in my gaming bag. This is a point I can often overlook, I need to have this stuff portable, and I need to be able to fit my new purchases in there too, as well as a drink and snacks, dice, pencils etc. Luckily I have a netbook with everything ruleswise on it, so I didn’t have to lug around 3 core rulebooks with me. Of course if your game is someting light like Savage Worlds or Don’t Rest Your Head, you won’t have a space issue at all. Don’t feel you have to bring all your books with you, you don’t. If youre prepped and ready, you won’t be looking up rules, and frankly its not a good idea at the table anyway. A decent GM screen or set of crib sheets is far better than lugging a 300+ page hardback rulebook.

I like to type up my scenarios and for this one I wanted to use technology to make it easy for me. I used the D&D online tools to get my encounters sorted out, with monster statblocks and prewritten flavour text all put onto my netbook, as well as a printout for emergencies. If you’re going with paper, make it landscape, it’s easier for you to reference at the table. Index cards are your friend here too. And don’t forget the other paraphaenalia, bennies or fate chips or cards or whatever. At the next LemurCon I’m planning to run Spirit of the Century with a Chinese theme, so for Fate points I’m using tiles from a Mah Jong set. Little touches like this help your game become memorable,

Step 9: Pulling it all together

I got to work on my promos. No-one will play your game if they don’t know it exists. I submitted my game brief to the organisers so they could get it put on the website. In hindsight I’m glad I didn’t leave it at that as the organisers were a little slack and didn’t get it posted until the very last minute. I also posted my game on multiple game sites. There’s usually a thread titled ‘Who’s going to…’, and it’s a chance to get your plans out there.

Put a little work into your sign up sheet. Most Cons have a fairly generic template for you to use on the day, but with some basic IT skills you can have a full colour flyer that really stands out from the crowd. Courtesy demands that you check this is ok with the Con oranisers, and I can say I’ve never had any issues.

On your flyer, you have a chance to set the tone of your game from the off. You might be aware of the concept of tags on blogs etc? These are one word clues to the content of your game, and they can be very useful in attracting the right players. For my game my tags were; ‘D&D 4e’, ‘5th level’, ‘demo’, ‘pregens’, ‘cinematic’, ‘action’. I included ‘cinematic’ as a tag because thats the style in which I like my games to go. This way I’ve given fair warning that the game is more like an action movie than an indepth character study. This tag system is really useful, especially if you’re running a generic game like Savage or GURPS. If you want a gritty, deadly, political intrigue game, then advertise it as such. Given that your players are likely to be strangers to you and each other, you don’t have the luxury of knowing your playstyles and personalities. Get the flyer right, it pays dividends later.

Finally, if you possibly can, playtest your game. Preferably multiple times. Some stuff looks great in theory but live gaming can show you problems you wouldn’t have seen on your own. Seek feedback and act on it. Don’t be precious about your masterpiece, it’s only there to serve one purpose, as a structure for a great game. Maybe once the Con has finished, and you’re basking in the warm glow of a happy group you can think about publishing it. For now, it’s just a means to an end, never forget that.

Step 10: Take a break

Put it all away for a few days if possible. Forget about it and do something else. Clear your mind.

That’s it!

This might look complex, it really isn’t. I’ve just tried to take it step by step and in as full a manner as I can. With practice and talent you can skip an awful lot of this. Personally, I’m always looking to improve my game, so I do take the time to analyse what I do. Hopefully my experiences can give you some help and some confidence. Have a go yourself. Let me know how it goes.
Good luck!

Baz King

In the next essay, I’ll go into what to do on the day of the Con and some ideas on how to get the best out of your game. That’s for another time. See you then.

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