Sunday, 8 April 2018

Running a one hour adventure - (1)

I love the tabletop Role Playing Game (TTRPG) hobby and, as it comes more and more into the mainstream, I want to introduce new people to it. So I visit non-RPG venues and events with a set-up I call "Choose Your Adventure". I offer to run Introductory Adventures for people unfamiliar with the hobby.

Key to this is a range of preprepared adventures which I can run in a very short period of time - I typically aim for an hour.

An RPG mate of mine, Guy Milner, has been looking at this idea from a different angle. His thoughts can be found here.

Such short games are also beginning to find their way into TTRPG Conventions, where game "slots" used to be typically 4 hours in length.  People now offer "games on demand" which passersby can just drop into and play for an hour or so. At first these were "story" games, but recently many of us more traditional RPG referees have been able to join in because of our experience of running shorter form games.

So how do you organise and run a one hour RPG adventure?

In my Choose Your Adventure setup I let people choose from:

- Fantasy/"Dungeons and Dragons"
- Space Opera
- Dr Who
- Firefly/Serenity
- Star Wars
- Steampunk
- Superheroes
- Gothic Horror

For half of these I use exactly the same adventure, just "reskinned". I thought I had different unique adventures for the D&D, Horror, Superhero and Space Opera ones but, when I came to thinking about this article, I realised - to my surprise - that even the D&D and horror adventures stick the to same basic structure as my "standard" scenario.

Since D&D is so ubiquitous, I'll use that scenario as the main example.

First of all - the adventure I use is one of three in my set up that I didn't design myself. I use "The Delian Tomb" designed by Matt Colville in the following YouTube Video.

I like the idea that if people have enjoyed the adventure, I can point them to a short video where an enthusiastic advocate for the hobby can talk them through how it was designed. The video contains a link where you can download the adventure as well as
Iinks to pregenerated characters and the free D&D 5th ed rules. It's a one-stop free starter pack for D&D.

Matt, however, didn't design the adventure to be run in one hour. But I've found it's perfect. It follows my standard structure for one hour games:

1. Choose an appropriate game system
2. Make sure you have enough kit for everyone
3. Make pregenerated characters
4. Set the scene and give the characters a compelling reason to act
5. Alllow/encourage/coax/force the players to make decisions
6. Fight with Mooks to learn the combat system
7. Some investigation leading to the final scene
8. Fight with boss and minions with real stakes
9. Closing scene

1. Before you start, choose an appropriate game system.

It has to have an easy to grasp central game mechanic and you have to be able to play out a simple combat quickly. D&D 5th Edition is fine - roll a d20, add a number, try to beat the opponent's Armour Class. Easy.

Personally, I use David Black's THE BLACK HACK, stripped down D&D rules - roll d20 under Strength to hit. I'll explain why in a bit.

2. Make sure you have enough kit for every player.

This may seem trivial but it's vital. You're not going to get through a game in an hour if the players have to share dice, pencils or erasers. You can buy a full set of D&D dice for multiple players complete with dice bags from Amazon et al for a minimal cost. I did. It's really worth the investment.

3. Pregenerated characters.

There's no way you can make characters and get through an adventure in an hour.

(I have managed this but it was  using my own game system and I'm very experienced at what I do. But even I found the tIme very tight).

So you need pregenerated characters for the players. They need to be clear standard archetypes. Each character should be clearly defined on their own character sheet. There needs to be a big colour picture of the character. The game information on the sheets should be the minimum needed to play the character.

This is where I find The Black Hack scores over 5th Ed. I have run this one hour Dungeon using 5th Ed. rules and the pregenerated characters from the excellent 5th Ed starter pack. The whole pack is excellent value for money but I find that even first level characters have a lot of bells and whistles on the character sheets, which are distracting for new players. If you decide you use 5th Ed for a one hour intro game, I'd strongly recommend you produce stripped down sheets showing only the essential rules. In big type.

Even using the minimal Black Hack character sheets I find some players fixating on the contents of their backpacks!

Characters should be first level. Choose their spells for them. Make sure you have enough characters.

I have a Fighter, an Archer (elf), Wizard (half elf), Cleric and Thief (hobbit). I have alternate versions of each character in two different genders (it just means a change of picture) which I've laminated back to back. This reversible gender idea is one is was given by the UK convention maestro John Dodd and is easy and inclusive. The lamination is so I can so I can reuse them. I give the players dry wipe pens and have spare copies. If I get more than 5 players, one can play the female fighter and one the male version etc.

Think through your adventure and be prepared to make changes if you have 6 players turn up. Or only two and they choose to play the Wizard and Thief.

4. Set the scene. Give the characters a compelling reason to act.

Give the players a short, evocative, intro to the situation. Make them feel like they're THERE. Provide a motive to drive them forward.

Matt gives a short version of this, which I favour, in his first video. (He then gives a longer intro in a later video which I don't recommend for new referees or one hour games.) The characters have been hunting goblins that have kidnapped the blacksmith's daughter. She needs to be rescued.

Personally I've adapted his intro. His driver is the classic "damsel in distress" situation which is not so de rigeur in the 21st century, I have the players come across an overturned cart, an injured farmer and his wounded wife. Having bound his wounds, she's about to heft the family broadsword and head off into the forest to rescue their son and daughter (and recover their farm goods).. She sees the characters and begs for help.

5. Allow/encourage/coax/force the players to make decisions.

Don't say "you head off into the forest to rescue the children", say "what do you do?" Because I'm often working with new players, I will sometimes point out they can do whatever try want from following the goblins' trail to murdering the couple and stealing what little they have left.

(I've never had anyone actually murder the couple but if anyone ever does, the Mook encounter will become the City Watch and the final encounter will be with the City Marshal and his deputies. They might have the same statistics as a bugbear and some goblins but the players don't need to know that.)

Don't say "you charge the goblins guarding the doorway to the dungeon" ask "what do you do?" and let the players decide how they're going to tackle the threat.

6. Gratuitous fight with Mooks to learn the combat system

Typically there are three goblins guarding the doorway. Adjust the numbers to suit  characters present.  Not much of a threat and an easy fight. But if they don't put them down quickly one will run back into the dungeon. This will require a quick decision to be made. It's never to early for them to learn they're in a real world, with thinking opponents, not just a computer game.

7. Some investigation leading to the final scene

One of the reasons I run this scenario is because it's a DUNGEON and it lets the players experience exploring and mapping a dungeon. It's got a couple of interesting rooms, a rich history, a nice puzzle and a classic trap. There are no choices in the dungeon map, so the players head straight to the final encounter in good time but still  have the chance to do some searching and discovering.

8. Fight with the boss and minions with real stakes.

In the "final" room, there's a bugbear and some more goblins. This guy is a real beast. - especially, I've found, in 5th edition. Can they defeat the bad guys and rescue the children before the monsters roast them? Characters may die here. I've had a total party kill at least once running this adventure. You generally try to avoid character deaths in these short scenarios but there has to be real jeopardy and it sometimes happens. I've never had anyone upset by it. More often I find when monsters are losing, they use the children as human shields which is interesting.

There is a hidden room with undead and a magic sword here to find  - if the characters solve the puzzle, but this takes the adventure beyond an hour. Usually players don't find this extra bonus.

9. Closing scene.

You don't really want to give experience points, though you may want to explain the concept of going up levels. So I finish the scenario with a graphic description of the parents hugging their children and thanking the characters. I then  personally thank the players and congratulate them on the way they played the game. Handshakes are not unknown. I want to leave them with positive memories of the game.

 I'll talk you through my other scenarios in my next post.

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