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Experiments with one-shots

I’ve begun fooling around with one-shots over hangouts again. This time around I’ve been asking for feedback on my GM’ing, and boy, people don’t hold punches, do they?

After having my selfesteem destroyed a few times over (yes, I’m overly dramatizing), I have learned a lot of things, about what mistakes I make when GM’ing.

There’s a very fine line, I’ve noticed, about how much improvisation is good improvisation. Yes, that’s right; there actually seems to be an upper limit! For me when I run one-shots at least.

The thing is, when I GM a totally improvised session, I get exhausted near the end. Like really exhausted. Not because we’ve played for around four hours straight with only two or three very short brakes, but because it is hard work to run a session with zero framework before play begins.

I’ve tried a lot of different things out the last few days, and here are some of my intermediary conclusions.

Pitch the game with a strong premise

When you sit down to play, people want to make characters and then find out how these characters fit together and “what they do” to get by. Basically why they are adventuring together.

While that isn’t wrong, it can cause some very unfocused play and characters that don’t really fit well with each other. It doesn’t necessarily force this to happen, but it easily can. You might argue that the GM has great control over this, but the more you rely on the GM to have the skill to resolve these issues, well, the more mistakes that GM will eventually make. It’s simply better to remove the need, especially for a novice GM.

If you start out with a premise, like “adventuring band for hire”, then we have established two things; the party is already a coherent group of adventurers, and they are getting paid to do what they do. It doesn’t take much effort to make the characters have some history together.

The premise can be worked out in the beginning of the session, but you can save a lot of time doing it in advance.

Have a clear objective

In a one-shot, we don’t have a lot of time for mystery. We don’t have time to start from scratch. It’s much easier to start in medias res, with some basic information and a very solid lead on how to get more.

The players literally have to have an immediate goal when play begins, otherwise they’ll just poke around doing next to nothing for around an hour of game time.

These goals can even be a part of your premise! “Band of adventurers hired to delve into the Pyramid of Sorrow to fetch the Hellslayer sword”. Now the players will be aware that it’s going to be a Dungeon Crawl, which means that they can choose options and classes that makes them better at that.

Everybody likes to have cool stuff to do, right?

Finishing thoughts

There’s a lot more to this, but I still need to gather my thoughts on the matter. I’m experimenting a lot at the moment to make these things work, and there’s a lot of do’s and don’ts.

I’m going to focus on the do’s that minimizes the need for skill on the GM part. Dungeon World already helps a lot here with the Principles, but you still need to think a lot when improvising. Mostly the rule book focuses on how to start campaigns, not one-shots, and having a “first session” as a one-shot often mean we spend a lot of time establishing facts that we don’t have time to use.

One-shots needs to be focused, because we don’t have time to deal with all the details of a full campaign, so I’m trying to set up a few guidelines on how to do that.

More to follow!

A short list of questions

Last time, I came up with some criteria for good questions. Now I’ll put that into practice, by making some questions. The theme will be “wizards tower”, because I’ve been wanting to run such a one-shot for a long time now.

The questions

  • How did you get onto the floating isle on which the marble tower stands?
  • What is the name of the artifact you are seeking within?
  • Who told you it would be here?
  • Why do you need the artifact?
  • What horrible rumors have you heard of this place?
  • When did you learn that Morelia the sorceress was home?

The criteria

These questions should obey the criteria i set up in the last article. The first most definitely sets the scene, and I think it’s quite evocative. They establish motivation, the characters are seeking an artifact, and they demand action by telling the players that it’s inside. I think they are fairly open-ended, especially the “horrible rumors” question.

The last question I added to give the tower that “wizardy” feel, and to feed the party some danger; there’s a sorceress in here, and she’ll probably get pissed when she finds out that somebody is stealing her stuff.

I’m going to pop these question in the next game with my wife. I’ll keep you posted!

Going for a crawl

So, as I said, I’d make a map for this game, but screw that idea, I bought the DungeonMorphs for a purpose! Namely to force myself to improvise a little, and not having to do so much damn work!

Instead, I’m going to exploit the fact that all the Morphs cards are numbered from 1 to 6. So, I’ll need to make a long list of rooms, each made like the Hazards from Inverse World, as introduced here.

These rooms will be put on some index cards, along with maybe a group of creatures that are present. When the game begins, I’ll shuffle the pile and put it on the board, face down. I’ll call this the “encounter deck”.

The basic idea is that I’ll draw a tile every time they “leave the map”, placing it adjacent to the exit they used on the Morph. I’ll look at the number on the map and dig that deep down into the encounter deck. Example: If the number was 4, I’d take the fourth card from the top, and put the others back on top. The drawn card would be what was (maybe) found in this room.

So, to start off, here’s a short list of rooms, inspired by (and in some cases merely reskinned from) Inverse World! Most of them are pretty generic, since I’ll draw DungeonMorphs randomly. The Unstable Passageway below is such an example. I don’t know if this will be drawn in a actual room or just a cavern, so it will have to apply for both.

Unstable Passageway

This passageway is giving seems cracked and unstable. There’s a broken body under a rock just over there, a rock that seems to fit right into a hole in the ceiling…
Cave-in (1d8 damage)
*Rumble menacingly!
*Open a hidden passage
*Reveal a broken corpse

Sleeping Quarters

Beds and blankets. Bed and blankets everywhere. And a few sleeping critters. Better not wake ’em up…
Features: 7 sleeping kobolds.
*More comes in to sleep
*Some of them wakes up
*Someone sounds the alarm!

Empty Room

Something’s not right in here. You can feel it in your bones. There’s got to be something in here…
Features: A rolling boulder
Rolling boulder (1d10 damage, ignores armor)
*There’s chatter in the distance
*Someone steps on a pressure plate…

Treasure Chamber

There’s something of value in here. You can get it, but it’s not going to be easy…
Features: 6 nearby, but not currently present, kobold guards.
Dart trap (1d4 damage, poison)
*Guards come to check up on the treasure.
*There’s a faint clicking sound at the treasure…

The Treasure Vault

Finally! The dragon’s nest! Shit! The dragon’s nest! Oooh, shinies!
Features: One big and angry dragon.
*Bury someone in a pile of gold
*Trip someone over a plate armour!

Using this framework…

OK, if I just shuffle the encounter deck, doesn’t that then mean that the dragon can be in the first room? Well yeah, but that is easily avoided.

I shuffle all the cards, except The Treasure Vault. Then I’ll take the top 8 or 9 the encounter cards and set them aside, then shuffle the rest along with The Treasure Vault. The cards set aside are now on placed back on top. If 9 are taken off, at least 4 encounters will be met before the Dragon, and after these 4 are taken off, there’s a 1 in 6 chance for the characters to happen upon the dragon when exploring a new DungeonMorph card.

I’m looking forward to trying this out ­čÖé

An introductory adventure

I met some people at the university, and we talked casually about RPGs for about an hour. The topic fell on Dungeon World, which they have never heard of before, so I told them I’d run a session for them, if they were interested.

One of them had only played the Warhammer Fantasy RPG, and the other had never really tried playing anything but computer RPGs. Now I’m about to make an introductory one-shot adventure to throw at them.

I’ll have to make good use of my experience from playing with Eric and Bastien, especially on how to make a focused narrative, one without too many branches. I think I’ll use this as a starting point for my Dragon Menace adventure. While I won’t be drawing DungeonMorphs randomly during play, I think I’ll make a dungeon with them, and fill it with interesting stuff to do. Especially treasure at a price. I mean, a frickin’ dragon lives there.

I’ll get back on this later, when I’ve found a way to scan in a 5 by 5 set of DungeonMorphs, which I’ll them modify slightly with GIMP, mainly to remove some of the exits on the edges of the map. I think that should be a large enough dungeon for a one-shot.

When the map is done, I’ll post it here, along with a front and a map legend.

And now, the conclusion!

The third session of the three-shot ended this Tuesday, and it had one of the most epic and gut wrenching endings I have experienced in my 9 years of role-playing. At one point I started to sweat a little, and not because of the room temperature…

Cathing up

The second session ended with a not-quite-so invisible fighter, Falafael, and a Druid that couldn’t see because he was currently a bat with terrible eyesight. They had just escaped a room in the dungeon, where they’d been trapped for about 24 hours because of a cave-in.

Prior to the third session, I spoke with Eric, the player of Falafael, because I had regrets about not giving him access to a spell book. His first advanced move was Multiclass Dabbler and he chose the Wizards spellcasting moves. I felt bad for letting him play for an entire session without getting to use those moves because of my mistakes, so we decided to retcon a little. We agreed that he had found a spell book in the caved-in room, where they had beheaded a cultist and taken three others as prisoners.

Behind the scenes

The other cultists knew they were captured in the caved in room, because they hadn’t returned to Threebridges. They could verify this because of their spies in the town. So, now that the meddlesome heroes were out of the way, they kidnapped some townsfolk to sacrifice in an evil ritual to open the prison of their wicked god.

What happened…

Sinathel flew into the next chamber in the caverns, silently using the bat’s echolocation ability to get a rough estimate of how many people were in there. There was a lot of activity in there, and he flew back to Falafael to report. He reverted to elven form, only to discover that Falafael was not invisible, which Falafael was unaware of.

Falafael decided to cast the invisibility spell again and went into the room to spy on the cultists. They were in the midst of a ritual of sorts, chanting around an alter on which a human was bound and gagged and stripped of all clothes, except for a loin cloth. There were three similar victims lying dangerously near to some owlbear cages.

There was a large stone seal, held firmly in place by two statues resembling armored warriors. On the seal was an etching of a large birds skull. One of the cultists was obviously leading the ritual and was now brandishing a large curved blade, about to cut the throat of guy on the alter.

Falafael sneaks back to Sinathel and explains what he has learned, and they immediately run in to stop the foul ritual. Sinathel readies his sling while Falafael sneaks into the room, carrying his axe. One of the cultists is hit in the back of the head by Sinathels pellet, sending him sprawling to the ground. Falafael drops his invisibility and casts a Magic Missile at the cult leader, severely damaging him.

Surprised, the tree other cultists draw their weapons and heads off to kill Sinathel, while their leader heads off to release the owlbears.

Sinathel asks a favor of an earth spirit to crush his enemies, but it demands that he must pay it in kind by returning to it a precious gem, which he will know when he finds it. It then proceed to shape the cavern wall into a giant stony fist, which knocks two cultists into the opposite wall, killing one of them. It then grabs a third and crushes him to death in a symphony of shattering bones.

Falafael tries to stop the leader, but the cultist hit by the sling gets to his feet an tackles him, knocking away his weapon. The leader lets an owlbear loose, which the charges in to maim Falafael. The cultist picks up the axe, to which Falafael responds; “That axe carries the spirit of my father. It cannot hurt me!”. He then turns around to face off with the owlbear.

Amazingly, Falafael was right, the cultist did not succeed at hurting Falafael, even though he hit him twice in the back. In the end, Falafael wrestled the weapon from him and killed him, and in the mean time Sinathel tricked the other remaining cultist into the stone hand, but in the struggle, the cultist snagged Sinathels sling, which was then destroyed alongside the cultist.

Sinathel asked a flame spirit to burn the owlbear and the cultist leader, who in the had gone back to kill the terrified man on the altar. The fire spirit complied but in its desire for destruction, it consumed the body of the victim on the alter. Now burning, the owlbear went into a panicked rage, while the cult leader threw himself back, rolling wildly and ripped off his clothes to escape the fire.

As the man on the alter died, a bluish vapor escaped his mouth and nostrils, which was then pulled into one of the statues. It then let go of the seal on the cavern wall, drew its weapon and then stood dormant to the side of the seal.

Sinathel went to Falafael aid, but was hit square in the back of his head by the owlbear, resulting in a light skull fracture and a concussion. He was flung onto the alter in the process, barely conscious.

The cultist leader got to his feet and leaped at Sinathel with his blade drawn, intent on making Sinathel the final sacrifice. Valorously, Falafael leaped onto the alter, defending his friend from such a vile end. He fought them off, and after awhile Sinathel regained consciousness, and transformed into a mudgoose, and flew out the dungeon.

The owlbear was finally killed by the flames, and Falafael cornered the cultist leader, while standing in between him and the alter. He tried to persuade the cult leader into surrendering, but he tried to flee, unwilling to surrender. Unfortunately, Falafael made an unlucky trip with his axe, which resulted in the cult leader falling onto his own blade, right atop the alter.

He died with a smile on his face, an omen that something had gone terribly wrong. As before, blue vapors escaped the cult leaders mouth and nostrils, and it was pulled into the second statue. The statue let go of the seal, which toppled over, opening up a passageway.

An infernal laughter echoed through the caverns, and tremors were felt throughout the dungeon. Falafael decided to act quickly, freeing the three remaining townsfolk and fled the dungeon. Inside the ruined tower above, Sinathel sat and rested. Falafael tended to his wounds, and told the townsfolk to run back to town.

Clicks and clacking was heard, and both of them stepped out of the ruins, only to see that the tower was reassembling, pulling the stones strewn around the ground into a coherent form, brandishing seven huge stone teeth around the top. As it finished reassembling, a large portal opened at the top, looking like a crack in the air, ripping reality apart.

Falafael fell to his knees, pulling forth his axe and asked for guidance. The spirit of his father stepped out of the weapon, telling him that he must not falter. If the portal was not sealed, doom would befall this world. As the spirit disappeared, demonic entities shaped like humanoid vultures sprung out of the gate.

Sinathel recognized that the portal must have drawn power from the teeth, as he knew of a forbidden druidic ritual, where you drew power from the teeth of slaughtered predators. Falafael cast a spell, forming a telepathic bond between them, and they ran into the now 50 meter high tower, intent on closing the portal at all cost.

The new floor above the armory was merely a huge spiral staircase, running along the walls of the tower. As they climbed the stars, three vulture demons ran down towards them, screaming in an tongue unfit for mortal ears. Sinathel grabbed a large warhammer from the armory and transformed into a crow, intending to destroying the stone teeth at the top, while Falafael would buy him some time by facing off with the demons. He smacked them all out over the staircase in one heavy sweep, and ran to Sinathels side.

A fourth demon was awaiting them and the top, and the three others flew up to help it defend the portal. Sinathel bobbed and weaved to avoid the blows from the demons while trying to smash asunder the stone teeth. Falafael tried to defend him at the same time, but after receiving serious injuries, they switched roles.

One tooth was left standing when a demon tackled Sinathel, throwing them both out over the tower, while Falafael was impaled and killed by the last demon, just as he ripped it in half with his axe, turning it into fire and ash as it died.

As the world darkened, Falafael caught a glimpse of the Black Gates of Death, seeing a giant birdlike demon, also resembling a vulture, encased in a giant crystal. It screamed furiously, calling at its minions to free it. The spirit of Falafaels father appeared beside him, telling him that he was not yet worthy of entering the halls of the great heroes of old. He forced Falafaels spirit back into his pierced body, robbing Death of what was rightfully his.

While plummeting to the ground, Sinathel transformed into a Warrior Eagle, the largest predator bird of the Great Forest, fighting the last demon. The demon hacked and him, striking him with a powerful kick that made Sinathel lose the grasp on the bird spirit. He fell to the ground and broke his left ankle.

The demon came at him once more, and Sinathel went into a deadly melee with it, and murdered it while sustaining a brutal blow. Battered and weak, he climbed the 50 meter tall tower on one foot, leaning to his shillelagh. He saw Falafael lying on the ground, just faintly breathing. He picked up his axe and destroyed the last tooth.

The portal closed, and a foul scream of the purest hatred resounded from the caverns below. The tower started to shake, and Sinathel transformed into the shape of a Warrior Eagle once more. As he did, the tower collapsed underneath him, sending Falafael to his death, but in a fast swoop, Sinathel grabs him by the legs, barely before hitting the ground.

He carried Falafael back to Threebridges, were the returned townsfolk had been alerted the town about the cultists, which had then been captured and thrown in jail. After three days, Falafael awoke from his coma, and the villagers praised them as heroes, throwing a celebration in their honor.

This is the third and last session of the “The Rise of Ri’leth” adventure. The write up for the first session can be found here, and the write up for the second session can be found here.

The Rise of Ri’leth

The session ended yesterday with a bang, and since the story was concluded, I’ll post my fronts here as promised, along with a nifty monster I made that the players luckily avoided.

Adventure Front: The Rise of Ri’leth

A mysterious cult is attempting to free their long forgotten god from his eternal prison.


  • Dunstan, the mayor of Threebridges
  • Madwich, the cult leader
  • Ri’leth, the vulture demon prince


  • Can Ri’leth be permanently banished?
  • What did Olive, the mayors daughter, find out that got her killed?

Danger: The Cult of Ri’leth

Impulse: To free their god
Grim Portents

  • Madwich creates more abominations
  • The cult prepares the ritual
  • Human sacrifices are made

Impending Doom: The prison is opened.

Danger: Ri’leth, the vulture demon prince

Impulse: To escape his prison
Grim Portents

  • An otherworldly portal opens
  • Demons spill through
  • The seal is broken>/li>

Impending Doom: Ri’leth is let loose upon the world once more.

Comments on the front

The trouble with publishing fronts is that they are filled with innuendo. My players would probably understand almost everything I’ve written above, but an “outsider” would probably not understand the meaning of a lot of it.

“The seal is broken” made sense in the fiction (and I’m pretty sure that my players are aware that it happened), but it doesn’t make much sense out of context. I’ll make a session report later. Hopefully it will make the intend behind most of it clear.

Ri’leth, the Demon Prince

This is the stats on Ri’leth. I made them in case he’d escape, which luckily didn’t happen. His moves are evil, one of them horribly detrimental, and he just has a lot of those nasty tags.

Instead of fumbling around with HTML code, I’ll just post a link to the Dungeon World Codex entry: Ri’leth, the Demon Prince of Chaos!

Final finishes to my fronts

I revised my fronts made for the three-shot (it keeps escalating, I know…). It seemed that I had a minor misunderstanding of how it worked.

I thought that the grim portents were tied to all the dangers, not that the dangers had their own grim portents. I don’t know how I got that mixed up, but it certainly explains why the book suggests making┬áso few.

I hope we get done today (No Eric and Bastien, I’m not trying to get rid of you), if only because I’ve learned a lot about GMing for Bastien and Eric, and I really want to run more one-shots over hangouts, where I use this newly acquired wisdom. Actual one-shots, not these drawn-out pseudo-campaigns.

I plan to make a post containing all the things I’ve learned from this “campaign”, as soon as it is done. If they don’t stop the cult tonight, I’m very tempted to make a “rock falls” on them. Seriously, I’ve been a big softie so far. Time to show them some real steel.