Sunday, 18 August 2019

One-shot RPG GM checklists

So this is my RPG one-shot GM checklist.


  • The scenario
  • Rules (and summaries)
  • Dice
  • Pens and paper
  • Cards for name tents and aspects
  • Food and drink


  • Names
  • X Card
  • Set the scene
  • Rules check
  • Ground rules (taking breaks)
  • Tents

Building the team

  • Characters - pregens or character generation
  • Teambuilding

The scenario

  • Equal spotlight time


  • Epilogues
  • Thank everyone
  • Tidy up

So that’s the raw checklist. Here’s a bit more detail.


This is to remind me what to bring. Most of it is self evident, and my dice, index cards and pens are in my All Rolled Up. Paper is usually a notebook.

My All Rolled Up
If the game has a one-page rules summary (for example, Fate Core here) then I’ll bring a couple for players to refer to refer to.

Depending on the venue, I’ll bring water to drink and some snacks to share. (I play a lot of one shots at GoPlayLeeds, which is held at the Geek Retreat gaming cafe and they’d rather I didn’t bring my own food and drink.)


I like it when everyone knows each other around the table, but I also find that I forget to do it (which is why it’s on the checklist).

This is when I’ll introduce the X card (if I’m using one), and also set the scene and any ground rules (such as when we are taking breaks) so that everyone is on the same page.

At this point I will find out who knows the system I am running. If they’ve already played it, then great. If not, then I give them the key points (and a rules summary if I have one). If they’re completely new to roleplaying, I’ll explain that all they need to do is describe what they’re doing and I’ll figure out what dice to roll.

Building the team

This is the point where the players meet their characters - they either build them from scratch (if the system is simple) or I hand out pre-generated characters.

To me, this is one of the most important sections - it’s when I try to turn a bunch of players sitting around a table into a team. It doesn’t always work, but that’s what I’m aiming for. All the great one-shots that I can remember playing in have some form of team building in them, and I really miss it when the GM just dives straight into the adventure.

Some games (notably DungeonWorld and other PbTA games) include team building as part of character generation, but you can add it to any game.

Some ideas:

  • Ask each player to describe a scene from their last adventure - ask the player on their left what impressed them in that scene.
  • Use backstory cards and a setting grid.
  • Take an idea from DramaSystem - what does your character want from another character (respect, love, trust, etc) - and why can't they get it?

(I've experimented with adding "drama aspects" to Fate, with mixed success.)

The Scenario

This section only has one point, which is to remind me to give everyone equal spotlight time. As GM I try and monitor this, but I’m probably not the best person to say how successful I am.

Spotlight time becomes more important as player numbers increase. I don’t like playing in games with more than four players as I find it hard to remain fully engaged when I’m in a big group. As a result, I don’t like running games with more than four players.

That’s a bit of a problem at conventions where five or six players is standard, mainly due to the player-GM ratio. I’ve run both five and six player games, but I’d rather have no more than four.

Hillfolk’s scene-calling system automatically ensures that everyone gets at least some time in the spotlight. I wish there were other systems that were as easy to use.


Once the scenario is over it’s time to tidy up and thank everyone for playing.

But before you do that, finish the scenario with an epilogue - get the players to describe what their character is doing or thinking as the final credits roll.


As you can see, the checklist is weighted towards the start of play, because those are the points where I am most likely to forget something. If I’ve set everything up properly in advance, then that makes the game run that much smoother.

And a checklist for players?

Preparing a GM checklist does make me wonder what a player checklist would look like - but I think that’s a topic for another day.

Monday, 6 May 2019

Peaky 2019

Peaky 2019 was a really good Peaky for me - I don’t think it could have gone much better.

(If you’re new here, Peaky is a freeform writing weekend. About 30 freeform writers meet on Friday evening and form groups of 5-6 writers. The rest of Friday evening and all of Saturday is spent writing the freeform, and the freeforms are then all run on Sunday.)

I co-wrote Tea at Longbourne and played two other freeforms and several boardgames.

Writing Tea at Longbourne (Friday)

I ended up in a writing  group with Tony, Heidi, AJ and Phil. It felt a bit like getting the band back together - Tony, Heidi, AJ and I were part of the writing team for Once Upon A Time in Tombstone. So it was easy for us to write together, and we’ve all each written games with Phil.

Unfortunately, we struggled to come up with an idea. Peaky starts with a session where everyone pitches ideas for freeforms (that may or may not be written). In our case, I was getting a bit fed up with the process (nothing really grabbed me) when Heidi half-flippantly said that she didn’t care what she wrote provided she wrote it in the room next door. I agreed, as did Phil, AJ and Tony - and at which point we had formed a group. But we didn’t have an idea.

AJ had pitched an idea that involved meaningful decisions, so we kicked that around for a while. I’ve had an idea about a first contact situation where the players are members of the United Nations. They have to react to events (one of Jupiter’s moons goes missing, that sort of thing). We also talked about the old BBC tv show Crisis Command, which was like a Cobra emergency committee larp.

But someone wondered if we could do a different genre, and completely randomly I suggested Pride and Prejudice. And that stuck… We came up with an idea where the characters would make key decisions that would affect events further down the line. And because we’re all nerds and geeks, some of those decisions were a bit gonzo. (We really were taking the most appalling liberties with Pride and Prejudice!)

But we really couldn’t figure out how to do it. We kicked ideas around all Friday night. We thought about making it very Nordic and getting the players to do all the hard work. (That was appealing - we figured we could finish before lunch and spend the rest of Saturday playing games.)

We decided to sleep on it, and hope for inspiration.

Writing Tea at Longbourne (Saturday)

And inspiration didn’t come. We had some ideas, but they weren’t that much better and we couldn’t agree what to do. To me, the ideas felt a bit nebulous and I had a feeling that we had something, but we needed a bit more detail.

So I suggested that everyone spends 30-45 minutes writing their idea up - how they envisaged the game would work. (Tony reported to another group that at this point we were all writing our own game…) We then printed out everyone’s ideas and reviewed them all. We picked the best ideas from each and suddenly we had a structure we could use.

Once we had decided what to write, Tea at Longbourne turned out to be ridiculously easy to write. It helped that the characters are extremely well known, and we could take great chunks from Wikipedia. (In fact, the cast list was almost entirely taken from Wikipedia.)

Another thing that made it easy is that we had structured the game so that we had pairs of characters acting as a team. So once we’d written one, we just had to change the names and we’d written the other. That sped everything up and we ended up finishing by 6pm. (Another writing group finished before us, mind you.)

We spent the rest of the evening playing boardgames - and I organised the Sunday running order, as usual. (I have a system now and it works smoothly).

Sunday - playing the games

On Sunday we played the games. The running order was:

0930 The Circus of Wonders and Shadows and Here’s Dreaming of You Kid
1230 Tea at Longbourne and Berlin Station
1500 Seeds of Humanity and Imaginary Friends

In The Circus of Wonders and Shadows I played an insecure stage magician who had come into possession of a fabulous artefact - but unfortunately had terrible consequences. I had a lovely time agonising whether to continue using it in my show or not.

I didn’t play in Here’s Dreaming of You Kid, which was a four-player game about relationships. (The GMs ran two games simultaneously, otherwise we would have had spare players with nothing to do.) It sounded really interesting though.

Berlin Station was a cold-war spy game that I didn’t play because I was running Tea at Longbourne.

Tea at Longbourne went really well - apart from a few logic errors towards the end, the players seemed to have a great time and even held an impromptu dance. There are a couple of changes that I want to make - the main one to allow for an ending that makes everyone happy. In the current version of the game it’s not possible for everyone to get what they want, and I’m not sure that’s the right thing to do in a Pride and Prejudice game.

A dance in Tea at Longbourne
In Seeds of Humanity I played a Botanist on a colony ship leaving a doomed earth. Unfortunately I struggled a bit with this game - it mixed a murder mystery with a bunch of angst, and while that worked for some, my character was a bit too peripheral to be fully involved.

Imaginary Friends was the last game - which was about childhood imaginary friends (I think). It sounded good.

Six out of six

So six freeforms written at Peaky, most of which I’m sure will be played again at some point. (I know I’m going to work on Tea at Longbourne.)

Sunday, 31 March 2019

Freeform ability strips

Ability Strips are a way to quickly add abilities to a freeform. They consist of a strip of card with three abilities for each character. There is also space for the character’s secret (something that they don’t want other people to know) and information (something that they know but don’t mind sharing).

You can download the file here.

I wrote them with Peaky in mind. There’s rarely a lot of spare time at Peaky, and so there are almost never any abilities at the game written there. While they’re not always necessary, sometimes I miss them so I designed these ability strips that do not require much effort to use. I imagine it wouldn’t take more than an extra 30 minutes to drop these into a typical Peaky game.

The abilities refer to goals and an “Other People” section, so you’ll need to make sure that your character sheets include those - but many already do.

If you’re familiar with our murder mystery games at Freeform Games then you may recognise much of this. In our games, characters all have three abilities, a secret and a clue. Our current format for our games has abilities within the character booklet, but at one time we had ability strips just like these (some of our older games still do).

Abilities don’t suit all games, but I can imagine them working well for games such as Best of the Wurst, An Ecumenical Matter, and Carry on at Camp David. I wouldn’t use them for games like Second Watch or Burning Orchid.

Some tips for using the strips

Knowing that I was going to include abilities wouldn’t change how I write a freeform - the abilities simply make it easy for information to be shared within the freeform.

Some of the abilities refer to a characters first goal. So it’s nice if the top goal is fairly interesting. (I like to think of using abilities as rolling a critical in a tabletop RPG - so it’s nice if you always get something worth having.) But on the other hand make sure that that top goal doesn’t give too much away.

There’s no reason why two (or more) characters can’t have the same abilities.

I generally don’t include many of the abilities that expose secrets, and I am careful about who I give those to.

In Freeform Games, the murder can’t be solved purely by using abilities (so the murderer doesn’t have “I’m the murderer” as their secret). So be circumspect when thinking about what to use as secrets and information.

Adding Ability Strips to The Highgate Club

Before posting this here I’ve taken the Ability Strips out for a spin and added them to The Highgate Club. I’d already prepped this as I had hoped to run it in January, but I didn’t get enough players and ran Death on the Gambia instead. So The Highgate Club is all printed out and ready to run...

So all I did was use the ability strips as given and created one for each character. I re-read their character sheet to identify an appropriate secret and piece of information, and that was it. The Highgate Club has 14 characters so I needed to create four more ability strips - and all I did was duplicate two of the pages. (So some characters have duplicate ability strips - not that it matters.)

I did check through the characters and make sure that they had an interesting first goal and that they knew at least two or three other people - that did mean a little bit of rewriting, which probably wasn’t a bad thing.

I haven’t run The Highgate Club again yet - and I’m looking forward to seeing if the strips make a difference.

Expanding further

The abilities I’ve used are all fairly straightforward information-sharing abilities that suit pretty much any freeform. Please feel free to replace with other abilities that suit your game.

A simple way to make the abilities suited to the character is to add a bit of flavour text, explaining why they have that ability.

Freeform Games have some standard rules for combat, arrests, capturing, poisoning and pickpocketing that all contain further examples of abilities. You’re welcome to use them!

Here’s the link to the Ability Strips again.

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Airecon 2019

Overall, I had a delightful Airecon 5. Airecon is the annual board and tabletop rpg convention held in March in the Harrogate Conference Centre. This was my third visit (it's virtually on my doorstep so it would be daft not to go).

This year, for the first time, I didn't go alone. Megan came with me, as did my brother and Jack his son. They all enjoyed themselves, and Megan decided to come back on the Sunday with me.

Here's how our convention played out.


We started with Arrr, a playtest of a game of pirates digging up treasure. This involved getting our meeples to the buried treasure, rotating sections of the board to get paths to line up. There were some rules about stealing other player's treasure, but these seemed a bit complicated (a few too many exceptions involved) and when we started playing the complexity of just getting my meeples to my treasure meant I couldn't handle the stealing rules. I said this, Phil agreed, and we decided to ignore stealing for this game.

Maybe stealing works once you've figured out the movement, but as a race game it was fine. (But I won, so maybe my view is coloured by that.)

Over at the Asmodee section of the game we decided to try Dice Forge. We were taken through the rules by one of the demo team, and had a very enjoyable game. Dice Forge features six-sided dice with interchangeable faces that you upgrade - it's a bit like a deckbuilder but you only have 12 cards. It plays quick and I like rolling dice. I won this as well.

Thumbs up for Dice Forge
After Dice Forge we wandered around the stalls a bit, I caught up with a few people that I knew, and then we grabbed something to eat from one of the several food outlets.

After that I went to find Megan (who was dropped off by Mrs H) while Phil and Jack played a few other games. When we came back, Phil and Jack were deep in a game so Megan and I played Wibbel, playtested a bee game (a bit too random - Megan had a great theme suggestion though), and played a huge version of Tsuro using carpet tiles (fun mainly for the physicality of it).

Phil and Jack then joined us to play Hey That's My Fish with the players as the playing pieces. We played a team game (kids v adults), and the team aspect was very interesting in trying to agree who should move each turn. Happily for all, it turned out to be a tie.

Hey! That's My Fish!
We then headed back to the Asmodee demo section to try Pandemic: The Fall of Rome, which we lost heavily. We followed that up with Four Elements (a four player flicking game similar to carrom) before having a final game of Dice Forge (which Phil decided to buy).


My original plan for Sunday was to go on my own and play a tabletop RPG. (My even earlier plan was to run some tabletop, but I wasn't organised enough for that.) However, Megan had such a nice time on Saturday that she wanted to come with me. I'd booked myself in on a game, but it had no free spaces so instead we found a game with a couple of free spaces and played that instead.

Our characters - we were all playing women.

I checked with the GM that it was suitable for a 12-year old, and we started playing. The game was a Victorian Fate Accelerated investigation into mysterious goings on at an archaeological dig in Egypt. Unfortunately the game was very slow and I could tell Megan was bored (I wasn't that excited myself). Worse, I don't think we could ever have worked out what was going on from the clues we were given (even the grown-ups, let alone Megan).

A couple of things would have improved it:

  • Fewer players: When we joined, we had four players total. That's a good number for a tabletop RPG, it means that everyone gets plenty of limelight. Unfortunately, we were joined by two more players, making us six. Unless you're playing Hillfolk (or another game designed for lots of players), or you're an exceptional GM, six players is really too many.
  • Replace the first scene with shared history: Although the game was set in Victorian Egypt, the first scene was set at our lodgings in London and basically consisted of us being hired to investigate mysterious goings-on. We were never going to say no, but dutifully we played this out over 30 pointless minutes. Instead, we could have started in Cairo and replaced the hiring section with some character building and shared history.
  • Provide context with the clues: In an ideal scenario, we would have pieced together the clues, understood what was going on, and developed a plan to stop it. Unfortunately while we were finding clues, as players we didn't understand what we were seeing. As a result, all we did was poke the scenery and reacted to what turned up. If we'd understood what the clues meant, maybe we could have been more proactive. While the GM did bring the final scene forward, I'm pretty sure the mystery was unsolvable. The denouement featured a previously unknown NPC and some mad science, which I certainly didn't see coming.

Sorry for the rant. I set high standards for convention games as I don't like disappointing players (and I don't like to be a disappointed player).

Adding a cat to the wall of cats
Lunch followed the RPG, and then designer Jon Hodgson demoed Bang and Twang, a very lightweight card game that was a fun but probably needed a few more beers to properly enjoy.

Megan and I then played Assembly, a cooperative game that we narrowly lost (we would have won it on our next turn). We finished Sunday with The River, a worker placement game that I came joint first in.

The River
Sunday at Airecon was noticeably quieter than Saturday, and speaking to one of the traders they said that it felt like everyone was just passing through the trade stands on Sunday, unlike Saturday where they would stop and browse. I couldn't disagree, as I'd done exactly that!

So that was Airecon 5, and we are all looking forward to Airecon 6 next year.

Meanwhile, elsewhere...

Links to some of the things I've recently written elsewhere.

Hosting Death on the Gambia in 2019: In January I hosted Death on the Gambia for the Little Leeds Larps Facebook group. Getting enough players was a bit of a challenge - we were hoping to get enough to run The Highgate Club, but instead I hosted Death on the Gambia instead.

Leeds Freeform Larps: This is the wiki I set up to promote freeforms in Leeds. Not terribly successful, at least not yet.

Looking Back at 2018: For the Freeform Games blog. My annual review of the year. I know that December is full of looking back stories, but I like to do this in January because the year isn't over until it's over, and I want my figures to be accurate.

Big Money: Again, for the Freeform Games blog. Here I've provided the money graphics for all our games so that our customers can do what I did when recently hosting Death on the Gambia.

Investigating Pickpocket Crimes simple rules for investigating pickpockets in freeforms. Written for Freeform Games, but anyone can use them.

Monday, 4 March 2019

Running Cthulhu Dark

So finally, after writing about it back in 2017, I have finally run Cthulhu Dark. I ran In Whom We Trust on a wet Sunday afternoon in March at Go Play Leeds (GPL), which wasn’t as atmospheric as I might hope.

In Whom We Trust was originally written for the Call of Cthulhu tournament at Convulsion ’96. Since then it has been played a number of times and suffered a variety of edits.
In Whom We Trust was also used as the RPGA tournament scenario at GenconUK 2001.

I last ran it at Continuum in Leicester in 2016 and wrote about that here.

For Cthulhu Dark, I made a few changes:

  • I deliberately made the characters more powerless. So rather than white European explorer types, I made them unemployed locals.
  • I changed the expedition from being a Miskatonic expedition to one from the University of São Paulo.
  • I added detail in the form of themes, creeping horrors, and what rolling 5s and 6s would reveal.

But apart from that, the scenario is pretty much as it was before.

How did it play?

I had four players, Nathan, Kip, Gary and Daniel. Two experienced players, and two very new to roleplaying. (One had apparently seen roleplaying on Critical Role, found GPL on meetup and turned up to find out what was going on. My how times have changed.) Happily, I don’t think I put them off.

The game went well, if perhaps shorter than I expected. We finished in under two hours. (Although perhaps I should have remembered that, as looking back on that run in Continuum I think that finished in a couple of hours as well.)

Still, two hours is plenty (not every session has to be a five hour marathon) and it gave us lots of time to relax and chat afterwards.

As for Cthulhu Dark itself:

  • Playing the game was pretty painless. It’s about the level of rules that I like - very simple, not very difficult. As this was the first time I’d played it there were a couple of moments where I had to look something up, most only now and again.
  • Insight worked well - one player reached 6 insight just at the end, the others were on 4s and 5s.
  • There was one survivor, which isn’t unusual for In Whom We Trust. It was nice and depressing. Nobody was upset about that - I pitched it as “Doomed investigators in the Amazon jungle,” so they knew what was coming.
  • I totally forgot about the creeping horrors, which didn’t surprise me as I had a feeling that would happen. My plan to overcome that was that I repeated them on the worksheet at the end of the scenario. Only I never looked at it. I don’t use a GM’s screen, and maybe if I did I would have written them out so that I couldn’t miss them. (Still, given that we were playing in Geek Retreat, I’m not sure it would have made much difference.) 
  • I found a few glitches in the scenario, which I’ve since sorted out.

Overall I’m enjoyed running Cthulhu Dark - it worked well with In Whom We Trust. I’ll probably use it again, if I’m running a horror game (which to be honest doesn’t happen much these days).

Try it for yourself

Here are the game files:

Saturday, 23 February 2019

Contingency Envelopes Again

After reflecting on contingency envelopes last year in my experience in Shogun last year, I decided to be a high-trust player in Torch of Freedom and open my contingency envelopes early.

Because I was a bit rushed to start with (thanks to a busy day at work I didn’t check into the hotel until 10 minutes before everything was going to start), I decided not to open my contingency envelopes immediately, but wait until the end of the first period.

I had three envelopes, two looking for player numbers and the third for an item. I spotted one of the players at about midnight on the Friday after spending much of the evening staring at badges numbers.

When I opened the other I breathed a sigh of relief as I knew what it referred to (because I’d played before) and knew that meant I didn’t have to worry about reading name badges.

As for the third contingency, I never did see the item, but what it revealed wasn’t a surprise.

In all cases I would say that they could just have been added to my character sheet in a “What you don’t know yet” section along the lines of: “If you see Blind Pugh then you recognise him as Ambassador Flint.”

So for my contingency envelopes, there was nothing that could be included on my character sheet.

However, I’m hoping that I don’t have to be a high-trust player for much longer. If writers can think a bit more about their contingency envelopes, then I wouldn’t want to open them in advance. The trick will be working out when that happens...