New DM needs help running his first one-shot D&D/Pathfinder session.
June 21, 2013 11:10 AM   Subscribe

Calling all Dungeon Masters! Help a clueless new DM run a one-shot Pathfinder session. I have a series of questions inside about basic story-pacing, motivating player action, and game creation.

It's a friend's bday and he asked me to DM a one-shot session. I'm running it tomorrow and it's using the Pathfinder system with level 4 characters. Though I've played a fair amount of D&D in my time, that was mostly many years ago.

I'm planning on having the group arrested on false pretenses and tossed into a prison (they don't know each other yet so this is how I'm forcing them together and making them a group). The prison was purchased several years ago by an evil scientist/necromancer type, who uses prisoners for "research" and evil experiments. (This is also why the group was tossed in prison. He needs more patients and is using bribes and hired thugs to get people into the prison system.) Prisoners are disappearing from the main cell block and the excuse is that they got sick or had an accident and aren't seen again. Eventually they find the secret section of the prison where the experiments are being done, and come across various awful evil undead things (zombies etc.) before facing Necromancer and his pet.

I'm having a series of things I'm struggling with, and wonder if you have thoughts:

1. I'm not sure what carrots I should give to get them into the evil experiment wing, rather than going for a straight-forward prison break. I was thinking of making the prison wall impassable without some kind of macguffin key-thing that the warden has? And they figure out the warden is in the depths of the lab area? (Also, planning on having all their items/armor stored somewhere in the beginning of that area.) Is there a better, less contrived method of doing something like this?

2. All the battles I have planned happen in the experiment lab area, and not so much before that, and most of the roleplay type stuff happens in the prison, before the lab. Is that okay? I feel it might be badly paced if it's a bunch of roleplaying all at once followed by three battles in short succession (with maybe some spooky scenery in between). Should they be mixed better so there's roleplay battle roleplay battle? If so I'm having difficulty figuring out how to achieve that.

3. How do I get the players to want to go into rooms with bad things in them? It's all fun stuff, of course, but as characters why would they open up a door they're passing if there's likely danger on the other side? I guess this is a question about how all dungeons ever work. Why do players ever open any door but the last door? I can make one room just open into the next I guess, with maybe hallways in between, so that it's more of a rail instead of a real wing, but that doesn't seem to be a very believable or as fun. Am I overthinking this? Will they just open the doors?

4. Treasure. How and when do I give treasure? Can I just wait until the end? And how do I figure out what kind of stuff to give them? I'm assuming I'll need to give them a wand of cure light wounds or similar? Anything else I need to give them beforehand?

5. Bonus question: I have some thoughts already regarding monsters they will come across and types of rooms, but if you have any in particular that you think might be fun, I'm happy for more ideas.

posted by kingjoeshmoe to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (14 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
have you had a chance to review the sort of players who will be involved and what their characters are like?

I'd base your hook on getting them into the evil experiments wing on something in a character's background (maybe one of them has heard rumors about the prison and\or had a friend\loved one who got tossed in here and vanished? maybe one of them has a history against and spotted them in the prison?)

I wouldn't keep your NPCs static and don't expect them to just be in one place or another. Stat out NPCs and be ready to use them in whatever situation feels most appropriate. Your players will follow their own plot, not yours, and you ought to stay adaptable. The best preparation that you can do is to know your maps and your NPCs -- those are your storytelling tools -- then make judgement calls about how to make the story more exciting.

The 'last door' should never be obvious. Players will want to explore, but unless they want to clear your level and be completists, don't assume that they'll find everything or go for everything. Easily a third of the stuff that I prepare never gets found by the players, but that's ok because they wind up coming up with a bunch of other ideas that I wouldn't have anticipated anyway.

For a one shot, let them find some treasure half way during the adventure so that they get a chance to use them and have fun with them. A healing wand halfway through can be a godsend and a great day to let the players relax after a couple of tough fights. Let the magic items be obvious so that they don't have to worry about identifying. Leave a couple of big items in the end to be a reward, or maybe be something that comes in handy for climactic boss fight.
posted by bl1nk at 11:29 AM on June 21, 2013

I wouldn't play out the imprisonment or adjustment to prison life at all, if you were thinking of that. That possibility sounds kind of railroady.

I'd start in media res: "You've been wrongly accused and imprisoned. It sucked, but you find yourself in the middle of a prison riot with a chance for escape, if only you cooperate with the folks around you."

Boom, start fight one. Afterward, they roleplay some introductions and planning, face some moral choices in the lab, etc.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 11:30 AM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

One of the marks of a great DM is building the world to the characters that their players make, thus your first three questions are really hard to answer well without knowing any of the motivations that your PCs have. Are they most motivated by greed? Redemption? The promise of power? The wellbeing of others? The service of a twisted blood god? Saving money on their car insurance? Revenge? Their next drink of ale or hit of skooma? The collection of magical items?

If you can get your players to tell you what their characters want most out of life, finding creative ways to lure or scare or drive them to go through a door should be easy.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:31 AM on June 21, 2013

1. The magical macguffin key is a good idea. Similarly, you could have the characters marked with a Mark of Justice that must be removed before they can pass the prison walls. Or maybe there's some illusion cast over the prison that convinces the group that "EVIL LABORATORY -->" signs read "EXIT -->" to prevent prisoner escapes.

2. If they've broken out of their cells and are finding their way toward the evil lab, I would imagine they'd encounter guards and traps. You also might want to reconsider what's a "battle" vs. what's "roleplaying". What if the players find a way to circumvent or disable one of your monsters? Unless they're specifically playing a hack-and-slash campaign, don't be surprised if your players do the exact opposite of what you expect them to do.

3. Players are almost always curious about closed doors (at least in one-shots), and more so if their characters don't actually know which room has the macguffin. They usually need only the slightest nudge to open a door. Someone senses magic, and Door #3 glows with an unearthly light. Ooh, what's behind it? Or everyone rolls a perception check and the half-elf notices that the stones here move to reveal a well-concealed door. Now what could it be hiding?

4. If it's really a one-shot, you can do whatever you want with treasure. I would stick with what's logical for the room they enter; various potions and elixirs from the storeroom, gold and small weapons from the guard post, magical doodads in the main bad guy's lair. Give them some potions or wands of cure light wounds if you don't have a cleric. Throw in some things like tanglefoot bags or immovable rods if you think they'll have fun innovating.
posted by specialagentwebb at 11:33 AM on June 21, 2013

Response by poster: Blasdelb: They're a mix but pretty much all on the good side. A robin-hood type, a few just out looking for adventure, and one whose mission is to hunt the undead (bday boy, and there will be undead in the wing).

bl1nk: Sounds interesting to do it that way, but then, how do I force them into a group? None of their characters know each other yet.
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 11:35 AM on June 21, 2013

1) Maybe the other prisoners are being dragged back there in front of them and they can hear screaming? Good characters will want to save them. Or they overhear the guards whispering about it. Or when they're fighting guards, they're told "Go ahead! Better to die in a fight than to face that MONSTER." It's DnD, cheese is allowed.

2) Yeah, it's always better to mix the battles up. Wandering prison guards? Creatures in the hallway? Crazed inmates? Traps everywhere?

3) Set the dangers wandering if you can, and roll every time they enter a new space. So on a d8, 1-2 might be nothing, 3-4 might be a few rats, 5-6 might be something undead, 7 a prison guard, and 8 something tough.

4) Planting treasure throughout the dungeon helps with the previous question. If you establish early on that there could be treasure in any room, the PCs will check the rooms. And there's always "Description of laboratory blah blah blah. Rogue! Make an appraise check! It looks like the things on the table are super valuable, wow!"

One other thing: I've found that PCs ALWAYS do something I'm not expecting them to do. Know exactly what and who is in the dungeon. They could try to recruit other prisoners, spend an hour trying to open a window, try to trick a guard into releasing them and roll a 20, making the check you expected was impossible. Be prepared.

Sounds like fun, have a great time!
posted by a hat out of hell at 11:37 AM on June 21, 2013

I've been both a player and a GM for many (many) years now, and though I'm not the most accomplished by any means, here's my advice. Generally, a lot of your questions can be answered by what type of players you have. Are they more likely to enjoy combat, RP, or what? And keep in mind -- if they're experienced players, they'll probably be willing to accept the basic tenets of this adventure without getting too worked up over the "why" of things. As long as the adventure has a bit of flow and makes some sense, your players will go along with it and not start nitpicking everything. (Unless that's what they do to everything, I suppose...) Above all else -- remember that this is supposed to be fun! Relax, roll some dice, kill some baddies, take their stuff.

Specific advice:
1. I think the key-maguffin is perfectly acceptable. Maybe at some point earlier on have an NPC drop a hint (or state outright) that the warden has the key. As for their gear: does it make sense from the bad guy's perspective to have the gear stored where it is? You still want it to be (eventually) accessible, of course, but not in a box outside their cell or anything.

2. I'd vary the pacing a bit, with some RP, then some combat, then maybe a puzzle/trap sort of thing. Having RP and combat in two totally separate chunks can wind up being a slog, and players may get bored with the one or the other. How to do that is going to depend on the layout of the adventure. Can you drop a room with some low-level guards or minions into the prison block, or perhaps have a random patrol? The group fights, maybe one of the guards doesn't get killed and is willing (or not so willing) to talk. Maybe some NPCs have been driven mad and suddenly snap in the middle of conversation and attack?

3. I think this will solve itself. If the PCs are generally good-aligned, I think if you can drop enough "EVIL MUST BE STOPPED" stuff in, they'll be totally willing to comb the dungeon and free all the prisoners/kill the monsters. And perhaps if you can somehow show or even imply that any monster not killed will just be unleashed on them at the end, well...I know I'd be certain to make sure my flank was safe.

4. Treasure should be distributed as you go, after fights, I think. Reward + a chance to prep for further fights. Definitely give them some sort of healing magic, especially if there's no cleric. Hell, even if there is a cleric. Otherwise, potions in general, one-use items like scrolls, maybe defensive stuff like rings of protection, etc.

5. I like to try to keep to a general theme with monsters, instead of just chucking random enemies in there. An evil mad scientist probably has some flesh and/or bone golems lurking around, maybe even some other types of golems/constructs. I'd also consider monsters I could use in "experiments" on the prisoners: oozes, poisonous creatures, maybe ones that have some kind of mind-affecting ability. Maybe a lieutenant/assistant who is some kind of scary opponent in its own right.
posted by Janta at 11:45 AM on June 21, 2013

Maybe instead of starting with them all in one cell together, start just with the B-Day boy and give him a way to escape and then add the others one by one. I had fun starting my son in cell and then as he explored, he tripped over what seemed to be a body on the floor. Then I turned to my husband and let him know that he’d just woken from sleep, groggy and disoriented, and some person seems to be wrestling him to the ground. He got in a nice uppercut on my son when he rolled a 20 before they sorted things out.
posted by saffry at 11:45 AM on June 21, 2013

I don't play D&D, but my husband does, and I copyedit my husband's modules and listen to lots of talk, so the plotty bits that don't involve the details of rolling for whatever, I'm pretty good with.

1. If they want to try to escape, that's fine, they just get caught. "Oh, so you thought you'd escape? The Professor will be very interested to hear how you managed that." Then they get dumped farther into the dungeon, making it harder to try another break. Or it's an island, or nothing but wasteland for 50 miles around.

Also, these folks are experienced gamers who know this is your first time DM-ing and want to have a fun birthday evening? If you drop enough hints, they'll mostly go where you want them to.

2. Prison fight seems like an obvious early-stage fight kind of thing--it may even be a way to bring your team together. Brunhilde the Half-Orc runs a brisk black market trading ring on the inside, and she doesn't want any goody-goodies getting in the way. That sort of thing.

3/4. How to get them to go into the rooms? Easy--there's valuable shit in those rooms. A guy doing experiments on prisoners and making zombies is likely to have all sorts of experimental healing and reanimation potions lying around--they're cheaper than new prisoners. Zombies might still be holding onto whatever weapons etc they carried when they were alive. Drops and intermediate-level baddies can be somewhat random.
posted by tchemgrrl at 12:04 PM on June 21, 2013

A little bit conceptual and weird: you could have the players all 'come awake' together not sure where they are or how they got there. Maybe one is dressed like a blacksmith, one like a farmer, etc.

It turns out that they have been under mind control for some time, in some evil place where those experiments were taking place. Whatever or whoever originally ran the place has died, however the mind control mechanisms have been chugging along with only minor glitches during these times. Now, however, it has finally broken, and so the adventurers find themselves in this fucked-up chaos citadel type place, having lived weird little villager lives for an unknown number of years. Now they just want to get out.

The weirdness and falling-apartness of the place will cover any number of "why isn't this place laid out intelligently; where are the guards and what are they doing" type of worries. Also it helps get the ball rolling and might capture the player's interest. There may be weapons and other various things around; the security of the prison relied mostly on mind control.

Since they don't necessarily wake up in their cells, they will have to do some exploring to actually find the way out. If they ask good questions about what they remember of their imprisonment, you can provide clues, but mostly that memory is gone. (I.e. they don't start off with a map.) And of course, much of the citadel is probably ruined and collapsed anyway.

If you want a big bad undead, the place might still be being "run" by some crazed failed lich type (maybe the original Big Bad but after a botched phylactery renewal, or he failed the lich-making ceremony the first time), or maybe some mad/inepty henchman with pretensions after the master has died (think Portal 2).

Chaos and ruin is easier to DM than order and organization! Often much more fun, as well.
posted by fleacircus at 12:20 PM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

how do I force them into a group? None of their characters know each other yet

Ask them. "How do you know X? Why aren't you going to leave the prison without them?" "What prevents you from leaving Y behind?" "What aim do you and Z share that means you'll stick together despite your differences?"

I'm not sure what carrots I should give to get them into the evil experiment wing, rather than going for a straight-forward prison break

"What's so important to you that you'll stay and search the prison rather than getting out as soon as you can?" "Who is that you won't leave the prison without?"

Maybe one of them has a relative who disappeared in the prison, maybe one of them has heard there's a powerful magical artifact there, maybe one of them has already escaped from it but returned to get revenge, maybe one used to work for the necromancer and regrets it, maybe they have no reason beyond sticking with their friends. But - ask them, and trust your players to provide motivations: their answers will be a lot more relevant to their characters than anything I could come up with.

Also, I agree with Monsieur Caution. Don't play things out that don't have any decisions for your players - jump straight to the interesting bits, and have the rest as backstory. You can have flashbacks to how people got into the prison if necessary once you're started.
posted by siskin at 3:09 PM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sweet, a DMing AskMe!

I haven't roleplayed in a while, and when I did, my group had one guy GM like %80 of the time. He was good. On the occasional time I got to run the show, I got complimented more for the storytelling, and less for the action. But hey, whatever works for you.

1 - I can think of a couple of ways to force them to go to the experimental wing. One of my favorite part about roleplaying is that as the GM, you can give motivational notes to players before they start. Give the righteous guy a note saying "When the time comes, you really want to go to the Experimental wing." Or have them start out unarmed, or maybe one person the sword from the guard that they just overpowered. Maybe just have some other event closes the easy way out so they have to go through the Experimental wing. Couldn't you have called it something shorter than Experimental wing?

2 - It's not so much balancing, you just don't want battle battle battle. Maybe that is balancing. Any way to move a major plot point farther down the way to the exit? Spacing and rest are gonna be tough given that you're doing a prison break. Maybe use the E wing* to halfway gear up the players and have another planned encounter roughly halfway between there and the exit? I dunno, maybe a guard armory type of thing?

3 - I think it's rule number four: If there's a door, they'll open it. Lock it. Then they'll for sure go in.

4 - If d&d ever taught me anything, it's that when you kill a dude, you can find fun cash and prizes on his corpse. Have the first easy bad guys have a sword or a piece of armor or two. Maybe some gems or money. Prison guards aren't gonna have 20 gold, they're gonna have a couple silver and some copper. (I have no idea what the current d&d rules on currency are.) Think like 8 bucks. What can you buy for 8 bucks? Not much.

*See what I did there?
posted by Sphinx at 5:58 PM on June 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I mostly run White Wolf games, but here's some of my suggestions:

1. I'm not sure what carrots I should give to get them into the evil experiment wing, rather than going for a straight-forward prison break?

The simplest way I'd do this is to put the prison on a great whopping peninsula surrounded by lava full of sentient lava sharks with lazers on their heads (or the Pathfinder equivalent). The only way out is via the labs. Maybe out a Minion Deployment Chute or something?

2. All the battles I have planned happen in the experiment lab area, and not so much before that, and most of the roleplay type stuff happens in the prison, before the lab. Is that okay?

The mitigating factor here is how much time out here in the real world you have for this. If you've got a whole honking heap of time, a few traps and small skirmishes tailored to the characters' skills is a good way to get them to work together and to keep things moving. They'll stay with the thief if he's already proven early on that his trap disarming skills will be needed, likewise your thickhead barbarians will be supported by other characters after the first few skull smashings. Make sure it's tailored to your group - a few more puzzle oriented encounters make work well if you have some smarty pants in your group.

3. How do I get the players to want to go into rooms with bad things in them?

By putting good things in some of the rooms too. If they're starting off in a prison cell, they aren't going to have armour, weapons, potions or whatever on their persons. Have the first door they open have some basic armour and other small loot (like a healing spell or something) at a guard's station. That'll prime them for the possibility that not all doors lead to suffering. You can also pop keys and other prompts on defeated guards and other enemies, like a reminder note on a gaurd to meet Squishface the Healer in the West Tower to have his bunion looked at - once people start getting sufficiently dented they'll start thinking about going to have words with Squishface themselves.

4. Treasure. How and when do I give treasure? Can I just wait until the end? And how do I figure out what kind of stuff to give them?

I'm a fan of trickle feeding loot in these affairs, small things like weapons to begin with, and then more useful things as your session progresses. Remember, you don't have to have this written in stone! If you'd planned to give them a wand of heals halfway through, and they get to that part of your prison without so much as a scratch, you can always change it to a cache of useful weapons, or poisons, or other fun things. Get lateral with it, too. I'm not sure what the spell lists are like for Pathfinder, but shapechange spells, invisibility trinkets, slightly cursed weapons and whatnot can be more fun to work out how to exploit than straightforward rewards.

It's also worth noting that fat loot at the end of the session is not so fun for a one shot. After all, you're not going to get to use it once the session closes. Making your game enjoyable and memorable is going to be more rewarding.

Given that this is all in one location, I'd also suggest you do up a map of your area to begin with. Don't show the players. It's mostly so you know where the hell everyone is.
posted by Jilder at 7:55 PM on June 21, 2013

FleaCircus' idea is not bad. The characters are a group because they've been under some kind of spell that makes them act like a group for whatever reason. The puppet master has had them be citizens of the village of Hey-nony-nah for however long and now the spell has worn thin and they can tell that there is some powerful illusion magic going on and they're really in bowl shaped valley in the mountains somewhere that they probably can climb out of and.... Bang. They're a group because fate did it to them. And now that the illusions are wearing off they can kind of tell the catacombs under the temple show signs of a lot more traffic than they seem like they ought to and.... So somewhere down there lies freedom, revenge, maybe treasure, and who knows what else. Also, if things start to sour for them, they can go back topside and maybe get help (healing, whatever) from townsmen who haven't broke out of it yet or don't have the courage or skill to go delving with them.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:56 PM on June 21, 2013

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