“Dungeon BINGO”: First Session, On the Run

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Trigger: Ambush Goal: Solve mystery Obstacle: Clear name
Location: Tower Feature: Clockwork machinery Phenomena: Hauntings
Villain goal: Greed Relic: Flask Theme: Wonder

In this post, I’ll show you 1 method for running a one-shot or First Session with almost no prep. This isn’t advanced GM knowledge, but it is something useful that I did not know until I saw it in action. It includes some examples, and some free downloads from the Risus Monkey archives to get you started—keep reading!

Getting ready for the 29th session of Planets Collide next Saturday got me rifling through my old notes, and I stumbled over my First Session scribbles. At the same time, one of the Planets Collide players is kicking off a new campaign as a GM, and our conversations lately have taken a close look at GM prep for role-playing.

What kind of prep is vain and ineffective? What kind of prep is useful and productive at the table? We all know (or we should know) that the best-laid plans “don’t survive first contact with the players”, but how can we focus our prep on those things that we will actually use at the table, and eliminate or minimize everything else?

There are many ways, some specific to certain games or styles of play. And there are better blogs than mine out there discussing them. But as I look back at what I do from week to week, and how my current campaign got started, I suppose there might be some benefit in talking about what works for me. And when it comes to what sparked the First Session of this campaign, I stole the method from playing with the Risus Monkey blogger Tim Ballew—a masterclass in GMing. Since his website is no longer with us to point to when new GMs need the benefit of his wisdom, I thought I’d take a crack at describing it.

A few years ago, Tim invited me and Natalie over, along with some of his regulars, for a one-shot of Old School Hack. Natalie wrote about it here. It was a riot!

While we were making our silly band of characters, Tim was secretly rolling dice, maybe even cackling to himself, and jotting down words. We wouldn’t understand why until later—after we dined, after a libation—when the adventure began.

I did not know that Tim had no plan for the evening’s fun. There was no dungeon map keyed with encounters for us to explore, nor was there an overarching network of villainous schemes in the offing. Everything Tim needed to weave the adventure emerged from the adventure goals each player came up with, right then and there; and that secret list he made while we made our characters; and most of all, from the conversation of actual play.

At some point during the night’s antics, someone noticed that Tim was checking off words on his list while we explored. “Are you playing Dungeon BINGO?”

“Dungeon BINGO”—I don’t know who said it, but the name stuck.

What Tim was doing that I call Dungeon BINGO can be boiled down to 2 steps:

  1. Generate a short list of evocative words, images, or concepts using a method of selection that will give you unexpected results. For this purpose, Tim was using his own lists of DungeonWords and WilderWords, picking words at random using dice.
  2. Whenever you need an idea to move the game forward, look at your list of words, and check it off.

That’s it! The alchemy that turned it into gold came from another discipline: Listening, asking questions, and building on each other’s ideas. That’s beyond the scope of this post. If you want to get a jump on it, read Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley: You can get it in PDF from DriveThruRPG or in paperback from Lulu. (I’m not part of an affiliate program, and these aren’t affiliate links. I just love the book.) I might write about Play Unsafe another time.

But even that stuff isn’t too hard. And you are probably doing a lot of it already, because listening, asking questions, and building on each other’s ideas go with having a conversation. And having a conversation is the medium in which role-playing happens.

Setting up your BINGO card

Tim got his words for Dungeon BINGO from lists of words he made just for this purpose—DungeonWords and WilderWords. To get unexpected combinations, he used dice to select a few words from each list. Thanks to Tim, you can download these resources below to get started. Thank you, Tim!

The Risus Monkey word lists are a great source for getting unexpected content inspiration like this, but there are a multitude of options out there that can serve the same purpose: Rory’s Story Cubes, B.J. West’s Story Forge Cards, or any of the billions of tables in role-playing rulebooks, supplements, and blogs that give you random encounters, dungeon twists, or NPC motivations.

Tim called them inkblots, after the Rorschach test: An inkblot is anything that provides input that doesn’t have a settled meaning, but gives you the raw content to spark creative connections. The key is not where you get the ideas, but how you use them.

For my First Session of Planets Collide, I didn’t have any prep at all. I used the D30 Sandbox Companion by New Big Dragon Games. It has a 2-page spread of 10 “Adventurer Generator Tables”—10 columns of evocative ideas for seeding an adventure.

In the spirit of BINGO, I drew a 3-by-3 grid on scratch paper—right there at the table—while the players were making their characters, and quickly obtained 9 words from the tables using a 30-sided die. The table at the top of this post was the result, but here it is again:

Trigger: Ambush Goal: Solve mystery Obstacle: Clear name
Location: Tower Feature: Clockwork machinery Phenomena: Hauntings
Villain goal: Greed Relic: Flask Theme: Wonder

Using your BINGO card: An example

One of the players was Phoebe, who created a Ranger named Ghanna. I asked Phoebe about the lands Ghanna ranged as a ranger, and she said “desert”. That put me in the mind of 1,001 Nights and Persian folklore—like Aladdin.

Now, one of the elements on my BINGO card was a clock tower. So on the spot, I made up Yusayin Buruck, and said he was smuggling Black Lotus into the city. I said he was an aristocrat, and his clock tower was the tallest spire in Adûnibad, the city of a thousand minarets. I asked Phoebe why he was out to get her. She came up with the idea that she had been guarding his caravan, and it was caught in a sandstorm. We established that she was the only survivor, and he held her responsible for the loss.

We could have set the scene during the sandstorm and started playing there, but I was asking the other player questions too. He was a Druid of the plains, and he decided he met Ghanna because she found her way there after the sandstorm. That was where she tamed her animal companion, and 1 of their bonds was based on that. I can’t remember much about his character though, because he just came that once.

You could say the sandstorm was the inciting incident, but that was simply narrated as background. The actual play began with Buruck’s lackeys attacking the heroes just outside the city gate with a wild animal. They defeated the lackeys, and Ghanna got a relic from one of the guys they captured: an intricate stopwatch from Buruck’s tower. And that established enough mystery and drama to launch a campaign that has spanned most of 2 years of nonstop action, without showing any signs of winding down. (No pun intended.)

You can probably see how elements of the BINGO card worked their way into the conversation: I combined “tower” with “clockwork machinery” to get a clock tower. “To clear her name” wasn’t exactly an obstacle in the adventure, but the idea that Buruck blamed Ghanna for the loss of his shipment was based on that. And “greed” was very much Buruck’s apparent goal. Even though we found out later that he had more complex motivations, “greed” was enough to get us started. “Wonder” is hard to invoke, and in my experience it happens by accident. But “wonder” is part of what inspired me to embrace the flavor of 1,001 Nights and describe a city of 1,000 spires instead of a more gritty desert setting.

Then there was stuff I did not use: Instead of a “flask”, I introduced a relic connected to the clock tower theme. And I didn’t use the idea of “hauntings” at all. And though it didn’t turn into a hard boiled detective story, the players were left with a “mystery”: What the heck is going on?

What, indeed? It was after that session that I asked, who is this Buruck guy? And why was he smuggling Black Lotus into the city? I could have said “profit”, and then the next session might have focused on the sordid Black Lotus trade. But it occurred to me that he might have other reasons to keep a critical mass of the population in a dreaming state.

That’s when I got the idea of a demon-dragon attacking the real Buruck and drinking his blood. What if Buruck was a descendant of one of the Sages involved in an forgotten ritual? What if there was a Seal keeping 2 planets apart, and the clock tower was an instrument that measured the Seal’s strength? What if the dragon took up the Sage’s work after gaining his memories? And what if something caused the Seal to weaken?

These musings were what launched a campaign that the players are still unraveling 2 years on. Now I was off the “First Session” reservation and out in the domain of Fronts. And that is for another article.

Why does this work?

We’ve all been in a “conversation” where the other person just wants to hear their own ideas, and it’s not much fun. It’s distorting the meaning of the word to even call that a “conversation”.

But role-playing is about conversation first and foremost. Whatever else might be included—rules, complicated scoresheets with character info, dice, maps, figures, counting tokens, or anything else—these other elements are for reference in the conversation. Conversation is what provides the medium in which all this other stuff can play an active, supporting role.

One of the risks we take as the referee in a role-playing game is that maybe we won’t know what to say when it’s our turn to talk. Like, the players want to explore that dungeon they heard about, and we don’t have a map, a boss monster, or any ideas about the deathtraps, hazards, or the treasures it holds. Oh no!

We plan stuff because we want to feel safer during the game. We want to have something cool to offer the players no matter where the conversation turns. There’s a whole cottage industry dedicated to relieving this anxiety—including pre-fabricated monsters, doodads, NPCs, rewards, plots, modules, sandboxes, and campaign sourcebooks. They wouldn’t sell very many products if they just said, “you and your friends have brains, make it up!” Some of it is quite good. Some of it… not so much. (And some of them deserve every penny they get!)

Whether the prep comes out of our own brains or we get it elsewhere (or some combination), the hazard is that we’ll get so attached to the ideas in our prep that it blocks the conversation. It can become an obstacle to the authentic listening that’s necessary for a conversation. If we get too attached to our own ideas, we won’t notice or build on the sometimes brilliant ideas that come up in the conversation of actual play.

One of the benefits of getting your ideas from an inkblot, instead of planning, is that you don’t think results you got randomly are anything special. You know the dice or cards or whatever could have given you all kinds of other stuff, so you aren’t so attached to the ideas. If anything doesn’t fit, you can more easily drop it. You can use them to form leading questions to get the players’ ideas, and you can use their ideas in combination to make connections that wouldn’t have occurred to you.

But if you memorize a 4-volume campaign setting, or labor over binders of your own ideas before actual play, you’re much more likely to get stuck on them. After all, these ideas are the product of deliberate design. “Of course they’re better than whatever might come up at the table”, you might say. Trouble is, that ain’t always the case.

I’m surprised I used so many of those random ideas that First Session of Planets Collide. But as you can see, I let them fall by the wayside when actual play took other turns.

As a referee, you also have the duty to portray a more-or-less consistent world so that the players can make judgments based on their experiences and reasoning. That means, over time, you do get attached to certain ideas, namely the ideas that were given concrete reality in the shared imagined space. That will sometimes mean putting a cool new idea on hold in favor of established “facts” of the scenario.

But that’s not to shut down the players, rather to protect the boundaries everyone needs to participate constructively.

Okay, now what?

If you have limited time and attention for prep, it’s better to prepare to have a conversation than it is to prepare a sequence of encounters, or anything else that strong-arms the players into a given scenario.

“Story” can grow naturally from the most meagre seeds, if you water them with good conversation habits. Concrete, meaningful challenges can likewise emerge from the simplest parameters, provided you make them a “real” part of the scenario and let the players deal with them according to reason and experience.

Dungeon BINGO, inkblots, and building on the ideas that come up in conversation are not the only way to run a First Session or one-shot. You can layer in any other prep that you want. You can bring a dungeon map, use the Adventure Funnel, or generate a scenario with the Mad-Libs adventure generator. You could even bring a fully-keyed 1-page dungeon or some more comprehensive resource.

The most important thing is not that you eliminate all prep, but that you focus on what is useful. And if actual play turns your scenario upside-down, it never hurts to have a BINGO card ready and to know how to use it!

And if actual play doesn’t turn your scenario upside down, session after session, you need to fire your boring players!

Get started now!

With Tim’s kind permission, I have archived some of his inkblot resources here, until the day the Risus Monkey soars again!

Mobile-friendly [PDF]
Pocketmod version [PDF]
Mobile-friendly [PDF]
Pocketmod version [PDF]
Mobile-friendly [PDF]
Pocketmod version [PDF]

More and more…

Meandiering Banter posted this wacky dungeon word generator you can use for your BINGO cards. Check it out!
After this article went live, @OFTHEHILLPEOPLE sent me this resource for more Dungeon BINGO fun: The Old School Hack Adventure Generator.

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