It’s your first game. You’ve decided to run a one-shot. It’s gotta be easier right? No massive storyline to keep track of, just a few hours with your friends. You’ve planned everything in extreme detail. Just a fun adventure that should take three hours with your friends. You ask them to introduce their characters to each other. Wait… are they… are the roleplaying without you? Well, that’s cool, but you really need to get along with the… oh okay, they’ve gone off on a tangent. What do you mean two hours have passed? You’ve barely left the starting city. They’ve got maybe two hours to make it through your carefully prepared twelve room dungeon, or they aren’t going to get to the cool bit! What are you going to do? You’ve completely failed at pacing this!
Fear not. One Shots are difficult.
This is not the game on easy mode, if anyone has lead you to believe that, they’ve lied to you. For players sure, show up, don’t worry too much about consequence, play a character to the hilt, have a fun quick adventure. For a DM, assuming a one-shot will be easy is a mistake. Especially if you have players who don’t go along with your hook.
There’s a reason that the D&D starter box set isn’t a one-shot or designed to be played in one session. It’s because telling a story with a beginning, middle and end in a small time frame is actually difficult. It’s why there’s such a thing as professional storytellers. That’s a skill. Telling a tale over a series of nights easier, more relaxed and the mode most first time GM’s should actually be employing. At least a mini-adventure that goes more time and is allowed to breathe.
Still here because you want to turn down the longevity dial and play a game that lasts just one session? Bravo. You’re Brave.
I’ve seen any number of bad one shots. Ones where not much happens. Ones where things happen, but I can feel the straightjacket and have just gone along with it. Ones where it’s not straight-jacketed enough, and we’ve wandered and then the GM ran out of time. Ones that were overstuffed. Ones where we solved the plot in twenty minutes, and they didn’t have anything else. I’ve run bad one shots too: I’m bad at managing excited players in one shots, not realising they don’t have time to calm down and acclimatise to the game world. Often my one-shots drift in tone. So there’s tip number one. We’ll revisit this in a bit. But first, let’s talk about an art for a second.
Less Is More
This is a common refrain you’ve perhaps before. When I trained as a live performance deviser over a decade ago, this was more than just a statement – it was overriding theoretical point.
The theory went that we, as creators, find it very easy to add stuff to our art. But while this might serve to add a sort of charm to the piece, it does not add meaning. It muddies the waters.
The more we add, the more we cover the heart of the experience, what we are actually driving at. We can strip any artistic idea down to its core and then rebuild. Look at the Xenomorph from Alien. The design of that creature is genius because it’s simple and pure. It doesn’t need lots of flair. It’s built to kill with optimum efficiency. We, as viewers of it, recognise the elements in its design that make it deadly. No flair gets in the way of us interpreting the feature is has as predatory.
The same can be said of any adventure. It’s possible to have widgets and fun areas for players to explore. But they aren’t the heart of the story. In a one shot or short longevity game, we aren’t looking to provide them with a fun shopping trip, followed by travelling to a location then dealing with that location.
We’re looking to hand them a narrative xenomorph. It’s a purer experience. Cut the shopping trip, cut the journey. Place them in the location. Then fill it with danger and choice Or xenomorphs, I guess. Depends on what your game is about. Here are some tips in short games.
Realise your limits
The best piece of advice I ever received on one-shots was from the revised edition Vampire: The Masquerade Storyteller’s Guide. ‘No, Shorter than that. No, Shorter still’.
Whoever wrote that was a genius. Be aware that you aren’t going to have a lot of time. Try to think about what you achieved in your last gaming session. Actually what happened in the plot. How much time was just spent discussing or faffing about or only in combat? How much plot moved forward? That’s how much story you are going to get to tell, how much content you are going to use. Not a lot.
Make ‘Acid Splash’ Content
Acid Splash is a spell that has a range and consequences, it isn’t than far-reaching but can hurt those within its splash.
You need to be like this with your content. Build a series of scenes that have the potential to get a little out of hand but are contained. Then you can keep a timekeeping device nearby and gauge if a scene needs to be moved through in the least splashy way or if you need to pad, you can pull the pin and let that scene splash out for a bit longer.
Make the scenes where you can choose to pad somewhere in the middle of the session so that it doesn’t trap the players at the start of the adventure or suddenly go weird any unfocused at the end.
Provide One Big Decision
This is the most important thing. You need to include one important decision for the players to make.
Something that changes how the adventures go but also who lives and dies. Empowerment is a really core part of RPG games, and if you’re running a one-shot, it’s a part of the experience you want to deliver. If you include a choice that has negative consequences in both of its angles, this is the moment that players will remember.
Be Wary Of ‘Slowdowns’
Slowdowns are bits of gameplay that slow down time. Usually, a combat that takes place over rounds or anything that requires extra rules.
It’s a necessary evil to include them. Usually, these things are what you need to create an interesting setpiece or demonstrate what is cool about a system, but they slow down narrative. To counteract this, make sure you are super familiar with any rules that you know are going to come up so you can deliver them is as dynamic a way as possible.
Introduce A Ticking Clock Moment
If you can, near the end, have a moment where tragedy strikes, and it all becomes a race against time. Use the urgency of the real-world time limit to impose in-game stress.
When I run World Wide Wrestling I say to players ‘when it reaches three hours of play, the cameras shut off’. This means everyone playing works together to provide a satisfying ending to each session and you can use this in a one shot to say ‘we now have an hour and a half of session left. If by the end, you haven’t resolved the leaking tank situation, the blimp is going crash’ or something similar.
That will get players to help you speed the game along. They’ll become economical with their actions exactly when you need it.
Do I Need This?
Finally, go back over everything you’ve got down and check if you need it. Does it move the plot forward? Is it a moment to ask a question of the characters? Is it a decision that will have a consequence? If not, why is it a scene? If you can justify it, feel free to keep it. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Next time we’re going to look at what happens when whoever is controlling our reality messes with our time to play. Join me at a look at the duration dial.
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