Building a Better Short Game



A Sample Flowchart

Short campaigns are a fairly common occurrence  in my group. We have a lot of players, so it’s a good way to run part games, try new systems, let the regular GM’s have a crack at playing, and take a break from an ongoing campaign before the person running it decides it to murder the player characters in a barrage of fatigue-induced meteorites.

After the jump we’ll discuss some of the basic components of running a short campaign, anywhere from around one to six sessions.    Most of these tips are fairly basic, but I’ve found them to be incredibly important fundamentals in running everything from party games to quick, bloody campaigns where the players dramatically shape and shatter the world around them.




1. Chart Things Out

While GM’s tend to run the gamut between meticulous planning and flying by the seat of their narrative pants when it comes to came preparation, a little pregame planning will go a long way in making sure your short arc runs smoothly. While no game should have a truly concrete storyline, mapping out the basic course of the plot can really help you keep a firm grasp of the story and help you improvise when the players take it in a completely different direction than you originally intended.

Now that we have a mechanism for plotting out your story,  let’s break things up and have a look at a few of the narrative elements that will help your short-run campaign along.

  • Have a strong impetus for the party to band together and accomplish specific goals. Creating a group that are all members of the same organization is  one of the best ways to do this. An organization offers a common thread between players, motivation, information and a chain of command to hit them with until they start moving in the right direction.
  • Using modular plot points can really help you provided the exact amount of gameplay you have time for. Creating a string of encounters that further the plot but are not essential to it will allow you to slow things down or speed things as need.  Is the group focused, effective and chewing through the story? Season to taste with extra encounters. If the players aren’t getting the system, seem bogged down in content or have been set adrift on the Tangent Sea, remove elements until the story gets to where it needs to go.
  • Draw a basic map of where all of the relevant plot points are. Knowing where things reside in physical space is a lot more helpful than people give it credit for.
  • Bust out the props. You have no long-term commitments in a short game. We’ve used maps, puppets, custom battle mats,  paper cutouts and physical props such as books, bayonets and keys tied to specific game to add flavor and life to it. This is a fantastic opportunity to cut loose and be sillier, grander and even deadlier than you normally are.
  • On that note, you might find yourself tempted to kill off player characters with reckless abandon, but unless it’s a ‘last stand’ style scenario, or a just a horror game, you probably shouldn’t give in to that temptation. People can get remarkably attached to short run characters, and killing them cheaply or without cause can engender just as much anger as the death of a storied veteran of the campaign might. If you are going to kill a player character, always give them a good death. If they don’t tell stories about their glorious, heroic or hilarious death, then you’ve done it quite wrong.

2.  Pre-generated Characters

Pregenerated characters are the only way my group can get through a one-shot. Especially with an unfamiliar system,  making characters and then getting anything meaningful done in the same session almost never happens. Every group is different, and you might not have this problem, but getting characters squared in advance still leaves more time for actual play. There are a number of different ways to accomplish this goal, and some will work better than others depending on what your group is like.

  • You make the characters. You stat them and write as much of their backstory as you want. Fill out the sheets and then assign them to the players or let them choose from the pile. This is the most time consuming, but it also engenders the fastest play and lets you plant  story hooks into the player characters. This sort of thing will usually work fairly well in a short game, but I would avoid it for longer campaigns. One of my favorite things to do when using this method is create a pool of characters with short, simple backstories and then distribute them with the character sheets. Once the players have chosen their characters, I then pass out a second page with the more insidious, sordid details about the character they’ve chosen. It lends a private sort of gravitas to the the individual characters and instills a healthy amount of paranoia about the other party members quite nicely. This can also backfire if you decide to make one of the characters a double agent without warning or give them a particularly unsavory character flaw, so be careful with it.
  • Create the basic statistics of the character, but leave the details to the players. You churn out “an elven fighter” or “a veteran gumshoe” with stats to match, and then let the characters assign the personal details like gender, name, personality and a short general history. This is great for people who invest heavily in making their own characters from a roleplaying perspective, or for those of us who struggle with learning new systems or creating characters from a mechanical perspective. We refer to such blanks as “Lestat Bricks.”
  • Let people make their own characters, but do it well in advance. One of the greatest boons to roleplaying world, in my opinion, is the advent of character generation software. It lessens the strain on the person running the game immensely, as it allows the players to create legal characters within customizable parameters and relieves a great deal of the supervisory burden of the GM during the character creation process. Being able to print out a finished character sheet and bring it to game is gift in of itself.

3. Cheat Sheets

Making a separate sheet with powers, item descriptions and a few quick breakdowns of attack actions and defending against them can greatly increase the speed and ease with the game is run, especially where combat is concerned. If  you are running a campaign prelude in Pathfinder and all your players know the system backwards and forwards, it probably isn’t necessary… But if you happen to be introducing a bunch of new roleplayers to the Heroes System, they could save you a lot of time and heartache.

4.  Delegate Authority

Short-arc games tend not to leave a lot of room for things like gradual character development and pursuit of individual goals, to say nothing of long debates between both players and characters about what the best course of action might be. Assigning the role of Party Leader to one of the players can help move things along and keep people focused on the mission objectives, and it particularly makes sense if they are members of an organization with a structured hierarchy.  Choosing said leader can be a delicate task,  depending on the general dynamic of the group. It may also be wiser to allow a committee of players to appoint a leader rather than doing it yourself. You should probably avoid assigning the bossier members of the group to leadership roles.  Some of the players are likely going to be predisposed to ignore or resist their orders out of pique or even simple habitual behavior.

As an example, my go-to-girl for the generally thankless job of herding the other Player Characters is possessed of a chipper, sweet-tempered demeanor and never comes across as controlling or pedantic when assigned to a role of leadership. She is also a Raid Leader in a certain popular MMO that shall remain nameless, and carries her talents at organizational whipcracking over to the gaming table.

5.  Set the Scenario

The initial exposition is key to setting the stage for any campaign. However, there are a few things you should keep in mind while laying down “the story thusfar” for your players.

  • Keep it short, punchy and to the point. Lay down the relevant information quickly and make it personal. Establish who the players are, who they work for, what they’re supposed to be doing and why.
  • Tip your hand a little more than you normally would in an initial exposition. Give them a little more information on who they are up against and why than you would normally. You’ve got a lot less time to dole out your foreshortening, so make it count.
  • Make sure you cover the major NPCs that will be relevant to the first couple of sessions. Prominent members within the player’s organization, known antagonists and relevant historical figures should all get a mention.

6. Run Without Fear.

The nice thing about running these games is that you aren’t really committing yourself to standard that you’ll have to keep up for an entire campaign. You can bust out the props, accents, NPC sketches without spreading yourself too thinly. You can also use it as an opportunity to let both you and the players learn a system before you run something longer, experiment with house rules, more lethal combat, and so on. These games are a fantastic opportunity to try new things without having to worry about issues that might plague a longer game. You don’t worry about having to stick to an inconvenient ruling, giving the players mounds of loot and various items they shouldn’t have, and when they inevitably burn down the capitol city, you can even laugh with them without dying a little on the inside.

So there you have it, folks, a few pointers to get you on the path to running a successful one-to-six shot game. Now get out there and game!

One thought on “Building a Better Short Game

Add yours

  1. I enjoyed how clearly this article dissected the potential problems of short games and offered solutions in advance. I’ll be returning to it to help with my own planning if I ever take on a one-shot game myself.

    (I am another member of Vanhavoc‘s above-mentioned gaming group, so I might add that he knows what he’s talking about. Especially regarding pregen characters for larger groups.)


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