It's the lonliest number.
Thanks to flickr user andrechinn! CC BY 2.0

Today’s post is going to be a brief one, but hopefully one you’ll find useful. Our topic: how to design, run, and enjoy one-shot RPGs.

Some of you may not be familiar with this concept, or might call it by a different name. A one-shot RPG, to me, is any tabletop game that lasts a single session (usually 3-6 hours). That’s it, the entire story is told in one sitting.

Why would you do this? I’ve run about 40 or 50 one-shot games in the 12 years that I have been gaming. Many of them have been for conventions, where I am limited to a very specific time slot. Others fall in the middle of an ongoing D&D campaign, just so we can take a break from the epic campaign and run a fun, no-holds-barred slaughterfest of Paranoia. But, most frequently, I want to game with friends from around the country, and we’re only in the same place for a day or two, and need to have an entire story told in a weekend.

If campaigns are the epic novels of the gaming world, one-shots are the short stories. They can be truly beautiful, with non-stop sustained action, ever-deepening suspense, intrigue, or mystery. Or they could be train wrecks. I know, I’ve run both.

Here is my no-nonsense, hassle-free, guaranteed-or-your-money back formula for creating a successful one-shot game:

0. Choose your system carefully.

I do believe that a one-shot can be successfully designed and run with almost any role-playing system, but some are going to be much more conducive for the scope of your story. Games which emphasize lots of long-term character ability growth (such as D&D with its focus on leveling, gaining power and items, and so on), aren’t ideal. Systems which are more self-contained, focus more on story elements and short term consequences (Call of Cthulhu) are ideal. That being said, being comfortable with your system is going to be the most important guideline here. Knowing the limitations of your rule-set will be far more important than simply choosing whichever one is best for the story at hand. If you choose to run a D&D 3.5 one-shot, that’s fine! Just don’t expect to get through 12 encounters in your 4 hour window, and have time left for diplomatic negotiations and a big dramatic finish.

1. Limit your scope.

One-shot adventures are all about limits. Don’t try to do too much! The most common mistake comes in planning too much content and not being able to finish. When your timetable is limited, your story should be limited. Now, you can definitely have fun without finishing an adventure, but you lose out on a little satisfaction and closure when the GM has to tell you how it would have ended had you not run out of time. Thus, limit yourself.

1a. Limit in-game time-frame.

You don’t have forever out of game so your characters shouldn’t have forever in-game. The easiest way to limit your scope in game is to design the adventure with some kind of time limit. You’re inside a derelict submarine with only 8 hours of air left, the duke must be unmasked before the royal wedding in 3 days time, the cult is going to bring about the end of the world during the summer solstice, just to name a few examples. Limiting the in-game time frame forces the players to spend more time on the actual plot of the game, and less time durdling around trying to buy explosives or sleep with every bar wench who bats an eye their way. While I love these fun diversions during a campaign, there just isn’t enough time for them during a one-shot. Furthermore, you force your players to be more creative or just faster. You want explosives, but you don’t have time to go to the store to get them? Hmmm, quite the pickle. You’ll have to think of another way, but think quickly, because time’s wasting.

1b. Limit in-game location.

The corollary to 1a, limiting the in-game location is another way to limit the action of the game. All the players are in a remote cabin for the weekend, they’re in that same derelict submarine, they can’t leave the palace grounds or they will insult the duke, and so on. Limiting the location, much like limiting the time-frame, forces the players to use what they have and focus on the task at hand. Some of the worst games I’ve run, even with experienced players, are ones where I allowed them access to an entire city or put no limits at all, hoping that they would stick with the plot. But that just allows them to get embroiled in all the side-quests and quirks of the world that, while awesome in a campaign, just don’t have a place in a one-shot.

I don’t think you need to limit both time and location, but I would certainly always limit at least one of them. (I usually limit both) And don’t forget, players will always try to think outside the box, and you should let them. If they’re trapped in a house, and they figure out a reasonable way to get onto the roof, by all means, let them. Reward players for their creativity.

2. Limited resources = unlimited fun

If you’re limiting the scope of your game, one thing that comes naturally is the limit on the resources the players have. Oftentimes, they’ll have access to just what they have on them, since there’s no time to go visit the magic item shop or go scrounging around for guns. Your players will naturally start to get extremely creative with the resources they have; as mentioned above, encourage that creativity. It is sometimes said that great art comes from the times of great oppression; since you are being somewhat oppressive in terms of resources, time, and location, you need to give your players the chance to flourish when they do break out.

3. The Devil’s in the details.

Since you’re limiting the game world so much, perhaps down to a single location, a handful of NPCs, and a couple of items, your game world must be that much more detailed. Really think about the layout of that haunted house, the personality of the Duke, the items (and clues) that might be found in the captain’s personal quarters. Since these will be the only things the players interact with, they need to be extremely rich. Imagine the BBEG from a campaign you designed or played in, and how detailed you made him since he was a recurring character who took up a lot of thought and “screen time”. Well, if your one-shot lasts 4 hours, and 1 hour is spent interrogating or dining with the Duke, well, the damn nobleman takes up 25% of your game. A one-sentence description in your notebook isn’t going to do. You can be sure that if you limit your location to a single haunted house, the players will search every inch of that mansion, even subconsciously wanting just to explore everywhere.

Brief aside: I’ve had this exchange happen between players in one of my one-shot adventures.

Player A: Let’s search the basement!

Player B: Why?

Player A: Because we haven’t been there yet.

Call it metagaming, but your players are going to catch on, consciously or subconsciously, that the scope is limited, and they’re going to try and find the limits of that scope (location/time/etc.), especially if they get stumped in an investigation or bored.

3a. One important detail that you absolutely must not leave undone: make sure you leave no loose ends before the game begins. Every character’s back-story should be set, the circumstances for them arriving at the location for the start of the game should be set, the characters’ relationship to each other should be set. Now, there’s a lot of leeway within that planning: you could write up detailed backstories (and maybe secrets) for each character or simply decide that whatever brought them to this point is not really relevant. You could have all the characters be part of an already existing adventuring party or organization, or this setting could be the first time they’re all meeting. Just make sure to plan all of this in advance, so you can hit the ground running when the game starts, instead of going around the table waiting for people to think of their backstory and how they got there.

3b. However, don’t have too many details either. Your players are going to want to play the game, not write down every word you say looking for clues. Remember, they only have limited time to play and limited brainpower to compute, so giving them 4 thousand clues of a multi-layered conspiracy is just going to overwhelm them. They can’t afford to get so lost in the details that time runs out.

4. Acquire buy-in.

What the heck does that mean?

Well, one thing that works so well with campaigns is that people spend so much time planning their character, developing their personality and abilities over time, that they start to become connected to them. They start to completely buy-in to the campaign world as well, accepting it for all its warts.

You don’t have that kind of time with a one-shot. Oftentimes, you’ll be playing with pre-generated characters, in a world that is not really that detailed outside of the task at hand (who cares what’s happening in the jungle to the south when the only thing that matters for this game is the royal wedding?) It’s not easy to build an immersive experience in a few minutes. So, what goggles can you put on your players to help them?

a) Set the game in an existing game world with which the players are familiar. World of Darkness, Forgotten Realms, even modern America are all settings to which your characters might instantly relate, and give them a grounding in what is and what is not possible/legal/acceptable.

b) Allow player to customize their characters. In Call of Cthulhu or D&D, I leave some skill points unused and let the players fill them in. I leave the names and vitals blank, to make the character more personal. I even let people design their own characters if they want (either by allowing them to arrive early or simply letting them bring their own sheets along). Usually I don’t allow characters from different campaigns, but sometimes you want to incorporate a one-shot into an existing campaign (maybe when one of your players is absent), in which case you can just use the same characters.

c) Allow a point in the first 15-20 minutes of game time for the players to, in-character, acclimate themselves to the world. Maybe its the first time they’re meeting each-other, or maybe they just need to move around in the game world freely. Allow your players some time to get into character, flesh out all those details that might have slipped past during their initial look at the character sheet. Make sure the players ultimately like their characters and care about them. Since they know the session is the whole adventure, you don’t want them behaving differently than their characters normally would (such as an increased willingness to risk life and limb) just because those characters don’t exist beyond hour 5.

5. Be prepared.

Extending from Rule 0, this goes beyond just knowing your system, but that’s a big part of it. If there are going to be rules you are using, make sure you know them cold. You don’t want to waste time for:

  1. Looking up rules or world information in a book.
  2. Rules arguments/rules-lawyering (as much as this is under your control)
  3. Ordering food.
  4. Drawing maps when not necessary (have them prepared in advance, when possible)
  5. Creating characters, creating NPCs, rolling for randomness on a chart.
  6. Late arrivals.
  7. Set-up.

I know it seems kind of silly to point out these common sense things, but since you’re generally doing a one-shot because you don’t have a lot of time, you want to avoid situations where a lot of time is wasted. And, frankly, much of that happens due to out-of-game logistical issues. As a rule, if it can be done before the session, do it before the session.

That’s it. Those are the guidelines I follow when creating and running a one-shot. Next week (or maybe sometime before that), I want to add a few actually short guidelines to playing a character in a one-shot. And, if there’s sufficient interest, I can post a few single-session scenarios I’ve written or write a new one for you, dear readers, to play or just read through.

As always, thanks for reading! And feel free to drop me a line anytime.


5 thoughts on “One-Shots

Add yours

  1. My advice:
    Do something different. Some of my favorite one-shot games were ones where things got weird: undead characters trying to sneak into a masquerade ball, tritons trying to rescue a mermaid captured by surface-dwellers, swashbucklers competing to out-swash and buckle each other while carousing, dueling, and saving maidens.

    Even if it’s just a dungeon, it should have something you don’t usually see in dungeons – something that makes it special.


    1. One of the especially great things you can do is “blow up the world”, literally or figuratively. Since you are playing in a one-session game, continuity doesn’t matter that much (assuming it’s not part of a larger campaign). I’ve literally blown up the world a few times due to the machinations of evil cultists.

      And, another thing, your players don’t have to win. I think that there’s a subtle undercurrent in gaming where the experience should be challenging, but the players should ultimately succeed in some way. After all, DnD is no fun if every session is a TPK (or is it?). But that is all washed away in a one-shot; some of the best ones can end with everyone dying and the unspeakable horror winning.

      Which reminds me, a one-shot is also a really good way to start a campaign; start with a scene-setting one-shot, maybe 20 years in the past, and then have the campaign grow out of the events of that one scenario.


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