How to Run One-Shots

It’s the time of year when a lot of us are at home for a while (ha ha, so funny) and with some free time on our hands. That also means it’s the perfect time for some short, easy games so for my last post of the year I thought I’d give you my best advice for making that happen.

Pick the Game For Your Audience

I’ve got a long list of games I would love to run full campaigns of. My current games are a really fun Invisible Sun campaign where the group just pulled a heist in Catafalque, the biggest city in the afterlife, and and a City of Mist campaign where the characters are chasing nightmares in the street and trying to figure out their strange dreams of chanting crowds. Neither of the groups in these campaigns had any experience with the games before we started but they have come to use the rules pretty well and comprehend the world well too. In a one-shot, you don’t have time for that. You need to make sure the world is accessible and the rules are useable right from the start of things. Partly this means setting up your game well (more on that below) but the first thing to figure out is what game your group is going to vibe with.

You might usually play with your local group but during the holidays you’ve got your college friends or siblings in a quick game. They might like totally different aesthetics and backgrounds so use that knowledge to your advantage to enhance the experience. If they are big Star Trek fans then try Star Trek Adventures, if they love Jane Austen then maybe you want to try Good Society, and if they’ve been into The Dark Crystal reboot series then maybe you want to try Good Strong Hands. Having the setting and premise be something familiar cuts the establishing part of your game down to a minimum.

This goes double for game mechanics. There are game systems that are complicated, game systems that are simple, and a whole lot in the middle that are context-specific. You might want to launch a one-shot for your friends who’ve played a lot of tactically-focused games like Shadowrun and Dungeons & Dragons. You might want to think hard before suggesting something more narrative like Masks or something with a lot of roleplaying and little mechanics like Golden Sky Stories. A game like Spire or something in the Cypher system (like We Are All Mad Here) might be easier to figure out for them. If you really want to try a system that’s pretty different, tell the group up front the ways that it’s different and potentially make the setting very familiar. You can even set the one-shot in a setting they already know (from another RPG, movie, show, or even a video game) so that the mechanics are the only new thing.

Make It Digestible

Image © Certain Death

You want a quick start to this game since you’ve got limited time, and that means making the setting understandable as well as the mechanics. Come up with a one-page (maximum) summary of what the game involves both in terms of story and in terms of dice and decisions and stuff. My posts on Ten Things to Know for various games is a good framework but you want to tighten things up a lot from what I usually write. If you were doing this for D&D (to take a well-known example) you’d want to have bullets about how your class is important, about how race and background fit with that, how you roll a typical 1d20 ability check, and about the particulars of the setting you’re in, just to name a few things.

Another thing that players always mention in my write-ups is purpose. Have at least one bulletpoint that tells your players what they are expected to do. This can be simple (“you’re here to stop the supervillain”) or complicated (“you’re expected to uphold the Prime Directive and assess the condition of this system’s star”) but you want to give the players motivation. Think about your typical movie and about how long that “call to action” part takes. You don’t have time for that noise in a one-shot. You want your characters to enter the story already with a clear idea of what they’re doing there, and that means you need the players to be up to speed to.

It should also be said that pregenerated characters are the default for a game like this. The only decision you should be making is whether you are willing to let in other characters for players who go the extra mile to learn the system. I say yes to this because those players have buy-in but the real advantage of pregens is that you get to write them into the story. In a typical campaign, players make up characters and then you give them reasons to get invested in the plot (not every game but probably most of them). This takes time, though, so if you bring pregen characters you can work them into the story so that you start off running. They are heroes from this small town so when the first strange thing happens they’ve got a ready hook to care and not waste time dithering.

Image © Evil Hat Productions

Don’t Get Too Hung Up on the “One-Shot” Part

I always have this vision of doing a one-shot that is exactly that: you get together for a few hours and run through a story that has a beginning, middle, and end. This is the format at most gaming conventions, though I’ve never actually run one of those so I don’t have a lot of direct experience with this particular format. However, I’d point you towards Gnome Stew’s great article and Justus Productions comprehensive overview if you want that particular perspective.

From my side of things, though, I’d say that you should focus on the experience over getting through a plot. This is just for fun, right? So focus on the players and keep things snappy but make sure that people feel good about their play instead of stressing them out. Maybe you don’t finish and have to take a second night, is that so bad? Maybe it is, so you should be comfortable with leaving the story partially unfinished in the interest of a good time. Try to run through it (at least in your head) and consider who’s playing so that it doesn’t get out of control. If people sign up for a one-shot and it turns into a two-shot then probably nobody will complain. If it turns into a three-, four-, or five-shot, though, you might have a harder time getting folks to come back.

Image © Sage Games

If you’re running an original scenario, consider writing in an off ramp in the middle, something that should fall about halfway through what you are planning out in case you need to switch it up. If your group is a bunch of space explorers that find a hulk that turns out to be filled with aliens that need to be fought, maybe there’s a minor victory point halfway when they finish surveying the whole derelict. There’s the option then of launching some salvage back to their original ship before the alien threat becomes obvious. If your players get to that point and you’re looking at the clock with worry then you can use your emergency plan: the bridge door stars bending in with blows from alien fists and the player characters quickly fire off some shots before launching out in the derelict’s escape pods. They get away and feel accomplished, even though you don’t get to run that awesome set piece you wanted to in the ship’s engine room, and you can tell the group that you had more planned and would be happy to run a new scenario some other time.

Have Fun!

This is the undercurrent to all the other advice but just plain have fun! I recommend not getting too protective of your plots in campaigns but there’s absolutely no reason you should feel like you need to “control” players in a one-shot. You are supposed to guide them and help them understand the system (doubly so for a one-shot) but if the “worst” comes to pass and they “wreak” your story then so what? Just make sure they have a fun time doing it! You’ve invested minimal time in this story and you’re just trying something new for the evening. The stakes are rock bottom and the potential is through the roof: it’s a perfect situation!

So go out there and try something new, play with someone new, or even both! And happy holidays, I’ll see you in 2021!

2 thoughts on “How to Run One-Shots

  1. Great post! One alternative to the “Off-Ramp” that I sometimes prep is a “collapsible middle” where if we get to an hour before the end I can trigger the final encounter/climax and get to a satisfying conclusion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love that idea! Sort of like the set back in the middle of the movie when they’re still planning and the Big Bad sends someone to beat them up and show it’s dangerous. Except this time they win! … Hopefully.

      Liked by 1 person

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