The Perils of the One-Shot

Putting on the gamer hat today – hold on.

resized_game_mastersSo I ran a one-shot adventure of 7th Sea for my friends the other day. It was lots of fun, but it also drew attention to certain problems and challenges inherent in the one-shot format of role-playing games. See, unlike a session within a longer campaign, the one-shot has certain restrictions, chief among which is the fact that the entirety of the story needs to be completed within a single sitting. This, among other things, makes the art of the one-shot an aspect of game-mastering I have yet to…well…master.

The Problems

Problem the First: Pacing

Telling a complete story with five of your friends fleshing it out and landing it all within a 5-hour window is a lot harder than it sounds. Try as I might, my one-shots always, always run long, and this is as much my fault as it is the players. See, I want to tell a complete and interesting story. I put in sub-plots and multiple, complex villains. In my head, it’s all paced like a screenplay – three acts, a couple action sequences, and one big finale. Should work fine, but it doesn’t. The players are always tugging off on various subplots, things always take longer than they should (I should learn to stop asking players to dictate what supplies they purchase – utter waste of time), and combat always takes too long. Despite my claims and assertions that the game will run long, somebody inevitably has to leave early, which is lame for them, lame for us, and can throw off the final scene.

Problem the Second: Rule Systems

Most games are not designed for one-shot play. They have complex rule systems that take time to teach/master, run combats at a slow pace, and basically delay the resolution of action for the sake of die-rolling. 7th Sea, as it happens, is chief among these: no duel takes less than an hour to resolve. Throw in players unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the system and you keep hitting delays – people look up rules, people hemming and hawing over their decisions, etc., etc.

Problem the Third: The Inevitable Bail-out

With these things, somebody who say they will come inevitably doesn’t show up. It happens all the time, and though I should plan for it, it usually screws things up for me. This happens because the person who always bails is the person upon whom I’ve pinned much of the plot and whose absence is the hardest to cover for. Also, this isn’t even accounting for the folks who show up late (which I’ve taken to be a given at this point), which only exacerbates the pacing issues discussed above.

The Solutions?

Well, seeing how it’s rare that I manage to run a ‘perfect’ one-shot, I’m not certain I’m the guy to give you the answers here. I do, however, have a couple things I try to keep in mind when running such games. When I follow my own advice, things often go well.


Solution the First: Be Less Ambitious

Your players don’t really need Goodfellas or The Godfather when The Untouchables will do. Drop the sub-plots. Flatten out your villains. Cut the action to quick moments with only one major battle. Your players, like as not, will fill out the empty space with their own ideas. If you are good thinking on your feet, you’ll be able to give the plot the attention it needs while still exploring sub-plots and good ideas.

Solution the First, Sub A: Be Willing to Change!

One thing you can also do is, if the game is running long, drop certain conflicts you had originally counted on. Take out things, consolidate other things, and your players might never know the difference.

Solution the Second: Pick the Game Wisely!

Certain games are custom-made for fun one-shot adventures. Classic D&D fits this mold, as does Call of Cthulhu, Feng Shui, and some others make characters or play a game with very simple character generation systems (Danger Patrol comes to mind). Don’t sit down with every Shadowrun sourcebook known to man and expect to make characters in an afternoon *and* play a game. Forget it.

Solution the Second, Sub A: Rules, Shmules!

In a one-shot, nobody should look anything up in a book ever. Who gives a crap if you get a rule wrong? Make up a serviceable house rule on the spot and move on. If you’re wrong, it hardly matters – you’re only playing this game this once, so there are no real repercussions of screwing something up. Likewise with some other things players get obsessed with: give the players whatever equipment they want with a minimum of fuss. Tell them they have enough money to do whatever sensible thing they’d like to do. Don’t ever ask them the question ‘is there anything else you’d like to do?’ when you want a scene to end. Just finish it. Tell them their brilliant plan works and move on with your life – you can’t spend fifty minutes role-playing out a shop scene. Waste of time.

Solution the Third: Pick Your Players

If you’re like me, you know a lot of people who like to play RPGs and are asking you about playing in them. Of this grand company, there are perhaps only 3-5 who you can rely upon to appear when they say they will. These are the people you game with. Those other folks are great, and by all means invite them, but don’t make them central to the game. That may sound harsh, but hey, if they have a habit of never answering their phone and being perpetually forty-five minutes late, it’s on them, not you. I’m an adult and so are they. If they want to play games with me, they have to demonstrate that they want to play games with me. This is typically demonstrated by showing up on time and being good at communicating with others. This, by the by, is the rule I am absolutely the worst at obeying myself. Ah well.

So, there you have it – a rough and ready guide to a single night’s geekery. Hopefully it’s helpful! Thanks for reading!

About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on March 3, 2014, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts, Gaming and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Brian MacInnis Smallwood

    I think these are great suggestions, and it got me thinking about the successful one-off’s I’ve run. For me, it’s always been a question of scale. If, for example, you have an epic battle in mind, make the battle the only thing you play that day. If you want political intrigue, make everyone check their weapons at the door and play the dukes’ yearly party. I also find it extremely useful to create pressure. Characters tend to roleplay through the shopping in the store if they know the dragon is coming at nightfall (and you have a timer counting down). Most importantly, make plot points malleable. If the cleric uncovers that the mayor is a vampire, it can be just as fresh and personal if the thief discovers it and you link the vampire to either one of their pasts. First come first served for plot. Lastly, and I see you addressing this, embrace improv. The story’s pace can really pick up if you truly hand over the plot to the characters from time to time.

    Oh, and don’t wait for late folks. When they find that the game is well underway when they show up, and there has to be a natural point for them to enter, they often show up more promptly next time. My 2 cents.

    • Oh, I do hand the plot over to the players–that is one of the time drags! The folks I play with will spend an hour just chatting in an imaginary tavern if I let them (I primarily game with professional improvisers). That said, I usually don’t script my adventures very much at all. I have loose goals and let the players solve the problem. I’m constantly improvising.

      The biggest issue I find is, ultimately, one of scale, as you say (and I do mention that above). A one-shot really can’t be Shakespeare, as you just don’t have the time. Simple stuff, basic ideas – go slay the dragon, go rob the bank, go hunt the werewolf. Me, I’m always slipping in plot twists, which is a bad idea for a one-shot, since it exponentially increases the play time. The game is more *interesting*, but you don’t have time to finish it.

  2. This has been one major benefit for me DMing bunches of D&D games at PAX. Most of them are 2-hour slots, so I have no choice but to get through things quickly. A bit of RP to get the characters into the plot, a bit of exploration to path them towards the confrontation, then the climax battle to solve the issue. And the improv rules of ‘Yes, And’ always come into play and help speed things along. “Do we have a grappling hook in one of our packs?” “Sure! Absolutely!” It’s made me a better DM being stuck in that kind of time window… plus it makes the 4-hour slots I’ve done feel like leisurely vacations.

    • I think part of what this comes down to for me is that I don’t *like* quick. I like complex and involved, and the one-shot doesn’t support that well. The adventures that run the cleanest are usually the ones I’ve found the least satisfying from my end (the last Shadowrun adventure, for instance, which was basically just one big car chase).

      There’s a point at which an RPG, when stripped of all the ancillary paraphernalia of plot and character development, just becomes a strategy game. In those cases, I’d rather play an actual strategy game. The thought of running a 2-hour D&D session doesn’t sound appealing to me, honestly. I wouldn’t do it. I’d probably say “would you guys just rather play Hero Quest?”

      • I’m certainly with you on the idea that complexity is just more fun in an RPG than quick. That’s why I wanted Ravenloft to restart, rather than have our Shadowrun “campaign” become the defacto game running. Because as you mention… Shadowrun tends to be just a bunch of one-shots that are loosely tied together, where there’s not much character progression or continuity. Actual “campaigns” allow for that advancement of both overarching story and personal character story, which I find much more enticing and interesting from a player perspective. Especially considering that much of the “roleplaying” of games like Shadowrun (and even certain episdodes of our Star Trek game to a certain extent) is “discussing the problem of the session and formulating a solution”. We’re basically solving puzzles. And while we technically are “in-character” while doing that stuff… it’s really more that us *players* are sitting around trying to come up with our answer to the puzzle rather than actually playing our characters and interacting with the world.

        Which is good enough for what it is, but for me at least does not tend to engage me as emotionally or intellectually in the game. Especially when the discussions go on and on because the players themselves can’t come to any agreement on a course of action. So most of the game is often spent with players arguing “out of character” trying to come up with a solution to a problem that (let’s be honest) isn’t going to work out for us 100% anyway (because where’s the drama in that?) Once we actually get into running the mission, things go tits-up as a matter of course, so why waste the time trying to formulate a “perfect” plan? Lets just hit some basics, give people a job to do… then actually just do it and see what happens?

        Of course, the real reason why we *don’t* do that is that everyone has a fear of their character dying– even in one-shots– that makes them want to try and plan for every contingency to make sure they don’t get cacked. But that just drags things out, and quite frankly… as a DM if you want to put any character in a position of potential threat (putting up obstacles to stop a character from getting what they want– AKA “drama”)… you’re going to do it regardless of how “foolproof” our plan was. So in my mind its better to just jump into the drama with both feet as quickly as possible to see how it plays out, rather than try to minimize the amount of drama with endless discussions about what we are going to do.

      • Very much agreed on all points. This is why I’ve got to go and buy Danger Patrol. Perich ran/runs a Star Wars port of it he developed, and it’s *perfect* for eliminating planning and shopping and the rest of it. It is just ‘jump into the action and GO’ gaming, which is just brilliant once you get used to it.

        About Shadowrun: it is always run as a one-shot, but really works better as a true campaign. Again, referencing Perich, his Shadowrun campaign (in which runs often stretched over two sessions) was much more engaging than the little one-shot stuff I’ve been doing in Shadowrun: Hong Kong. This is why I’m currently split between what will be my next campaign: a *true* Shadowrun campaign or a Houses of the Blooded port set in Eretheria.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: