How to run a One Shot Session

Posted: December 12, 2011 by pointyman2000 in Advice, Articles, Roleplaying Games

Ah December, that time of year when pretty much everyone I know has an uncertain schedule due to the sheer number of social obligations to attend to on the weekends.  As such I don’t exactly have a stable player base to work with in a game, leading to me putting the brakes on the L5R: Never a Dull Blade campaign after 17th.  That leaves me with 2 weekends that are really close to Christmas and New Year’s Day, and an uncertain number of actual players.

And so my thoughts drift towards the topic of running one-shots.  Low commitment games wherein a storyline wraps up in one go, preferably with pre-generated characters, as to not have to bother with lengthy character generation for what will be a short session.  One shots are more common in conventions and events, where the GM has to only prepare a single adventure and players just draw from a selection of Characters to play.

But what makes a good one shot?  Well, if my experience with running for newbies in a convention are any indication, a one shot becomes interesting and awesome if the GM can stick to a few guidelines:

  • Keep up the Pace – Pacing is vital for one shots.  While campaigns can linger on scenes, or set down long threads that pay off much, much later, One-shots don’t have that luxury.  A good analogy for a one-shot is a Short Story as compared to a campaign as a Novel.  Quick pacing keeps the game exciting and players interested.
  • A little of Everything – One shots also do well if there’s a little bit of everything.  Campaigns can focus on one or two different scenes in a session, but a One Shot has to hit all the bases; my ideal formula is a Social Scene, some Investigation, a Chase and a Fight all in one session.   I’ll throw in a puzzle or two as well if I think the team can handle it without slowing down.
  • Run something you know – This is supposed to be a no-brainer, but it bears repeating.  One Shots rely on quick pacing and fast resolution, so please give whatever rules you’re using a good read through, take notes and make sure to pay attention to vital systems like spellcasting or combat.  Nothing slows a one-shot down than a rules lookup.
  • End with a cliffhanger – Good one shots know when to end at a note that teases that there will be more… if only the players vote for it.  It’s a good way to keep players eager and excited, and opens the possibility that the one-shot can balloon into a campaign if there’s sufficient interest.

At this point, I’m actually quite amused by the idea of running a one-shot, but I’m stumped by a single question:  What the heck should I run?

  1. I just read a review of the Black Crusade source book for Warhammer 40k and it sounded very interesting – perhaps give that a shot?

    • dariel says:

      Nice tips! I’d alter the last one for my own games, though: End on a good note, tying up the threads laid down in the beginning of the session, so the players have a good sense of accomplishment — but at the same time leave clues that there’s more adventure to be had if they want it. For example, give them the chance to take down a villain, but in doing so they find out that the villain was only one of a group of conspirators …

      • Hi Dariel,

        Good take on the last point and I agree with you. Just because it’s a cliffhanger means that it has to be unsatisfactory. Wrap up the immediate issue, but leave enough plot hooks dangling just in case the players want to continue the game onto another session.

    • Hi typhoonandrew,

      I’ve been thinking of trying out the WH40k series of RPGs as of late, but the issue I tend to run into would be the fact that my gaming group is largely not all that enthusiastic about the setting. That said reading Eisenhorn and Ravenor has really got me stoked, so I might just give this a shot.

  2. mythicast says:

    Yes, a leaving a good ending is important, don’t “Sopranos” it. Ending usually presents a great deal of challenge because it’s tying all the loose threads into a, sometimes, not-so-pretty little bow. But if done correctly, players will often be happy with the story as a whole.

    On the side note, I like Warhammer on the tabletop, but I don’t think I’d generally like it as an RPG. Well, I could, if I took an arrow to the knee.

  3. dariel says:

    I only realized how important closure was when a friend told me she felt like quitting RPGs because the campaigns she was in didn’t finish. She found that lack of a satisfying ending frustrating. Now I’m always very conscious of making sure the players have that chance to achieve closure. 🙂

    • A fine point, Dariel, and one that I agree with completely. Endings matter just as much as beginnings, and every GM should at least have an eye towards how he or she could end a campaign in a satisfying note.

  4. Von says:

    If you have any horror fans in the house, Call of Cthulhu’s usually good for a one-shot. The pulp roots of the game make it very easy to fit in that batch of scenes you were looking for, the characters are disposable by the very nature of the game (since, y’know, the expectation is that they’ll go completely mad and any who make it out the other side are lucky!), and it’s easy to set a pace (you have SIX HOURS to stop the evil cult/escape from the haunted ski lodge/work out what killed those miners). Build your NPCs, work out what they’re going to do if no investigators show up, then drop investigators in and improv around it.

    I also like Fighting Fantasy for one-offs, purely because it’s such a simple system run off 2d6 and low expectations. Swords, sorcery and silly voices. Again, the structure of the game as essentially cinematic – the GM is described as a Director, with a progression of ‘scenes’ to play through and the ability to shout “Cut!” at the high point of a scene to move the game along – means that it keeps going. It’s very linear and railroady by its nature, but I think that works for one-shot games, possibly better than the open, improvisational sandbox structure where it’s entirely possible for players to pootle around, fight a few monsters, find a few clues and not really get anywhere.

    For instance, the Advanced Fighting Fantasy sandbox I ran back in July, while technically fun, was objectively a series of random encounters in which the players, a squabble-prone lot at the best of times, only came close to their objective after four hours of play – they were within sight of the Mungies’ gold when it was time to go home! Not really what you want for a one-shot, and I’d go for something a bit tighter next time.

    • Hi Von!

      CoC is definitely one of those games that would make for a great one shot (and I’m looking forward to picking up my own copy of the corebook when the 7th edition releases next year!) I’m curious about Fighting Fantasy now, I’ve heard people talking about it before but it never really registered on my radar. Maybe it’s time for me to correct that and check it out.

  5. fictivite says:

    I recommend Old School Hack. Fast, fun, over-the-top and easy to learn. Also free and short!

  6. yamasaki says:

    One of the best tips I got for running a one-shot is to have a sort of “ticking clock” in the scenario to build tension and hurry up the action. For example, terrorists have smuggled an a-bomb in the city, and it’s up to the PCs to try to find and defuse it quickly before someone pushes the big red button and everything goes kablooey.

  7. […] Friday Five: 2011-12-16 December 16th, 2011 var addthis_product = 'wpp-262'; var addthis_config = {"data_track_clickback":true,"data_track_addressbar":false,"ui_language":"en"};if (typeof(addthis_share) == "undefined"){ addthis_share = [];}How to run a One Shot Session […]

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