One-Shot, One Killer Game
One-shots can be a little polarizing in my experience. Players and GMs who like long, complex plots or rich character development, one-shots are going to be found wanting. On the other hand, some players love rolling up new characters all the time and/or testing out cool character builds, etc. One-shots are remarkably well-suited to the latter type of player. If a character concept doesn’t work out as expected, once the session is over, the player can tweak or shelve that character without a fuss.
Regardless of whether you are one of these player types, your group is probably going to play a one-shot sooner or later. Maybe someone wants to see what it’s like behind the GM screen (see Future Article for advice on this), or the group wants a themed game for Halloween. In any case, we’re going to dive into how to run and play in a successful one-shot (especially so it doesn’t turn into a two-, three-, or more-shot). Even if these short-format games aren’t your favorite, these tips will help crank up the fun so that your whole group has a great game.
The first key to a successful one-shot is to start the game off quick. No dilly-dallying around a tavern while a mysterious stranger sits in a corner waiting to say “Stay a while, and listen.” The whole adventure is going to take place in a matter of a few hours, so the GM needs to make sure the first plot beat is introduced IMMEDIATELY. As soon as the game starts, there should be action that draws the characters/players in, directly engaging with the main plot.
As a player, you need to recognize this need for speed too. Help the GM build momentum right out of the gate by having your character take the hook and run with it. There’s no time to waste gossiping with the locals or doing some extra shopping. This is not to say that you must avoid opportunities for roleplay. But you - and your character - must recognize the need for urgency (and it’s the GM’s job to provide this sense of urgency for the players). Both the GM and players need to hit the ground running: introducing the main conflict and taking direct action toward resolving it.
Once the main plot has been introduced and the initial scene resolved, the GM should have two main points of conflict that stand in the party’s way of reaching the finale. These obstacles can take pretty much any form: monsters, hazardous terrain, parlay with NPCs, you name it. The key to these two points of conflict is 1) they should be clearly recognizable as obstacles, and 2) overcoming these obstacles should be fairly straightforward.
Yes, the players always have the ability to come up with creative solutions to conflict. BUT, no matter what conflicts the GM prepares, they need to be resolved fairly quickly so the party can advance the story. Puzzles or complex traps can sometimes leave the PCs scratching their heads, or otherwise unable to move forward. If the players miss or ignore an important clue, the game stalls and threatens the whole adventure, since you plan to play it out in only ONE session. If your group absolutely loves navigating puzzles, traps, etc., the GM will just need to be very careful and, more importantly, FLEXIBLE when setting up these situations. The GM must be okay with multiple solutions or ways of resolving the conflict.
Bend Like the Willow
It is an old piece of wisdom that says “As the chaotic winds rise, the oak falls while the willow bends.” In a one-shot more than any other style of play, strict adherence to rules and normal operating procedures must give way to flexibility. We all know how hectic things can get at the table, especially during combat. As the GM, keep the game flowing (see this article on game flow) and don’t be afraid to narrate your way through an encounter in order to resolve it more quickly. Ending a combat with a dramatic description of how the party overcomes the great demon is much more important to the overall game than making them carve through its pile of remaining hit points.
On the player-end, help the GM keep up the pace by being decisive about your character’s actions. Don’t spend your precious time hem-hawing about “the right” spell to use or the best tactical move. Make a decision and let the consequences fall how they may. This should go for continuous adventures as well (each round is only supposed to be six seconds of “narrative time,” after all). But with one-shots there is a lot less leniency about how much time is spent on each player’s turn. Once you make a decision for your character, see how it plays out and be ready to adapt to the shifting winds.
A one-shot is especially the time when the GM needs to control the pacing of the session. Since the adventure needs to run all the way from start to finish in a few hours, it falls to the GM to ensure this. Planning out how long each section of the adventure should take (in real time) allows the GM to notice “Oh, only an hour left, I should really get the group headed into the castle for the big showdown.” More than anything else, this will help keep the party on track to finish the game in ONE shot, rather than having to abruptly cut the game short or end with a cliffhanger that could very well turn it into a two-shot.
Remember, for a one-shot flexibility == fun. Rules-lawyers may tsk tsk at this idea, but even they won’t argue that completing a full adventure in one go is better than an adventure that falls short of the conclusion because every rule needed to be implemented and adjudicated perfectly. One-shots are a terrific way to explore a new character or play-style. Even if that character is short-lived, a successful one-shot will allow that adventurer’s name to echo in eternity (around your table, at least).