Content of the article: "How to: run a one-shot"
So, you want to run a single session that you ain't gonna follow up. That's cool.
Before you start, think about your premise. Many things that work perfectly in campaigns land on their asses in one-shots: slow careful exploration, survival and resource management — basically every game where players are hesitant to press forward. If you have a great idea for a game like that, better turn it into a campaign.
You want a premise that calls for an action: you've been imprisoned by a vile cult and now you have a chance to escape; the immortal king is going to renew his ritual, leaving him vulnerable for a brief time window, the next opportunity will only present itself after 666 years; an old man kidnapped you and put explosive collars on your necks, you better cooperate (yes, I love New Vegas) — something that leaves zero room for hesitation. The PCs either do something, fast or they're fucked.
In one-shots prepwork is important. Way more important than in campaigns — you don't have much time to waste, so you better be prepared.
The first thing you need to prep is characters, or at least a list of bonds they may have. Players aren't going to have a dozen of sessions to flesh out their characters and relationships they have. The party shouldn't be just the fighter, the wizard, the cleric and the rogue — it must be the fighter, who was saved by the wizard and now feels like he's in great debt; the wizard, who is in love with the rogue and the rogue who wants to steal the cleric's holy mace.
Here's a list of boilerplate bonds that characters may have:
- _____________ saved my life and I'm in great debt to them
- I have sworn to protect _____________.
- _____________ is my old friend, but I feel something's off with them lately.
- I had visions of _____________ playing an important role in the events to come.
- _____________ is keeping an important secret from me.
- I respect the beliefs of _____________, but I hope someday they'll see the true way.
- _____________ is a brave soul, I have much to learn from them.
- I will teach _____________ the true meaning of sacrifice.
- _____________ is a friend of nature, so I will be their friend as well.
- When I die I want _____________ to take care of my family.
- ______________ was my enemy long time ago, but now we're thick as thieves.
- I'm in love with _____________.
Then, planning the game. Don't plan the session scene-by-scene, it'll never work. Plan by creating the opposition and having a clear understanding of what it's capable of. I have another post on how to prepare for campaigns and I describe there how to create threats. Use it, but consider scope — it must be bigger than the PCs, but still manageable in one session. Also, you probably want to start either at Direct action or Irreversible changes bad omen.
Also, if you're running D&D or another game where combat is played on a grid, prepare maps. Good maps, not just big boxes — with plenty of cover, chokepoints and interactable objects. Go buy Paizo battlemaps, they're great. Or take inspiration from Counter Strike and Call of Duty.
The opening shot
…is one of the most important things. It must be cool and actiony from the get-go. You don't have a time to waste on "oh you sit in the tavern and some weirdo sits in the dark corner". Cut to the action.
Start the story in media res. "You're chasing a figure in a bright yellow cloak through the shaky wooden rooftops of Mulmaster and the guards and several Cloaks are chasing you" is a great opening shot, that immediately forces players to think on their feet — they hesitate, and either their target escapes for good or they get captured by the guard. Who the fuck is that yellow guy, why is he fleeing and why are we after him? That's for later. Right now, action!
The player's planning
Your greatest enemy, the thing you should avoid at all cost is players arguing about what they are gonna do next. Planning in long-term campaigns could be kinda fine, but in one-shot — that's a death sentence to the quality of the game.
"But characters aren't babbling fools, right? They probably have a plan!" — you'd object. "Fucking use flashbacks" — I'll answer. Think Ocean's Eleven: we don't see them planning outside of a quick montage, we see how their planning pays off.
Introduce some resource for calling for flashbacks. If you're running D&D, don't tie it to character stats, everyone must have their fair share of control over the story — it's not a resource for characters, it's a resource for players. I generally stick to a pool of 10 for each player, but you can tweak this value up or down to shift the game either towards "daring adventurers that think on their feet" or "calculating masterminds that are prepared for everything".
Then, when someone says that they've prepared in some way, make them pay from their flashback pool:
- Zero for an ordinary action for which you had easy opportunity. I've packed a crossbolt; I've casted a mage armor on me; I've told my friend Jane to show up on the dice game, so she can help me.
- One for a complex action or unlikely opportunity. I've packed a bunch of silverhead bolts; I've bribed the watch captain, so his boys wouldn't detain us; I've hidden a shortsword somewhere in the building beforehand, so I can still be armed after the security check.
- Two or more for an elaborate action that involved special opportunities or contingencies. I've packed a bunch of master-crafted magic bolts that explode on impact; I've bribed the watch captain so his boys would lend us a hand; I've hidden a fucking greataxe in the building beforehand.
And then resolve their action using normal rules. Either ask for a roll, make them spend a spellslot, money or whatever. Don't be petty. Let them have cool stuff, it's going to go away in a couple of hours or so, anyway.
Tick-tock, mr Wick
The clock is ticking. Don't waste time. If nothing happens, characters play it safe or refuse to take risks, either cut to the action ("Okay, you've carefully climbed the tower. Now what?") or make something happen. If the action is growing stale, spice it up — the bad guys aren't sitting at their asses, after all, they're actively working on achieving their goals.
I generally run 4 hours one-shots, and here's my rough timetable:
- 0 min: opening shot — establishing starting situation and action!
- 15 min: breather — answering questions, providing some exposition
- 20 min: escalating action — things grow more dire, until…
- 2 hours: midpoint — things change, drastically; the tables are turned, if the PCs were winning, they take a major blow, if they were losing, they receive a helping hand
- 3 hours: home stretch — we already can see the end, the BBEG or the mcguffin is in reach (that doesn't mean it's going to be easy, though)
- 3 hours 45 min: the end — either good or bad guys win, then a little epilogue
Don't pull your punches
….and pull them, at the same time. Here's the thing: you don't want to get the PCs killed — you won't have time to introduce new characters and even if you have a stocked bar where players can go, the game will inevitably lose some steam with each missing character.
But, here's the cool thing: you can introduce long-term consequences like there's no tomorrow (since there's literally no tomorrow). Burn the wizard's spellbook, shatter the fighter's heirloom sword, break their bones and sever their limbs — all these things that suck in campaigns are going to be just setbacks in a one-shot.
Also, slaughter the NPCs, especially those who PCs like. You won't need them in the long run, right?
So, now it's time for wrapping up. Things to remember:
- Always pack the game with action
- Don't let the players get bogged down in planning
- Don't be afraid of giving players access to cool stuff
- Look at the clock
- How Do You Tell a DM They’re Not Doing a Great Job?
- I just want to share my excitement about DnD.
- Seeking Help with Quiet Players
© Post "How to: run a one-shot" for game Dungeons & Dragons Online.
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