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How Do You One-Shot?

DMMike

Guide of Modos

I have no idea how the Cast of Thrones game finished, but it seems that everyone had a good time at it! It seemed to use the standard formula: hey you, do this, and report back to me. Which is straight-forward, but it doesn't provide for much cohesion or originality. Are these necessary in a one-shot game?

I've been using pre-generated characters for one-shot games, which gives me the chance to add some character goals and relationships. I can run just about any type of quest I want with those in place, at the cost of player dissatisfaction with character customization. I also like to check in on each player, even (especially) interrupting jokesters who aren't actively role-playing, to make sure everyone is feeling included.

One-shot games:
What types of plot do you use?
Are there character requirements?
How do you keep the game on track?
 

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iserith

Magic Wordsmith
For my one-shots, they're almost always adventure locations (e.g. dungeons) that are larger than can be completed in a single session and include a number of randomized elements (e.g. wandering monsters, weather, treasure, factions, etc.). The reason I do this is because it increases replayability, given that I will often run the same one-shot over and over for different groups or sometimes even the same players with different characters. Whatever the PCs do in the allotted session time is what they do. The players often like to hear how they did compared to other groups.

I don't generally run event-based adventures for one-shots since that requires too much force in my experience to get done in the allotted time, plus all the other weirdness that comes with running plots the players are expected to stay on. The best setup here in my view is to have a big start and big end and mutable scenes in between that can be modified or taken out easily if the group is running short on time without greatly impacting the final scene. Still, I will almost always go with a location-based adventure.
 

aco175

Hero
I like one-shots when I make PCs rather than have people bring one. This may be more with strangers since my normal group likes to make a PC. I like to to equip the PCs with gear that would come in handy in certain places along the adventure, but not absolute to continue the adventure in case they use something before needed.

I also start one-shots at the place or in the action. I handwave the getting the quest part and travel to the place. There may be 10 minutes going over PCs and 10 minutes intro to the adventure, but then it starts.
 


I tend to write my one-shots around one location, with plenty of different paths that the players can take. I want to be surprised as a DM, so I give my players a lot of options, so I don't know what they'll do next. This makes it more fun to run the same adventure with other people. It is kind of like a miniature sandbox, but confined.

My one-shots are usually too big to be completed in one sitting, but that's okay. As long as everyone had fun, then it doesn't matter that we didn't reach the end. I want my one-shots to be big enough that the players never hit the edges of what I have prepared. What does matter, is that during the limited time that we play the one-shot, there is a proper balance between all the different elements that players would like to experience. So a bit of dialogue and roleplaying, a bit of exploration, a bit of combat, and maybe a puzzle.
 

Normally when I want to run a one shot, it's because I want to run an old module that doesn't fit into any existing campaign I might run. I normally let the players know the general concept and set out character creation guidelines beforehand. Once the session begins, I usually just jump in media res to get things going, with the assumption that the characters know each other. My one shots are seldom a single session, taking as long as it takes to finish the module.
 

S'mon

Legend
Pregen PCs with lots of roleplay hooks & cool inter-relationships that players can riff off of. Something like ALIEN is perfect for a one shot. Although length will feel more like a TV episode than a 2 hour movie. Interpersonal conflict is much more fun in a one shot than a campaign
 


DMMike

Guide of Modos
I also start one-shots at the place or in the action. I handwave the getting the quest part and travel to the place. There may be 10 minutes going over PCs and 10 minutes intro to the adventure, but then it starts.
Feet to the fire, huh? I like that; it saves time and prevents the PCs from wandering around too much. I personally wouldn't like it as a player, though, because I'm the nerd whose character wonders stuff like "why did I agree to this" and "how do I avoid this fight (if I'm not a warrior-type)."

So I definitely need the impetus somewhere in my character description.

One shots with the same players? Or rotating players? Or with a group of complete strangers?
All of the above?

I'm looking at running some one-shots for the same players, more or less. Kate Welch, on the other hand, is not likely to be running another one-shot for a Game of Thrones cast. Although Sean Bean has yet to attend...
 

aco175

Hero
So I definitely need the impetus somewhere in my character description.
Agreed. The best or fastest approach to this is when the DM makes the PCs. In the backstory he can add some of this and how/why the group is working together. You can make things like Suicide Squad where they are all forced somehow, or make the group more like Justice League.
 

Check out the Alien RPG and what they call “Cinematic Play”. It’s meant to be played on one or two sessions as opposed to an ongoing campaign.

Each PC has an agenda that’s their main goal, and not all these are compatible. The other players and PCs don’t necessarily know the agenda of PCs other than their own. This creates an interesting dynamic where each PC has goals they want to achieve and they push toward those goals.

I think I’d adapt this approach for just about any game.
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
I'm looking at running some one-shots for the same players, more or less.
If that's your goal, then to answer your OP questions, if it was me:

What types of plot do you use? - 5 room dungeons. Modified so they aren't always actual dungeons.
Are there character requirements? - I would define the level of characters, but they can create their own. I might do fun stuff like - all bards (Rock On!) or all Goblins (Defend the Sewers!) or something.
How do you keep the game on track? - that would depend on the players. If they tend to be the kind who like to sidebar, then I might make it a 3 room dungeon. If they are laser focused types, I may go with 7 room dungeon.
 


Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
Um. Maybe I don't understand what is meant by a "one-shot". In my mind, I think of it as an adventure completed in one session. But White Plume Mountain (WPM) would take at least 2-3 sessions, if not more (at least, if my players were playing, and we were playing the 5e version).
 

GrahamWills

Adventurer
I’ve run a lot of one-shots at conventions, and two things I have found universally helpful, across several systems:

First, pre-created characters that are 80% ready. This reduces set-up time but still allows players to make significant changes and make the character their own. Eg.:
  • 13th Age: players choose backgrounds and one unique thing
  • Call of Cthulhu: players have 70 percentage pints to allocate freely
  • GUMSHOE: players get one investigative and 20 points of general skills to allocate
anything that is mechanically tricky or takes some math should be pre-calculated, and things needing look-up like spells should be fixed, but even a little customization helps players feel agency and ownership of their character.

Second, rather than define the reason why a character is in the adventure, I often ask people to explain to me why this is the case. I don’t do this universally, as sometimes I need the reasons baked in, but if you have a fairly generic set-up, i’d suggest asking the players to explain why as part of their introduction. Again, it adds player agency and gives the players buy-in into the premise of the game.

so if I was running a one-shot where players were, say, off to fight a dragon, I’d make characters who have enough defined stuff that they can feel useful in the game’s premise, but let them add extra details or improve skills they’d like to have. Then I’d say: “you are meeting in the town hall to answer a plea from the mayor to rid the town of the dragon troubling it. Let’s go round the table and introduce your characters. Give your name, a brief description and tell us why you answered the call and why destroying this dragon is so important to you”
 

uzirath

Adventurer
I run a lot of one-shots. Typically, I don't do much prep for them. I always have some pre-gen characters available. Sometimes it's a full party (everyone pick one). Sometimes I just have a pile of options and they can choose a subset. I allow quick customization. Sometimes I narrate the rationale (or include it in character backstories). Most of the time, though, I use the technique described by @GrahamWills where I ask the players to provide their character's rationalle at the beginning of the session.

For me, the key to a good one-shot is having a tight setup, a dramatic conclusion, and a variable number of challenges in the middle so that I can adjust the pace and make sure that the session concludes in a satisfying fashion. (This need not mean that they succeed, of course.) If it were a traditional dungeon, for example, the slow group might visit three rooms before reaching the BBEG while the more efficient group would visit five. Alternately, some encounters can have adjustable difficulty levels (optional reinforcements, traps, etc.).
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
First, which system are you going to run? Whatever you pick, pick the thing that this system does well and lean into it. Location play for 5e, the consequence-snowball of PbtA, the narrative features of Cortex+. Make sure that what you're bringing to the table showcases the special talents of the system. Be absolutely clear in your advertisement what the game's about -- not just details, but the feel. If you're doing a Moldvay dungeon crawl, put in there that skilled play is a feature of your one-shot. If it's Blades in the Dark, it's about doing criminal jobs where things go sideways and you have to think quick. Etc. Etc.

Second, the 80% pregen idea that @GrahamWills posted is spot on. Give the players a choice in the PCs, and then pay that off. Make sure that whatever the 20% left is that it makes a difference in your one-shot. This goes for every game, but especially in a one-shot you want to highlight that choice as impactful.

Finally, if you're doing a prep heavy game, like D&D, make sure you can move the prep around. Prep in chunks that you can restring to fit the time and pacing. If you're doing a no-prep or light-prep game, framing in important -- you need to be able to reframe quickly if things are coming close to time or to expand artfully if a string of successes moves things forward too much. It's a good idea to plan for more than you can do and then tighten up rather than be on the spot to extend material or scenes you don't have.
 

aramis erak

Adventurer
One-shot games:
What types of plot do you use?
Are there character requirements?
How do you keep the game on track?
Plots: usually mission driven, if I can. Clear up front goal.

I usually provide suitable pregens, but if players want to build suitable before, I'll work with them.

Generally, by any character going off track alone being removed from play. If the party goes, nudge them back on course via improved scenes.
 

BigJackBrass

Explorer
Maybe I don't understand what is meant by a "one-shot". In my mind, I think of it as an adventure completed in one session. But White Plume Mountain (WPM) would take at least 2-3 sessions, if not more
Our record currently stands at 18 months to complete a "one shot" adventure. We're terrible at them. If I need to run a one shot these days then I generally find an available convention scenario that's been run several times, which at least gives a good idea that it can be run in a single session…
 

TaranTheWanderer

Adventurer
pregens, if necessasry but if it's a regular group, I'll just run their regular PCs as a 'side quest'

Right into the action in two ways:
1) give a brief background - xyz is happening and here and here are the various people asking adventurers to do stuff - why are you here? After that, it's straight into the mission.

2. Start with combat. Sometimes they don't even know why they are in combat.
"There's an Owlbear trying to eat your face off, what do you do?!"
Then, as the combat goes on, I reveal how they got there bit by bit and they can add their own reasoning for being there.

I did one where they all woke up and they were being attacked by fire elementals. There was a bunch of unconcious/dead NPCs lying everywhere. They, essentially, did the dungeon backwards to figure out what the hell happened, slowly regaining their memories.

-I make sure I have lots of rooms/encounters that I can drop if time gets short.

In 3 hours, I find I can run some short rp, 2 encounters, a puzzle trap, a trapped room and a boss encounter. No more and sometimes less.
 

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