Thursday, April 24, 2014

One Shots: Prepping & Running: Play on Target Podcast Ep. 27

This week Play on Target considers the challenges of running one-shots. You get to hear just how old-school and conventional we are. I think perhaps we err on the side of planning and prep and don't give enough weight to low-structure one-shot builds. But I only noticed that in going back and listening to the episode again. See what you think- do our experiences parallel yours? I should also note that this is the last episode we did with the new sound set up. You'll hear more pops than usual and one or two offset track bits. Sam did an amazing job cleaning the audio up (lots of work...). After this we return to a more conventional recording set up which should fix this.

I have a bunch of games I want to run, but my campaigns go on too long.

That’s a stupid thing to say, but also weirdly true. I enjoy running ongoing campaigns because they pay off my investment of time. I think players feel the same. Certainly within my group a one-off or one-shot doesn’t hold any extra currency, even if it is something they’d normally be interested in. They’ll indulge me for a couple of these each year- but only as a break; if we know someone’s going to be gone from a particular session. However, a series of one-shots as a regular evening wouldn’t fly.

And I’m much more comfortable with a campaign versus a one-shot. A campaign allows me the room to present the backdrop, set up concepts, react to the players, and have a story emerge. A one-shot adds more pressure. What’s the most important thing to show? What elements, incidents, or ideas absolutely illustrate this place? In a campaign players have time to find their footing. They can shift and change their reactions as they get a better feel for the game's premise. You have much less of this in a one-shot. I suspect that’s why you often see over-the-top characterizations and play in convention games. It isn’t necessarily that players at cons have a need for dramatics. Instead it represents the compressed space they’re working in to figure out who their character is.

Though we touch on it in the episode, I think it’s worth defining one-shot purposes: pure entertainment, exploration, and experiment. Pure entertainment games provide a session just to goof around. Here the system or setting doesn’t really matter- the players know what’s going on, the system’s transparent, or we have a strong linear story (like a mystery). Most of the people in my group know Call of Cthulhu, so if I ran something just to have an event (like Halloween), I might use that. Or perhaps if we wanted to have a retro-session I might run AD&D, GURPS, or Rolemaster.

This particular kind of one-shot may offer a counter-point to something we say in the podcast. We talk about the prep needed and the necessity of structure. But if the players already know the system, setting, and each other you can probably work without a net. Or at least with much less of a net. That could be a “What If” scenario in another part of an established world, an amnesia ‘just figure’ it out set up, or a tactical problem to be solved. I’m reminded of Rob Donohue’s “Two Guys With Swords” which uses Leverage. Some of that’s about showing off the flexibility of the system, but it’s more a kind of play space. We mention a few other low or no prep games and I think they break most of the guidelines we mention in the episode.

A more focused and often highly prepared one-shot form focuses on exploration. This shows off the premise, the system, or both. Most convention demo games fall into this category. If you want to show off the system, you probably want to structure discrete scenes demonstrating different mechanics. These should be introduced over time: skill tests, combat, magic, social interaction, etc. Some of the best demo modules and one shots I’ve read have clearly thought about that. There’s a great quickstart for Weapons of the Gods, “Auspicious Beginnings.” It offers a ton of rich material- and many directions for the players to go in. But it also gently and smartly brings in all of the unusual and distinct systems of the game They’re presented in individual scenes, with many opportunities for the PCs to try them out (or skip them and head elsewhere).

I think demo games which focus on presenting the setting can be even more challenging. You need to consider what elements and details really show off the premise. You need to pick not only what will grab the players' attention, but what will make them say: "That's what makes this set up different from any other." I mentioned running Base Raiders before. That has a great hook: superpowered dungeon crawling. Any good demo module has to play to that. Players should get a chance to explore a modest dungeon with some clever super traps and a few fights. It should feel a little like a fantasy game, but with enough twists to keep them aware of the modern supers nature of it. The second time I ran Base Raiders I made sure to play up the “locating a base” portion of the adventure.

Picking and choosing elements can be tricky. You don’t want to info-dump. Instead you probably need to approach it like a salesman, dangling the cool in front of the players. Of course too much focus on the world can obscure some things. For example I have a friend who played a session of Numenera. He said he could see something of the set up for the world, and how it differed from other games. But he didn’t end up with a good sense of what the players actually did in that world. It ended up presented as a sweeping panorama, with random and unfixed characters.

Of course that particular game had the double demo challenge: established setting and system at the same time. That’s often the most difficult- especially with players who really want to figure out what they can actually do in the mechanics. They may find themselves concentrating on that and not get the backstory. Or they may grok the story but feel frustrated by their character sheet. IMHO when you’re trying to introduce both world and game engine, the latter needs to suffer. Consider if you can offer a lighter or streamlined version of the rules. Make sure the mechanics are presented in the clearest way- without arcana or unusual terms. My own experience with Ashen Stars has made me particularly aware on this.

Lastly, there’s the experiment one-shot. You’ve read the rules and what the heck let’s give it a shot. You’re trying to figure out the game just as the players are. That can be a satisfying exercise. But you should probably make clear to the players that’s what’s happening. Make it feel like a shared enterprise and players will often cut you some slack. My first runs with Kingdom, Dread, Esoterrorists, Vampire: Dark Ages, and Microscope (among others) all had this feel. We’d gotten together to try something new…would it work? We didn’t know. 

If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check out Play on Target. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at