After a couple of games where I realised I might be stuck in a rut a bit when plotting out (trad) one-shots, and a pleasant day playing Scum & Villainy at North Star convention in Sheffield, I came up with this. It’s pretty formulaic – but does manage to teach the rules of a system concentrically, assuming that your order of complexity almost-matches the order here. I think it’s more suited to sci-fi or modern settings, as the final scene implies a chase or vehicle/starship combat, but I can see it working in fantasy setting too.
I’m a little bit obsessed with game/plot structure, especially in one-shots, as you can tell from this post about the basic one-shot plot, and this about location-based one-shots. Also, if you want to stretch it out to 3-sessions, there’s part 1 and part 2 of a post discussing that.
Scene 1: Get the Score
Start the game with the PCs having agreed the job and just negotiating their terms. They must negotiate with an unreliable patron – characterised by your best hammy acting as GM
Challenge: They must make some sort of social skill – success will give them extra resources for the mission and additional payment (which is irrelevant in a one-shot), failure will lead them to nothing. It’s a basic way to introduce the core mechanic that only offers additional benefits on success, with no real penalties for failure.
Scene 2: Case the Joint
The PCs then research the job using their own investigative skills. They might ask around, sneak around looking for secret entrances after dark, or rustle up contacts to help.
Challenge: Each player should get a chance at a skill check, with success getting them info from a list of relevant information, or additional benefits on the next roll.
Scene 3: Getting in
Give the PCs an obvious route in to avoid the turtling over-planning that you might get otherwise. This will not be straightforward – will their disguise hold, will they scale the walls of the tower, will they evade the magical traps?
Challenge: They will need to make an “engagement roll” – to borrow a term from Blades in the Dark – to see how their approach goes. This may be one roll, or there may be a sequence of them. Either way, the consequences are likely to tell in the next scene – the obvious way is whether they get the jump on their opponents
Scene 4: Fight!
At some point, they will encounter proper opposition – guards, droids, or whatever guards what they seek. Who has the upper hand initially can be determined by the previous scene – or whatever ambush rules your game favours
Challenge: The opposition – given that this is the only “straight” combat encounter in the game, and that the PCs stand a fair chance of gaining the initiative – can be a little tougher than the game normally recommends – and play hard, don’t be afraid to offer a genuine threat of injury or death to the players.
Scene 5: Getting out
The PCs get what they want – the bounty, the steal, whatever – and now need to get away. This will be a follow-up conflict, either using chase rules (all games should have chase rules, IMHO, don’t get me started on this – it’s why Call of Cthulhu 7th edition is the best edition), starship/vehicle combat, or just a plain old fight.
Challenge: This conflict should be balanced as per the regular rules – so that the players get to end the game on a high and bearing in mind some might be injured from your kick-ass fight earlier.
You can then end the game with a denouement, in which they meet their patron again, to either back-slapping or criticism. There’s of course nothing to stop them betraying them and keeping the score for themselves, which they may well choose to do.
I’ll be posting some examples of this structure here for specific systems, but I’d be curious to hear how you’ve used, adapted, changed it for your own one-shots too.
Out of curiosity, I went back through my logs from my regular Friday night Blades in the Dark game to see how many of the Score conformed to this structure.
Taken at its most liberal, most of them do however in a long-term campaign the players have developed a number of very reliable Patrons – people they trust not to lie to them, to pay them the agreed sum, and not to renege on a deal. As the players have recently discovered these trusted patrons are a place the GM can hit hard.
Also, a lot of the score in my campaign have been entirely player driven. So suddenly they’ll decide they’d like to raid the place they saw a few nights ago, or follow up on a loose thread from an earlier mission (possibly one I didn’t even realise was loose).
Research is a must – your casing the join scene is vital, however to extend on it, when the players decide to do something completely off the wall, this is where you reign it in by asking leading questions. “What sort of opening are you looking for?”, “Who are you looking to blackmail?”, “What are you looking for on the Blue Prints”?
Its also worth mentioning that the ‘joint’ that they are casing can vary significantly. My players recently smuggled a pair of betrothed lovers out of a blockaded city by boat, past the watch and the harbour patrol to city where the girl’s father waited. They ‘cased the joint’ but in this case the joint was harbours, docks, coasts and rivers. Similarly the joint may well be a social event or a ritual.
As for the fight, my notes suggest a chase (a rooftop chase, a river chase or in one case a nighttime escape through the city pursued by a rampaging demon) is just as likely.
But the other thing you really need is a twist. Scene 5 starts with the twist. Perhaps the Maguffin isn’t where it was supposed to be, or the police are watching the mark, or the mark turns out to be someone known to one of the crew. Perhaps someone else was trying a caper the same night. In a campaign I aim to have a minor twist for most scores, but nothing which will derail stuff, and a major twists far less frequently. In fact at the end of session 9 with about 12 scores behind them they have just encountered their second big twist (and its a doozie likely to shift the direction of the campaign). However for one-shots I’d stick with small twists.
Two stunning resources for planning capers – “Crimeworld” by John Rogers found in Fate Worlds Volume 2: Worlds in Shadow by Evil Hat Productions, and Leverage The Roleplaying Game by Margret Weis Productions, and its various Companions, in particular Leverage Node-based Capers by David Hill.
In fact if your are doing it on the fly Leverage has tables to randomly generate the details for each scene you’ve described, your Clients, the Mark (and various details about him), the problem, the constraints, other people in play, and of course the twist.