Over on twitter, Mike Mearls posted a great thread talking about railroading – and the bad reputation it has ended up with. I’ll let you read the whole thread for yourself, but it made me think about one-shot prep; if we want a satisfying experience in 4 hours or less, is railroading unavoidable?
In short, yes, it pretty much is. It’s less of a problem than in ongoing campaigns, because there’s usually player buy-in that they’ll have to engage with the problem given (and the GM’s prep) – but it’s hard to avoid some level of structure to ensure it works out in the time available. Our challenge is trying to make it not be a problem in the game, so the players still have agency to approach the problem how they want to.
I’ll outline three techniques that I use to make railroading less of an issue in my one-shots. All are usable in any “trad” game – for games with more player agency, see my posts on PBTA games and GMless games, for starters. For the sake of examples, I’m going to describe how I’d use them in a one-shot for FFG’s Force And Destiny Star Wars game. Our basic one-sentence pitch is that the PCs, all Jedi Knights and their allies, have to recover a holocron that has recently been discovered before the Empire can find and destroy it.
Technique: Tight Horizons
If you are going to offer players a taste of a sandbox to play in during your one-shot, you need to keep the boundaries of the sandbox tight. I’ve posted before about the perils of too many NPCs in a one-shot game, and usually go with a rule of thumb that you very rarely need more NPCs than you have PCs at the table who have any sort of meaningful interaction. You might have may more ‘background characters’, and in a political / social game you might want to have more named NPCs, it’s still good pratice try to keep the numbers that will be interacted with properly as low as you can.
In our Star Wars game, let’s establish some parameters – let’s say that the holocron is found on Ossus, a planet detailed in the Nexus of Power sourcebook, a barren wastleland ravaged by lightning storms and hidden from the rest of the Galaxy by astronomical phenomena. In order to keep our play tight, let’s restrict our horizons to a particular patch of wastleland leading up to a cave system in the mountains, and the space around Ossus’ orbit. The PCs have no reason to go to another planet, and their scope for exploring Ossus is limited to the regions described. In terms of factions – and hence NPCs, let’s say there are the native Ysanna, who will try to prevent the PCs from taking the holocron, and the Imperial forces; and let’s keep an independent treasure hunter in as well, who could work either for or against the PCs.
Technique: The Swell
The diagram to the left shows the plot structure I use in most of my ‘trad’ convention games; it begins with a tightly structure opener, which throws the PCs into the action straight away, and incites action towards the main event. After this, it opens out a little – they have multiple options to follow in whatever order they want, some of which are dictated by choices they make, some of which I choose based on how the pace of the story is going (if the PCs are vacillating and taking too long, or trying to avoid trouble, the trouble is likely to come to them – never underestimate the effectiveness of a bad guy with a gun/blaster to wake up a flagging game). These then push towards a confrontation which I’ve structured as tightly as I can to make it memorable.
In our Jedi game, let’s begin with our PCs attempting to land on Ossus (their mission can be delivered in flashback, or just introduced as background) only to be struck by one of the lightning storms that ravage the planet. They need to crash land safely, and then fight off some native beasts that have been attracted by the disturbance. In a one-shot this kind of start not only makes sure that the players are involved right from the start but serves as a useful rules tutorial. Of course, the ship will now need parts to leave the planet, making sure they need to proceed towards their goal.
As they set off towards the caves in the hills, we’ll have a range of options for them for the middle part of the one-shot. Do they attempt to find shelter in the nearby settlements, aware that the Ysanna might not trust them? Will they follow the tracks of other treasure hunters? There’s an Imperial patrol waiting to ambush them – or be ambushed – as they get to the foothills. Another ruined ship from many years ago will hold resources that might make entering the caves easier – if they can bypass it’s still-functioning defences. Will they be contacted by the treasure hunters or make contact with them as they discover their existence? When prepping this section, I try not to have these building blocks joined together – I’ll have notes and stats for the Imperials, the treasure hunters, and the natives, and locations for the wreck, the native settlement, and the outer cave systems – and depending on the player’s decisions which faction is encountered where. If I’m particularly organised each of these blocks is written on an index card so I can pull it out when I need (I’ve not gone into FFG’s swanky-looking NPC cards yet, but these could easily save me some time)
All of this of course leads to a confrontation to get the holocron – in this adventure I might well let the players recover it, and the missing parts, relatively easily, in time for a race to leave the system that has been blockaded by the Imperials – because space combat is as good a finale as anything, and there’s probably been quite a lot of planetside action for a science fiction game.
Technique: Hard Scene Framing
When the players make a decision about what their action is, cut straight to it. Travelling between destinations (unless your game system makes this an exciting part of play, like The One Ring or Mouse Guard) can be quickly handwaved to allow as much time as possible interacting with the nodes presented. If it’s a dangerous area, I’ll either resolve it with one skill roll, or frame a montage (a great idea from 13th Age that is portable into any system or setting).
Either way, I like to cut to it. By all means allow a moment to establish the setting and offer verisimilitude (or even immersion) but don’t be afraid to cut quickly into action.
For our Ossus Holocron-chase, the long and perilous journey across the wilderness is going to just require a straightforward Survival role to navigate (and maybe a Piloting – Planetary if they manage to secure speeders or Kirruk Riding Beasts from the crashed ship or the Ysanna). In my notes I’ll have a list of bullet points of flavour that I’ll drop into my descriptions as they do it, but – lightning strike inciting incident aside – I don’t intend to spend time faffing around with the weather as a major player when there are more exciting blocks like the NPCs and factions to interact with.
Of course, I’m sure some of the above techniques could be derided as illusionism – or even railroading by those who consider it a bad thing. But in the balancing act of prepping a time-limited one-shot, I’ll prioritise action – and making sure that aimless wanderings don’t happen – over loftier goals. I’m interested in other techniques readers may have – let me know in the comments or on social media what those are. I’m going to properly prep this Force and Destiny game now – FFG (and WEG) Star Wars are always a big draw at Go Play Leeds, and there’s one coming up this Sunday!