Do This, Now – 5 Ways to Improve any One-Shot

In this post, I’m going to summarize a lot of things that are scattered around the blog, and share 5 things any GM can do to make their TTRPG one-shots rock, whatever the system. If you want examples of most of these (1 and 5 in particular) there’s a stream on YouTube of me running 13th Age Glorantha here (you’ll want Part 3 for the final scenes)

  1. Get your players to introduce their characters in a scene

Don’t ask your players to just describe who they are playing – it’s boring, open-ended (some will take forever, some will just read out their background and – in one “memorable” con game I played in – their equipment list) – ask them to show their characters in a scene. For pulpy, high-fantasy, I describe it as like the opening credits of an old TV show, where they used to show the best bits of the season at the start as the music played. So we might see the barbarian boldly vanquish an orc before downing a pint, or the bard wooing a fair princess. Hand this over to your players and it’ll both introduce them to each other, and set the scene for high action.

In more low-key settings, give a few more parameters. Maybe we see the PCs killing time during a star-system jump, or trudging across the woods on a journey, and zoom in on each one in turn – but ask the players to show, not tell, what their character is like, and you’ll help them to describe their characters’ action better for the rest of the one-shot.

  1. Do some bonds

As described here, get your players to describe links to other PCs – as simple as “who do you trust, and why?” or even describing in turn their previous quest. This really works in a one-shot as it sets the action you’re about to play through in a continuing narrative, making it feel like a episode in an ongoing series rather than a one-off activity.

  1. Have a training conflict

As early as possible in the game, have a skill check or combat for everyone where the stakes – although they are there – are relatively low. In a lot of fantasy games this can just be a combat, and it can be a pretty straightforward one, but it could also be one of the skill challenges described here. By engaging with the system straight away you can get players new to the game up to speed with the system and demonstrate how it works. A lot of running one-shot games at conventions with different systems is teaching the system itself, so don’t neglect this responsibility as GM.

  1. Take breaks

Seriously, take breaks, or they’ll happen anyway during play. Online, I recommend every hour or so, face to face, every 1.5-2 hours, even if only briefly. This helps to keep everyone on board during play and focused and prevent players’ attention wandering. Have them at opportune moments like the end of a scene/act, or even on a cliffhanger – you’ll keep your players (and yourself) fresh to keep your minds focused on the game.

  1. Have a ‘credits roll’ final scene

After the players have completed the one-shot, and they’ve rescued the princess, saved the galaxy, or stolen the jewels, have each player describe a scene from their PCs immediate future – they might be celebrating the recent victory, ruing missed chances, or picking up a loose thread. Like (2), this puts the one-shot into an ongoing narrative, and is a good way for players to sign off playing their PC from the session.

So, that’s my top 5 tips for improving one-shots during the game. Later on I’ll give you 5 things to do during prep that can improve any one-shot. What are your top tips for in-game awesomeness?

Even More Perilous Tribulations: Non-Combat Challenges Revisited

In the original post, I talked about skill challenges, and incorporating them into RPGs of all systems. In this post, I’m going to describe 4 more types of challenge, and give examples of how I’ve used them in my games recently.

The Group Check

This comes, believe it or not, from 5e D&D, although I think it is underused. In this, everyone in the party rolls a skill check (usually the same skill) and if at least half of the party succeed, the group check is successful. An interesting tweak of D&D is that this, like everything, is rounded down, so in a group of 3 PCs if one of them passes the check is passed.

The example I used this for was a group trying to navigate across the Mournland to a location – they all made Survival tests. It works where there is a clear, group-applicable success or failure – and there are consequences for failure. In the example, if they fail, they must spend another day wandering the wastes.

The Success per PC

In this challenge, everyone needs to pass, but there is a facility for very successful rolls to ‘donate’ successes to PCs that fail – as example might be use of Stealth to sneak into an enemy base. Everyone needs to make a check, but especially stealthy PCs can share some of their success to the less stealthy PCs – this avoids the paladin always triggering the guards.

This works well in a group success/failure situation where it doesn’t make sense for some players to fail and the group still to be successful – I’ve used it in the past for climbing a mountain, where the stronger climbers can support the weaker PCs. It does rely on your system having solid degrees of success though – in a d20 game where your skill result is more binary and pass/fail it won’t work.

One Roll with Help

Barely a sub-system, this just means one player makes the check and the others help in whatever way to system allows it. In a recent game of Genlab Alpha, the PCs had to impress the warlike rabbit general, so the group’s warrior rolled – we roleplayed how his allies all helped and gave him the extra dice. For extra flavour, in some systems you can track whether the help worked or not and work it into the narration.

This works when one player is clearly leading, with the others to back them up – often in social encounters with a single NPC or group one player will take the lead, and there is no individual success/failure impact.

The Engagement Roll

This is basically stolen from Blades in the Dark, where the planning and preparation for a job is folded into a single roll that shows how successful it has been. Each player makes a skill check in turn, and the number of successes or failures indicates how successful their engagement has been. Make the rolls in any logical order and with broad brush strokes, and you can get an idea of how well a plan has come off. I used this when running 13th Age Glorantha for a final assault on a Broo camp (the game was streamed; you can watch the skill challenge here, from the start of Part 3)

This is good when you need to montage into something bigger, and failure won’t be a problem – in the example above, if they had all failed we might have cut to them all captured by Broo and staging a daring escape – while if they had all been successful, I had another plan in mind (a Lunar betrayal!) to give the game a satisfying climax – but their raid on the Broo would have been successful.

So, four more kinds of skill challenges. I’ve been finding they really add to the game, particularly when we are playing online, where turn-taking needs to be strict and everyone should be hyper-focussed on plot. Are there any more I should add? What experiences have you had with them? (And make sure you follow JamesCORP on Twitch and YouTube for more streamed games – I’m playing Delta Green this Saturday and there are more one-shots lined up).

What Year Is It? – Running Historical RPG One-Shots

1066 calendar

1066 calendar from – I’d maybe run it through Photoshop before using it in a game

Historical one-shots are something I’ve historically (ha) avoided playing (and running) at conventions. Too much risk of experts, or historical diversions, or putting accuracy ahead of fun. But recently (inspired by an excellent Mythic Babylon game from @thetweedmeister) I’ve begun dipping my toe into them again, helped by the realisation that Glorantha is to all intents and purposes a historical setting given the wealth of detail about its timeline.


I think at the outset I should say that historical gaming should emulate historical fiction, not actual history. History, inconveniently, doesn’t even fit into the pattern of an ongoing RPG campaign, much less a one-shot. It helps to think of each session as a TV series episode, with a tightly-defined arc in its 3-4 hour time-frame. Where historical games help with one-shots is that they can set your one-shot in something bigger – there’s stuff happening before and after the game, and it’s easy to see where the characters and plots go next when the game is over.

And while we’re on the subject, think carefully about how to handle the more problematic elements of historical settings. If you want to include the sexism, racism or homophobia of a historical setting in your game, I guess that’s your business, but please don’t do it anywhere near my table. Most historical periods were much more diverse and varied than some corners of the RPG hobby would have you believe, anyway.

Do Your – Minimum – Research

In no way do you need to be the smartest person in the room, but at a convention or other one-shot, if you know nothing about the period of history your game is set in, you’re going to come undone at some point. You are probably going to have to read the sourcebook before play – in a way that you probably don’t have to if you’re running a game in a fantastical setting.

Before getting too far into research, remember you really do only need broad brush strokes. Also, research doesn’t just mean boring old books. There are history podcasts you can listen to while doing other things, and TV series are often better for a feel of historical fiction than actual history. If you’re going to run Duty & Honour, watching a few episodes of Sharpe will help you much more than reading accounts of the Peninsula War. If you want to run Hunters of Alexandria, you’d do as well to play some Assassin’s Creed: Origins to get a feel for the city and its opportunities for adventure.

Additionally, it probably helps to own your inaccuracies – check at the start of the game if you have any period experts in (it’s likely you could have, if you’ve advertised the game for sign-ups at a con) and ask them to add flavour/colour, but not to go on historical divergences until after the game. I’ve heard of using an H-Card (as well as an X-Card) for historical off-game chat, which is an interesting idea – you need to remember that the game is the primary thing, not the history lesson.

Pick Your Game For The Genre You Want

There are lots of historical RPGs out there – make sure you pick a game where the system supports the kind of play you want. If you want to run a one-shot in the Dark Ages, then Age of Arthur, Mythic Britain, and Wolves of God will all give very different play experiences, even with the same basic scenario. There’s nothing to stop you, of course, using a generic system with a play style you enjoy, and adapting it – and there are some excellent historical setting books, the pick of which are the GURPS sourcebooks and Design Mechanism’s Mythic Earth series. Dark Ages Savage Worlds, anyone?

Points of Divergence

If you’re running a historical game on Earth, you probably do need to know what year it is. Those enormous timelines that setting books have – pick a year and find something interesting that the PCs can act around.

Think of this point as a point of divergence. Before that, history was as it is in the timeline described – scholars today would recognize the world. From the moment that play starts, though, that needs to change. Put the PCs right in the center of the action – they might not be working directly for the King or leading the armies, but their actions will certainly affect the outcomes of these events, and might leave the world looking very different.

Don’t Spectate

Along similar lines, the PCs should be actively doing things. Nobody wants to watch the pyramids being built – the PCs should be negotiating with laborers and work-gangs, protecting the site from evil spirits, and dealing with betrayal and uprisings. If the pyramids are already there, they should be dueling bandits on the slopes, or heading into the tombs to work out what has escaped from them and whether it needs banishing.

It can be tempting to site the one-shot a long way from recorded history, to protect the timeline, but I tend to think that if you’re running history you should put some history in it. So don’t be afraid to introduce historical figures (and don’t give them any plot protection – let your PCs kill Caesar and win the hand of the princess – just not in the same game).

With all that in mind, I’m thinking of stretching my games out into the historical waters for some of my one-shot offerings now. Thanks to everyone on Twitter who offered their advice on this, by the way – you’ll be first in line when I get some online one-shot offerings prepped up!