Last year, one of my one-shot highlights was playing in a game of Ars Magica, run by the @Asako_Soh at Grogmeet. Ars Magica, as many of you will know, is the TTRPG game that invented troupe play – you follow a covenant of magi through the seasons in quasi-Medieval Europe, alternating between wizards, companions, and grogs. It’s also famously one of the games that people say you can’t run a one-shot of.
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There are lots of games like this. “It runs better it an a campaign, I can’t see how it’d work,” people say. But how often do games like this actually get played? I want to see how a game plays before I invest multiple sessions in it, and I refuse to believe any game can’t be run as a one-shot.
Burning Wheel? Done it. Hillfolk? Done it. Apocalypse World? I’ve played in a few, and there’s a recommended method here by Vincent and Meg Baker for how to do it. You can run anything as a one-shot, and I’d recommend that you do – I’m convinced that no matter what the game is, it can be run as a one-shot at a convention or as a break from regular gaming.
However, there are a few things you can do if you want to run an un-one-shottable game as a one-shot. Here’s my top tips for it: –
Be Prepared to Limit The Scope
You’re likely to get one solid mission/story beat, with a twist, through. So now is not the time for your Pendragon-like exploration of multiple generatioms – just head to the monastery and find out what happened to the monks. Additional complexities can come up from the system anyway, and you don’t need to make it over-complicated – you generally just need three things, whether they are NPCs, monsters, or factions at play – keep it simple.
Do Roleplaying Scenes in Pairs of PCs
This particularly applies if you’re adapting a published adventure to one-shot it. Investigative scenes, as I’ve talked about earlier, are best done with the party split. Cut between the two groups and you’ll get more screen time and more productive investigation from everyone. With that in mind.
Start Late, Get Out Early
If you’re working with a baroque system/setting, you might be tempted to front-load information. Avoid this and instead hard frame scenes to put PCs in the action right away. Your Apocalypse World Hardhold is in danger? Have the gang show up with an NPCs head right at the start, don’t start with the usual “follow everyone around” stuff. You can always flashback if you need to – and keep these flashbacks narration-only to avoid engaging the rules where not needed.
If you’re running an investigative game, you might really want to start at the crime scene – but try to make any initial scene like this hold threat; maybe as you stand over the body you spot somebody watching who runs off, or perhaps there’s another group nearby who want to cause trouble – try to avoid scenes that are entirely stationary.
Use The 1-2-1 Structure for Multiple Passage of Play
If your game has multiple different structures (for instance Mouse Guard alternates between Player’s and GM’s Turns) – try doing GM’s – Player’s – GM’s to showcase both of these. Likewise, if you’re running The Between, start with a shortened Night Phase (maybe the final encounter with a previous enemy), then go through a Day Phase and another Night Phase. By structuring like this you’ll still get a satisfying conclusion and be able to end on an exciting scene, and keep some control over timings.
Take Care With Pregens
Even with PBTA games, I’d want to do some pregen work. Pre-pick playbooks, and you can even partially complete them without compromising player choice too much – you don’t want to have to teach chargen as well as the system.
For a more trad game of course, you’ll be doing full pregens – do yourself a favour and only make one or two of them remotely challenging to play. For our Ars Magica game, there were two Magi available – and players who had some idea of the system already picked them up, leaving the rest of us quite happy with our companions and grogs.
Cut to the Chase
When you’re running an involved game, it can be hard to get to that final scene if the players get bogged down in the middle parts of the game. If they do, though, just cut to the finale – you can remove encounters and obstacles from their way, or just hard frame into a satisfying conclusion. You’ll need to have some idea how long a big climax will take in the game you’re running – but that time before the end of the slot, be prepared to get the players together and cut to the finish. A satisfying ending is more important than finishing your middle scenes – your start and finish should be the best anyway.
And so, I reckon with these in mind, you can run any TTRPG as a one-shot. Should you? Well, yes – I think so – there’s lots of games out there and this is a great way to experience them. I’ll lay down the challenge now – any games you think can’t be run as a one-shot, I’ll run them over the course of 2023, if I haven’t already run or played them – I might even record them as proof it can be done. Who’s in?
It would be great to see games explicitly designed for both campaign AND one-shot play, maybe with a chapter of “if you want a one-shot, do this, ignore that, and use these rules instead”. Kind of like some recent games are approaching solo play.