Future Imperfect – Why Sci-Fi One-Shots are Hard, and What to Do About It

In a week’s time, I’ll be at North Star – a science fiction TTRPG convention. It fills an excellent role in the con calendar, because sci-fi is underrepresented in convention gaming – and it’s easy to see why. It’s got some issues that you just don’t get with fantasy, or even horror, gaming – and the lack of a clear industry leader to hang your expectations around (like D&D or Call of Cthulhu) is just one of them. Sci-fi one shots can be hard to get prepped – and hard to sell to players – here’s why, and what to do about it.

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What in the universe is the setting?

In fantasy, you’ve got an easily-referenced source material that everyone understands – a mixed group of ne’er do wells exploring underground areas for treasure. Even when a fantasy setting is quite different to this (e.g. Glorantha) it is easily explained by listing the differences between it and D&Desque fantasy (e.g. talking ducks, lots more cows).

Sci-fi doesn’t have this central reference point. It can be pulpy or gritty, lethal or safe – and it can literally mean anything. Communicating setting and tone is really important – if you’re running a sci-fi genre that isn’t well-known, you should be really explicit about this both in your con pitch and your prep. Go over it at the start of the session as well (briefly!) and cut it to the basic details. Players need to know if they can charge into a group of stormtroopers like in Star Wars, or if they’ll be shot to pieces, like in Traveller.

An alternative, of course, is to run in an established universe that you can expect players to relate to. If you do this, though, remember that not everyone will know all the references you do. At a con, I’d say you can rely on players knowing the broad brush strokes of Star Trek, Star Wars, Warhammer 40K, and maybe Doctor Who as key sci-fi tropes. Any more than that, you’d better be prepared to be explicit. I’ve had people try to explain Blake’s Seven to me more times than I care to remember, and I’m still none the wiser.

One approach is to use an IP you’d hope players are familiar with

Build Your Sandbox with Walls

The other challenge is the sheer scope of sci-fi play. In a one-shot, you want to decide early on in your prep what the geographical scope of play is – a single city, a single planet, a system, a cluster? This, again, needs to be really explicit – while you might want a picaresque jaunt across a few fantastic locations, consider how much depth you can provide to each of them. I’ve run effective one-shots on a single planet (although if you do this, stick some stuff in for the pilot PC to do), as well as in a single city. You might not need all the setting you have – just pick the good bits.

Plot is Still Plot

Similarly, the wide open nature of sci-fi themes can be daunting. Look back to your first step, and consider what kind of game your one-shot is, and how you can promote this. Daydreaming cool scenes and sticking them together works well – for example, for Snowblind, I knew I wanted a Wampa fight and a Tauntaun chase – so I fitted the rest of the plot around them. They also don’t need to be that complicated – exploring a “derelict” orbital structure that turns out to have a deadly alien / rogue AI in it is popular because it’s a good one-shot format – remember the adage (from I think Robin Laws) that in RPGs, cliché is a  good thing.

Adding NPCs to give background to the universe helps

In terms of structuring your adventure, point-crawls are often great ways to build sci-fi one-shots – 5 Room Non-Dungeons and Three Places are also good approaches. Remember to have engaging NPCs – and a good trick is to have the NPCs hint at the broader scope of the game. Your Star Trek one-shot might be all about the Neutral Zone and tangling with Romulans, so having a subplot NPC who’s an Orion pirate or a Klingon captain shows that there’s lots more going on in the universe.

So, three things that are hard about science fiction one-shots; if you’re reading this on the blog, I’ll just be setting off back from Sheffield after North Star – there’s a fair crack I’ll have more to say about this. What successes (or challenges) have you had with science fiction gaming? Be sure to let me know in the comments.

Why Aren’t You Running D&D One Shots?

Periodically, a discussion starts online like this –

“I have a friend / colleague / partner / child who wants to try D&D. What should I run for them that’s a good introduction to the hobby?”

…and the discussion then proceeds with lots of helpful advice about what system to use, people suggesting their favourites – D100 because the probabilities are easy, Fate because the narrative aspects are easy to grab, Fighting Fantasy because they’ll know the system from the books, that sort of thing.

And they’re all wrong.

If somebody wants to play D&D, you should run D&D for them. It’s not complex, and is (finally – in its current edition) a really intuitive, straightforward, balanced system. As a wider hobby, those of us who run non-D&D games need to get over ourselves that D&D can’t be as good as our favourite game just because it’s popular, and maybe consider that actually that popularity might be in fact because it’s really quite good.

For the first time in the history of the hobby, it’s staggeringly easy to ‘get into’ D&D – Critical Role and similar AP series have made people realise how much fun it can be, and it gets generally sympathetic media coverage. So, we should just accept that D&D is a good entry point to the hobby – yes, of course, there are other games, but D&D is one of those games.

But everybody else runs D&D!

Unless your local area has a flourishing, and welcoming, D&D Adventurers League, I’d counter this that there aren’t all that many people running D&D One-Shots. There are lots of D&D Campaigns going on, but even a quick review of Adventurer’s League shows that the vast majority of adventures featured are designed to be slotted into an ongoing campaign. As previously discussed, the one-shot format (and ideally the short-one-shot format) is an easier way for newcomers to access the hobby.

But I don’t like D&D!

Don’t you? How much D&D5e have you played, or run? I know people who aren’t keen on the fantasy genre, which is fair enough, but a lot of people who claim to not like D&D tend to hold this view from previous editions. I mean, certainly, don’t run the game if you don’t like it, but be open about that, and tell your potential hobbyist that your reluctance to run D&D is because of your own tastes, and not that…

But D&D Is Rubbish! It’s not as good / realistic / fun as Runequest / Fate / Dungeon World!

Look, D&D doesn’t do all genres well. But it does do D&D Fantasy very well – as you might expect. It emulates its own genre perfectly, if you like. Sure, see previous answer, but if you have somebody who is keen to engage with the hobby, telling them that the one thing they are interested in isn’t as good as another game with lower exposure isn’t going to draw them into the hobby. Run D&D first. Then you can tell them about Runequest, if they’re into ducks.

D&D Is Too Complicated!

character sheet comparison

It’s not. One of the great design aspects in D&D5e is that the first two levels are training levels for each of the classes. First level D&D is really easy to play, 2nd level adds in one or two more options, and it’s not until 3rd that PCs really start to get some complexity and depth. Even then, it’s a nice balance where system mastery is much less important than in many other games, so it’s much more forgiving for the new player to pick up.

I do think that a lot of D&D Character Sheets look too complicated – I’ve been working on my own designs that look like the picture here (I copied them off (I think) someone from Critical Role who posted a photo of their sheets for a one-shot) – and will be posting more on this site over the next few weeks.

So Run Some D&D

So, if I can implore you, rather than complain about everyone wanting to play D&D and how they aren’t interested in your favourite system, just run some D&D. In my next post, I’ll cover some ways to make it work – because of the exposure and expected play styles, D&D one shots are a little bit different to other games.

And don’t look down your noses at D&D – it’s not becoming for the hobby for us to throw our game vs. game wars at newcomers, and as well D&D5e is really really good. I’m spending some time over the summer making sure I always have some D&D ready to run – in part because I have a few friends who are interested, and I want their first D&D experience – and their first TTRPG experience – to be awesome.