Railroading in One-Shots

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


Jedi Holocron – image from Wookieepedia

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 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!

Pregen Priorities: Crafting a Party

For most games I run as a one-shot, I provide pregenerated player characters (pregens). There are a few games, like Powered by the Apocalypse (PBTA) games, and really rules-light systems, where character generation is either a big part of the game or very quick and easy, but even for simple systems I like to give players a ready-made character. Partly this is just to get going quickly – I think you should get into the action as soon as possible, and partly because character generation is never a level playing field. Players that are more experienced will take to it more, and new players are likely to find it daunting. In fact, I think character generation is pretty overrated all the time, but I’m sure I’ll talk about that in a later post.

When creating pregens, I have a few maxims I stick to. Creating 4 or 5 PCs can be a bit of a chore (and it’s often the most time-consuming part of my prep for a con game), and it makes it less of one if I put some effort into doing it well. When I do it, these are my priorities, in no particular order:

Niche Protection

In PBTA games, each player only gets one playset – once somebody bagsies the Vampire, nobody else can – and this is worth sticking to, whether you’re running a class-based game or in a looser game. In a D&D game, for instance, I’d never have two fighters in the same groups – a fighter and a ranger, for instance, or even a barbarian and a paladin (especially in 13th Age, where the fighter is one of the most mechanically complex classes for players, where the other combat-heavy classes are some of the easiest).

Every PC should be the best in the party at something, and something useful to the scenario at that. That said, you can use wedges if you have to duplicate (in Fantasy Age, say, where there are only three classes – just make sure that one Fighter is melee-based and the other is mostly ranged; I’d also make sure they were different races).

In games without classes, you should still niche as much as you can – when I run Eclipse Phase, for instance, everyone will have a different morph – never two uplifted octopi in the same party – and different factions and skill sets. That said…

2. General Non-Incompetence

You want to make your pregens enjoyable to play, even for players who don’t know the system. To do that make them not be incompetent at anything. Having your PC be rubbish at something is annoying, even when you consciously sacrificed that skill in order to maximise other cool stuff, and even more so when that decision has been made for you.

I have learned my lesson from building pregens with limited combat ability. A couple of years ago at Go Play Leeds, I ran a Star Wars Age of Rebellion game (arctic Tauntaun chases across Hoth – it was great!) featuring a tech specialist with limited combat ability. The player, despite his experience, complained bitterly. My thinking was that techie PCs get lots of opportunities to shine in science fiction games anyway, and he had a bellow ability that could stun opponents in combat, but I realise now that having a rebel fighter on Hoth who just couldn’t shoot a blaster made for poor fun levels for that player – and didn’t sit with the genre either. Lesson learned.

3. Laced for Conflict / Rivalry

Even in an explicitly non-PVP game, I try to give the players reasons to disagree and argue. In some games this is achieved by different factional alignments, and in the best games these can be tied to the scenario the players face (I ran a one-shot Burning Wheel game several years ago where one of the all-dwarf party had an entire subplot around freeing the elves his party had captive).

I used to use Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters to pick archetypes for my pregens – giving them the best chances of interaction and growth – and I still turn to it every so often, but usually I just go with my gut and try to make the PCs as distinct as possible.

It’s best to make these sources of disagreement outward-facing to avoid the players going full-out PVP. For instance, have one player who thinks that orcs are inherently evil and must be exterminated, and one who thinks they can be educated / civilised. This is richer, and safer, than having one player who thinks that orcs are inherently evil and must be exterminated, and another player who is an orc.

4. General Competence

Even in the lowest of low fantasy settings, PCs should feel like they can achieve something. This doesn’t mean then need to be powerful, but it does mean that the opposition they encounter should leave them feeling they can achieve something.

This isn’t the same as opposition being a pushover; opposition should be hard, require a herculean expenditure of effort to overcome, and nevertheless be overcome. 1st level D&D characters can have this experience (and, by the way, I’d never put an encounter at lower than “Difficult” for D&D – you’re not going to have enough fights to wear them down like in traditional play) if the opposition is right, and as long as they don’t meet any other competent adventurers – they should be the heroes of their stories. Mouse Guard is a great example of how PCs can be weak and fragile and yet still epicly heroic (and it’s a great example of lots of other things too!).

So, they tend to be my pregen priorities. Also, I like to make my own sheets (with any relevant rules information on them). Character portraits and standees I can live without, but I may try them out soon as they become more ubiquitous in convention play.

Making the Crunchy Smooth – 5 tips for running system-heavy one-shot games

Quite often, I run fairly crunchy systems as one-shots or at cons. Part of this, I guess, is that I like to see the moving parts work out – it’s also about giving people what they want, as often if people want to try out a new game it’s to see what the mechanics are like. If you’ve only got 3 hours to get people up to speed with a new game, you’ve got to have a plan for it. Here are a few tips that I’ve used successfully for a few system-heavy games:

Tip 1: Make sure you actually know the rules

This sounds obvious, but every time I’ve had disappointing games at cons, this has been an issue, crunch or not.

The best way to learn the rules is to convince somebody who knows the rules to run a game for you. This is ideal, but not always practical.

The second best way to learn the rules yourself (as well as making the pregens, which you’ll presumably do as well) is to condense them onto a one-page handout for players. For games that I’ve run more than once I have a folder of handout stuff – I have a Mouse Guard handout of how to spend Fate and Persona points (the game’s bennies/fate points – a finite resource to aid actions) because if you don’t remind players they can spend them they don’t, and making unskilled rolls using Nature, because that seems to come up a lot and it helps players to have an understanding of what they need to do with it. When I run 13th Age, I have a one-page description of the Icons so players can reference what they might be able to use their Icon rolls for.

Tip 2: Do your own pregen PCs with everything on the sheets

It takes time, but when you’re creating characters, add a note for what each special power / trait actually does – likewise generate any secondary statistics like combat damage in advance and put it on the sheet. You don’t really want to be looking up what Medichines are when you’re in the middle of running Eclipse Phase, or have your players interrupting your flow to ask what Frenzy actually does.

On the subject of pregens, it’s worth having a few ‘easy to play’ characters if your crunchy system allows that. For instance, in 13th Age, I always throw in a Barbarian and a Ranger, as these are the easiest (and some of the most fun!) classes to play. Likewise, you can put in a Wizard or a Sorcerer, but it’s usually worth getting a player who either enjoys getting their hands in the cogs of the system or has played it before. Note to GMs: I’m one of those players.

Tip 3: Give your players a training level

One of the most obvious steals from video games design is to give players a chance to see the rules in action fairly soon. For most systems, this means you want some skill checks to get your head around the system followed by a short combat against low-challenge adversaries where lack of system knowledge or sub-optimal choices won’t make much of a difference.

If you really want to simplify it, start the game on rails. I ran a Mouse Guard game once where the PCs began captured by weasels, and were immediately ‘rescued’ and had to sneak out – so they had a check to sneak past the guards, a check to climb the walls, and then a short combat with the final guards on the gates – I did it so they didn’t have to even really think about what their PCs were going to do – leaving all their attention on learning the system. After that first scene they had meaningful choices and could start to have some engagement with the world, but – like the first level in a video game – first they learned what the system was, what the stakes were, and what danger felt like in terms of dice and numbers on sheets.

Tip 4: Use your players – at least, use some of them

The first thing I do when I sit down to run a crunchy system is scan my players, and identify the players that have either played before or are willing to get their hands into the system. Those players not only get guided towards playing the more complex PCs, they also almost invariably get my copy of the rulebook. And usually get asked to look up stuff later in the game; if I can possibly avoid having the book in my hand during the game I will, and that includes getting players to do my dirty work for me.

Tip 5: Use the rules your players want to see

While I’m a great believer that if you’re running a game at a con, you should actually run the game, it pays to have some idea of what  crunch is an interesting part of the game and what isn’t. For example, I’d hate to see a Mouse Guard game without the scripted combat feature, because it’s a unique element of the game… using Factors to work out difficulty for skill checks, I’m afraid, isn’t, and I’ve never used it in one-shots. I’ve just picked a difficulty for the task at hand based on what felt right (usually Ob3, if you’re familiar with the system). Similarly, if you’re running a Star Wars FFG game for me, I’ll be disappointed if you’re not using the RAW initiative system, because it’s an embedded feature of the game… using the Duty / Motivation system at the start of the session, I’m not really bothered about, as it’s not likely to come up in a one-shot anyway for more than one PC.

To summarise, all of these tips basically come back to the first one – you need to know your game, which is probably the first piece of advice for running any one-shot game. You won’t have time to learn it at the same time as the players, which you might have if you are running an ongoing campaign. What other tips do you have for running crunchy systems as one-shots?