Fearless Defenders – a One-Shot Structure

Our heroes are at a remote location, filled with cheerful and innocent NPCs. An army approaches, sure to overrun said location – unless our heroes can stop them! From Seven Samurai to Zulu, it’s a classic plot for fiction – and a great plot for a one-shot. The mixture of fight scenes, roleplaying opportunities, and player agency make it a winner. Here’s how to prep it.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

The Place

The place needs to be remote enough that defending it falls to the heroes, not any conventional militia or army. Or, there is an army, but it won’t arrive for several days – if the PCs can hold off the attack until then, the place will be saved. Alternatively, perhaps help won’t come even if it could – the local lord has rebelled against the tyrannical king, or the planet is in a neutral zone stopping a fleet from arriving.

It needs to have enough NPCs to give it a face – make them sympathetic, and as always – three is a good number. Making one of them a sympathiser or a coward is a good move, as this will create complications later – try not to make it the obvious one.

Seven Samurai – well, six of them at least

The Enemy

Although the enemy should be implacable and overwhelming for the place, try and give it a human face that the PCs can interact with – even if it’s a sinister necromancer leading the army of zombies! Be specific about why they want to overrun this Place in particular – do they have a history here, or is it strategically important – why? 

Alternatively, make your enemy leader have beef with one or more of the PCs; a past enemy, or an ally of a past enemy, will add some drama to the situation. Look at Auntie Wu’s Tea House, a one-shot for Hearts of Wulin, for some examples of upping the melodrama in a wuxia setting.

Initial Scene – The Threat is Revealed

You want to start your game with an exciting scene where the threat, and the timeline, is revealed. Maybe an encounter with a wounded villager, or an attack by scouts of the enemy, happens – generally, I’d make this lead into a simple fight for a one-shot, particularly for a con game – you need the ‘training combat’ for players who haven’t played the system before so they get an idea of how the system works without too much jeopardy, so you can go harder later on.

Zulu is another classic model in film. Bonus points if you get your players to sing.

After this scene, they should know that the advancing force is coming – and they have a short period of time to prepare or retreat. Establish that the force is overwhelming, even if this combat is itself easy, and that retreat should not be an option.

Middle Scenes – Training Montages etc

Once the threat is revealed, the adventure can open out for the players – present them with a number of options to prepare for the attack, and be open to other suggestions.

  • They can attempt to negotiate allies or additional reinforcements. Having one or more neutral, and difficult-to-please factions around in the area helps with this – and the players can always split up to negotiate separately with them. Some might ask for a simple favour, while some might need some roleplaying to convince them to help – try to keep these short mini-quests, resolved with a few skill rolls, to keep things moving. Allies that refuse to help might join the opposition forces!
  • They can prepare defences. The usual problem solving advice of “any reasonable plan” applies here – a successful check can give a one-off bonus in the battle is how I’d play it unless you’ve got a system with a better approach embedded.
  • They can spy on the enemy. Sneaking into the enemy camp is totally a thing they can do – to find their attack plans or even disrupt their preparations. Again, this can be resolved by zooming out or using some infiltration system, especially if the whole party isn’t doing this.
  • They can rally the defenders. This includes training montages for the villagers, and can be handled as above. If you’ve planned a betrayal or retreat, they could try and win that NPC round as well, or you can use this scene to foreshadow their betrayal.
  • They can deal with the opposition doing any of the above! To keep the pace going and add to the sense of peril, the enemy may send a scout to attack – a mid-preparation combat can keep things interesting. Maybe they send goblins in with fire-pots to set some houses on fire. Or enrage a bear to storm the walls through magic. Or bribe some pirates to blockade the starport. Either way, this provides a good prelude for the final scene.

Final Scene – The Big Fight

Once the preparations are done – or not – and the enemy’s attack has been dealt with, it’s time for the big finale. You need to give some thought to how you’ll resolve this. While some games have excellent mass battle rules (Savage Worlds for instance has one that’s really good for this), you may also want to look at another meta-resolution method from here or here.

You can make this more epic by pacing sequences of challenges with individual challenges for the PCs – prep a few of these that you can throw in, and maybe they can influence the overall battle as well. Don’t shy away from having a relatively involved challenge here – this is meant to be the big finale – and equally have lots of stuff ready to throw into the mix to keep things moving.

If the betrayal hasn’t happened already, after the first round of fighting is a good time for it to kick in – zoom in on individual PCs and allow them to deal with this (or not) before it turns the tide. Make sure the interaction with the enemy’s human face is there as well – have him spit words at the PCs as he’s fighting to encourage some roleplay in the course of this.

There you have it. Have you used a similar structure in your one-shot games? Are there any published adventures you’ve seen that do this well? Let me know in the comments.

Great Train Journeys – In Defence of the Railroad

Last weekend, at Grogmeet, I found myself apologising as my One Ring 2e game started –

I’ve adapted this from the Starter Set adventures… it might be a bit linear…

Many of my one-shots are, I realise. Read prep posts here and you’ll find discussions of scenes, pre-planned for trad games, that often take place in a set order. I think I run a lot of railroads at cons. 

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

So, should I be apologising? Well, no – because first of all, a good railroad knocks the socks off a poor sandbox – it’s easier to pace and easier to prep if you know where the game is going. Also, there are some ways to make your railroad much less railroady, so your players don’t feel they’ve been shoehorned into a plot. Here are my top tips for making linear one-shots better.

An actual railroad track. Don’t use this.

Multiple Resolutions

If you need scenes to happen in a set order, give each scene a flexible way to resolve it. For example, if your investigators have to find out that the Hell’s Angels were hired to threaten your murder victim, consider how the players can

  • Beat up on them to get their respect
  • Trick the information out of them
  • Negotiate with them for the clue

Come up with three ways to resolve the scene, and make each one exciting – but be open at the table to other reasonable requests; the thinking about different ways will make it easier for you to respond to other unexpected ways at the table.

Be flexible about scene transitions (what Robin Laws in Feng Shui 2 calls ‘connective tissue,’ too – have multiple ways to get to the next set piece scene, that can happen in a few ways. A 13th Age montage, or One Ring’s Journey system, are good approaches for this – as they create unpredictability, either from the players or the dice.

Flexible Ordering and “the Swell”

Another way to mix up the railroad and make it feel less linear is, well, to make it less linear. While you might have a clear idea of the start and end of your session, and possibly a key scene in the middle, intersperse this with scenes that can take place in any order.

So the players encounter the bandits raiding the village and fight them (KEY SCENE), learn of an opposing force massive to strike on the village (CONNECTIVE TISSUE), then recruit allies and prepare the village defenses (FLEXIBLE SCENES), then fight off the attack (KEY SCENE).

For the flexible scenes, it can help to think of them as short challenges, and think of a ‘normal approach’ (which might just be a simple skill check or challenge) that will get it done. Combine this approach with the one above – with multiple approaches for each task likely to be successful. Chain this between three key scenes, and you’ve got yourself an epic adventure. The example above was largely the plot of @the_smart_party ‘s Deadlands game I played at Grogmeet, where we foiled an actual railroad – following the mass battle (Savage Worlds, it turns out, has a great abstracted mass battle system) we tracked the real villain into his cult and fought him as a final key scene. 

Make Them Pop

The truth is, if your scenes are really entertaining, and transitions between them logical, nobody will care that they are linear. In a campaign, yes, you’ll find this unsatisfying after a couple of sessions, but in a one-shot the strong pull of a linear plot will keep everyone engaged.

Make sure each scene has some genuine stakes though – maybe they make subsequent scenes easier or harder, or feed into the final confrontation. Scenes do still need stakes, and you need to find a way to do this when the scenes that follow are pre-determined. And, whatever you do, don’t start the session sharing a map with one road going one way – a literal railroad out for everyone to see.

This was all I did with One Ring – the starter set has 5 adventures, so I stuck together two of them and tried to stick to the best bits and Spend Hope that the players enjoyed themselves – and I think they did.

What are your views on the railroad? Is anyone going to rush to the defense of the sandbox? Either way, let me know in the comments.