If you’ve never played in a one-shot game, then you are in the minority. A one-shot is where you have a willing group of players, but only a limited amount of time in which to hold a game and so need something that will only last one session. I’ve seen one-shots that were actually two or three shots, but the idea behind this kind of event is for it to start and end in short order. Perhaps you have a group of old gaming friends that can only get together once in a while. Perhaps you’ve bought a book for a new game system and you just want to give it a run around the block. Perhaps your group happens to be free all on the same night and you want to game, but don’t want to play any of the games you currently have going. For whatever reason, a one-shot is what you do when you want to role-play, but don’t have the luxury of being able to schedule a regularly occurring game.Now it seems to me that building a good one-shot involves considerations that are not normally an issue for your standard weekly game. The time constraint makes keeping things moving along far more important than usual. In your standard, one four hour session per week game, allowing a player to waste one hour being bored sucks, but is really no big deal in the grand scheme of things. Let’s say that your game lasts a year with a couple missed sessions for 50 four hour sessions total. That’s 200 hours. One wasted hour is only 0.5% of your time. If you’re running a 6 hour one shot though and one of your players spends an hour being bored, that’s 16.7% of their total time down the drain. That’s a large difference and it will be one of the memories they take away from the game; “I was bored for a good portion of it.” So we have to keep things moving and keep them interesting. How do we do that? First of all, a one-shot is a good reason for the GM to have a game plan well in advance of the event in question. Know the story you’re going to tell and restrict your players’ C-Gen so that everyone makes a PC that will have no trouble being integrated into the plot. Normally I’m completely against having a plot when going into a game, but in a one-shot this is essential. In my standard games the entire first session is usually dedicated to letting the PCs meet each other and letting me figure out who my main characters are and where they will be wanting this story to go. In a one-shot, if you spend the whole time just getting to know people, your game will end right when things become interesting. Not good. Now when picking a setting for a one-shot don’t be too extravagant. Keep the environment something that all of your players are equally comfortable in and make sure that this average level of comfort is high. If you’re running in a published setting keep it as close to the book as possible because that will allow your players to make assumptions based on what they already know/have read. Being constantly told this and that assumption was wrong because your GM had a picture in their head that differed from the one you had access to can be very frustrating especially if time is limited. If you feel the need to make changes to a given setting, be as open as possible, as early as possible, about those changes. Know how long your game is going to last (about) and have out-of-game mile stones. Game start at 4pm. At 5pm the host NPC is murdered. At 6pm the power goes out. That sort of thing. This way you can have an external control on how quickly your PCs move through the story. In a standard game I’d say this is a bad idea because you should really let your PCs have more influence on how the story progresses. In a one-shot though there should be a solid schedule or you’ll never get through your story in the time allotted. Tangents come up, distractions happen, the pizza guy will be late and he will bring you the wrong order and yet the clock ticks on. Your game has to tick on as well. Finally, your one-shot should have a definite ending and resolution. Personally, I think that all games should have a definite ending and resolution, but such a thing is far easier to engineer in a standard game than in a one-shot. In a standard game, you can take weeks to climax and to sort out every loose end. In a one-shot, you only have one shot (lol) at it. The story has to make sense and the ending has to not only fit, but it also has to seem fair. No one likes working through a complicated puzzle only to find that their solution was neither right nor wrong but was instead irrelevant. Misdirection is good in a game, but when time is a factor, the misdirection should be dispensed with early enough that your PCs can cut through to the real culprit before the end. There is a difference in realizing you’ve been fooled just in time to attempt a change in direction and finding out that you’ve been fooled and there’s nothing you can do about it now. I know you know that already, but think about which one you’d chose to experience if you had the choice. Now give your PCs that one.
So how many people here have been associated with a game set in a borrowed universe? By that I mean any game where the contents of a story book (not a gaming book), a movie, or a television show were considered to be cannon and necessary knowledge to get by in the game? How dreadful was that? In my experience, pretty dreadful.We all love Doctor Who. However, who wants to be the local yokels staring on in wonder while the Doctor solves all the problems? I’ll tell you who: no one. We want to be the Doctor or at least one of the Doctor’s companions. However, as a GM you can’t really allow a player to be the Doctor. Too powerful, too long a history all of which happened off camera, and he’s the linchpin of his universe. The character is so central the universe (Hello? It’s named after him?) that even his secondary cast is off limits just from being so near him. Story universes like this are a bad idea because of what I like to call The Dune Effect. I’ve played a Dune RPG. It was awful. Then again, I’m not sure what I expected. If you’ve read the books you know that it is set in the future where there are three very powerful factions who control the universe. These factions have an iron grip on all that happens and no one is ever allowed to accomplish anything without their superior immediately taking the spoils of that success for their own which their superior takes from them and so on. The reason the books are neat is because they are the story of the Messiah coming to deliver humanity out of this centuries old, bureaucratic system of slavery. Without the Messiah, the universe is horrible and unpleasant unless you’re at the top. So do you edit out the Messiah and play in a universe where no advancement is possible? Do you let one of your PCs be the Messiah and edit out that central character from the story line? If so,which Player gets that PC? What about the others? Or you could try the alternative of letting the PCs be peons observing the universe changing from afar while the Messiah works his mojo. They can’t really be central to the story or the story changes because those are as set in stone as things can be (read the books and you’ll understand), but they can spend one night a week listening to you talk through the events in a book series they do have the option of simply reading on their own. Do you see where this bus is going? Same place the Doctor Who bus was heading: Lamesville. I fundamentally disagree with any game that is not drawn from a book so much as it is a carbon copy of that book. Any game of urban fantasy where you could go and meet Harry Dresden is a bad idea. Any game of high fantasy where you could find Gandelf or Frodo is a bad idea. Any science fiction game where you could go and clash with Luke or Vader is a bad idea. Period. I know we love these stories, but come on people! Do we not have better imaginations than this? Now I’m not saying that all reuse of things we’ve read is a bad thing. On the contrary, if you chose to run your game in a world that was similar to one you read about, but in which your group of PCs is the universe’s linchpin instead of the characters that were in the book, I say go for it. You just have to be careful not to reuse any important characters or plot from the book world you’re thinking of. Use the setting only. How do you tell which characters were important, you ask? Easy. Did they have any lines or walk on stage at any time? Them’s the ones. They shouldn’t even be mentioned as living in another town or something. They should be gone from the universe. Not dead, never existed. The distinction is important. What if one of the characters in the book/movie/show/whatever is a required figure for the universe to have any appeal (see Doctor Who)? Then you’re picking the wrong universe. Sorry to be so blunt, but these are the facts, people. Time to grow up a bit, flex those big imagination muscles most gamers possess in at least some amount, and think of something on your own. Oh and all of this is doubly true for D&D novels. Screw Drizzt. I mean it. Screw him till he dies from it. I hate that guy. I have never even read a book with him in it. Yet I have heard enough about him from losers mooning over evil (but not really) elves with scimitars that I can recognize Drizzt art at any con I go to for what it is. Jeez.
Who cares? You’re the GM, you don’t need to be fair. Your job is to keep the game interesting (ie, something which holds the interest of your players) and enjoyable (ie, something that your players look forward to participating in every week), not to run a fair game. Fairness is useful and for the most part the rules should be used, but in no way are they a necessary part of a good story. Was it fair when Frodo got stuck with that damn ring? Was it fair when Harry first had his parents killed and then got to be plagued by the most evil wizard of all time for 7 straight years? Was it fair when Aurthur’s house got bulldozed out from under him to make room for a new bypass? Not remotely. All of those things were interesting though and produced enjoyable results.Here are the tricks to being enjoyably and interestingly unfair: 1. Be on the PCs side. See things from their point of view rather than placing yourself in opposition to them. That way, when you decide to be unfair about something you’ll be doing it in their best interest. This is probably the most important trick so I’d advise you to read it through a second time and keep it firmly in your head. You and the PCs are on the same side. You should be succeeding vicariously through them. You’re the GM, if you’re in opposition to them, you can win any time you want to. Uh… duh… You control the rules. Being on their side though means that when they win, you all win together. It’s a better rule of thumb to follow. 2. Don’t roll for things that make sense when you should just give them to your PCs. There was a horrible murder and eventually the PCs would have made their way to the graveyard anyway because they already know that’s where the creature’s been hiding out. So don’t make them roll a perception to see the terrifyingly misshapen, bloody footprints heading in that direction. Just pick the person with the highest score or with the most interesting way of relating info to the rest of the group or who has some kind of special ability in this direction (getting mileage out of abilities which cost XP is always a good thing) and just give them the news. Honestly. I’ve never heard of a rulebook objecting to this before. 3. If you’re going to be unfair in a way that will disappoint your PCs, compensate them. The evil genius got away in his teleporter, but on the bench next to it they see an odd device… almost like a portable readout for a tracking device… and it’s beeping… If a disappointment is immediately replaced with new hope, the comparison immediately reduces the disappointment factor and increases the hope factor. I didn’t even have to say what the device was tracking and I’m sure each of you who read that line had your brain light up with possibilities. That’s just how people work. 4. Let the PCs win more often than they lose. This may seem like a repeat of #1 but it isn’t. This a conscious recording of your PCs’ wins and losses and keeping the count solidly (but not solely) in their favor. Doing this should communicate to your Players in a tangible way that you are employing trick #1 and believe me, Players feel you’re on their side will give you the benefit of the doubt even when things seem to not be fair in their favor. Sure you may have to cheat an NPC or two out of a victory once in a while (they dropped a clue here, no roll, they just did it) but much like in #2, I’ve never heard of an NPC complaining about this sort of treatment. That’s because they’re not real people. Your Players are the real people here. Keep that in mind. Now I’m not advocating Monty Hall GMing (the giving out far too much XP, money, success, or any other kind of gain), but I honestly feel that’s a topic for another day. Short post today folks. Have a good weekend 🙂
This is for those of you who find yourself reading my blog without any idea what ‘gaming’ (as I’ve previously limited the term) means.We’re talking about the adult version of ‘let’s pretend’. Not ‘adult’ as in an ‘R-rating’ (although that does happen) but ‘adult’ as in the people playing go to work and pay taxes or at least are old enough that they should be doing those things. Here’s how it works. You have one GM (Gamemaster) and several Players and as a group they collectively tell a story for their own amusement. The Players describe the thoughts (sometimes), actions, and dialogue of a single central character in the story (a Player Character or PC) they build and are responsible for and the GM describes the world those PCs are in and the thoughts (again, sometimes), actions and dialog of the other peripheral characters (Non-Player Characters or NPCs) they interact with. There are usually a bunch of rules that dictate what the Players can and can’t have their PC do. This is so that you don’t run into the problems that kids with their less adult versions of pretend run into. ie one kid pointing their finger at another one, shouting ‘bang’ and the other kid not falling down because they disagree with the first kid’s assertion that they are now dead. In the adult version each kid (using the previous analogy) would have a sheet of stats (a character sheet) describing their character’s capabilities which would help us compare how accurate the first kid’s PC’s shots are with how good the second kid’s PC is at getting out of the way of those shots. That’s pretty simplistic though. In reality many games have whole lists of gun models, armor types, skills, natural advantages, health measurements, situational bonuses and penalties (fog vs a clear day, etc) for these situations. I’m not going to go into any detail on those lists at this point because of the sheer volume of games out there. Hundreds and hundreds of them and each of them have a different network of rules they use. I think you get the idea though. Keep in mind that the above, rather limited, example deals only with combat. What about when a PC wants to sneak around somewhere they’re not supposed to be? Or needs to haggle over something in the market place? Or fix a broken piece of machinery? Think of anything you’ve read about someone doing in a book or seen someone do in real life or on television or in a movie. All of those options are (or at least should be) available to the PCs within reason. By ‘within reason’ I mean that what they are allowed to do should fit into the guidlines of the world or setting the story takes place in. If we’re using a medieval setting calling someone on the phone wouldn’t be allowed, but in a modern setting it would be. That kind of adherence to a setting is policed by the GM. Most games come packaged with a setting (D&D typically operates in a medieval fantasy setting) so when the group chooses a game they are usually getting most of a setting along with it and so have a basic framework for their group story to start from. Now suppose you’re playing in a modern setting and the GM tells you that your character’s brother has been kidnapped. Are you going to call the police or go vigilante on the kidnapper? Or do you think the information is a trick designed to lure you into making the wrong decision? The player decides what their character would think and do given the info provided by the GM, the stats on the character sheet and the player’s own vision of their character’s personality. A wimpy intellectual may be less inclined to go vigilante than would a brawny gang-banger, but that might not be the case depending on how the intellectual feels about their brother. The reason people play RPGs is because of that level of complexity. Those are the basics anyway. A lot of what I tend to rant about relates to what I believe makes for better games from both the GM and Player perspective. As you can see there are a lot of options with this past time so there are a lot of nuances to how and why things are decided. If anyone has any questions, feel free to ask them. From here on out it’s going to be something of an aimless ramble/rant (depending on my mood)…