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.
Don’t misunderstand me. In a lot of my posts I advocate listening to your PCs for your ques on where to take the game and that is what I believe a good GM does. However, that doesn’t mean you should do nothing but sit and listen. As the GM, it is your job to provide the options and the PCs’ job to choose the direction.Putting together a good game is a collaborative effort and putting too much of it on your PCs is just as bad as taking too much of it away from them. Also, if you contribute nothing, most PCs won’t move in any direction because they don’t know what their options are. So it is up to you to keep things moving along and be an active tour guide through the world you’re running. Here are the things I keep in mind when trying to do this: Rapid fire plot hooks. My style is to take five minutes or so with each of my Players and Q&A them on what their character’s feelings, thoughts, interests, aversions, and goals are at this moment and I don’t do it just once or every once in a while, but I try and do that at every single session. During this time I do word association with plot ideas. Whenever they tell me something about their character, I shoot out a plot hook or three, trying to get a lot in during that 5 minute conversation. Hopefully I’ll notice when one or more of the things I suggest spark some interest and note those down. Then I look at what I have from all of my PCs and try to figure out how the things they are each individually interested in could possibly be tied together Kevin Bacon Game style. You know, this event ties to that person and this interest which ties to another event and other people etc. In this way I boil down my PCs’ natural inclinations into a direction for the game to go in. Play ball. Once I’ve gotten lists of plot hooks that generated interest from my PCs I don’t stop there. Interests change from month to month and sometimes from session to session. What interested them last week may be boring this week and the very last thing I want is for my game to get boring. Try and think of the game’s focus as a ball that only one person can hold at any one time. Under optimum circumstances the ball will go from you to PC1, back to you, then to PC2, back to you, then to PC3, then back to you and so on. However, if someone becomes bored with what is going on you may find them becoming uninvolved in the ball game or you may find that a single PC has taken over all of the ball game. Maybe you’ve become fixated on a plot involving the underworld, but only one of your PCs has a solid connection to it or vested interest in that. The others showed interest early on, but since then their interest has waned. Time for more rapid fire plot hooks to ensnare them again. That may mean you have to toss out or tone down the underworld stuff, but it is your job to keep everyone involved in every session. No exceptions. Keep things moving. After session each PC should leave with two things: a sense of accomplishment and a feeling of curiosity about what’s going to happen next week. Keep a watch on them as individuals for where they see themselves as being right now and where they want to get to. It is your job to find out if they have a good idea of how to move from point A to point B or not. You may think you’ve left clues for them, but they may have missed those clues. Sure in the real world that means they flounder, but this isn’t the real world. Watch for floundering and give them a shove in the right direction to get what they want if they need it. This can be something as gentle as reminding them of the clue they got and promptly dismissed/forgot about or as blunt as blatantly telling them that they might want to call this contact or check that lead out. If your PCs have hunches and follow them, great, if they don’t, there is nothing written anywhere that says you can’t manufacture a hunch for them. Reassess reassess reassess. As I’ve said before people’s interests and their interest levels can and do change. You should constantly be talking to your PCs and gauging their interest in what is going on and modifying things as necessary. Think of each PC as an individually burning campfire over which you are cooking one part of a larger meal. Some times all the fires will be burning along nicely on their own and you should be checking the dishes that are cooking. At other times, the fires themselves will need more fuel or some adjustment or something to keep the heat where it is needed. Either way, you should always be looking for ways of interconnecting the dishes to form a more cohesive whole. However, you should also be willing at any time to toss out part of the meal if it isn’t going well and replace it with something else so whatever you do, don’t get too attached to any one component. The PCs are your primary source of momentum, but you are their source of fuel. You should never find yourself just observing the game as they play it. Even if they’re having an in-character group discussion, feel free to participate by clarifying certain misunderstandings or adding new knowledge that you think one of them should know or suggesting possible interpretations of the clues at hand. Real life has ebbs and flows, but your game should never ebb for any of your players. Be active and make sure nothing is stalling out without your knowledge.