The Beauty of a One-Shot

As I’ve mentioned before, most of the games I run these days are one-shots, rather than an extended, on-going story. A one-shot is a simpler, shorter, self-contained story game scenario. It’s perfect for new players, or if a group doesn’t have enough time to engage in a longer campaign.

But here’s the problem with one-shots: Most game systems are huge, hulking monsters that aim to provide a group with YEARS of entertainment. Seriously, the Numenera Corebook? I could run 2-3 sessions from every page in that book. It’s packed dense with mechanical advances (enough for players to earn new abilities every few sessions for many many sessions), backstory, lore, items, monsters, npcs, and more!

It’s an incredible value, and a bargain for the $60 or so I paid for it. However, Numenera has been built for those multi-month campaigns. Running a one-shot using Numenera means that I have to cut out a lot of stuff, and miss out on a lot of potential. It’s like I’m crippling the system.

Say a player has an ability that says: “At level four, this attack deals double damage.” Such an ability may be something that isn’t useful in the beginning, but the early investment would pay off later. In a one-shot, however, that ability is worthless, and only adds to the number of options that the group can’t take advantage of.

So what’s a group to do? Luckily for you, I’ve had a LOT of experience running one-shots. I’ve tried several systems with new and experienced players, and I’ve found a few excellent go-to systems and concepts that I hope will be helpful for you.

Games / Systems

Dungeon World – This is my go-to option. It has a very simple set of mechanics that anyone can grasp and it’s not bolted down with complex systems or mechanics (no 5ft step, multiple types of actions per turn, long skill lists, spell books, etc.) My favorite part of Dungeon World is that the character creation is fast and intuitive. It helps a new player quickly build their alternate persona using leading questions and limited choices.

Lasers and Feelings – Created by John Harper, this game system only takes up a single page! With an incredible simple game system, it’s perfect for a one-shot. But the real genius is the mission generator; it’s short enough that a few rolls tell you what your mission will be, and interesting enough that you’re sure to have a fun adventure each time. LaF is great for groups who want to focus more on conversations and role-playing than combat or skills.

Monster of the Week – Built on a similar set of mechanics as Dungeon World, I find the Monster of the Week can be a little easier to start with, although it doesn’t offer the classic “dungeon crawl” experience. The game doesn’t rely as much on advancement as Dungeon world, and most of the cool abilities and powers are available at level one.

Dread – Although designed for horror, I’ve used it for any kind of dangerous activity. Since it’s played with a Jenga tower instead of dice, it makes more sense to newcomers, and the high lethality really only works over the course of a single session.

Enter the Shadowside: Destiny – This game has a great system that uses only cards, and has a high focus on narrative outcomes. Players are able to choose when and where they fail, which is nice; as it takes away some of the randomness of the game.

Mythic Mortals – Yeah, it’s my game…so what? I designed it to be perfect for over-the-top one-shots. Check it out here. It’s free! And it’s pretty good….at least I think so. But who am I? David…that’s who. MOVING ON!

I’ve reviewed a bunch more games here (over 40!).

A Good Ending

When you run a one-shot the most important thing to keep in mind when designing your adventure is to ensure you can give a satisfying ending to your session.

There is a lot of great advice out there about how to GM, how to create a story, how to design monsters, what makes a fun encounter, etc etc. But when you’re running a one-shot or a convention game, it’s really hard to end your game well. That’s why campaigns are nice; if you didn’t get to the end, just continue it next week.

But when you only have this one game, you must keep in mind your pacing and your end goal.

The best way for me to do this is to quickly jot down a general expectation of where the players should be at what time. Keep a clock nearby and check it periodically. Here’s the Clock from my last Monster of the Week session:

  • 6pm – Everyone meets, starts making characters
  • 6:30 – Game starts
  • 7:30 – Players found first clue, moving towards the monster
  • 8:30 – Found monster lair
  • 9:30 – Fighting the monster!
  • 10:00 – Session end, wrapup

Now, that sounds nice on paper, but what actually happened was that by 8pm, the players still hadn’t really discovered the first clue. They had been having a lot of fun, but things were not going according to plan. I had to alter my game.

Instead, I skipped the whole monster lair. I dropped some heavy hints about the clues, and then had the monsters attack them directly. This allowed me to wrap up the game and end it on time  (even though they didn’t get to explore my cool alien ruin I had created).

Do what you have to do, and keep track of the time to make sure you can deliver a satisfying ending. Otherwise, things will feel really flat, and players may regret that they only had a few hours to play.

Misc Tips

  • Print out as many player aids as possible. Combat cheat sheets, house rules, player advice, etc.
  • Consider pre-generated characters. In a lot of systems, generating your character is an in-depth process, and will suck away a lot of the time you have available for your one-shot.
  • Make sure that everyone is on the same page before you start; in terms of tone, intention, content, etc. Does everyone know that you’re running a grim, low fantasy game of moral quandaries? Or that your adventure involves over the top silliness?