Friday, February 1, 2013

Prepping for a One Shot

Prepping for a One Shot Game
by Tobie Abad

I've been gaming for so long I find it surprising to know that there are some groups out there that have never run anything but long term game chronicles.    Now, don't get me wrong, I love a long saga myself (and I did once have a 3-real year long Changeling the Dreaming campaign) but sometimes, as one gets older, one finds  the weight of responsibilities eating up gaming time.  The need to work, to handle projects, to do house hold chores, to care for kids, pets, and elderly parents all vie for time.  Sadly, many people choose to quit gaming all together, claiming the utter need for time to be devoted to other things.  But in my opinion, that's exactly what they've chosen to do - devote the time to other things.  If gaming is really your passion, then by hook or by crook you will find a way to allocate time to game.  And at its smallest level, you can host a one-shot session.

One-shot sessions are typically short, self-contained gaming arcs that focus on the key goal of "getting what you want out of a game."  Clearly, not all goals are achievable in this format.  You can't expect a Lord of the Rings styled epic in a single three hour game.  Nor can you expect the joys of watching a character grow with the passage of experience in a single sit down session.

Or can you?

Start with The List
The trick to making one-shots more awesome is by prepping properly and making note of the things you want to accomplish within a one shot.  This is not a list that the game master handles alone.  This is a list co-established with the players to make sure they too get what they were hoping to during the single game.

The List of course is the dream list.  It is the "if everything was absolutely awesomely written" list of cool things to explore in a game.  It is not a checklist.  It is not a marker of the required scenes in the game.  It is the shared admission of what everyone who will be in the game like and would love to explore in one way or another.  Everyone contributes to the list, then everyone reads it, so everyone has an idea of what stuff would be awesome for who in the game.

Some would call this an overly simplified version of a social contract.  I'd avoid calling it that just to avoid all the debates on whether or not such are necessarily in their expanded form for one shots.   I will however state, this list should clearly help you know if your players would or would not want player versus player scenes.

The List also quickly helps you get an idea of what kind of game mood and atmosphere you would like to invoke.  That way, you won't end up throwing a Michael Bay inspired storyline when the players were actually looking for a one-shot Legend of the Five Rings game that felt like The Joy Luck Club.

Map Out The Biggest Challenge
Once you have the List in hand, as the game master, consider what your players have written and think of what can be a "Biggest Challenge" for a said player based on the list.  If one player, for example, lists down "Romance, Over the top combat, Psionic Powers, Horror"  you might want to make the Biggest Challenge for him a moment when his character fights off a monstrous presence with his own Psionic powers.    Or you might have the Challenge be when the character's battle to save his loved one forces him to tap into undiscovered psionic potential.

Don't worry about the actual system for this scene for now. Just map out two or three Biggest Challenges per player in your head, so you have ideas on what would be their shining moments.   With this in mind, you don't even need a full plot.  Just an outline that you form as the game progresses, which you can use to eventually hit one of the Biggest Challenges you feel work best for the created story.

Cut Away Back to the Plot
Given the limited time, you should CUTAWAY all the extraneous scenes that you must.  For some groups, this can mean no longer roleplaying every single NPC encounter with the players.  For others, this might mean reducing needless scenes to only those that are moving the plot forward.   I am certain some readers are already thinking, "So you have to railroad them?"  And my answer is no.  You aren't railroading them.  You are, however, giving "more screen time to stuff that matters."  

For example, you're playing a Cthulhu-inspired science fiction thriller as a one-shot game, and one of the players (after a brief encounter with something that cannot be described) decides, "I head out to play at the holodeck to calm down."   In a normal game, you might be tempted to have the player roleplay a hologram sequence for fun.  But in the one-shot, unless the hologram sequence will further the plot, feel free to just say, "It is two hours later.  You feel better.  Calmer."

One-shot games are like television episodes.  You have a limited time to hit all your key moments.  You WANT to give your players the geek moneyshot.  You therefore have to make sure you prioritize the time to exist for such moments.

Don't Hesitate to Ask When you need to Ask
More often than not, a player will throw a very strange response to a scene.    You might mention the dead body in the bed, the stench of chemicals, and the table cluttered with bottles and broken vials.  And the player might instead respond with, "Are the windows open?"

Rather than just throw a yes or no, and try to see what the player hopes to achieve, just go right ahead and ask, "What do you want to accomplish?" or "Why are you asking that?  What's your objective?"  If the player's intentions are clearer, then you can help resolve the scene better and faster rather than leave the player struggling to find the right "words" to guide you to what he wants to do.

Prepare the Random Stuff
Name lists.  Repeatable musical tracks.  Key words or symbols you plan to have as recurring things in the game.  These you might want to prepare in advance.    For name lists, I typically use online baby lists since it also has the added bonus of throwing the meaning of the name as well, which can help you come up with more ideas.

Consider people you know as your source for ideas on non-playing characters.   And for locations, feel free to just use either descriptors or names to label them quick and easy.   The Cold Market sounds far better than just saying "You are at the Market."  The Dark as the name of the bar immediately helps the player visualize what the bar is like.  (It's dark.)

Finally, Give Each Player An Ending
Whether their characters live or die, succeed or fail, give them "An Ending".  I don't mean you simply tell the character who failed the vital combat roll, "Sorry you're dead."  But I mean have the scene close in on the dying character, as he gets to utter a final important statement to a loved one (or enemy). Or perhaps has an internal monologue moment where he recalls a precious thing in his past.

If the character succeeded, give them the happiness of success.  Think of how The Empire Strikes Back ends.  Think of how the scene with Neo ends the first Matrix movie.  And while I'm a huge fan of both Lost and Battlestar Galactica, do not end your one-shot game the way those shows did, unless you are playing with fans of the shows as well.  Trust me on this.

But yeah, you've all found that small moment of time in the week to play a game, so let it end with a bang that brings everyone part of the game to go, "That was cool" in the end.  After all, chances are, though uncertain as it may be, you will want to have another one-shot in the following week.

So make them count :-)

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