I’ve been watching too much He-man recently, (Thanks Netflix!) so, of course, I started scribbling, and those scribbles turned into a bunch of gaming figs resembling the Masters of the Universe. These figs then led me to start contemplating writing a He-Man themed one-shot. And the idea of writing a one shot got me thinking about how much I loathe one-shots.
Okay, loathe may be a bit strong, but they do rank only slightly higher in my book than Play by Post gaming and organized play modules. Personally, I’ve only played in a handful of one-shots that I found enjoyable, and that enjoyment was largely due to the players working with the DM to make the game enjoyable, go fig. But this perfect storm of great players, and a great DM is a rare recipe and one that is easily soured.
From the get-go GMs running one-shots are fighting an uphill battle. The unfortunate truth is that these games require a bit of railroading to turn 4-8 random strangers, with characters they have never seen before, into an adventuring party and still finish in the allotted time. Add in the fact that the players have little need for the usual rewards of adventuring as treasure and xp don’t matter a whole lot when your character’s career ends with the session. This leaves the GM extremely vulnerable to a player who is only there to “win” the game by derailing the story; the player’s equivalent to a TPK, and just as worthy of praise. Oops, I misspoke; replace "praise" with "a swift kick to the windpipe."
So what is a lone GM to do when on the prowl for a new set of players? What are some ways to mitigate the pitfalls of this format of game? What the hell is a one-shot?
I should probably address what a one-shot is and is not with regards to this discussion. When I say "one-shot," I am talking about a game written to be played at a convention or meetup in an alotted time slot (usually 4-6 hours in length) with a group comprised completely or mostly of strangers, using characters you created ahead of time.
This is not how to run pre-made modules, organized play events, or even one night stand adventures with your pre-existing group.
Now that we know what I’m talking about, what can we do to set our game on a path to success?
Parody and homage
The biggest stumbling block for most one-shots is that the players are expected not only give a crap about the character they are playing, but also to understand how they fit into the world and the group dynamic. The easiest way to get past this is by using characters the players already know.
Next time you are at a convention, take a look at the list of games and you will notice that 3/4ths of the games offered are either based around TV shows, comics, or a parody of a subculture. This is not an accident, but an evolutionary trait. Games based on pop culture are more approachable, and attract the pre-existing fan base, which leads to players who want to connect to the characters, and your game.
The one-shots that I personally remember fondly are light-hearted and have a sense of humor to them. When crammed in a room full of sweaty screaming fat beards, it is hard enough to be heard let alone develop a somber and serious mood. Keeping a game light and with an air of humor allows the players and GM to relax a bit and to ignore the occasional interruption or misstep that can occur when people are unfamiliar with a character, system, or GM style. Besides, if you are at a con, odds are good you are either drunk or hung over, which tends to tip the scales to humor by default.
Most systems require several hours just to generate a character and several additional hours to assemble a cohesive group, which is why pre-generated characters are a must for one-shots. There are systems out there that have boiled character creation down to a few minutes, (QAGS by Hex Games being my all time favorite, which allows players to create characters at game time) but they are extremely rules light, and not eveyone’s cup of tea.
So, what's a GM to do when he wants to run a rules heavy system, but wants to give the players the feeling of ownership of their character? You can do micro-character creation, which is where you stat out the characters as normal, but when it comes to back story you make a list of questions for the players to answer about their character's history, physiology, or psychology, including leading questions that will tie them into the plot of the story.
What is a leading question? A leading is question is where you determine the what, and let the player determine the why. For example, instead of asking a player, “What is your character afraid of?” You would ask, “Why is your character afraid of snakes?” This allows you to insert facts about the character that are required for your story to make sense, but still leave room for the player to create something personal.
In addition to open back stories, you can save a few points from character creation to beef up areas of the character the player seems to be focusing on. If the player really wants his bartender to be a History major, well then toss those floating points into his history skill. The key is to do most of the work, but leave the finishing touches up to the players.
Like I said when I started, one-shots are not my drug of choice, but they are a necessary evil when you’re looking to expand your stable of players, so hopefully this advice will be the Novocain to your gaming root canal, and you will be back to gaming in the sandbox soon enough.