Not every story has to be an epic. Sometimes a short story can be as exciting as a lengthy novel and a short 20 minute video can be more captivating than a feature length movie. Role Playing is no different. While many people want to play lengthy and epic multi-session campaigns, lasting months or even years. But there are more ways to play then this. One-Shots are roleplaying stories and adventures, play- and completable within a single session. But how do you design a One-Shot? How should you approach running a One-Shot? Is it even different from your regular campaign session?
What is a One-Shot?
One Shots are single role playing sessions that feature a story designed to conclude in the very session it started. One could also call them single session adventures. They are not built around weeks of character progression or complex, open ended, narrative structures. One-Shots have to rely on the strength of their story or gameplay in order to deliver a compelling experience.
Does this mean that One-Shots have to be completely self-contained? No. Not at all. Some One-Shots rely on knowledge of the world, where they take place or the games systems they use. And this can be good. One-Shots in a familiar setting require less introduction and explanation, therefore leaving more time for the playing itself.
One-Shots can easily be integrated into a campaign, if the premise is not too far off in order to spice things up and some campaigns might consist entirely of One-Shots. Every session tells its own story and a overarching theme, maybe a villain, brings everything together. But the focus always lies on the single sessions, not the bigger picture.
Why play One-Shots?
First of all we need to take a look at the many reasons, why people would even want to play a single session adventure.
Time might be the main reason. Not every gamer has enough time to spare for a weekly meet up with his fellow gamers and even those who have might find it hard to coordinate this time with their group. It might just be a necessity that leads to playing one-shots on a regular basis, as full attendance is not required for having fun and those missing out don't need to be filled in on any major events.
One-Shots are a natural fit for any story based on mercenaries, so systems like Shadowrun, Cyberpunk or Traveller feel right at home with such a style of play. Characters are not doing things because they want to be heroes, but because they want to get paid. Not everyone is needed for every job and some might need time off to recover. When the job is done and the money is paid, everyone leaves with a nice story to tell.
There is one place where, over everything else, One-Shots reign supreme. Conventions. There are few people who go to a convention to play their campaign with their friends. At a Convention you want to sit down at the table and jump right into playing. And it does not matter if you play your favorite system, in your own campaign setting or something new: you are there to have fun and you don't want to leave without the story ending.
How to design a One-Shot
As with everything creative there is no formula for designing One-Shots. I am just sharing some advice from my personal experience and thinking. I don't wanna say that i know how to write perfect adventures. I really don't. But i trust in these advices and most good one Shots i designed and ran fulfilled those rules.
1. Stick to a Theme
Having a singular Theme at the center of your adventure is key to a good experience. Not only does it help yourself design further elements into a short, but coherent story, it also helps your players in getting a feel for the One-Shot. A strong Theme gives the One-Shot consistency and direction.
A One-Shots theme should not only influence the story, but also the gameplay. The players should be able to identify the theme without being told what the theme is. It does not have to be in the foreground. A theme can be as subtle as "Freedom or Safety?", "Vengeful Spirit", "Secret Ingredient" and "Fear of the Unknown" or as obvious as "Religious Journey", "Old School Dungeoncrawl", "Political Murder story" and "Double Agent Drama".
The only important thing is that your stick to your Theme. While a campaign might be fun, when it slowly turns from a political murder story into a hunt for the ancient treasure, this would be too much for your typical One-Shot. While some adventures might work without a Theme or with multiple Themes, fighting to get the upper hand, those will be the exception, not the norm.
While this might be incredibly vague advice, i will give you some practical applications. When making notes for your One-Shot, write the Theme you choose at the top of every page. This will help with keeping the theme in mind. Another idea to keep sticking to a theme would be writing key words, you associate with the theme, down on index cards. Then make sure you include at least half of them in the adventure in some major way.
2. Don't overdo it
Complex scenes and characters are compelling. Complex story arcs are intriguing. Gameplay does profit from depth, most of the time. But within a single session, there is not enough space for everything to be as detailed and complex as possible. If there are many NSC's and they all have tons of depth and complex motivations then players will be confused and are likely not too reach story's climax in time.
This does not mean that you should build a shallow story and flat characters. Quite the opposite is true. Make characters interesting and unique. But don't overdo it. You don't have the space for 20 interesting unique characters. The main characters in the story should be unique, they should be complex and have personal depth. But those characters at the edge of your story won't benefit from such depth. Cliches are great to convey characteristics through expectations and make interactions with side characters quick and intuitive. Those interactions don't distract from the main story and help give the characters a feeling of belonging into the world, as the players expectations of how they should interact were met by the world around them.
When it comes to the story itself, not overdoing it is even more important. Your goals for a One-Shot story are the following. The Story needs to be easy to get involved in, entertaining to play and it should have a achievable conclusion. Everything that distracts from these goals should be closely examined. While, for example, an unexpected plot twist might add to the entertainment value, the second and third twist will just stand in the way of reaching a conclusion. And even the first twist might be unnecessary if the narrative was strong enough until this point.
3. Less Scenes, more Impact
It's hard to distinguish this one from the second point but the implications are quite different. Don't plan too many scenes. One-Shots often tend to feel rushed anyway, so giving each scene time to breathe and to develop itself is crucial for an amazing Adventure. But its not only about giving each scene time. Each scene has to leave a impact. Each scene has to be important. If you have a scene which does not advance the story or develop the characters, then why is it in the One-Shot?
Constructing a good scene can be challenging? What makes a scene great? A great designer or author could possibly write an entire essay about this topic and i am neither, so I'll keep this short. A great scene is driven by the characters. It comes into existence because the characters have something they want to achieve or discover. A scene without urgency won't be interesting to the characters.
The outcome of a scene should be up to the decisions of the players and maybe even chance. This does not mean that everything should be open ended. It is nearly impossible to account for everything in the design stage of a One-Shot, but the story should not have scenes with only one possible outcome. In a One-Shot, every interaction should matter and therefore should be rewarded or punished.
4 Raise the Stakes
When the story will reach a conclusion eventually, when the end of the story might as well be the end of the characters, then why should there be nothing at stake. High stakes are rare in roleplaying. Too rare. And a self contained experience like a One-Shot might be the perfect environment to reintroduce them into your design. Why sit down to safe a small village from goblins if you could instead safe the entire kingdom from a demonic dragon lord?
What does having high stakes mean? High stakes are a combination of three factors. High incentive, high risk and high reward. A good story has a motivation for the characters, challenges to overcome and a rewarding conclusion. The consequence for success and failure should be big. If you ever revisit this world, then the impact of this single One-Shot might still linger around in the world itself. Not all plots work on a scale like this. Sometimes the consequences have to be more personal and sometimes they won't even affect anyone besides the main character. But they always should be severe for the character. When the One-Shot has concluded, something should have changed. And whether it changed for the better or worse might be up to the players.
In most stories the protagonists don't fail. While failure within a novel or movie is a device used sparingly to convey drama and suspension, it is always constructed. Role Playing is a game. You can't force people to succeed or fail without it feeling cheap. Success must be an achievement and failure a punishment. The risk of failure should always be there, but there are many forms of failure. While a characters death might be the most obvious form of failure, it should never be the only one. There are many interesting forms of failure, that create new scenarios and develop characters. Loss of a NPC, loss of an item, success on the villains part or a setback in progress are all interesting consequences for failure. Including them in the design of encounters helps in raising the stakes and creates a atmosphere of danger and suspension once the players notice that success is not guaranteed.
5. Go experimental
A One-Shot is the prefect place to get weird and creative. No matter what you want to try out, be it a crazy story element, a dangerous encounter, a new mechanic or a weird gimmick, why not try it in a One-Shot. You could even build the entire one-shot around this experimental feature and you don't have to smuggle the new thing in. You can put it front and center for the whole experience. Trying new things out is a great excuse to design a one-shot and those that are build from the ground up to support a creative new idea are among the best there could possibly be.
Just... Don't overdo it...
A good One-Shot is a One-Shot designed around some interesting core ideas, with a good focus on whats important and what isn't. It involves the players and creates a narrative that can easily hook players and characters into it until the conclusion, in which the consequences of the players choices and characters actions finally surface to their full extent.
But good is not objective and there are many things i overlooked. Take these rules as a inspiration more than a guideline. Not everything works for everyone, but thinking about what might work is never a mistake.