Under the Hood – Building a One-Shot


Building a One-Shot
By The Warden

hrlogoI’m thirty-nine years old and have been playing roleplaying games for half of my life. Unfortunately, as with many current hardcore gamers, there was a falling out period with my original group and a long gap in between where dice were never rolled, but I continued to read and re-read my existing collection. So like most roleplayers my age, I tend to reminisce about the olden days where we ploughed through a battalion of dangers, dungeons, and epic villains to reach a glorious conclusion. Those nights of yore when nothing was paused until the sun arose and the DM’s mother would come downstairs and actually curse at us to go home. Those days… that are just not possible anymore.

I do miss those days of continuous story lines and re-occurring characters and it’s been difficult to break from the habit of building a campaign behind the simplest one-shot. While I have been part of a couple of recent D&D campaigns, both have fallen into the pit of inevitability and scheduling. Grown-up lives with grown-up responsibilities do not mix with the hardcore emotion and dedication required to bring back those golden nights and I clung to it like a barfly wanting to hit the clubs with his old buddies one more time. After running a playtest until 3AM a couple of weeks ago, I learned my lesson the hard way. I’m too old for this spit. (C’mon now, this is a family website.)

It’s a factor many middle-aged gamers have to consider in their gaming choices. We may buy a 200-page setting supplement, but what are the chances we’ll run it? When it comes to games we can and will play, we need something that’s quick to comprehend and easy to jump into without being held to any continuing plot lines scratching at the back of our necks for weeks on end. Games like Fiasco and Dread offer roleplayers like myself an opportunity to dive head first into the type of roleplaying we want while under the context of a party game. Both are specifically designed for players to tell a single story in a single night, leaving it open and available to run as an optional campaign of the group’s choosing. It’s the opposite of your typical fantasy RPG where the depth of the setting is far more than you can properly incorporate into a one-shot game.

It brings to light the needs of the mechanics to assist the game’s intended audience. Are there ways for game mechanics to not only provide for, but elevate, one-shot games?

(For the purpose of today’s post, the term “one-shot” refers to games specifically manufactured to tell a single story over a single session rather than a group’s effort to play one adventure from a more advanced game.)


One tactic is to limit players to realistic characters. No super-powered cyborg cops allowed; you are a flawed person with weaknesses and bad habits to go with your strong points. The danger you face, however, is unique and something you could never have prepared for, leaving you to band together with your fellow unfortunates and figure a way out of this mess. In many cases, that means players will be eliminated one-by-one until only one remains. It’s a concept right out of every horror movie ever made and that’s why many horror RPGs are perfect for the older roleplayer.

An old favourite of mine is Horror Rules, a fun and easy RPG where the main characters are expected to die. Placing an emphasis on propelling the story (whether it involves an escaped lunatic with a fondness for chainsaws or the ghost of a serial killer inhabiting the bodies of the living to continue his horrific crimes), players are awarded Stupid Points for allowing their characters to pull off one of the standard tropes of nearly every victim in every horror movie. For example, if you fall down while running away from the killer, you gain a Stupid Point. At various times, we would also create spontaneous extras solely for the purpose of adding to the killer’s body count.

This style of play restricts the entire concept of a campaign because there are no surviving characters to carry the torch (unless you decide to run a “sequel” to the last one, bringing back the original survivor only to have them killed in the first sequence). Mechanically speaking, this provides a compelling amount of freedom in game design because you don’t have to worry about balance – players are expected to watch their characters die and that takes a lot of pressure off. If anything, it allows the designer to get mean and vent some of their frustration at having countless plans thwarted, endless creations eliminated before they could use their best attack, and a sea of names that spawned mocking chuckles when everyone should know by now that I’m not the best at making up names! (Ahem, sorry about that. Bit of a relapse, I guess.)

The concept of the horror RPG can be broadly defined as the survivor RPG and can be mixed with other genres, such as post-apocalyptic, to create a near endless supply of ideas. From there, the designer must reverse the focus on character elements to express the game’s ingenuity and place it on the dangers faced in the game. The thrill of these games is not the description of the hero’s mighty attack, but how the monster devoured the player’s head and left his twitching body stumbling about without realizing it was missing a head.


Another common feature is to simplify the character design process by building characters with rough concepts and descriptions instead of concrete stats and abilities. For example, aspects in Fate are devised by the players during character creation. This allows players to come up with any type of character they want and places the challenge in proclaiming how those aspects can assist in a situation rather than learn how the rules allow them to apply their clearly defined stats. One-shot games skip over the basics and inspire players to be creative every step of the way so they can get straight to the fun.

They also provide context for flaws, bad luck, and poor character choices. In other words, believable concepts and situations that would happen to an ordinary person, not a heroic figure. Your dwarven warrior may be stubborn, but that’s just a hilarious habit derived from his heritage. In one-shot games, your stubbornness can actually bring about someone’s death. Maybe even your own. It’s another opposite side of the coin when compared to traditional campaign RPGs. Rather than highlight everyone’s strengths and provide means by which they can improve to even greater heights, one-shots revel in the annoying traits and silly circumstances of the ordinary.


Finally, one-shot systems tend to feature simpler rules. Actually, the answer’s a little more complicated. It’s not so much that they tend to use simpler rules, it’s that they’re not required to advance the game or its characters. Without the need for advancement, the mechanics do not need to keep pace with increased bonuses or target numbers or characters with new and more powerful abilities. It only needs to function at that core level and so the game doesn’t require anything beyond that. D&D could easily be released as a Lady Blackbird-style RPG where each class is a pre-generated character tackling the same situation again and again to determine different outcomes, but that’s not what D&D is all about. It’s a game about running a campaign and so needs to offer more and more challenges as the central characters increase their XP, gain new spells and powers, and fight tougher villains.

Many of these games are tailored to the experienced roleplayer and take many assumptions with how their game is presented. For example, the game may gloss over or skip the standardized explanation of a roleplaying game or it may even cut straight to the point and read “This is a roleplaying game. If you know what that is, we’re good. If not, go find out.” It does assume a mixed bag of experience gathered around your table and trusts the GM to set the tone, flavour, and depth of the roleplaying for the evening. Choices like these are aesthetic on one hand, yet prove their commitment to keeping the game convenient for older gamers with less prep on their time by publishing a smaller book. If Fiasco was published as a larger 8.5×11 hardcover at 300 pages, would it carry the same weight as an “easy to learn” game?

The odd side effect of these one-shot games is that players regularly return to it on a near frequent basis, turning this one-shot game into a regular occurrence. Why? I’d say it’s because the game has provided that refreshing reward to the modern gamer who finds herself crammed for time and needing to get out that creative stretch that is roleplaying. By keeping the mechanics light, straight to the point, and working within a tighter sphere of influence, these players can form new memories rather than attempt to relive old ones and give us something new to strive for when we become elderly players.

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