Under the Hood – The Single Bullet Theory


The Single Bullet Theory
By The Warden

Be forewarned, fair reader, this week’s edition may be shorter than normal. Why? What else gets in the way of gaming fun? Real life.

It’s the perplexing dilemma of growing up and remaining attached to the games of our childhood/teenage years. We can’t play them like we used to in our youth. The time simply isn’t there to invest in the epic saga of intrepid adventures scaling the moss-covered walls of Castle Ravenloft to rob the vampire lord of a highly prized tome of necromancy. I’m not talking about the marathons of gaming required to complete the full adventure (which has been teasing me since the classic module’s PDF re-release), it’s the frequency of play. Ah, to return to a time when the only reason why we couldn’t play was because Burger King booked me to fry potatoes that night. Not that something that meagre would stop us, we simply waited until after my shift to start the night’s events.

My issues with game management are vastly different from those of many friends. They have kids. Young ones, ones that want to spend time with their parents. As time goes on, those friends will face the teenage years from its polar opposite vantage point and those who were without kids before will soon deliver their own batch and continue the circle of player absence. Thankfully, from a work perspective, me and the missus are happy with four-legged rug rats, leaving me to balance every other facets of adult life.

That’s what makes one shot games such a relief. All the excitement of roleplaying games, none of the scheduling foresight problems. Designed to start and wrap within a single session (although how successful you are at this time limit all depends on how many impressions of a troll crying over his fallen brother take place at your table), one shot games take the standards of the RPG experience and condense it into a movie format – quick and too the point. Creating these games can be a balance between revised storytelling, adapting rules, or building a simplified system from scratch.


The rules’ function play an essential role in the successful design of any one shot because of one basic factor: time. Unless your one shot is designed to support an existing system where every player (or the majority) knows the rules in great detail and can build their own characters, a one shot has to count on the availability of players and Gamemasters alike. Unfortunately, as it always is with any game, players will invest less time into a game than the GM. Asking them to do anything more is like telling moviegoers to bring their own 3D glasses; there’s no way a theatre will not have people sitting in their seats without any hi-tech specs.

That’s only the first requirement for such RPGs. Different styles of one shots are suited to different types of groups and sometimes that includes the GM as well. This is the territory for the one shot system, a self-contained game where everything is new to the table. Sure, most Gamemasters running these one shots at conventions may have run it once before, but the mechanics are intended for first-timers as well as experienced hosts. By default, the mechanics must be easy and self-explanatory with very basic aspects for task resolution, character interaction, optional rules, and more. Players need to gain a grasp of how things work within the first five minutes of game time so they can be aware of their possibilities. Games such as the highly praised Lady Blackbird and Old School Hack (both free, don’t cha know) are magnificent examples of this style of one shot. While the former provides a complete adventure and system rolled into one and the latter offers up the mechanics for unlimited one shot application, each completes their goal and has inspired players and GMs everywhere to take that one shot into the realm of the awesome campaign.


Designers have their own benefit to building one shots: they can do so with the narrow focus of a horse wearing blinders. Your concern needs only shine its spotlight on the exact length of the road ahead, not the valley waiting on the other side of the hill.

Many one shots borrow their mechanics from other systems or tout their plumbing as a tribute to a classic genre to provide curious players and GM with a basic concept of play. It’s perhaps the best use of related borrowing on the market because it effectively applies this principle of game design and stretches it out to work within a small package. The rules have to cut straight to the chase and allow everyone to grasp their results quickly before the pounding on the iron door results in the cyborg breaking in and tearing your character limb-from-limb.


Pre-generated characters are an awesome tool for teaching a new game. They’re like the fun substitute teacher we wish could permanently take over the class or the movie that finally taught me how to perform the triple jump when my gym teachers could only lather, rinse, and repeat the instructions until they had no choice but to give up and simply mark down the giant X next to my name. Character creation can be a session unto itself, depending on the game they’re built for, and taking away that challenge allows the one shot to cut straight to the chase. Literally, in some cases.

That’s not all it does. The pre-gen ponies up the rules in a nice and neat package players can understand: a character sheet. You might not be able to glean everything from a character sheet, but an effective character sheet illustrates how these various pieces link together, explain how each individual ability of your character works in relation to what the GM explained, and accounts for character increases in level and power to avoid slowing down game time. Add to that the inherent bonus of GM-player connectivity – the GM knows exactly what the character can do and can uses that to help guide the player through the process with exact details.


Yep, like I said, running out of time today. So whenever your group’s cleric has a new baby in the family, that new job requires more night shifts than expected, or someone’s car breaks down on the side of the road, one shot it. It’ll hold off that itch to roll dice and express complex spellcasting until we all retire and convince the nurses to sit down with us for a campaign in the dark mists of hidden realms.

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