Today’s guest article was written by reader Todd Cash. It’s an in-depth look at how you can use the concept of TV pilot episodes to establish whether a campaign is worth your time. Thanks, Todd!
Sometimes a game master gets an idea they aren’t fully sure how to nurture. Questions pop up that elicit concern for the campaign. How many sessions could this game last? Will my gaming group’s schedule ever let this work? For whatever reason, the GM isn’t sure they want to devote a campaign to an idea that might only be an enjoyable one-shot.
To follow what I’m talking about, let’s turn to another great pastime: TV and movies. Take a show like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” which is a strong model for a campaign. The series offers a back-story that explains why the cast will (most likely) fight Things Under the Bed until they die. Now take a movie like the original “Die Hard.” With the movie, we get a little insight into the lead character (and very little into anyone else) and basically focus on the plot, which is encapsulated within the idea of “stop a finite pool of bad guys and save the girl.”
Now, can you imagine “Die Hard: the TV Series?” Even the series of movies grew stale, but a television show dedicated to one man regularly getting into these ridiculously impossible situations would be horrible. You can take the former and turn it into a movie though. You focus on a key moment in the lead character’s life (becoming the slayer) and detail how it changes her (Hero’s Quest and all that).
This is essentially my thought process behind the games I run. I came to this process because my life no longer permits me to run multiple twelve-hour gaming sessions a week. Time is precious, both mine and my friends’. We have to condense down our sessions to four to six hours, once or twice a month. Do I want to run a campaign I’m unsure of for seven months while my friends sigh under their breath or peer glaze-eyed at the wall across from them?
No, and you don’t either.
So, what do you do?
At least when I’m brainstorming an upcoming game, I see some key moments. We’ll call them Hollywood Moments. Maybe it’s a car chase or a hunt for an elusive moving rave. These seeds are the groundwork I’m going to lay across the duration of my campaign. These are the moments that almost have to happen. 90% of these moments are going to make it into my one-shot.
Let me go back to the television versus cinema scenario again. If you are at the cinema with your friends and everyone is talking non-stop during the movie, you’re probably going to be a little ticked. Why? You’ve got a commitment to that movie, be it time or $96 dollars for your ticket and snacks. On the other hand, that same group can sit around the TV and chat while everything is happening. It’s not that the TV show is less important; it’s the attitude. A series premiere or finale might have a response closer to the cinema example, but again: commitment.
One-shots show that investment players have in a movie. It’s wholly new, promises to be exciting, and is a great chance to immerse yourself in something beyond yourself. A convention game is exactly like this. The game descriptions in the convention flier are generally written just like movie pitches.
This isn’t to say there isn’t an investment in TV shows and campaigns. I find it’s the characters that bring viewers and players back every week (or month). With the long-term project we see meaningful development of characters. Sometimes good, sometimes not, these changes occur naturally throughout the evolution of the character. It’s good stuff.
So, you’ve got this terrific idea for a game. Great! I’ve been there too, but a few times I felt a little lackluster towards my vision. I’m going to describe three situations where you may want to trim the fat to your campaign, getting the Hollywood Moments out of it without losing any of the story’s core.
I had this idea for a game where two players would represent a firm that explored supernatural phenomena. It was somewhat inspired by the mood of the short-lived ABC series “Miracles.” In this instance, I knew I would be running the campaign, but I wasn’t sure if my players were getting its intended mood. I opted to run a one-shot in order to give them a glimpse of what was ahead for them.
For the one-shot, I let eight players take part in the game. I created all the characters except for the two who would be in the campaign. To that duo, I explained that the one-shot took place months prior to the campaign’s starting point. Everyone played members of Anges Parmi Nous, the firm.
And everyone was playing the firm’s darkest hour. One of the eight was already turned at the game’s beginning, so the death toll rose quickly during those few hours. Nobody left when their characters were axed because six of them didn’t realize that this was kicking off something much bigger.
All in all, it was an excellent way to start off a shaky campaign. The two long-haul players stayed with the game for four years (on and off). Those unfortunates who met violent ends occasionally made guest appearances or rejoined the game later when I let it expand.
Sometimes you know how your core group is going to react to a game. For whatever reason, you need to test it out on strangers for tweaking. It’s similar to someone opening up to a complete stranger rather than a best friend. What do you do? You test that baby out at a convention!
My best luck with this was a sci-fi game I ran in Carbondale, Illinois. The players were dimension-hoppers, saddled with a “condition” that dictated when they would hop again. I wanted to run this as a campaign for my local group, but I needed to see how props like a stopwatch would go over for one four-hour session rather than a dozen sessions.
A group of strangers at a convention best demonstrates that cinema feel. They are there to game. They need to know the basics. Once that is out of the way, game on. The convention model for this turned out to be fantastic (it was one of those sessions where everyone paces at the end of the game and forgets nearly everything outside the room). Their only concept of time rested on that ticking timer.
As it turns out, that one-shot told me I absolutely didn’t want to make the game a campaign. My group, with out-of-game jokes and iPhone addiction, would never allow for such an escape from reality. I’m sure when the timer went off, somebody would have looked at the microwave in the hope that popcorn was ready.
What Happens in Vegas
This example is similar to the first, but is worth distinction. An out-of-town friend was visiting for a few days and asked me to run a game for her. The only game I had any desire to run was my upcoming Unknown Armies game, which was going to be a ten-session campaign. I decided to try this method again even though I had faith in a long-term version of the game.
My approach this time was to forewarn the players who would be in the campaign that what happens in the one-shot stays in the one-shot. They couldn’t trust behaviors of NPCs or situations to mirror exactly in the campaign. For instance, this one-shot had elements of the supernatural whereas the campaign will not (the supernatural element was used to nudge players for the purposes of the one-shot).
This went off without a hitch. My group, who are used to my manipulative ways, couldn’t believe what I pulled on them. They can’t wait for the “main game” to start while I wonder if I’ll be able to pull it off again.
The point to all this is that I don’t want to waste my time any more than you do. Buying a new game that excites me is great, but if my friends think its garbage I have to go with them. I may cheerlead it a little bit, but I try to be democratic when it comes to picking new games. Doing otherwise is rude and cuts down the desire for everyone to play.
If your friend drags you to that hypothetical cinema for a cruddy movie, you’ll probably both get over it. It didn’t take up that much of your life. Heck, you will probably even have a little fun telling jokes about it. Do you think you could convince a friend to come to your house twenty-two times for a TV show both of you hate?
That’s where I’m coming from.
A One-Shot is a Pilot Episode
By running one-shots prior to a campaign, you’re getting a chance to do a pilot. Treat it as such. Pilots generally have the same feel as the show, but often go a little off track. I’d argue that Fox Mulder never found out as much about the conspiracy in nine seasons (and two movies) as he did during the first hour of that series. Use one-shots to set the stage, work on possible problems, and see what survives the explosions (and have explosions).
Make it fun, even when you discover your “great” idea isn’t going over so well. If everyone is having a good time, munching on popcorn and enjoying the thrill of your summer blockbuster, then they will probably forgive a weak story.
You know, probably.
Gaming since TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes: Advanced Set allowed him to becomes a super hero, Todd Cash has been lucky enough to write for his hobby as well, contributing to games such as Exquisite Replicas, the Revised Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Ghosts of Albion. He also writes reviews for Flames Rising. He lives in Kentucky with his beautiful wife, two kids, and a cat he doesn’t particularly like.
Thanks for the great article! I write and run a lot of one-shots for my local group and for convention games. My goal is “Epic in 4 hours” and movies can be a good model for a one-shot game.
Even with a campaign, it’s a good idea to set up the main conflict and showcase the game world with a one-shot to get the players hooked. Since most adult gamers these days face similar time crunches, I like to plan short campaigns – no more than 12 to 15 sessions – for the whole story arc. That way, players don’t feel forever trapped in an unending campaign and we can move on to a new system or new story.
My groups often runs a test session before committing to a new game/campaign (as our campaigns generally last 1-2 years), but I don’t think we’ve ever done it quite like this. I like that your approach sounds practical, and you gave me a blueprint to use on my own.
I like this approach. I ran a couple of one-shots before my 1980s monster hunter game, and should have approached them like this, instead of as intro sessions to a campaign.
Nice insight that movies are approached differently than TV shows, BTW.
Good article. I follow very similar processes — cinematic three or four act structure, often even blocking some of the description as one might for a screenplay. I always consider the first game session of a new campaign a “pilot” or movie…if it works, great. If it works well, depending on the nature of the sotrylines its a series of one shots, a movie series; if it becomes a long and regularly running game, it’s more like a TV show or comic book.