“As you leave the train station, you notice something is missing: the street is surprisingly quiet. A moment later there’s a screech of wheels and the sound of a tommy gun…”

When I met Bryan and Paul for the first time at the local game store’s meetup, everything clicked. In a lot of ways, it was pure luck. Bryan had heard about Spirit of the Century and was interested in trying it out. I’d been lurking on the FATE mailing list, learning, and waiting for a chance to try out this cool system I’d bought. We all showed up open to a new experience– more, we were each really looking for an chance to get out of our current play pattern. The positive attitudes combined with a system that matched what we were looking for that day and forged friendships. I can’t promise that one shots always work out that way… but mastering them is a valuable skill.

When you’re pitching a new game to your group, a one-shot is a good way to try it without committing to an indefinite campaign. If you’re looking at adding a new player to an established group, a one-shot is a safe way to get everyone playing on the same page… it’s hard to convince new players to read five years of campaign logs before they ever experience your group. Cons are almost all one shot adventures; the few exceptions are usually linked series of one-shots. [Note: I’m using one-shot to mean a single adventure– you might play it out over a few nights, but it’s short and focussed.]

What to look for when prepping a one-shot:

  • Characters, ready to play or quick to develop. This is so that the players get to spend their time playing, rather than creating characters.
  • A system that’s quick to learn. If you’re creating the characters in advance, it doesn’t matter how convoluted the character generation rules are– the rules in the game, during scenarios, are the ones the players will see.
  • An unusual experience, something you can’t fit easily into a longer game. This one is optional; I like it when one-shots, particularly in systems we already know, offer a different experience. A full campaign might constrain your crazy ideas, but one shots give you a chance to do something unique.
  • A strong plot or a strong sense of direction. This is important; the players should get to see the exciting parts of the game and enjoy them. Strong direction can make sure they get to see the cool bits in the sample– and limits how much you have to prepare.
  • Handouts or quick references, to help players with the new rules. While not necessary when you’re playing a one-shot of a system everyone already knows– it’s often very helpful. When a player chooses a new role, even in a familiar system different rules often come to the forefront. A spell-caster and a front-line fighter often have very different rules they’ve mastered over a campaign.

For the example above, Spirit filled the above roles handily. Lurking on the mailing list, I noticed excellent quick references, snatched them up, and brought printouts. Spirit is intended for pickup play, but our game got off to an even faster start when the players picked pre-generated characters instead of building their own.

In retrospect, the game demanded a lot of improvisational skill of the GM. The scenario I’d designed didn’t imagine some of the inventive turns the players took. Fortunately, the characters had plots built into them [via Aspects], which helped when it came time to improvise. When they bailed out of the airship and decided to travel to Chicago their own way, Jet Black’s rival [listed on his character sheet] caught my attention. Rocket Red’s interference made perfect sense for the travel scene…

Their character determines how they’ll see the game:
The characters are the players’ interface. If the rules encourage something (like martial arts) but it doesn’t show up on a character sheet, the players won’t know about it. If there’s something you want to show off about the game or setting, make sure it’s directly involved in a character or two. If you’re making the characters in advance (which is required to play quickly in most games), make sure you include the cool parts of in the PC sheets.

If you’re introducing a group to the game, you’ll also want to highlight what the ability means. If swordsman 3 means the character can perform a devestating riposte, you’ll want to include that information. That way, the player will see why they’d build a character up to swordsman 3. Many systems are complex; without extensive reading ahead of time, it is often difficult to make characters with abilities work the way they want.

One of my most successful pitches was for Mage: The Ascension a decade ago. As I’d do with most systems, I created the characters in advance. I knew that the character sheet alone wouldn’t do a good job of conveying the cool part of the system– and I wanted to highlight some specific components. To make that work, I created a sheet for each character with a paragraph or so of general/adaptable history, and a few examples of spells they’d developed. [Figuring out spells on the fly in the system was tricky without system mastery, though good handouts helped there too.] The snippet of history and personality went a long way in selling the characters. The personal spell examples helped– while they were mechanical examples, listing the character’s “personal favorites” let the mechanical examples show aspects of the character’s personality.

Other advice:
I suspect I could go on forever… but I’d rather prepare a good one-shot. What advice did I overlook? If you’ve prepared one-shots, what tricks do you use? Is there a good way to encourage identification with characters immediately, or is that something that just has to grow out of play?