In lieu of one of our regular Saturday night campaigns, one my group’s GMs ran a Star Trek one-shot for myself and one other player this past weekend. It was a blast.
After the game, I looked back at Nine Steps to Help You Run a Great One-Shot Adventure and noticed that three of those steps were more obvious from a player’s perspective than others.
There were also three things that didn’t make my list of nine steps, but that stood out in sharp relief from the other side of the screen.
That gives us six elements of a successful one-shot to examine — let’s get to it.
Much like How to GM a Good Convention Game (from a Player’s POV), I find this kind of reverse analysis useful as a GM. It’s a lot like getting player feedback, except it’s GM-as-player feedback in the form of advice. Hopefully you’ll find it as useful as I do.
Looking at the nine steps, numbers 4, 6 and 8 really stood out to me. They are:
4. Create props.
6. Prepare to introduce the system.
8. Get all your ducks in a row.
Don brought an electronic phaser and tricorder for us to fiddle with, which was neat. We played with them every now and then, but they weren’t distracting at all. They also helped to set the mood and get us into a Star Trek frame of mind, which is the biggest reason to use props in your games.
Neither of us were familiar with the system (Decipher’s excellent Coda rules), so Don gave us a quick introduction before the game. The character sheets were very well organized, so it was easy for us to figure out what did what. After the first couple of die rolls, we knew how things worked — and Jaben dissected and mastered the starship combat system a few rounds into the climactic battle.
The only thing that would have helped here would have been writing out the per-use abilities (Don had already factored in most of the static ones). That way, instead of referencing the books and jotting them down ourselves, we could just have looked at a section of the character sheet to find out what those abilities did. This wasn’t a big deal, but would have been really handy if we’d been playing this one-shot at a convention.
Ducks Lined Up
In terms of having his ducks in a row, Don was prepared: books at the ready, a host of pre-generated characters for us to choose from, spare dice on hand, etc. One reason this step is so crucial is that it conveys to your players that you’re completely ready to run the game, and that they can focus on just having fun — a message that came across clearly in this session.
Fun is hard to quantify but easy to recognize when you’re having it — and doubly easy to spot when you’re not having it. With a long-term campaign, you’ve got more room for mistakes in this department. If a particular night’s adventure isn’t so hot, it’ll wash out in the long run. That’s not true with a one-shot, though.
With a one-shot, you’ve only got one chance to shine, whether it’s for your home group, at a con or in a gaming store running a demo event. I’ve played my share of one-shots where I wondered why on earth the GM thought the events of the adventure would be any fun at all, and needless to say they weren’t enjoyable.
One good way to maximize your chances of crafting a fun scenario is to examine every major element as you write it (or read it, in the case of published adventures), and ask yourself “Would I enjoy this as a player?” If not, change that element. And when you’re done with the module, look it over as a whole and ask yourself the same question again.
The second key element was the relatively straightforward nature of the scenario. Almost without exception, one-shots cry out for quick pacing, obvious choices and as little room for clueless rambling as possible. You don’t have to railroad to achieve this, but linear plotting can definitely be your friend.
This comes back to squeezing as much fun into 4-6 hours as possible, which Don did with our scenario. We didn’t waste any time dawdling or wondering what to do, but we also weren’t led around by our nose’s by a pet NPC (there weren’t any) or forced to follow a specific course through the adventure.
Lastly, Don provided character options. Jaben and I had nine characters to choose from, and Don said upfront that it didn’t matter which ones we chose, because he’d adapt the adventure to fit our choices. As a result, we got to pick the PCs that interested us most, and not worry about what that would do to the game. This kicked major ass.
GMing isn’t a one-size-fits-all affair, of course, but all six of those elements are general enough to be useful in lots of situations — and from a player’s point of view, getting them right does wonders for the overall experience.