Sometimes A Quickie Will Do: In Praise Of One-Shot Games

Like many gamers, I love long-running campaigns. There are so many wonderful story elements, so much character development, and just so much fun to be had. The possibilities are endless, and I play in one every chance I get, whether they’re going to last a few weeks, a few months, or a few years.

That said, I still have a whole lotta love for the one-shot. A one-and-done game is sometimes just what the doctor ordered. Whether they’re published modules or original adventures, one-shots are an awesome change of pace from long campaigns. Some of the most epic game moments happen in one-shots, and some characters become so instantly loved that they find new life in later games.

Like a fun-sized candy bar, a novella you can read in an evening, or the knitting project you can crank out while watching a movie, a one-shot provides instant gratification and satisfies your needs without a huge commitment.

Why Play A One-Shot?

If you prefer longer-running games – or have simply only played in longer-running games – the appeal of a one-shot may not be transparent. Here are just a few of the reasons they’re worth having in your repertoire.

Trying a new system. Sometimes a new game system looks fan-freaking-tastic on paper (or in internet reviews). You buy it, read it, plan a campaign, have your players create characters, start playing…and something’s wrong. The game isn’t as fun/easy/wunderbar as you thought, or it just isn’t working for your group. Instead of going into it full-throttle, why not try a one-shot using the new system? A quick adventure will tell you and your players whether or not the game will work for you in very short order.

Getting to know new players. It’s a scary prospect, for players and GMs alike, to play with folks you don’t really know. People can be really nice and cool, but turn out to be terrible roleplayers. Sometimes playing styles just clash too much to coexist in the same group. When it works out to do so, playing a one-shot with potential players before integrating them into an existing campaign or starting a new group can help. While other problems may crop up further down the line, a quick getting-to-know-you game will reveal personality quirks and playing habits that may or may not be compatible with those of others.

Taking a break. Those long-running games we so love can be a lot of work for the GM. They can also wear on the players during intense plotlines. To keep everyone fresh and still loving the campaign, taking even one week off to play a one-shot can be a lifesaver for the main game. Just be sure to do it at a natural break in the campaign. And it’s even better if someone other than the current GM runs it, so they can enjoy an opportunity to play.

Spur-of-the-moment gaming. Out-of-town friends come to visit and want to game. Or half your game group is unavailable for the usual game, but everyone else still wants to play something. Something short and sweet that can be wrapped up in just a few hours is the perfect solution!

Con games. This one is rather obvious. All those awesome people you see at your favorite con once a year, and that’s it? Or those cool new folks you just met in a panel? This is how you get to game with them – in a short one-shot adventure. You can even get lucky and end up playing with someone you admire or are a big fan of!

Tips For Great One-Shots

From both my experience as a player and now as a GM, there are certain things that set great one-shots apart from just good ones.

Pre-generated characters are the way to go. Creating a character takes time and mental/emotional commitment. It’s one thing to have everyone quickly roll up a 1st-level character; it’s quite another to expect them to build 10th-level characters. Many players won’t want to put that much time and effort into a character they’re going to play only once. (We once played in an epic-level one-shot with my husband’s old gaming friends and had to create 20th-level characters. Ugh. It was fun, but never again!) Hand them each a character with all their stats already figured out and personality quirks decided, and good roleplayers will latch onto them instantly and be ready to go in a matter of minutes. Yes, it makes more work for the GM to create the characters in advance, but that saves more precious time for actually playing and enjoying your game. Speaking of time…

Set a time limit, and stick to it. How long should a one-shot last? It depends on the situation. If you’re running one for your regular gaming group, go for the same length as one of your regular sessions. For friends in from out of town who have the whole day to kill, go ahead and let that thing run for 8 or 10 hours. But for a convention or game faire, where people will have other things they want to see or do, don’t monopolize all their time: go 3 to 4 hours, 6 hours at the maximum. For those scheduled con games, be sure to hold to your allotted time, so the player who has another commitment after your game can get there on time. For more casual one-shots, you may have a little more room to play with (ask your players if they’d be OK with running 15 minutes over to play out an epic scene) but try to stay within your window.

Don’t get bogged down with minutiae. In a 4-hour-long game, do you really want to spend 30 minutes looking up/arguing about whether a character can get out a potion, chug it, and still make a standard move? Nope. So don’t! Rules still need to be followed, but pick your battles on what truly deserves an official ruling from the book. If you decide to houserule on the fly for the sake of brevity, just make sure you’re consistent and maintain that rule for the entirety of the adventure.

It absolutely, positively, must be fun. In a long-running campaign, it’s fine to have a session that’s not the most fun – life isn’t always perfect, and sometimes your characters are faced with something boring or unpleasant that they must power through. But in a one-shot, this is your one and only chance to entertain your players. If they don’t have a good time, they’ll get frustrated, and walk away from the table thinking, “Well, there’s 4 hours of my life I’ll never get back”. The adventure has to be epic, important, meaningful, hilarious…you get the picture. Set the stage for something amazing, don’t disappoint, and everyone will walk away happy and with memories they’ll never forget.

If you haven’t yet embraced the wonder of the one-shot, maybe you should! Even for the most dedicated long-term campaigners, one-shots are a healthy addition to your gaming schedule.

Do you enjoy running or playing in one-shots? Do you prefer them to longer campaigns?

About c

By day, Connie Thomson (aka Ariel Manx) is a mild-mannered shoe salesgirl, geeking out about insoles, outsoles, and shanks. But when night falls, she takes her turn at the helm of 4 Winds Fantasy Gaming, where she writes, edits, and does layout for table-top RPG products. Regardless of her persona, C is always a fangirl, bookworm, and craft diva. (Email C or follow @arielmanx on Twitter.)

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