There is a big difference between running a roleplaying game campaign versus running a one-shot. There is also a big difference in running an RPG for your home group as opposed to running one in public. In this article, I will be talking about running a one-shot in public based on a question I got on Twitter.
Nate Parker Tweeted to ask:
I was hoping I could twist your arm into doing a write-up or podcast episode covering how to run a good RPG session for a gaming event (con/public event/etc.). I feel like it is different from regular sessions you have with known players, and I would love to hear some experienced people talk about it.
The Short Answer
When running a one-shot roleplaying session get right to the action.
The best advice I’ve ever heard about running a one-shot game, that applies to both playing in public and playing with your regular home group, is to get to the action right away. Don’t waste time on the background, or set up, just dive right into the action. You should never waste time with things like shopping, chatting with NPCs that don’t matter, travelling, or basically anything else that wastes time.
This doesn’t just mean that you should start the game in media res and this doesn’t only apply to the first scene of the story. This applies to every scene and every action taken. If the action about to be taken isn’t exciting and doesn’t add to the evolving story, skip past it. If what matters is what’s behind the door, start the action with the door opening.
If you are running a dungeon, the adventure should start at the opening to the dungeon, at a minimum. If there’s nothing exciting in the dungeon until room three, start in room three. Later on, if there’s a series of empty rooms, do a quick montage describing the group going through room after room, finding nothing but old bits of rusted metal, dust and rotted provisions.
Skip over everything that is not important to the current story. Everything that happens should matter and have an impact.
The Long Answer
There are a lot of things to consider when running a one-shot roleplaying game in public
There are significant differences between running a long term campaign and running a one-shot, single session or short session RPG. The focus, tone and pacing are all different. Player expectations are different. I would go so far as to say they are almost completely different beasts. Some game moderators prefer one style over the other. Some I know only run one style of game. Others are open to doing both.
Public play opens up a whole new set of both difficulties and opportunities. Playing at home can be very different from playing at a public venue and playing with strangers. While I personally love public play for RPGs, and have run a ton of games in public over the years, there are some things that you have to consider when running this way.
Below I’m doing to deep dive and give some tips that I’ve learned over the years to make the most out of running a one-shot in public.
For any one-shot storytelling game, always remember that it’s the biggest day in the character’s life!
The thing to realize with single session roleplaying games is that it’s one and done. You only get one chance to wow the players. You need it to be as exciting and engaging as possible and this starts right with the story/plot. A one-shot needs to be a window into the most important day in your character’s life.
Sure you can run a one-shot where the players go into a dungeon and steal the MacGuffin. Many one-shots are just that, and they work. But how much cooler would it be to kill a dragon? Or even better kill Tiamat? Why tell the story about disrupting the Orc supply lines when you can tell the story of how a small band of heroes defeated the Orc Warlord? You don’t want to run the Star Wars game where the Rebellion negotiates for some new X-Wings, you want to blow up the Death Star! If you are running a teenage angst based game, it better be homecoming or prom night! If you are running a Shadowrun, instead of stealing something from Aztechnology how about you instead have to assassinate the CEO? It’s time for the Battle of Five Armies not meeting the Ents for the first time.
One-shots are your chance to break the rules. To actually mess with cannon, destroy a setting, not only threaten the norm but totally destroy it. It’s time for the apocalypse, Ragnarok, the fall of civilization. It’s time for the once in a lifetime heist, the score to end all scores, that last job before you retire. It’s your last day on the force, it’s the day you were recruited by the MIB, it’s the event that brings you out of retirement. It’s the most important day in your player character’s lives!
To get the players invested, tie the character to the plot and to each other.
Before the first scene, every player at the table should know who their character is, why their character is invested in what’s about to happen and why they are with and care about the other characters. A one-shot is generally not the place to determine your party dynamic, that should be pre-established before the game even starts (accepting some Powered by the Apocalypse and other games where character creation is part of your one-shot, but more about that in a bit).
You know it’s the most important day in the characters lives, make sure that’s also clear to the players. This can be done with background written on the character sheets (keep it brief), by a pre-game discussion, or during the first scene of the game. The characters should make sense and be tied to the story that’s about to evolve.
Don’t put a ranger in the group that’s about to spend the entire night in a city. Don’t toss in a decker if the heist doesn’t require any hacking. Skip the bounty hunter unless their target is going to show up during the game.
One next level trick for this is to source the table. Make characters that would all theoretically be involved in the plot that is about to happen but then ask the players why they think their characters would actually get involved. “So why do you want to steal the original Kyber crystal?”, “What has Tiamat taken from you that you feel she needs to be killed?”, “Why do you need the reward money so badly?”
You can and should have a Session 0, even with a one-shot.
Start off by explaining what the game is about and make sure that everyone at the table has bought into that. Now I’m not saying give away your plot, I’m talking about a high level overview that tells the players what they can expect.
For a con game there would have been a con event write up, for a public play event there was probably something posted somewhere inviting people to play. Sometimes it’s hard to get information across and someone could show up to the game with expectations that do not match what you are planning to run at all.
One method of doing this is the CATS method from Patrick O’Leary. He suggests you discuss the following four things about your game:
Concept – Pitch your game. What is it about?
Aim – What are the players trying to accomplish? Is there a win condition? Are you trying to tell a specific type of story?
Tone – Have a quick conversation about tone. Is this a serious game? A comedy? How gonzo should it get?
Subject Matter – Explain what ideas may be explored during gameplay. Is there a chance they may make anyone uncomfortable? Set boundaries if needed.
That last one leads me to Safety Tools. Tabletop gaming safety tools should always be used when playing with strangers. I also recommend using them when playing at home, but that’s not what this topic is about. Tools can include The X-Card, Lines & Veils, Script Change, The Open Door Policy, etc.
Even if you don’t think your game is going to have any potentially harmful content, you never know what might bother a player. Everyone at the table is there to have fun, and all of these tools are there to facilitate that, they aren’t there to censor your game, they are there to make your game open and welcoming to all.
The entire point of this pre-game talk is to make sure everyone is on the same page. That everyone knows what to expect and any required boundaries are clearly communicated and understood. Though it sounds like a lot of work when written out like this, the entire process should only take you ten minutes or so to go through. Ten minutes spent at the beginning of the session to make sure everyone is on board can save a lot of heartaches later.
For a public play one shot you should have characters who are nearly ready to play.
We all know that most people would prefer to roll up a character rather than play a pre-generated one but that’s just not realistic for a roleplaying one-shot. It’s not just a time issue either. Take a look at my suggestions above, most of those aren’t going to actually work if you don’t have a pre-established group of characters ready to toss into the game.
How, as a game moderator, can you be expected to run the biggest day in a character’s life if you don’t even know who that character is until the game starts? It’s going to be difficult to discuss the aim of your game if you don’t even know who the participants are. It’s way easier to tie characters to a plot if you are creating those characters at the same time as you are creating the plot.
Now I know there are some systems out there that highly encourage creating characters at the table for a one-shot game. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of this, in part. I don’t mind creating part of a character at the table, the day of the game. I actually encourage that. Please leave some blanks on the character sheet for me to fill out or give me a few options to pick to make the character my own (specifically, at a minimum, let me chose a name, gender, and pronouns). Just don’t have your players sit down to a blank slate.
Even if you are running a Powered By The Apocalypse game, limit the playbooks to ones that fit the story you are going to be telling. Have some of the information picked out. Select starting moves that you know will come up in the game. If you are running a Fate game determine some of the character’s aspects ahead of time, maybe even just the High Concept. Make sure these tie into the game at hand.
I always try to make sure I have extra characters. One reason I do this is just in case I end up with extra players. Because I often run at Game Stores you never know who may show up and be curious about what you are playing. I think I’ve introduced more people to the roleplaying hobby by inviting them to join in mid-game at a store than any other method. I also do this so that players have some choice and no one is forced to play a specific character.
There you have some of the things I’ve learned over the years about running a one-shot roleplaying session at a public venue. The most important tips, to me, are to make sure you get right to the action and remember that, whatever is happening in the game, it should be the most important thing to ever happen to these characters.
Do you ever run games at cons or host public play one-shots? Do you have any tips you’ve learned? If you do I would love to hear from you in the comments!