Sometimes your regular game falls through. When this happens, it pays to have a backup game ready to play at a moment’s notice. In this article I’ll discuss different types of one-shots and how to make it easy on yourself so that whenever you need a backup, it’s ready.
There are lots of reasons your game might not happen: you don’t have enough time to prep, a player or two can’t make it, or you’re just running late and low on play time. You can always skip the game for that week, but if you don’t get together all that often it can seem like a wasted opportunity.
Off the top of my head, there are three broad types of one-shots (games designed to be played in a single session).
The first is a one-shot related to the ongoing campaign. It will be in the same world and with the same game system. It could be that you put your heroes’ character sheets down and play as the villains for a night. Maybe they play as some NPCs or a rival adventuring party. It could be that they play their forefathers. My favourite things to do though are alternate realities (what would the world be like the villains were to win?) and flashbacks.
In my group game we had made our characters are were ready to play, but then one of our friends told us he was moving closer to us and wanted to play. Instead of not playing for three weeks or making him catch-up on what we had missed, we played one-shot flashbacks. Basically, we played a one-shot for each of the other three characters, each time with a different one in the spotlight. I really like this technique, so I’ll definitely be posting an article about it soon. I also have a lot more to say about related one-shots and using them as a source of exposition, so keep your eyes out for an article or two on this topic in the near future as well.
Related one-shots are often best when you know they’re coming. If you know that next week you won’t be able to all get together, you can end the current session ready for a one-shot. I did this when my now-wife went overseas for a month. We encountered a destroyed town and found a surviving NPC. Questioning him, he told the story of how the town came to be that way. Instead of telling the players what happened, they played as commoners and townsfolk over the next couple of sessions – okay, so this was more of a three- or four-shot, but the idea is still sound. By the end of it, the PCs had played out the story and we came back into the present with the NPC saying, “That’s how it happened. I swear!”.
If you don’t know when a one-shot is going to be needed, then it’s best to focus on building one that can be dropped in at any time. As mentioned above, flashbacks are great for this, as are any one-shots that flesh out the backstory of the world or campaign-spanning quest.
The second type of one-shot is the unrelated one-shot. It will be with the same game system that everyone in your group game is familiar with, but it may not be in the same world or part of the world. The difference between this and the first type of one-shot is that this one has nothing to do with the ongoing campaign. Forget that those PCs even exist and just have fun with a self-contained one-shot.
Doing this gives the GM and the players a lot of freedom. You don’t need to work it in with the main story of the ongoing campaign or try to make sense of inconsistencies – like when your one-shot PCs destroy the town the PCs are currently staying in. Seeing as it’s totally unrelated to that story, you can do whatever you want and can even set it in mythical and undefined times.
I think the key here is to use the same system you’re all familiar with. Pre-generate some PCs and keep them handy for whenever you need them. I find that having a simple bullet-point outline of the main events in the one-shot works wonders. It’s easy to refer to in-game and a good way to refresh your memory of what this one-shot is about when you need it now, but wrote it up months ago. Have a list of NPC names for random NPCs and have all your main NPCs already named and coloured with interesting details. This will make your one-shot seem more vivid and less slapped together – it will also make it more memorable. By the way, this advice works just as well for the related one-shot.
Planning a one-shot like this can let your players experience parts of your world that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. If you’ve been playing a low-magic political campaign, try a mystical desert adventure with sunmagi and environmental hazards. In fact, that’s another good point: have a few set pieces for your one-shot that really stand out. Enduring the deadly sun is something those political intrigue PCs have never had to worry about. It will stand out to the players as something unique about the one-shot.
Think of Gandalf’s fight with the Balrog – that’s a great set-piece too as they fall and tumble, fighting as they go. Also, the end of pretty much any Bond film is probably a set-piece. Anything cool like that will get players into the game and will make it easy for your to remember and describe. If there’s enough interest on the part of readers and myself, I will post some of my prepared one-shots usable for most fantasy systems.
Something Completely Different
While the unrelated one-shot is in a different world or place but uses the same system, it can be refreshing from time to time to do something completely different. By this, I mean ditch the system, ditch the world, do something that is in no way connected. Doing this, you can’t rely on the advantage of system familiarity. What you can rely on is the indie game community. Lots of indie games are built to be played as one-shots and with little or no prep required. Board or card games like Munchkin are also excellent for these purposes – and again, no prep required.
Fiasco is one of the absolute best games you could choose for something completely different. Fiasco’s game text says that it will take “about two and a half hours, varying with experience, play style and the size of your group”. If your players are used to D&D, Savage Worlds, or that sort of gaming, your first game of Fiasco might take a little while, but it is a very fun game, easy to learn, very replayable and can help your players develop more confidence and roleplaying skill.
Murderland is a great one too (all you need is Clue) and you could read the six page rulebook in a few minutes then get down to playing. Geiger Counter is another one-shot game that should take about as long to play as it would to watch a survival horror movie, which the game aims to emulate. I haven’t played either of these games yet, but the rules are solid and really make me want play. Of course, my own game, ZILLA! – available for free download – is two pages long, very easy to understand and play, and is good fun for filling in a couple of hours with even a low number of players. It has pre-gen characters too.
Playing something completely different lets you break out and try something you wouldn’t normally be playing. It can be very inspiring too – especially Fiasco, as the game takes a lot of unexpected twists and turns. It’s sort of like reading fantasy fiction for years then turning to modern day thrillers: it’s different, refreshing and can give you GMing fuel and ideas that another thousand fantasy books (or sessions) couldn’t.
Wrapping it Up
I’m a big fan of one-shots, as you can see, and I think that everyone who plays an ongoing campaign should try a one-shot, at least once. If it’s not your thing, you’ve lost a single session. If your group likes it, you’ve open a door to a whole new world of play.