The Trouble with One-Shots: A Brief Look at Brief Gaming

Recently, in celebration of a friend’s birthday, I ran a one-shot Pathfinder adventure. Now, I’ve run one-shot adventures in a lot of systems from Call of Cthulhu to Exalted, but I’ve never really thought about all of the ways that they differ from normal campaigns.

For those who don’t know, a “one-shot” refers to a self-contained short adventure that is meant to be played over the course of a single session. One-shot adventures come with the advantage of not requiring a lot of investment and being easy to put together on short notice or for special events like conventions. While one-shots can be very fun to run, there are some very important differences between them and campaigns that I think it is important to discuss.

  1. A Greater Need for Flexibility

Any GM worth his dice knows that a certain amount of flexibility is required. Players are not likely to follow the path you hope to lead them on and often decide that certain elements of a story are more important than others. This can affect the structure of your session, but it is unlikely to force you to make any severe changes unless they go way off track. Normally, you may not mind if the players to take longer before getting to the dungeon you have planned because there is always the next session.

A one-shot adventure typically turns this on its head because the goal is for the players to complete the adventure in a single session. The adventure I was running was part of my friend’s birthday celebration and it needed to be completed before everyone had to go home. I had every intention of them dealing with the people in town long enough to figure out where to go, and then going there to find the dungeon and fighting their way to a boss. Now, I made a lot of mistakes in planning this adventure that we’ll cover in a bit, but where I was very successful was being flexible. The game was set to end around midnight and it was about 10:45 before the players got to the dungeon. At least part of this was a much greater interest from the players in talking to the townfolk than in going to look for the monster.

I was able to adapt, but it meant that instead of a multi-room dungeon the players got to engage in something like two combat encounters and a boss fight. The thing is, the adventure I had planned was not one that any group of players was likely to make it through in a single session and when I realized that I had to change it.

  1. More Clear Objectives

One-shot adventures have a lot less room for ambiguity than traditional campaigns. In a campaign you can make an entire session out of the players figuring out where the enemies have their base of operations, or how to get to the giant’s den, or whatever the objective is. This can add a layer of depth to the adventure and give players the opportunity to develop their characters talents that aren’t related to hitting stuff.

In a one-shot, though, you just don’t have that sort of time. Remember how earlier I said that PART of the reason for getting to the dungeon late was based on player interest? Well, the other part is that I did a poor job of laying the breadcrumbs. There’s a joke I like to make about how if players see a path to their objective they will do everything possible to avoid it. This joke plays on the idea that players would really rather antagonize the GM than play the game, and there is some truth to that sometimes, but more often than not players want to complete the objective. In a one-shot, that objective needs to be clear so that the players can get to it before time runs out.

The adventure that I ran involved children going missing, with the adventurer’s goal being to rescue them. This is a BAD plot-hook for a one-shot because there’s going to be a lot of time spent on finding out what happened to the missing kids, even more time spent figuring out where they went, and very little time left for going to rescue them. A much better hook would have been something like “A dragon living in a mountain cave has started terrorizing a nearby town.” The players can show up, gather a little information, and then get to the adventuring. I mean, some players will likely decide to resolve the problem by trying to improve the town’s defenses so that they can shoot the dragon out of the air the next time they see him, but if they do that then that’s on them and not you.

  1. Group Size is Even More Important

Large groups are difficult to run. There are a lot of reasons and I’ve covered most of them in a past article which can be found here. The one most relevant to a one-shot though is that more players means that everything takes more time. This is a huge problem for a one-shot, because you only have the one session before you need to be done. In most games I’ve seen with more than five players, a round of combat can take up to thirty minutes. Assuming a six to eight hour session, that means you’re going to fit one, maybe two fights into the game no matter how quickly your players get to the adventure. Sometimes this is ok, but sometimes it’s just unsatisfying for everyone involved. This is even more true when you remember that during most of that time, players aren’t engaged and are instead either waiting impatiently or checking Facebook.

So those are the three main things that are important to running a one-shot. They’re not bad as general advice either, but they become extremely important when you’re trying to finish an adventure in a single session.

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