I better write something on this blog at some point. I got my glass of johnny walker red, and I’m ready to smith words. I’m just going to write about what’s on my mind.
I’ve been GMing a lot lately. I really love the experience, and I’ve been hungry for more opportunities to run games. This hunger has made me do something probably at least a little bit stupid.
I recently convinced some people to give Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) a try for a one-shot game.
Of course, really when I say someone should give D&D a try I’m really just talking about any fantasy Table Top Role Playing Game (TTRPG). D&D is often assumed to be the center of the TTRPG universe. It’s the most recognizable game, and often it’s the easiest game to convince people to try because of its notoriety. On the other hand, the name carries enough weight that sometimes people cringe in horror when they hear the name, but that’s not as common anymore.
So, why is offering to run a one-shot of D&D at least a little bit stupid?
Well. All of the worries that a GM can have about running a TTRPG become condensed and much scarier and you have a shorter amount of time to make a good impression. If you’re playing a campaign over ten session, than at least you have ten session to adjust for any particular problem. In a one-shot, a GM has just one-shot to create a good experience. I have given away my security blanket, and it’s cold.
So so cold.
After the dreadful ensuing panic, I thought about what could make a one-shot experience good. In a one-shot of a game, I think you want to players to have fun, encourage people to play more often, and give a good impression of the experience people can have in a TTRPG.
There are three issues that come to mind that can make that goal terrifying to achieve in a one-shot.
- Character creation.
- Learning the rules.
- Creating a satisfying narrative.
So, let’s tackle these one at a time.
First, character creation sucks for new players. I mean it really really does. It was really hard for me to think back to a time when I didn’t know how to make a character for a TTRPG. I mean, hell, when I first played one it was after spending hours, days, reading the shit out of a TTRPG book. I knew the rules backwards and forwards. The first time I created a character for a TTRPG I was practically an expert. Or at the very least, I knew what I was doing.
Think about trying to make a character with almost zero context in a game, and what that feels like. Think about how long it takes to make a particular character, even when you know what you want to do. Creating characters is more complicated than it seems even for an experienced player.
I recently ran into an experience of trying to make characters for Shadowrun 4th edition with no context, and with no real assistance regarding what kind of things I should be looking to put on my character sheet. I discovered problem after problem with the way my character was built, and had to spend time adjusting points, erasing things on my sheet, and just putting a ton of effort into fixing the character even after the 2nd session.
I was extremely frustrated with the process, and still am frustrated with it. I dread playing it and finding out what other bad decisions I made when constructing my character. Even if it wasn’t for potential frustration with the character creation process, I’ve run a few games lately and in D&D in can take up to two hours to get people’s characters made.
That’s fine for a full on campaign that’s going to go on for months or years, but for a one-shot it really eats up a lot of time that could be spent playing the game.
That means for a one-shot a GM absolutely have to expedite the character creation process. I want to be able to hand the players a character sheet and give them everything they need to play right there. There are two ways to go about this I think.
Option one is to play the right game. There are games that lend themselves to quick character creation processes that don’t have complicated decisions that need to be made, but still offer the experience of customizing a character narratively if not mechanically.
The other option is to make characters for the players ahead of time. I personally think the former is the best way to go. I want the players to feel an attachment to their character even if they are only playing one session. That attachment to a character is part of the TTRPG experience, and I think players will feel that attachment much more if they get to make decisions about their characters.
The other fear is about teaching the rules. I’m about ten sessions or more in on my seven player D&D game. I still have players asking about the rules that are pretty basic to D&D. And that’s not really their fault. They’re players, they care about killing dragons, riding giants, sneaking past guards and taking treasure. They don’t care how that works mechanically very much as long as they get to do it.
The first session of a D&D campaign can grind to a goddamn halt constantly each time a new rule about something comes up and has to be explained, and then re-explained because someone wasn’t listening the first time. Problem areas are AC, DCs, skill checks versus saving throws, spell slots, actions, bonus actions, opportunity attacks, movement, class powers, race powers, reactions, and there’s more.
A one-shot should give players an idea about the mechanics of a game, but the game shouldn’t be so bogged by the discussion of mechanics that the players can’t get anything done.
There are a few solutions to this issue. One is, again, and this might get repetitive, pick the right game. Games that have simpler rules are surprisingly easier to run and teach. If the game you have to run doesn’t have simpler mechanics, consider simplifying them when you run the game. Don’t get caught up in the minutia of each particular rule and instead try and rule the game mechanics in the spirit of the game and worry more about the final issue in our trifecta.
Creating a satisfying narrative.
Goddamn. That’s a horrifying bullet point goal. Seriously, how does one make sure that players walk away satisfied with the narrative?
Well. This can get a bit heavy.
I think I have to talk about a major misunderstanding about good Gming. At least, one of the major misunderstanding I share with some experienced GMs. There are certainly GMs who will disagree on this subject.
The GM of a TTRPG doesn’t create the story. The GM isn’t writing a novel that a player then reads. The GM isn’t directing a television show that a player watches. They would be readers or viewers in that case, right? What I’m saying might seem a bit sarcastic, but it’s actually an important distinction regarding TTRPGs. The story is created by everyone involved at the table. The GM creates the opportunity for players to add to the story, and the GM adds on to what the players add.
A GM shouldn’t plan for a particular set of things to happen. The best option for a GM is to set up a story and let the player characters fill in blanks left by the GM. This will work better for some people than others. There are different types of GMs as there are different types of writers. Some writers prefer to have an outline before they begin a writing project, some write from the gut. Some GMs prefer to do a lot of prep, and some prefer to be more improvisational.
I will say once again there is one solution that carries through these three issues. Pick the right game. Some games are designed with the intent of making narrative easy to get through. The mechanics drive the narrative towards an end. But that’s not always the case, and I’m not really talking about this game versus that game in this blog post.
I think part of the secret here is to make sure that the adventure that’s been prepped is of appropriate scope and can be completed in one session. I wouldn’t set up a one-shot to be about making peace between noble houses that have been at war for centuries. A one-shot scope is probably more along the lines of helping two nobles from those rival houses get married in secret and escape the city. In fact, I wouldn’t assume that the player characters would be interested in helping them escape. Player characters might decide that the best thing for them to do is to capture the two nobles and return them to their respective houses.
I think the worst thing that a GM could do in a one-shot is write acts or scenes that have to happen. That’s not the way a TTRPG should go.
A plan like:
Hour One: Characters find out the king has a secret prison.
Hour Two: Characters infiltrate the secret prison.
Hour Three: Characters lead the prisoners in an escape.
Hour Four: Characters fight the evil warden while the prisoners flee.
This might look good on paper, but a GM never knows that the players are actually going to give a shit about prisoners. They might think the prisoners deserve to be there. They might instead look for someone who wants to pay for a prison break. Hell, the players might talk with the warden and decide to track down prisoners who escaped and bring them back to the prison or kill them.
The GM should work hard to make sure the fictional space exists to explore and there are things to do in the fictional space, but trying to force the players down a particular path is probably not going to be the best experience.
Instead, I think the object for GM here is to establish a situation that requires action. Instead of having the character discover a secret prison, in a one-shot the characters are in the secret prison and need to find a way to escape!
A good narrative experience in a one shot should aim to create a situation that requires action with a reasonable scope.
Situations which require immediate action work really well in one-shots. The Gm can avoid the awkward meet the other player characters phase of the game that a lot of TTRPG veterans have been through. If the characters are on a plane that has lost one of it’s engines and is quickly spiraling down to earth to crash into a flaming wreck of carnage, twisted metal, and the left over meat of what used to be people, a player doesn’t have to stop and explain who they are and think of an excuse to work with the other players.
Bottle episodes also work really well for this type of one-shot. The character are trapped on a island together, in a prison together, in a haunted hotel…it can go on and on. The idea is that the situation requires that the characters work towards a similar goal because the situation is one that demands a particular kind of action.
I think that about covers my worries about the subject of one-shots as a GM.
For now, leave a comment and let me know what issue worry you as a GM when it comes to one-shots? What games would you suggest for one-shots in particular? Also, how have you handled running games with complex character creation, or very detailed and specific rules?
Another big question is what other GMing topics should I address in this blog? What would you be interested in?
 Gming stands for Game Mastering. Game Master is a really weird phrase for the person who is running a TTRPG. I think Game Master really just comes from Dungeon Master, as D&D was the first widely played TTRPG and that naming convention stuck. When other TTRPGs hit the market, they couldn’t really use Dungeon Master but probably wanted something that carried the same weight and that gives us Game Master.
 A one-shot is a term used in TTRPG circles. It means a group of players and a GM are going to get together to play a particular TTRPG with the goal of finishing it in one play through without any expectations for follow up sessions. Usually, the idea is to finish an adventure or a complete story arc (As opposed to a campaign arc which can take many sessions to complete.)
 It is unclear to me how much of this problem could have been mitigated by a better understanding of the rules, or a more thoughtful GM for the game. As it stands, the experience has definitely colored my opinion of Shadowrun, and I’m not very convinced that I like the system or should for that matter.
 The implications of this comparison seem pretty huge. I’d definitely like to give this subject more thought in the future. In what ways does the writing process reflect itself in the ways a GM runs a TTRPG?