Sep 17

How to: One shots and new systems

We’ve all wanted to test out new game systems or to play that role playing game that always looked good but you’re not quite convinced enough to fully invest in. Or maybe it’s even just a quick diversion from a longer game (is your main GM suffering from the dreaded burnout perhaps?) Maybe you want to run a game but want to dip a toe in the water before jumping in at the deep end? Or who knows it might even be all of the above, but hopefully this will help you get organised and have a good one-shot game that’ll be fair to your players, you and the system that you’re using.

Step 1: Keeping it cheap.

Let’s be honest, we’re probably looking at something to try and test. We’re probably not looking at something where we’re going to go from ‘Never before’ to ‘Every week for the next decade’. If that’s the case, you’ll have people who don’t want to spend much or anything on something they might not like. At the core, you’ll need one set of rules for the GM. It’s up to your own group to decide if everyone throws in a few pounds or if the prospective GM gets it and benefits later if it becomes a full campaign (having already bought it and not having to pay for it then). If you want to keep it cheap, look at eBay, Amazon, find your friendly local gaming store and have a chat with them. Take a look at pdfs on DriveThruRPG/RPG Now (and you can help the podcast too if you use this link!) or look for a set of QuickStart rules from the publisher (and it might even have a pre-done adventure included to save you time!). There’s a lot of options to try and keep the cost down for a test game, especially if you can wait a few weeks to try and get that elusive bargain.


Step 2: Take a look at the system.

This depends on what your aim is – if you’re wanting rules light, story focused and quick combat Rolemaster possibly isn’t the best match. If you’re wanting to test out a system where you’ll get to play in a variety of different eras with sci-fi and aliens it might be a good chance to crack out Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space. If you’ve always wanted to test Call of Cthulhu, then a horror/mystery game with Mythos/supernatural elements might be a good theme to base the adventure on.

In short? Play to the strengths of the system if you have a system picked, or if you have a theme or playstyle in mind then find something that matches it. If you wanted a 1920s London adventure where actions speak louder than words with no aliens, no sci-fi and no time-travel then I’m not saying that Doctor Who: AiTaS is a bad idea but it perhaps needs a bit more thought to why you’re wanting that system for that game. If it’s the traits and the resolution system you love, then great, go ahead! If you’re wanted to find out the merits and flaws of a system before all of your group go out and buy it then consider if you’re doing the system justice by not using a lot of the options and rules that come in the standard core book/box. If people leave the session hating the system, is it because it’s missing iconic things or because they don’t like the mechanics of the game?

With interviews and meeting people, we’re always told how much a first impression counts for and it’s the same with games. First impressions count, so make sure you’re showing it at its best.

 Step 3: Magnets, how do they work? (Aka, the rules)

Ok, so looking at rules is really part of looking at the actual system but before we wanted to get a very rough feel of it (dice types, core resolution mechanic, how much damage does a typical weapon do compared to a typical character’s hit points, etc) but now we’re looking at how it actually works. A big part of a one-shot/test session is making sure you’re prepared enough to be able to explain how it works to your players. If they ask you how to make an attack in a combat scenario you had planned and you need to look it up, it may not give the best impression but if you can say “Roll the d20, add your strength modifier (point to the part of sheet) then add your attack bonus (point to the sheet) and tell me the result.” then even if you need to take a moment to check where those bonuses are on the sheet it still gives a better impression for the game being relatively simple and the impression that you know what’s going on (even if you’re confused as to why they’ve started attacking Mrs Smith over a sherry dispute at the time). Now if they pick up something completely different later on and you need to check how that will work them, everyone will understand. It still happens in long campaigns where the GM has years of experience with the system as no one can remember everything (despite my best attempts sometimes!).

Related to that (we’ll stick with D&D as the example for now), imagine you’re running a test of 3.5D&D and one of your players decides they’ve had enough of trying to hit the small nimble enemy with their rapier and want to grab it. You pause for a moment and say “I’ll just check how that works.” You open the PHB to Grappling and see nearly a page of how on earth a grapple works and there are attacks provoked here, there, on that bit and also on Tuesday. It uses this modifier here and here but not there and you’re getting thoroughly confused just reading it. It’s a test, it doesn’t have to be perfect. You’re well within your rights to say “I want to keep this moving quickly, so we’ll say you can roll an attack as normal but you’ll get +2 for being bigger than him. If you grab him he’ll be restrained unless he can beat you in a strength check and he won’t get his dexterity bonus against anyone else while you have him held. Do you still want to grab him?” If you play a full campaign then it might be more important to learn the grappling rules but if all goes to plan, you’ve got this sorted in terms of timings and spending five minutes checking and working out how a rule works while going through it might start to interfere with that plan, knock you off your stride and wondering how you can still finish on time. So don’t, plain and simple. Make a call on how it’ll run for this session and if it becomes a campaign later everyone can worry about it then. Let’s use the above suggestion from a potential player point of view – you’ve asked if you can grab the enemy, the GM’s taken a look at the rules, frowned, scanned the page again and said ‘look, I want to keep this moving, how about we use the same mechanic, I’ll give you a bonus for this circumstance and this is the benefit it’ll give you, does that sound reasonable for now or would you rather keep attacking?’. So for a player, they know you want to keep things moving, they’ve offered a solution for now and you know the benefits and costs (what you’ll get from it and what you’ll need to do to get it, respectively) and you’ve got the choice to stick with the plan now you know that or keep doing what you were doing but if it comes up later that session, you know what the benefit is.

Earlier I said that it’s important to give your players a fair impression of a system and let them judge it for themselves and I’m sticking to that. However, if there’s a situation you couldn’t plan for or didn’t expect, make a rule that aligns with the other mechanics and make it clear that it’s not the official rule but for the sake of fun, we’ll ignore that just for one day. If you’re keeping the core mechanics the same or similar enough, it’s probably close enough in feel to not affect their judgement too badly. So long as you’ve got a decent grasp of the main rules you’re expecting to use and you’re happy to look up and judgement call others as necessary, you’ll do fine!

 Step 4: Time to plan an adventure.

This is one of the things I’ve always found hardest with a one-shot game personally – working out how long it should take the party to complete the adventure.

You have options. Often the core book/set will have some sort of sample adventure somewhere within that should give you a good feel for the main elements of the system and be fairly straight forward for you to follow as a GM. The second option is to do a quick search online for any free/very cheap adventures or, failing that, ideas for scenarios and adventures. Even if you don’t use them, take note of the length and detail in those adventures/modules, take a look at the combat ratio and the style of layout it uses. If you take a third option (writing your own), it’ll hold you in good stead if you can keep to a similar structure.

If you go for something pre-written, make sure to read it carefully and that you have a good understanding of it. Players are bound to find red herrings of great interest and it may be like

trying to herd cats to get them back on track. Now, if you’re confident at winging it you could always abandon the original plan and go in a different direction but if you’re not, you have a bit more flexibility. Firstly, if you know the adventure well (either because you’ve read thoroughly and become familiar with it or because you wrote it), you can probably find a way of getting them back on track quickly (the missing book on rare Amazonian plants that leads the group to a previously unmentioned greenhouse at the back of the mansion and into a dangerous encounter that’s ultimately to use up some resources and teach them combat can be deadly might turn into an area of interest that Doctor Black studies in his leisure and there is no greenhouse and certainly no Venus Mantraps) or you can take advantage of the situation slightly (and may be easier for a less experienced GM (or just when no amount of dead ends are working)) and just be brutally honest with the group and say “Ok guys, we’ve got two hours left, I know there’s a fair bit to still cover but the Amazonian plants book is more of a side mystery than the main one.” If you end up with time left at the end you can either spend more time reflecting on the system/game or you could ask if the group want to spend a bit more time finishing that red herring from earlier. Basically, always have a shortcut to getting back on track, even if it’s not subtle. On the other hand, if you think it’s going to run a bit short, throw in a moral dilemma or a social situation. Maybe there’s an NPC that wasn’t mentioned before but has suddenly appeared but is acting strangely (Oh, Daniel the gardener? We didn’t want to mention him to you. You see, the excitement got him quite worried and he’s kept to himself a bit since. Think he’s still shaken by it all in truth. If you’re very polite and friendly he might be able to tell you a little of what he saw but it probably won’t be much before he goes back to his room. It’s been his place of safety since it happened, no one disturbs him if he’s in there.)

Have some sort of out – it might be a way to cut time from the adventure in a door that won’t open or a dead end to the red herring clues, it might be adding in more content like a new Npc or distinctive trait on an existing one but have something if the clock’s becoming an issue either way.

Step 5: Debugging and Reviewing

Ok, so you’ve played the game but what now? It’s good to have a chat with everyone about the game and the system. What did they like, what didn’t they like? Did the game feel clunky or did it go smoothly? If it was clunky, was that because it’s genuinely clunky or is that because everyone was getting used to the rules and weren’t as familiar as they’d be after a couple of sessions?

The most important two questions are quite straight forward though – Did everyone have fun and do they want to play the game/system again?

As for when to have this conversation, to take a look at the game, the system and the enjoyability I’d say the easiest way is just after the session ends. If you’ve got even 15 minutes, you’ll be able to get the two big questions out of the way and possibly a few “I wasn’t keen on…” or “I didn’t really like…” thoughts out there. It also has the benefit of not affecting the next session/usual campaign and if it really wasn’t enjoyed it keeps it all contained to that week. If it was loved by everyone then it should also avoid it spilling into the next game and possibly derailing it or drawing comparisons between the two.

So, to conclude:

A one shot session should be fun, not stressful. For the GM, it’s important to be well prepared with the story and have a decent understanding of the most common rules. Try and have a story and system/style that match each other well and keep the game flowing and moving. Don’t worry about doing it by the book, just keep it fun. Finally? Talk about it, find out what everyone thought and if it’s going to be a system visited again and if you didn’t enjoy the system then hopefully you still had fun round a table with some friends and throwing some strange polyhedrals at a table and getting excited over the numbers on them like every other session.


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  1. shortymonster

    Our gaming society tends to spend a few weeks every year doing just this, with another period later in the university term when the games have started to wind down when people get to try new things out, but might not want to limit themselves to only one session. A quick taste of what people can expect this year: http://www.hugs-site.co.uk/forum/index.php?topic=1506.msg22001#msg22001

    As you can see, there’s a nice mix of classics and new, with a few people taking the time to try out their own new games.

  2. Jesse

    This was greatly useful in getting my Brian to process eventually running a one-shot in a different system. My group (The Dragon Fisters, if you’re not aware of this) is primarily D&D 3rd edition/Pathfinder and we’ve been like that for the last handful of years. However, we’ve attempted to stray into other areas with Gamma World and Burning Wheel – though it’s hard to get into other systems when RPGs are getting so expensive now a days.

    With the advent of PDFs though, I’m thinking that it’s going to start getting a bit easier, and especially with websites like Drivethru it is getting even easier to get ahold of these games now (even easier with the gift certificate given to my player Kelli for your birthday!).

    And something that I never really thought about before, but is a great help – Pre-written campaigns. I think that we really need to start looking into these, if only just to sharpen our teeth on a new system. THANKS!

  3. Steve

    Shorty, always nice to see. Must be a good way of getting any newer member to mix and get to know a variety of existing members as well as a chance to mix things up and let people try their hand if they want to. Feel free to shoot us some details if you want me to try and poke Liz and/or Mike into a shout-out for you guys in the next Looking For Group!

    Jesse, glad to hear you found it useful! I know when I’ve looked at possible systems the cost’s been a major factor for me in deciding how many of my ever-growing wishlist to acquire and consider so pdfs and quick-starts are great for me.
    With the pre-written campaigns and modules, I’ve always found it useful when starting a new system just to get a feel for it. I think to do it well, it’s about the same amount of work between planning and playing as you have to have a good knowledge of what’s going to happen to avoid anything you do on the fly messing stuff up later on. With Legend of the Five Rings and a Call of Cthulhu campaign I ran (set on the Titanic for a good portion of it) I started off with modules and pre-written stuff until I found my feet even though I always knew I was going to go my own way in the end. Having said that, sometimes a pre-written adventures just the right sort of fun 😉

    1. Jesse

      I’ve actually been looking into the L5R (Mainly from all of the geeky weeks by Mike). I’m curious if you have any suggestions as to a good starting module, or even if this system is worth dipping into for a one-shot?

      1. Steven

        I’ve got two suggestions for you Jesse for good places to start.

        The first is the Topaz Championship (http://www.kazenoshiro.com/forge/1/TopazTournament.pdf) and the site it’s hosted on, Kaze no Shiro, has a host of other adventures and so forth as well (http://www.kazenoshiro.com/rpg/unofficial-content/l5r-rpg-adventures/). The things I like about the Topaz Championship are that it’s designed for starting characters and near forces well rounded characters as there will be hunting, horsemanship, weapons, games, poetry, tests of knowledge and more. It’s also got a lot of suggestions for small evening/down time scenarios using the NPCs that’re statted in the adventure. The downsides for me are that you don’t get a selection of pre-generated characters for the players to use and some of the challenges (particularly the Lore/Knowledges challenge) just aren’t as fun as the others to actually play or run. On either side of it, it’s more likely to take two sessions than one session but that’s really for you to decide if it’s a pro or a con.

        The second option I can think of was a Free RPG Day module, Legacy of Disaster (http://rpg.drivethrustuff.com/product/85888/Legacy-of-Disaster). I’ve not ran Legacy but Mike ran it with the same group we usually have minus myself as I couldn’t attend that week (hence the one-shot) and it seemed to go quite well. It”s got a big selection of pregenerated characters (one shugenja and one bushi/warrior for each of the great clans) but that might be a hindrance if you have multiple people wanting to play the same clan. It should also fit nicely into one session as well but I don’t have anything more specific for Legacy as I’ve not actually experienced it for myself but Mike may be able to help possibly with that module.

        I’d say it’s worth dipping into. The most difficult part (and most rewarding too) is getting used to the fact that it’s a very different mindset as Mike’s said on the podcast before. It’s very much about the good of family, clan and empire over yourself and that can be quite a difference to get used to within one session. If your players do though, it’s 110% worth it.

        1. Jesse

          Thanks a ton (or kilo, however you guys say it)! I’ll definitely check both of these out and maybe rope my group into playing a campaign.

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