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I am faced with a challenge with creating a one shot session for a couple of friends. From experience I can see that it is difficult to indulge players into setting, plot, world, characters in a single session. Even putting this aside, there is a problem of information - with no background experience of the plot and no vision of continuing, it is difficult to compress something good into this tiny timeframe.

The question can be summarized into these two points:

  1. How to prepare a plot for such session, with things like handouts, maps, illustrations, prepared descriptions, where to get good inspiration for it, etc;
  2. How to run such it to make it most enjoyable for players, both veterans and newbies;

To precise: the campaign will only be a single session, plot heavy, battle light with 3-5 players. I don't know in what system we will play, but most likely it will be DnD 3.5, The Riddle of Steel (rules light) or, perhaps, freeplay if that is concern for anybody.

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3 Answers

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Two pieces of advice:

  • Make every character and place show something specific to the setting.
  • Make one special character or place prominent through the whole session.

Everything is [This World]-ish

You don't have a lot of time, so you want to show what makes the setting interesting and unique. If religious orders are very prominent in the world, have the party stay at a monastic-run house for travellers, rather than an inn. If death magic is significant in the story, toss in an encounter with some walking undead instead of orcs or goblins. If the setting is Roman-themed, have an local clerk for the imperial administration give the party information, rather than a bartender.

The truth is that players tend to ignore dense chunks of information thrown at them. If you give them handouts with paragraphs of text, they probably won't get read.

One Important [This World]-ish Thing

Pick one character or place in the plot of this story. It could be the villain of the plot, or it could be the location the party is spending its time, or it could be an ally or patron of theirs.

Make that One Thing very grounded in the feel of the story. If the players have forgotten everything else that happened in the game session a year from now, they'll still remember the One Thing.

Let's say you're running a game with necromancy and a Central Asian feel. The villain could be some khan's personal soothsayer, a shaman who dances and drums his way around the fire to raise the skeletal remains of fallen warriors. The party meets him when they're first introduced to the khan, and the shaman goes into a trance and pronounces a curse on them. They hear the sound of his drumming in their dreams as they sleep out under the stars. They fight his skeletal warriors who whisper one word over and over again in the shaman's voice. That villain, the game's One Thing, shows up again and again to reinforce the idea of the setting.

Followup

Tell us about the setting/plot/world/characters, if you can, and I'm sure we can come up with some great ideas for how to apply these concepts to your plot.

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I don't know yet the plot. I... Suppose, it could be a bit Sherlock'ish, since the player who is the main reason of playing is a big fan on Sherlock Holmes. So, late Victorian England or so I'd say. As for the plot it is still a big enigma, but if it were the setting said above, it could be going around some kind of investigation. –  Maurycy Zarzycki Oct 27 '11 at 21:20
    
It's the spring of 1872 and Mr. Bertram Jones has just taken the morning train into London. A quick stroll through a park, past the statue of Nelson and a brass band, and he finds himself at 192 Dorset St, the offices of one Simeon Wright, esquire. He stops and adjusts his pince-nez, gathering up his courage. What did they mean, "your nature is most urgently required"? Why all the secrecy? Who is this Wright fellow, anyhow? Mr. Jones turned the knob... –  Joe Oct 27 '11 at 22:13
    
It is fascinating how many plot ideas can come up from a single paragraph. Thanks! I will forfeit from marking this answer for a couple of days as not to scare other people from answering. –  Maurycy Zarzycki Oct 27 '11 at 22:43
    
For any curious souls out there, the session was a pretty much disaster. We went with something along the lines as Joe mentioned in the comment. As unlikely as it is, two of my usual players were really nice, helpful and didn't try to make my life harder. My friend and his girlfriend, who were the main characters were the problem (they never played before). He refused to be serious, and she was probably too intimidated to play well (she is a pretty shy person). Suffice to say, they did not uncover the plot at all, though they managed to get the villain... grounded by her father :). –  Maurycy Zarzycki Nov 11 '11 at 10:08
    
Well, @MaurycyZarzycki, they can't all be a success... –  Joe Nov 11 '11 at 20:37
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Rule 1: However long you think it will take, it will take longer.

Rule 2: Even after applying rule 1, it still applies.

Rule 3: It's all about the characters. Make sure that every one of them complement the rest and have something that can be revealed about their past that will make the plot advance.

Rule 4: "Without me, you would have failed." Let all the characters be vital to the plot and all have their own heroic moment.

Rule 5: Pre-generated characters are the easiest way to deal with characters.

Rule 6: Use a common frame of reference for your world. You should be able to describe the whole world as an elevator pitch. Use common settings, common places, and common names. By common I mean something you all have in common.

Rule 7: Make the plot about one and only one thing. Sub-plots will just add too many hours of play. However, do plant one or two or three but no more plot twists.

Rule 8: What is the goal of the game? An introduction to RPG? A themed party? An explore the rules of game X? Tailor your plot to those.

Rule 9: Food. Make sure that you have it planned (Pizza/Chinese/Indian take away menu will do) so that when the game over runs you can sort it easily. Or if you have food during the game, make it part of the game.

Rule 10: Like the Pirate code, the rules are more guidelines.

Rule 11: Nothing is true, Everything is permitted!

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  1. Use a rules-light system. (Our group had the best experience concerning one shots with Call of Cthulhu.) Adding in extra stuff if you have time left is always easier than cutting stuff because you're running out of time. (Compare the length/tension level of your average DnD3.5 combat scene with that of a CoC one.)

  2. Use a world all of you know. A one shot is not the time to show off your world building skills. "You're all Imperial Storm Troopers on the Death Star and you've just seen Vader kill Kenobi, whom your characters, of course, don't know." Compare this example with introducing the peculiarities of a world you've invented.

  3. Don't use too many props. Stay focused on the plot. Do use evocative pictures instead of long-winded descriptions, though, and, if possible, use background music to establish mood. (Game soundtracks can work miracles. Go to youtube and look for your favourite game that matches the feel of the one shot you're about to run.)

  4. When building your story-plot, keep it all loose - except for the ending, which should have a twist, ideally, and should also have a "time constraint". If your one shot session lasts till five AM in the morning, the ending of your story, the closing scene should happen no later than that - but it should happen by then, no matter what. Keep the number of events leading up to that point flexible. If you're running short on time, cut some out, make shortcuts. If you've got extra time, insert some stock encounters. To stay with my previous example: "Your squad (of Storm Troopers) is the one that provided the Rebels with the plans of the Death Star. Some of you are force sensitive and got the hunch, having witnessed Kenobi's demise, that something serious is about to happen, soon. Then the loudspeakers announce that the station is about to engage and destroy the Rebel base soon... and then Kenobi's ghost appears to you and tells you that you have no more than a few hours to get off the Death Star for it will possibly be destroyed. Only you're on duty, and you're storm troopers. How do you go about escaping?" There's a definite time constraint, there's a possible ending sequence the players can visualize (the DS exploding, with them either still on it or just barely lifting off of it with a ship), and there's a number of possible complications that can hinder/help them: A skirmish or two with other squads, getting stuck in an elevator with an escaped Rebel wookie, worming their way through the bowels of the station through trash compactors and tunnels, stealing a ship or convincing some officers to send them off, evade Vader who senses their intent, free some other Rebel agents who can provide them extra help, surive getting through the battle going on when the Rebels attack the station, escape the blast... see, except for the last two, all of these are optional and can be inserted multiple times or stretched/shortened as your time permits/requires. The point is: get them to the closing scene by the time your one shot session is about to end, and only by then. And when you're there, give it all a twist, to make things more memorable: "You're just about to land with your battered cargo ship at the Rebel base when you find that someone has hidden a powerful bomb in its engine, one that could wipe out the entire base. You realize you've been used: you've been let go. What do you do? Try setting the ship's course back to orbit and jump ship? Okay, you've got five minutes to do it."

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+1 if only for the short game idea. –  Sardathrion Oct 28 '11 at 10:15
    
Great advice! Especially the part about, let me put it my way, making the session modular, so modules can be easily removed or added as the time allows –  Maurycy Zarzycki Oct 29 '11 at 9:17
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