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Here's the situation: I've got a group of people interested in getting together for a fantasy roleplaying game, with me as their GM. This particular group hasn't all gamed together before, we're using a ruleset that most of them aren't familiar with, and I'd like to try out a new setting on them. Yeah, that's a lot of new stuff to try at once.

Instead of trying to get everyone to commit to participating in some grand campaign, I'd like to start by running a one-session adventure. If it goes well and everyone has a good time, we'll keep going from there, making it into a campaign. If we're not interested in continuing it, we'll just call it a day and leave it as a fun one-off.

What's the best way to go about making this kind of scenario? Are there any particular dangers I should worry about?

A few notes:

  • We're using some simple, story-focused rules.
  • Combat is ok, but we don't want to spend the whole game on it.
  • The setting is a pre-modern fantasy world, low in magic (so any magic they find is more interesting).
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7 Answers 7

up vote 4 down vote accepted
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Pitching a Campaign

In some senses, your one-timer will be written as a showcase game - intended to excite the players about the system and the setting and the campaign, and entice them to explore them further.

A crucial part of a showcase is identifying the key elements you want to convey. You need to figure out what your selling points are - the things you think will convince players the game is cool and fun and worthwhile - and also what you consider the core elements - pieces of the game that are central and important and constantly present, the ones that define the style and setting of the game.

Some examples of key elements could include:

  • A D&D game might have strong focus on battle tactics, and a wide variety of surprising strategic scenarios. Or, it could be lighter on the mechanics and focus on high-adventure plots and finding lots of cool, powerful magic items. Clearly, if you intended your game to follow one focus, you wouldn't want the showcase to highlight the other instead.
  • Primetime Adventures is a game that can run in all kinds of genres and styles, but what I like about it most is that it's great for running tense interpersonal drama. So whenever I showcase PTA, I always make sure to specifically choose a setting with lots of tightly-connected characters working at cross-purposes to each other, with potential for tense conflicts.
  • If you had a steampunk setting, you'd want to get a few steampunk tropes in right at the start. If your campaign would be about battling the undead, you wouldn't want the showcase to be about training in Fighters' Academy with no undead skeletons anywhere around.

Once you know your crucial core elements, you can view those as constraints - those are what you'll want to build the adventure around.

A Good One-Timer

To work well in its own right, you want this to be a good one-timer, too. The key here is to make sure the game's fun right away, not relying on buildup to something that comes later.

You'll have to figure for yourself what the awesome, fun parts of your game are. Make sure everybody's got cool, enjoyable stuff to do; don't let any player fall by the wayside unless they're really not getting on well with the game.

Avoid, at all costs, constraining the players in accordance with any plots and plans you have about the campaign. Those considerations have no place in a one-timer - they don't have "well, this'll work out better in the long run" to balance them out.

Don't sweat minutiae of the setting or the system (unless you enjoy that). The game should be easy to get into - pre-written characters, with the GM running most of the mechanical side because the players don't know it yet. It's often helpful to provide a prose introduction to each pregen character's personality and abilities - because this is much easier to grasp then a full (and unfamiliar) character sheet.

Be sure to provide players with (at least) a default possible course of action. They don't know the setting yet, they don't know the system or everything they're capable of - so "You're a mob gang; somebody's just killed Jimmy the Kid - GO!" can really belly flop. "Someone's killed Jimmy - and if anybody can tell you who, it's Hysterectomy Sam" gives the players an initial direction until they're solid enough to have their own courses of action to pursue.

Tying Them Together - Structure

Since you want to sell the campaign AND have a good one-timer, you'll need a narrative structure that allows both. Here are some suggestions; obviously, some of them will be more appropriate then others, depending on the particular type of gameplay and campaign arc you're aiming for.

  • Short Story: If your campaign arc is like a novel, or a series, you might be able to come up with a short-story scope as well - a complete story/adventure, just at a smaller, simpler, more modest scope. Not "journey across the sea of flame to discover the secret weakness of our terrible extraplanar overlord," but "rescue a prisoner the overlord's keeping in a prison made of echoing crystal." Same feel, narrow scope. Some game types are naturally broken up into small missions and sessions with clear beginnings and endings - e.g. Paranoia missions, police investigations, dungeon crawls. This might be a simple solution. Then afterwards, if they go for the campaign, you can break out the epic.
  • Origin Story: One option is to use the first session as type of "origin story," in which the characters gain newfound powers. This is very typical of urban fantasy games like the various White Wolf titles or Unknown Armies - the first game has the characters discovering the fantastical world, and gaining new, exciting powers with which to take their place in it. Similarly, the idea of a group of heroes getting their start by discovering some great revelation or gaining magical powers works nicely as an intro.
  • Adventurers Assemble: Much in the same vein, a "how the group is formed" game works well as a one-shot and naturally leads into a larger game. This could be something like "the king summons us all, declares us a team, and sends us out on our first mission," or "we're a bunch of slaves and we band together to escape." This type of structure demands a clear goal for the first game, and some process throughout the session which forges the group into, well, a group.
  • Prologue: In books, you'll often have a short prologue - a story-like piece which focuses on some unknown characters, which is connected to the main story, but "off to one side," showing us some specific aspect of the world and plot. A one-shot can work really well as a prologue, and this way you can make the most of not being committed to regular characters yet. The one-shot could have characters facing off against the main villain (and being killed at the end!), or non-adventurer researchers making a cool discovery with dangerous side-effects (which the heroes will use, or deal with, in the main narrative). Come up with an "also happening in the game world..." idea; it'll be a lot less epic than your main plot, and it'll be an opportunity to showcase cool things that the main campaign might take a few weeks to build up too. The main thing to watch out for here is straying too far from the tone you intend for the campaign - e.g. if you're having an action-heavy robot-hunting campaign, then a story about the scientists who activated the first evil AI would be cool in an anthology or as a DVD bonus, but it wouldn't be a good introduction to the story all on its own. Most particularly, in a one-off you can kill off all your PCs, but don't do it in such a way that it sets a morbid, despairing tone unless that's what you want.
  • In Media Res: In some games, you can get away with running a one-shot that explicitly takes place in the middle of the action, not at the beginning, not even on the side. Consider: if I wanted to demonstrate D&D to someone who knew nothing about it - would I want him playing a 1st level character clearing out rats for a farmer? Or would a better demonstration be a 6th level mage who's already got some fireballs to sling? Similarly, if your story's beginning is likely to be weak - you don't want to focus on the beginning. Throw them into the middle of the action, the intrigue, the excitement. You say "pretend a whole bunch of stuff has happened already; this is what the middle of the game would be like." You can't always get away with this - if you're relying on good understanding of the system and the setting mid-way, this just plain-out won't work. But if a session from halfway in would be kind of like watching a random midway episode of most TV shows - perfectly enjoyable, even if there are a few loose ends and unclear references - that might be a better path to exciting players than running a run-of-the-mill pilot from before the series hits its stride.

Hope this helps!

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For this, I usually look for inspiration at series episodes. You'll notice how many good series intersperse "breather" episodes between their "arc story" episodes. Still, those breather episodes always carry small hooks to the main plot, or maybe they introduce new characters, new situations...

  • add into the session things that, looked up front don't seem to mean much, but that you can expand into your plans. Things like organizations, enemies, cities, treasure. The monster of the session can escape after the climactic battle. This leaves everyone wanting more, and you have a good excuse to reintroduce him later. The Asmodeus cabal the heroes face is just the first inkling of a major menace. The vorpal sword just isn't in the chest, or is broken, furthering the plot (this message is sponsored by McGuffin, Inc).
  • Add details that are both a touch of color and can expand into more. For example, the mention that the menace comes from the witchlight fens gives a bit of character to it, but also can mean that that's the origin of something much worse, that can be expanded later.

The only danger I can think of is that you don't want to overpromise. Let the big bad of the session be the big bad, don't save it for later. Be prepared to sacrifice him if making him escape is unbelievable. And be ready to adapt your plans if that happens. Maybe he was only the second in command.

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Another idea is to use pre-gen characters for a one off before the players and yourself are familiar with the rule set. Then you can either make real characters or continue with the pre-gen.

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I find the esiest way to do this is to find your system first, this may alter your desicions later on

I recommend Lady blackbird if you have a small amount of experience as a GM lends itself well to story games, as part of the system they have to think about what things are most important to their character (and as a bonus characters can't die encouraging them to go big)

Unfortunatly it may not work for you long term, you would also have to make your own setting or translate the setting but so far I have found this to take very little work

Also before you start listen to some of the Actual play podcast there are a lot of them out there it shows you how a game systems runs which is very important

Have you desided a Theme? Fantasy is still very broad work out what you can run best, polictical intrigue, War, etc. You may need to talk this through with your characters

Now on to the important stuff

I find the best way to write a one shot into a bigger campaign is to think that way You are in a village getting attacked by the goblin horde Ziggy-Zog lead by Ziggy-Zog himself ... The characters to protect the village must find a way to defeat Ziggy-Zog when they do finally defeat him they find that he was just a pawn in a much bigger scheme. Your characters feel like they have acheived something whilst offering them more

This forumla can be employed different ways like the land being sick and that find some monster is causing it but when they beat him they find that the monster is just sick himself and not the cause.

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Thanks for the suggestions about Lady Blackbird, it's a very interesting-looking system -- though we've already got a system in mind. –  Joe Nov 11 '11 at 0:48
    
Use Lady blackbird as an intro so that players can decide the important things about there characters So that when your ready for your game they already know what they want Also not dying big bonus –  Ax Kidson Nov 13 '11 at 23:35
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@AxKidson It looks to me that the focus is on trying the game. If your intro is Lady Blackbird or Microscope or Kingdom it's not useful to see if they like the gaming system and so they need another session to discdover that, with the same issues presented here. How do Joe builds an adventure that leaves space for new things but is autoconclusive (so if they don't like the system they can drop it)? –  Zachiel Aug 21 '13 at 10:44

When I've done this before, I look at the example of a television series. During the first season, they have a 'pilot' or a short season.

With that in mind, I usually hit these points:

  1. Plan for an arc that will be resolved during the scenario, so that even if the game doesn't continue, you have closure. To this point, make the final conflict the final conflict with that particular threat, so that the heroes have an accomplishment under their belt.
  2. Plant seeds for things that could come to fruition, but don't distract from the goals of the immediate mission. Rumors, hints of other threads/threats, other enemies of the big bad that will take notice of those that took him down.
  3. As much as possible, try to give the players a tour of the campaign and the rules. Hit the major parts that stick out to you, and see how the players respond. If you continue, you then have an idea of what they like and what didn't seem to sit well with them for further planning.
  4. Be very willing to make a decision and move on, preferably erring on the players' side. When starting a new system there is the temptation to try to work every bit out, but avoid that if at all possible. Erring on the players side helps to reduce their dissatisfaction in most cases, and it can be cleaned up if you decide to continue.
  5. Pay special attention to time during combat. When first starting a system, players will sometimes get analysis paralysis over their options, and combats can really bog down.
  6. A cheat sheet of the major rules for yourself and your players will help in a couple of ways. First, making it will help to gel certain parts of the rules and/or point out parts that you might need to read over again. Second, it gives the players something to refer to, especially in combat, to move things along. Third, it can help you during the game too.
  7. It might be interesting to start out with a benefactor- a way to get them into the action quickly, a justification of connections for a group that hasn't played together, a foil for anything that you want them to know, a way to keep the session moving along, and a connection to the world-at-large if you continue.
  8. Leave a lot of room for the characters and you to maneuver later. Don't go a lot into the background of the characters or the world (that tour bit I was saying earlier). It makes you more adaptable, and can make it more appealing to the players if they get a chance to have an effect on the world-at-large.

In the end, invest in the scenario more than the background, and the immediate characters more than their history. Focus will help put the system and the setting on trial.

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I did this recently to introduce some new players to Call of Cthulhu and wrote the process up on my blog (link to one-shot details). The core premise was similar: a one session scenario to explore key elements of the game, which if enjoyed by the group, could lead on to other things.

My process for this type of thing is this:

System

  • Plan to touch on elements of the game system which make it special, whatever they are
  • Use the system in question. Simplify it if necessary for reasons of time or complexity
  • Do not shy away from having encounters of different types just to take the system itself out for a walk. Some players respond best to the setting and story elements, others to the system elements so make sure to feature both
  • If the system is new to you as well as the players, practice beforehand on system elements that you find to be difficult or that have stages you may have trouble remembering when in play. Use 1 of the players for this if you can so that you are not the only one in the room who knows what you are talking about on game day (practice a ranged battle, or grappling, or social combat, or free-form spell-casting, etc)
  • Use the characters intended for the one-shot in your practice runs
  • Write notes on the different systems, but do not expect to be able to find the right note at the right time. Write out the process with the book, then write out a flowchart from memory and check it against the book, then prepare a small cheat sheet, but expect to have to go without it. Murphy loves attending game day.
  • Unless the system is very simple (like roll 2D10 + a modifier to do anything) give the players a small cheat sheet for their character's core ability or skill, plus basic combat notes.

Scenario and Mood

  • Ensure that the scenario evokes the atmosphere and mood you intend for the campaign as a whole. Do not try to touch on all the possible moods and ranges the game covers. Show them what they can expect to experience, not the surprises that await.
  • Have clearly established goals for each character which are complimentary and which will be reinforced by their character sheet, the intro to the session, and are in harmony with how you envision the campaign as a whole
  • Provide resolution at the end of the session, but leave them wanting more

  • Have several stages in the scenario where you can "skip to the end" in case certain stages take too long, or the mood is pitched just right to end on a high note.

Characters

  • Use pregenerated characters with broad backgrounds suitable for inspiring players to make their own characters after the one-shot with juicy ties or links to the pre-gens, but that are interesting enough in their own right to entice players to continue on in those roles.
  • Design the pregens to fit well together dramatically (they don't need to like each other, they just need to need each other)
  • provide the necessary skills to resolve the problem facing the group within your allotted time frame
  • provide complimentary, but not identical motivations and goals that urge the characters on toward a timely resolution of the problem, which spark memorable game play, and bring out social aspects of the setting in a more organic way than reading the back cover of the game or getting a long intro spiel.
  • Be ready and willing to explain how skills and traits work in the game as things occur so that no time is wasted lecturing before the game, trying to remember the lecture in the game, and wondering what to do instead of enjoying the dramatic tension of events.
  • Ensure that the pre-gens, and any replacement characters they inspire in the players have a seamless connection to the campaign plot seeds the one-shot plants in their minds.
  • Provide written, point form backgrounds for the players to use to get into the pregens, and get the interconnections between each character established early on so that they can create the banter and communication that feeds memorable sessions

Cautions

  • It can be tempting to try and generate enthusiasm by talking about the game instead of playing it. Just play it.
  • It can slow things down and drain fun if rules need to be explained often, or in detail. Build the pregens to have the tools to reasonably try to handle what they face, ensure the methods of handling problems are not obscure and quickly intervene to clarify if players miss the connection of the traits on their sheet to the problems in the story,
  • do not load the dice in their favour - let them earn their victory or their defeat. As a lead in, victory is not required. Failure turns the intro session into a prologue which adds spice and revenge to the campaign lead in. Don't fear it, use it.
  • The pace is important, and it is vital to avoid looking things up, or searching for things while players wait. In an established system and group, this is much less of a problem, but when you are trying to introduce a group to a new system + setting + group, the common ground they have to chit-char about is NOT the game you are running. Keep the pace moving, establish the mood and keep it, and run with the story.
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It has been a few years since I have done this but here are a few additional thoughts - many of the suggestions here are really good.

I think you have a number of potential approaches that could all work.

One approach would be to design a completely standalone "intro to the world and rule system" adventure where the focus is on the rules and the setting and not ont he player's characters. In this approach I would strongly encourage a balanced mix of Pre-generated characters - and set the expectations of the players that for the first game you are NOT forcing them to play with the pregenerated characters if the campaign continues - but are using the pre-generated characters to get the game going quickly (and perhaps avoid complicated sections of the given rule system).

You will then focus on building a story for the first session that illustrates the major elements of the world you will be using and the rule system. This however assumes that you as the DM have the world built (or are using an established world from somewhere). A few examples to consider would be how the Pathfinder Society does their "season 0" scenarios - which are designed to get players quickly introduced to the world setting and the Pathfinder Society continuing campaign. (those are, however, designed so that people can either play pre-generated characters or play their own characters)

A completely different approach, and the one I would personally use would be to make the character generation with a focus on the story and background creation the focus of the first session

This approach is what many systems such based on rulesets such as FATE use (though I haven't played them yet), as I understand something like this is used for Leverage and some other games. This approach is best if you as the DM don't have a specific plot and perhaps even world fully designed and in mind - and if all of your players are at least relatively familiar with the rule system. I would also, however, be fairly flexible if after you have played a few sessions it is clear that one or more of your players made choices in character creation that aren't enjoyable that you allow some flexibility in the future for game balance and enjoyment.

What this type of approach would involve in practice is a first game where the focus is very much on the group - on establishing both each character and their relationships with each other which will serve as the focus for the game going forward. As the gamemaster here your role will be to keep the story and interactions going - and to introduce each player to each other (though in many systems this is stuff generated by the players themselves). Hopefully by the end of such a session you will have a multitude of hooks for future ongoing stories and interactions. When you finish with character creation (which hopefully is fairly fast - this approach doesn't work so well with a game system that has a really complex character creation process) you should have a logical way to start the game and drop the players into the middle of an ongoing story.

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