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I want to get some of my friends into roleplaying by running a self-contained single-session game with them rather than an actual campaign opener (for lack of a better term, I'll refer to this sort of game as a 'one-off'). However, I have no experience in writing this sort of scenario, and while I'm confident that I can take the techniques I use in campaign scenarios and try to use common sense to figure out how to apply them to a one-off, I thought I'd ask for some advice from people who have already done so.

How is writing a good one-off different from writing a good campaign scenario? Any advice for what I should put more effort into (quick immersion in the action) and what I should diminish or remove entirely (exploring the characters' goals)? What makes for a good one-off that might not be initially apparent to someone who has never written one before? What should I expect to be different when running a single-scenario game with new people and how should I react to/plan for it?

It is more than fine if you use examples from systems in your answers, but please try to focus on principles that apply to any system as opposed to the intricacies of a particular one.

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This is going to be hard to answer usefully without knowing what you consider standard for a "campaign opener". What's standard for one GM is unheard of to another! –  SevenSidedDie May 21 '12 at 2:42

7 Answers 7

Your one shot game has to complete itself. It needs a distinct beginning, middle, and end that will all take place in the same ~4-8 hour session. While obvious, this is actually a pretty big deal since a lot of what happens in the game can be considered filler from a storyline perspective. What I mean is that when you're running a campaign, you might have the players fight all the guards in that should be in the dungeon. When you're planning that campaign, it doesn't really matter how long those fights take. But if your one shot only has time for 3 fights, you don't want them all to be the same fight. You will need to be more judicious with what sorts of mechanical filler you include in the game.

I would also recommend skipping past the initial hook. Just tell the players the premise and have them bring characters that accept that premise. There's no point spending 30 of your limited minutes trying to convince the characters that this is a quest they want to go on. Alternatively, use premade characters. There's no shame in this, especially in a one shot game where the players don't have to develop the characters. Save character development for your campaign.

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Think about how to structure a movie or short story instead of a long running series or book. Commentary on DVDs are a great source of insight as to how and why things are the way they are on movies -- some are, of course, better than others. The main question to ask yourself is "How does this scene furthers the plot?". If the answer is not immediately obvious, ditch the scene. In additions, remember that however much time you think things will take, it will take longer -- this is a recursive rule: even taken it into considerations, it takes longer.

I would have a pre-generated character for the player as well. That way, you are sure that the adventure will be something that the character fits well. Of course, you can tailor the pre-gen to the player's expectations.

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For a one-off, treat it as a short story, rather than a chapter of a trilogy or an episode of a TV series. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Self-contained story. Its plot must resolve to everyone's satisfaction. It's ok if a thread or two are left dangling, but the main story must end.
  2. Pick a central theme of your adventure, which can be summed up in a word or two: power corrupts; betrayal; strangers among us. Without necessarily overtly stating it, have your scenes illustrate different aspects of the theme.
  3. Be concise. Cut out anything that doesn't directly advance the story or imparts crucial information. Be prepared to move things along if players get stalled or go off the map.
  4. Just like valadil says, have the characters involved from the start, if necessary stating they have already been hired, embarked on the quest, etc.
  5. Provide the characters with motivations, and tie them to the plot. If possible, make it their story, not a story they stumble into. In general, avoid making characters' goals opposed to each other, at least until the end. You don't want your players to spend the whole game arguing at the starting point, instead of actually going through the adventure. You may also want to use pregens, but that depends on your group's preferences.
  6. If possible, provide each character with a meaningful turning point, a question they'll have to answer. Does the paladin punish the repentant thief? Does the wizard pocket a book of dark magic?

Some of these points can be ignored if you're after an old-fashioned dungeon crawl.

There is another aspect to your question though: what makes a good introductory adventure? Again, in dot-point form:

  1. Avoid scenarios which require setting knowledge or lengthy exposition. The players won't have the first, and won't care for the second as it requires a lot of investment, and they may not play this game ever again.
  2. Let the players win. Keep the fights easy and mysteries light. Deadly ambushes and diabolical machinations can come later, once they're hooked.
  3. Find out what sort of plot they're interested in, and do that. Quite often, beginning players base their characters on their favourite character from some other media, be that Batman or Conan. This is a callback to point 5 from the previous list: if a player really wants to play Batman and hunt criminals, make up a plot that not only lets them do this, but is built around it.
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+1 This is pretty much my answer expended... –  Sardathrion May 21 '12 at 7:47
    
+1 for all the points I was going to raise and several more. –  Rob May 21 '12 at 15:55
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+1 for point 4. Being hired to do a job is usually not a good use of game time. Learn a lesson from Star Wars - start off with action in progress; explain why during the scene, not before. In a one-shot your game minutes are a precious resource; use every one to effect. –  Tynam Jul 29 '12 at 20:28

Even in a one-off, consider leaving a few dangling plot threads. Some players aren't interested in the role playing so much as the story itself, and they are more likely to return this way.

And if they do, you'll already have a starting point for their first little campaign...

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A very good point indeed but those may detract from the main plot thus adding time to the game. Also, players do not see the difference between relevant plot points and future plot threads so can mistaken one for the other. –  Sardathrion May 21 '12 at 9:17

This is more to the campaign part of the question than the single shot. When writing for a campaign make sure that the Player Characters (PCs) feel they are making a impact. For example the players first real adventure in the campaign was to stop the orcs from raiding the town.

At some point down the road if they go through the town comment on how it has prospered since the PCs did a good deed. Maybe the innkeeper lets them stay for half rate because of what they have done. This can work in other ways, a person that the PCs may have slighted or cheated may have been planning for this day and now has resources to may the PCs lives interesting.

Another thing is a one-shot you can get away with railroading characters. In a campaign this tactic may not work so well. Your PCs are their own people and may get off doing their own thing that may or may not be part of the overall campaign. I ran into one time as a PC, we found out that a the town the party was in did not have a item we where looking for (in this case it was poisons). So we decided to ask the locals the location of any near by towns. The DM was very adamant that this was the only town for hundreds of miles. However the party had passed a town 2 days ago (we where on horseback), we all knew something was fishy. So the party decided to just head out in a direction in hopes of finding a town when we got hit by a snowstorm where the DM told us that only choice was going back to town. We countered once again in the town in question was having its Mid-Summer festival the following week.

As you can see its good to realize that PCs will go and do their own thing, however this can provide numerous chances to create new adventures and plot hooks. Feel free to leave open ends since the PCs may decide they really don't care why the blacksmith was selling weapons for so cheap.

Lastly balance your DMing responsibles with real life. Don't burn yourself out on designing the perfect campaign. If you have a good group they will understand that if you burn yourself out the campaign will suffer

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The rules I use for one shots:

  1. Use a terrain that prevents the characters from leaving the scene. A ship on high sea, a manor in the middle of a heavy storm, a very small town ... Or make sure that the players can't / won't leave in other ways ("Your family will die if you don't solve it.")
  2. In doubt: Railroad everything. Be prepared that the players don't get the point or ignore it intentionally, the show must go on and press the players into action again.
  3. If you lost the track inside the session for whatever reason, have a dues-ex-machine ready to bring it back onto them. ("The sea is covered with fuel and the cigarette you just throw away sets it on fire, you have to return to the ship.")
  4. Use precreated characters or don't use character sheets at all and drop all the 'rules' stuff. Whats possible will work most of the time.
  5. Don't give your players super characters, they will abuse them.
  6. New players tend to try to break the scene (just to see if it works). Have an exterior power prevent them from doing so. Bend the story if necessary.
  7. Bring the action to the players and don't expect them to look out for it.

I usually have my one shots in a simple yet mysterious world (so, modern technology is available, but ghosts, the bermuda triangle, whatever is present somehow), that makes it easier to force the story on the players.

That said there are more or less three types of new-players:

  1. The ones that like stories and will accept that you lead / railroad them through the story.
  2. The story-bored ones that don't care so much, they are best satisfied with some cheap fun or one nice combat where they can see the inner workings of the system.
  3. The ones that challenge everything and anything for the sake of it. They won't have a lot of fun with the concepts above but won't break it for everyone else.

Players like 1. and 2. can become role players, 3. won't become a role player anyway, don't let yourself be disturbed by their deconstructionism.

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For a one-shot, here's what I like to do.

Simple, Clear Goals

Set up a simple goal. At no point should the players be stuck for ideas of what to do next - they might be debating between a few options, but never at a loss or scraping for clues. "Find the vampire, kill it." "Convince the king to join the alliance." etc.

As the GM, you should write down a single sentence or question that defines when the scenario is over - "Do the heroes escape?" "Who controls the throne?" etc.

Quicksheets

A simple front and back sheet detailing the most basic rules so the players can reference it during play. It also serves as a guide when you're explaining the rules. It's short enough people can skim it during breaks or while someone else's turn is going on.

Pre-gen characters

All of the PCs should have good reason to be involved.

All the PCs should already know each other. If it's a scenario in which they should be at odds, you should give them personal reasons to be at odds (conflicting goals, grudges, etc.). If it's a scenario in which they should be working together, give them all positive relationships to each other.

The scenario should be able to work even if the players don't play all of the PCs. Ideally, no individual PC should be required for this to work. Identify the minimum number of players you'll need, though.

Mechanically, make all of the characters solid builds. My general rule is make them 80% good- solid enough to hold their own, not totally tricked out or min-maxed. Not only does totally optimized characters make for harder balancing in play, they're also harder for players unfamiliar with a system to use. Also try to avoid the more complicated subsystems if you can.

I will usually write a few sentences of "How to play this character" with regards to mechanics - "So and so is a melee fighter, you want to get in close. Use her Thunderfist power when the enemy crowds up." Just enough so someone can have a basic idea of what this character plays like.

Scene Framing

Pacing a one-shot is tricky. You have to ruthlessly cut scenes when they start to drag, even cut straight to the climax if need be. I typically run one-shots of 2-3 hours, though I've done 1 hour to 90 minute games as well. Mostly, you have to figure out how things are looking at the 50% mark of your timeframe and kick things into gear.

One thing is that if your game is hard to improvise for (like encounter-balancing, etc), just tell the players, "Hey, we're going to play straight linearly, since this is a one shot" and then you can skip them trying to figure out what to do. If the game is easy to improvise for, just drive your scenes towards answering that conclusion sentence/question you wrote down at the beginning of this process.

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