I and some friends are determined to try for this winter running only one-shots.

  • rotating the GM for each one
  • different characters each time
  • the adventure must be completed in a single session
  • one session per weekend
  • moderate length sessions - 6 hours not counting the breaks
  • try out different genres from historical through fantasy to steampunk
  • probably a variety of systems and/or systemless
  • goal is just "to have fun" and play different things in a short format instead of same-thing-every-week campaigns

I have done only a remotely similar thing a couple of times, for under an hour, in a pub in order to demonstrate the hobby to others. So it is not the same at all.

I have some GM experience, the others have limited RP experience, but great imagination.

So any tips from persons with similar experience would be quite helpful. I wouldn't like to spend a whole season finding out all the ways that this doesn't work.

What plot structure(s) work well for one-shots? How does the GM ensure that the end of the day the story will be complete, and not abandoned in the middle for lack of time?

For example,

The characters should know each other beforehand. The first hour should be allocated to gradual arising of a problem. Next, an obvious solution should be offered to the players, which however causes mayhem. Next a reminder shall be offered that some small fact about one character's past, told in the first hour, is a solution. If time is running out, this shall be more and more bluntly "hinted" by the GM. Half an hour shall be reserved for an epilogue.


3 Answers 3


I've run and written con games. I just ran a six hour one-shot of the Feng Shui starter scenario for my group. The biggest thing is making sure there's a fulfilling experience in the time allotted. Here's things to do and to watch out for to run successful one-shots, the "Five P's."


You want to either provide pregens or have people do chargen ahead of time, if they have the patience for that. Even games that boast fast chargen, it's eating into your time.

Know the game you're going to run, know the adventure you're going to run. In other formats, if you fumble around in one session you can just pick up in another. In the one shot format, anything you do that's not "running the game efficiently" harms the experience.

If it's a new system to your players, try to get them to read something on it ahead of time. Like for my Feng Shui one shot, I put a rules summary PDF they provide in our Dropbox for them to read (they didn't of course).


Different games have different activities take different amounts of time. You don't want to stick to one plot format as it gets boring - I got turned off of RPGA Living games because all the adventures, to fit into the 4 hour slot format and meet XP goals, ended up having an extremely formulaic "2 fights 1 puzzle 1 rp scene" format. The less you understand the game and/or the more variance there is on how long it takes things to happen, the less well you'll be able to plan for the slot.


There's no "one" plot just like there's no "one" short story construction. You'll want a variety of plot types, too much of the same thing will turn people off (and won't really show off the different genres). "You should have a problem arising for the first hour..." is something you should do once, don't repeat yourself. Event based adventures are the best to fit into the format; you can have timed events happen at designated times regardless of the players being "ready." Puzzles are the worst; players can spend 1 to 100 minutes arguing and wrangling. Freeform roleplay can always just fill the time allotted. Sandbox can be good or bad - if the entire point is to just wander around and do some stuff, it's fine, if you have some goal in mind then sandbox may well push you way out of your time slot.

Other plot types, you should prepare for in terms of connecting one scene to the other and having contingencies so that you can cut pretty much all but about 3 scenes. You can safely rely on 3 scenes being must haves in a 6 hour slot, and 6 being the most reasonable, and if you have 6 then you need a contingency to cut up to 3 of them and have things make sense. Watch the clock and know "OK we're in hour 4 and we're in teh middle of scene 3; I need to cut scenes 4 and 5."

In short form adventures like this, don't waste time screwing around or being too precious. Too many twists and turns, or waiting too long to reveal what's really going on or who's really the bad guy, can be a turnoff. If you're playing Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Night's Black Agents as a one shot, if you only interact with vampires in the last scene, you're not really giving people what they expect out of that single dose.


Most of this an experienced GM can handle easily with timing. As you watch the clock, you can accelerate (or, more infrequently, decelerate) the action by brusquer roleplay, "a guy with a gun busting in through the door," opponents in combat breaking morale, use of speedier rather than slower tactics (entangle and summon? There goes 3 hours). The specifics depend on your game system but it's the same technique. Spin out detail as long as you're on time; cut to the chase, cut bits, cut scenes when you're not.


Know your players and how many there are. More players means more time per person and more complexity and you'll get through less content. Specific people may be fast or slow by nature. You can try to mitigate the slower ones in whatever way covers over their particular damage but in general you just have to account for it. "Oh, Chuck's in this session, I'm going to have to Taser him to get any roleplay scene to stop."


Above, mxyzplk has already commented on a lot of points. Here some more. And although they are only indirectly linked to how your stories and plots will develop I still think they are important in the sense of making sure you spend your precious time where it is actually needed -- driving the story and advancing the plot.

Character creation

I would absolutely advise you to use pre-generated characters, which are tailored by the GM to fit into the story. Character generation will eat too much time for one-shots, and asking the players to create chars in advance will not be easy:

  • Not everyone will have the time and leisure to do this every week
  • Changing systems and settings will lead to a big overhead in terms of explaining people how the char generation specifically works each time.
  • Fitting player-created chars into a story always requires some introduction overhead, which will eat into the time you'd probably rather spend on driving the plot.

Something we tend to fall back on is for the GM to create a greater set of characters than needed (say 7 chars for 3-4 players) and then let the players pick one each. Or if that leads to discussions among your players, have them draw chars at random (potentially with the option to redraw if they're really unhappy).


Unless you have a system at hand which your players are already used to applying to all kinds of different settings, I'd suggest you pic a new one: a small, ad-hoc, and very basic system you can reuse for all the different sessions and settings.

This has several advantages:

  • Using a new system will separate the players from old habits and other preconceived notions they might have about the systems you used so far for, say, high fantasy, sci-fi or the like.
  • Especially for newer and more RP-inexperienced players, short easy-go-grasp systems can be a huge help in getting into the vibe of actually role playing. Especially if the play with veterans, complex systems -- which the others, due to lots of experience, use and apply without giving them much thought -- can be overwhelming and confusing.
  • As you're talking about one-shots, stats development, exping, etc. is not really an issue, i.e. best left out entirely. Also any health/damage system can easily be handled by the GM taking notes on the state of chars, as the ~6 hours of play will probably not stretch over weeks and months of in-game time, so you're essentially stuck with any injuries you get.

Note: it can still be interesting to switch up systems, especially if your style of play will differ greatly between sessions: say, pulp-adventure-shooting-action vs. horror-intrigue-investigative setups. Also it is of course totally feasible to expand any characters/story lines you grow to like into more fully developed campaigns, and potentially translate the characters into more fitting and complex rule systems.


Most of the 1-shots I run are 3-4 hours in length and go well.

Probably the three biggest hurdles for time are this:

Managing conflicts/combats and how long they take

Playing a game where fight is resolved in 5 minutes vs. 90 minutes determines how many fights you want to fit into the game. Although I'm thinking of combat as the usual time-sink it could be other forms of extensive mechanical juggling as well.

Getting the players oriented and aimed at a goal

"Who are we, what are we trying to do?" answer those two questions, and you've skip the really bad game habit of trying to convince the characters to do something interesting. Probably one of the best examples is the game Lady Blackbird - you have an immediat problem, and all of the characters have motivations and relationships built in.


Then there's just making sure things move at a quick enough clip. Don't hide things, don't make clue trails ("I have to find out X to find out Y to find out Z"), don't make puzzles, and make sure players don't have to guess what directions are probably going to be interesting. Games whose mechanics easily allow for improvisation work well, along with clear problems and clear motivations.


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