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Some systems (like Microscope or Fiasco) are commonly used for one-shot games, that is, games that take place in a single session.

I never seem to hear of certain systems (like D&D or Dogs in the Vineyard) being used for one-shot games.

What makes a system poorly suited for one-shot games?

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    \$\begingroup\$ This question is perfectly answerable and shouldn't be closed - but MUST be answered with experience or references per good subjective, bad subjective. Expect answers that are pure opinion to be down voted and/or deleted. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Aug 3 '16 at 5:03
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There are a couple of criteria that would make a game system unsuitable for a one-shot:

  1. The game has a high learning curve and you are likely to get players who have never played
    • The World of Synnibarr is often seen as an insanely complex system that is difficult to understand (they have an equation for how hard you can exhale, for one). I'm sure there are more moderate examples, but expecting a new player to quickly grasp complex systems like this would probably mean that they won't get it and won't have a good time.
  2. The type of scenarios typically run for the system don't fit within one session
    • This is more important for when you have a limited amount of time at a convention. A typical Dungeons & Dragons 4e session involves 3 encounters over the course of four hours or so, especially if you had new players. If you have only two hours for a one-shot, then you will have to cut it short and risk creating an unsatisfying or "incomplete" game (then again, D&D Encounters, the organized play system at the time, featured one hour blocks with only one encounter planned)
  3. You want to have players create characters during game time (rather than use pregens or ask for character creation ahead of time) but that would eat up too much of the allotted time for a one shot and leave little time for playing the game
    • A friend of mine played in a game of Aces & Eights where they spent 3 out of 4 hours creating characters, when he had expected to play a scenario the whole time. Either character creation should have been advertised up front as a feature of the one-shot or a system with faster character creation should have been chosen (or just used pregens).

In pretty much all of these cases, there are ways to make a system still work in a one-shot. I've played one-shots where we've ignored half the rules to lower the learning curve and speed up the gameplay. I've played games where half the time was spent making characters, but that was advertised in the description and players were interested in seeing how that worked.

I don't know that there is any system that is truly ill-suited for a one-shot. It's really just the expected type of scenario that might be.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I've always found character creation to be the biggest limiting factor. If you want to do a quick pick-up game, something like D&D char creation can take upwards of an hour for anything more complicated than a lvl 1 character with no splat books. Pregens are limiting to players and can be a lot of work for the GM (unless they are pulled from online or something) \$\endgroup\$ – D.Spetz Aug 3 '16 at 17:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ @D.Spetz I've participated in a series of successful D&D one-shots, from level 1 through 20, with about 3 or 4 hours allocated per game (I forget exactly), with all expansions allowed. What makes it work or not is familiarity with the rules. I couldn't recommend D&D as a one-shot to someone that's never played, but then again, most games fall in that category. As long as everyone knows the rules well enough (usually by way of experience), there's no reason why any game can't be a one-shot. \$\endgroup\$ – phyrfox Aug 4 '16 at 0:37
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One thing which makes the DnD series not very suited for one-shot adventures is its focus on character advancement. It is in fact often credited as the system which invented the experience-points based leveling system. And the reason it was introduced was precisely to move away from one-shots and towards long-term campaigns:

There was another aspect of the game [DnD co-creator David Arneson] wanted to tweak: the fact that it ended. Arneson's group was having too much fun playing these specific roles to want to part with them after a single game. Outside of the individual games, Arneson created an experience system for characters. Your character would earn experience points based on their success from game to game. After a certain number of poins [sic], a character would "level up."

For many players, one of the most attractive features of the DnD series is the character progression it allows. As your character gains levels, more and more options appear and you can spend countless hours off-table planning the ideal advancement path for your character. This feat or that? Maybe take a dip in this or that class for a few levels? Maybe work towards some cool prestige class? I can't wait until I am level 12 and get that really cool ability which synergizes so well with that magic item I found.

But this is a long-term motivation feature. A one-shot game usually does not have enough time to advance characters very far, so this aspect is lost. One-shots usually have static characters, so you need a ruleset which makes its most interesting features available from the start and not just after progressing your character.

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For most table top games, there is an initial investment of time where the game is not really played, and then there is the pay-off: the actual playing itself.

The investment is of two kinds: A per-system investment to learn the rules, and a per-game investment to prepare for that particular game by preparing character sheets and so on. The latter kind scales with respect to how long you will play: Consider spending 1 hour to prepare a character that you play for a single 3 hour session, and spending 2 hours to prepare a character that you play for 12 sessions 3 hours each. Note the large difference in up-front investment vs. payoff.

With a one-shot, it makes no sense to expect people to spend half a day to make characters they won't use very long. This is the essence of what makes a system suitable or otherwise. We can take a more detailed look at what influences this:

  • The familiarity of your players with the system. If they know the rules well, they might prepare very efficiently, so a complex system might be fine after all.
  • The "nerdiness" of the players. There is a kind of person who enjoys making characters, so the investment itself becomes enjoyable. These players would also tolerate one-shots with a complex system.
  • Simplicity of the system. If the players are not familiar, simpler systems will be easier to learn before the game.
  • Shortcuts like procedurally generated or premade characters. If you can provide these, it takes care of the initial investment in large part for your players. Another possibility is if everyone has a character "lying around" that they made and never got a chance to use, or doing a sort of cameo or crossover with characters from other, currently inactive campaigns.
  • Reliance of the system on long-term rewards. For instance, systems where you advance gradually by gaining experience over multiple sessions would not work well, because much of the reward system is neutralized in a one-shot.

Contrary to what you say, you can play one-shots in DnD, for instance. However, the players must know the rules well and be comfortable with making characters. There also has to be an understanding that there will be few if any level advancements, and rewards and win/lose conditions for the game must be discussed.

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Things that make a game system bad for one-shots include:

  1. The GM's belief that the game is simple and obvious, and doesn't need explaining. This is almost never true. If a GM has been running a system for a long time, they're more likely to have a false belief that it's obvious.
  2. The need to learn several different dice mechanics. Having a single mechanic for attempting to do things (e.g., d20 roll high, or 3d6 roll low), plus rolling for damage, is preferable. More mechanics than that burns up time as players need to keep asking what they roll. Having the target numbers for everything on the character sheet helps, since players can just say "success" or "failure".
  3. The need to learn terminology, movement rules, and the like. It's the GM's job in a one-shot (or convention demonstration, they're very similar) to translate what the players want to do into the game's rules, and to offer them sensible options.
  4. The need to generate characters, since it's really hard to predict how long this will take.
    • Pregens are an answer to this. Having more pregens than players, so that they have a choice, helps players bond with pre-generated characters.
    • If some of the characters are vital to the scenario, make this clear up-front: many players will pick characters who they know will have something important to do.
    • It's good to be able to tweak the pregens slightly to player tastes. A game system where characters are a complicated assembly of interdependent pieces makes this hard.
  5. The need to explain each character's distinctive abilities, since this takes time, and is boring for all of the other players. This can be reduced greatly by writing a cribsheet for each pregen, which you staple to the character sheet, and explains the character's abilities, and anything else that the player needs to know. Even if the player doesn't read it at first, you can point them to it, and they can read the relevant chunk while you're talking to someone else.
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Let's assume that everybody is already competent with the system and that pregenerated characters can be used, or that characters were made away from the table.

Systems are poorly suited for one-shots if (choose one):

  • The game is combat/social/whatever focused, but the resolution mechanics take a lot of time. D&D 4e combat, for instance, usually takes away a large part of a session and a story is better told over a series of fights rather than just one or two.
  • The game mechanichs really kick in after some time. Even if I were to play just a single session of Blood Red Sands, the scoring system needs the hero to get at least some points before he can retire. Getting points often involves draining opponent resources during play and not every one shot can last the suggested 6-hours-per-game.
  • The game requires you to play several times. Blood Red Sands, this time for real, has a tournamente structure where players take their turn playing heroes one per session, and heroes get discarded as the game goes, like in a game of musical chairs. The first musical chair round lasts 4 games (the fifth player doesn't get to play his hero and only plays NPCs - he keeps playing to win the right to be the opponent in the 10th game of the series.
  • Some mechanics only kick in after some wear and tear. I hear this happens in 3:16, where the sensation that fighting does not make the universe a better place takes some time to kick in.
  • Some mechanics are only visible from the second game on. In Dogs in the Vineyard, the GM takes the scale that the characters use to judge the first Branch and upsets it to see the results. (You condemned theft and said all thives deserve death. What if the thief is a child, this time?).
  • There's some mechanics that need the GM to think for some time about the game before he can even use them. Apocalypse World has the GM build the fronts after the first session.
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To provide another perspective: I've ran a Pathfinder one-shot. I wouldn't ever argue that it's a great system for one shots, but it worked for us. Here's what I found:

  • It was more comfortable for us to go through some of the annoyances of the system to not have to find a new system and teach it to everyone. My group had only played D&D and Pathfinder at that point, so it was easier to sell them on doing a one shot in the system than it was to sell them on learning something new. I was also more comfortable trying new things when I already knew what was there.
  • I actually used a lot of stuff Pathfinder has to offer. Since I was comfortable with the system, I knew how much it had to offer. There might have been a more specialized game (maybe Dread or Toon depending on tone) that could have worked better, but with a little reskinning, I used Pathfinder like a GURPs lite. I was glad to have a system that I knew had an extensive and free library of traps and monsters (and fear mechanics) without having to homebrew.
  • It worked better because I was using a pre-existing property. The game was based on Scooby Doo, so I could have character sheets for Scooby and the gang written up before the game.
  • Map would probably be obnoxious for another game, but I didn't mind. Since it was a game that was set in a mazelike mansion filled with traps, it worked to have a gridbase game, and it was fun to reveal the map room by room by laying out a new cut out piece of oversized grid paper.

I guess what I'm saying is that although D&D isn't built for one shots, putting together that game wasn't as much of a pain as a regular session 0 and although it meant ignoring some of the system's stronger features (like character advancement), I don't regret my choice of system and I wouldn't go quite as far as to call it a "poor" choice.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to rpg.se! Please take a look at the tour, it's a useful introduction to the site. The Stack Exchange is a Q&A site, not a traditional discussion forum, so answers need to focus on solutions to the problem being asked about. This feels more like a digression on the value of a particular system for one-shots, rather than an answer to the question of what makes a system not as good for one-shots. Please edit your answer so that its primary purpose is answering the question. \$\endgroup\$ – BESW Aug 3 '16 at 23:40
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I've both run and played one-shot games with AD&D (1980s version) and GURPS (3rd Ed., but 4th works just as well), and have played in one-shots using Hero System, Delta Green, and others that usually aren't seen as one-shot. In my opinion, the disadvantage of games like D&D and GURPS for one-shots is that one-shots are often used to introduce new players to RPG play, and as such, a large, complex game system isn't the best choice.

A simpler game like Risus (full core rules take six pages and can be shrink-printed on a single page, full-out character sheet takes one side of a 3x5 index card) works better for this kind of introductory game, because someone unfamiliar with the system can pick up enough to enjoy it during character creation -- and have as much fun as an experienced player. While GURPS or Hero System can be tuned down enough to do this, it takes an experienced GM to know what to leave out without (for instance) making combat too deadly or taking the intensity out of the game -- thus killing the fun for people who are likely to judge all RPG play by this first experience.

My own preference for one-shots is now Risus -- it works enough like traditional RPGs, even including rules for character advancement if GM and players want to play a longer campaign, to convey a sense of how play proceeds, but is simple enough to learn while creating a character, which takes ten to fifteen minutes.

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