Wednesday, December 10, 2008

One Shot Kill

Wow, I've been producing a lot of posts about roleplaying lately. I'm blaming it on National Novel Writing Month and the attendant burnout. I've had a hard time wanting to write, let alone write about writing. Fear not, though; this morning on the train I made some significant progress on the short story I mentioned earlier. And despite trials and tribulations, I'm still here blogging. If worst comes to worst, I can always direct your attention to something else out there in the internet, or post about what I'm reading. That's not too lame, is it?

Anyway, today I want to talk about the art of the one shot. Perhaps its because I am in the midst of planning one shot for the Abigail and our houseguest, Rebecca. Perhaps its got something to do with the phase of the moon. I don't know.

Running a one shot is much more like writing a story than any other kind of game running. When you run a one shot, you are producing a short story-like, encapsulated experience. Like a short story - or any kind of story, for that matter - a one shot has a beginning, a middle, and an end, a set list of characters, and a limited number of settings. Contrast that, if you will, with a long running campaign, which has a huge cast of characters, can take place over years and lack a well-defined middle or end, and might well trot all over a real or imagined globe, and you'll see what I mean.

Some people (*cough cough the Abigail cough*) don't really like one shots very much. They prefer a longer game experience, with room for scads and scads of character development, both mechanical and narrative. These people usually end up playing in one shots once and a while, since they are one of the ways we gamers get to know each other (think dogs sniffing each others' butts), but they don't like them much, and they certainly don't run them. While I'll take a long campaign over a one shot any day, however, I consider one shots to be an art, and I love playing in them. I love running them even more.

The "perfect" one shot exists in the space between two extremes. On the one hand, a one shot needs lots of structure. A one shot isn't like a session of a longer campaign: you only get four to six hours to run this thing, and if it goes over, you can't just pick up next week. On the other hand, a one shot needs to be as free form as possible. Nobody likes being railroaded; all gaming experiences need to have some unstructured space for players to take part in telling the story. This is even more important in a one shot, again, because of time. If the session goes poorly for one (or more!) of your players, you need to stay adaptable, think on your fight, and fix it immediately. You can't just try again next week. If you're going to go for that elusive burning zeppelin experience, you need to do it right the hell now. Most one shots slip in one direction or another - the best manage to not go too far.

Over the years, I have played in many one shots, many of them run by my friend Jon (warning: while he revels in livejournal friends, his blog is mostly political commentary and photographs of middle-eastern countries - he's a gamer, I swear, but it doesn't show on his blog). His wisdom when it comes to one shots - invaluable over the years - is to create three "set pieces" in your mind: one the beginning, one the middle, and one the end. Everything in between is flexible, as long as it eventually leads to these set pieces. Even the set pieces themselves are fairly changeable. Who is present, exactly where they take place, and what happens next are all variable, but the set pieces provide an important skeleton for your one shot to grow around. Even, Jon says, if you end up abandoning one or two of the set pieces (if you end up ditching your beginning your game is totally out of control), the fact that you had them at one point will significantly aid your creative process.

Jon's framework works very well for him, and it has worked well for me, too. However, I have developed my own approach, which is similar to his (and sometimes, while I'm using it, I have Jon's approach playing in the back of my head), and I have found works even better for me. First, however, let's have a look at two roleplaying games that interact in interesting ways with the art of the one shot.

The first is Spirit of the Century (Wikipedia page here, for you wikizens) by Evil Hat Productions, a game of high-flying, over-the-top pulp adventure (of course I like this game: you all know about me and zeppelins). Spirit of the Century declares that it's mission is "to deliver an evening of fun, a 'pick-up' game that requires little preparation, but provides hours of entertainment." The "little preparation" part isn't quite true, in some ways, as you'll see below, but Spirit of the Century nonetheless presents an interesting second approach to one shots.

In Spirit of the Century, the character creation process is quite long and involved. You start with a character concept, but you flesh this person out by imagining her prior adventures, most of which involve one or more of the other players at the table. The end result (of a fairly long process involving note cards and on-the-fly creation) is a set of characters with strong interrelations: "Doctor Tutankhamen! I see you survived our encounter with Dick Mystic in Bulgaria, after all. Well, no matter, it's time to put our differences aside and team up with our old rival Madame Violet to stop the sinister Sister Sinister" - I'm running out of ideas here, cut me some slack - "from stealing the Hope Diamond to power her demonic rituals. Quick, to the Burning Zeppelin!"

To a clever GM, these interrelations are meat and bread for one shots. In fact, I think the reason Spirit of the Century bills itself as a pick-up game despite the lengthy character generation process is that once these characters are created, you can easily combine and recombine them to create all sorts of interesting plot lines.

This is how Spirit of the Century represents a second approach to one shots. Instead of creating firm (not rigid) set pieces and then letting the game flow from them, encourage your players to create exciting and deeply interrelated characters, and create a story that emerges from those characters and the backstories they spawn from.

Houses of the Blooded (Wikipedia page here) by John Wick - different Jo(h)n - doesn't bill itself as a one shot friendly game, but in many ways, it is. What makes Houses of the Blooded, an operatic game about love, romance, passion, and revenge, so one shot friendly is its revolutionary, player-driven information mechanic. Rather than having players roll to see what their character knows or finds out, as determined by what the GM tells them, players roll to see what their character knows or finds out, as determined by what the player invents. Right there. On the spot. As a result, preparation for a Houses of the Blooded game can consist of the GM thinking to himself "a party... having the players going to a party might be nice. And maybe there will be a murder. I like murders. Or maybe a ghost. Who knows?" and then rolling over and going back to sleep (if you detect a little bitterness, I was going to run Houses of the Blooded, but my players insisted on Hunter: the Vigil, another brilliant, but much more traditional, game). A longer game would probably still require a little more planning, but for a one shot, this attribute is solid gold.

When I run one shots, I tend to use a combination of these approaches. I put a lot of power into the hands of my players, letting them make detailed characters with interrelated backstories. I also have an idea of where my one shot is going to begin and end, with a couple of set pieces playing, vaguely in the back of my mind.

Finally, I pay a lot of attention to the entire situation. I try to create interesting non-player characters full of exceiting tensions - with each other, with my players' characters, with the setting - that drive the story. I wind the story up and then let it snap, using continued player input and set pieces to guide the story and keep it from spinning apart.

I'm running on Thursday night. I'll let you know how it goes.

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Scattercat: "No one is stronger than Hurculor!"

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  • What are your most striking positive and negative one shot experiences, as a GM and a player?


Abby said...

"but they don't like them much, and they certainly don't run them."

Erm...sweetheart? I have run one-shots, on multiple occasions. I thought you LIKED them! ::runs off to sob::

OK, I'm back.

Another question: when has there ever been a burning zeppelin experience in a one-shot?

Anonymous said...

I did like your one shots, sweetie. I love you and I think you're brilliant. You just don't run them very often.

And, um... I'll get back to you on that.