Role-playing 202 – Improvising One-shots

I’m a bit pushed for time this week, hence the early update, so the following post isn’t as polished as I would like it to be. I might come back to it soon and edit it slightly. But for now, here is my approach to improvising one-shots.


One-shots. When you don’t have the time to prepare anything longer, when you know you have a shorter play session than usual, when you’re running low on players, or just because you want to try something different, the humble one-shot is a viable alternative to skipping a game session.

As the name suggests, a one-shot is typically a short scenario designed to be played over a single session of gameplay and within a set time constraint. While some one-shots can be played over a few sessions, as a rule, they should generally be a self-contained story and can be a perfect opportunity to try new things or experiment with your play style.

If you have plenty of time to prepare one, a one-shot can easily suck up as much time as standard session preparation, or more, because you can devote a lot of time to polishing the ‘one and done’ experience, far more than the more sandbox approach  usually required for campaign play. The purpose of this article is to explain how I go about preparing one-shots in a shorter time frame. This kind of approach leans on improvisation and may require you to leave your comfort zone but can produce some incredibly dynamic situations.

The first thing to bear in mind when doing this is to know the setting, or to be comfortable making things up on the fly that are consistent with the rest of the world. The best way I’ve found of getting around this is just to use your own setting, or one that you have a lot of knowledge about.

The second thing is to know what kind of story you want to tell. By building on what you know of the world, you will have a good idea about what kind of things are likely to happen, or are impossible.

The third thing to create is the twist. Because it is a one-shot, it’s a good idea to have a natural climax to the storyline. The easiest way to do this is to have a plot-twist as the crescendo and then something big happen as the finale.

With these three things, you should have an outline for the plot. The next thing is to work out where you want the one-shot to be set. The type of story you’re telling will lend itself to certain locations over others, but there is no wrong setting. As long as it makes sense within the logic of the world, theoretically you can set any kind of story in any place.

The setting will influence the supporting cast as a matter of course and from there you can figure out the best way to introduce the player characters to the plotline. This can be the hardest decision to reach but, if done correctly, can create player investment from the very beginning. Some stories will be harder than others to create an introduction for so you should never be afraid to tweak a plot if you need to.

With all of these things in place, you’re ready to start the play session.

The above remains true when you have a lot of time to prepare, but the following points explain how I approach improvising a one-shot.

The first thing is internally consistent floor plans. Whilst you don’t need maps, drawing one as you go helps some player groups visualise the locale they are exploring. Even if you don’t draw maps/use maps, try to keep your floor plans/area layouts architecturally plausible. Believability is key to building the atmosphere you want and to gain player investment.

The second thing is know what plot point you want to hit next and keep the narrative flowing towards it. One-shots lend themselves more to so-called rail-roading than campaign play, purely because of the constraints of the medium.

The third thing is continually ask; “What if?” If your players are floundering for direction, or ask you a question, ask yourself about a facet of the world that is relevant to the situation. You can also ask yourself this question when fleshing out the narrative and throwing other things into the mix.

The fourth thing is relax. Due to the nature of one-shots, anything that takes place, any established facts or any NPCs are unlikely to have an impact outside of the session (unless you decide otherwise) so you should feel more free to make mistakes than usual.

Putting all of this into practice, I was recently required to prepare a one-shot during a short train journey.

I decided straight off to set the session in my homebrew world, and knew I wanted to tell a heist story. For a twist, I settled on the heist being a disguise for a ritual designed to summon something. I chose a fundraising event to repair a university building and used this as a springboard to populate the event with guards, party-goers and cultists. The PCs fit naturally into the event as guards and had a reason to react in the manner I desired (because they were getting paid to be security).

The “what if?” question threw up a few interesting events. The first was that because the captain of the guard left to defend the vault, the players assumed she was in on the attack (what if she left to fulfil her duties?). The second created a magical ward that the players unwittingly destroyed, paving the way for the ritual (what if the university was magically shielded to protect the guests?). The third of note produced loads of possessed guards and a crystal golem that acted as the finale of the one-shot (what if the ritual was orchestrated by an outside power?).

So that’s my approach to improvising one-shots, I hope it proves useful or inspiring. If you have any thoughts, or ways to improve my method, let me know in the comments.

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