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Running great one-shots

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    Nick Gralewicz

I love running one-shots.

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, a “one-shot” is simply playing a TTRPG in a single gameplay session rather than across multiple sessions. You commit to 2-4 hours, play a game, then move on with your life with no strings attached.

And this is great for a number of reasons:

  • They are easier to plan and schedule ("are you available next weekend?" vs. "are you available for the next 10 weekends?").
  • They are perfect for new TTRPG players, giving them a whole and focused experience without needing to commit to something longer term.
  • They allow you to quickly try new and different games.

Between my home group, running a Story Game series for our local Dungeons and Donuts, and organizing games at conventions, I’ve found myself running a lot of one-shots recently. Some games drive themselves while others require a GM in the driver seat, and I've learned a thing or two while being at the wheel.

So let me share how I run low-prep and highly collaborative one-shots.

Set your expectations

Setting Expectations

This is a boring but very important point: make sure all players are on the same page for what to expect, both for gameplay and comfort. This is especially true if it’s a new group, new TTRPG players, or a new game

Is gameplay more narrative or tactical? Is the tone serious, terrifying, or light-hearted? What agency and authority do players have to co-create the story? By aligning on these topics, either by following the game design or agreeing as a group, you are defining what “good play” looks like for this session.

Similarly, ensure players are comfortable: discuss safety tools, have planned breaks, allow people to leave the table any time if needed, and agree upon the duration of play. Establish the expectation that you are all friends and responsible for each other’s fun, because you absolutely are.

This only takes 5 minutes and it will anchor your ideal experience in place. Do not skip this part.

Three act structure

Three Act Structure

Do you remember the three act structure from English class? Let’s do a quick refresher:

  • Act 1: where the protagonist is in their “normal world”
  • Act 2: where the protagonist is reacting to the threat, then eventually acting against it
  • Act 3: where the protagonist confronts the threat in a final showdown

This is a great structure for one-shots, and you’ll even find it in games designed for one-shots (like HOME and Night Witches, two games I’ve been running a lot of recently). But you can still use this to run unstructured games like D&D! Let’s see how:

First, establish the normal world. Get all players to make characters together, ask them to introduce their character one at a time, and start asking questions. How can we tell Ruric is a barbarian by the way they dress? Why doesn’t Ruric trust Valen the bard? Who does Ruric owe something to? Encourage all players to ask questions, make connections, flesh out the world together. After 30 to 60 minutes you’ll have a unique setting, a few story hooks, and really enjoyable beginning to the session. (Remember: prep is play!)

Second, drive the story forward by making characters react to the world. Some games will do this automatically (like HOME), but others may require a GM to fill in the blanks (like D&D and Night Witches). Look at the juicy threats, conflicts, and relationships that players gave you in character creation and pick a couple to push on. Challenge what they believe, make them prove their love, give them opportunities to show their flaws. How you do this may be game specific, but it’s always rewarding to watch characters develop through adversity.

And finally, stick the landing. The best one-shots have a clear and satisfying ending and some games bake this into the design for you (again HOME and Night Witches are good examples). If your game doesn’t provide this structure, consider what a satisfying climax looks like for your game: a battle in the throne room? Tense negotiations at the gang-leader’s warehouse? A positive or negative emotional moment? You don’t need to have it pre-planned and sometimes you'll just know it when it happens. I prefer a satisfying ending for a one-shot even if it means stopping a session 20 minutes early.

Focus on a goal

A Goal to Focus On

A clear goal gives players clear direction. This is critical when you have limited time or new players. Add GM pressure on their character and there won’t be room for dull moments in the game.

Some games provide a clear goal (HOME: stop the Kaiju, Night Witches: bomb the Nazis and survive the war), while others (D&D) leave this up to the players and GM. In these games I imagine a few setting-relevant problems (“something has been stolen”, “countdown to a bad thing”, “re-take our hideout”) and then use hooks during character creation to make it personal for the characters.

A good way to do this is to ask leading questions: who is the most important person in your life? What important object did your father pass down to you? What keeps you up at night? Mix that answer with a setting relevant problem and ask players to buy-in to achieving it.

Ask questions

Ask Questions

I am a low-prep GM. I am not here to tell others my epic story and I don’t want to spend hours preparing for a session. I want to collaborate with the other players and create something awesome together. So how do I GM fun and engaging games without any prep?

I ask questions.

Ask about the characters: their beliefs, their connections, the likes and dislikes. Ask about the mundane and use it to flesh out the world (“what is your favourite food?”). Ask about important things and use it to challenge them during play (“have you killed someone before?”). Let the player help in creating the world!

Ask leading questions that create tension and conflict (“who did your character punch in the face the last time you were here?”). Ask leading questions that create interesting relationships in the group of characters (“which player character owes you a debt?”). Ask leading questions that flesh out the world (“what do you keep hidden in your backpack?”).

Ask how they succeed, how they fail, give them the narrative reins and ask them what happens!

By asking questions (and encouraging other players to also ask questions!) we create a shared world and story together. We are all authors, all interested, and all invested in the outcome. And the result is always better than if I brought a specific story or world to the table.

Just Do It

Do you want to learn to be a GM? Do you want to design your own game one day? Do you just want to try more TTRPGs, play more games, be better a better player?

Run a one-shot!

Pick a game, find some players, and follow this advice. If everyone has the same expectations, you consider the structure of play, align on a goal, and ask lots of questions, you will have FUN.

Just do it, and then let me know: what advice would you give to run a one-shot?