Running One-Shot or Demo RPG Games

I’ve run my share of demo RPG games for old-school games like King Arthur Pendragon and Stormbringer as well as newer systems including multiple TinyD6 games and The One Ring.

For a time, I was part of a group that held one-off sessions for a different game every month. The glory days.

While I enjoy campaign play as much as the next person, there’s always something that draws me to cracking open a new game, rolling up characters, and taking a new set of rules or setting out for a spin.

Not every player likes one-shot sessions, which surprised me at first, but I guess some folks want to get into a character and see them progress either as a person or just “level up”.

For me, sometimes a one-shot is just the thing.

Over the years, I’ve learned a few things about running successful one-off RPG sessions (and I think you’ll find a lot of it holds true for campaigns as well).

Nothing universe-shattering, but I hope these thoughts aid your games or even help you bring new players to one of your favorites!

Set Expectations

Make sure your players know what to expect. Failing to set proper expectations can result in anything from disappointment to outright disaster.

Find out player time constraints if not prearranged, and consider your planned content. Make sure you’ll have enough time to hit the major plot points.

If the content could be offensive to folks, provide a warning. Also, word to the wise, avoid scary or messy props. You don’t want to get punched or puked on.

At least, I think you don’t?

If you don’t want folks checking their phones in the middle of the game, make sure they have that guidance. If you are planning regular stretching, snack, and bathroom breaks, let the players know so they can wait for the foreordained moment.

Above all, set the appropriate social contract. Personal attacks are NEVER ok. Are there any other lines in the sand you need to draw? If you’ve never used the x-card, it can be appropriate when you’re running games at cons or for any group you don’t know. Use your best judgment.

Do What Your Players Want

If everyone enjoys character creation, don’t set them up with pregens. If you aren’t sure how they feel, ask! This may not make sense for games with involved setup, but talk about it.

Talk with players about what kind of game they want to play. Sometimes the group just wants to focus on comic relief and tell jokes, and other times they may be in the mood for a serious or darker game. Try to oblige as possible within constraints of the rules and setting, and if that isn’t possible, maybe you’re playing the wrong game for the group.

Don’t Do What Your Players’ Characters Want

It’s human nature to struggle. Make sure to seed conflict and difficulty into the session. If a risk of character death doesn’t exist in a one-shot, you may be doing it wrong.

I’m not saying TPKs and broad use of GM fiat are necessary. Just don’t make things too easy. That way lies boredom, one of a gamemaster’s worst enemies.

Minimize Up-Front Explanation

When you’re going to run a multi-session campaign, it may be ok to do something of an info dump during the initial sessions. For a one-time game, you’ll have to keep this to a bare minimum.

Instead, keep your session tight and introduce rules and setting as much as possible through the course of the game. Does this mean you don’t tell the players about the Camarilla if you’re playing Vampire the Masquerade or about Uther’s more arbitrary/mistrustful tendencies in Pendragon?

Maybe. If it’s central to the adventure, find a way to work it into a conversation with an NPC so the game can get going.

Don’t skip telling folks what type of dice they need. I’m just saying that if you’re playing a Fantasy Flight RPG with all those custom dice, you may just want to guide them through the roll resolutions and gloss over the 17 pages of dice rules (or don’t play a game with 17 pages of dice rules).

Another helpful option for more complex games is to download or create rules cheat sheets for players. Give them something to refer to while they are planning action. While they are great for many folks, I don’t always love cheat sheets. Some players can get too focused on the tool and miss what’s going on in the game.

Me. I do this. Ugh, I’m the worst.

Anyway, know thy players.

Keep The Story Tight

Most games either have a couple strong themes or they are more generic and can work for a variety of scenarios. In either case, stick to a strong idea even if you have to develop it yourself.

When playing Planet Mercenary, it’s mayhem and next-grunt-up comedic violence. When it’s Pendragon, you’re talking chivalry and romance. For a game like Tiny Frontiers: Revised, pick a micro setting and run with one of the adventure prompts or develop something fun on your own. Same for Savage Worlds, select a setting you like that’s thematic and shows off the rules.

Nothing will kill a one-shot faster than giving too many options to inexperienced players. Sandbox games can work great, as long as you have veteran players and they understand the setting.

An alternative, if your game supports it, is to involve the characters in some quick worldbuilding and plotline creation. Tough to do in limited time, but I’ve seen it work. There are toolkits to support this approach if your game doesn’t do it out of the box. I even have one I’m thinking about developing.

Sample The Game

Some micro RPGs and minimalist systems lend themselves to covering everything in the one-shot format.

When talking about a 400+ page core book (see Pathfinder, Shadowrun, Zweihander, Mage, and countless others), you won’t show everything. Still, if the game contains combat, make sure there is an encounter so players can see how fighting works. If there is sneaking, make sure they have cause to sneak. Basic mechanics are a must, as is direct use of primary abilities.

When the title has special or unique mechanics, make sure they take center stage. The One Ring’s hope and shadow and travel rules are good examples.

If the central concept of the game involves characters taking control of the narrative at times, make sure they do that. Horror/madness aspects, etc. should all be built in if relevant.

Pacing

There are entire series of articles, dialogs, and diatribes about pacing in RPGs as a whole.

If you’d like more detail, I recommend reading what Justin Alexander has to say on pacing for starters. I’m not going to attempt to duplicate that knowledge here, but I will say this: pacing is vital in one-offs. I’ve outlined a few of the component elements above, but I’ll to boil it down to what makes the most sense to me in a one-off session.

Don’t let your players get bored.

If everyone loves the role-play elements, they might have a great time discussing reactions to a philosophical quandary you’ve placed before them for some time.

If your players are action-oriented, make sure to keep the action flowing.

When you inevitably have a mix of role-play and “roll-play”, then you’ll have to use more tools from your GM toolbox to keep things moving along.

The key is to keep an eye on the group and minimize time where people seem disengaged.

Have Fun

This shouldn’t be the last point, but somehow it is.

Don’t forget, if you’re having fun, odds are the players will be too. If it’s clear to them that you aren’t enjoying yourself, that mood can rub off on the whole group.

A little Leadership 101 for you: a leader (this means you, gamemaster) tends to influence those around her/him like Patrick Stewart in a room of Trekkies. He can’t help it, but you can bet he’s aware. You can bet Sir Pat knows that if “Captain Picard” loses his cool on a group of fans, it will result in a negative experience for all involved.

Make sure to use your GM influence with proper intent. Be aware of your own feelings and use them to the advantage of the game. Keep them in check otherwise.

A great storyteller having fun will always attract players. I learned this watching my friends Alan B. and Mike S. pack their living rooms with diverse players repeatedly through the years.

——-

Thank you: Ben, Michael, Brett, Alan, Tyler, and the others who saw this article at varying stages of completion and helped me mold it into something I hope was worth your time. Your contributions were amazing, and any remaining silliness is just an artifact of my weird and possibly disturbed psyche.

Please share your stories of running one-shots with me in the comments or on Twitter. I’d love to see your ideas on running the format or just some fun stories from your one-off games.

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