Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Planned Unplanned Diversion

You keep a jack and a spare tire in your car's trunk. Why not do the same for your game bag?

A Contingency Plan You Can Literally Run With

I've talked up one-shots before: They're games that you have a single situation drawn up for. You don't need much of a character, or the characters have been pre-generated, and all you have to do is open a folder, hand out some pages, and get to running.

Have you considered what it takes to put together something like this?

Well, maybe you haven't. Heck, neither have I, really.

So let's build a checklist.

Or when you just need a snack

Why would you do this? Sometimes your main game just fails to run as anyone expected. Maybe the GM didn't show up because he'd been sleeping poorly, been feeling sickly, or was just kind of an ass that day. Maybe a bunch of players didn't show up as anticipated either, and the game can't run because the rest of the game didn't show up. Or the wi-fi is down.

The reasons are myriad.

You could also use this technique to package up a game for new players, to get people unfamiliar with a system quick hands-on experience that you might use to sell them on a longer campaign in the same system later. The one-shot also makes a nice bite-sized morsel, an appetizer plate for a group of new players, or a group of experienced players who just haven't experienced that world yet.

No matter the cause for tapping your reserve of one-shots, the preparation ought to be the same. Or at least guided by the same set of basic questions.

♫ Do you want to build a one-shot? ♫

Some of these are questions which you need to answer because they'll inform later choices. And some of these are plain old instructions, because by then the course of action ought to be clear. And if they're not, I'll explain what makes them significant.

Using which system?

An obvious firs thing to consider, since if you're going to run a one-shot game, you have to start with, you know, the game.

A lot of future questions will be based on this one choice, so whether or not you make it a good one, at least make it.

If the system is big and sprawl enough that it can cover multiple times, places, and paradigms (once again GURPS springs to mind first)

Using which setting?

Games need setting as well as system; in which environment will you be running this particular game? You may want to set all your one-shots in a single world, or you might want to go nuts and set each one-shot in a different place and time, just for the sake of variety.

It may also happen, over time, that you dream up a small group of one-shot worlds that you really like. Well then, those are excellent candidates for future campaigns. In the meantime, you're composing one-shots. In fact, their unfamiliarity with the system or setting may even be a selling point behind the experiment.

Contemplate handouts.

The first and most obvious things to put on such a handout is briefings on what system and setting you'll be playing in. And yes, you'll want to put your system brief and setting brief on each handout you draft because on any given occasion when you whip out a new one-shot, you can't guarantee that the players you'll be running it for will be familiar with either.

Come to that, if it's been long enough and you've been playing a bunch of other stuff (you know, as you should), when you come around to this one-shot again you may need a refresher, on both the system and the world. There's nothing to be ashamed of; you can't remember everything. And with a good notes page, you shouldn't have to.

Contemplate characters.

Is the system a simple one (e.g. Fate Accelerated, most Apocalypse Engine games) in which character creation is just a matter of bunging a few numbers into blanks and calling it a day? Or is the system intricate, involved, or just tedious (e.g. GURPS, Champions) so that you'll want to pre-generate everything and minimize mischance?

If it's simple and fast enough, blank character sheets will do. If you have any doubts, don't be afraid to pre-generate. I mean, I used Fate Accelerated as the example "simple" system, but if you've ever watched new players trying to come up with three Stunts on the fly, you'll know that "simple" is a purely subjective measure.

And if you're pre-generating characters, you may want an additional little handout clipped or stapled to each character sheet, describing a little of the background and dramatic function of the character. Throw the player some meat attached to a characterization for him to sink his teeth into. And why stop there? Throw the player some curious bits of interrelation, and you've got ready-made subplot hooks for your one-shot in the form of inter-character drama.

Contemplate the number of players.

How many people will your one-shot accommodate? Or how many will it need?

I stress "at least," because even something as basic as a different mix of characters can change how a scenario runs, and therefore add replayability. It may happen some day that you'll be with a bunch of people for whom you'd already run through your contingency library. More characters to choose from will make the experience that much fresher.

Note: You might use the answer to this question to print out that many handouts and character sheets (plus some for yourself). But don't print just yet. A funny thing happens when you commit an adventure to paper: You find you have to emphasize or de-emphasize different parts of the world or system to make it all make sense.

Now you can start to contemplate the scenario itself.

Those steps above were important.

Once you know in which imaginary world in the back of your head you'll be playing, you can envision a situation in that world that a bunch of characters could be stuck in.

Once you know how many characters you'll likely have, you can either scale the opposition to match, or contemplate other ways for a group of PCs to defeat the master bad guy.

And once you know what system you'll be running this in, you can start compiling stats for the assorted threats, and preparing for the sorts of actions the PCs will be undertaking to resolve whatever's going on.

Intermission: But This Seems an Awful Lot Like Work!

You may be looking at the above checklist (which, FYI, is continued below) and thinking, "Man, if I'm going to do this much writing, I might as well do it professionally."

And you're not wrong.

In fact, it's possible you'll do more writing preparing your one-shot than a professional would preparing an adventure for publication, what with the system documentation.

However, you'll end up doing more work doing it professionally. Your project won't have to be pitched to a publisher. Your project won't be run in front of an editor who will slash your labor of love to ribbons and make it bleed red. Your project won't need artwork, unless you're going to get fancy with handouts. Your project won't have to fuss over brand standards, harmonize with third-party world reference documents, or submit to rigorous play-testing.

In light of all of that, not getting paid doesn't seem so bad now, does it?

So, what would happen if you took your artistic vision, cleaned it up a little, contracted a few flavor pieces from an artist, and published through the likes of Lulu or Drive-Thru Stuff?

Maybe nothing. Maybe. Just sayin'.

Act 2: It's Time to Make Something!

You've considers your materials (system), the backdrop (world), and your audience (players). And by this point you have an outline at least of your subject. Let's paint some happy little trees.

Scenario structure is completely up to you. Room-based, node-based, open-sandbox, it's your show now. Whatever works for you, use that and do it.

But is that it? Step back a bit and look at the big picture here. It's late some night, you're with friends, and for some perverse reason you're not playing a game. You think to remedy that. You dig out your one-shot. You hand out your handouts, pop a pile of character sheets (either blank or pre-filled with notes clipped to them) on the center of the table, and tell everyone else to grab one, buckle in, and prepare for the ride.

But are you prepared for this ride. This is the ultimate cold start and hard acceleration, from zero to game in a matter of seconds. Do you remember the system? Do you remember the setting? If you pre-generated, do you remember the characters?

The one-shot keeps things moving by getting a lot of the prep out of the way beforehand. A little more prep in the writing of the scenario itself will make the run that much smoother.

Contemplate the GM Handout

Yes, that's right, a handout just for you, the guy or gal that wrote the blasted thing. Because you have no way of knowing just how long it will be before you run it. And even clever ideas can get lost to the depths of time unless you write them down.

That system and setting handout you gave to the players is all well and good, but you need more information. A one-page summary of the adventure, perhaps as an outline, flowchart, or node diagram, would be a great start on that. And if you pre-generated characters? A short blurb on each of them and what they do would be a good thing.

A table of contents? In my documentation?

It's more likely than you think. And it's easier than you think. Especially since a table of contents generator is a standard feature in word processors these days. Know your tools, and use them. (Hint: If you use Styles in your document, the ToC is push-button convenient.)

Include page number references for odd or offbeat rules.

If you can't or don't want to encapsulate the rules in your written adventure, use callouts and page number references to your rulebook or whichever supplement you're using so you know right where in the book to turn. Because few things muck up the flow of an evening's gaming quite like "Hang on, I gotta look up" followed by four minutes of page-turning. Every half-hour.

Separate Complete Encounters and Events

There's much to be said for the one-encounter-one-page guideline, like not having to turn back and forth between pages of the adventure.

And repeat yourself if you must (or it's convenient and you have room)

Everything you need for a given encounter or plot beat should be together in one place in your written notes. Yes, even if you used them in a previous encounter; you don't want to go flipping back and forth between Encounter A (where the frumious pink blorftigon is written up) and Encounter C (where the PCs encounter the mate of the frumious pink blorftigon they beat up in Encounter A) Sure, they may have identical stats, and many editors tell you never to repeat yourself unnecessarily, but I don't think it's unnecessary here. The point is to speed play by clustering information, including copies of stuff you used elsewhere.

Organize Opposition and Interesting Personages

And yes, both need organizing. The opposition is interesting because it will almost literally get in your way; it needs to be described in terms of system and game mechanics.

But even NPCs may factor into an adventure, though not necessarily as combatants. You owe it to yourself, your players, and the thing you're writing to note in the same documentation where you list the monsters and ne'er-do-wells the PCs will be fighting what other people they'll meet and what makes them interesting. You might have dramatic function for them, or some of them might know things that the PCs need.

The point is that you don't want to go hustling all over the adventure looking for the information you need. Best put it all in the one place where you know to look for it.

You probably included stats for things up above when you "Separated Complete Encounters and Events." This is just another block of organization, for those occasions when the PCs are between encounters but somehow manage to attract the unwanted attention of things that want to beat the crap out of them.

Intermission #2: That Should Do It, But...

If you committed all your ideas for the adventure to paper or whatever medium you choose to work in, you should have a complete adventure here that can be quickly deployed and played satisfactorily. You should now be ready to stow the one-shot, in preparation for the time it's time to play.



...but that's only for the first time. What happens the second? The third? The fourth? You may have new players, but there are things to consider if you're going to run this again. And if you're ever going to run it for the same players, there are a lot of things to consider.

Act 3: Let's something something something Again!

Save your files. Reprint from them as necessary

People may take notes on their character sheets or those reference handouts you ran off. You owe it to the next set of players to give them clean pages, so run off anything you need fresh copies of.

Take notes yourself, make changes as they're needed

If you think of every time you whip out that one-shot as a playtest run, you actually have quite a bit of reason to re-run it. And if you find problems on a previous run, then you owe it to the next group of players you run it for to incorporate those changes and patch up the holes you found on the previous run.

First, this makes the adventure better, so that it can improve with age.

Second, this changes the adventure, so that people who ran through the first time who tripped on those holes will find them pleasantly patched the next time. It also means that people who found ways to exploit those holes will find them unpleasantly patched, so double bonus.

Extra Characters Change Flavor

For a one-shot that requires 3-5 characters, you can get by with five pre-generated characters. But what happens if you generate six? Seven? Ten? Well, when the mix of PCs changes, the game's mix could change as well. And if those characters' abilities are drastically different enough, they may end up taking a completely different path through your adventure, making it feel (not surprisingly) like a completely different adventure.

This ties into another thing you could do, and this is dependent upon your writing style:

Write In Some Variability

If you really want to get mileage out of a one-shot, write more than one one-shot into the same one-shot.

Remember I talked above about some sort of flow- or node-chart to organize your adventure? What if you put in branches? Say, the adventure goes one way on a Tuesday or another way on a Friday. Or the adventure goes one of two different ways if a particular character is in the group. Or if a particular player is in the group. Rerouting the flow of the adventure will change how the adventure proceeds.

For example, the "murder mystery" scenario where someone finds a body and has to find the killer. That's one path. Different killer? That's another path. In a house with eight suspects, you get fifty-six different ways that one could bump off another.

In a more combat-oriented scenario, the bridge they cross in one run could be washed out in another, forcing them to go another route which provides other ways for them to be attacked, or different opposition to fight through.

Be warned: These kinds of shenanigans will probably not help if you intend to publish. It might, depending on the publisher, but I wouldn't bet on it. This is something you do for you, and/or your players.

Yeah, That Ought to Do It.

Okay, I had a lot to talk about, it seems. And it may have been unnecessary.

I mean, come on, how often do you run single-session games? And how often do you have players without a game to play? And how much work do you really need to put in to make a scenario go smoothly, if you haven't even looked at the system or the setting you conceptualized at the time, possibly literally years ago?

Then again, if you had put in the preparation, you could have such a thing in your bag. It could turn any gathering of adequately friendly people into a game session, and from there into a whole new campaign.

You know, if you're into that sort of thing.

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