How I Make One-Shots

My annual Running of the BESM One-Shot at Anime USA is currently in jeopardy, as the head of Traditional Games has left and, in the resulting vacuum, no one knows what’s going on. On the other hand, there are early glimmers of the possibility that I might be able to do a variant at MAGFest instead. We’ll see.

In the meantime, some musings on how and why I give my one-shots a fairly unusual structure. 
Typically, a one-shot is a one-time thing you run to fill time or introduce players to a game. Generally speaking, since character creation can be quite complex and time-consuming in most tabletop RPGs, the GM will create and provide a balanced, varied selection of characters for the players to pick from. After that, the campaign is designed (as any preplanned campaign generally will be) as a sort of flow chart. At every node, the players have to overcome some sort of obstacle, then make a choice which leads to the next node/obstacle, and ultimately all paths converge on a final challenge and the ending. 
The most common way to do this is to make the campaign geographically driven, as with a dungeon or labyrinth. (Indeed, this is so ingrained in tabletop gaming culture as to be practically instinctive.) Each room is a node and contains an event such as an NPC or enemy encounter, treasure or useful items, puzzle, or some combination. The room’s exits represent choices of paths, and lead to the next node; what paths are available may be partially determined by the players’ degree of success or choices in dealing with the current or past nodes. 
It is a structure that works and works well, which is why it has become ubiquitous, but it has its drawbacks. It can be constraining for the player, since their choices of where to go next are tightly constrained and few other meaningful opportunities for choice exist. It emphasizes the tactical elements of the game, since most of the remaining meaningful choices will be “who should use which power/ability/skill on what”? And it is straightforwardly solvable; there are a small number of paths to the end, all of which represent fundamentally the same narrative. 
That last is usually not a problem, since a GM typically runs a given one-shot once. But at AUSA, I was being asked to staff a dedicated BESM table and run my one-shot up to EIGHT times in a single weekend.
So I decided to take a different tack in order to avoid boredom. First, I picked a set of seven varied characters based on trying to get as wide a variety as possible–well-known anime characters from the 90s through present, mostly, with the occasional Western cartoon character thrown in. Next I went with a MUCH more open environment than a typical one-shot dungeon, namely a village (though if I get to do it this year, I plan to set it at the con itself–still way more open than a dungeon). This frees the players to go almost anywhere from the start, increasing their feeling of freedom and the variety from session to session–but how to have a plot if players can go anywhere?
Here I take a cue from The Ur-Quan Masters. I still tie events to locations as in a typical dungeon-style one-shot, but rather than the event automatically occurring, there are conditions necessary to trigger it. There is nothing hugely novel here; such conditions are fairly common, usually based on such factors as defeating a particular enemy or solving a puzzle. However, also I take advantage of the fact that I am using prebuilt characters who–being from extant anime and cartoons–have their own established worlds, supporting casts, and rivals or villains. I add conditions for which characters are present, so that their rivals and villains only exist if a player chose that character. What’s more, since each of these villains have differing personalities, motivations, and goals, their actions and schemes will therefore also differ, as will the consequences of those schemes.

For example, in the first game I ran, there was an NPC named Satoko (from Higurashi no Naku Koro ni). If a player chose to play Guts (from Berserk), Berserk-style demons would show up–and Satoko is exactly the kind of person they would try to recruit and transform. So the first time I ran the game, she was tainted with evil. She was also a desperately unhappy and trapped-feeling young girl, so in the second session, when a player chose Homura, she was being pursued as a potential magical girl by Kyubey, and therefore also had a miasma of evil associated with her. But the third session, neither of them was present–shocking a player when he tried to use a Detect Evil ability in full confidence that he would get the same result as the first two playthroughs.

The second year, I did more with interactions between villains. For example, I decided to run with the interpretation of Revolutionary Girl Utena in which Akio is literally Lucifer. In one session I had both Michael from The Dresden Files and Utena, sending the Michael player into near-panic when he saw Nicodemus (Michael’s nemesis, a powerful and high-ranking fallen angel) kneel to Akio and refer to him as “my lord.”

But the basic principle remains the same, of designing one-shots as a flowchart. I simply found it more fun to radiate out from a central point rather than necessarily converge on a single point. And yes, that’s a lot of work to put into a one-shot, since it is impossible to see every event in one playthrough–but since I repeat multiple times in a weekend, there’s a good chance that every or nearly every event I came up with eventually gets played.

Plus the players really enjoyed the novelty of having the game change depending on their characters. Both years I had repeat players within the same weekend–which according to the head of Traditional Games, has never happened before.

0 thoughts on “How I Make One-Shots

  1. I love the idea of having a setting and pack of NPCs that work as resources for the varied agendas of a rotating suite of villains. (It also sounds like it could make a fun board or card game.) Do you have any plans to post or otherwise make available your notes, outlines, etc. for the session?

  2. That's an interesting way of putting it.

    And yes, I suppose I could use some Wednesday to put my notes online. Maybe in a few weeks when the Utena posts are done.

  3. Would you ever consider running a one-shot online? Just every once in a while, perhaps as part of preparations for a con? I'd love to try it out…

  4. Hmm. The main problem I can see is that roleplaying online, in my experience, always takes a lot longer than roleplaying in person, to the point that an online one-shot is borderline impossible. And the nature of the campaign–the way it changes based on what PCs are present–means that the risk of changes in who's playing from session to session could kill the narrative.

    That said, I might consider it if I could get a group of 2-6 players willing to absolutely and firmly commit to two 4-hour sessions.

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