Single-Shot and Short Form RPGs — Creating for the Short Haul

Our current gaming group meets every 2 weeks, and we are rotating between us — each person takes a couple of months to run a self-contained story-line (all within the same basic universe/historical period,) and then passes it on to the next person.  Additionally, for Thanksgiving day, and then again on New Year’s Eve, we played “whoever is in the house”-style games, with either pre-rolled characters passed out randomly, or with off-the-normal-game-track versions of our regular characters.

I know there are a lot of gamers and gaming groups that play HUGE story-arcs for years at a time — but we’re not that kind of group at the moment.  Also, since we are nominally, at least, playing D&D-4thEdition, there is a built-in arc of 30 levels of character development, and all the different kinds of characters advance at the same rate.  This gives the group of characters a natural life span, before they morph into NPCs, (non-player characters) and the gamers start asking “what’s next?”

And a lot of people I talk with on Facebook have wanted to talk about this kind of SHORT FORM GAMING.  And I’ve started piecing together the necessary bits that make short-form and one-shot games work.

So here’s the bits I have so far:

1.  The Drop

If you’ve got a room full of people who don’t normally play together, whether they bring their own characters, or pick a pre-rolled character from a hat, the story STORY has to start with their reason for being in the same place at the same time.  Why are they all walking along the same road at the same time?  Why are they all on the same ship?  How did they all come to be at the same inn ?

Either: they have to be answering a global call (the king summoned all adventurer seeking to help defend the kingdom against X;

or: they each have to have a private letter, motivation, wanted poster, map, wanderlust, or tourism brochure that brought them here.

And because you want everybody up and running simultaneously (to prevent the odd-man-out syndrome) the drop needs to be obvious, shared, and over quickly so you can get on with the story.  Give the players/characters a chance to introduce themselves (or not if they’re secretive kinds of characters), exchange names, and get an overview of what each one can do for the others.

In narrative terms, this is the description of the STATUS QUO at the beginning of the story.

2.  The Hook

The Hook, in any RPG game is exactly the same as it is in any story.  This is Narrative Structure 101.  You’ve given your players a WHERE and a WHY in The Drop — The Hook is where you give them the WHAT.  What has happened to X-Important-Person?  What has changed recently?  What’s the buzz? What’s the puzzle that has to be figured out?  What’s the problem that has to be solved?  Who did this horrible thing so the group can go after him/her?  What great wrong needs to be righted?  Who needs rescuing and why?  What has changed in the status quo that makes it no longer acceptable?

In narrative terms — this is the initial COMPLICATION.  There will be many complications even in the shortest of short games, with varying degrees of difficulty and danger; but, the hook is what grabs your players and their PCs and drags them into the middle of an EVENT!

For a single shot game, and even for a short-form game — you need to be through with the Drop and the Hook in minutes.  Just minutes.  Not a half hour.  Not an hour.


All players need is enough time to slip into a place, and get comfortable with what their character can and can’t do in this world (as well as how their character will relate to the rest of the group) and then you’re on to what’s next.

3.  Action

I am including action here at the front because it is so important — and really difficult to get right.

An RPG is a really interesting kind of thing when it comes to action.  In video or computer games, action comes fast and furious.  Depending on the game, either action is non-stop; or, solving puzzles is non-stop.  Some games alternate between puzzles and action.

In movies and plays, action is what you build to at the end of each block.  Whether it’s each scene (see Hamlet); each act (see the play, Sherlock Holmes) or each narrative arc (see Raiders of the Lost Arc [sic].)

In novels, it can take an entire Harry Potter book to get you to the Chamber of Secrets or the graveyard, or the dungeon room where the Mirror of Erised is stored.  Or it can take you 350 pages of Moby Dick to get to the big whale.  In absolute terms, it took over 2000 pages to get Harry Potter and Voldemort into the Hogwart’s dining hall — though there was a lot of action to get them there.

In real life — unless you are a cop, a fire fighter, a lawyer or a doctor, — real action happens pretty rarely.  Maybe every few years.  Even for the cops, fire fighters, lawyers, and doctors — real action is the (yippee!) cozy diner on an otherwise monotonous, bureaucracy-filled highway.

But in RPG land, you have a room full of players trying to figure out what’s going on in this world.  Aside from listening to you fill in details of what they see, hear, over-hear, notice, and smell (in narrative terms, this is called EXPOSITION,) your players don’t have much to DO until some action jumps out from behind a tree.

Which is exactly why it should.  Action should jump out at them while they’re trying to figure out what’s next.  It should jump out at them while they’re trying to figure out a riddle or puzzle.  Action should jump out at them while they are making dumb jokes about their character names.


Consider timing.  If your game is just one hack-and-slash Orc fight after another, then you’re not gaining any story ground.  You’re just racking up experience points.

But, if your exposition and story telling goes on for more than 20-30 minutes without something that JUMPS OUT, then your players are going to get bored.  It can’t ALL be about telling the story together — but it does have to move the story along together.  This is what timing is all about.

A really excellent professor I had once put it this way:


If your players/characters (PCs) aren’t either recognizing (learning something new, going to a new venue, meeting somebody new, discovering some new clue); or reversing (changing their minds, changing their choices, changing the way they behave) — then there is no ACTION.  All fights should result in new information.  All chases should lead to a place where the PCs can discover something.  Surviving a storm should land them in an important new place to explore.  Saving a life should reward them with a tale only the survivor can tell.  –And killing without a good reason — just for the sake of killing — should carry penalties in-game boons like information, clues, and assistance.

Action is what we mean when we say “Something’s happening.”

And it should happen often, unexpectedly, and without the appearance of premeditation.

If you know your players are crossing a desert — you should have several possible encounters that could befall them in that desert.  Scorpions.  Snakes.  Bandits.  Dust storms.  A sand schooner full of ladies of the evening.  A tent merchant who is really a prince hiding from kidnappers.

If you know your players are running through a rain forest — there should be a list of creatures and/or individuals that live in that forest at your fingertips that the PCs could run into.

***At the very least — there should be some big challenge to the group of PCs within the first hour of playtime.  This will give them the opportunity to coordinate and meld as a group.***

It is also important to say that at least the first action/encounter should involve ALL  your PCs.  It should be like a warm-up exercise.  Everybody participates.  Everybody gets a chance to fight.  Everybody gets a chance to discover something.  Everybody gets the experience of having been part of a successful event.

Do it soon.  Make it win-able.  Make it challenging enough so that it’s not just a slash-a-thon bloodfest  Get everybody involved.  Give them the chance to work together and see how it feels.

Action is the bread and butter of any story, and it is just as important in a short-form or one-shot RPG.  There is a limit to how many opportunities your players will have to join forces and choose — and how many chances they will have at recognition and reversal.

4.  Keep Your Eye On The Ball

This one seems obvious if you’ve played RPGs a lot, but for those with less experience, it can be difficult.  What I mean by keeping your eye on the ball is this:


Know where your story is going to end.  Know what the goal of the story is.  George Lucas would say KNOW YOUR McGUFFIN.  Know what the thing is that signals the end of the story.  Is it the Arc [sic] of the Covenant?  Is it the death of Voldemort?  Is it getting the chapel built for the nuns?  Is it firing all the nuclear weapons in the world at once, and riding one to the ground?  Is it getting Julia Roberts and Richard Geer together on the fire escape of her apartment?    Is it killing the dragon that has been stealing the children?– or Is it getting the children safely home?  What’s the goal?

And if you keep your eye on that goal you can make sure your players don’t distract you or sidetrack you with other adventures THEY THINK they are on.

If your PCs are getting there too quickly — drop some obstacles in their path.  A boulder blocking the road (with giant spiders living under it.)  Three trolls out trolling for their dinner.  A family of bugbears out for a walk while waiting on their porridge to cool.  A band of mercenaries who haven’t gotten the word that their war is over.

If your PCs are getting to the McGuffin too slowly — drop in a character, scroll, carrier pigeon with the information, magic, or assistance they need to get on to the final crisis, and thus to the climax of your story.

Keep your eye on the ball — and on the clock — and on your players’ faces for signs of boredom, exhaustion, or enraptured bliss.

A one-shot, or short RPG game is like reading one of those imaginary comic books where the reader gets to decide at every turn which way they will go, who they will fight vs. who they will run from or try to talk out of fighting, and how many times they’ll pause the game to go get a fresh soda.  But as the GM/DM, it will always fall to you to be voice that keeps things moving, and insists that there isn’t going to be time to look at every flower growing by the road, or time to talk to every zippy bunny that hops across the road.  Keep things moving in the right direction — but most of all — keep things moving.

5.  Preparation is Everything

The time to consult books and tables; the time to discuss which weapon each PC is going to use; and even the time to add and recalculate standard bonuses, bonus dice, and modifiers is before the action starts — not in the middle of a fight when other players are waiting for their chance to whack on the ugly goblin marauders.  Make sure everybody has all these calculations done in the 10 minutes before you say DROP — and start the game!  Give your players a 15 Minute Warning timer if you need to — and tell them to get all these calculations made in that time so that everybody is up and ready to go TOGETHER.

Unlike games that are going to have another Saturday night in a couple of weeks — a one-shot game really is confined by time, and therefore has to smooth and fast.

Even more important — make sure you (the GameMaster or Dungeon Master) have done all your prep well in advance.  Your lists of possible encounter, your Monster Manuals, your hand drawn maps and scrolls of messages should  already be prepared and at hand before you begin.  PLUS some backups.

As long as you know all the ways you’re willing to let the game/story play out, then it will be easy for you to derail dead ends before they happen, and keep your band of gamers from trying to pick a fight with every bar-maid and shopkeeper in the village.


If you are running a one-shot or short-form RPG –always know that the story you are telling is yours.  Know your beginning and your ultimate goal.

But also know that the path to that goal, and choices along the way are your players’.  Keep your options open; have a backup plan; and have action ready to jump out at your PCs any time there’s a lull.  The point is the experience — not the experience points.  And the real point is that it be fun for everybody.


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