01 Dec GMing Lessons #15: How to Make One-Shot Adventures

I recently ran a few games at Aethercon IV, the Online Convention. As you might be able to tell from the name, it’s the fourth year that it’s been running, and I’ve been lucky enough to be part of it from the beginning. That alone has been a great experience for me, to watch the event and see how it runs, evolves and improves year on year.

I myself have improved, year on year, and I wanted to share a few of the things that I have learnt after this weekend (and looking back over a few lessons from the last four years of being an indie game designer).

Adventure Prep – But How?

I used to just wing all of my campaign games. Sometimes I was really lazy, and had no idea before we started, but most of the time I would get a concept of the area and then build on that as the game went on. I still like to keep my games really loose and flexible, because I like to have the pc’s in charge of what happens, not the adventure. I think of it as player-driven story.

The thing is, that doesn’t always translate all that well to One-Shots.

You can’t just give people a setting and basic concept and let them run with it, then steadily build the world around them and let them choose what trouble they get into. So how can you make a One-Shot seem like it gives the players power of choice?

It’s about direction of attention. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Give Them a Problem

The very first thing you’ve got to do is work out a basic problem. Something that the players need, but can’t get. 

Let’s take, for example, a simple problem like the town the pcs are in needs food. They’re starving. So the pcs need to go out and get food. Who has it? Well, there’s a little town down the way who have food – a guy passing through there saw it last week! Heaps and heaps of food. Surely they could spare some for some trade?

Make a Complication

But of course, it can’t be that easy. Here’s where things get interesting. You have to work out why the pcs can’t just easily handle the problem. Give them a complication. 

This could be something like – the other town just got attacked by reavers, who took off with all the surplus food, and now the townsfolk are also facing starvation. Or it could be that the townsfolk actually don’t have enough food to trade and aren’t willing to give any of it up. Or, yet again it could be that the townsfolk just don’t want what the pcs have, but would be willing to trade if the pcs would go and clean up an Infected pack down the way…

The complication makes it interesting.

Really it can go like this:

Problem>Attempted solution>Complication>Attempted solution>Complication>Solution.

I find that having two complications at least in there is a good idea. Or you could have a couple of problems.

One that I did the other day was that a bandit group was going to attack a town, but the town didn’t have enough weapons to defend itself (1st problem). They needed the pcs to trade for weapons with a dealer, except they didn’t have enough gold to pay him…so when the pcs met him they asked if he would like them to do something else (complication), and eventually he asked them to clear refugees out from a nearby warehouse (new problem), except when the pcs got there they found they weren’t willing to move (complication), and so had to be forcibly convinced. They then got some of the guns they needed (another complication), and then had to take on the bandit group that was attacking the town.

It was neat, and it worked well, and gave lots of opportunities for social skills, problem solving, wits and combat too (there was even a little infected attack in the wilds, which increased the pulse rate a bit!).

Just working out a really basic problem and why it can’t be solved gives you a great start. Try not to just go for evil tropes (the evil goblins in the hills need to all be killed…because they’re all evil little gits!). I find that problems with moral ambiguity thrown in there really adds to the problem solving…you don’t really want to kill those nice people…but if you don’t get rid of them then your whole town will die…so what do you do?

Keep it Short

This is so key. Always in the past I have tried to jam too much into a One-Shot, and have come a cropper because of it. I have a natural instinct for running stories and I think on my feet really well, but even so, many times the adventures have stretched on well over their time limit, and still not gotten through everything.

Related:  GM Tips #19: Use Your Best Ideas

Keep it simple and to the point. You can always add stuff to fill the time if you must! That’s never a problem.

So just keep thinking problem>complication and let the players work out their solutions to these sticky messes!

Make Them Care

Wow, how did this take me so long to work out? In the past I used to make pre-gens for people who were all, basically, vagrants. They were a step removed from the D&D murder hobo, but only a step. They weren’t really living people who were involved in the places that they lived. And because of their lack of ties, I always found half the battle was trying to get them to care about the adventure at all. I mean, why should they? The reason I did this was usually because I didn’t want to force the players down any storyline.

Now I realise that’s just being silly. Giving a person a pre-generated backstory, contacts, feuds and allies gives them context! Straight away they understand who the character is, will slip into the role and act accordingly. Now I make the pre-gen characters have a history. They’re part of the community, they have wives, children, friends, people who’ve helped them out. And they have a softer edge. Something to live for (at least, in the world of Infected they suddenly have something to live for). Not only that, but that softer edge makes them far more interesting as characters. They may have paranoia lurking underneath, but it would now only come out under stress – which makes for more interesting, nuanced role playing.

Once they care, then it’s really easy to get them involved. Those who are outcasts or individuated from the group are more noticeably so, and would be considered with less trust, and sometimes as though they’re a bit of a nutter (“That guy just lives in the wilds…what a fruitcake!”).

It’s the story strings of connection, of having something valuable that actually makes the GM able to be a puppet master, twitching those strings. The carrot and stick. On one side they stand to gain. On the other side they stand to lose. What are they going to do? Suddenly their infinity of options narrows down remarkably. Few would choose to quit and run…jeez, there you go, off to start again! That’s called failure to most people!

Of course you need to give lots of opportunity there too. People don’t want all stick. They need a carrot too!

Throw in a Twist

A twist in the tale will really add oomph to the ending. See if you can find something to surprise them with. That’s part of the complication really. Make it so they get a shock at the end. Oh that’s why…!”

Finally – Be Flexible

Ultimately, once you’ve worked out your master plan something is still bound to go wrong. The players will surprise you with an incredible roll. They’ll solve the problem in a way you never expected. They’ll make half the problem redundant.

Good. That’s what they’re supposed to do! You want to challenge their wits. If they all came up with the same solution, you’d know you had a dungeon crawl on your hands. So be willing to think on your feet. Keep the context in mind, and shuffle things up as you need to. Remember, the pcs aren’t against you. That would be silly – you’re the GM. You’re playing God. Instead, think of it as cooperative storytelling – you’re working with them to tell an amazing story, filled with adventure and surprises.

What do you think? Do you have some formulas of your own for One-Shot adventures? If so, let me know in the comments – I’d love to hear them!

~Oliver

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