Personally, I’ve never been a fan of GMing long campaigns. I know myself and I am not organized enough to manage a full session ahead of the game I’m currently playing, so whenever I get the itch to GM a game I fall back onto the trusty one-shot! I recently learned that this is actually backward from the way that a lot of people view things. Most folk like running a long campaign because of the cohesive story that it tells, but can’t reduce a similar story into one session sit down because it would run too long. I’d like to give all GMs that struggle with one-shots a bit of insight into how I plan them, and hopefully, it will help you all in the future.
The Three Unities:
When I was in high school I was an actor. I was often the lead in the plays that we put on and eventually reached out into back stage antics and learned how to do pretty much everything top to bottom! I credit many of the skills I have today to this knowledge,and a lot of my planning is derived from this knowledge as well. One big bit of knowledge that I like to use for every One-Shot I plan is the Three Unities of Greek Theatre.
These were idea thought up by Aristotle, so you know they’ve got some credibility to them. The Three Unities state that your play should showcase one action (or plot point) that takes place in one area within one day. Essentially the characters should be able to do everything including travel, battle, and return all within 24 hours game time. I want to clarify this very quickly, all of the true major action should be done in one place within 24 hours. If you want your characters to go to a mountain and slay a dragon, just make sure that everything at the mountain follows the Unities. They can start in a city if you want them to because “traveling to the mountain” doesn’t take more than a few sentences real time, and that’s what this rule is meant to help with. The rule helps to keep your session within a good window on the table so your players don’t get too worn out and you can keep your sanity. It also gives you as a GM a little bit of a formula by which to build your character’s day without worrying too much about the real time you’re running.
One – Two -Three Punch:
So now that we’ve got our time frame, 24 hours, we need to think about how to fill up our on the table run time. How do you keep your players entertained?
So the core of all great stories is a great villain. So you should start the meat of your story with the despicable villain and work your way out. Don’t be afraid to pull out the classic dragon or beholder, just make sure that your characters are the appropriate level for whatever you throw at them. (Side note: I normally run my One-Shots as level 3 campaigns so the PCs can get their starting sub-class abilities) Picking the baddie first will also give you some idea of what the minions will be. If your big baddie is a space raider chieftain, he would probably have bandits as his henchmen. If it’s a dragon, they might have some wyrmlings or fanatical cultists guarding them. Choosing the villain first lends itself to building smaller encounters quite nicely.
· Two: Create two helpful NPCs, and flesh them out
This is a rule that is, again, designed to help your planning process to an alarming degree. Pick two of your NPCs and make them the main two that will interact with your party. It could be the quest giver and the innkeeper if you want. Or in a space based RPG, it could be the lead pilot of a ship and a guard at a ground base. This will give you much-needed dialogue options for your party, and sources of information that they can potentially return to if they need assistance. They also have to potential to cause emotional investment if either of them is harmed along the course of your story. The other NPCs don’t need much more than a name or a personality unless the party latches onto them for some reason (players are weird like that). That’s something you may have to do on the fly but generally, two fleshed out NPCs will give you what you need in terms of non-player dialogue.
· Three: Have three backup characters ready
This is the most straightforward of the bunch, though the number can change based on the players that you’re running with. Sometimes players are slow when they try to choose spells, classes, races etc. So, if there is someone like that in the party have some pre-made characters that they can choose if they so wish. I usually go for a fighter, a caster, and a healer (assuming classes like that are available in the game). They’re easy classes that usually fit right into the party and fill some gap the party has. A quick word of caution, never force your players to take a pre made character. Just have it as an option and offer it before you begin character creation. They will tell you if they want to play any of them. If nothing else set aside some time a few days before the session devoted to character creation so that you have all the time you need.
Get a cheap ribbon:
Don’t feel the need to have some fancy grandiose ending to every game you play. Sometimes simple is better. So before your players even make/choose their characters you should have an ending or two in mind for the story. Let’s say that space pirates attack your vessel. The big baddie is the chieftain of this band, your NPCs are the pilot and head chef of the vessel you were on. The ending of the story should involve the chieftain dying, making peace, the party running, or the party dying. Ideally, it’ll be one of the first two options since one of the main purposes of playing RPGs is to feel like the hero in some sense. But, being that anything is possible we have to keep all of our options open. So have a couple of endings in mind and prepare a few sentences to wrap up the story no matter what happens.
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