Designing One-Shot RPGs

Shallow focus photo of people running track and field hurdles

Written by Vee Hendro

I love designing one-shot games! The format has so many good features:

  • the scope is smaller, which means easier to give love and care to every part of the game
  • you can be more creative, it’s the perfect format to go on fun design tangents and explore that weird niche idea you’ve had in the back of your mind
  • it doesn’t take as much time to playtest, you can see all of the game play out in one session! (also check out our tips on how to playtest your tabletop rpg)

If you’re just starting out on your game design journey, I also recommend the one-shot format because it helps you to more quickly gain the fundamentals of design: going from nothing, to prototyping and playtesting, to refining and putting together a completed design. You won’t get bogged down by lengthy and complex multi-session rules.

However, one shots can be tricky in their own way, because you have such a limited amount of time. Think of it like directing a 90 minute movie versus a 26 episode season, you’ll need to be more exacting and think carefully about what you are including. Every scene and cut needs to be carefully considered. You just don’t have the time to explore everything, so you need to be extra clear about what exactly it is you are trying to do with your game and how you’re going to go about it. Designing one-shots really helps you with practising intentionality in your design.

So that’s my pitch for why you should go for it! Design a one-shot. I hope the rest of this article helps with some pointers to get you started, or just to help share with you how I think about designing for the single session experience.

Big Bad Con Online 2022 Panel: Designing One-Shot RPGs

I recently covered this topic along with three other excellent designers on a panel for Big Bad Con Online.

One-shots have the hefty task of creating a satisfying and memorable story in just a few hours. Join four designers to find out their key considerations for creating one-shots and engaging players from the get-go. From structure to story, how can we build the most compelling design for the single session experience?

Presented by Vee Hendro, Logan Timmins, Sidney Icarus, Melody Watson, and moderated by Hayley Gordon.

Why One-shot RPGs are like Sprint Races

I often think about a one-shot RPG session as a sprint race. You all get together, line up at the start line, do the ‘on your marks, get set,’ preparation, then ‘go!’ you need to accelerate as quickly as possible to hit your stride, before you know it you can see the finish line, and you hope you can finish strong.

A diagram of a running race, labelled 'Start Line', 'Accelerating', 'Hitting Your Stride' and 'Finish Strong'

Each of these phases correlates to something I also see in the one-shot game experience:

  • Before you even get to the start line. What preparation do you need to do before the day of the game? Does someone need to read and understand the rules? Does a GM need to prepare the game?
  • At the start line. Everyone has gathered, and now you’re going to prepare for the ‘race’/’game’. You’re getting some instructions (on your marks, get set) and you are responding to it, doing things, but you’ve not yet started the race. This phase is characterized by anticipation, setting up correctly, intaking information. In an rpg this could look like, character creation, an initial rules explanation, etc.
  • Go! You set off. This is when the game begins in the mind of your players. When do the participants think ‘okay, we’re playing the game now’. It’s characterized by increased focus, increased participation, your players shifting gears when they sense the game ‘actually starting’ and bringing in active energy. Unlike a running race, this moment is not always so clear cut. Sometimes it’s even more of a bell curve, where players don’t necessarily agree, or the line is blurry. That’s all fine, I’ll talk more about this below.
  • Accelerating. This is where players are getting that snowball rolling, building up their confidence, getting comfortable as a group and generally working up to hitting their stride. As a designer, you want to help players prepare well before the race so they have a good foundation to accelerate into the game.
  • Hitting your stride. Where the group is comfortable, confident, and ideally in a flow state, truly engaged in the activity, focused and lose track of time because they’re just enjoying themselves.
  • Finish strong. You can see that finish line approaching, the game reaches it’s conclusion, players reach the end of the session. How does the game wrap up? Fictionally? Mechanically? Experientially in the minds of the participants?
  • After you’ve crossed the finish line. Yes, the game is over, but what happens next? Is there a debriefing codified into your game? Are there things that players do even after they know the game has ended?

I’d encourage you to apply this framework to your design thinking: how are you handling the accelerating phase of the game? Does your game hit its stride early, or late? Do you think your ending procedures are strong and satisfying? It can be helpful to break apart the design into specific parts where you understand the relationship between one part and the next. There’s no right answers, but I wanted to cover off some common approaches designers have taken in each of those phases below, along with some general principles (which you absolutely can take it or leave it!)

Before the start line

This phase can look very, very different from game to game. If you’re wanting your game to be played, it’s really just about making all the preparation easy and fun enough to do, so that potential players actually will get through it and play the game!

  • How long is the rulebook? Is it easy to read, well edited, well organised? If it has to be long and complex, is the reading experience fun and engaging in its own right?
  • Does your game need special or specific items to play? That’s fine, but it should be a feature that people are excited to gather and prepare: it might be a hassle to find those tealights, but if you’re really excited to play in the dark and burn character sheets you’ll be motivated to find them!
  • Can you just… get rid of this step? This is one of the pillars of our Littlebox RPGs. We wanted to design games that can be played straight out of the box, with no prep. The intention there is that the rulebook is short and sharp enough that you could read, understand and play the game all within the session.

Be intentional and aware of your start line

As you’re designing your game, have a clear understanding in your own mind of when does this game begin? It’s not always clear-cut, but you as the designer should be able to articulate when it is and why it is. Some examples:

  • In chess, it’s not when you’re setting up your pieces, but when white makes the opening move. A lot of board games have a clear beginning point. A benefit of this clarity is that it signals players to exactly when the game starts making expectations of you.
  • In For the Queen by Alex Roberts, is it when you start drawing and reading out the instructional cards, or when you reach your first ‘real’ card? Not everyone might agree exactly, but the cleverness of this approach is that it cuts out the passive step of someone reading you the rules, and the game already demands your focus and attention in a more active way, earlier in the session.

It’s important to be aware of your start line so you can:

  • clearly understand the “on your marks, get set…” part of your game versus the “go!”
  • design your line to be clearer and harder, vs softer and blurrier to achieve different effects.
  • manipulate your rules and procedures to bring the line forward, so people think the game is starting earlier and therefore they spend more time actually ‘playing the game’ in their minds.

Note that fun, play, and information exchange can and does regularly happen before your start line. But it remains important to know when your start line is because people shift gears when they sense the game ‘starting’. There’s a palpable change before and after a game ‘starts’.

On your marks, get set…

This section is so important because it has the big job of ensuring players start off on the right footYou don’t want false starts and shaky steps, you want participants to be ready and confident. Good preparation is the key to good beginnings.

While I often try to minimize this time, because I prefer players to be playing in ‘active game time’ as much as possible, it needs to be effective in preparing players for the experience ahead. So where this section needs to take longer, I try to make it:

  • very fun and evocative
  • include some active decision-making (but make these decisions quick, easy and again, fun)
  • do meaningful set up and expectation setting for later in the game
  • have good one-page reference sheets to learn the rules quickly

A good example is Ten Candles by Stephen Dewey. We know where the ‘start line’ is because the rulebook says after the character creation ‘turn off the lights, it begins’. Going from light to dark is a very obvious start line. If we look at the character creation (set up for the game), we can get some clues as to how to make an effective ‘on your marks, get set’ portion of a one-shot game. 

  • Lighting candles (fun and evocative)
  • Setting up character moments to encounter later (anticipation, setting expectation, meaningful)
  • Simple character choices (can be made quickly, broken up into small steps so each decision is easy)

When you’re assessing this portion of your game design, as yourself whether players have enough to build on so that when that starting gun goes off, they are ready and confident to push off.

… Go! (How to accelerate to hit your stride effectively)

The push off, the acceleration begins. As I mentioned, I’m often thinking of how to get the game group into some sort of flow state. For flow, people tend to need to know what they’re going to be doing and have the skills and confidence to meet those expectations and delight themselves and each other.

When accelerating, one common and effective approach is to gain steam steadily and in chunks. Introduce things in small chunks. You can chunk up things like: game roles (break up the jobs between different people so no one person has too much to do), time (players take turns, so you don’t need to be switched on all the time), or phases/rules (introduce different phases to the game so that you don’t need all the rules all at once but maybe only need certain rules for certain sections, or build up the rules complexity so things start off small and easy and then have a good learning curve)

Some examples:

  • In Decaying Orbit by Sidney Icarus, the game uses a phasic structure to organise the session (and fiction) into Act 1, 2, and 3. It also uses turn-taking to give players time to prep before it’s their turn again. Both these things help players get going in the game, and often players are hitting their stride by their second turn.
  • In Lovecraftesque by Becky Annison and Joshua Fox, players are given roles to play in the scene. As a player, you have more time to focus on your job during the scene so you’re never overwhelmed with the things you need to do. You’ll rotate through the different roles, so you end up getting to experience the breadth of the game but in small, manageable chunks. There’s also a nice parallel in the acceleration of the fiction, which starts of small, but gets more complex are you move through the story.

Finishing strong, and beyond

Writing an excellent ending is a real skill. For some reason, I’ve always relished this part of the process, and I often leave it for last — a sort of cherry on top in my design process. Not everyone does that, of course, but one reason I do it that way is because I often playtest before I finalise the ending. I think you discover a lot about your game and the stories it tells through playtesting, and I often won’t commit to an ending until I’ve had the time to explore that breadth of storytelling in the ‘real world’ of play.

When designing an ending, it can be useful to assess the fictional ending separately from the mechanical procedures designed to achieve it. Of course, once it’s all designed it seems seamless and just right together. But when you’re in the process of designing it can be useful to consider them separately at first.

  • What fictional ending does your game work toward? In fiction writing, there’s commonly six different types of story endings and it can be useful to identify the ending/s that your game may have (you can definitely have more than one type): resolved endings, unresolved endings, expanded endings, unexpected endings, ambiguous endings and ‘come full circle’ endings.

Then, tie this fictional ending with a mechanical procedure in your game. There’s an infinite number of ways to do this, but some thought starters:

  • Leave the players with something: a la Jeeyon Shim and Shing Yin Khor’s keepsake games idea, where designers and players collaborate in creating a physical object, “a gameplay artifact”. In Villagesong, there’s a nifty reading of your unique poem.
  • Think sandcastles: Let the players wreck it! Or the gentler, let the tide take it away. Dread’s tower-toppling dramatic end or the burning of character sheets are some examples of this.
  • Give players agency, or take it away tactfully: You can have the same type of fictional ending, for example, expanded epilogue endings, and how it plays out can be entirely different depending on how much player agency is involved in the mechanics around that epilogue. For example, in Fiasco, a disaster-full black comedy, the epilogues involve a random die roll that you don’t have that much control over. But it works in that game! Because the characters have little control of their own fates, and luck and circumstance play a huge thematic part in the genre. Contrast with Saltfish and Almanacs, which has an epilogue ending also, but players have full agency in saying what happens to their character. This makes sense in a game that is about self-discovery and making your own way in the world.

Beyond the ending, it can be useful to think about whether there’s anything left for your game to say. In most cases, probably not, but perhaps your game is very heavy and would benefit from a debrief. Perhaps the ending is ambiguous, and you want to encourage players to have a discussion about their own interpretations after the game’s ending.

Have a lot of fun flexing your creative muscles!

So that’s why one-shots are like a race. Maybe your race is laser focused, with officials taking precise timings. Maybe your race has blurrier lines, starting at the monkey bars and finishing at the tree. Maybe your race is all downhill on a track like a skeleton race. Maybe it’s a steeplechase, with various obstacles and phases. Whatever you’re designing, the one-shot is an awesome format to flex your creative muscles, and I hope you have fun making it!

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