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Experiments with one-shots

I’ve begun fooling around with one-shots over hangouts again. This time around I’ve been asking for feedback on my GM’ing, and boy, people don’t hold punches, do they?

After having my selfesteem destroyed a few times over (yes, I’m overly dramatizing), I have learned a lot of things, about what mistakes I make when GM’ing.

There’s a very fine line, I’ve noticed, about how much improvisation is good improvisation. Yes, that’s right; there actually seems to be an upper limit! For me when I run one-shots at least.

The thing is, when I GM a totally improvised session, I get exhausted near the end. Like really exhausted. Not because we’ve played for around four hours straight with only two or three very short brakes, but because it is hard work to run a session with zero framework before play begins.

I’ve tried a lot of different things out the last few days, and here are some of my intermediary conclusions.

Pitch the game with a strong premise

When you sit down to play, people want to make characters and then find out how these characters fit together and “what they do” to get by. Basically why they are adventuring together.

While that isn’t wrong, it can cause some very unfocused play and characters that don’t really fit well with each other. It doesn’t necessarily force this to happen, but it easily can. You might argue that the GM has great control over this, but the more you rely on the GM to have the skill to resolve these issues, well, the more mistakes that GM will eventually make. It’s simply better to remove the need, especially for a novice GM.

If you start out with a premise, like “adventuring band for hire”, then we have established two things; the party is already a coherent group of adventurers, and they are getting paid to do what they do. It doesn’t take much effort to make the characters have some history together.

The premise can be worked out in the beginning of the session, but you can save a lot of time doing it in advance.

Have a clear objective

In a one-shot, we don’t have a lot of time for mystery. We don’t have time to start from scratch. It’s much easier to start in medias res, with some basic information and a very solid lead on how to get more.

The players literally have to have an immediate goal when play begins, otherwise they’ll just poke around doing next to nothing for around an hour of game time.

These goals can even be a part of your premise! “Band of adventurers hired to delve into the Pyramid of Sorrow to fetch the Hellslayer sword”. Now the players will be aware that it’s going to be a Dungeon Crawl, which means that they can choose options and classes that makes them better at that.

Everybody likes to have cool stuff to do, right?

Finishing thoughts

There’s a lot more to this, but I still need to gather my thoughts on the matter. I’m experimenting a lot at the moment to make these things work, and there’s a lot of do’s and don’ts.

I’m going to focus on the do’s that minimizes the need for skill on the GM part. Dungeon World already helps a lot here with the Principles, but you still need to think a lot when improvising. Mostly the rule book focuses on how to start campaigns, not one-shots, and having a “first session” as a one-shot often mean we spend a lot of time establishing facts that we don’t have time to use.

One-shots needs to be focused, because we don’t have time to deal with all the details of a full campaign, so I’m trying to set up a few guidelines on how to do that.

More to follow!

So, Dungeon Morphs…

It seems my idea about using coasters isn’t that original. At least not if you take a look at Dungeon Morphs. First this was a bit of a letdown for me, I really thought I was quite brilliant for a few days.

Now that the slight disappointment has passed, I see that I can use this to my advantage; I no longer have to make the cards, and can just start writing the adventure!

The idea will be modified a bit for this purpose; the Dungeon Morphs (all 90 of them, wauw) will be shuffled, and every time a Morph card is left, a new one will be drawn and placed in extension. There will now be rolled dice to decide which encounter is met.

The mechanic will be simple; you roll a die, maybe a d8, I don’t know yet, and take the d8’th unmet encounter on the list, marking it off. This is what is encountered on this Morph card. When you roll higher than the amount of remaining encounters, simply take the highest.

In this way, the dragon will be placed lowest on the list, and the longer the list is, the “deeper” the dungeon will become. Having more encounters on the list than the sides of the die also ensures that there will be some encounters prior to the dragon.

How do you people like this spin? I was also thinking about using my coasters to write the encounters upon, and pseudo randomizing those.

One-Shots & Random Dungeons

OK, I’ve been thinking about this for some days now. I am terrible at hosting one-shots as it rarely keeps being a one-shot. I never conclude my stories, and it really bothers me.

It’s not that I don’t like to play with the same people, I just want to know how it ends! I’ve been asking the various G+ communities I frequent about this problem, and it seems that everyone agrees that I’m going at it with a “difficult” mindset.

I say difficult, because I really love improvising and GM’ing without a plan. It makes me feel better about the game, because I have to take all the input the players give me and use it. I feel it makes the game better in some way.

I really abhor railroading, as you may know if you read some of my earliest posts. I truly hate sitting at a table, having no influence over the game. It feels like watching a horrible TV show, but it’s rude to say anything because the manuscript writer is sitting next to you.

How is this a problem for me? It seems I’m on the right track, right? Well, maybe not entirely. Improvising everything works great for campaigns, it really centers the story around the characters, and it almost ensures that the players are invested in the story. The downside is that it makes the game longer, since it makes players “goof around” a lot more. You can’t blame them, they just pick up on the things that interest them.

So, how is this relevant? Well, if you want to conclude the story, then it is important to have a story to conclude! In the games I GM, this story emerges during the game, but there’s no time for that if you are playing a one-shot. In really comes to letting the players know the X-Y-Z scheme before play begins; Villain X will do Y unless the players do Z.

It might sound square, but as Dan Roth said on the Game Master Tips G+ community:

I’ve found that experienced players come to one-shots with a different mindset than they do a campaign.

This sentence is very true, at least I wholeheartedly agree. You don’t expect great personal revelations about your character’s inner-most desires in a one-shot action-heavy fantasy game. You just don’t have the time! You have time to stop the bad guy. That’s it, and it’s what you sit down at the table to do.

So this X-Y-Z scheme seems useful, if only for setting an initial direction for the game. So far, so good. What now? Random Dungeons!

This week (or last, whatever) the One Page Dungeon 2013 contest ended. The entries can be viewed here. Even though it says “dungeon”, the contests was about submitting system-neutral adventures that fit on a single page. I found something in an entry by Dyson Logos that can be found on his blog Dyson’s Dodecaheron. The link shows a one-page dungeon, where some of the encounters are rolled for randomly on a table, as the party makes their way through a jungle. While random encounters in itself isn’t terribly original, and who cares anyway, then it gave me an idea.

In Dyson’s entry, it’s possible to roll the same encounter more than once. I propose a different strategy where instead of fighting random monsters, you explore random rooms. Basically, the idea is this; you buy some clear, white coasters from your local hobby shop. On every coaster, draw a dungeon room on one side, keeping the other clear. Choose a “beginning room” and a “last room”, and place them aside. Shuffle the remaining rooms, put the last room on the bottom and the beginning room on the top. When the party enters the dungeon, draw the top room and place it in front of you.

Every time the players leave a room by an unused exit, roll a die and dig that deep into the room pile, pull forth that room and place it somewhere in front of you, or draw the last room if your die roll was larger than the size of the stack. Put the other rooms back on top in the same order. Now you connect the new room with the one they left with a line, exit to exit. It helps having a whiteboard or large piece of paper. The players can for the rest of the game move freely between these rooms, using the connected exits.

The amount of rooms can be larger than the size of the die, and the size of the pile will then represent how “deep into the dungeon” the final room is. Alternatively, you can sort the pile beforehand, but the rooms will still be somewhat random. The rooms in the top are very likely to be drawn, but the lower down, the less likely they are to be explored.

You could number some or all of the rooms on their front, and prepare something in advance for them, or you could improvise. The point is; you have a pseudo random dungeon to explore, and you can make it as difficult as you want, just add more rooms! When the enemy has been vanquished, you can exit the dungeon, or explore the rest of it if your players feel like that. At the end, you can sit back and marvel at the creation in front of you.

I bought 20 coasters, and I’m thinking about which awesome 20 rooms to draw on them. The theme is “Dwarven Hold”. If you have any ideas, I’ll gladly hear them out. To give you some an idea about what kind of adventure I’m going for, I wrote an introduction for this pseudo-random style adventure:

The Dragon Menace

You left the city with the horrors you witnessed still firmly imprinted on your mind. The dragon came out of nowhere, setting large parts of the city aflame, trapping women and children inside the burning buildings.

The thought of their dying screams still send shivers down your spine. You could have fled, but you knew that you were their only salvation. The dragon will come again, unless you kill it. That much was clear, when the kobold delegation came to demand tribute for their lord.

It flew back to the mountains, so you headed there. It didn’t take long until you found some of its kobold servants, keeping watch outside a cave. You slew them quickly, their screams cut short by your blade, a blade sharpened by vengeance and tempered with hatred. You did not pity them.

You stand there, watching the cave entrance before you, the dwarven ruins still echoing with the lamentations of the dead. Who knows what will be waiting for you inside?

In the depths you can hear the kobolds, singing songs of worship to their lord. A furious roar greets them. What do you do?

Happy gaming!