Running One-Shots has Changed How I Run RPGs

I’m a campaign-style GM. I enjoying building a rich and evocative world with layers of a story over the course of years. I treasure callbacks and references to events and NPCs previously encountered. The lives and passions of NPCs are known to the players of my games.

I usually spend a fair amount of time prepping games. Not specific encounters, but things like NPCs motivations and connections, what factions are up to, creating cool scenes and locations, etc. All of this prep helps the puzzle of the game come together as the TV show Lost, but with a satisfying ending.

My last big campaign ended two years ago this summer. Due to the pandemic, our gaming group decided to run one-shots—1-5 session games only—until we all have the energy to invest in another long campaign.

Running short RPGs is a skill

Just as there is a difference between the skills needed to write novels vs. short stories, running short RPG games is wholly different from running a campaign.

Game time is at a premium, so you have to get to the action FAST. I learned this the hard way. I was investing too much time into scenes that weren’t central to the game. This led to terrible endings that were rushed because I ran out of time.

Embracing the chaos

One-shot games are generally wild rides. “Drive your character like a stolen car” is my mantra for playing in one-shots. Why couldn’t I adopt that mantra as a GM of one-shots?

I stopped prepping for games. I started to ask the players questions and used their answers to craft the game. With no prep, I was free to make use of everything the players gave me. No longer knowing the secret origin of a magical item meant I could fold its origin or powers into the narrative in any way that made the story great.

I was free from the shackles of my planning. And it was glorious!

Someday, when I return to running a big campaign, I’m going to use everything I’ve learned from this experience to improve my long game.