When I was a kid and went out for dinner with my folks, the refrain was always the same, “Don’t fill up on bread!” That’s really hard because bread is delicious and when you add butter, who could resist? Also, bread from a basket tastes much better than bread from home. No idea why, it just is.
Okay, enough about bread.
Recently I played once shot game. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it’s a single session game, that’s right in the name, and it’s usually done to try out a new system or setting. They are essentially demos. Occasionally they can lead to longer campaigns but usually not. Consider the one shot the amuse-bouche of tabletop gaming.
Returning to the one shot I mentioned, it was for the upcoming, at the time of this writing, Alien RPG. The Ridley Scott, H.R. Giger Alien. This setting is by its very nature designed for a one shot, given how few characters make it through these movies alive. Perfect! What could be easier?
But we didn’t finish the game. Were our characters all slaughtered one by one? Did we set off the self-destruct sequence only to realize we needed to turn it off but missed the failsafe deadline? Space madness? None of the above. We simply ran out of time.
The cruelest fate for a one shot, the sand in the hourglass simply ran out, metaphorically speaking. We remarkably didn’t die, due to smart choices, lucky rolls and a lack of time. There was some post mortem about how it would’ve played out but it was not nearly as a satisfying as actual playing.
Afterwards, as I was walking to the subway, the GM and I discussed the game. Just as an aside, this guy is an excellent GM and runs entertaining games. This is not a character assassination. The game was frustrating for him since we didn’t get to finish. So why was this session, designed to be done in a single sitting, left half eaten?
We filled up on bread. Let me explain. We started our session by individually awakening from hypersleep. We then got dressed, grabbed coffee, checked our various instruments and so on. Did some role-playing. We plotted our course, checked out orders, and began our descent to the planet we were sent to land on.
If this was part of the first session of a campaign, I’d be extremely psyched, the mood and setting was very authentic. The only problem was it took too long. I’d estimate that it took somewhere near an hour and half to do all that. Was it bad? Far from it. Did we need to do it? Probably not.
I say this not as a knock. As games go, it was fun but by the time the entrée arrived, i.e. the Aliens, we didn’t have room to clean our plates. Which was a shame because I wanted to play in this universe, at least as long as I could stay alive in it.
So what’s the solution? Don’t treat a one-shot like a feast, it is not a full meal. It’s street food. Imagine a taco fresh off the cart. Hot, full of flavor and best if you eat it quickly. Goble it down, but if you wait too long, it will get cold and soggy. I realize this is not a perfect analogy but the idea of getting to the good stuff quickly is solid. Set the mood and get started. Personally, I’m a big fan of in media res. Thrust your players right in the middle of the action it will get things going.
When you begin a longer game, it’s great to explore nuanced character moments, take your time to build mood and establish the world. It’s like having a leisurely meal with friends on a sunny, summer day. Order another pitcher of margaritas? Why not, we don’t have to be anywhere.
But if you’re running a one-shot, grab that greasy bag of cheese steaks, slather on a sauce of your choice, chow down and don’t forget the napkins because things might get messy. What am I saying, they will get messy and that’s the best part. Do bold stupid things, when will you ever be here again?