Run It Like A One-Shot (But Not a Blood Opera)

A thing I’ve slowly been embracing the past couple years is running my games like each session is a self-enclosed event…and then having faith that there will be material for another one, and another, for as long as we want.

Usually it works great! And why wouldn’t it? It’s how a lot of good television happens. It’s how most good movies happen. But it’s also contrary to a lot of, I think, traditional thinking about how a series of RPG sessions “should” work — long buildups, maybe blow-by-blow scenes (i.e. a camera that follows the characters around without breaks), continuity. Oh, continuity. I can draw an unbroken line on the traditional thinking through novels (where chapters really aren’t free-standing creations) back to dungeons (which might be so large that you need several sessions to fight/beat them, and there’s really isn’t narrative continuity so much as persistent game-states regarding supplies, health and time). 

And no doubt the traditional approach has produced literally decades of highly rewarding and functional play. But I want to talk about this other approach now.

So for me, running a single session like it was a one-shot (but not a Blood Opera, more on that in a minute) looks like this:

* There’s very little time spent on inconsequential scenes. My working definition of “inconsequential” is that nothing actually happens or changes at the character level. So like…walking and talking scenes. Shopping. Slice of life stuff (although, wow, these can be super effective especially in a one-shot, but they need to be carefully applied). 

So maybe I’m better off saying “most scenes are very consequential.”

* Scenes are more self-contained and framed as their own beat, rather than as necessarily continuing unbroken from a previous scene or leading into another. Lots of “later, you find yourselves at the edge of town” type transitions.

* On the GM side, I’m not keeping my powder dry. When it’s time to frame up a new scene, I’m looking for the very highest stakes right now, and not spending any energy on careful buildups, foreshadowing, or other novelistic techniques.

* The situation/relationship map — I always run with one! LMK if you want to see photos — are tight as hell, with lots of arrows pointed back inward and very few new situations/relationships really being added. (NB Urban Shadows foils this for me via its Faction moves, and I’m having to be very careful to aim stuff like Hit the Streets back into existing relationships, rather than allowing the map to fractal out.)

* Lots of reincorporation. The first hour is when I arm everyone with Chekhov’s Gun(s). The last hour is when everyone’s Gun gets fired. Waste as little first-act material as possible.

* Aim for resolution of the big questions, but let new questions get asked. New questions are totally okay in a one-shot! And I think a lot of people feel like actual convention-style one-shots need to wrap everything up in a bow. But you don’t. That’s why giving players a chance to describe the aftermath of a con one-shot is such an effective technique: everyone gets to feel like it got wrapped up in a bow. But at the table, that’s where your session-to-session continuity comes from. Answer old questions, ask new ones.

Now, regarding wrapping everything up in a bow…one thing I’ve seen at many convention one-shot events is the powerful urge to turn the session into a Blood Opera: an orgy of violence, probably some PvP action, last character standing “wins.” Sometimes the game itself facilitates this idea that the very highest stakes are life-and-death — I can’t tell you how many Burning Wheel one-shots I’ve run have ended as Blood Operas, for example, because at every step of the game the narrative pushes players toward ultimately resorting to violence. It gets the blood pumping for sure! And it’s tricky to walk that back and set, you know, different expectations.

So, anyway. Obviously you can’t run your ongoing story arc one-shot-ish session as a Blood Opera, unless everyone’s on board with creating new characters and constantly reinventing the relationship/situation map. But for me, this is where the real work comes in: if life-and-death aren’t the ultimate stakes, what else matters? What are the Really Big Questions that need to be answered this session (up to but not necessarily requiring a life-or-death battle)?

I think it’s an interesting creative exercise, a useful constraint. In fact I’m finding it so useful that I’m feeling like ye olde Blood Opera is kind of a lazy cop-out. I’ve run plenty of non-operatic one-shots at conventions, had the players do their “so how does this all turn out for your character?” talk, and felt like it was a really satisfying experience.

Just leave off that last talk and pow, you’ve got your next session.

77 thoughts on “Run It Like A One-Shot (But Not a Blood Opera)”

  1. I love this concept, and feel like it’s a great approach for the kind of infrequent gaming I tend to do these days. I.e., my “regular” in-person group manages to meet only a few times a year these days, so making sure stuff happens when we do meet makes perfect sense.

  2. Life is a one shot, man…

    This idea seems to be a natural extention of the ‘no prep’ style of GMing in many games.  It’s just letting go of a bit more of your investment in particular outcomes.

  3. Side thought: I feel like this is actually kind of a hard aesthetic to apply to some games that are built to be run episodically. Like uh…Circle of Hands. Each session is one mission or visit or whatever, and it’s already set up to be one-shotty, but it’s also missing the bit where new questions get asked. It asks a few questions in the beginning of the session and then sets out to get ’em answered right here.

    And yes yes, I’m a decade behind the hipsters as usual. Shoulders of giants and all that. I just won’t ever be able to claw my way to the front of the wave.

  4. Mark Delsing So prep, yeah. I mean I think you and Larry Spiel are actually right at the same time! Depending on what you mean by “prep.”

    Building my Fronts in Urban Shadows, definitely prep. But it’s a one-time deal, and it sets up enough material for the 8-10 sessions I intend to get out of it. No way no how am I diving back in to do anything else except maybe set up some custom moves.

    I don’t know that I would run…scratch that, I would not run a tactics-heavy, mathy game in this fashion. I also super-hate games that require that approach to play. So I guess the question answers itself.

  5. I’m also thinking in terms of ephemera, like handouts, minis, or other aids/tchotchkes a given game might require. Just the idea of not approaching any aspect of the session in a half-assed way.

    Sure, some games are so prep-intensive already that this approach may simply be unfeasible, but I think the attitude is still worthy in those cases.

  6. Funny, I’m writing supplementary playtest material this morning and thinking about how rarely our games explain how to manage real world time constraint and squeeze the most fun into the least time. You’re right that there is a lot to apply to both convention play and campaigns.

  7. Argh, hit post before I was ready.

    I wanted to also say that although this might not actually be “news”, it’s still a really important and valuable observation. It’s the sort of statement that, when adequately supported by a game’s text and mechanisms, can relieve a lot of the pressure that new GMs feel, or revitalize groups who are tired of or don’t gel with the “long game” style.

    Even as a basic teaching tool, learning how to introduce and reintegrate in a single session lays the foundation for that same behaviour on the “campaign scale” in such a way as to benefit even groups who do tend to build big in that way.

  8. Okay so for the folks who are old hands at this approach: Can you help fill out techniques I didn’t mention (and therefore probably don’t know about)?

  9. Ironically, the one thing you said you don’t want to do — the aftermath chat — is a thing I do, though in a punctuated form.

    I ask everybody “what do you want to see more of? what’s the most important thing to your character that happened in this session? what did you do or see someone else do that you particularly liked?” I find by getting my players to clarify their focus, to explicitly state what the highlights are, it helps me figure out what I should focus on when we next hit the table. If everyone liked a particular NPC, then when I need someone, I aim for them. If people like big action pieces, then I use my moves to aim for more of those.

  10. Pluses to all of this. Hope to see more games that provide guidelines on how to do this. Mission structure games like Night Witches, Mouse Guard, and 3:16 definitely make the not-crazy one shot a lot more accessible. Maybe that one TV game, too, by that one guy.

    Hopefully more and more games will include really good “how to make this session satisfying even if it’s the first time you’ve ever played it” advice/tips/procedures.

  11. Paul Beakley 

    * No inconsequential scenes. (I call this “editing”, as in you can edit your scenes to eliminate the inconsequential stuff)

    * Scenes are more self-contained and framed as their own beat (Aggressive scene framing)

    * High stakes right now. (Yep)

    * The situation/relationship map (Yep, or an actual map, or whatever – physical, tactile aids for memory)

    * Lots of reincorporation. (Yep, and you can train yourself to note good stuff to bring back as it occurs, or generate it deliberately)

    *  Answer old questions, ask new ones. (I need to think about this more, because I don’t think in these terms but probably do it)

    * Blood opera is a lazy but satisfying default. (This is more an “always be closing” attitude – things need to wrap up in a satisfying way so pay attention and build toward that.)

    Here is me talking about this stuff a little:

  12. Morningstar, have you ended up with a “gaming in real time” player at your table? Or anyone for that matter. Did you just accept that it was a clash of agendas, or did you come up with an effective solution?

  13. Matt Wilson sure, and the solution is the same as if I dropped into a group of people who liked to play that way – I’d adapt to their rhythm. Same thing, other direction. Everyone accommodates a little but mostly you learn how the social contract in your new crew works. I could see it being a big problem if it was split 50/50 for some reason.

  14. Writing my notes for this article, I called out one of your (Paul’s) items as its own bullet point, even though it seemed to have been offered as a post hoc consideration:

    Include Non-Combat Stakes: not all stakes should be simple kill-or-be-killed setups.

  15. I’m also interested in techniques. I think ‘Roll the clock forward’ ought to be an explicit GM move as it’s so key to avoiding ‘playing out the day’. Elsewhere I heard truncating/eliding the end of the mission if it doesn’t end when the session does.

  16. I am trying to emphasize closure at the end of a session, because the vagaries of adulthood often mean not everyone can make a session. Hard to be in the middle of last week’s cliffhanger mess without a key character.

  17. * No end of session cliffhangers! Yes, good point Joe Beason​!

    Maybe emotional cliffhangers are okay, since you can swing back around to those. But yeah, like “and then ninjas descend!” is kind of impractical.

  18. I tend to keep an eye on the time and when we’re getting closeish to end time, say something like “Ok, here’s the last scene I want to get to tonight and then we’re gonna wrap up, unless there’s anything we didn’t get to?” – this lets everyone set their expectations to wrap up the last bits cleanly, and is also a better moment than the very end to negotiate whether you want to spend time on something that you did, indeed, forget about now or wait until the next session, IME

  19. Talking about this stuff always makes me want to go off on a diatribe about Bangs, from Sorcerer, and how fruitful they are. If I were to state it in the format of your principles, I guess it would be prepare what might happen, not what will happen. When you have a bandolier of possible conflict-rich Bangs, you can tailor the session on the fly to what your players are actually interested in, rather than plotting out what they might be interested in.

  20. In AW proper it’s easier for me to use “traditional” R-Map + character-directed bangs, rather than formal fill-out-the-sheet Fronts, but they accomplish the same thing so I don’t know if “eschew” is the right word.

    In WWWRPG, there are no Fronts, and playtesting revealed that there did need to be something to move play along when the characters let up for a moment, so I put lightly modified Bangs in. It’s called “putting things on deck” and you’re supposed to just make a list between sessions, b/c the context often changes so much in a single session of play that planning more than a session ahead is an exercise in futility (hence, why Fronts don’t work in that game).

  21. Also just plain old transparency about participant goals and desires, like “OK, tonight I really want to engineer a big car chase with you guys” from the GM or “I want the party to happen this session so I can do my weird thing on stage” from a player.

  22. Michael Miller yes that too, kind of, which is what I was thinking about when I said they were not useful. I was thinking about the prep side of a Bang, which falls more under the aegis of Front prep (although Fronts aren’t exactly Bangs, either; I’d be happy to have that argument in a different thread though).

    Having urgency emerge organically from the fiction at hand feels different to me than preparing to introduce urgency. That feels important but maybe I’m fooling myself.

    As a practical matter I will sometimes file away hot ideas that occur to me when I’m thinking about what move I want to make. This idea doesn’t work right now but man…if it comes up I’m totally using it.

  23. Devon Apple I’m not going to pick nits (okay, I am), but calling MC Moves “improvised” when there is a list of them published in the book seems really odd. Exactly the form they take depends on the context of the moment, yes. But the exact same thing is true for Bangs. Prepping a bandolier of Bangs before a session is like writing a list of MC Moves for your specific table.

  24. Jason Morningstar Oh, yeah! That works really well. “Hey, team, remember last week when the Ghost of Hillcrest Manor told you that he was going to destroy your lives and you replied by saying you were going to burn his house down? We are totally having a scene where you are all trapped in the attic of the burning and collapsing manor tonight.”

  25. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a session left on a cliffhanger ensures several players can’t make it next week…

    Improvisation and making the agenda clear at the table definitely strike true with me. (That’s sometimes both clarifying this is more a narrative game than tactical one, say, and stating ‘hey, we’re totally having a scene about X tonight.)

  26. That totally doesn’t work for me Adam D

    If that happened at a table I was at, I might play along…especially if it was a convention game and everyone else was into it…

    …but inside I’d be “then why the hell are we playing an RPG if what you really want is to story board some communal Fiction”.

  27. I love storyboarding community fiction!

    This is no different than playing D&D and knowing the format is “there will be some tedious shit and then a big fight”, and telling your players the fight will be with Mind Flayers.

  28. Matt Wilson, heh, I’m assuming you’re talking about Primetime Adventures. I see one key difference between what Jason and Adam D are talking about and the “next week on…” mechanic. Maybe it’s just me, but it’s less explicit to just say “we see a shot of Jennifer ramming her car into another in a  parking lot” than it would be to say “I’d like a scene with Jennifer that really shows how her lack of sleep is starting to affect her.” The former is more of a creative constraint, and very juicy and fun to work with. The latter, I’m kind of with Ralph on. Seems to deflate the upcoming scene for me. Different strokes obvs.

  29. Well, this thread got away from me, but I’ll try to make good on my note from earlier.

    How do you generate investment in a story’s stakes quickly? Everyone lives in the world, right? Threaten the world! Everyone can go “Ooh, I live there! It’d be a real shame if that were destroyed!” and immediately be bought in, right?

    OK, that’s too big? We need to go a bit smaller? OK. So, how about we introduce some characters, see, and tell the audience that they’re good people and then make it clear that they might die! No-one likes dying, that’ll do just fine.

    It’s exhausting how often I feel I encounter things like that. I have no deep-seated objection to save-the-world or life-and-death as stakes, but when they’re used as shortcuts it usually shows. Turns out, it’s still work to make me care about a world or a character, and these kinds of stakes often correlate with stories that don’t seem to acknowledge or put in that work.

    Also, when they’re the only stakes you see, it’s like eating nothing but, I dunno, grapes. Grapes aren’t bad, but they’re pretty boring. Sometimes, you have real grapes and they’re amazing, but most of the time you have stupid thin-skinned seedless grapes, and it’s just a hollow reminder of what grapes can be. I would rather eat delicious high-quality grapes sometimes, and other fruits and vegetables other times. Sometimes, I want to see stakes like “can these two people come to really understand each other?” or “will the cat make it home?” or whatever.

  30. Can anyone here give some hints and tips on how to derail Blood Operas? Especially when dealing with players new to games that aren’t, for lack of a better term, traditional? Obviously find out what’s important to the PCs, but how can I prevent/dissuade players from constantly using brute force to conquer every scene/situation?

  31. First, ask them. Say before the game, “I’m looking to avoid Blood Opera, is that cool? Can we do that?”

    Second, reinforce that in the game with things like consequences. “If you shoot this guy, all hell will come down on you, in the form of X. You up for that?”

    That’s my off-the-cuff answer.

  32. Also: set out for small stakes. They’re not boring unless you treat them as boring.

    There is a whole…i don’t know, class or category of modern games built on making character motivation central to play. They’re not about the party saving the world, but rather more personal (melo)drama.

  33. 3-4 hours of actual play time.

    3ish hours maps really well to convention one-shots for me. The games I run usually have about an hour of setup/situation/whatever ahead of actually playing.

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