Run It Like A One-Shot
(But Not A Blood Opera!)
So 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.