The Perils of Running One-Shots

Several years ago, I wrote an essay about introducing the intensity of one-shot play to your ongoing home campaign/season/whatever. It’s a good essay, I still stand behind it, but my good intentions are coming back to bite me in the ass in our new Urban Shadows campaign.

A couple bits, for context: 

First, I’m still coming off running Forbidden Lands, Fria Ligan’s Mutant-based fantasy game. I was really in no mood to run either a prep-intensive game or their baked-in campaign, so I was happy to lean into the various random tables and procedures to discover the map alongside the players. There’s no real narrative continuity in a game like Forbidden Lands, and campaign-type continuity (where on the map are you? What NPCs have you cheesed off? Have you run into this encounter entry before?) takes much less to think through. 

Second, this is the middle of my convention season. I went to Dreamation a few weeks back, the Arizona Game Fair is coming up in a few weeks, and the week after that is NewMexiCon. And that means running lots of 4-hour con slots. New players, new rules every time (because I’m a glutton, don’t @ me as the kids say), never look in the rear view mirror. 

These things have left me poorly equipped for games that are centered on their stooooories. This month at least.

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Actual footage from inside my brain

The biggest problem with the one-shot aesthetic in an ongoing storygame is that my instinct to juice up the interactions means I’m not really thinking through causes or effects that much. I’m drawn to what’s hot with alarming frequency. That means lots of ex post facto rationalizing during the intervening week. 

This is just made worse by the tendency I’ve found in PbtA games toward hotness. Moves snowball, and if you don’t watch yourself things will continue snowballing because snowballing generally leads to hotness: chaos, ever-rising stakes, a breathlessness to play as I egg the players on to react more and respond less

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Perhaps unfair to my many shelves of games

I think I also live in … fear, maybe? If not fear, then grim resignation: we don’t run games for much longer than 10 or so sessions. Realistically? More like 5 or 6, although my run times have been slowly stretching out the past year or so. So I want to escalate to the “good stuff.” But that means I’m escalating so fast, sometimes, that I don’t have a lot of ceiling. To wit:

Last week was our first full-length (which here means 3+ hours) session. Week before was picking playbooks and doing Session Zero stuff: following around our characters, feeling out the setting, exploring the narrative terrain. I did for-real prep for the game, doodling up Threats and Storms (ie Fronts, in Apocalypse World-speak), which revealed themselves to be really badly constructed once gameplay started. But I had a bunch of levers I wanted to press on and it was better than nothing.

That meant the Tainted’s dark patron tasked her with collecting the soul of a cartel boss’ pregnant wife. Why? Who knows? It was high stakes and I don’t want to waste time on establishing shots. That was a mistake, drawn entirely from leaning into my one-shot instincts. Now that it’s done (for content warning reasons I won’t get into details but it was gruesome), I really need to nail down the dark patron’s for-real goals. Which need to be more/better than “to freak out the Tainted’s player because I’ve only got four hours and this one stuffy room and I’m never gonna see this player again.” 

That also meant thinking through why, exactly, did this important NPC wizard grab an ancient valuable bible the Scholar had been chasing down throughout the session. In the moment it felt like a hot choice: the wizard is obviously planning something in the setting, and he’s one of the two main Power-faction personalities, and Power’s theme is plans-within-plans so, you know, totally easy to rationalize in the moment. I think there’s even a Faction move that fits. This one’s not so hard but by just throwing intuitive shit out there, I’m kind of making planning a little harder on myself.

Oh and then the poor Vamp! The player did a marvelous job of painting his own character into a corner, pitting both the cartel and the entire fae community against his plans (which will work great to build the Vamp’s web down the road), but hey: one-shot escalation, baby. Put it all on the table. Moves snowballed and snowballed until the Vamp found himself cornered by scads of heavily armed cartel Bad Men and ended up rolling a miss at exactly the wrong time. I’m pretty sure “describe the mythology of your playbook as you go” doesn’t include “oh and vamps are totally immune to bullets,” so he ended up having to take a Scar to live another day. Hot but…too soon? Don’t know! I’m looking forward to seeing how he drinks his way back to health now. 

So, some takeaways heading into tonight’s session:

“Be true to your prep” is well and good unless your prep is shit, then, well: get better at prep. I’m still shaking the cobwebs off.

Campaign-scale intuition frequently leads me toward being too conservative with my assets, but my one-shot intuition is to treat my NPCs like stolen cars that are also on fire and filled with sharks, and I want to rid myself of them fast fast fast. 

For good or ill, not thinking through hot choices paints me into corners. Sometimes that’s good! I like the creative pressure. And sometimes it means pushing ahead as fast as possible and hoping nobody digs too deep into these weird plot holes I’ve left behind. This is probably how the Lost writers felt most of the time. 

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