Throwing It Together: Making A Quick Game Out Of Bits And Pieces

It isn’t uncommon for me to be called on to run a game on short notice. Locally we rotate GMs and sometimes the GM du jour has to bow out. Sometimes we’re between GMs and just need a filler. Sometimes it’s my turn but I’m not really prepared. There are a lot of games specifically designed to shine as one-shots, and we’ve played them all, and for the most part we’re done with them. 

A lot of times when I find myself in this situation, I lean into some combination of experience and trust and just kitbash a simple set of rules to accommodate the needs of whatever seems fun to offer in the moment. The effort is minimal and the results are usually good.

Let me step back for a moment and qualify the situations in which I do this. It is usually among close friends who have played together for years. We share both history and preferences. We’ve played the same games and generally like the same things about the experience of play. It isn’t a monoculture (Robo would be happy playing nothing but D&D and I’d larp more) but this works less well with strangers bringing their own murkily-defined cultures of play. 

A tight group of friends with high trust, deep love, and a shared set of experiences can make anything fun and bend any set of rules to its will – or kick ass with no written rules at all. This is a sort of Rule Zero of social interaction, I suppose. I leverage this and build from it as a core assumption. 

Here’s what works for me.

How To Start

I start with a compelling situation. Usually this will be something I’ve read about recently, maybe juiced up with some genre tropes. I am preparing a one-shot, not a campaign, so what I need is a charged situation drenched in the potential for excitement and difficult choices. Not too complicated, not too deep, not too elegant. Basically if it will all fall to pieces if your friends decide to punch everything in the face, it’s too clever. If they absolutely have to do some face-punching, it isn’t clever enough. 

Recently I was inspired by a Wikipedia article I’d read about Prince Rupert, who rode with the Cavaliers in the English Civil War. He had a gigantic poodle named Boy who was always at his side, and a rumor started among the Roundheads that Boy was either a devil, or the Devil, or Rupert’s familiar. And that was enough, the game session would be a supernatural shitshow starring an evil vampire prince and his shape-shifting dog-monster and a bunch of poor soldiers who had to deal with them.

Build An Outline

I quickly threw together an outline of things that needed to happen, based on the tried-and-true simple structure of a standard “adventure”. The PCs show up, things are weird and dangerous, they get weirder and more dangerous, the PCs must choose how to deal with it all. 

  • In medias res. Stumbling into town.
  • Rainy shitty weather, like Hard To Be A God mixed with A Field In England.
  • PCs are Royalists. Orders to secure a village in advance. Ominous vibe.
  • Locals who don’t want them, sympathetic to the Parliamentarians. Creepy.
  • Roundhead soldiers who know what’s going on. Maybe a fight? Maybe not?
  • Bad guys arrive and set up shop in the church. Behave badly. Order PCs around.
  • Bad guys start eating locals, etc. 

So the whole thing revolves around setting up a situation where the players get to decide how far they want to go in investigating and maybe opposing the vampire and his death poodle. Those are stakes I can easily keep raising until they make a choice or two. If they decide to become evil minions it still works. If they want to throw down, same. Flee to the hills? Awesome.

Scavenge For Parts

We could have done this entirely freeform, just talking through the uncertainty and making up consequences, and that can be fun, but I find that a little structure is helpful in guiding the players and a little randomness is valuable by surprising all of us every once in a while. Instead I thought about what I wanted to see in terms of possibilities for the players, and what we were all comfortable with in terms of games and rules. 

My crew plays a lot of Archipelago, which could handle a scenario sketch like this but is really geared toward longer-term play. We’re into Fiasco, and this would be a fun Fiasco, but I didn’t have the time or inclination to build it out as a playset. We play a lot of PBTA games and this doesn’t mesh well there for a one-shot – PBTA is fine for one-shots, but you need the existing infrastructure, which is pretty constrained in theme and tenor. 

So thinking about it, what I need is a little uncertainty, a little differentiation of characters, and some easy cues for roleplaying. I wanted it as simple as possible and I didn’t want to overthink it. I wanted to highlight the things I thought would be fun, which are weirdness and maybe degrading sanity in the face of horror, the necessity of violence and awfulness, the equal necessity of decency, and the need to simply be competent as a soldier. Here’s what I came up with:

A Playable Example

Each character has scores of -1 to +2 in Stability, Cruelty, Kindness and Skill (this last being soldiering, generally, but may have other uses). Choose a pre-made character and add one point to their scores (so +1, 0, -1, +1 or +2, 0, 0, -1 for example). When uncertainty arises, ask them to roll a six-sided die, with a five or six being a solid success, three or four  being a complicated or painful success and one or two being a terrible failure. 

Each character also has two tags (for example, DRUNK ROUGHNECK) that can each be invoked once during the game by illustrating that tag in action. This allows the player to choose any result they wish, most likely transforming a failure into a success.

A character looked like this: 

Edward Racket

You are a drummer! Sixteen and full of stupid ambition, you are determined to be a soldier and hero. Your story will, most likely, be a tragic one.


You carry a large drum, a wheellock pistol (which is useful for a single dramatic and deadly shot before requiring time-consuming priming and reloading), a spoon, and an encouraging religious pamphlet. You have no food.

And that’s it. I gave them a chance to tweak a pre-made character and provided the simplest possible rules for resolving uncertainty. To run this game, I had to sketch out the situation and a few NPCs, write a description of half a dozen characters, and have an outline of the situation. It took about 40 minutes. 

Play What You Know

The idea here is to rely on what you already know (variable degrees of success from Archipelago, character tags from The Shadow of Yesterday, characters that instantly evoke and reinforce genre from Fiasco) and plug it into the fraught setting you’ve sketched out. In this case the game relies on character stats to describe the universe, so in play I looked for opportunities to call on them as often as possible, confident in surprising successes and failures.

In many ways this is a super-traditional model that falls back on time-honored relationships and structures. There’s a GM who sets up a story, asking “what next?”, with simple rules to guide and inspire interaction. The only thing different about it is that I threw together time-tested bits and trusted my friends to rise to the occasion, which they did.

If you want to try this, don’t overthink it. You know the games you like, and what’s good about them, and what will be helpful to include. In my example you just roll a single die, and this level of resolution detail feels about right – you just want a fast answer with some range to it. 

Final Advice

If you are going to do this, here are some suggestions:

Setting It Up

  • Be quick and sloppy.
  • Trust your own experience.
  • Fall back on the things you know and love.
  • Only include features that add fun and drama. If something isn’t pointing at the central dilemma or doesn’t support the theme and tone, chuck it. You won’t miss it.
  • Let them make choices and tell them what’s cool.
  • Keep it simple and direct. If you think you’d added too much or made it too complicated, you are probably right.

Playing The Game

  • Be quick and sloppy.
  • Trust your friends’ experience.
  • Make an outline but keep it loose. Everything you know about running a one-shot applies. Pacing, focus, energy, editing. 
  • Radiate confidence in your prep.
  • Actually use the half-ass rules you’ve made. That’s why you made them. They will improve the experience!
  • Keep it simple and direct. If you think you’d added too much or made it too complicated, you are probably right.

Good luck! Have fun!

By the way – the game I used as an example here worked great and later got fully fleshed out. It is available here, called Avon Dassett:

Bully Pulpit Games has made this game free to readers of the Indie Game Reading Club for all of March 2021. Click here to get a free game!

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