Over the past year I've run something like 40+ sessions of RPGs in a variety of systems, from one page games like Honey Heist, GMless fare like our The Love Balloon, and slightly more traditional narrativist systems like Blades in the Dark, and of course The Wildsea. I've also had the pleasure of playing under many different GMs during the last year, picking up what I liked and maybe liked less from their respective styles.
In any case, as of February 8th, 2021, this is my procedure for running RPG one shots.
It works for me, and maybe it 'll work for you.
First, it's important to get comfortable with your table and players. When a session begins, take the first five to ten minutes or so breaking the ice by making small talk. Ask about your players' day, where they're from, the weather, games - anything really to just get them comfortable and ready to play. This is especially important in one shots where we're playing with strangers.
The entire process of roleplaying is a social interaction between a group of people. The success of the game ultimately hinges on the participation of all parties, not just the GM. From one angle, the game is a constant feeling out process between players framed by the ritual of a game and the agreement of a set of rules to abide by. That's why home games are always better than public ones - you know your friends, and your friends know you. Nonetheless, the better chemistry you build with your players - the more comfortable they are - the more likely your game is going to be great.
Safety Tools are important, especially when playing with strangers. When I run public games, I always make sure to go over the safety tools I'm using. My go-tos are the X Card, Lines and Veils, and Open Door Policy. I adopted these three from Glendale Story Games, stewarded by Tomer Gurantz, who has always ensured that his communities are open, welcome, and safe places to game. I recommend you use them in your games, especially when gaming with strangers.
Read more about Safety Tools here.
Characters & Questions
At a certain point, transition from small talk to Character Creation/Introductions. This is pretty standard - I pass spotlight to players so they can introduce their characters. The most important thing, though, is listening to what they have to say and asking questions that deepen their understanding of who the character is.
"What is the most beautiful thing you've seen on the waves?"
"Where did you learn how to program / hack?"
"What is the closest you've ever come to death?"
This is what roleplaying is - asking questions and fostering answers from the characters. There's a sweet spot with a question that helps a player deepen their character and one that is either too specific or too broad to answer easily. This is mostly a feel and experience thing - I think of it like a degree or two away from armchair psychologist.
You want questions that helps players understand their characters better but ones that they don't have to spend more than fifteen seconds to come up with an answer. This is variable depending on the player, - some players are very comfortable with improv and coming up with things on the spot, others may be more timid.
Remember, the most important thing is to read your table and adjust accordingly. The better you know your players, the more you can cater the experience that what they want.
Don't forget to take regular breaks in your game! I like to take the first break after character introductions and typically take a break about every hour or so of gaming. I might take less breaks for a home group or if the table is particularly riveted - again, read your table and adjust accordingly.
Breaks serve two main functions:
- They allow us to stretch, use the restroom, and take care of our bodies which have otherwise been sitting for an extended amount of time. Very important.
- They allow you, the GM, to regroup and think about what comes next.
On the latter, often a quick pause is all you need to compose your thoughts and lead the session through to its next phase. You'd be surprised as to how much stuff you can come up with in just a couple of minutes. Calling for a break can really help unstuck you, so don't be afraid to call for a break if you're stumped!
Once the first break is over, it's time to begin the game in earnest! Beginnings are very important in any type of roleplaying scenario, but especially so in one-shots. This is your opportunity as the GM to hard frame the situation, set the scene, and propel the narrative forward.
So what makes a good beginning? I think a good intro...
- Holds the Player's attention.
- Lets them know it's time to play.
- Engenders an immediate action or reaction.
What you are trying to avoid is a situation that is unclear or unmotivated from the player's perspective. You don't want characters fapping about talking about the weather or watching NPCs talking to each other. You want to create a scenario that allows them to actively participate and take agency in the scene and propel the story forward.
If you've crafted an intriguing beginning, that's often all you need to get the entire session going, especially in fiction-first systems that bake in narrative structure into the mechanics. Frame a situation, ask what the players do, and let the story unfold from there. If it doesn't seem like they're doing anything, that means you need to do something to them. This is the balancing act between GMing and
After the second break after about an hour+ of gaming, make sure to check in on your players and their available time remaining to play. The main purpose of this time check is so that you can begin to internally pace and drive towards a satisfying ending. Having, say, two hours left, versus one hour left, should drastically effect how you manage the session.
A typical three hour session will typically have no more than 4-6 scenes, with a scene about every 45 minutes. Moments of intense action should be contrasted by more social or reflective, quieter scenes. Try to bounce between the two - external stake, internal stake, external stake, internal, etc. Action / Talky / Action / Talky. Doing so helps ensure there's a variety of scenarios and room for characters to grow.
Some systems have built in metanarrative that helps you plan out what happens. Otherwise, you may want to look into scaffolding material like the 5 Room Dungeon which is essentially a narrative structure adapted for RPGs. Again, you'll get better at this with experience, but generally speaking bounce between moments of action and moments of characterization. Too much of one thing leads to a feeling of blandness.
One common trope that you might want to incorporate is to present a Twist about 2/3rd through the session. This can be anything from a moral quandary, villainous reveal, or maybe just a straight up escalation of events.
Either way, the 2/3rd point of the session (keyed by time, hence the Time Check) should mark an escalation point that ramps up the stakes and intensity, driving towards the climax and ending.
Beginnings and Endings are the most important part of a session. Beginnings hook the players and spurs good play, while Endings - more than any other aspect - determine how your players feel about a session once it's done.
What a satisfying Ending looks like depends largely on the story that's unfolded. Your players will be signaling to you through the construction of their characters what they want to see. Your goal is to deliver on some of that right at the end of the session if possible. You don't have to deliver on all of the character's wants. Often, keying in on one or two characters and completing their loop or arc is enough.
You should be thinking about how to end a session when you have about an hour or so left of game time and begin driving towards that ending. Push if you need to. Have something vaguely in mind, but be flexible enough to change it all the way until the last minute.
Remember, the most important thing is to read your table and adjust accordingly.
Try your best to deliver a good ending. Do everything in your power to do this. Nothing kills a session faster than mismanaged time and a player announcing they have to leave before you can pay it all off. Again, that's why you check on time, that's why you keep an eye on the ball, and that's why you start thinking about how to end a session well before it actually ends.
If you have the end in mind, you can drive towards it, no problem. Don't wait until it's too late to think about it.
Once you nail the ending, give the players spotlight to narrate what happens to their character. You may want to jump forward in time, but either way the most important thing is they get a sense of closure at this moment.
Once that's done, thank everyone for playing and give yourself a pat on the back. Congratulations. You did it! You ran a kick ass one-shot!