Wednesday, November 11, 2020

The Long and Short of It

Recently, a few blogs that I visit regularly have posted articles about the joy of the long term campaign.

It started with this one from James M. over at GROGNARDIA, who was in turn inspired by this one by noisms' Monsters and Manuals. There is also this one from my good buddy Tim Knight at HeroPress

Like these gents, I too love a good continuous, no-end-in-sight RPG campaign, played out overa course of time measured not in sessions but in years. Just as the above bloggers have done, I shall shamelessly self-reference with this old post on the subject right here

With that, I'd like to take this opportunity to speak in defense of tabletop RPG's red-headed stepchildren, the One-Shot and Limited Series campaign.

One-shots and short campaigns get a bad rap among many old school gamers. Most ask why they should even bother? Think of the time and effort it would take to prep a really good One-Shot, perhaps learning the rules of a new game, creating brand new characters, just to play it once.

A session of a game that won't be revisited and doesn't link into a larger narrative isn't very appealing to a lot of us. How can one get invested in their character for example if they know full well they are unlikely to play them again? Can you get seeped into the world / setting in a single adventure or a set of short adventures if that's all there will be?

Granted, those are all good and legitimate points but please indulge me on some 'short' (see what I did there? heh) counterpoints. 

One-shots and campaigns of a purposely limited nature allow one to experiment with ideas and systems that offer a break from the usual game without having to commit to an entirely new long term obligation. Your group can try something, see if they like it, and then decide if they want to go all in. To this end, your investment is not as deep or intense as it would be for a long term game.

As the GM, you'll need to prep as you would for the first session of a ongoing campaign but without the need to weave in the dangling subplots that would lead to follow up outings. They can be there of course but they don't have to be. You also won't need to know much about your world beyond the adventure at hand, though of course it's always helpful to know what's 'beyond the map'.

This is where GMs like myself who run Star Trek, Star Wars, ALIEN, and other licensed properties have a significant advantage. I don't need to work out the setting at all because it is a known quantity in such cases. I just need to know where we are for the given one-shot session. 

GMs also need not memorize the rule mechanics in their entirety (not that you ever need to do that). Far better to have a working idea of the rules you'll be using and that you'll need to use a 'Cheat Sheet' or quick reference sheet for all the basic components of your game. Usually this means knowing how skills work, how combat is executed, what the feats or abilities of the PCs do, and that sort of thing. 

For example, a tip I've found helpful for Star Trek Adventures and ALIEN is to make an alphabetical list of all the PCs' Talents and an abbreviated description of how they function in game. It's not necessary list of all the game's Talents. It's over-prep, unhelpful and time consuming. 

I know, I know. But I can only do it once. 

As a player, it's not like everyone needs a copy of the rules, all the supplements, new custom dice, new miniatures, etc. That'd be a waste for what could be a one time use. Work with the GM to get a Player Cheat Sheet, as well as the aforementioned list of special rules, skills, or abilities. Copy down only the Talents or perks that effect your character. This saves time and energy and helps the GM run things more smoothly.

Now what is required on the part of both GM and Player is a mental and emotional investment that is on the same level as your ongoing games. Perhaps more in fact, as without a powerful buy-in and deep desire to make the game work, you could end up feeling all those negative feelings about One-shots already mentioned or alluded to; too much work for too little pay off. Nobody wants to feel that way, so everyone needs to contribute to the games success (a good recipe for a game of any length). 

Finally, I will say that some of the best games I've run in the past 15-20 years have been One-Shots or Short Term Campaigns. I've run some great long ones too but I have a powerful fondness for several games that went no more than a handful of sessions. 

I've run individual sessions of my own game, The Googly Eyed Primetime Puppet Show RPG, some connected, most not, featuring the characters of The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, and Fraggle Rock. 

I ran a Star Trek RPG one-shot an a local convention that people enjoyed so much we assembled an ongoing game of it that is now in its 5th year.

I ran a two session 'Visitors from Space' scenario set in the Dust Bowl - Depression Era of late 1920s/early 1930s Oklahoma  A group of total strangers from various walks of life become stranded together at a Motor Lodge during a dust storm and mysterious things begin to occur. Many of them were not what they appeared to be. 

I ran an online Mobile Suit Gundam based campaign that lasted about six sessions and fleshed out a side story of that setting I've wanted to elaborate on for over 25 years. 

My 8 session jaunt into the universe of ALIEN, my ALIEN FRONTIER campaign, was probably the best single campaign I've done in 10 years. We were only able to complete 7 episodes before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. The players and I await the chance to play the grand finale. 

I've run two sessions of Ghostbusters, one in May of 2019 and one in October of 2020 that, while based on a 35 year old campaign with my friends from High School, hasn't been revisited since...well...since 35 years ago. 

A friend who'd never had a good experience playing Star Wars D6 prompted me to run a one-shot of that game last week and this coming weekend we're running another session because we had so much fun with it. Again, the first one was only put together because it bothered me that my pal hadn't played a game of Star Wars D6 - perhaps my favorite RPG of all time - that didn't suck. That is a wrong I could not leave un-righted!

In conclusion, I want to run an ongoing, multi-year, lots of players RPG campaign with all the slow burn goodness, character development, and world-building that only comes with hundreds of 4-6 hour sessions. Preferably 8 hours actually if we're wishing on shooting stars here. 

Until then...until that happens...I hope to run one-shots, two-shots, and six to twelve session campaigns as good as any mentioned above. 

Nearly every great series begins with a pilot episode but not every pilot is picked up as a series. 

Consider making great pilots.

Barking Alien

One more thing to note...

It is interesting to me that the dislike of the One-Shot seems to largely be the domain of the Old School Gamer. The New School Gamer, as evidenced by the vast of array of indie/small press RPGs that are best run as one-shots or short campaigns, seem to love the concept.

More food for thought. 

1 comment:

  1. I agree on that last note of yours: ALIEN is really geared around short term play, while a lot of the old school types might find short-term games more directive or narrative driven (versus open, sandbox play)