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There's nothing to see here except for shadows of the past - and these ones won't be returning.

I'd point you to my next project here - but I'm not that organised. My style is to act and then sort out the consequences, rather than the other way around. Oh, and lying. I do that a lot too. (i.e. if you look closely, you may have seen some links appearing roughly once a week) is registered to me for the forseeable future, so you might find something there.

Edited by Vitenka at 2003-04-09 08:22:54

Vitenka : Wed 13 11:27:19 2002  
...wherein some years of practice are used to provide an explanation of a terrifying task...

Creating a one-off event

If your environment is anything like mine, then you get called upon periodically to prepare one off events. Single shot games, intended for a single day or nights gaming. There are many reasons for such events; exhibition games to attract new blood, regular meetings where half your normal crew can't turn up, a break from the normal action... the list is, actually the list is quite short - but it's still a useful skill to have, ok?

Blah blah, ymmv, blah, there are many ways to reach the same result, blah blah, whatever works for you is good, blah blah, this is just my way of doing things, blah.

Right, I'll split this up into four sections. First, general tips that apply to any one off, then a couple of different types of one off (my own choice of how to divide it up) and then some more general tips because I always forget some and then decide to add them in at the end.

Not that credentials are important to me, but in case they are to you, I've been running one offs roughly monthly and a game once weekly for about five years now.

General Guidelines

Use handouts. A decent player handout is worth about an hour of explaining. Keep things short and sweet, with lots of room for different players to interpret things differently.

In all likelihood several of your players will have never even heard of whatever system you intend to use - for this reason it is wise to choose a system that is either incredibly rules light, or once where only you need concern yourself with the rules.

And to combine the above two tips in an obvious way - if you really need to have certain bits of system, explain them in a handout. Many game books come with photocopiable cheat-sheets, you'll have to create substitutes for those that don't. Don't worry about explaining every rule, just sum it up quickly.

Make sure that you have access to a printer or photocopier a few hours before the session is intended to run.

This tip I got from role playing tips weekly: Use index cards. They are small, easy(ish) to keep in the right order, easy to dispose of once they're used up, portable (important in many one-offs where walking around and hand waving is the order of the day) and are great to keep your notes on in almost every way.

Bring your own pens and pencils and paper and dice (if needed) in quantity. Perhaps everyone will bring their own, and perhaps they won't. If they don't, and you don't... well.

Final tip for this section: Look prepared. Nice quality hand outs, a good stock of munchies (or someone delegated to get them) will get your players into the swing of things quicker. Remember, you don't have much time in which to immerse them and get them interested - so the quicker they can sink into the actual meat of the game, the better.

Type one games: Us vs Them

This is probably the most traditional form of rpg - it's the game of choice for tournaments too, which is another reason why it might be useful for you.

Put simply, this is a dungeon crawl. It might be an investigative romp through a house haunted by an evil jester who sucks the laughter from peoples bodies and throws chairs, it might be a daring escape from the imperial police in a stolen spaceship, it might be an attempt to destroy ipswich. Whatever. The important factor here is that you are playing a game in the sense of a competition.

The preparation required in creating the characters (sorry, I assumed that you intend to use pre-gens. I surely do.) is minimal here -you can stick with stereotypes and let the players who want to flesh them out. The main part of the game is the problems and such that you throw into their way.

Prepare their location with more detail. Real world maps (even if you intend to use them to represent something completely different) can be very useful here - as can tourist guides, maps of the railway network (jump nodes!) tourist maps of historical city centers, even guides to shops in the mall. (Another example game - terrorists have barricaded the mall and taken hostages!)

Next you'll want to pick some opposition. One threat suited to each type of strength of the party is my rule of thumb. (eg. One big fight, one stealth bit, one bit of deduction)

Then tool up the level of the encounters. In general they want to grow in strength, but you won't be able to aim them as tightly to the players abilities as in a normal game. The simplest thing to do is to create enemies of roughly the same strength as the players, and to tweak the encounters difficulty on the fly by changing the numbers of enemies present, and their tactics. (If the PCs seem to be having a hard time, lower the enemy morale, and have them run off at the first significant comeback, if the PCs start to do well, call in reinforcements and have them fight more tactically)

I'm using 'fight' in the obvious sense here, because a bit of the old ultra violence is good for the soul, but a similar theory works in other arenas.

One useful hint here, design things so that the enemy numbers are vague, or so that they are overwhelming but the PCs intend to use stealth and so avoid most of them - that gives you a ready supply of reinforcements if you need them.

Now, a note about timing. It's hard to know how to budget time in one of these games, at least for me - so I tend to generate more encounters than I'll need. The first and the last ones, and maybe one in the middle are crucial to the plot, and the others will get thrown in if things are going too quickly. This kind of modular design makes for a slightly lamer plot, but is certainly a lot faster to create.

One final note: This is a one off. Characters are expendable, and the players don't have to win. As long as the game lasts about the right length of time, don't worry about massacring them all horribly at the end. Just don't get too predictable about it :) Seriously, a one off is a good time to kick back and challenge the players gamesmanship assumptions.

Some of the best one offs I've played in have been horror events, where it was obvious from the start that we were all doomed. Call of cthulhu is a good system for this - it warns the players in advance of what to expect though.

Type Two games: Us vs Us

Now this is the genre that I really like for one-offs. And I've been really stupid putting it this far down the page and hoping that someone will slog through all that is above it. Oh well.

Right. In this type of game the players are competing against each other. Your role will be, pretty much, to sit on the sidelines and let them get on with it - occasionally spurring them on or answering questions.

There are two main things to consider when designing this kind of one off - the spur/goal combination, and the character motivations.

Spur / Goal

The spur is the event that gets the game rolling, the kick up the backside that gets everyone moving. It can be as simple as an invitation to a party, or as complex as a corpse being discovered in the middle of their room. It is intrinsically linked (or at least should be) to the goal - which is the ultimate aim of the PCs, the big shiny prize that they are struggling for.

This combination is probably the most certain way to get a session started, but it's by no means the only way. Careful introduction of the characters to each other, and slow weaving's of various plots will work to - but they tend to be slower. In my opinion, such stratagems are best left in reserve to deal with tardy players - getting the session started quickly is more important than keeping everything clean.

Now, the goal. Usually this is something shiny and obvious - 'become prince' for example, or 'unlock the mystical seal your way. But there's no reason for it to be. One of the best sessions of this type I ran had the goal of the players be nothing more than them trying to set the precedents of law, each to their own design - while another was a 'last man standing' game, where each in turn betrayed the others to the authorities.

Now, once you have your kick in the pants and your golden shiny, you need to add subgoals. In general, in a game of this sort, it will become rapidly obvious to several of the participants that they are no longer in the running for the grand prize. There have to be other goals that they can compete over, and trade-offs that can be made for their support by the main candidates, or these players will rapidly become disruptive.

As a general rule of thumb, for 4-10 players, I like to have 4 goals per player - two of which should be common to all the players, one of which should be shared by about half the players, and one should be more esoteric - a personal goal, perhaps shared between only two players, or even none, but which if achieved would hamper all the other players. When dividing up goals, remember that you won't necc. have all of the possible number playing. Split them up sensibly, and make it so that you know which goal to discard from the game completely if only half the number turn up.

Ok, now - once you know what the players are looking for - pick a setting. IT should usually be something sedentary where the players can come into easy contact with each other whenever they choose (eg. real life, with telephones, or a Council meeting) or a tense situation where they are forced together (eg. the typical murder mystery dinner party, or fugitives hiding in the cargo bay of a stolen ship)

One further note - goals can be positive or negative. "Make sure that xyzzy doesn't get what they want" is just as good a goal as trying to get it.


So, you know where the characters are, and what they want. Now for the meat of the game - the ways they go to it.

This section is going to be a bit more prescriptive than the others.

Get a big sheet of paper. Put a number of circles on it equal to the number of players you expect. Now, draw three outgoing arrows from each circle to other circles.

Give each circle a brief description - come up with a few quick adjectives that crystalize the image of that character in your mind.

Now, for each arrow, make it some point of conflict. Something in the past that made them disagree, or just an opinion about the other.

Next, grab a separate piece of paper for each character (personally I do all this on the computer)

Write a quick description of which goals the character is going for, and why.
Write a quick (one paragraph or two long) description of the character and their history.
The bulk of the page you wan to give over to their thoughts on the other characters. Dwell on the hatreds, put especial emphasis on the ones that stand in the way of the characters goals - but put a little something about everyone.

Whilst doing this part of the character web, you'll often come up with nifty little additions. Feel free to go back and tie them to the other characters.

Ideally, the total for each player should be about one page long.

Now - the common background. Anything that needs to be on everyone's sheet (eg, a description of the overall goal, or the setting, and common knowledge about each of the characters) should be put onto a separate sheet that can be photocopied and distributed at the start of the game.

Now - some tips.

Avoid getting too meta-gamey about it all. Don't try and decide in advance which characters should win, nor try too hard to tailor specific characters to players. It's very tempting to do so, but it almost always ends in disaster. (Example quote: Hi, we're from a secret government agency)

Don't be afraid to throw some truly strange characters into the mix. A smiling madman may be bad for long term play, but is perfect for a one off (Quote: LoOk AT aLl tHE pRetTy bUtTeRFliEs!) Do be sure to balance them with lots of normalacy though - chaos works best against a mundane background.

Always give all the characters motives to be cruel and vindictive if they want to be. In this kind of game, players can easily ignore background that they don't like, so the more background the better.

Have fun with the character relationships. Encourage the players to invent past history by leaving small scraps that even you have no idea what they hint at. Make sure that each player has at least one reason to talk to every other PC.

Lastly, and this is important - put all of your comments and descriptions and hints into genre. The basic character scheme may be reusable in any genre, but you have to get the right impression across to your PCs right away. If it's meant to be a high tech campaign, introduce gargantuan amounts of techno-babble for them to talk about. In a gothic setting, make every description simply ooze with blood and shadows. You have to get the mood across as quickly as possible.

And finally

Well, this is it. The last section. So, what's left to talk about? Oh yeah, actually running the game...

Frankly, don't worry about it. The game is mostly the players, and they don't need much help. Just try to stay on top of things, drink a lot of water to help your voice, and try to avoid the temptation to fiddle overmuch. There's nothing wrong with the occasional slow bit.

One very successful way to run the game is in a similar fashion to the game 'diplomacy' - at regular intervals bring all the players back to the table, and (in the first game type) ask them what they want to do, or (in the second) let them argue things out face to face. Then let them break up into small cliques and game away as they please.

Another way is to split the players into two random groups, then periodically mix the members through some contrived in-game event.

Remember to bring all your players together for the finale.

If you ARE using the 'wander round the room' approach, don't be afraid to shout loudly to get everyone's attention and announce big events periodically (such as a new bit of plot, or a character death)

Always have an NPC or two, servants and such, who can toady around the players, carry messages and such, for you to play. Always remember to have reasons why they are too busy as well - you'll need that a lot.

Keep everything. These games can often be run again, and again, and again - there's no sense in starting from scratch each time.

Feel free to have a GM plant in the party. It's a great tool if you're not confident about your abilities to keep such a free ranging session on track. Heck, a rousing game of 'hunt down the spy' can make everyone's day. Obviously, don't be obvious about having a favorite. Which leads to the next tip:

Pass notes. Even if they say nothing. Pass notes everywhere. Pass them to players, reply to players notes with more notes. Sometimes take a note and forget about it. Sometimes take a note and absentmindedly hand it to the wrong player. After all, in most of these settings - each player has some kind of spy network. Notes are another good reason for index cards, they come pre-cut to about the right size.

Finally, have fun and don't worry. These things are tiring but exhilarating. Go mad. Don't worry about doing a 'good job' just let the players have their fun.

Have actual physical rewards. Toffees for example. Don't bring too much, or it trivialises it - but when the characters are fighting over treasures, the presence of something edible makes the players go for it with that much more gusto.

And finally, at the end. Always do a roundup. Recap some of the best/worst/silliest moments. Hand out fictional awards for the best quotes. Tell them which player had what hidden objectives, and who attained them. Let the players get involved in this and start boasting.

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