What is a tabletop RPG one-shot?
A one-shot is an RPG scenario or adventure that can be played from start to finish in one single session, ranging from 2 to 6 hours. It usually comes with a set of pre-generated characters, who are tied to this story by their personal motivations. This lets the group jump straigt into the story without needing to explain why they are embarking on this quest or why they met.
Here’s an example plot for a one-shot:
The player characters are trapped in a basement, without any memory of how they got here. While they try to escape this place with all its monsters and traps, they gradually regain their lost memory about a fanatic cult, who planned to sacrifice them to their dark gods.
When do we play one-shot sessions?
Here are the main reasons why some groups prefer one-shots over longer campaigns that span multiple sessions.
1. Conventions and local events
One-shots are usually played at conventions and local game stores. Here a group of people who haven’t played together before get together to have a good time playing a single RPG session. As it’s unlikely that they will meet again and because the time there is limited, playing a one-off game is the best option for them.
2. New players join a group
There might be new members in an existing group or even players who have never tried a tabletop RPG before. For this, a one-shot might be a good way for the group to get to know each other, rather than starting an epic campaign that lasts for a year or two.
3. Testing a new RPG system
Sometimes you just want to try out a new RPG system or pitch it to your group. One-shots provide a great opportunity to test a new game without having to dedicate yourself to it for more than one evening.
4. Stories made for one evening
Some plots or RPG systems really lend themselves to being played during a single evening. This is true for many freeforms, mini-larps and for a lot of horror RPGs such as Cthulhu, Dread or 10 Candles. Whenever there’s a high chance that the characters might not survive the finale, it’s probably a one-shot.
What makes one-shots special?
One-shots provide an intense story, full of action, conflicts or drama that can be played during a single session. Take a plot and refine it over and over again by removing all boring and distracting parts of it. The essence that’s left is pure one-shot material. It will only fill one evening, but it will contain as much thrill and entertainment as many campaigns that last several sessions.
And of course, there are stories that are meant to be played for one session only. Many horror RPG plots work this way, including a finale that will cost the player characters their life or sanity. Discovering the truth about the demise of the Atlantic or Hindenburg from a passenger’s view? That’s ideal stuff for one-shots.
Drawbacks of one-shots
It comes as no surprise that reducing a story to a single session has its downsides. It’s hard to build up a deep emotional connection to the characters, NPCs and the setting, if you only play a scenario for a few hours. While one-shots are dense and action-packed, they lack the opportunity to develop more complex characters and stories. This is what longer campaigns are for.
Additionally, for most one-shots there is no session zero to design the characters and setting together as a group with more player buy-in. One-shots are usually pretty straightforward, in order to achieve an intense and cinematic playstyle. This does not mean that there is a lot of railroading in one-shots. But often there is a predetermined finale, to provide a satisfactory ending for this single game session.
Like comparing a movie
to a Netflix series
Comparing one-shots to longer campaigns is like comparing a movie you’d watch at the cinema to a Netflix series with numerous episodes. The movie tries to pack all the action or drama into two intense hours. It might feel a bit shallow or forced, but it delivers on its promise to entertain you well during this time. The Netflix series needs time to build up tension. The first two episodes might feel a bit boring or confusing. It takes a while to get to know all the characters. But there’s much more time to develop a compelling and intricate story with interwoven plotlines over the course of the different episodes.
Neither of these two formats is better or worse than the other. It rather depends on the complexity of the story and the available time to judge whether a short intense one-shot or a slow developing campaign is a better fit.
Recommended pen and paper
RPGs for one-shots
Based on their overall theme and setting, some roleplaying game systems really shine when played as one-shots. You’ll often find much more one-shot scenarios published for them than longer campaigns. Here is list of RPGs which are often played as one-shots.
1. Horror and mystery themed RPGs
With horror and mystery RPGs there’s a high chance for the player characters to die or go insane. It’s just inherent to the dark theme of these games. Popular examples for this genre are Call of Cthulhu, Kult, Dread and Unknown armies.
2. Heist games
Heists are clearly defined stories with the job offer at the start and the getaway after the score as the end. That’s why they work extremely well when played as one-shots. Games in this category include Shadowrun, The Sprawl or One Last Job.
3. Dedicated one-shot RPGs
Some indie games have the one-shot mechanic baked into their rules. It’s the goal of these games to have the player characters die, diminish, or go to jail at the end of the story. By removing the option of surviving or succeeding, players will be more open to have their characters fail in a very dramatic way. Examples for this category are 10 Candles, Trophy, Don’t Walk in Winter Wood or Fiasco.
Great examples for one-shot scenarios
You’ll find a lot of options for great one-shot scenarios when you google “best one-shot for [enter RPG name]”. Here are some honorable mentions that really stand out as being custom-made for a one-off game session.
Jailbreak (for Unknown Armies)
A group of inmates escape a modern day prison and try to hide in a nearby farm, taking the farm’s inhabitants as hostages. While the ex-inmates all have their own dark secrets, the host and his family have some surprises of their own in store.
Sailors on a Starless Sea (for Dungeon Crawl Classics)
An old-school dungeon crawl in a haunted castle, packed full of great riddles, traps and weird monsters.
A homage to old-school fantasy roleplaying. As the dungeon is very deadly, players start with four level-0 characters. The ones who survive will start their adventuring career on level 1.
Touring Rock Band (for Fiasco)
A group of elderly rockers assemble for their last gig. With several conflicts between the band members, problems with the stage equipment and the local police on their heels, drama is about to start quickly. A great Fiasco-setting, that never fails to entertain. Note: Fiasco has no GM and thus needs a lot of player engagement and improvisation skills.
Edge of Darkness (for Call of Cthulhu, 1920s)
This classic haunted house story is perfect of those who have not played Call of Cthulhu before. It gives a great taste of many aspects of Lovecraftian Horror in the 1920s.
Edge of Darkness is included in the 6th edition Cthulhu Rulebook.
Check out these websites and videos for additional information and advice on one-shots.
Matt Mercer from Critical Role shares his tips on running one-shots.
Guy from Great GM has additional advice for running one-shots.