If you like what you’re reading, check out, Burn Bryte, an original science fantasy TTRPG I helped create for Roll20!
This post originally appeared on my Patreon a little over a year ago.
Running one shots are great at conventions or game stores, for sessions between or while you’re taking a break from a long campaign, for nights when not all your regular players are available, for tables with rotating game masters, or just for the fun of playing new games. If you’re a game designer, I recommend playing a variety of games and systems, even if you’re only interested for designing for one game because you’ll get ideas you can bring to your chosen RPG. In other words if you’re a game designer, one shots in new systems are a great way to get ideas and see what else is out there.
Running a new system can be truly daunting. You have to learn a new game and teach it to everyone while also trying to provide a fun time! It’s easy to get bogged down in rules and be so caught up in learning the new system, you forget to PLAY. In this post I’ll show you how to set yourself up for success when running a one shot in a new system.
Read the Rules
Being the GM means you have to have a decent grasp on the rules of most games so you can run a successful session. You don’t have to have mastered the rules, but you should have a good understanding.Reading RPG rulebooks can take a long time, especially for a very crunchy system. My advice is to multitask and skim where you can. I multitask when I read new RPG books by using a cardio machine at the gym at the same time. This way I get in my workout and my RPG reading time. If you take public transportation to school or work, you can read your books during that time. Some RPGs (not all) have audiobook versions of their rules that you can listen to while you commute, do chores, or any other time you might listen to a podcast. Multitasking helps learn new systems with a crazy schedule.When it comes to skimming, many books have sections you do not need to read if you’ve been playing RPGs for a while. For instance the introductory “What is a roleplaying game?” section of most RPGs can be quickly skimmed over for any new revelations, then you can get to the meat of the new rules. You can do this quite a bit with games based on franchises with lore you may know from other media like Star Wars or DC Comics.
Listen or Watch
It’s a good idea to listen to or watch an actual play podcast or stream of the game. You get a feel for how others play the game, how they introduce the rules to new players, and a lot more you don’t get from just reading a book. The One Shot Podcast is the gold standard here, but there are a lot of amazing shows where the hosts play many different games. Search for the name of the system you want and “actual play,” and you’ll get more than a few results.
Use a published adventure if you’re running a one shot in a new system. You already need to learn the rules of the new game and teach them, so it takes some of the preparation burden off your plate to use a published adventure. Many games come with a starter adventure that is made to introduce you and new players to the rules in an engaging way. These adventures also fit the tone of the game’s world and story, which can be a challenge if you’re writing your own adventure in a genre with which you are unfamiliar.
Giving your players pregenerated characters saves a lot time. These are often included with the rules or can be found on the publisher’s website (or through an internet search). Making characters is fun but for a new system can sometimes take an hour or more, which is a significant portion of a ses singlesion’s time. Without a good grasp on the system, players can make characters they are unhappy with because they are underpowered or don’t do what the player thought they would. Pregens allow your players to jump right into fully-formed characters that are usually archetypical main characters of the game’s genre.
You are going to need more time to run a one shot in a new system, so plan accordingly by giving yourself an extra hour of session time than you normally do. You can do this through scheduling with your players or by picking a shorter adventure to run.
At the start of the session (or better yet before everyone commits to playing the game) set story and world expectations about the game. If most of your players have only ever played D&D a game like Shadow of the Demon Lord or Call of Cthulhu is going to have a very different tone (both are deadlier and darker). Horror games, like Dread, require everyone’s buy-in that death is a big possibility for everyone and the player characters will do the terrible and foolish things main characters do in horror films and novels. Set those expectations and field questions before you get into the rules. If the game is a new style for your players, encourage them to get out of their comfort zones a bit by letting them know it’s not just new to them but to most (or all) of the group!
Explain the Basics Upfront
Don’t spend too much time going over the rules up front. Explain the basics on the character sheet. For D&D I would point out and explain ability scores and modifiers, personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws, background, race, and class then get to gaming. Give your players enough information to understand the very basic mechanics up front then keep the fun rolling. No one needs every single spell on their character sheet explained before you start.
Explain the Rest as You Go
As you play, introduce new rules as they become relevant. About to start combat? Time for you to explain how initiative works. A player has a cool feature specific to their character? Explain it when they ask or decide to use it. This helps keep the game flowing because some rules may never come up in a single session. For instance, if the characters never get on vehicles, no need to explain four pages of vehicle rules to them.
Keep the Game Moving
It’s fine to stop for a quick moment and look up a rule if you absolutely feel the need, but if researching or arguing about an obscure edge case is grinding the game to a halt, make a note to look it up later, make a ruling, and move on.
Embrace the System
While you are running the game, lean in to the elements that make the rules and story special. Playing Night’s Black Agents? Embrace the badassness of the player characters as special agents and the twisted cruelty of their vampire foes. Playing TimeWatch? Get goofy in the humorous time travel detective game! Both of these games revolve around mystery solving, so they should be very different from a typical D&D dungeon crawl! As you may have encouraged players at the start the session, you should leave your comfort zone too. Lead by example!
After the game is done, leave some time for a chat with your players. What did they think of the game? Did they enjoy it? Do they want to play again sometime? What did they like and dislike? What else do they want to know about the game’s rules or story? What was unclear? These discussions are part of the fun and can help guide the games, adventures, and decisions you choose for your game in the future even if you just stick to one system most of the time!
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