I’ll Try Anything Once: The Pleasure of One-Shots in Tabletop RPGs

I’m a notoriously picky eater in my family. When I was a kid, my stepdad would joke that the only food I ever ate was chicken strips. My grandparents would audibly gasp if they caught me eating a vegetable. My mother bemoaned that she fixed the same five meals every week. But the worst part about my pickiness was that I was unwilling to give new foods a try. Rather than actually tasting something new to give myself a chance to like it, I simply declared that “I already know I don’t like it” and went on my merry way with my box of chicken tenders. This made it difficult when someone tried to make me eat a food that I did try and thought was gross, because they didn’t really take me seriously.

As an adult, I’ve grown out of the pickiness thing to a degree. I still seem picky to people in my area because I don’t like most southern American staples, stuff like mashed potatoes, grits, chili, baked beans, green beans, etc. But the difference between now and my childhood is that I know I don’t like this stuff because I took the time to eat it first. And my taste in other things (particularly spicy and ethnic foods) has expanded a lot because once I finally gave it a shot, I discovered that I really enjoyed it. As the old saying goes, “don’t knock it til you try it.”

Giving new things a try is a great way to expand your knowledge of the world we live in and to expand your own repertoire of interests – trying more things makes you a more interesting person. It gives you versatility, and even if you don’t end up enjoying the experience, you still learn something from it and can bring those new skills to things that you do enjoy. When it comes to the realm of tabletop roleplaying, the best way to try new things and bring those skills to other games is to play what is referred to as a one-shot.

Dubious Food
I’ll try anything once, but maybe not that.

A one-shot is simply a single session of a roleplaying game, intended from the beginning to stand alone and not be continued over the course of multiple sessions. Some RPGs are explicitly designed for it, others by a coincidence of their mechanisms allow it, while still others do not excel as one-shots and may resist being played that way. The one-shot differs pretty strongly from the typical campaign method of play and those who are used to playing the same campaign of a single game for two years running may not see the value in the one-shot experience. My goal today is to share the value of the one-shot and suggest some games that sing in this format based on my personal experience.

So why play a one-shot? How can you possibly fit into one session all of the adventure and the character development and the sweat and the tears of a true-blue RPG campaign? Well naturally, you can’t. It’s mathematically improbable that you’re going to jam as much content in four hours as you could fit into months or years of weekly play. But what I am positing here is that this short span of time is perfect for accomplishing certain goals.

The first of these goals is experiencing a new system for the first time. Maybe there’s an RPG you’ve heard about that sounds really cool to you and you want to try. The problem is, by starting a campaign you are risking committing a lot of energy and hours to a game that you may not even like after you get into it. A one-shot is a perfect opportunity to experience the core rules of a game to see if they are going to work for you or not. If you play the one-shot and hate the rules, great – it’s over now and you never have to return again. If, conversely, you love the game and want to keep going, you got your lousy characters out of the way and now have more system familiarity to help you make characters that are more appropriate for the system. Heck, if your one-shot ended in such a way that it can continue, you can keep playing with the same characters – it’s up to you, really.

City of Mist 3
These are some of the characters you might play in a one-shot of City of Mist.

The second goal is trying out a new group of players. While some of us are blessed with a close group of friends that we can regularly play games with, others might not have an established team of players. Or maybe you’re thirsty for tabletop RPGs and want to play more often, so you want to get a second group going (actually me). Whatever reason you’re trying to get a group together, a one-shot is a great way to see how the group dynamic is going to shake out. You can combine this with goal one to try out both the players and the system – maybe you’ll like one and not the other, or maybe both will be amazing and it will be the beginning of a beautiful roleplaying relationship. With a one-shot, if you and the others don’t all have a good time, you can respectfully part ways without all of the feeling of a breakup that might come with ending a campaign early.

The third goal is playing games more often. Sometimes it’s hard to commit to campaign play. Getting everyone’s schedules to line up consistently can be difficult when you’re all adults with jobs, families, other hobbies, and miles of distance between you. I know in my group right now, we can only get together once a month rather than our usual once a week that we maintained in college. When it’s difficult to organize games on a regular basis, having an occasional one-shot is an excellent way to get some playtime into your otherwise jam-packed schedule. We have a tradition of getting together every Halloween to play a one-shot of a horror game, and it’s a fun way to get a bunch of old friends together and goof around in an RPG world together. During times where we can’t play regularly, those get-togethers became that much more valuable.

So it’s all well and good to tell you all the reasons why you should play a one-shot, but how exactly should you go about it? What games are good for this sort of thing? I’m going to suggest four games that I have played that I think work in a one-shot format to varying degrees. For the most part the genres differ (though two will overlap) and the game mechanics differ (again, two overlap, but different ones). I’ll talk about what I like about the game for one-shots and whether it’s a good choice for transitioning into campaign play.

A game of horror and hope.

Dread is the first game I ever played as a one-shot and for awhile was my favorite tabletop game. I found this suggested online as a great Halloween game and decided to run it for my friends on that most hallowed of holidays a few years back. We chose a Mansions of Madness theme for the game and dove into some Lovecraftian horror, and the stories we came away with were great. Finding excuses to play Dread became commonplace and one GM even worked a Dread one-shot into his running D&D campaign.

What makes Dread special? This game, you don’t play with dice. Instead, you play Dread using a Jenga tower. When you take an action that has a meaningful risk of failure, you pull a block from the tower. If the tower still stands, you succeed at your action. As more and more players take actions, the tower begins to bow and sway. Eventually, the time comes when the tower falls. When that happens, the character of the player who brought the tower down dies, and the tower is rebuilt and play continues. The level of legitimate dread that is created by pulling blocks from a Jenga tower is fantastic, and the simple mechanics make the game fun to play for even the n00biest of RPG newbies.

When it comes to campaign play, Dread does claim to be viable in campaign format but I personally have never attempted it. Characters don’t have to die when the tower falls, but it feels like it would cheapen the impact of losing your character if they simply came back next session no worse for wear. Eventually in a campaign the dread that comes with the Jenga format might fade away, and that to me would cut the teeth from the game. So while it’s possible to transition your Dread game into a full campaign, I recommend that you stick to one-shots with it.

Ten Candles Cover
These things are true: the world is dark, and we are alive.

Ten Candles is the second horror game on my one-shot list, and it handles horror in a way that’s quite different from Dread. Ten Candles is so named for the ring of ten candles on the table while you play. They serve as the game timer – when the tenth candle goes out, everyone is dead. End of story. You see, Ten Candles is not a game about trying to survive a horror scenario – it’s a game about making the final moments of your character’s life meaningful. Like a candle, the sparse light they generate before they flicker and die is beautiful.

Everything about Ten Candles is a march towards impending doom. As you roll dice, you lose them, and when you fail a roll entirely you darken a candle. Your character has helpful traits that they can literally burn in order to reroll, but once they’ve gotten rid of everything they are pushed to the Brink and must take drastic and terrible actions to continue benefiting. Once their Brink burns away, all of their hope is lost. Even if the players defy all statistical odds and roll perfectly the entire game, eventually the candles will go out on their own. The characters will die. The only question is how.

Other meaningful distinctions from Dread: Ten Candles has a very specific setting. I describe that setting in more detail in my review of the game so I won’t get into it here, but it’s a compelling one that my players and I definitely felt inspired by. The second distinction is that because Ten Candles ends with the death of all of the characters, it naturally resists campaign play. You cannot play Ten Candles as a traditional campaign. A series of vignettes in the same world with a different cast each time, a la Black Mirror? Sure. But if you want to tell the story of the same group of characters over time, this game simply won’t allow that approach. On the plus side, that makes it absolutely perfect as a one-shot, and my players and I absolutely loved our experience with the game. I highly recommend it!

City of Mist
A game of MYTHIC proportions! Eh? Eh?

City of Mist is a roleplaying game that came out somewhat recently, and one that I had the opportunity to play in a sort of beta-phase by requesting the starter set before the full game came out. As such, my very first experience with this game was a one-shot. The starter set comes with seven premade characters for the players to choose from, as well as two different scenarios for those characters to investigate. But what sort of game is City of Mist?

This game tells the story of Rifts, ordinary people in a misty City who have been chosen by legendary entities called Mythoi. These are the abstract, metaphysical manifestations of all the stories and legends we heard as children, and they express themselves through Rifts to accomplish their ends in the real world. This is all hidden from the average person by the Mist, making it so that only Rifts know about the supernatural secrets of the city. Of course, even they know almost nothing, and their goal is to investigate the mysterious force inside of them and to try and balance that with their ordinary life.

My group is currently playing a City of Mist campaign and honestly, I think this game sings a lot more in campaign play than it did with a one-shot. And that’s saying something because I gave the starter set a pretty high score in my review. My recommendation for anyone interested in this game would be to do what I did – play a one-shot with the premade characters in one of the two provided adventures using the starter set, and if you enjoy that, grab the full game and go nuts. I personally think the starter set will sell you on the full game – it certainly did me! And even if you don’t have time for a City of Mist campaign (or can only play once a month), a one-shot is still a pretty solid way to have fun with this game. But word of advice: don’t play as Salamander.

Dungeon World
Did you really think I could go a whole Tabletop Tuesday without mentioning it?

Alright, full disclosure: Dungeon World is my favorite roleplaying game. I will recommend it to everyone, anytime, for pretty much any reason. But I don’t want that to defang my recommendation to play this game as a one-shot. Dungeon World has multiple features that cause it to excel as a one-shot game, and in my experience takes less time and money to craft a compelling one-shot fantasy in comparison to a more mainstream title like Dungeons and Dragons.

Dungeon World is the unique child of D&D and Apocalypse World (also making it a sort of half-sibling to City of Mist), combining the classic trappings of western fantasy with simple game mechanics that are focused more on storytelling than rules-lawyering. It’s excellent in one-shot format for a number of reasons. Character creation can take only minutes, as your only major decision is to choose your character class, and then to make three to five smaller decisions about your character about their name, look, and gear. All of the rules that the characters might engage are contained on the character sheet and the moves sheets, so there’s no reason to crack open extra books during play – everything the player needs to know is right in front of them at all times. The GM has a set of rules – not just “guidance,” but rules – for how to run the game, which makes things simple if you’re running the game for the first time. And finally, the book comes ready-made with monsters so you don’t have to spend time designing your own enemies for the player to face.

All of these resources make Dungeon World easy to accomplish in a single sitting, but for those who enjoy their one-shot Dungeon World has tools for campaign play as well. There are some mechanisms – leveling up, compendium classes, advanced moves – that you might not otherwise get to engage in a one-shot. I’ve played multiple Dungeon World campaigns and each one has been a pleasure. The other advantage about Dungeon World compared to some of the other games that I have recommended here (when it comes to campaign play specifically) is that there are tons of extra resources out there that allow you to tailor the game to a specific type of experience. These supplemental resources help you get more life out of the game and to engage it in new ways.

So there you have it, adventurers, all the reasons you should play a one-shot and the games you might consider playing. I personally have a lot of fun with one-shots, so I hope that this will inspire you to give them a chance as well. If you try out any of the games I recommended, be sure to let me know what you think! Alternatively, if you have some questions about any of them I’d be glad to answer – I’ve purchased the rulebooks for all of these and have run them all at some point, so I am pretty familiar with the rules and can look up whatever I don’t already know. Thanks for reading, adventurers, and happy roleplaying!

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