I’ve put together some advice-- not exhaustive or comprehensive. Some of it overlaps with my earlier post on running online. I’ve tried to order elements chronologically: what to think about beforehand, at the start, during play.
- Even if you use pre-gens, let the players tweak them: let the player pick gender, name, ethnicity, look. There’s sometimes the instinct to supply pictures and set those identities but it’s far stronger if players get to make some picks.
- You don’t need to use all the rules. If there are aspects of the game you’re unlikely to get into, leave them out. Focus your reference sheets and explanations on the most important things players need to a) know how to resolve tasks and b) make informed choices with their character. If niche issues arise and require diving into a new complicated sub-system—adjudicate that on the fly and mention there’s more in the full rules. Keep this in mind especially if you’re demoing a game.
- Likewise, you don’t need to explain all of the rules. Focus on telling people what they know to make choices and decisions. If someone asks about how a spell functions, tell them about that and not about the whole magical cosmology. Yes, the mechanics and system might be cool and interesting but focus on what’s going to happen at the table.
- Check in to see what the players’ experience is of the system and setting. If you run a lot, you can often forget how much you need to teach. If you’re running online, check in on everyone’s experience with the tech.
- Don’t brag or dismiss at the start of the session with your lack of knowledge of the game or lack of preparation for the scenario. I’ve seen GMs, even big name Game Designer GMs, do this at the table as a technique of self-deprecation and protection. What it actually communicates to the players is that you don’t care about their time. It’s dismissive and doesn’t bring those people on to your side. Even if you have only just learned the rules or will be winging the whole scenario, don’t say that.
- Don’t give them anything dense to read. Try to give them the essentials verbally, with perhaps a handout that outlines those points.
- This is far easier online, but make sure you have enough reference materials available. If it’s online, make sure the material is easy to get to (like on a separate tab of a character keeper). If you’re making up characters, presenting a list of steps is useful. If you’re face to face, try to avoid double-sided sheets requiring the players to keep flipping sides. An exception to this would be the tri-fold character sheet approach. It makes looking through easier.
- Keep your backstory and set up short. The CATS approach is a good way to distill things down to a manageable amount. You can elaborate on this at the start to provide more context. But if you’re spending ten+ minutes laying out history and background, that's too much. Tell the players what they need to operate—give them the basic pitch.
- Related to that: sometimes because you’ve truncated the setting and backstory, players will make choices and decisions that wouldn’t quite work in the full context of the world. Let them. Just go with that. Try to avoid saying “no that wouldn’t work because of (X thing I haven’t gone into)”. Even more avoid saying “well you can do that but in the real game that wouldn’t fly because of X.” You’ve got four hours. Let people play and don’t “well actually”.
- Have a strong, specific goal and make that clear to the players. Like my recent Masks session—the team starts on the run, having been implicated in a crime. They know they have to escape and clear their name. Sometimes the set up will tell the players everything you need to know. Pasiones usually has an inciting incident and then the goal is drama. Even in games where you make up characters in the first hour, like my Hearts of Wulin one shots, I have a handful of scenario starters in mind and find one which works with the characters established. These have a simple goal (get from a to z, protect x, attend event, etc.). Stating this right at the start prevent floundering in those initial scenes.
- Listen closely to people’s questions and try to answer those as simply and directly as possible. Avoid rambling, digressions, tangential explanations, anecdotes, etc. After you’ve answered a question, check in with the askers to see if you’ve a) made it clear and b) answered the question they actually asked.
- Know the rules you do use. At least know the basics well enough to be able to handle the main play of the game. If your game has an economy (Fate points, Surpluses/Needs, Corruption, etc) know how people gain and use those points. You don’t have to know everything, just enough to guide the resolution. For example with a PbtA game, know the basic moves well enough that you can suggest moves when they pop up in the fiction.
- You teach the rules—I’ve said this elsewhere, but having multiple persons explaining things creates confusion. If a player jumps in to add on a detail or give more minutiae, be ready to ask them to hold off until you’re finished. Then when you’re done you can ask them if they would add anything. The same thing applies to setting, actually. Some players like to jump in when you’re explaining the set up. Ask them to wait.
- Games with an economy function differently in a one shot. Think about that. For example, Monster of the Week’s Luck Points don’t work if the PCs have the standard allotment in a one-shot. In this case you could give everyone one luck point or perhaps a pool of six points for the entire group.
- Check in, check in, check in. Give players an opportunity to respond. If a player makes a Study or other info-gathering action, answer and ask if that seems like what they wanted to know. When you make a hard move, ask the player if that seems fair or cool. Make sure your framing and responses don’t recharacterize or undercut a player’s sense of their PC.
- Model early how you handle order of play, NPC interactions, and information gathering. Model safety tools where possible. Model how players can collaborate and respond when you put something forward.
- Know the schedule. Know when the next session’s likely to be. If the next session starts exactly as you finish, cut out at least ten minutes early to let people shift games. Again, communicate that to your players.
WHAT ABOUT BOB?
This last piece of advice applies to One Shots and to the first couple of sessions of your game. Frequently you’re going to be playing with people you don’t know. It is vital that you manage the table from the start. Demonstrate how you field questions and manage the spotlight. If a player disrupts the table, you need to handle it.
What do I mean by disrupt? The most common issues are: a) off-tone. They player wants wacky when you’re playing it straight. Or they veer off from collaborative choices made early in the game. b) spotlight hogging. They take a scene and never let go. They jump in at every opportunity. They talk over other people in the scene. C) interruptions. Cutting people off, even with helpful suggestions, is no fun for the targeted player. Watch out especially when women, PoC, and other marginalized players get cut off.
So here’s a little tangent. Play culture’s hugely important. One of the things which has become a greater focus in the last decade or so is the idea of the GM as a facilitator and a player. I think that’s absolutely right. With that has come an emphasis on collaboration, “yes, and…,” and generally being more hands off in your approach when you run a game. That’s great and opens up room for the players.
But I think that’s also made us shy away when you need to manage the table. Sometimes it’s OK to say no. If you’re feeling awkward about how a player has grabbed the narrative and won’t let go, odds are all your other players are too. Build trust early so that when you do have to stop someone, ask to pass the scene, or get someone to wait until another player has had their say…the players know that you’re going to do well by them overall.
I said above play culture matters—and nowhere more so than here. Often these players aren’t malicious—they’ve come from a table when they’ve had to scrum to get scene time or they’ve played more freeform, raucous LARPS. Model good behavior and be willing to explicate that culture at the table.
I’d love to hear other suggestions for one-shot management.