The Tale of My First Truly Successful One Shot
Some people think of the "One Shot" as any story that is designed to be played once without any returning to the setting, characters, events, or other parts (often having some cataclysmic event involved that would make returning to the story near impossible) even if they take several play sessions to play out, but that's now how I view them. To me a "One Shot" is something designed to be played in one session, usually with original pre-generated characters and events specifically made for them, that is completely self-contained and not designed to continue in either direction (even though they may be loosely connected to a larger setting or even story elements outside of the scope of the one shot). Every time I use the term here it will be in connection to these one night adventures.
As you can most likely guess from what I have hinted at above, the main reason for my failure in this area is that I tend to put too much into my adventures. I like deep stories and lots of background, which leads to lots of time needed to get it all out to the players through adventure segments. I have a series of clues, events, non-player characters, and other story related information sources set to take place as the players move through the story and figure things out. Yes most of them have an element of mystery when I write them.
My brain writes these stories as if the players are going to figure out and find everything right away and follow each piece to the next one without delay. This is not the way players tend to do things. Players tend to like to... well... play. They play around with the setting, character personalities, relationships, scenes, actions, and more within the limited play space created by the story, which all delay the forward movement of the planned story and make most of these take longer than my brain planned for. This is my fault and my downfall when it comes to writing one shots.
I wrote it with some strong opening scenes for everyone to introduce themselves to their character (as far as they knew them) and the situation they found themselves in. I handled each of these separately and ended each one as they left the rooms they started in and walked out into the mail hall. I then started the full adventure with them all coming out into the hall at about the same time and facing each other for the first time (as far as any of them knew). The rest of the story was made of them discovering (usually obvious) clues placed around the house, including several other dead bodies and personal papers of each character, and a couple plot points that put a time constraint on events (such as one of them having arrange to have the house raided at dawn, before they lost memory of the plan).
As far as stories and games go it was a huge success and a ton of fun to play, especially when they all started to figure out who they used to be and having to decide if they wanted to still be that person. In the end most of them escaped with their lives (although a couple did die) and they still talk about how cool it all turned out, which is why I am working on a second Memory Adventure to run at a future date. The problem is that it was designed to be played in one evening, but it became rather clear about halfway through that first night that there was no way they were going to come to a conclusion before the session had to end. We concluded it the following week at the next session, which doesn't work for it being a standard One Shot event.
I could have forced action and events faster in the first half and brought us to a conclusion faster, but it would have ruined the fun and story for everyone. It went at a brisk but honest speed, so I wouldn't have been able to do that. If I had written it with less in the way of clues and events, it wouldn't have felt as full and strong as it did, which again would have seriously hurt the power of it. In the end the best thing for the story is what happened, but it was a complete failure as a one night event as I planned.
I won't take all the blame for all of them failing to be successfully completed in one night. I have a great group that loves to spend a lot of time goofing off, playing out character scenes, exploring all areas of a setting, planning and plotting every action, and savoring every moment of a story. I write something that could easily be completed in a half an hour and my group will have a blast milking it for everything they can, often turning it into a two or three hour section of the story. None of this is negative and all of it is fun, but it does tend to cause these "quick" adventures to become something more into the long form area.
Even when I made a joke adventure that spoofed old-school D&D dungeons, where each room lead to the next and there was no logic to the layout (other than they continued to get more powerful and dangerous as you went). It even had special items found in the first half that would become necessary to defeat the big bad guy at the end, and nothing that didn't have a use. It was extremely linear and forced, also part of the spoof, which allowed things to be pushed forward at all times, but even this didn't stop it from becoming a two session event with the group we have. It was a lot of fun, but not a successful one-shot.
For another group, or even at a convention, I am sure some of my carefully planned short one shots could work very well, but part of my planning has to include the fact that I am writing them for my group. This makes things very hard to make work in a form that I would be proud to put my name on, since I love deeper characters and plot. I was beginning to think that the true one shot short format was not something I was ever going to be able to pull off with my group and I should just plan for everything to be at least a two session adventure.
The basic design of the layout was relatively linear, as the only real way out of the cellar was down some hidden tunnels, that the cracking of the structure in the earthquake revealed. The tunnels helped reveal that the owner of the house was actually an ancient and relatively famous pirate that disappeared without ever being captured. They were also filled with treasure and booby traps, starting out as annoying at first (to train the characters that they had to be careful) and ending up deadly farther on. How the players played the characters would create the plot of the story, making it anywhere form goofy comedy adventure (ala Goonies) to survival horror, with the butler (the pirate captain's old first mate) picking them off one by one.
Our group went with the tense survival style, with certain characters trying to take charge, some looking for ways out (with or without the others), and others trying gain community standing through these events. Secrets were being held onto, slowly coming out in some cases, and fear slowly grew as the dangers of the tunnels were revealed. The way they were played out you had three "good" and three "bad" people all working to escape (not counting the butler NPC). In the end you had two of the bad ones successfully (and separately) leaving the others die in a rather well done and dramatic ending.
The best part for me was not the fun of the play or the story, the interaction of the carefully planned out pre-generated characters I made, or even the surprising and dramatic way it all ended. No, the best part for me was that it all successfully came together in one game session without having to force or remove any of the depth I like to see in my games. I was so pleased to have successfully completed my first true one shot.
More details of the story will be posted in the forums for members to read, if you are interested (once I get that written). Membership costs nothing and allows you to read more in the forums and post replies in most areas, so come on in and join us.