My group and I are in the middle of a 5 week break from our usual campaign due to a players’ absence, so I’m running a four session mini-campaign.
The first two sessions moved at a slower than expected pace (that’s ok – everyone had fun still), and the third session had to be cancelled due to a few complications (a story as old as time), so I’m left needing to cram several sessions worth of content into a single evening. I thought it’d be interesting if I noted some of my considerations when doing this, as I’m sure this happens to every GM at some point.
Curation, not rail-roading
It’s important to accept that in a situation like this, like with most one-shots, there is an increased need for the GM to guide the story, in order to achieve narrative satisfaction at the end of the session. For this reason, I believe it’s important for the GM to curate which information they emphasise to the players.
Consider what the themes of the adventure are. You should emphasise elements which portray these themes and create a backdrop for the adventure. If you’re playing gothic horror, you’ll need to include anything affected by the dark and stormy night.
Next consider which information is essential to understanding and enjoying the conclusion to the adventure. Remove everything else. Players have a habit of over-complicating things anyway. Start with the bare minimum.
While NPCs alluding to side quests, red herrings and peripheral ideas are fun in a long campaign, there’s no place for them here.
Everything you say as the GM should keep the party on track to accomplish their goal.
I’ve tasked the players with asking some questions ahead of our next session. These can be of NPCs – asked in character, or of me the GM about the world around them and their characters’ experiences. I’ll start the next session with a run down of the answers – out of character.
This allows me to tailor the information I provide based on what the players find interesting, while also ensuring that my point above remains at the forefront. I can seed my answers with the information which will get the characters to the end of the adventure, and make it exciting along the way.
They’ve asked questions to understand peoples’ motives and solve a mystery. I can use my pre-session explanations to give an empirical answer to this, rather than in-character suggestions which they need to piece together.
They’ve asked about geography and how one area relates to another. I can give them an accurate overview, as though their characters had pieced together information and explored the land themselves – I may even give them a map.
They’ve asked about history. I can give them the full story in one go, in a way which makes sense and not in small parts of the story which they need to piece together themselves.
Use this technique to skip to the end. Remove the guesswork for your players on what has happened up to the point that you drop them off at the start of tonight’s adventure. In a campaign setting, they’ll have generated assumptions by that point anyway, and whether correct as you imagined them or not, they will shape the story. Give them the assumptions they need to shape this session’s story.
I don’t plan events or scripted interactions in my sessions, but situations which the party will find themselves in. When starting a session, I have a good idea of what these possible encounters might be. They could be NPCs, dungeon rooms or monsters. I discuss this idea a little here, and will probably write more about it in future.
If you plan your session with a number of expected encounters based on the session length, then it’s worth planning the same number as normal. If you usually need 1 encounter every 30 minutes, then make sure you’ve got each of these possibilities ready. But make sure that several of them are not essential in order to complete the adventure. You need to make sure that if you gloss over that encounter, or remove it entirely, it won’t have a meaningful impact on how satisfying your conclusion is. It’s also worth considering how you would explain the encounter to your players if you had to tell the whole thing as a story. That brings me on to:-
Tell a story.
Put your players into a third person seat and tell them what happens.
Describe the environment, the characters actions. Keep it as brief as possible to ensure it’s fast paced and exciting, or tense and nerve-wracking.
You can use this to cover the passing of time; travel scenes; discussions with NPCs; fights with monsters – anything which it isn’t necessary for the players to experience first hand, but which is relevant to the overarching story.
In these moments, I’m keen for the players to interject with anything at either end of a spectrum of story relevance: Totally unimportant – Critically important.
Anything in the middle of the spectrum should be encouraged against.
Often they’ll add tidbits about their characters behaviour, seasoning to bring out the flavour of the scene. This is great as it adds a bit of player agency back in in a way which won’t derail the session. It fosters engagement in a part of the game which could become stale.
At the other end of the spectrum, I want players to add or ask questions about anything which is important for their understanding of a situation. The dispensing of information is controlled by the GM, but we can’t control how our players receive this information. It’s crucial that we allow space to clarify anything ambiguous.
I think cut scenes are an under-used tool in general – there’s a lot which has been said by others on this, and a lot which I could and probably will say in future.
For now, take this as a reminder that it’s okay to remove your players’ agency occasionally. As long as the GM understands what it is the player’s enjoy, and the choices their characters are likely to make, cut scenes can be an excellent way to keep the pace moving quickly.
This is very different to the removal of agency which Matt Colville describes in this video – but I think there’s some really useful advice here to run in tandem with these points.
It’s harder in a one-shot to understand the characters motives, as they’re often new for the current session. But I find that in this instance, players also have less attachment to their agency over that character’s choices as well, so best judgement on the GMs part is usually sufficient.
This leads neatly onto my final point:-
Trust the GM
Everything I’ve said above works best when the players trust that the GM has their best interests at heart, that the GM is looking out for the enjoyment of the table as a whole.
I’d even say that it’s necessary that the table has this understanding.
Talk to your players, explain the need for brevity and what you’ll be using to achieve it.
Blasting through cut scenes in the manner described above without first pointing to this as a technique can leave a sour taste in the table’s collective mouth. As with everything in roleplaying games, it’s important to be upfront, honest and clear about how you’ll be exploring and creating the story together. Have a 5 minute session zero talk before you start. If this style of play is unusual for your table, as it is for mine, jumping in at the deep end like this can be jarring.
Prepare the water with open conversation, not silent expectation.
That’s everything from me for now, though I’m sure there are some other considerations. Given that your twitter posts might not be around much longer, get at me in the blog comments if you have any other techniques and ideas!
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