If you have been taking a look at the sorts of games I run or attend at conventions, or have taken a look at the Adventures page here on the site, then you know I enjoy telling contained stories. (If you haven’t been doing those things, then hi, welcome to Nerdhaus Games. Most posts in the Convention category have that in common) The appeal of one shots for me is twofold: scheduling and variety. Somewhere between those two points are significant benefits to you as a player and your existing game group, if you have one.
We’ll start with the boring practical part: scheduling. As an adult, getting five people with the same regular gap in their schedule is a minor miracle. And if it does work out, there will inevitably be weeks where that doesn’t sort out. One fix is digital tabletops, which were a good solution for my group for years. It still requires the regular schedule; it just eliminates the drive (and physical proximity. We played Shadowrun across three time zones).
But I have found that a pool of players with roughly similar interests who are variously available for a semi-regular group also works. I have eight or so regulars who are available in groups of 3 to 5 any given Saturday, and we run whichever one-shot or zero-prep I have on deck that weekend. I have opted for a sign-up form via Google Sheets that lets players review games & dates and then sign up for seats like a little convention, but that might be too fussy or formal for you. Use what works.
When players feel like a game, they sign up and come in. When they can’t (or just don’t like what’s on offer for the next few weeks), they don’t have to sign up and no one needs to justify why. I update the schedule every month or two, announce the upcoming games, and email folks the week of the session as a reminder. As a solution for the vagaries of the adult schedule, it is remarkably easy. As a way to introduce tabletop gaming to all those “wanted to, but never played” friends who are subscribing to those actual-play podcasts, this is an ideal situation. But practical or easy is not the only reason to try one-shots.
The other main benefit is variety. Not counting conventions (which can feature a dozen games in three or four days), just in the six months I’ve been running one-shots we’ve played Fate (Core and Accelerated), 5th Edition D&D, Dread, 10 Candles, an original Powered by the Apocalypse hack, Protocol, and Crash Pandas (a hilarious one-page RPG by Grant Howitt). Genres have included medieval dramatic, weird modern, post-apocalyptic survival horror, toon noir, high fantasy steampunk, and two different games as non-anthropomorphic animals (one of which is a riff on The Fast & The Furious and the other is about animal bonding adventures). And we have future plans to hit a pulp adventure based on a board game, a surrealist trip through super-powered insomniacs, and maybe a return visit to Fiasco before too long.
Obviously, if you’re craving a long-term experience of watching your characters grow and change over months of play, this is not a solution for you. But I will still argue that taking advantage of the boom in one-shot and zero-prep RPGs coming out in the last decade is something you should take advantage of. As a player, it has done so much for me in terms of embracing the temporary nature of characters and the remarkable power of character death and sacrifice. By trying on new characters the way I can try on shoes in a store, you can dial in your favorite approach to something, refracting your choices along similar angles or branching out from your usual and recognizing that even in a long-form campaign there might be some value in breaking stuff to make something new.
And the appeal of one-shots to your group may also be a benefit. The first case is totally unrelated to the game at hand: pull a comedy something to step away from your epic high fantasy, or goof around as raccoons in a race car as the antidote to your modern supernatural skullduggery. If you are short a player one week, recharge and try something new and let the story catch up next time when you all get back together. You still get to play, and no one missed part of the main adventure. It’s like watching a YouTube video when someone’s off in the bathroom and the movie’s paused: Everyone wins.
The second avenue for your group can be richly rewarding but would have to be built carefully in to your existing story: Integrate a second game into your primary campaign! You can use any of a number of short-form games to provide additional context for your game world as a sidecar to your main one. Write a Dread module that acts as a flashback for a series of disappearances you are following up on. Recount the founding of your village with an adaptation of The Quiet Year. And it can still be a goofy diversion! Write your own Fiasco charts to run an episode of Neil the Ork Barbarian in your Shadowrun campaign, but use the “plot points” from the session as trivia to impress a Neil devotee later in the campaign. As a player, offer to build it and run it to give your GM the week off. I’m reasonably sure they’d appreciate the opportunity and you’ll get a chance behind the screen, so to speak.
I’ve developed a variation of Ten Candles as a compliment to my upcoming Running on Empty post-apocalypse setting, called Tales from the Road. This secondary game plays out cautionary tales told by older drivers about the dangers of the road, always ending in gruesome deaths. But what happens when your party in the main campaign comes across the burnt-out ruin of Fiddler’s March or the ransacked paver caravan from your ghost story? The players will remember a fantastic adventure about werewolves or mind control, but is that what really happened? How much faith do you put in the ramblings of your elders anyway? You can use these side quests to expand the scope of your existing campaign and introduce the uncertainty of an unreliable narrator played by the players themselves.
Or you can take a week off and protect Jason Statham from a vengeful but principled sniper. You have a lot of options.