Running One-Shot Sessions To Time

A couple weeks ago I was reading a conversation on Google Plus where a couple GMs were discussing how hard they found it to run a session to a strict time limit. To help my fellow GMs I wrote up the following six rules which I follow to try and keep my games within the allotted time.

I did worry that I was perhaps cheating because I tend to only run for my friends here in Edinburgh, but then on Saturday and Sunday last week at Conpulsion I ran two one-off sessions for (mostly) strangers and they worked almost perfectly.

Step 1: Plot out a Beginning, a Middle and End, but plan short, I find games more commonly overrun than underrun and it is a lot easier to add to a short session that hurry up a long session.

Step 2: The Beginning should be instantly fun to hook them in. A chase, a fight, a hunt, an argument, whatever. Just something so that you can say to the players, ‘You need to deal with this now.’ Try to ensure this involves every player at the table, if one player feels left behind at the start it can have a knock on effect for the rest of the game.

Step 3: Either tell the players what their goal for the session is right at the start, or have them find or choose one during Act 1. This doesn’t mean that you can’t throw a plot twist at them later on but in a short session you don’t have time for the players to be wondering what they are supposed to be doing.

Step 4: The Middle is the meat of the session, where you give the players agency to enjoy themselves. If it’s an investigation session, this is where the investigating happens, if it’s a dungeon crawl this is where the crawling happens. This can be as vague or structured as you like but try to plan so that every success they achieve brings them a step closer to the conclusion (either because they are finding clues, or the baddies are noticing them or because they are running out of rooms to clear). This should be at least half your time slot.

Step 5: The finale should be a big and satisfying event which ties in the main points of the session. Don’t worry about trying to tie in everything but make sure the players are rewarded for their efforts here.

Step 6: Have a couple of extra events/scenes to hand which you can add in if things are going too quick. You could add a funny side quest in a dungeon, or a second boss fight in case the first one is too easy. An extra twist in the tale, or just whatever works incase your game isn’t overrunning like we expected in step 1.

Still wondering how much to write? Well in a linear session you could fit in maybe, the intro, a couple of short fights, a few discussions or investigation sections and then the climax.

In a more open session you basically want the players to have to solve a single situation. There should be a bunch of different ways to reach this solution, you just need to set up enough contacts clues and encounters that the players figure it out. Map it out and check that potential paths seem reasonable within the time limit. Remember to plan short.

One last note: When running my two sessions, half way through each of them I was convinced that I was going to run out material well before the end. It probably didn’t help that my prep for the end of the sessions was a lot more sketchy than my prep for the start. It didn’t turn out to be a problem in either game, with the first wrapping up, with a slightly speedy epilogue, at exactly 3 hours, and the second at 2 hours 50 minutes. So if you feel like you are running out of material half way through your time slot, don’t worry too much.


3 thoughts on “Running One-Shot Sessions To Time

  1. With the exception of that first time I ran for you (where the first 3 times I’d run that scenario it went really well, and the 4th just seemed to go wrong), I’ve somehow always managed to have one off games go right (or at least not run over).

    I just wish I could manage the same for my campaign ideas, which always seem to run really short, forcing me to burn through material (admittedly that could be the players, as I’ve found certain players just seem laser focussed on the game, which isn’t as good a thing as it sounds).

    1. With campaigns I usually find that they run about twice as long as I had planned. Honestly I don’t even try to keep them to a certain number of sessions. I have a pile of material to get through and it’ll be done when it’s done.

      Deep Carbon Observatory I thought would be about ten sessions, it ended up being 18. Edge of the Empire/Beyond the Rim was much the same. My current game I am again hoping for ten sessions, we’ll see how it goes eh?

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