*looks nervously both ways* anybody else...not like one shots very much?

This might be weird to say on the Gauntlet, given the nature of the business, but I think there are people drawn here for reasons other than the hangouts, and regardless, I think it’s interesting to discuss perhaps the different gaming experience provided by one-shorts vs more campaign oriented games. In particular, I’m curious if anyone else believes that the popularity of one-shots has skewed in anyway the direction that new games in the PbtA-verse are taking.

I’ve played a number of one-shots in various systems, and I mean, it’s not bad! But I find that knowing things will end produces a very different type of gaming experience. It’s not bad per se, just different…people can really lean into the drama, make destructive decisions (not trolling, just you know, dramatic), can really just push hard on the system. The downside is, well, that in my experience sometimes that can get out of hand, or just sort of get a bit ham-fisted in a way that I personally don’t enjoy. With more campaign oriented play people are encouraged to get more invested in the longer-term arc of their character, which I personally enjoy quite a bit.

Obviously logistically, one-shots are great. They’re great for people who struggle to play regularly, and they’re great for game designers, since it’s much easier to test in a bunch of one shots than in a bunch of campaigns. Take Hearts of Wulin, for example. I’m really excited about seeing the full rule book whenever it drops, but I can’t help but be worried that it’s optimized for a 1-3 session experience because that’s where the bulk of the playtesting was. I’m curious if anyone else has any thoughts on how the feedback loop might influence designs. For example, in the “crunchy systems” thread, people discussed character advancement a little bit. One complaint I’ve seen levied against PbtA games in general on other forums is that advancement isn’t that excited…this could be an outgrowth of one-shot culture, because in that case, advancement isn’t super common like it is vs in a game specifically oriented around campaigns.

And of course, the discussion about one-shots goes way beyond PbtA of course, those games just happen to be popular and pretty fleshed out. A lot of the game design that happens at least that I see on Twitter etc is for very short games…200 word games, 1 page games, and so on. I personally find these games clever as an intellectual endeavor, but hard to get invested in.

I just want to caveat:

  • I’m not saying pbta is bad
  • I’m not saying you can’t play a campaigns in pbta
  • I’m not saying nobody plays campaigns
  • I’m not saying character advancement is non-existent in pbta
  • I’m not saying game creators don’t consider campaigns at all (though for 200 word games etc I think many do not)

I’m just discussing where people might fall on the one-shot/campaign spectrum, and discussing whether or not these preferences have influenced game design in our milieu.

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I think it might help to flesh out this spectrum.

For me on one extreme is play testing specific aspects. Not even a full session, but, “let’s playtest this one mechanic”.

Then comes one shots.

Then short campaigns (2 to 6 sessions).

Then medium length campaigns (7 to 20 sessions).

Then long campaigns (20+ sessions).

To me, anything longer than a single session is a campaign. And the various lengths feel different.

It also totally matters what length of campaign the group going in EXPECTS. I’ve had plenty of campaigns that turned out to be less than 7 sessions, but where the group EXPECTED it to be a really long campaign.

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I love one shots, but I think what makes for a compelling one-shot and a compelling campaign are very different. I think the increased interest in one shots has little to do with any design trends and has a lot to do with:

  • Ease of organizing/ scheduling.
  • A desire to play many systems designed for specific narratives.
  • An interest in more collaborative, less GM-led play.
  • A desire to play without committing to regular sessions.
  • Games that are friendly to folks with a casual interest in RPGs (I want to play with a broader set of my friends, not just those willing to commit to many sessions and complex rules).

My Ideal one-shot:

  • Broad player agency to contribute to setting details. There’s limtied time for a GM to communicate a strong sense of place, so I’d rather it be a coallI’m probably not exploring a detailed landscape in two hours, so I would prefer to contribute to a shared sense of palce.
  • Minimal learning curve to rules. I don’t want to spend more time learning systems than I do playing.

My Ideal campaign:

  • Rich setting, worth exploring over time (maybe more prepped by GM or reliant on a text)/
  • Opportunities for meaningful character advancement that drives repeated play with the same character.
  • Systems that make tracking changes to character and setting easier, so I don’t need to remember plot points.
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I think one way that tone can be managed is that the GM points out that something conflicts with their well-defined setting or prep (“You can’t throw a fireball because you need to sign a contract with a demon first. Maybe that can be a goal for a subsequent session.”). Another is that something that conflicts with a desired tone might break a granaular rule (“You can’t just say you throw a fireball because fireball is a specific spell that you don’t have”). Through these dynamics, tone might be more consistent in a crunchy campaign than in a one-shot.

However, these aren’t the only way to manage tone, and I think they have more to do with GM style and system than in the oneshot/ campaign split. One-shots can feel just as grounded in verisimilitude and human motivations as any campaign: it just takes a different kind of social contract.

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I highly prefer short campaigns to one-shots or undetermined length campaigns. The undetermined length campaigns in my experience begin to either become either like strung together one-shots OR like later seasons of the show Lost where weird unaccounted stuff happens and is not explained and the plot has no direction. In addition, it gives me stress to try to schedule a long campaign, then there are the no shows, the days when you just don’t feel like being social, and my own personal scheduling conflicts.

One-shots are great for many reasons but my ideal would be an 8 to 12 session story arc where people would change out / re-up for another 8 to 12 session campaign with a few weeks off in between. That has never happened for me though.

Instead, I tend to do a lot of 2-parters. One with character creation and the start of a story and then the second with a conclusion. Probably more because I am not great at pacing than as a choice. As for game design, I tend to pick and create games that I want to play. Anything that fits between a one-shot and a 12 session game is what I would want to read or design. Of course, the thing about 1 page games and one-shots is that they are easier to design and test AND less intimidating to write.

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Speaking from personal experience, designing an advancement system is hard. Aside from the tweaking of numbers so that character growth happens as fast/slow as desired, it is incredibly hard to create a resolution system and advancement system independent of one another and expect them to work gracefully together. This inevitably means that if you jump into an exciting new design and ignore character advancement, it makes it that much harder to work it into the existing system.

This is not to say that people playing and making PbtA style games are bad designers, but there is definitely an appeal to jettisoning and optional facet of ttrpg design so you can better focus your work on the parts that excite you.

If you/we want to encourage more multi-session style games I think there needs to be a codification and greater discussion about reward structures and character growth in the way there has been around fail-forward, yes-and, and “play to lose” design.

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Does advancement have to be mechanical? I read this post, “advancement,” by @Bjm the other day and found his feelings around advancement kind of refreshing. As a player, I’ve enjoyed the advancements found in the PbtA games I’ve played more than I’ve enjoyed the kind of advancement provided for by D&D5e, for example. I haven’t sat down to think about the difference between them, but advancement in Apocalypse World—mostly new moves and limited stat improvements, I suppose—feels better to me than advancements of scale and complexity in my dice rolls.

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Character evolution does not need to be mechanized. But in the concept of game design, mechanics are the primary vector that can be designed and discussed.

We should certainly discuss character evolution outside of mechanics, but at least in the context I was describing that’s not something that should be formalized in a ruleset.

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I see here many loosely intertwined threads.

  • For one there are many people who play one shots. That’s not saying a majority, but a lot. Me included.

  • Then there are systems like PbtA which help you getting into play. You do not need to do a lot upfront to start playing. That suits of course the demands of people wanting to run oneshots. That said, I ran the other day a DnD oneshot, because everybody felt comfortable with that instead of introducing PbtA (we played never before in this constellation).

  • There are systems which are designed with campaigning in mind. DnD is the prime example. And I would say that it might be easier to do a oneshot in DnD than a long running campaign in PbtA. OTOH I know of the said sweet spot of AW which really starts of 10-13 sessions minimum play when it is said to really shine. I can’t confirm, because I never had the pleasure.

  • It is not surprising to assume - like I understand you - because of getting feedback from the many people doing Oneshots with PbtA optimized for their usecase, that those systems are optimized for that usecase. You are on to something here: it is not inherently so that many offspring of AW is oneshot optimized, it’s its main use case. I bet if more Trad players bring in their expertise and playtime experience there would be a fruitful discourse and more broadening of scope.

  • Last: I compared oneshots lately to good movies and campaigns to modern TV series. They are both an artform on its own. I would not say, I would prefer one over the other per se. But I think the investment of having a great time playing a years lasting campaign so far did not play out for me, so I am less willing to do such an investment.

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I understand the usefulness of one-shots, or what I’ve been referring to in my head as ‘mini-campaigns’ (2-4 sessions) in The Gauntlet community, but I’ll agree that I do prefer a bit more of a traditional long-form campaign, even with PbtA games.

I do think that by nature even the most robust PbtA games probably have a shorter life than say a D&D campaign that a group could theoretically play for years, but that’s okay. For me, the sweet spot would be a PbtA game where you play once a week for maybe 3-6 months (maaaaybe up to a year), so you end up with ~12-24 sessions.

In my experience, that’s a good amount of time to tell a pretty rich story, explore everybody’s interests with their characters and the setting, and get out around the time that people have taken about as many advances as they’re going to want to take, and the mechanical incentives for continuing to play are starting to dry up.

I will say that in my PbtA game that’s been in eternal development for the better part of the year, I’ve been shooting for playbooks to have about 10 or more playbook moves to take. My hope is that people have a pretty wide range of abilities to stretch out into over a game, so that you can play campaigns that do last a bit longer.

I do pretty frequently worry about that “wide vs. deep” kind of advancement and if people will get bored sooner if there isn’t more of a traditional power curve to the game, buuuut not dealing with much ‘math-iness’ is what I like about playing PbtA in the first place, so I’m trying to just feel comfortable with that in my own design work and accept that it might not interest everyone.

Edit:

I think this is a really good point too. There was a period where I played in one D&D campaign after another where the group went in assuming that they were going to be on this multi-year epic journey together, only for the game to fall apart for one reason or another after a few months. To me it’s absolutely more satisfying (from player-expectations and game-design standpoints) to go in expecting something shorter but more attainable, and to actually reach a satisfying conclusion to that game, rather than to let things peter out the longer you go. It’s another reason I like the ‘medium-length campaign,’ but would take the short campaign or one shot over the expectation of a long campaign.

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I think including broad claims about this influence of PbtA design in this thread (and in the advancement thread) only confuses the issue. The popularity of PbtA oneshots/ campaigns seems like a totally seperate issue from whether people like one shots in general.

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Good question! This is my favorite part of Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple. Your character evolves in that game at the end of each session by renaming your character. Your character name is an Adjective or an Adverb and a Noun (e.g. Fast Flame). Meanwhile, your name acts sort of like aspects in Fate.

If you pick more black stones than white stones during the game, you change the first word of your name based on how your character changed (e.g. Careful Flame after getting careless with the Fast trait) If you pick more white stones, you change the noun (e.g. Fast Shield if you became a protector). Thus, after every story, your character changes but doesn’t really advance. It is cool character evolution without a mechanical advancement.

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That sounds really interesting, actually. I was also thinking a bit about Into the Odd. While it does have stat adjustments as a form of advancement, the game’s real focus for character development is in finding and adding bits of kit, and other than arcana (magic items), a lot of the kit is pretty bare-bones, so it’s not like finding the next big power-up “gun” or whatever that’s common in a lot of video games.

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I can say from experience that AW RAW is not meant for one-shots. I can also confirm that 4-6 sessions feels a bit short for AW. I have never tried it but it seems like if you play more than a dozen or so AW sessions, the game would be off the rails by then.

Meanwhile, Dungeon World is much more set up for one-shots but even then it seems like a more sessions would be much better. I am not sure but I would guess two dozen+ sessions would be around the max for this game. For certain, it is much better to use @yoshi One-shot World mod for one shots of DW.

There is almost no chance of getting in a good one-shot of The Sprawl based on what I have watched of it but that one seems to cap out earlier than AW due to the inevitable decline (assuming you want to play the same characters continuously through a campaign).

Meanwhile, Blackout and several other PbtA games are only one-shots.

My point is that PbtA is better suited for one-shots than most trad games. They also implode or max out earlier than most trad games. It is also a system that has many one shot games specifically built for it. Still, most PbtA games are not optimized for one-shots as written.

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I really appreciate one shots as a way to try out new games and systems without a lot of commitment and to let people new to role-playing dip their toes in the water. They’re also great for testing new systems, and for expanding the breadth of one’s improvisational role-playing abilities.

That said, I do prefer games that run longer, with more room for character development and discovery. I have very fond memories of games that ran for a year or more – both of the stories we created but also the deeper social experience of meeting the same group of people over a long period of time.

As I get older I find it harder to schedule or commit to open-ended games. I feel like we’ve had pretty good success with scheduling “arcs” which involve an up-front commitment for 3 to 8 sessions (and which can be repeated if everyone is still interested). Unfortunately even with these relatively short arcs we often have weeks where we have to cancel or reschedule. I think my optimal session length is 8 sessions right now (limited on one end by what is feasible to schedule and on the other by what I actually prefer).

I also appreciate games that are episodic and/or sandboxed, where it’s easy to add and remove players as people gain and lose interest (or as life happens). At some point I may try to start a long-running game like this and see how it goes.


Post-script: I do think many modern games are more optimized for one-shot play at cons or during play-testing than older games, but I’m less convinced that they don’t do well in longer arcs. The exception would be games that are specifically meant to be played in one session such as Dialect or Dog Eat Dog. I do agree with @Deckard that some games like The Sprawl, Urban Shadows, or Apocalypse World tend to cause characters to explode after a certain number of sessions, although in my experience that number is still relatively large.

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I agree with the points made earlier that:

  • There’s a big spectrum between “one shot” and campaign, and limiting the discussion “one shot vs campaign” is unproductive.
  • That conflating “one shot” and “PbtA” game is also not productive.

With those caveats, I find that my preference is for “short shots” or mini-campaigns – somewhere between 3 and 10 sessions. This works well for most systems – I just finished a Ryuutama campaign that produced beautiful results in about 10 sessions – and it feels like this is where most of the PbtA games that I like are positioned as well (Also recently finished an 8 session Monster of the Week game, and we actually had to speed up advancement slightly to feel like we were getting a ‘full game’ in that time frame – definitely not ‘optimized for a one shot’.)

Oneshots are a good way to try out a system, but especially given my usual session length (rarely if ever do we make it to 4 hours) these games feel a little bit compressed.

On the other hand, “infinite length” campaigns usually end up feeling meandering and overly drawn out, and tend to end with a whimper rather than a bang – the Blades in the Dark campaign I recently finished felt more like a TV show that got cancelled when the rating dropped too low. It’s just hard to maintain interest and, for me GM creativity at that length. Some games (D&D for one) are clearly engineered for this style of game, since the advancement system is so slow that you can’t possibly see most of it without investing a ton of time, and that tends to push me away from these sorts of games, and when I do play them, I prefer to “Start in the middle” by creating characters at higher starting level.

To me though, it sounds like, if your games are “getting ham-fisted” in a way you don’t enjoy, that this is less of a format/game length issue and more an issue of player style in that length.

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I like and regularly play both one-shots and campaigns.

When it comes to “our milieu” I do find two things regrettable with respect to campaign-play.

(1) While there are a lot of outstanding GMless rpgs, very few are designed towards campaigns (let’s say of 10+ sessions).

(2) Indie rpgs aren’t that good at pointing towards long campaigns in a way that makes me, personally, want to play. When I look at a toolbox like Traveller or Stars Without Number with clear procedures to create lots of content or at dedicated publications like the Ultraviolet Grasslands or The Darkening of Mirkwood, I can immediately picture really long games of them. I have not come across an Indie rpg yet that managed to give me this kind of excitement AND confidence.

So maybe one reason for a possibly skewed popularity of one-shots in the Indiesphere is that campaign-play hasn’t been given enough of a chance yet.

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I find it interesting to read what everyone’s definition of a “long” campaign is. I would be interested to see if there was any way to track demographic data on the average length of campaign per system. I know some sites for online play track what types of games are played but I doubt they are able to track something nebulous like a campaign. PbP throws more wrenches in that collection because how do you measure time spent per campaign? Hours spent? Number of sessions? Word count? I would be greatly interested if anyone knows of a reliable source for data like this.

Hope that’s not too big a break from the thread topic. I can split and make my own thread if necessary.

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This is actually a really interesting topic, and very relevant to any gamer, since we’re constantly trying to arrange games of various lengths.

My most successful games, like many here, have been “short campaigns of limited duration”. Perhaps in the 2-3 to 10-12 session range. Having a sense of duration going into it makes a huge difference (more on this below!), as I find campaigns of indefinite duration tend to encourage bad play habits (everyone working hard to delay the progression of the game, such as keeping mysteries hidden, tends to make the games slow and ungainly and fail over time).

A lot of this depends on the people involved, though. I’ve seen a play culture among trad gamers, in particular, where long-term, open-ended campaign play is seen as “true gaming”, and anything less is considered a throwaway hobby or a lark. As a result, these players don’t approach short-form games with seriousness, investment, or skill, and, predictably, they are always “ham-fisted” and silly or incoherent. (A self fulfilling prophecy!)

On the other hand:

My main “conversion moment” came when I was part of a gaming club in university. We had some ongoing long term campaigns, and an experiment where each weekend a different player ran a one shot.

After two years of this it was hard not to notice how much BETTER the one shots were than the long term campaigns. The long term games would have great material over time and great moments, but individual sessions were often letdowns. In the one shot series, however, each GM tried to outdo the others, and the players came in with full commitment. You only had one session that year, so you really had to make it count! Those games were amazing!

So, in that environment (even though these were also trad gamers), the opposite tendency soon developed.

Overall, the motto “run every session as though it were a one shot” seems like a great discipline.

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I also agree that the PbtA angle is irrelevant here (although the game poems and 200-word RPGs and “nanogames” might be!).

While I know that some exist, I’ve yet to play any PbtA game that plays as a one shot. AW and anything based on it even says “it doesn’t get good until session 6 or so!”. I’ve tried running one shots with popular PbtA games, and it requires hard work and modification to make that work. (Compared to games that are intended as one shots, like Fiasco or Witch: the Road to Lindisfarne.)

However, it’s also true that the typical AW campaign isn’t designed to run as “long” as a typical D&D game. It seems to me that D&D is designed to play out over 40-150 sessions, while AW and games based on it might look more like 10-50 sessions.

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