The first One Shot RPG is structured similar to the plot of a sci-fi horror movie. Each encounter should reveal something about the monster, and the adventure concludes with a showdown against the scummed.
Writing a full-length RPG campaign is like writing a TV show. Each adventure—episode—has time to tell its own story while adding to the overall narrative. The campaign’s story unfolds over the course of multiple game sessions, and the plot points that have been building—expertly placed by the GM—pay off. But, I argue that the game group doesn’t have a lot of motivation to stay together, so a slow build-up of plot elements wouldn’t have time to pan out. That’s why I’m focusing on one shots instead of full campaigns. While writing an RPG campaign is like writing a show, writing a One Shot RPG is like writing a sci-fi horror movie. The full plot, setting, and characters have to be introduced and satisfyingly concluded in one session—there is no sequel or next episode. That means I have to carefully think of how the encounters will flow together.
What is an encounter flow?
The encounter flow is the order and pacing in which different encounters—scenes—play out in the one shot. Encounter A leads into B, leads into C, then culminates in D. Each encounter serves a purpose, namely revealing something about the plot and moving the characters further along it.
It’s important to reiterate some goals when planning the encounter flow. The first is that the encounters should establish a sci-fi horror atmosphere. The RPG one shot is about taking down a monster who has dangerous, unexplainable powers, so it should have some elements of a monster movie. Another goal is that because the session should be kept under 2 hours, each encounter must provide storytelling through other means than GM narration or dialogue. The scummed’s motivations and background should be revealed by what she’s doing, how she does it, and to whom, rather than her telling the party her master plan.
I have some initial thoughts before I do any further planning. The first One Shot RPG should start in media res, or in the middle of the action. I want to start off with the characters already having suspected a scummed, broken into the facility, and encountering the first victims. Later one shots can play with how the adventure starts, but I want this one to start with action. Next I’m planning on having five steps to the story. The first and last step will be constant, while the remaining three will have two different encounter options. This means that I’ll be creating 8 different encounters.
- In media res
- First glimpse of monster
- Trapped, chase scene
- Breather, get upper hand
- Confront scummed
In Media Res
The party will start already have broken into the facility—or they even walked right through the front door. This encounter will take place in one of the farm’s administration offices, which is the first target the scummed strikes. Players will see first-hand that they’re dealing with a scummed with plant powers who has a personal grudge against the farm and its workers. They’ll see workers writhing in agony as the plant parasite bursts forth from their skin. They’ll see computers broken and files scattered. They’ll also notice their AI chips are on the fritz and there’s disruption with their communication with the outside world. There’s no doubt that the scum fighters are going to be fighting a scummed at this farm.
First Glimpse of Monster
The next encounter fulfills two purposes: exploring the setting and giving the party the first glimpse at the monster. The encounter will take place in one of the many farm facilities outlined. It will show the party what type of location this place is and what it’s supposed to be doing when it’s not taken over by a scummed. The main conflict during this encounter is not with the monster, but something else relating to the location, such as the reprogrammed robots or security forces hired by the company. Though the main conflict is with another faction, the encounter still must reveal something about the scummed, such as her abilities, motivation, or background. When the conflict is over, the monster bursts into the scene, ushering the party into the next encounter.
The party is not ready to confront the scummed, they don’t know enough about her to stand a chance, so they must run, or escape. This is a classic horror trope, the characters trying to get to a safe area as the monster pursues them. Characters do things like barricade doors or hide in closets until the monster turns around and shambles off. The party must use this time to figure out what they’re dealing with. The characters can also find a clue as to the scummed’s motivations during all of the commotion.
Breather, Get Upper Hand
After two back-to-back encounters, and the final confrontation looming, it’s time to give the characters a breather. They’ll be able to slowly explore a facility, looking for a way to gain an upper hand against the monster. The facility can offer unexpected allies or more clues to how to deal with the scummed. Ultimately, by the time they’re ready to move on, the players should have a clear understand of why the scummed is doing what she’s doing, and that’s she’s not just an evil monster, but a person who’s hurt.
The characters get to choose when they want to confront the scummed. They should have enough information by now to make the decision: kill, cure, or let the scummed be. Every encounter before this one should have been preparing the players for this moment. If the encounters are designed successfully, the players should know enough to stand a chance against the scummed—although that doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to win. Their final decision should provide the group with a satisfying conclusion to the story, and they should feel like they have just finished a fun and well-paced sci-fi horror movie.
With the overall pacing and encounter flow decided, it’s time to define the specific encounter options.