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Writing a One-Off Game

- By Skimble

I recently had the pleasure of writing and running a one-off World of Darkness scenario called “Fresh Meat” for a weekly meeting. While I was working on the game I spent quite a bit of time thinking about the general process of writing a one-off  scenario.

This article is the result of that thinking. Hopefully you will find it useful if you’re interested in running a one-off game, especially if you’ve never done so before.

The Seed

The first thing I do, even before deciding on the system to use, is to brainstorm a story seed. This can be a group idea, a  particular set-piece, a setting, an object or a fully fledged plot idea.

The best way to get ideas for seeds is to steep yourself in fiction. Read books, play video games, watch films and TV. Pay attention to interesting scenes, characters and story tropes. TV Tropes is a great source for distilled plot ideas: there they dismantle stories and describe the nuts and bolts from which they are constructed.

Here are some examples of plot seeds that I’ve used in my own one-off games and a brief description of their origins:

“Terminators versus Transformers”

Here the plot-seed was from the title “Transformers: Killing John Connor”, handily given to me wholesale by Jen when she mis-described my GameCon 2009 game as this rather than Terminator: Killing John Connor.

“Freshers in Canterbury”

The plot seed for this game was the idea of making the characters instantly recognisable to the players by making them freshers in Canterbury. The modern setting and my large degree of familiarity with the Word of Darkness made this choice of system to use and from there the story pretty much wrote itself.

“The Poseidon Adventure in the World of Darkness”

I think I ran this in the year of the “Poseidon Adventure” remake. The trailers made me think that the film would have been a lot more interesting if the survivors of the cruise liner disaster had been either something other than human or faced with a supernatural threat in addition to simple survival.

“Zombie survival horror game”

This one was pretty easy. I was thinking that it would be good fun to run a zombie game using the map tiles and zombie figures from “Zombies!!!”. I went for a nice traditional start in a mall and the game kind of wrote itself from there.

“Monster made out of spunk and hair from students’ drains”

I already knew I wanted to run “The Esoterrorists” that year and I was thinking about what would make a suitable gribbly terror with which to squick out my players. I think I’d seen a passive aggressive sign about blocking the shower online and it came to mind when I was thinking about it.

The Outline

Once I have the Seed, I start to think about the general outline of the plot. This builds on the basic premise of the Seed and takes the form of one or two sentences that describe the beginning and the middle of the plot. You could also describe one or more endings in the outline but personally I prefer to avoid this in order to avoid subconsciously limiting the players’ options.

The beginning of your outline establishes the setting and starting scenario. This can be an ‘in media rez’ beginning where the players are already involved in action of some kind or a more sedate beginning.

The middle of your outline describes the core goal and tension of the plot. What is it that the players are going to seek to do? What opposition will they face?

Here are example outlines for the previous Seeds:

“The Autobots discover that they are the future of a world in which Skynet wins due to Decepticon meddling in the past. They meet with Optimus Prime and are sent back in time to prevent the assassination of John Connor while the Decepticons go back to kill him.”

“The players are out in town at a new club when one of them is propositioned by a vampire and taken away. A mysterious tramp (a burnt-out Hunter) warns them that their friend is in danger and tells them where the vampire can be found.”

“The players are enjoying a pleasure cruise when the ship is turned upside down due to a magical curse. They must escape the ship whilst fending off zombies and other dangers that have been awakened by the curse, which is attached to a stolen necklace.”

“The players start out at a mall during the early hours of the zombie apocalypse. They must band together and fight their way to an emergency evacuation point.”

“The group is banded together and sent to a university to examine an occult murder. The Esoterrorists have a plot on the University campus involving sex energy and sacrifice, resulting in the creation of hideous monsters made out of human secretions. They must find out who is behind the plot and bring them to justice.”

System

The choice of System may be an easy one, if your Seed lent itself naturally to a particular game or setting. Whatever, you should pick one you’re familiar with and which ideally you have run before.

The Characters

Next I like to develop the characters. Doing this before I’ve written more than a basic outline for the plot is actually quite useful because it allows me to write the more detailed plot synopsis with particular characters, relationship dynamics or systems (e.g. skills or powers) in mind.

Each character should strongly relate to the outline you’ve written and provide its player with the opportunity to perform a useful or interesting role in the group. It should generally be clear to the player what role that is.

It is also essential to create links between the characters. They don’t all have to be tied to each other in  a complex web of intrigue, but having each character linked to one or two others does provide easy roleplaying fodder for the players as they sink into the game and can create great moments of drama later on.

If you have the time it’s extremely helpful to write on each character sheet a summary of the character’s capabilities. Providing descriptions of Merits, flaws, powers, equipment and so on should streamline the process of running the game for inexperienced players and also help to maintain the game’s pace during combat by cutting down on reference time.

Finally I like to give each character a brief one-paragraph biography and a list of personality keywords (e.g. Shy, Aggressive, Doubtful, Vindictive) and motivations (e.g. Prove myself to my parents, Uphold the Jedi Code, Look after my friends).  These turn the blank sheet of the character’s personality into more of a ‘connect the dots’ arrangement that gives its player a place from which to start. You can also consider these things during your plot-writing when trying to ascertain the group’s most likely course of action in any given circumstance. Someone with the motivation “Never back down” can probably be relied upon to engage with the enemy rather than flee, for instance.

The Plot

It’s finally time to turn your attention to the actual plot. My GMing style is somewhat improvisational so I don’t actually have that much work to do here. For the most part I dedicate myself to the set-up of the scenario and then allow things to develop from there, perhaps planning out a couple of contingencies in case the group doesn’t act as I expect during the early part of the game.

The easiest way to illustrate this is to show you my notes for “Fresh Meat”:

Act I:              The Night Out

Scene 1:       An Exclusive New Club

So it’s about 11pm and half the group is already pretty drunk (with the soberest of the group likely to be Connor Wright and Lucy Ambrose). They’ve heard about a new club in town called “The Edge” (in a building up near the cinema where Studio 41 used to be) and as we join them they are standing in the queue to get into the club. Everyone else in the queue has a promotional flyer that apparently gives them exclusive access to the club on its opening night. Amrita, however, is pretty certain that she can talk the bouncers into letting them into the club.

While they are standing in the queue a beautiful woman in a mink coat and slinky red cocktail dress will make her way to the front of the queue; drawing attentive looks from all the guys as she passes.

As she passes Lucy Ambrose Lucy will feel her hackles rising and her heartbeat will accelerate. She gets a dry, coppery feeling in her mouth and she starts to tremble slightly. Her reaction has all the hallmarks of a fight-or-flight adrenaline response, but of course she will have no idea why.

Sean Hunt is particularly stricken by the women’s looks and will zone out a bit watching her as she briefly speaks to the bouncer before being let inside.

Then we will cut to the group arriving at the front of the queue, allowing Amrita an opportunity to put her Bar Fly merit to good use. The bouncer will seem vaguely amused at letting the group in.

Scene 2:       Inside “The Edge”

The club is built on two levels with a mezzanine ringing the dance floor where the music is of a lower volume so that conversation can be had. There is a bar on each level and the mezzanine level features couches and tables for people to relax.

The music is a mixture of trance and euphoria and the lighting inside the club pulses in shades of red and pink, shadows swirling around the edges of the dance floor. The next few vignettes should feel a little staccato and disconnected, as if viewed under the light of a strobe.

Lucy gets a weird feeling twice more while she’s inside the club (more if she goes near Julianna Swan again). Once when she passes close to a man in a business suit who is standing at the railing of the mezzanine level and once, for no discernible reason, when she passes a shadowed area on her way to the ladies’ toilets.

Sean Hunt separates from the rest of the group and goes to find Julianna. They probably won’t notice he’s gone until they see him curled up on a couch with her, necking.

Some of the characters (pick the players who seem most socially confident) get hit on by other patrons of the club, or are offered drugs.

One of the group catches sight of Sean leaving hand-in-hand with the beautiful woman, obviously infatuated with her.

Scene 3:       Aftermath

They leave the club (either early if Lucy can convince the others there’s something wrong or at closing time) and start heading back up to campus. Some of them will be even drunker but at least a couple of them may be somewhat sane.

They pass by a homeless guy nearby who’s huddled up in a bulky old coat. As they go by he calls out, “Your friend is going to die”.

Lucy at least is probably spooked enough by now that she might pause to listen to him. The others may write him off as a crazy old man, but…

He won’t talk to them during the hours of darkness. He tells them to come back during the day and he’ll talk to them then. Their friend will be fine for at least the first night, he’s sure.

Act II:            The Hunt

The game now has the potential to branch in two directions.

Direction 1:    The group speaks to the tramp, Frank. Frank is an ex-hunter who lost everything when he went after the vampire who took his son; the same vampire who took Sean. He can help them to find her lair but he won’t go with them unless they are extremely persuasive.

Direction 2:    The group dismisses the tramp and tries not to worry about Sean. In this case Julianna will come after them as she saw them at the night club and knows that they (or at least some of them) suspect. She might begin by sending her retainers to investigate in the guise of campus security (they’ll set Lucy’s teeth on edge) but eventually she’ll end up coming after them herself to protect the Masquerade.

Of course the group may dismiss what Frank has to say even if they meet him, in which case we’ll start with Direction 1 and then go to Direction 2.

As you can see I spent a fair bit of time in establishing the initial set-up and invoking the mood, but hardly any time in plotting specifically how the ‘hunt’ would go. It’s not in my plot synopsis notes but I also spent some time developing the antagonist, Victoria Swann, and in coming up with some disturbing and creepy trappings for her lair.

If I had more time I would have drawn a simple map of the night club and of Victoria’s lair, but I was able to wing these on the day without too much difficulty.

You can of course develop your plot more thoroughly than this but be aware that time is limited in a one-off game and it can be disappointing to players if they don’t “make it to the end”.

One good way of building a plot is to have modular scenes that you can snap in or leave out depending on how much time you turn out to have during play. These can be quite simple but provide for a considerable amount of roleplaying. Here is one example:

Snap-in scene – Trapped

Location: Victoria Swann’s Lair – lounge hallway

Hook: The group hears muffled banging emanating from the walls. Investigation reveals a hollow compartment in which someone has been walled up. Someone who begs for help as they hear the group pass by.

The End

So there you have it, my thoughts on the process of writing a one-off scenario. I appreciate that my process is likely to be different from others’, but perhaps you will have found it interesting to get an insight into an alternative way of doing things.

How do you come up with your one-off plots? Did I miss out anything obvious? Please let me know in the comments below.

Have fun!

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