I have a problem with RPGs.
I am never, ever, ever going to be able to run one of those epic year-long campaigns that hardcore gamers speak of in hushed and reverent tones. No grand and epic quest for players going from level-1 noobs to level-30 demigods, no hours and hours of exciting action and political intigue and dashing daring-do’s.
I’m never going to be able to run a campaign like that because I’m getting older, and with age comes a lack of free time to sit around and roll dice. It’s the same with my friends. Oh sure, back in my Uni days when I ran the Elberwick campaign, no problem! Three six hour gaming sessions each week? Sure! Not so much any more.
My approach to running RPGs is a little different these days. Whereas before, when I was young and naive and had hair, I’d plan epic campaigns spanning months, now I’ll plan something shorter and more self-contained.
I’m a great believer of the one-session game. Players show up, get thrown straight into the thick of it, resolve whatever problem they’re faced with, and that’s it. No cliff-hangers, no “you now have to go speak to this guy in this village to get this key to that temple” nonsense, just a self-contained story. Many RPG books recommend running a one-session game as a dungeon crawl, i.e. kick down the door, slay monsters, get shinies, repeat until boss. That’s fine for some, but I’m not keen on mixing dungeon crawls with “proper” RPGs. If I want a dungeon crawl, I’d play a dedicated dungeon crawl boardgame, like Descent or Super Dungeon Explore (which arrived in the post the other day, squeeeeee).
If I’ve got a decent idea for a game, I’ll plan a mini-campaign instead, a story that can be resolved in no more than five sessions. A mini-campaign is probably my preferred approach, as players have enough time to get connected with their characters, and the GM has more opportunity to introduce extra story elements. A one-session game should have quite a simple plot (save the mayor’s daughter, stop the monster attacking the town, escape the prison, etc) to be effective, but with a mini-campaign, you can throw in twists and subplots; not enough to derail the main plot, but enough to keep things interesting. If I were to return to Elberwick, I’d run it as a mini-campaign of ideally no more than five sessions.
Let’s go back to one-session games though, and the main purpose of this article. What happens with a player if you give them a character that they know they’re only going to have to use for a few hours? That player probably isn’t going to get too invested with the character, and that may result in some lazy and unsatisfactory role-playing. For a dungeon crawl, that doesn’t matter, but for a story-based game, it’s a bigger issue.
The one-sessions I’ve run before have all had this problem to some extent. Unlike a long-running campaign where the GM can introduce storytelling elements that get the players more and more invested, in a one-session the players are going in cold. This is where I had a cunning plan…
During session preparation, the GM prepares one Motivation for each player (writing it down on a file card is ideal). The Motivations aren’t player-specific, and should be fairly generic. What’s a Motivation? A Motivation is the character’s agenda, opinion, or state of mind upon being confronted with the situation they find themselves in,.
Once the Motivations are prepared, begin the session as normal, and then deal one Motivation to each player randomly. Players read their Motivations in secret, but it’s up to them if they want to tell the group what their Motivation is, and decide how it’ll effect their choices in the game. A Motivation is an automatic character hook, and for a player new to RPGs, it can help them roleplay their character.
Here’s an example; let’s say it’s a Wild West style game with three players. The story of the session is that there’s a gang of outlaws terrorising the town, and the town mayor has put a bounty on the head of each gang member. Here are the Motivations that I would consider writing down…
- Lawman – The gang must be stopped and brought to justice so that they can face the full extent of the law.
- Revenge! – The gang killed your parents and sister. You won’t show any mercy.
- Brotherly Love – One of the gang members is your brother. You know he’s a good kid at heart, he’s just fallen in with a bad crowd and is probably too scared to leave the gang. You’ll save him if you can.
Instantly here we have the back stories of the three characters, and the setup for an interesting conflict later; take the outlaws alive or bury them in the badlands? And what about the brother, the “good kid at heart”? Each player, right off the bat, has some personal and emotional investment that aids storytelling and roleplaying.
I haven’t yet had a chance to put Motivations into practice, but I’m hoping that they’ll go down well. It’s a bit of extra prep for me as a GM, but if it results in a better and more memorable game, then it’s time well spent.