Making the Crunchy Smooth – 5 tips for running system-heavy one-shot games

Quite often, I run fairly crunchy systems as one-shots or at cons. Part of this, I guess, is that I like to see the moving parts work out – it’s also about giving people what they want, as often if people want to try out a new game it’s to see what the mechanics are like. If you’ve only got 3 hours to get people up to speed with a new game, you’ve got to have a plan for it. Here are a few tips that I’ve used successfully for a few system-heavy games:

Tip 1: Make sure you actually know the rules

This sounds obvious, but every time I’ve had disappointing games at cons, this has been an issue, crunch or not.

The best way to learn the rules is to convince somebody who knows the rules to run a game for you. This is ideal, but not always practical.

The second best way to learn the rules yourself (as well as making the pregens, which you’ll presumably do as well) is to condense them onto a one-page handout for players. For games that I’ve run more than once I have a folder of handout stuff – I have a Mouse Guard handout of how to spend Fate and Persona points (the game’s bennies/fate points – a finite resource to aid actions) because if you don’t remind players they can spend them they don’t, and making unskilled rolls using Nature, because that seems to come up a lot and it helps players to have an understanding of what they need to do with it. When I run 13th Age, I have a one-page description of the Icons so players can reference what they might be able to use their Icon rolls for.

Tip 2: Do your own pregen PCs with everything on the sheets

It takes time, but when you’re creating characters, add a note for what each special power / trait actually does – likewise generate any secondary statistics like combat damage in advance and put it on the sheet. You don’t really want to be looking up what Medichines are when you’re in the middle of running Eclipse Phase, or have your players interrupting your flow to ask what Frenzy actually does.

On the subject of pregens, it’s worth having a few ‘easy to play’ characters if your crunchy system allows that. For instance, in 13th Age, I always throw in a Barbarian and a Ranger, as these are the easiest (and some of the most fun!) classes to play. Likewise, you can put in a Wizard or a Sorcerer, but it’s usually worth getting a player who either enjoys getting their hands in the cogs of the system or has played it before. Note to GMs: I’m one of those players.

Tip 3: Give your players a training level

One of the most obvious steals from video games design is to give players a chance to see the rules in action fairly soon. For most systems, this means you want some skill checks to get your head around the system followed by a short combat against low-challenge adversaries where lack of system knowledge or sub-optimal choices won’t make much of a difference.

If you really want to simplify it, start the game on rails. I ran a Mouse Guard game once where the PCs began captured by weasels, and were immediately ‘rescued’ and had to sneak out – so they had a check to sneak past the guards, a check to climb the walls, and then a short combat with the final guards on the gates – I did it so they didn’t have to even really think about what their PCs were going to do – leaving all their attention on learning the system. After that first scene they had meaningful choices and could start to have some engagement with the world, but – like the first level in a video game – first they learned what the system was, what the stakes were, and what danger felt like in terms of dice and numbers on sheets.

Tip 4: Use your players – at least, use some of them

The first thing I do when I sit down to run a crunchy system is scan my players, and identify the players that have either played before or are willing to get their hands into the system. Those players not only get guided towards playing the more complex PCs, they also almost invariably get my copy of the rulebook. And usually get asked to look up stuff later in the game; if I can possibly avoid having the book in my hand during the game I will, and that includes getting players to do my dirty work for me.

Tip 5: Use the rules your players want to see

While I’m a great believer that if you’re running a game at a con, you should actually run the game, it pays to have some idea of what  crunch is an interesting part of the game and what isn’t. For example, I’d hate to see a Mouse Guard game without the scripted combat feature, because it’s a unique element of the game… using Factors to work out difficulty for skill checks, I’m afraid, isn’t, and I’ve never used it in one-shots. I’ve just picked a difficulty for the task at hand based on what felt right (usually Ob3, if you’re familiar with the system). Similarly, if you’re running a Star Wars FFG game for me, I’ll be disappointed if you’re not using the RAW initiative system, because it’s an embedded feature of the game… using the Duty / Motivation system at the start of the session, I’m not really bothered about, as it’s not likely to come up in a one-shot anyway for more than one PC.

To summarise, all of these tips basically come back to the first one – you need to know your game, which is probably the first piece of advice for running any one-shot game. You won’t have time to learn it at the same time as the players, which you might have if you are running an ongoing campaign. What other tips do you have for running crunchy systems as one-shots?

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5 Comments

  1. Vary your conflicts. I like to use a three act structure. The first act has a gimme combat, like you suggested, to give the players a chance to use the dice and see how the system flows. This introduces two critical concepts in 1879, rollover successes and karma. The second act is a social conflict, which shows off that mechanic and that aspect of the game, and also gives the social characters time to shine. The third act has the complicated conflict, where the players get to use everything they’ve learned so far to resolve the story. I generally start with a very brief intro to the game world, then go through the pregenerated characters in a little depth, which does some of my Exposition for me. Game mechanics get explained as needed, with reference to what skills do if their names aren’t obvious. I generally conclude my intro by telling the players, tell me what you want to do and I’ll sort the mechanics for you. By the third act, the players are sorting the mechanics for themselves and focusing on the story.

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    1. All great advice there – and yeah, it’s worth showcasing mechanics that are important and/or new in the first act (like karma and rollover successes in your example). I think a tour of the character sheet is essential as well, so the players know what’s in your hand. I’ve not heard of the game 1879, do you have a link for it? Or an elevator pitch?

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