James D'Amato tells how to make a good one shot
The "One Shot Podcast" GM joined us for Michigan Comic Con
This past weekend we attended Michigan Comic Con and got to hang out with the master of one shots, James D’Amato, a Chicago based improver and the experienced GM (Game Master) and Host of the popular podcast One Shot.
James D’Amato describes a one shot as “a game that has a defined beginning and end...and you expect to get there within the time you sit down to the table.” Generally this happens in a single role play session though, as he himself admits, it can occasionally spill over into additional sessions.
Now, if you have listened to the One Shot podcast then you know D’Amato and his group play a variety of different role playing games, all in the one shot format. So which game makes the best one shot?
“So I typically advise people, when they are looking for a game, to think about the story they are trying to tell or the tropes that they want to play with,” advises D’Amato. “If what you want out of a game is fighting and exploring to acquire wealth, the classics actually do pretty well, D&D (Dungeons and Dragons) is designed for that. But if you want to do something like an action movie, I would advise you to do something like Feng Shui or something along the lines of Three Days Until Retirement. You want something that is going to fit the story that you’re trying to tell, and if what you want is a bunch of over the top heroes there is going to be a game out there that somebody thought of and designed specifically for your tastes already.”
Much like in a full on campaign, prepping for one shot is important. James D’Amato recommends prepping the players by telling them what sort of game you want to do. “Setting expectations out front of what you want out of the game and letting player know how they can help you do that is going to go a long way in fulfilling what you want to do,” D’Amato explains.
He also recommends not starting with beginner level characters. As he puts it, “I think low level games can be fun circumstantially, but a lot of the times, to me as a player, they feel limiting. So I, as a GM, turn around and go ‘ok let’s start at level 3, let’s start at level 5,’ just so you feel like you have a lot that you can do, and you are not sort of channeled into running away from every single thing that you encounter.”
For GMs, planning a story so that it only lasts for one session can be a tricky thing to navigate. Often times it is not adding things in, to make the story last, that’s the hard part; it’s cutting things out. When you create a story you can get emotionally attached to the elements you created for it. To help with that D’Amato recommends you think of the story in segments. Generally it breaks down into a social component, an investigative component, and a combat component, each running about an hour in time. As the DM you can speed up or cut down on story elements with that as a guideline. “Try to break the game down... these are the necessary elements that need to happen in order to get us to the climax of this game,” says D’Amato. He also advises not spending too much time on one element since you will never know how it will change in game.
For player characters, D’Amato says you should “prepare to have feelings about what the other characters are doing. The story is always more interesting when characters are interacting.” So think about whether your character previously knew any of the other player characters; if so, what was that relationship like? Also, think about how your character might react to certain situations. If another player character steals a bag of gold off a person would your character be mad? Or would you feel jealous that they managed to steal from that target before you? This way “it is not just numbers, it is an emotional impact on you as a character,” explains D’Amato.
When playing a one shot, if a game goes off script it may seem like a bigger deal than if you were running a campaign. In a campaign you can go off on a tangent and slowly work your way back to the main quest over a series of sessions. With a one shot, taking too long talking to that shady halfling who needs help finding his “lost” ring may mean staying up super late. But, as James D’Amato points out, question whether you really need to get back on track. “Your main role as a GM is to make your player's ideas seem important,” D’Amato explains. “If one of your characters has a great idea, pretend like that was the thing you wanted the whole time.” Try and blend what the player characters want to do with where you as the GM want them to end up. For example, that shady halfling’s “lost” ring could be held by the orc gang you intended for your players to find all along. Don’t be afraid to improvise, it is a collaborative storytelling adventure.
The point of playing these types of games is to have fun, and that only happens when everyone is comfortable and enjoying themselves. To help the game run smoothly for the people who are playing James D’Amato recommends using something called an “X” card. It is a narrative device and can be something as simple as a note card with an “X” on it you put in the center of the table. If something happens in the game that is a personal stressor for someone, for example someone is afraid of spiders and the GM says “and then a horde of giant spiders drop down from the ceiling.” The player who is uncomfortable can tap the card to stop the scene and can ask the GM to change the scenario. Instead of spiders it could be rats that scurrying in from the darkness. This is just one way to make sure everyone is comfortable with what is happening.
At the end of the day, whether you are playing a one shot or a campaign, don’t stress about making it the best story ever. Go in with an open mind, a few good ideas, let the dice roll and be ready to improvise. So have fun and adventure on!
James D'Amato is a Chicago based improver and the host of the "One Shot" podcast. Stay tuned for our full video interview with James D’Amato as well as 10 just-for-fun questions we asked him at the end (he even does his Kobold voice for us!). You can catch his podcast here, along with other shows on the One Shot network.
Also, don’t forget to listen to our new podcast, "Channel 1d4," available on iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you listen. We'll also be posting episodes right here on 1d4, along with bonus features! Local 4 coworkers, Brandon, Jake, Michelle, and Paul will begin their new cyber campaign which takes place in the not so distant future, 2121. With cybernetics, flying cars and companies taking over the government, it is sure to be a fun time in this new Detroit.
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