Adventures in Role-playing - the one-off

This article first appeared in issue 1 of Concepts, a roleplaying magazine which existed briefly in 1988. It was the first piece of writing I got paid for, and I spent the money on adopting a cat. I believe that copies of Concepts show up now and again at gaming fairs, but I wouldn't lay money on the chances of finding one.

"These are the latest war-bots," explained Agrippina, indicating the dozen droids that clustered around her feet. The guard looked at them suspiciously; they looked remarkably like cleaning droids that had had pieces of armour and home-made lasers welded on to them. One droid ran its brush along the corner of wall and floor, tutting mechanically at the dust. Agrippina coughed and wondered how the heck she was going to get past the guards.

The above is a moment from a one-off scenario, probably one of the most enjoyable scenarios of any type that I have ever played. So what is a one-off, I hear you cry ? Basically, it is a single scenario, played to occupy one evening, and not part of any long-term campaign. It also features characters created especially for that game. A true one-off is not a single scenario of any commercial system, it is something created or adapted by the GM.
so why should you wish to play a one-off instead of sticking to your weekly game of Star Wars ? There are four main reasons

Somehow, the spontaneity of one-offs, the fact that they are one evening's entertainment, with characters that don't need to survive, leads them to be funnier than other scenarios. Ordinary campaigns can be fun, either being based on a silly idea like Paranoia or just with silly incidents. But one-offs really lend themselves to amusing role-playing, helped by various GM devices. Part of the special feeling of one-offs is that it is not umcommon for characters to be totally at odds with one another; not all working towards the same end as is usual on most games, but each one with their own storyline which demands that they interact with the others. One example of this resulted in one player sending another to jail so that he missed the climax of the scenario. Not good in a long-term game, but good roleplaying.


So now you need to know how to write a good one-off. The first thing you need to choose is an idea - where is it going to be set, and what's it going to be about ? Well this is where you can really let your imagination run riot. The most obvious source of ideas are books, films and the TV. I recently fulfilled a long-held ambition when I ran a Blakes 7 scenario. Lots of other ideas are there to be used. Apart from the obvious ones, pick up any other story you like: Sherlock Holmes, Biggles and Scooby Doo all have potential as one off material. Or you can write a piece in a genre you have always liked. Try the wild west, gothic horror or regency romance. Ideas, characters and moments from books and film can all inspire ideas. A line from the film Troll once inspired three totally different scenarios; those Pod-Person from the Planet Mars scenarios were seminal one-offs.
Other scenarios could come from giving a new twist to existing ideas. Have you players become the Dark Judges for the day ! Let them be Imperial Stormtroopers, dealing with those upstart Rebels - whatever takes your fancy.


Your next task is to design the system the players will use. Not as difficult as it sounds, actually. If you want to use or adapt one you have already got, then fine. But what if you want to run something obscure, like a Biggles adventure ? This is where the art of the one-off really comes into its own. Because it is only for one evening, and usually with pre-written characters, you do not need to have balanced characters, advancement systems, background generation or long lists of weapons and skills. All you really need is a way of determining whether the players have succeeded in using the skills you have given them, and how much damage they can take. The simplest system is to use percentiles. Players are given a skill and a chance 'to hit'. The GM invents modifiers according to common sense.
For example: Tab Jones, Pistol 1D6 damage, 6 shots, 55% chance to hit. If Tab attempts to shoot a pod person from about 2 metres, then the GM should apply a positive modifier of about 30%. It is not necessary to have a list of set modifiers; after all, players are bound to do something that is not on your list, so just use common sense and imagination. Try to be consistent, but if you do get muddled, no doubt your players will put you straight.
Stats for cars/guns/spaceships are easy enough. Stats can be borrowed from an existing game; made up totally for sci-fi/fantasy. or taken from manufacturer's literature. Need to know the performance of a large family saloon ? Look for the inevitable advert in Radio Times or similar mags. Old military manuals can be found in secondhand or remainder bookshops. Plans of building are easily come by. Need a Dutch warehouse/office building ? Try The Diary of Ann Frank. Castles and cathedrals can be found in tourist books in libraries. Never be afraid to look beyond the material neatly packaged on your game-shop's shelves.

Setting Up

Player handouts, pretty maps and diagrams are not essential parts of a one-off, any more than any other scenario, but are worth doing. Special props, like bones with maps sealed inside, coded messages and audio effects will make your game even more memorable. The most enjoyable part of preparing the scenario is creating the characters, their background and skills. Normally it is up to the players to create the characters of course, but if your story hinges on the players have secret backgrounds, special skills or secret missions, then it is your work. It also gets the actual gaming off to a quicker start. Backgrounds can be as simple or as bizarre as you wish. I once played in a scenario where all six characters had at least one other secret identity. The GM was in fits of laughter as we all sneaked about, poking inot each other's rooms. At one point, there were four characters investigating six bedrooms in one corridor. It was a miracle that no one bumped into anyone else.
Character skills can be a source of great amusement if created imaginatively. There are the simple skills, best for stereotyped characters, such as 'inflict pain'. Next are more specific skills, like 'Use Colt .45'. However, they need not be so boringly titled. More imaginative descrptions will encourage roleplaying from people keen to try out their 'Advanced Combat Driving'. After this, comes the catagory of skills which are character specific, generally amusing and more or less useless. A scientist might have 'Make Amazingly Accurate Scientific Deduction from No Data' skill. These will probably not advance the action very much but they should help the atmosphere of the game. On the other hand, I created a Scottish doctor character and gave him 'Bagpipes' skill; the player used it to terrify the Nazi guards in a 'Biggles' adventure. The last type of skill is those created for the amusement of the GM - after all, the game is supposed to be fun for them too. There should be no more than one or two of these per game, otherwise players may get annoyed and the joke will backfire. The point is to creat a useless skill that the player cannot hope to understand, and them make them very good at it, to they are keen to use it. A player in a Blakes 7 game had the skill 'Operate Telemetric Band Sweep' 70%. When he asked what it did, he got a long-winded, semi-scientific explanation that he could not hope to follow. He tried anyway, rolled less than 70%, and asked what the result of the sweep was. "Positive", I chirped, before moving the action rapidly on.

The Game

Now you've chosen a theme, thought up the plot, roughed out a system and prepared the characters: let the players loose on it ! Running a one-off can be much more work than an ordinary scenario. If the players all have their own plot-lines, they are going to want to discuss things with you privately. It is essential, in this case, that you take them out of the room to confer without being overheard. You may have problems when you want to tell only one or two players about something. If you take them aside, or give them notes, then every other player will be aware that something is up. One GM fot around the problem by sending notes to all the players; four said 'love and kisses', the other two carried valuable information.
It is also important to chose the right players. They need to be able to follow the plot-lines that you have given them. They may also need to be able to interact amongst themselves while you are talking to another player. One-off roleplaying can be more challenging than other sorts, as players may be trying to extract info from each other, rather than from NPCs. There is nothing harder than trying to get information from a friend when you are not sure exactly what you are after. One-off scenarios are fun. Go as far over the top as you like. Dress in appropriate costumes, talk in silly accents, rearrange your room to suit where the action is taking place, play background music, give player handouts and use silly skills. Above all, have a good time.

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