Monday, June 25, 2012

One Shot, One Kill

There's something seductively attractive about one-shots. I first started designing one-shots with Call of Cthulhu, and for a very long time it was my tradition to design and run a Call of Cthulhu game once per summer and once per winter, resulting in 1-2 one-shots a year. When my blood was up I could design both of them at the same time and even tie some hints from the first into the second and give revelations that spanned both games. It was an interesting time, but I was extremely unschooled at the art and I found that every time I designed a game it was too damn big to be run in a single marathon session.

I can imagine D&D one-shots would be much the same, since a whole module takes quite some time to run. I've never actually been to a game run at a Con (though the idea doesn't appeal to me simply because of the general rules of a convention and my predilection for being in control of every aspect of the game) so I don't know how other people handle this issue.

Myself, I've been slowly sliding from pure Lovecraftian CoC games into a Borgesian nightmare space replete with House of Leaves style touches. I've found myself trimming red herrings and extra little twists of plot because I just know that it won't fit into one night. I stopped running them (due to the evaporation of my normal playing crew, my normal playing space, etc.) before I could get a real handle on what was possible in one 8- or 10-hour session.

But there is something intoxicating about one-shots. It frees you from many of the normal restrictions of design. Everything can be even more deadly, terrible secrets can be integrated right into your PC's background and you can unstopper every cork. You can turn all your dials to eleven and beyond, and still be left with a game that will horrify, terrify, or do whatever it is you want it to do.

This is mostly where I have spent time with theories as to how to scare players. What frightens them? I've discovered that the monsters of Lovecraft must be handled with extreme care, as the master himself handled them perhaps. They cannot be overused or revealed immediately, they have to be carefully horded and a real immense fear of them cultivated before they ever show up. How do you do that?

I try to establish an environment of oppressive ancientness, almost the way one might in a horror movie. Mouldering apartment rooms, old houses, and a general sense of dismalness. Following that, generally, I attempt to build the horrific nature of the creatures or secrets or reveals by using handouts and manuscripts uncovered through research (though research really has to be truncated for a one-shot, I find, since I like to follow Aristotle's Unity of Time for the most part). Only in the very climax do I ever reveal a full creature for display.

Somehow, though, I feel like the new Borges House-of-Leaves stuff I'm going to be pulling in on my next design (the first one in many years) is going to be even more horrifying than any deep one or colour out of space could ever be.


  1. Got to agree on one shots being a great way to do horror. Might just be a bit of a failing in my GMing style, but when running a nine month horror game - Unhallowed Metropolis if you're interested - There were only a few times I felt able to really bring on the terror. If players are coming back week after week it's hard to keep the intensity going, and for them not to get jaded. As it turned out, three brutally horrific set scenes (personal favourite being one down a Victorian mine shaft) were just enough to have them worrying that any encounter could be that bad.

    Sadly my biggest problem with the one shot format is being able to cut it down enough to fit into the time frame. They tend to last two nights anyway, as most people can only grab four hours on an evening to play, but even then, they've sometimes run to four sessions to get to the end. I think I just need a bit more self control.

    1. I'm going to check that out; I've definitely found that it is hard to keep a horror going for more than a few hours at a stretch. Eventually, the players become so familiar with their characters and the tricks of the system that they grow comfortable.

      That's why its nice to make sure there are some very very deadly things every once and a while in a CoC game, just to keep them on their toes.

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