I love roleplaying games. I’ve been GMing in one form or another since I was five years old or so, when I roped my grandfather into a couple of games that amounted to “try to make your way through a crossword puzzle while I arbitrarily decide whether the contents of each room kill you or not.” (I suppose you could say that I designed and implemented a homebrew roleplaying game with a compact ruleset at age five.) For some reason he quickly tired of this. After I finished trying to lure other assorted family members into similar “games,” I sat back and began the long process of figuring out why no one wanted to play anymore.
In one form or another, I’ve been working to improve my skills as a gamemaster ever since. Along the way I’ve made basically every classic mistake that a gamemaster can make, as well as more than a few rather inventive ones of my very own. Luckily, my gamer friends over the years have been more than forgiving.
In the past, one of my biggest mistakes has been my penchant for new campaigns. I love starting new campaigns. I even start them with the best of intentions — “Of course we’ll come back to it, this is an awesome idea! How could we possibly forget about it?” And often, we do come back to them. But new ideas are like kudzu for me. Even when I’m working on one I’m burning to try another, and so there have been periods of my life in which every time I sat down with my friends to game, I’d have them rolling up new characters for whatever nifty new setting I wanted to try out. Maybe seventy percent of the time, they would play a session (or sometimes two) with those characters and never see them again.
There’s a word for that. It’s called a one-shot, and if I’d just admit that’s what they are the world would be a slightly better place. (But I might come back to them some day! Surely that makes it something more — a Schroedinger’s minicampaign, at least!) But for all these I’ve run over the years, very few of them have ever been called one-shots to their face.
I ran a one-shot tonight. I walked into it knowing that I would probably never revisit this world, and ran the game accordingly. It was a lot of fun, and there’s a very real possibility that I’ll polish the setting a little and come back to it someday. But that’s not the point. The point is that, for the most part, accepting that it was to be a short-lived thing made the experience generally better — but also made some key differences. At the end of the session, the character retired. Throughout the session, I had no compunctions whatsoever about potentially lethal scenarios. It was like the difference between watching a pilot for a show that never aired, and watching a movie for which no one is expecting a sequel.