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Jump Starting a One-Shot with the Familiar

When I’m not sitting behind a screen or writing Gnome Stew articles, I’m also an RPG freelance writer. That means that my weekly group usually gets dragged into whatever I need to playtest for my projects, the latest of which is Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space [1].

Running a playtest is like running a one-shot. The players are only going to be playing a short while and it’s often not worth blowing a session on character creation, especially when the players are unfamiliar with the system (it’s even more fun for new games, when I’m running the game from a few rtf files, but I digress…).

Doctor Who posed a particular problem because only one of my players was really well-versed in the lore. The others had seen a few episodes but weren’t really knowledgeable about the characters in the particular era I was running. 

Even if I had given them proper Companions (for this playtest I decided to make the Doctor an NPC), there’d still be that awkward period where the players try to adjust to playing unfamiliar characters that they didn’t design. I decided to try something different.

Rather than giving them official Companions or making some up, I modeled their characters on PCs from previous campaigns. I made a few adjustments to make them more in-line with Doctor Who, but overall they had the same personalities and backstories.

It ended up working much better than I expected. The players leapt right back into playing their old PCs and interacted well with each other. It wiped the awkwardness right away and I was able to sit back and let them gel with each other a bit as we launched right into the adventure.

This got me thinking. There are a lot of times when the gaming group can use a one-shot to fill time, whether it be due to switching campaigns, conflicting schedules, or just a needed break. Recycling old PCs with a slight re-skin would help ease the players into jumping into a one-shot.

Some examples:

1. Taking the PCs of a modern superhero team and reskinning them for a low-powered 1930s pulp scenario.

2. Taking a group of fantasy adventurers and reinterpreting them for a space opera adventure.

3.  Taking a group of Starfleet officers and turning them into a historical Naval crew for an occult or wartime adventure.

4. Upgrading a modern occult fantasy group to four-color spandex-clad heroes.

5. Taking characters from various games and allowing the players to play the actors that portray those characters on fictional TV shows for a horror adventure.

Try this trick next time you’re running a one-shot and see how it works for you. If you have tried this, how did it work? Did your players really get into it or would they rather have played original characters? Did you encounter any hiccups along the way?

4 Comments (Open | Close)

4 Comments To "Jump Starting a One-Shot with the Familiar"

#1 Comment By John Arcadian On June 8, 2010 @ 1:22 pm

I love that idea for a new introductory game! Since the players already know the mood and feeling of their old characters they just have to adapt to a new setting or genre. That is a great idea that I might have to use when running oneshots. I can see it working very well for Doctor Who or any property licensed from a TV show, since TV is a medium that often does the alternate reality version trope.

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On June 8, 2010 @ 2:58 pm

I’d never thought about this, but I do know a lot of old characters who’d love a chance to come out and shine again– and a lot of players who’d love to make that happen.

That’s a great idea for cutting down on the unfamiliarity– you’re down to only mastering system, not your own character at that point.

#3 Comment By Lee Hanna On June 9, 2010 @ 7:50 pm

I love this! I am immediately wondering if I can use it to draw out some of my “D&D only” crowd into one of the other games I’d like to try.

#4 Comment By GiacomoArt On June 11, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

[2] – Cool idea within a cool idea. It puts me in mind of the “alternate reality” trope from comic books and television series, where you get a “what if” one-shot glimpse of what your favorite characters would be like transplanted into an alternate reality.

DC Comics spawned countless “alternate universes” for its characters to frolic in. And Marvel Comics keeps reviving its “What If” title, dedicated explicitly to exploring such stories.

It’s been a favorite recurring trope for various Star Trek incarnations, starting with “Mirror Mirror” in the original series, and carrying through into countless episodes dealing with time travel, dimensional travel, holodeck games, or someone simply messing with the heads of the crew. There have been television shows like Sliders, where encountering our heroes alternate-dimension alter egos was almost the point of the show, and the trope gets used to death in sit-coms, where “It was only a dream! (Or was it…)” episodes spring up like cockroaches.

Not only is it possible to drop the old characters into a new setting/genre for a one-shot, there’s plenty of precedent for then weaving that one-shot back into the fabric of an ongoing campaign.