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Why You Can’t Always Go Home Again

Posted By Phil Vecchione On June 19, 2008 @ 4:59 am In GMing Advice | 7 Comments

Over the years, I have GMed a number of different RPG’s, and over the years, I have noticed that there are some games you can play over and over, and other ones that you cannot run again and generate the same feeling, like the first time. I started to look at those one-time games and started to notice that they shared some common elements that made re-running the game for the same group, difficult. So what makes a game a one-time game? Lets find out…

Game Systems and Settings

Some RPG’s are more loosely tied to settings than others. Dungeons & Dragons for instance is an RPG that is loosely tied to a setting. So much so, that there have been numerous settings for D&D, from Greyhawk to Planescape. All of them are D&D, but the settings are different. Other games like Amber: Diceless, or Conspiracy X are tightly coupled to their settings. Neither of these games offer alternative settings.

So does a game with a tightly coupled setting, mean that it is destined to be a one-shot game? I don’t think it does, but it does not help if the game has other limiting factors (we will get to these in a second). A game with a tightly coupled setting means that you are going to have to play in that setting to play that game. You can attempt to extract either the setting or the system and use it in a different manner, but in those cases, it has been my experience, that the individual parts are often less than the sum, but there are always a few exceptions.

Settings of Discovery

A Setting of Discovery, or SoD, is a setting that centers around a number of important discoveries that are revealed to the players during the course of the game. Now all settings have elements that are revealed to the players through the course of play, but in an SoD, the goal of the game is to discover these elements. One of the best examples of this is Conspiracy X, by Eden Studios.

If you have not played ConX, think X-Files, but with a solid plot. In the game, there are three major alien races: Greys (the big head guys), the Saurians (lizard men), and Atlanteans (perfect humans). The setting of the game includes great detail of how these aliens operate, and in later supplements reveal their history, and most importantly their goals on Earth. The goal of playing ConX is to make these discoveries and to protect humanity.

So does an SoD lead to a one-shot game? More often than not, yes. In these SoD’s once the mysteries are revealed and known, the players are contaminated with that knowledge. Sure you can have another campaign, and the characters be unaware of the mysteries, but the players now understand the world at a different level and no matter how hard they try not to transfer player knowledge to their characters, they not only act differently, but they often lose that excitement of first-time discovery.

Limited Scope Of Game

Some games are wide open, in what you can do, and other games have a bit more fencing. A game like D&D is pretty wide open, you can crawl dungeons, wander the forests, parley with Nobels, etc. But a game like Burning Empires is far more fenced in. Yes, you get to create the world, and fill it with your Figures of Note, but when you boil the game down, its Vaylen vs. Humans.

A game with a limited scope is also predisposed to being a one-time game. Once you have played out the scope of the game, playing that same scope again is not always as exciting for your group. If that limited scope is coupled with a SoD, then you really have a game that is going to be a one-time game.

For me, I consider Amber:Diceless a one-time game. I know there are a lot of gamers that have run multiple Amber games over the years, but for me this game is best played with new players, once. Allow me to explain. Amber is a SoD, focused on the Elder Amberites (the characters from the novels) and the primal powers (The Pattern and The Logrus). One of the joy’s of running an Amber campaign (and I have run 4 of them) is watching the players learn the personalites of the Amberites. Seeing the looks on their faces when Fiona baits them into her agenda, or trying to figure out what scheme Caine is pulling. At the same time, the players discover the vast power held by shifting shadows using the Pattern or reaching through realities using the Logrus.

The next time you run the game for the same players, they already know not to talk to Fiona, and that Gerard is likely the best Uncle to trust when you are in trouble. Also the players get bored with the primal powers, and want to either create their own or mess with the established powers. Suddenly the game is not the same, and some of that magic is lost.

Going Home Again

So I started out saying you can’t go home again, and for the most part I believe that, but I did not want to end this article without at least offering some ideas on what you could do, if you just can’t put that one-time game down. So here are some things I have tried in the past, with some success…

  • The Remix– Take the game elements and change them up, so that the players start back at square one, and have to learn the SoD all over again. In Conspiracy X, you would change the agendas and origins of the aliens. In Amber:Diceless you would change up the personalites of the Elder Amberites; perhaps making Fiona a motherly type, etc. This turns out to be considerable work for the GM, and even if you can pull it off, your players will be making compiairsons between versions the whole campaign.
  • Extraction– With your one-time game, you can take your favorite element: the setting or the mechanics, and pull them out and put them with a new mechanic or setting, respectively. Thus creating a somewhat novel hybrid. I recently took the Conspiracy X mechanics and created a whole new setting, based on the Global Frequency comic books. The mechanics are perfect for Global Frequency, and I don’t have to deal with the alien conspiracies. So far the game is pretty viable.
  • Get New Players– New players=new game. If the remix or the extraction does not work, find some new players, or even a few new players for the group. You can allow the experienced players to play more saavy characters, and let the new players explore the world, for the first time. I have found this works reasonably well in Amber:Diceless, as well as Paranoia.

So can you go home again with a one-time game? Most times not, but if you are creative you may be able to eek out another campaign from that beloved rulebook.

So what games, have you encountered that are one-shot games, and what other techniques have you used to get one more campaign out of your game?

About  Phil Vecchione

A gamer for 30 years, Phil cut his teeth on Moldvay D&D and has tried to run everything else since then. He has had the fortune to be gaming with the same group for almost 20 years. When not blogging or writing RPG books, Phil is a husband, father, and project manager. More about Phil.




7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "Why You Can’t Always Go Home Again"

#1 Comment By Propagandroid On June 19, 2008 @ 8:53 am

I think there are some settings that work well as one-visit settings (not necessarily one game, but single-serving adventures or short campaigns). The Midnight RPG, for example, is an awesome campaign setting, especially the first time you play in it or run it. So many classic D&D tropes are turned on their head, you can get weeks of mileage just out of the “renegade” feeling of being a PC in that world. However, I’m not sure I would want to play it for years on end, because it can be really exhausting, and after a while I think the “hide from everyone” thing would start to get more annoying than interesting or fun.

–Prop

#2 Comment By Colonel Sponsz On June 19, 2008 @ 1:37 pm

Funny you should chose Con X as your example for this. Whilst we’ve been playing some games for a long time, Con X is the only one that has a continuity that has been running since the first game, nearly 10 years ago. We’ve had several of us GM campaigns and, as people have moved, it’s now spread to three groups in different cities. We’ve had several approaches to the same background varying from a future war with the Saurians to a counter intelligence operation and several players (including one of my characters – when I’m not GMing) are running our own long term agenda as a side plot.

Sure, we know about the aliens and how they operate – some of our information comes from the survivors of the future war who made it back to the present – but each campaign introduces a new situation. For example, in my last campaign an insider was passing information to alien sympathisers (Black Book) and had to be found and neutralised. Even knowing everything in all of the source books wasn’t going to help there – which is really handy when some of the players own the source books from their stints as GMs.

Setting and scope are purely limited by the imagination of the GM and players and I think that that this leads us to the real deciding factor in what makes something a one time game: How the group identify with the background and the system, and that varies significantly between groups.

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On June 19, 2008 @ 3:29 pm

You do a good job of explaining the drawback to metaplot/mystery revealed games. I like the ideas you mention for trying to come back to a familiar game or setting, like remixing– while you probably can’t make it as cool as the first time, you might get something good in a different way out of your try.

#4 Comment By Omnus On June 19, 2008 @ 8:15 pm

Knowing the plot or metastory in a discovery game is one thing. There’s an even better example: Paranoia. In Paranoia, a first-time player doesn’t even know the RULES. All he does is generate a character by some arbitrary dice-rolling, is told the absolute minimum of the world, and let go with six clones to live or die (and die and die and die and die etc.) I offer that Paranoia isn’t what I’d consider a “true” RPG, more along the sub-set of the beer-and-pretzels set of games, but once you’ve had your first time, the game changes for you. You become less of a victim and more of a lurker, waiting to catch the other players to advance yourself. It goes from wide-eyed innocence to PVP dirtbaggery in short order (often before the first couple of clones have cooled to room temperature). But the charm of that first experience is lost and is nigh-impossible to recapture.

One way I find using the already-installed storyline to my advantage is to take the timeline somewhere the covered material isn’t. Knights of the Old Republic, the excellent video game for the Star Wars storyline, went back thousands of years into the past, and, while using enough material to make you aware of the universe you’re a part of, the material was fresh enough to make you want to see how it all turns out, because it was new, even while it felt familiar.

Likewise, in my main campaign world of Antier, my prime gaming group knows the gist of the storyline, the overlying conflict, and who the movers and shakers of the storyline are. I can, if I choose to, advance the storyline to the point after their victorious campaign, where they would be the most familiar, and show them what comes after the lives and times of their retired characters, or take them back to a previous age to let them relive past lives of their characters. If you’re not afraid to add on things to the behind-the-scenes or off the map, I think you can do all right to a discover-the-world scenario.

#5 Comment By Yax – DungeonMastering.com On June 20, 2008 @ 2:22 am

I agree that Amber isn’t an easy replayed game. Even some concepts in the system are way more fun the first time – like bidding against other players for your attributes.

#6 Comment By Swordgleam On June 20, 2008 @ 7:02 pm

Here’s a question: is Seventh Sea one of these games? I’ve been thinking about running (or convincing someone else to run) a game, but the system seems really tightly tied to the setting, and I don’t want to invest a lot of time in a system that’s only going to be good for one campaign.

The magic looks cool, but the guys I play with love to turn everything on its head, and I know they won’t be satisfied with “well you can’t have that power because you’re from X country and it’s only available to characters from Y country.” At least, not more than once.

#7 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On June 24, 2008 @ 8:06 pm

There’s a lot of activity these days around “plot point” campaign arcs. These are campaigns with metaplot events that don’t happen at a certain time, but when the GM feels it appropriate. They don’t have a set time limit, but you can definitely burn them out.


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