This two-part blog series came from reader Staub#0001 from the Discord of Many Things – it’s a compilation of my 8 favorite tabletop RPG games for one-shots, split into two posts of 4 games each. I’m not the biggest advocate for one-shot-systems, being more excited about campaign play. Nonetheless, I hope my readers get mileage from these posts!
#1: MAZE RATS
by Questing Beast
This is a run-and-loot, dungeon-plundering, scrappy adventuring game. No traditional D&D classes; you play little packets of chaos to the tune of Briarborn, Fingersmith, Roofrunner, and Shadowjack. It’s a 12-page print-and-play game with a blitzed smoothie of a character creation system that gets you rolling dice and crawling dungeons in literal minutes. It’s not going to have the depth of a more involved fantasy role-playing game, but it’s got remarkable replay value and complexity packed within those 12 pages. At this page count and price point, it simply can’t be beat!
Play-tested by elementary-school children, storygamers, and OSR grognards alike, the game’s versatility is undeniable. It attracts rave reviews from all over the tabletop roleplaying spectrum. It solely makes use of d6 dice, so it’s eminently portable even if you aren’t packing for D&D night: toss some d6 into your mouth, do a quick print job and you’ve got all the tools you need for a one-shot wonder. The referee section is pure gold, a distillation of four decades’ worth of TSR/OSR community “best practices”, tightly written and edited over 4 iterative updates to this game. The advice found within these 12 pages applies to any D&D-esque RPG, not just Maze Rats, and so has value beyond just for this system.
Sleek, sexy, and brutal, Maze Rats is a scrappy OSR game well worth your time. Grab it for three bucks on DriveThruRPG. Still not sold? Check out the Rules Overview Video which goes through a granular, 17-minute showcase of the entire system.
#2: TROIKA NUMINOUS EDITION
by Daniel Sell
Troika is fantasy roleplaying in liminal space. It’s a space fantasy gonzo world-crafting experience where one player will be spawned by the hump-backed sky and another is playing a Vengeful Child bearing a sword too large for their vicious little body. 36 random classes, 100-and-change pages of neon-pastel surreal artwork, a slug-infested sample adventure, and shatteringly concise purple prose are what you get with this book. If you’ve ever read Italo Calvino or ever gone three consecutive nights without sleep, then this game will invoke nostalgia within you.
There’s a vaguely anarchic and less vaguely acid-trip vibe present, and despite being 100 pages long, so much of the book is random tables that it’s functionally still a very rules-lite system that’s a snap to read. You won’t find much explanatory text so much as inspirational text – the Game Master is expected to be practiced in negotiating and conversing with players based on what the players want to do in a senseless world.
Troika’s entire ethos is one of game-enforced madness. The initiative system, even, embodies this, making it possible that a round of combat goes MONSTER-MONSTER-MONSTER-ENDROUND, HERO-HERO-HERO-ENDROUND, or even NOTHING IS ALLOWED TO HAPPEN-ENDROUND. It’s a swingy, unpredictable madhouse, but for your money, it’s a brilliantly designed madhouse, and definitely a recipe for a memorable evening.
One area where Troika is unexpectedly grounded amidst the madness is its skill system, which gives a bit more granularity in representing character abilities than most rules-lite systems offer. For people who want a mechanically light game but are also stubborn stans for skill systems, this is a selling point worth mentioning.
Grab it for £22.00 from the Melsonian Arts Council. For the artwork alone, it’s worth that price.
by Will Hindmarch
A Pay-What-You-Want storygame that stands on the shoulders of John Harper’s indie success Lady Blackbird and innovates further upon that system, Always/Never/Now is a cyberpunk adventure game that, like the entries above, offers brilliant Game Mastering advice, this time drawing from techniques of narrative pacing and dramatic tension in the tradition of the storygaming community. I think it’s a great complement to OSR Game Mastery tips and an insightful look at an strengths of a game philosophy that emphasizes collaborative rather than emergent storytelling.
The game has a metric boatload of evocative writing. This is definitively not a print-and-play game, but rather a game where the Game Master must grab a mug of tea or coffee, sit down on a piece of cozy furniture, and carefully read the rules and scenario, taking notes all the while. The dark world of mega-corporations, the international scope of the scenario, the carefully crafted synergy of the six pre-generated characters, and the structure of each scene in the story… these all take time to digest, and unlike OSR games, this game benefits from a Game Master that strives to be a refined orchestral conductor rather than an off-the-cuff improviser. The relative lack of artwork can be a turn-off considering the density of the prose and there is arguably a little fat to trim, but for Game Masters who enjoy heavy-prep one-shots with high emotional pay-off, Always/Never/Now is a gem like no other.
Worth clarifying, I suppose, is the fact that while the Game Master must read a lot, the game is very streamlined on the player-facing front, and thus is suitable for a one-shot or for a short campaign despite the relatively heavy overhead.
🐜 Offhand Ant Thoughts: As a note of warmth from my perspective as a Chinese American, I appreciate the representation of people of color in the pre-gens. For other tabletop designers out there, especially for games in the modern era, take note!
#4: Everyone is John
by Michael Sullivan
This is the slimmest game on the list of 8 games, and is free to boot! It consists of a single page of rules, another page with a funny image on it, and requiring no prep time whatsoever. Humorous, light-hearted, and manic, Everyone is John is a game where players are the voices in the poor schizophrenic head of our eponymous protagonist, John. A Narrator opens the game by telling the players where John is (a zoo, a ferris wheel, a movie set, Westeros, wherever) and then players jockey with one another to control John and to make him do, for lack of better phrasing, crazy shit. The game is great for parties and great for small groups, great for teaching roleplaying and also great as a spit-take generator as John does increasingly ridiculous actions. Fantastic.
Get it for free here.
to be continued…
The banner image for this post is from a Lifehacker post, also about one-shots. Check it out here.