I laid down a set of rules to abide by for future one-off game writing. A friend of mine read them and added some of her own:
- Strong, one-off suited concept.
- Pre-gen characters (or a very strong steer for players).
- Ensure that there’s a role for everyone and it couldn’t equally be done by some subset of the party.
- Check limitations – such as number of players – for the Con.
Good advice there. I think the first one cannot be overstated, but also I think it’s implicit – you wouldn’t be running a one-off game if you didn’t already have an idea. As for pre-generating characters, this can be skipped but the “very strong steer” is a must. I’ve played in very good games where the character generation was part of the game, and indeed was themed to fit into the game.
About having a role for every player – there are basically three ways you make a PC significant in a game:
- give them a unique skill (or explicit party role)
- give them unique knowledge
- drop them in a situation.
I didn’t include social status because it’s usually fairly toothless (because the status that counts is party status, and players rarely bow to authority) unless it’s the kind where it opens certain doors – like in a live action Vampire game – in which case it’s a skill.
Esoteric skills can be subverted. It’s no fun realising that your special, unique skill is actually shared with another party member (unless it’s a plot point, of course). It’s even worse when there’s a power imbalance – both weaker and stronger. Obviously it’s a drag if the other PC is just plain better at the secret stuff than you are, but if they’re weaker then in a funny way your skill is devalued as well – because as far as the rest of the party goes, you’re both on an even footing and your PC is no longer the go-to gal.
Unique knowledge can also be unique goal or motivation, and if the player is the kind who likes to share, all well and good – they get their place in the spotlight and then go back to team playing. But some players will cling to their special knowledge tooth and nail, try to solve the mystery single-handed even when they’re desperately under-qualified, or pull some game-breaking stunt (like a total party kill) because they interpreted their background differently from you when you wrote it.
Dropping characters in situations is another good way of feeding them the limelight. There’s a problem, though. If for example you have an age or competence disparity (e.g. a kid is running from demons, the rest of the party are demon hunters and rescue him) then you risk the character being sidelined as soon as the danger is removed. The majority of the PCs need a reason to integrate the minority into the party so the minority sticks around (e.g. the kid needs protection, the kid is a psychic who can tell the rest of the party where the demons are, etc). Alternatively going the other way – getting the minority character to try to force themselves into the rest of the party, for example – will work but it does require a certain tenacity on the part of the player.
Which comes to the fourth rule – know your audience, and don’t count on having predictable players.