As much as I love tabletop RPGs, I can admit that there’s one glaring issue that makes them surprisingly hard to organize: they take a tremendous commitment. Not only do you have to coordinate a group of people with busy lives, but if you’ve agreed to be the GM, then you also have the responsibility of creating a detailed world and story for your players to inhabit. Additionally, some GMs keep said campaigns running for years.
The level of prep that can go into a single campaign is daunting. What if you want the choice-based experience of a TTRPG minus the hefty commitment? The answer is simple: a one-shot.
This begs another question, however: which TTRPG system is best for one-shots? That’s an excellent question. I’m going to share with you today what I feel are the best tabletop RPGs for a one-shot, as well as why I think they qualify.
What is a One-Shot?
In the event you’re unfamiliar with the concept, I’ll fill you in quickly on what, exactly, a one-shot is. Unlike a months- or even years-long campaign, a one-shot is a campaign that can typically be run in a single session.
Some may actually end up going on for a few sessions, depending on the amount of time you have to dedicate to each session, how long it takes your players to progress, and the detail involved. Generally, however, the goal is to limit the game to one day’s worth of play.
The benefits to a one-shot as opposed to an in-depth campaign are numerous. One-shots allow you to dabble in a new system without fully committing to it, and they also require significantly less setup time for both the GM and players. Their reduced time commitment means more players tend to be drawn to them, as well, since it’s easier to find a single free evening in your schedules rather than orchestrating regular gatherings.
This type of game is particularly popular at conventions. Companies developing new TTRPGs will frequently show off their ideas with convention goers in short, bite-sized sessions.
Best Tabletop RPGs for a One-Shot
Equally famous and infamous for its atmosphere, Ten Candles is a game that was born to be a one-shot ran over and over again. Aside from being fairly rules-light, it has the benefit of requiring little to no prep since the story is supplied mostly by your players.
Additionally, you don’t need much in the way of supplies. Simply grab the rulebook, ten candles, paper, writing utensils, and at least 10 six-sided dice – then you have enough to play the game.
It also has a unique concept. With ten “rounds” that automatically advance whenever a player fails a roll, the ability for players to shape the in-game universe with “truths” that are stated at the top of each round, and narrative control that is ceded to the player when they pass a roll…it’s just fun all around. I had the pleasure of playing this for the first time a couple weeks ago, and I look forward to having the opportunity to run this myself sometime.
Dungeons & Dragons
Ah, the king of tabletop RPGs: Dungeons & Dragons. Chances are, you’ve heard of lengthy campaigns in this system that sometimes go on for years upon years – but it doesn’t have to be that way.
The fifth edition is famously well-known for being beginner-friendly. What’s more, because the player base is so large, it’s a snap to find resources designed specifically for helping you run a one-shot campaign.
In fact, the main reason I picked it is that there are countless resources available to you, including premade modules, to get you started. There are even character generators that make it possible for everyone (including the GM) to instantly roll characters if you’re on a bit of time crunch.
Dungeon World was designed with rules lightness in mind. This means that all those lengthy conversations where players and the GM argue about rules are a thing of the past, giving you more time to focus on the gameplay.
Additionally, there are plenty of resources online available to GMs looking to run a Dungeon World one-shot. If you find yourself facing writer’s block, you can easily find guides online to help you get started.
I haven’t had the chance to play it, but just looking at the game’s site is enough to intrigue me. Maybe sometime, I’ll give it a go.
I put Dread on this list because it probably has one of the most unique and easy rolling mechanics I’ve ever heard of: Jenga. And yes, you’re reading that correctly.
Rather than needing to roll hordes of dice (or use die-rolling apps), whether your characters succeed or fail an action depends on pulling a block from a Jenga tower successfully. Aside from making conflicts easy to resolve, it’s an interesting idea for a horror-based game that heightens the tension.
After all, the more scared and nervous you get, the harder it will be for you to pull a block from the tower…
Call of Cthulhu
It isn’t naturally better for one-shots or designed to be rules-light, but I included Call of Cthulhu on this list for mostly the same reason as Dungeons and Dragons: it has tons of resources available. If you’re new to running it, there are plenty of pre-made one-shot scenarios you can pick up and use with little preparation on your part. (You can also, of course, check out my tips for Call of Cthulhu keepers.)
The drawback is that you will still need to learn to play a new system, and it does have a fair number of rules. You can trim a lot of them out, however – especially the combat rules, since combat doesn’t need to occur with any real frequency in your games.
This is another game that was designed specifically for a brief one-shot session. Got friends who have commitment issues when it comes to TTRPGs? Then you should probably try this one on for size, since it can be run in just a few hours.
In fact, I would go so far as to say, based on what I’ve seen, that it’s not suited for long-term campaigns. There are also tons of playsets with different scenarios for all types of interests, so pretty much any group of people can get into it.
Unfortunately, I can’t really give you a general idea of what it’s about or what kinds of settings it lends itself well to. It’s just a very simple, generalized system created for shorter games and it can be learned quickly.
Last (but of course not least), I’m recommending Cortex for one-shots. For starters, like many of the other games on this list, it has plentiful pre-made modules to choose from. Skip the lengthy campaign-writing and jump right into the game by simply picking a module to run.
Beneath the module (or lack thereof, I guess), there’s an extremely simple system that’s quick and intuitive to learn. It’s also extremely flexible and can be used to run campaigns for just about any genre you’d want to play.
I’d argue that you can kind of “re-skin” any system for any genre if you want to put in the work, but some systems simply lend themselves better to different stories. Call of Cthulhu, for example, is naturally great for horror stories because of its built-in sanity loss mechanic. Cortex isn’t limited to any particular genre, making it an easy pick when you’re not too sure what you want to play.
What to Consider When Setting up a One-Shot
Unless you’re the one running it and you have a lot of experience running it, the first consideration is going to be simplicity. Overly complex rules (like those that make Shadowrun infamous) are neither beginner-friendly nor conducive to brief sessions.
Before running a one-shot, make sure you obtain a copy of the core rulebook and read it cover to cover if you’re the GM. (Reading the entire thing is likely not as important for players, on the other hand.) You’ll want to see how quickly you can generate characters, how streamlined the combat and rolling system is, and whether or not there are additional rules that complicate matters.
If you’ve ever ran a game before (without using a pre-made module), then you know how time-consuming the setup can be. I’ve spent hours upon hours creating dozens of NPCs that the players weren’t even guaranteed to interact with, establishing relationships between them, and mapping out areas that my players might not even encounter.
Part of the appeal of running a one-shot is avoiding all that legwork. This is why a streamlined setup is vital.
It’s not easy to tell at a glance if a game is going to be easier to set up than alternatives. Your best bet here is to look through the core rulebook and determine how complicated the rules and setting are. The more complex the rules are, the more time you’ll need to spend preparing to run a game within their boundaries.
While you can feasibly “re-skin” any system to take place in a setting of your choosing, it’s apparent that some systems are just designed to be used in particular environments. Call of Cthulhu, for instance, works best in investigative games with a horror twist and light combat for reasons I’ve already mentioned previously.
You’ll want to think about the mood you’re trying to inspire with your one-shot, then find a system that highlights that mood appropriately. Out of all my suggestions, however, I think this is one of the more flexible ones. With a little knowledge and experience, you can bend any system to suit your needs.
In any tabletop RPG, there’s one thing you’ll want to consider above all others: your players. My opinion is that, since the GM is taking the much more significant burden involved with planning and running the session, they get the final say in most game-related decisions. However, complete failure to consider your players’ desires simply makes you a wannabe dictator.
This is even truer in a scenario where you’ve picked the group of people you’re going to play with before picking the system. If you’ve got a system in mind already, it’s easy enough to put up a post asking for people who also want to play that system or to ask your friends directly. When you’ve put the group together first, it doesn’t hurt to pick a range of systems you’re interested in running and put it up to a vote.
At the end of the day, your one-shot is a game, and what’s a game if it isn’t fun for most of the people involved?
I have a love-hate relationship with one-shots. On one hand, I usually want to commit long-term to any tabletop RPG because I enjoy playing them so much. I want time to watch my character evolve and grow.
But on the other hand, I recognize the allure of the low commitment involved in a one-shot. They’re easy to squeeze in and also a great way to sample a new system.
With that being said, the one I’d recommend most out of these is Ten Candles. I recently played a one-shot Ten Candles story, and it made a huge impression on me – so much, that I recommended it to all my coworkers. There is the caveat that it loses some of its atmospheric quality when you play it over Discord (or any other voice app), but I still think it’s worth trying.