Running an in-Campaign One-Shot

What’s a One-Shot?

A one-shot session is a stand-alone game session not meant to be part of a larger campaign. It’s a low-risk way to give a new game a spin without the investment of a campaign. If the group doesn’t like the rules or the setting, it’s no big deal; you’ve learned more about your group’s preferences, which is a good thing.

A one-shot is also handy when you want to take a break from your campaign and try a focused, tight little adventure that might be different in tone or style or unsuited for campaign play. For example, I once ran a Fate Accelerated one-shot that took place during the New York City Blackout of 1977. It was a tale of strangers meeting during a night of upheaval and doing what they could to protect and support each other. After the blackout ended and NYC was back to normal – end of story.

Last Friday we were down a player in our Star Wars: Edge of the Empire campaign, and I decided to run a one-shot. After racking my brain looking for a combination of rules and scenario that would entice my players, I realized two things:

  1. I had a lot going on during the week and didn’t want to spend my late evenings brushing up on a rulebook, and
  2. For the last few months I’d been focused on the campaign, and while I had plenty of ideas for interesting adventures in that world, I just didn’t have the creative juice to come up with something clever from a whole cloth.

Then I realized the answer to my conundrum was right in front of me: Run a one-shot in the same campaign using different player characters. This is not some novel concept; I’m sure other GMs have been doing this since the days of Blackmoor and Greyhawk. I’m actually pretty sure I’ve done it before a time or two in the murky past. But it worked so well I think I’m going to make a habit of doing more in-campaign one-offs in the future.

Three Star Wars Death Troopers in battle

Play the Opposition

The player characters in this campaign are street criminals in the city of Savroia, a den of scum, villainy, smuggling, tourism, and vice. The second Death Star has just been destroyed and the Emperor with it. But Imperial forces are still fighting for control of Ord Mantell and Savroia in particular. After playing both sides for a time, the PCs have thrown in their lot with the Rebels, and are helping them in the desperate street-by-street, building-by-building fight for Savroia.

An epic city-wide battle is just too broad in scope for the players to really grab onto. The more personal you can make it, the greater the impact. I realized one way to do this would be to have the players run a small team of Imperials as they try to accomplish a mission within the broader battle. The results of that mission would cause ripples in the broader narrative but would not be determinative; in other words the primary PCs would hear about the results of this Imperial mission and it would alter the overall flow of the battle in one direction or the other, but would not remove the primary PCs from center stage.

I determined that these Imperials would be a Death Trooper “Kill Team” tasked with infiltrating Rebel-held territory and eliminating the Rebel commander. This cagey commander moved his HQ every 16-24 hours, but Imperial intelligence had located him. The Kill Team would insert via drop ship, make their way to the target, and eliminate him by any means necessary. A squad of attached Stormtroopers would be at their disposal to use as decoys, support troops, or mere cannon fodder. The players had no mission latitude, but broad execution latitude.

Flip the Style and Tone

We sometimes refer to this campaign as “HBO Star Wars” because it’s a grimier, far less idealistic version of standard Star Wars fare. There is humor, of course, and some fighting, but the PCs spend most of their time gathering information, plotting schemes, manipulating NPCs, and talking their way into and out of trouble. The player characters started as nothing all that special, and have gradually become moderately powerful in their very small corner of the galaxy. Their goals drive the campaign.

This one-shot mission, on the other hand, was narrowly-focused. I created the characters ahead of time, and gave clear guidance about their attitudes and roles. The Death Troopers were true believers, recruited for their loyalty to the Empire, but also for their intelligence, physical prowess, and determination. They were on a mission to move fast, make immediate decisions, and kill efficiently.

Constraints Drive Creativity

I deliberately built the Death Troopers as very powerful characters. Knowing that they could both absorb and dish out a lot of punishment, I resolved to make life difficult for them from the get-go and keep up the pressure. As their drop ship entered the night skies over Savroia, I had it get gunned down by a light crew-served Rebel ion cannon. The ship landed in the governor’s game preserve across the river from the main city, and immediately the Death Troopers and the attached Stormtroopers had to contend with an X-Wing that came to investigate, followed swiftly by a huge rampaging four-tusked elephantine creature.

They eventually made it across the river atop an AT-ST, but the AT-ST and the Stormtroopers didn’t make it. They met up with an Imperial mechanized force, worked with the commanding officer to come up with an infiltration plan, and eventually succeeded in making it to the Rebel HQ and assassinating the Rebel commander.

All of this was exciting, but the thing I most enjoyed as the GM was watching the players inject personality into their characters. Em, playing the team leader, leveraged the Leadership skill to the hilt, and really got into the tactical planning with Imperial infantry officers. Matt’s character demonstrated his love for the Emperor (and disbelief that the Emperor was dead) in creative ways that added just the right touch of humor. John’s character applied tactical ingenuity and stood by his favorite blaster rifle through thick and thin.

Through the course of the night we developed our own canon for the Death Troopers. Under the armor they wear many individualized tattoos. They hold a helmet-bashing ritual before every Kill Team mission, and in their spare time they discuss philosophy and art. They hate guarding high-ranking officers and prefer direct action ops, and they truly believe the Empire is bringing peace to the galaxy.

May I Have Another?

The players really enjoyed the one-shot. After we wrapped up the session we discussed it a bit and the divergence between the normal tone and style of the campaign was one reason. It surprised me how much they enjoyed the characters, and they said they’d be up for playing them again.

So the next time I decide to run a one-shot I may bring the Death Troopers back. But now I’m wondering if it might be interesting to try another angle on the same campaign. X-Wing pilots, anyone?

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