Sandboxes and One Shots: Designing for Your Target Audience

Since I’ve got design on the brain lately, I’m going to carry on with discussing a few more points about building adventures. This is targeted largely at you, the hobbyist, who is wanting to create a setting or a scenario for your group (though, I’m sure, some of these points could be extended to the developer, they aren’t the thrust of this article).

When you sit down and decide you want to run for your crew, there is one important question you have to ask. This question helps us determine specific bits and make certain we’re tailoring the experience.  I’m not going to get into setting or system specifics. This article is going to be as applicable for folks running Bunnies & Burrows as well as the grim guy running Warhammer 40K.

Here we go!

The Big Question: Are you going to run a campaign, a one-shot, or a story arc?

This is the most important thing you have to decide. Why? Because this is going to determine the structure of your game plan. You may not think so, but it’s true. First off, let’s define these things further.

Campaign: Back in my day, a campaign would last years or would never truly end. People drift in and out, you have monstrous stories and enough convoluted back stories to make George R.R. Martin’s head spin. Today, however, a proper definition is more like a series of interconnected adventures lasting from six to twelve months. Certainly, they can run longer, but for our purposes, never shorter. This is presuming meeting regularly every week if not every other week. A modern campaign often has a clear beginning and end, while the middle can be sometimes (though, not always) muddled.

Story Arc: A series of related adventures (usually in the neighborhood of three to five) with a clear beginning, middle, and end.

One Shot: Any sort of adventure taking placed in one evening. This is often the case of con games, games for busy people, or for those times when a buddy comes in from out of town. Most playtests fall into this category as well.

So, how do you choose?

Thanks for asking! Your choice is based on the factors of what kind of story you’re wanting to tell and the ever-present reality of time constraints of you and, more importantly, your friends. If you’re hoping to develop a grand, sweeping saga and an epic, ongoing campaign, and two of your gaming buddies are married with kids and the other two are happy-go-lucky fellas on the scene, you’ll only be setting yourself up for heartbreak. If they are dedicated gamers like yourself, then you can settle in for the long haul. If your group meets regularly, but get restless when things go on for too long or enjoy explore various genres and systems, a story arc may be the happy in-between answer you’re looking for. If you can rarely pull your buddies together (like in the horrific, yet not uncommon scenario I described above), your best bet is the one shot.

What are the benefits of each?

The campaign lets you and your gang let their hair down. You can enjoy the slow burn as events cascade and pile up on each other and alliances are forged or forgotten. Here allies and enemies can switch sides as allegiances shift and your heroes can go on truly sweeping epic adventures best suited for a Peter Jackson flick. You can indulge your players with side treks and character studies and you can exercise your impromptu abilities as well as show off your knowledge of your game world.

The story arc is the happy middle ground. Here, you whittle away the excess fat, and provide a lean, mean adventure series with a distinct beginning, middle, and end. You don’t want anything extraneous. You want to limit choice. You want to drive towards a clear goal. That being said. Goals can shift. Limiting choices, doesn’t restrict creativity. You can provide difficult choices. Whereas a campaign is an extended dance mix, this is the core story distilled for air play.

The one shot adventure should be distilled even further. You have little use for nuance. You want focus. You want a story. Think of any hour long episode of any show you watch and look at its structure. That is really ALL you need. You want super sharp focus and save time? Have pregens and then you can bake in elements of those particular characters in the story! Your group may wander a bit, but if you narrow the landscape, they can focus on the roleplay rather than the wanderplay. There will be plenty enough for them to do in a 3-4 hour game. Start off with bang! Introduce some stuff! Dispense with any big build up. Encapsulate and narrate and throw them into the action. Then you can spin out with a bit more information as needed. Your group will have a great time and love you for it and you won’t end up having to narrate the ending!

Let me know your experiences! Better yet, try these tips the next time you’re getting something going and let me know how this works out for ya!

Until next time, I bid you, dear reader, adieu!









1 Note on “Sandboxes and One Shots: Designing for Your Target Audience”

  1. You’re absolutely right. Focus is the key for convention runs. Extensive background details and prep must remain totally hidden until the characters run straight into something that moves the narrative forward with furious abandon. The temptation to delve into excessive detail is always a quagmire for a GM and can bog down the imperative of immediate gratification for the players.

    Right – now try something cool: Cut and paste “The Giggler Strikes Again” (including quotes) into Google and see what pops up on top.

    I blame you for this, actually. With “Realms of Cthulhu”, you’ve given me many blasphemous tools to run semi-annual Savage Worlds convention adventures that increment forward one year for each convention. This has allowed the development of a “campaign of one-shots”. The nice part is that, even limited to one-shot adventures at conventions, each game run builds the lore and expands the potentials for each new crop of players!

    I don’t advertise it up front, but I actually reward players for creative character death. I also maintain a large stable of rapidly-deployed pregen characters to swell their decimated ranks. It makes for a great convention experience when I hand out little RIP sheets with all the gruesome details, then get the players right back into action.

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