One-Shot Larps v. Campaigns

 Welcome to the first-timers’ series, where a panel of seasoned gamers and experts from the US and beyond weigh in on topics pertinent to the larp newbie.

Part of having fun at a game is knowing which games are right for you. So today the experts begin exploring their own preferences, answering the question: Do you prefer one-shots or campaigns,* and why?

Their answers, not so surprisingly, were mixed. Let’s hear from Team One-Shot first.

Frederik Berg Østergaard:

I’m a one-night stand guy. I prefer my women givin’ it up on the first night. A prolonged engagement–while entertaining in its own right–doesn’t get that first-night vibe that is so titillating

.J. Tuomas Harviainen:

I prefer writing one-shots, as I see in them the chance to experiment with ideas that have a lot of short-term potential, but would be boring in the long run. I also prefer playing one-shots, as it’s much easier to book the time in advance. Campaigns have their significant advantages in character development and so on, but they are also risky ventures in that even the greatest of plots may die if one key person is not able to attend.

Claus Raasted:

I much prefer one-shots. If you’re doing a one-shot, you can make decide that all the interesting stuff happens right now. If the world is about to end, the larp happens just at that point. If the princes are getting married, thus re-uniting the kingdoms… then that’s when the larp is set. When you’re doing campaign larps (especially those of the “once-a-month-or-similar” kind) that’s a lot harder. Unless you’re willing to do enormous amounts of work, you easily get into the rhythm of having the in game calendar follow the off game calendar – and suddenly you have wild and interesting things happening to the same people once a month. In the same place often. And after a couple of years, the fiction gets strained… one-shots don’t have that problem.

Aaron Vanek:

I’ve played far more one-shots than campaigns, so my answer is biased. But, I slightly prefer one-shots over campaigns because:

  1.  The majority (though certainly not all) of larp campaigns are fantasy based, which isn’t my favorite genre.
  2. Sooner or later, I will get bored of either my character, the game, or both. I like exploring different facets of my personality; I’m more interested in a broad range of roles than deep exploration of one.
  3. A single event can try out a mechanic or rule or setting and, if it works, it can live on in the next event. If not, it’s gone after one session. A non-fatal flaw in a campaign can linger for months or years.
  4. I enjoy the intensity of one-shots. Since I don’t have to play it safe so that my character will survive to adventure again next month, I can–if the character’s personality has this trait–be reckless and foolhardy. Even if the consequence is death or removal from play, it’s not a huge loss to my ego or all the money I spent on a costume I’ve been improving or adding on to for a decade

What one-shots miss, though, is the ability to savor a slow shift to a character’s personality.

Mike Young:

For me, it all has to do with the amount of prep and work I need to do out of game.  Both one shots and campaigns require costuming and props, but I can reuse them during a campaign.  However, campaigns often require between-game actions and conversations which can take a lot of time.

I enjoy them both, but I think I prefer the flexibility of one shots; they allow for more variety of character.

Several experts were on the fence between one-shots and campaigns, preferring one or the other depending on their specific design goals or desired experience as a player:

Michael Pucci:

Depends on the world and the goal. When I am looking for an intense, action packed, immediate gratification game experience I prefer the one shot event. If I am looking for a deeper emotional investment, political machinations, and long term character growth I enjoy campaign style game.

Since a one shot game has a set time limit to its existence, players tend to play their character to the extreme with little reservation. When you have that sort of environment you can have some incredible role playing experiences with over the top moments that people will talk about for years. The downside, however, is that one-shots don’t offer the same degree of growth and emotional depth as long term campaign style games. You want to see your character grow up, develop strong emotional ties, and change and grow?  You need more than one night’s worth of interactions and events to make that happen.

Avonelle Wing:

I find one-shots more forgiving – you don’t have to live with a mistake you make in hour one for the entire rest of your character’s life, but as a player, campaign games scratch the creative itch more thoroughly for me.When it comes to writing or designing games, hands down, one-shot games feed my soul 100% more than managing a campaign. If you have a power gamer who wants to exploit the system in a one-shot, you only have to manage him for the length of the game. If you have (a) power gamer(s) in a campaign, you might discover that a twelve page rules system explodes to 36 pages to compensate for “well, what does this sentence REALLY mean…?” One-shots give me a chance to play with systems, to write edgy or risky plotlines, explore themes and generally play with the artform, and I am really enjoying that currently.

Kate Beaman-Martinez:

There is a certain feeling of ‘do whatever you want’ out of one shots. You can be as bold as you’d like, insane as you like and can explore areas of yourself that you may not necessarily get to play. The other great thing about one shots is that you can test out a GM group or a genre that you wouldn’t normally try without the commitment of a long term game. Gives me a chance to try out a new character type and to role play with people who I don’t normally get the chance to.

There is something about creating a long-running character that really appeals to me; I get to stretch my roleplaying legs when I have a character with a long term chance of surviving. I become incredibly attached to my characters and really throw quite a lot into them. Having a character change from a three line concept to a fully fleshed out person (or elf or alien or vampire, etc.) is a personal joy that I always get from a campaign.

Finally, we’ll hear from the “campaigns rule!” camp.

Geoff Schaller:

I prefer campaigns for the long-term growth and return you get, both in-game from your character, and out-of-game with the other players as the game’s community builds.  One-shots are fine and fun, but are akin to TV dinners to me – I don’t want to make a steady diet of them!  I know other people who love the thrill and variety of many different one-shots, such as those run at Intercon (where you sign up for multiple one-shot games in one weekend).  This is just not my personal style.

Sarah Lynne Bowman:

I played campaign-style most of my life, so I suppose I have a preference for long-term games. Both styles have their advantages and disadvantages. You can delve deeply into character evolution and explore complex story arcs with campaign play. Also, the connections between players and the community as a whole tend to be stronger, unless the same group also regularly plays in one-shots too.

Long-term play tends to cause heavy investment into the character and attachment to the game, which can be both pleasurable and painful. Long-term play can also put a strain on relationships, since role-playing tends to feature high intensity situations, some of which feel like “life-or-death.” In one-shots, players feel free to be more outrageous and take risks, especially if the game is at a convention where the people involved may never see one another again.

* A one-shot is a game that is completed in one meeting. A campaign game continues the story across many events, which make take place regularly over months or years.

More game guides for newbies.


Kate Beaman-Martinez  has been acting since she was 11 and started gaming at 17. She cut her teeth on White Wolf’s Werewolf: The Apocalypse and naturally got up when there was a heated debate on the proper uses of torture in her weekly table top group. Shortly thereafter she joined The Avatar System and hasn’t looked back. Through larping, she has found her partners, and moved to New York. Kate is currently a full time student and the Executive Assistant for Double Exposure, Inc.

Sarah Lynne Bowman received her PhD from the University of Texas at Dallas in 2008. McFarland press published her dissertation in 2010 under the title The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity. Her current research focuses upon understanding social conflict within role-playing communities and applying Jungian theory to the phenomenon of character immersion.

J. Tuomas Harviainen comes from Finland, and is one of those pesky  professional larp researchers. In addition to studying larps, he also designs them. His mini-larps have so far been run in at least 14 countires and translated to seven languages.

Frederik Berg Østergaard is a Scandinavian game designer and jeepform evangelist. His work has mainly focused on taking the medium further and farther away from its tabletop roots into an adult oriented form,  that has more in common with performance and psychodrama. He also holds an M.A. in History of Religions from the University of Copenhagen.

Michael Pucci is the CEO of Eschaton Media and the creator of multiple larps, tabletop books, scripts and gaming-related media.  He has more than twenty years experience storytelling for larps, tabletops, and convention games, and spent five years in the business side of the gaming industry. He proudly holds the title of ‘Zombie Lord‘ while looking for more inventive approaches to modernize gaming.

Claus Raasted (32) claims to be the world’s leading expert on children’s larps, and so far nobody has challenged that claim in earnest. He’s the author of six books on larp, is the editor-in-chief of Denmark’s roleplaying magazine ROLLE|SPIL and has been a professional larper for nearly a decade. He also has a past in reality TV. But these days, who hasn’t?

Geoffrey Schaller is a gaming gypsy, having wandered into and out of tabletop RPGs, Collectable Card Games, Miniatures, larp (WoD, boffer, and other), Board Games, MMOs, and countless other forms of gaming, as a player, play tester, demo-runner, author, and staff member.  He still dabbles in all of them when he gets the chance. He is the Technical Director of Double Exposure, Inc.

Aaron Vanek has been playing, designing, running, and thinking about larps for 25 years. His larp publications include the illustrated essay “Cooler Than You Think: Understanding Live Action Role Playing“; “The Non-United Larp States of America“ in the Talk Knutepunkt 2011 book, “Predictions for Larp” in Journeys to Another World, the Wyrd Con book, and the blueprint for “Rock Band Murder Mystery” in the Do Knutepunkt 2011 book. He hopes for at least another 25 years of larp.

Avonelle Wing is the Senior Vice President of Double Exposure, Inc. Along with her partners and a team of friends, comrades and co-visionaries, she works to produce two full-sized gaming conventions and a variety of other gaming related productions each year.  She is a larper at her core – collaborative storytelling is her art form of choice.

Mike Young has been writing live roleplaying games for over 20 years.  His award-winning larps have been run across the world, and many of them are available for free download at his website.

3 thoughts on “One-Shot Larps v. Campaigns

  1. I played a LARP for 17 years. I would much rather be in a campaign than a 1 shot. No one in the old avatar system will forget Bron Price….for better r worse. t

  2. The comments here describe what happens in campaigns between sessions as ‘work.’ (in a negative sense).

    It can also be an an enjoyable role-playing or gaming experience in it’s own right. Examples:
    – characters can write letters (even if those are represented by emails) to each other between meeting at events, having fun playing out their characters. Some players may also enjoy narrative writing fiction about their characters, perhaps together on a forum.
    – Players might enjoy playing some kind of resource management game or stragy game to control their character’s assets between events.

    It’s not larp as such; it’s a form that crosses different mediums together.

  3. I like both, but prefer campaign settings. I get something entirely different out of each type.

    In campaign settings, I prefer working towards an achievement or goal for my character. However, a one-shot really helps me develop my role play skills, because the situation is more extreme and you only have a short amount of time to make an impact. One-shots also help me become more assertive.