One-shot RPGs for Gaming Groups in Flux

Recently, my regular D&D group has been meeting very irregularly. A combination of factors conspired to create this situation–among them the release of the D&D Next playtest (very well-received with our group) and some changing work schedules for some of us. Two of our players now arrive much later than we’d like to optimally start, which has led some of us to question if a system besides Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition might be better suited to our current situation, a system which would allow players to kind of “drop in” during the game.

While we may or may not actually change systems, my group’s discussion of doing so made me think about what some great RPG systems for our situation would be. When a consistent narrative is not possible because of the current situation with your normal players, your group usually decides to do one of two things: run some “one-shot” adventures for a few weeks until normalcy can be resumed, or run a system where players dropping in at random points is not harmful to the game’s proceedings.

In my opinion, D&D 4E in particular suffers when players jump in and out, as the challenge presented by the enemies is dependant on a particular number of players. What happens is that if your DM builds an encounter for five people but you only have three, the DM has to either make changes on the fly to the encounter or else risk presenting the group with a possibly-fatal challenge. While this may not bother some DMs too badly, when you combine it with the lack of a coherent narrative, it often ends up being a dealbreaker.

It is for me, at least.

That said, if your normal tabletop RPG group can’t make it, but you still want to roll some dice, here are your options as I see them.

Gamma World (7th Edition)

Gamma World is a great fit for a one-shot adventure or even a drop-in game.

With those unfamiliar with the concept, Gamma World 7E uses Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition rules for the framework of the game system. This makes it a great fit for a D&D group that’s just having an off-week: no rules explanation is required.

The setting is a post-apocalyptic Earth where pretty much everything that can exist, does. Your character’s powers are randomly chosen for you, and you are then burdened with the task of somehow explaining your character. You also get starter equipment of your choosing. For example, my last character in Gamma World was a Wheeled Reanimated, which I decided was the spiritual embodiment of the song “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne trying desperately to find his nemesis Tipper Gore.

In addition, the system is far more lethal than D&D 4E (there is almost no healing), making it both entertaining and not a big deal should your character meet an untimely demise at the hands of a Vorpal Chainsaw-wielding mutant chicken. I’m sure your next character (Pyrokinetic…Plant?!?!) will fare better… or it will be fried by laser-wielding robots.

For your DM, there are several published adventures available. In the event that you go through all those, the setting itself is flexible enough to accommodate basically any post-apocalyptic storyline you could come up with. Mad Max, Fallout and Borderlands await!

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying

In case you’ve missed it, I’m a big fan of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. And recently, a new Civil War event that was recently released, which is perfectly suited to to groups with a drop-in playstyle.

The Civil War event itself spans three acts during which the impact of the Superhuman Registration Act (or SHRA for short) is felt by heroes and villains alike. There’s lots of content here, and your group is unlikely to blow through it very quickly. Heroes are encouraged to pick sides and defend either the Pro- or Anti-Registration standpoint. Hero vs. Hero combat could even result! Also, a fortuitous arrival of a hero could easily happen in any comic book, so it’s easy for a newly-arrived player to jump right into the action.

Another great thing about Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is that the Doom Pool and Plot Point mechanics are largely self-regulating, meaning that the loss of a player or two will not mean a radical rebalancing of an action scene’s difficulty.

Such a feature allows for your Watcher (DM) to have a fairly solid game plan in advance, even if you’re not sure exactly how many of your players will be attending.

Finally, the superhero genre is generally quite popular of late, what with the recent release of The Amazing Spider-Man and the upcoming release of The Dark Knight Rises. It is generally accessible, and even someone who is not very familiar with it could play a more popular hero who is well-known to compensate for this.

Trail of Cthulhu (or any Survival Horror adventure, for that matter)

A survival horror game is a great idea for a one-shot adventure, and Trail of Cthulhu is an interesting and easy to learn system to select for such a game. Since characters are not generally expected to survive a survival horror adventure, the fun is in unraveling the mystery and watching the generally terrifying proceedings happen.

Trail of Cthulhu does a good job of forcing players to get into character. At creation, characters are assigned a Drive that represents their basic philosophy. Acting contrary to this Drive can cause a character to become unstable, whereas acting in favor of it can help a character cope with seriously disturbing circumstances.

Everything in Trail of Cthulhu is done using a D6, and the rules are mostly based around making small gambles on your ability to reach a target number. This simplicity means that you can skip the rules explanation and cut right to the fun–a huge asset for a group in flux or for a one-off adventure.

Finally, there is a wealth of player-created content for this system, most of which is very high quality. You aren’t in danger of running out of content here–at least not before the system drives you crazy (har har). (Beej’s Note: tee hee!)


Next time your group can’t meet as normal, consider one of these alternatives to your regular system! A change of pace or a break can be a really good thing for a roleplaying group, so give one of these a shot and see how you fare!

Does your roleplaying group have a “fallback” game that you play on off-nights? Let me know in the comments!

By Burek

Burek (AKA Josh Bury) is a Tabletop RPG, Video Game and Board Game enthusiast. His non-gaming related interests include journalism, photography, graphic and video design, and computer technology. You can find him on Twitter as @ThrownGauntlet.


  1. We have this fog that engulfs early leaving players 🙂 Late arriving players get a strange teleport or we find them along the way. We also have a Rippers campaign (that we haven’t done in a while) that uses less of our D&D group. Although we haven’t really played it, we are big fans of the XDM system. It allows for a lot more freedom and the character creation is literally 3 number values.

  2. While you’re obviously not into Pathfinder, Rite Publishing offers a free one-shot adventure from their Kaidan: a Japanese Ghost Story setting (PFRPG), called Frozen Wind (dl from DTRPG).

    Frozen Wind is a dark survivor horror adventure that runs about 3.5 hours, originally created as a Origins demo game.

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