Recently, we’ve had to set aside our campaign of Road Trip while we had absences, so many of our recent games have been one shots. Having played in more one shots, it helped to highlight the differences between the two. Both lengths of games provide aspects of gaming the other cannot, so it is important to do both.
One shots allow for an easier learning and for more experimentation. One shots are essential to learning a new system. They allow players to focus on understanding the overarching view of the game and tackle their questions bit by bit through encounters. After everyone is more comfortable with the system, one shots can provide players and GM with more ways to test and push the system. With characters in campaigns, players grow attached to them and don’t necessarily want them to die or change radically. In a one shot, players have a greater freedom to do things they wouldn’t necessarily do, and GMs can try new tactics and set pieces they wouldn’t pull in a campaign that they want to continue.
Campaign play provides more opportunities for characterization and customization. A character that only appears in one game will never have the foundation that a character that appears in two, five, 10, or more sessions will. In campaigns the players can get to know their characters and see who they are, and providing satisfying arcs between their play and the GM’s storytelling. Similarly, the character’s stats and abilities in a one shot may be tailored for that game, whereas in campaign play they can grow and gain greater rewards with play.
Somewhere in the middle are games with high lethality rates or games where characters can be set aside after a few sessions. In Delta Green and Call of Cthulhu, campaign play is easy, but PCs can and will die, so one player might play as multiple PCs throughout the campaign. Monster Hearts can end with a character levelling up so many times they break the system and need to be retired to balance game play. And in Red Markets getting your characters to a firm ending is the point, so if one character earns enough bounty to leave their player can start over with a new character.
There’s also games that cannot be played in multiple sessions of the same story. A Quiet Year, a game that involves making maps and telling about a group of people inhabiting the land, ends after the game is over, so campaign play isn’t possible. Games like Dread and Slasher Flick per their rules could be campaigns, but their play systems are so unique running more than one session is fairly hard.
Games of various lengths all provide something different to role playing. Experiencing that broad range can help players and GMs learn what works best for them and how to incorporate interesting bits from one type into another. Knowledge leads to better games and better games lead to having more fun in the hobby.