Sometimes, you don’t have time for an epic D&D campaign. Sometimes, you just want to get together with some friends and have an adventure.
One-shot adventures exist to fill this niche. They are self-contained stories that can be played in a single session, or strung together to form a makeshift campaign. Writing, and stockpiling, one-shots can be incredibly useful if you have multiple groups of players who are just looking to introduce different groups to the game, or if you come up with a concept that doesn’t require months of play to explore.
But where to begin?
Build in a clock.
This is easy to miss, but critical. A very simple example is this: “The party is infected with a deadly poison. At 10:00 pm real time, everyone without the antidote dies.”
Unfortunately, the clock pretty much has to be this heavy handed. You need some way to get the point across that the players have X time, and in that time have to do Y. This both provides the characters with a goal (okay, we have to do Y) and encourages them to make decisions and advance the plot (okay, we have been discussing this for half an hour. We need to make a decision.)
The reason haste is important is that one-shots are at their best when “to be continued” (IE, we’ll finish this next week) isn’t really viable- maybe you are meeting up with some friends from out-of-town, or trying to introduce new people to the game. Being forced to quit a session in the middle of the game doesn’t bode well in either situation. And this is not to say you can’t have some leeway. Telling players “10:00” and giving them until 10:15 or 10:30 is likely fine, so long as time permits and the players are near their objective when time expires.
One good strategy is to expand this constraint beyond the player, giving the world around them a reason for haste. In one of my favorite examples, the imminent destruction of a city (which the players were besieged in) lead to the king basically declaring them above the law in order to solve their problem. The results were predictably hilarious.
Distill your idea
Every adventure should be able to be drilled down to a handful of words. “A murder mystery”, “Leviathan hunt”, etc. This provides a number of benefits, but the most important one is to focus your attention.
Given limited time and limited player attention, your focus must rest on the core idea of the game. If the players are taking longer than expected, consider skipping or fast-tracking an encounter if it only peripherally applies to the objective. Alternatively, it helps you focus on the parts of the story that you intended to convey.
When you are in a campaign, meandering is good- fun even. But if you want to tell a self-contained story, some editing might be required.
Prepare for scheduling errors
The previous point is all the more important given the volatile nature of roleplaying encounters. In your head, even experienced Game Master’s can be off on their estimation of exactly how long this or that encounter is going to take. And if you had planned for your encounter to take a certain amount of time, being off on either side can be a letdown.
On the one hand, players can (and often do) circumvent or breeze through challenges you expect to take time. As such, encounters can flow faster than you expect, and additional roadblocks need to be added on the fly to keep the players on schedule. On the other hand, tasks you assumed would be simple can drag on for hours as players lose track of the narrative.
Time management, while useful when running a campaign, is therefore absolutely essential when playing under time pressure. And speaking of…
Don’t stress the wider narrative
Building one-shot encounters such that they can tie together into a campaign is not a terrible idea, re-introducing recurring characters, themes, locations or ideas. But focus on telling your story first, then add the trappings later.
Drawing players into your world or setting is an important way to get players interested in you as a Game Master, but first you have to get players interested in your game. And the key to that is running a fun and interesting plot without hours of backstory.
And those trappings can convey narrative: If you need a villain, re-introduce a splinter group of your evil secret society. Need comic relief? That Goblin merchant you keep tormenting is back. But always keep it accessible on the off chance you want to run this through new players.
One-shots are useful not just as one-off activities, but as a library of encounters in case you find a new group that wants to try the game, or you want to introduce your style to an established group of players. Furthermore, running different groups through the same adventure can create situations in which you get to see two different groups solve a problem in new and exciting ways.
Hopefully some of these tips helped you build your own adventures. Happy gaming!
Author: Robert Trueblood