I love running a campaign that spans multiple months or even years. Sometimes that’s not always a realistic option whether due to time restraints, scheduling conflicts, or maybe it’s just too large of a commitment. In situations like these, you’re better off making use of One-Shots, also known as One-Offs or Standalone Sessions.
Today’s article will discuss the following:
- What is a One-Shot in D&D?
- Why are One-Shots Useful?
- Designing Your One-Shot
- Start with the End in Mind
- The Almighty MacGuffin
- A Formula to K.I.S.S.
- Final Recap: Your Turn
What is a One-Shot in D&D?
To put it simply, in D&D 5e and other TTRPGs, a One-Shot is a miniature story designed to be completed during a single session of play. You can also think of a One-Shot as a self-contained ‘episode’. In general I think a One-Shot should take a little over 2 hours to complete (but it’s your table, make it whatever you want).
Why are One-Shots Useful?
Running a One-Shot at your table can serve a variety of purposes, but I’ll lay out a few of the most common reasons below.
One-Shots are useful if…
- players want to try out new characters before committing to them for a whole campaign
- some players can’t make a session, but you don’t want to play the main campaign without them
- the table wants to explore different settings or playstyles
- somebody wants to try DMing for the first time, but starting a campaign seems too overwhelming
- you just want to goof around and see what happens when everybody plays a Goblin Bard
- you forgot that you’re supposed to be DMing tonight and need to come up with something fast
Although One-Shots can be related to a main campaign (and it’s actually pretty awesome when they do), most of the time they are completely unrelated. One-Shots might take place with different characters, in a different universe, with a different set of rules. They’re a great place to try out some creative ideas and just have fun without committing too much time or effort.
Designing Your One-Shot
Now that you’ve got an understanding of when or why you might run a One-Shot at your table, I’m now going to cover the how of One-Shots. Of course, the best way to learn is to just run a One-Shot and see what happens. If you’re an ambitious person, I would also recommend ravenously consuming One-Shot material that other people have made. Take note of the structure and pacing of these adventures.
Here’s a list of community-made D&D adventures by level. If you’re needing inspiration or structural advice go check them out! Many are ‘Pay-What-You-Want’ so if you’re strapped for cash or unsure about quality you can download them for free. Of course if you enjoy an adventure and are financially able to, please support indie creators (we really appreciate it). =)
Start with the End in Mind
A great way to begin designing your One-Shot is to begin with the end in mind and reverse-engineer the experience. Are you trying to create a chaotic gladiator-style battle royale, or do you want to design a haunted manor filled with riddles and traps?
Imagine yourself as somebody who is playing the One-Shot you designed. Focus on how you want the players to feel and don’t worry too much about the specifics just yet. Keep in mind that you only have a single session to start and finish the adventure, so make sure you’re not thinking of anything on too grand of a scale! This idea will later be referred to as the ‘Primary Concept”.
Another thing you’ll want to do when designing a One-shot is consider the intended audience. If you don’t know who will end up playing this One-Shot, that’s okay too! Either way, consider the following questions and take note of how your answers will affect the One-Shot.
- Have they played before?
- How experienced are they?
- Do they have a preferred playstyle?
- How much time will you have?
- What level will the One-Shot be designed for?
Do your best to design the One-Shot around player needs and preferences. If the party loves straight up dungeon crawls, then don’t really worry about story and throw a random dungeon full of encounters at them. If the party is full of new players then maybe your best option is to have the entire One-Shot be a single-room dungeon with only a few enemies. There’s no right or wrong answers here, but just try to give the people what they want. Don’t overthink it.
- Do they prefer combat?
- Increase the number and difficulty of combat encounters
- Do they prefer roleplaying?
- Increase the number of social interactions required to navigate the One-Shot
- Do they prefer exploring?
- Increase the number of skill challenges and environmental obstacles to overcome
Throughout the rest of the article I’ll be roughly creating an example One-Shot so you can kind of see the process in action. Try to follow along and come up with your own primary concept.
Example: Curse of Korro Swamp
The One-Shot I’ll be designing is intended for a small group of relatively new players. They’ve all played before, but are still getting a grasp on the flow of the game. In general these people have a pretty good time regardless of what we’re doing but seem more keen on exploring and less thrilled on roleplaying.
My primary concept boils down to this: the party is exploring a mysterious and dangerous swamp. That’s it. Nothing too crazy.
The Almighty MacGuffin
The next step in designing a simple One-Shot is to decide on a MacGuffin. Your chosen MacGuffin will be the bread and butter of motivating your players into action and getting the story moving. Again, remember that you have a limited amount of time!
Q: What is a MacGuffin?
MacGuffin is a generic term for any object, person, event, or idea that gets the story moving. The specifics don’t really matter; all that matters is that the MacGuffin drives the story forwards and gives players a reason to actually give a fuck.
It can pretty much be anything you want, but try to make it fit with the general feels of your One-Shot.
A few common examples:
- A lost relic
- A powerful weapon
- Treasure horde
- A kidnapped person of importance
- Raided farms
- Evil baron
- Weird magical effect
Hopefully you get the idea. It can really be whatever you want.
Now we’ll be expanding the scope of the One-Shot to include the MacGuffin with the basic formula of: (Primary Concept) + “because” + (MacGuffin)
Example: Curse of Korro Swamp
Primary concept = The party is exploring a mysterious and dangerous swamp
MacGuffin = A fallen star crashed down
The party is exploring a mysterious and dangerous swamp because a fallen star recently crashed down there.
This gives us a better understanding of the One-Shot, but it could really be switched out with any other MacGuffin (see below)
The party is exploring a mysterious and dangerous swamp because…
- a planar gate appeared there.
- an ancient weapon is located there.
- a prince went missing there.
- a gang of pesky Kobolds lives there.
A Formula to K.I.S.S.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m certainly not an expert on writing adventures and I have absolutely no formal training. There are all sorts of ways to structure your story, but today I’m gonna try to keep things nice and simple (stupid). Feel free to change things around of course, but this is the general formula I’ll be using to create a One-Shot:
1 Meaningful Social Interaction +
2 Combat Encounters +
3 Scenes =
A Simple One-Shot
Since this is a One-Shot, I’ll also be operating under the assumption that the party will not be taking a long rest and the events all roughly take place over the course of a single day. I’m also assuming that you are at least somewhat familiar with how to play D&D, so I won’t be going over every single little detail (Ask for a perception check here, Roll the enemy’s initiative here, etc). This will be broad strokes, big picture kind of stuff.
Creating A Meaningful Social Interaction
I’ve said it before and I’m going to say it again: don’t overcomplicate this! The social interaction could be as simple a conversation with the NPC that introduces the MacGuffin. It could be trying to convince the old forest hermit to give the party directions. Or perhaps it’s a dialogue between the characters and the bad guys before the final fight.
Come up with a few pieces of potentially important information that the party can learn from the NPC, under the right circumstances. Don’t make the party go all over town before they start on their quest (ie: first talk to nobleman to get quest, then interrogate blacksmith for more clues, then go question tavern folks about the MacGuffin). Streamline that shit and give all the knowledge to one person, or make it optional for that matter.
Example: Curse of Korro Swamp
In my One-Shot, Old Man Cornelius will introduce the party to the quest and will provide the opportunity for a meaningful social interaction.
He has information about…
- The general area of the fallen star
- What creatures inhabit the Korro Swamp
- Possible implications of this fallen star
- Rewards for obtaining material from the star
If the party inquires, he also has access to a limited amount of supplies/potions that he is willing to provide.
Creating Combat Encounters
I’ve found 2 combat encounters to be the perfect amount for One-Shots, especially if you are playing with newer people and only have about 2.5 hours. This can be adjusted based on player preferences and experience, of course. I’ll tend for the first combat encounter to be slightly easier, and the second “finale” combat encounter to be a bit more difficult.
Kobold Fight Club is pretty much my go-to for designing combat encounters. Pick an environment that makes sense with your One-Shot and generate a few random encounters to see what pops up. If you have more time you can try to customly build the encounters, but if you’re just starting off it’s a lot easier to hit “Random”.
I’d recommend making the fights either “Hard” or “Deadly” unless the group is VERY inexperienced. There’s no point in throwing a bunch of small encounters at the players, ain’t nobody got time for that. Raise the stakes and make the fights actually matter in your One-Shot!
Example: Curse of Korro Swamp
The target audience for my One-Shot has sooooome experience with D&D 5e so I’ll be designing the encounters based on a 4 players, each with a level 4 character.
Since the combat encounters in this One-Shot will take place as the players explore the swamp, I’ll (conveniently) select Swamp as a filter in Kobold Fight Club.
Combat Encounter #1 = 8 Gnolls
Combat Encounter #2 = 1 Giant Constrictor Snake, 1 Giant Crocodile
If you think things are moving too fast or too slow, just fudge the dice rolls a bit. Shhhh, nobody has to know. Some DMs are strongly against doing this and take pride in letting the dice solely determine the outcome of combat. That’s great and all, but I’mma keep wingin’ it since balancing encounters isn’t always easy.
Designing Scenes for your One-Shot
In D&D, I consider a ‘scene’ to be any area or location that has a well-defined description. Scenes are also where things typically take place (social interactions, combat encounters, or puzzles). We’ll be building 3 scenes for the players to navigate through in this One-Shot. Three isn’t some magical number, but we’re keeping things simple today and I really liked the idea of having a “1, 2, 3…” formula.
For a more in-depth look at describing scenes, here’s an article I wrote a while back How to Describe Scenes: The Easiest Way.
Things you may want to include in the description of a scene…
Think of scenes as opportunities for you to present story exposition (whatever small amount you may have in the One-Shot), challenges and obstacles for the party, or opportunities to investigate and explore. It’s not a perfect system and it doesn’t work for everyone, but I’ve found it to be pretty helpful and well received. Since it’s a One-Shot, don’t be afraid to JUST INSERT THE PARTY INTO A SCENE. You don’t need a fluffy intro or a logical reason. Just be like, “this is where you are and this is what’s happening.”
Example: Curse of Korro Swamp
Below I’ll give a brief overview of scenes that I might use in this One-Shot. If you’re not great at improvising, you’ll probably want to flesh out the details a bit more.
Scene 1: The party approaches a buzzing town square; people are shouting over each other. Old Man Cornelius steps up to a podium and things quiet down while he gives an overview of what has happened (fallen star). He notices the party of adventurers and approaches them asking for help after he dismisses the crowd.
[MEANINGFUL SOCIAL INTERACTION TAKES PLACE IN SCENE 1]
Scene 2: The party is making their way through the swamp. Before too long, the only usable pathway leads through a small camp of Gnolls. This presents the party with a few options: sneak around the camp, charge into the camp and attack, approach the camp with diplomacy, and of course any other fun zany shenanigans the players come up with.
[COMBAT ENCOUNTER #1 MIGHT TAKE PLACE HERE. IT COULD BE ANOTHER SOCIAL INTERACTION. GO WITH THE FLOW OF THE PARTY]
Scene 3: The party arrives at the site of the fallen star. The space debris landed in the middle of a significantly deeper section of the swamp. Large chunks of the fallen star form an island, which is surrounded by black murky water. The party can see dark shapes swimming through the water. This presents them with another choice of how to approach the island. Lots of room for creative thinking and strategic use of abilities here.
[COMBAT ENCOUNTER #2 TAKES PLACE HERE]
That’s pretty much my general formula for designing a One-Shot. It’s railroad-y enough to get players straight into the action, but flexible enough to allow for meaningful party choices.
Final Recap: Your Turn
Go through these questions to get started designing a simple One-Shot! Your answers could be a few sentences or a couple of full paragraphs.
- What is the primary concept?
- Who is the One-Shot intended for?
- What MacGuffin is used to prompt action?
- Who will the party socially interact with?
- What combat encounters are possible?
- What scenes will take place during the One-Shot?
Thanks for reading, and I hope you found this helpful! 🙂