I’ll be the first to admit that running a great RPG one-shot is hard… like… really hard. For my group at least, a one-shot is a single session adventure in which the plot is concluded by the end of a 3-4 hour get together. Just a few weeks ago, I finally ran a one-shot that I was definitively proud of and, in large part, it was due to my many failures with the format. In the last year I’ve written and DM’d several one-shots and while I am certainly not an expert, I’d like to share three of my less successful one-shots, and the key lessons I learned from them. Hopefully through my bungles, other DMs can avoid some of these annoying pitfalls.
Setting Reasonable Expectations: The Tsunami Dungeon Disaster
My first one-shot had so many problems, I’m forced to start with how I punched myself in the face from the get-go. After the disaster that it was, I’m surprised my friends who played it stuck with D&D… actually I’m surprised they’re still my friends at all. In part this was due to the fact that I threw it together during a 3 hour car ride, but the point remains, I did not set reasonable expectations with either my friends or myself, and as such, the experience was a poor one. Planning a successful RPG session, whether a one-shot or not, requires time and communication. I had none of that for the shit show I’m calling The Tsunami Dungeon Disaster.
My buddy and I were traveling to go see some mutual friends and as we are leaving, my friends said: “Hey! We’ve heard so much about y’all playing D&D! Lets play tonight!”. Being the ambassador of the game that I am, I acquiesced and threw my Player’s Handbook, erasable battlemat and box of random minis into my bag on the way out the door. I then spent the next three hours throwing together a convoluted dive into a long-lost coastal castle, revealed by the withdrawn waters of an impending tsunami. Honestly I still don’t hate the concept, but considering I was also texting back and forth with my brand new players in order to make their character sheets, the adventure’s potential was never realized. In the end, when we all sat down at the table I had less than half of the dungeon planned, only two of the character sheets were done, and I had yet to explain the rules of the damn game!
We spent the next hour finishing character sheets, finding paper and pencil and explaining what to do and which dice to roll. An hour and a half later, we called it a night and it was with relief that we left the PCs trapped in the flooded keep, doomed to join the ether of unfinished D&D campaigns. The good news was that my friends are amazing people and somehow managed to overlook my struggles and have some fun anyways. The bad news was that I left feeling frustrated with both myself and the one-shot format. The main thing learned from this trainwreck is to be honest with yourself. Before agreeing to run a one-shot, or any campaign for that matter, make sure you have enough time to prepare for the game and then communicate with your players both how long you expect it to run, and what they need to bring to the table.
Tone and Theme: The Angsty Drow Temple of Yawn
My second one-shot was remarkably better in terms of preparation. I worked for a week putting together this moody adventure in which the players would rescue a group of miners dragged into the underdark by giant spiders. Their romp through a drow temple would see them cross an enchanted bridge, solve a deadly courtyard puzzle, free a tortured prisoner, and defeat a spider demon before she could open a gate to the Abyss. That sounds like the makings for an awesome adventure! Instead, it was just okay.
The problem was two-fold. One, it ran kinda long, but more on that later. More importantly, the theme was just too dark for a one-shot. By the end, players were checked out of the narrative, and were skirting opportunities to roleplay. Why? Because one-shot characters are not made for emotional investment, they are conduits for players to goof off and work together to effectively “win” an adventure by the end. Approaching a one-shot with the same serious tone and weighty consequences as your long-term campaign won’t work because, understandably, the players just aren’t that bought in. Moreover, from a design standpoint you want to put the players in a position to “win” because that is what will send everyone home happy and wanting to play again. Leave the cliffhangers and dark plot twists at home if you want players, especially newer ones, to feel satisfied after a one-shot.
Instead, try a more whimsical tone for your adventure by identifying a favorite television show or movie, and trying to match the vibe. For a dungeon run, consider evoking Indiana Jones themes, with dusty tombs, peculiar allies and humorously timed traps. For a sci-fi game, sample the fast-paced shootouts of Star Wars or the bizarre satire of Futurama. For the record, I am not advocating that your adventure be without conflict. You can and should have a very real threat or obstacle looking to erode any fun and fancy free world you build, but even if the stakes are high, establishing that light tone early on, will go a long way towards keeping your players smiling, and encouraging them to try creative solutions.
Ending on Time: The Interminable Sermon
I gotta be honest, I still struggle with this. Its tough from a DM’s perspective to stay on schedule because you have a certain amount of stuff you want to get through and you can’t control what the players do. Of course, these concerns are compounded when you only have between 3-4 hours to play. I say 3-4 hours because that is the upper limit of my player’s ability to sit still and engaged on a weeknight after work.
The thing is I’m still kicking myself for my lack of time-management during the session I’ve coined The Interminable Sermon. I was so proud of my goofy Murderworld inspired competition of cleric only PCs, that I went way overboard. I planned half a dozen themed rooms of combat, puzzles and riddles all run by a maniacal arch-fey. All these festivities were topped with a final boss battle in which damage and healing were reversed halfway through the fight. The players would have to use their healing spells and the fountains of healing potion in the corners of the room, to take out a high level death cleric. It was exactly the kind of quirky combat scenario I know my players love, but by the time we got to it, it was so late half my players had to leave. We decided to stop and my grand finale was relegated to exposition as the players packed up. I can’t say this enough: When doing a one-shot you MUST honestly guess how long each segment is gonna take… and then add 15 minutes. After that session I changed how I planned my one-shots. I relegated myself to a five part outline of scenes which I swore I would not exceed. Every time I slip in another scene thinking it will add to the narrative, I always regret it. For a 3 hour one-shot, I use the following outline:
I. Plot Hook & Character Introductions : 30 minutes
II. Roleplaying Challenge: 30 minutes
III. Skill Challenge or Puzzle: 30 minutes
IV. Boss Fight: 60 minutes
V. Conclusion: 10 minutes
Bonus Time: 20 minutes
It should be noted that segments II-IV can be rearranged however you’d like for the flow of the story but resist the urge to squeeze more in. For each hour over 3 you are planning to play, add another segment. If you are playing a combat heavy system like D&D, you might consider adding an additional combat encounter early on.
I should also point out that sometimes if I’m DM’ing a particularly fiesty group, I will lay the Plot Hook and Character Introductions by starting the session with a quick fight, (no more than 20 minutes), the aftermath of which will set them on the path to the main adventure. For example, if my one-shot takes place in an abandoned wizard’s tower taken over by a young dragon, I might start the adventure with the PC’s caravan under attack by the beast. At the beginning of each player’s first round I’d have them introduce and describe their character before taking action. When the dragon flies off after a round or two with the caravan leader’s mysterious son, I’ll simply screen wipe to the base of the tower. This helps get the itch to fight out of their system for a bit and you’ll find that getting the blood pumping is a pretty good plot hook in and of itself. As for allotting bonus time… I can’t recommend it enough. You will absolutely use it. Whether its someone new figuring out which dice to use, a rules dispute, or the arrival of pizza, the extra buffer will help ensure you don’t get pushed over time by something silly.