Planning and running one-session adventures are hard, especially when your players can only play for three to four hours on a work night. I may not be an expert, but over the last year I’ve picked up a few tricks that you might find useful. Two weeks ago I talked about mistakes I’ve made when running Dungeons and Dragons One-Shots for my friends. Today I’d like to give you some advice spawned not from my mistakes, but from my successes!
Back Cover It!
Its very tempting to hold onto every kernel of information about your adventure until you hit the table. After all, this adventure is your baby and you want everyone to be surprised with the amazing premise you’ve set up! The problem? Your players may not be physically or mentally prepared for the tone you want to set or the setting you want to explore. If you allowed them to make their own character for the one-shot, you risk having a grimdark warlock with a cursed sword and daddy issues in your light-hearted Feywild romp! On the flip side, your goofier player may decide to bring a kenku bard who’s instrument of choice is a cowbell when secretly you had planned a dramatic town defense a la The Seven Samurai. Instead, just back cover it!
I find that a quick rundown of the plot hook and adventure requirements helps players to bring appropriate characters to the table, and gets them excited for the mission at hand. It also gives them an idea of what kind of abilities may be useful, so they don’t bring a nature-based character into an inner-city adventure. A week before my last one shot I sent my players the following:
“Yall are a crew of freelance thieves and con artists (think ocean’s 11) in the city of Waterdeep and have been hired for a job by an organization too dangerous and wealthy to refuse. You must each bring a level 5 character to the game who has at least one level in rogue. No other restrictions besides that and you can use either point buy or standard array for stats. Have any questions? Feel free to ask. Can’t wait to play on Friday!”
By citing Ocean’s 11, I hoped to establish their party as a gang of sexy, smooth-talking criminals. They also should have figured out that they would be taking part in some level of roleplaying or exploration since they would be taking on a job from a mysterious organization. More importantly, I established that their characters all know each other and have worked together before, in order to cut down on 15 minutes of introductions and awkward inter-character distrust. To really enforce the idea, I made a requirement that each character have at least one level in Rogue. This is a great tool which I can’t recommend enough. I’ve seen a lot of DMs say that they prefer making stock characters for the players to choose from, but honestly, that’s A LOT of extra work on your part and you rob your players of creative input in the process. However, putting constraints on character creation for the sake of theme offers the best of both worlds. The flavor of your precious story will be preserved, while the players still experience the fun of rolling up their own hero.
Contain the Environment without Railroading
As I’ve covered in the previous post, one of the most important things for a one-shot to be successful, is to stay on schedule. Running late saps the energy and enthusiasm of players and DMs alike. It would be better to end early and leave the players wanting more, than to run late and have players looking at their watches. For me, one of the most difficult aspects of planning a one-shot, is building an environment in which the players will stay on mission without feeling railroaded. Lets be honest, offering an open-world to a bunch of excited players can waste a lot of time, as they are likely to goof around pulling pranks on each other and every NPC they can find. On the flipside, throwing them in a purely linear dungeon eliminates player agency. The key is to create a contained environment that stops players from getting too distracted while still featuring multiple points of divergence. When I say “points of divergence”, I mean creating situations either narrative, mechanical, or structural (layout of environment) which allow players to make choices with differing outcomes.
In my recent one-shot, the party was tasked with stealing a mysterious package from a luxury airship. The quest-giver had informed them that the captain of the airship has the only access to the magically sealed hold until the end of the cruise and recommended checking his quarters for clues. It would seem that I’d just given them the answer to their problems for free and I’ll admit, if this was a quest in a weekly campaign, I would have made them gather that intelligence for themselves. But since we only have so much time to kill the automaton guards and clockwork golem, I told them WHERE to look. Of note, I did not tell them HOW to get there. The party ended up picking the pockets of some snooty vacationers to obtain boarding passes to the airship, before seducing the guard posted in front of the captain’s quarters, while the disguised warlock offered to take the guard’s place.
Let it be known, they had the entire run of the cruise ship including the pool, bar, casino, and restaurant. I didn’t plan events, loot or NPCs for each area, but rather, I was willing to allow the environment to inspire the player’s choices. If they got too far off mission, I was prepared with a disgruntled employee ready to offer his help for a price, as well as a tip from the inside man who had leaked the information to their client. These NPCs would help recenter the party on the job at hand and give them an out if they got stuck on something. Even if you just want a simple dungeon, think of ways to allow player choice and encourage improvisation. Make branching pathways and consider planning quick-time scenarios like outrunning a collapsing tunnel with an intersection rapidly approaching, or have representatives of two enemy factions fighting each other to the death… unless the party chooses a side.
Say “Yes” Whenever Possible
You’ve probably heard of the improv mantra “Yes, and…”. Well RPGs are often expected to work the same… the only problem is, RPGs are games, and games have rules. It can be tough to always say yes to players, especially the more experienced ones, as D&D and other RPGs are carefully balanced, especially where action economy is concerned. I am of the personal opinion that when it comes to more serious campaigns with higher stakes, its important to ensure that players earn their victories. When a player asks if they can do something unreasonable or nearly impossible I will usually say “You can certainly try” with a raised eyebrow and a tone that says “that will be your turn”. They will usually decide that skipping a round of combat to try to uproot a tree, may not be worth it.
I do this not to squash fun, but to preserve the integrity of the campaign, both in tone and basic physics, as I want the defeat of the monster or rescue of the captives to feel earned… but when it comes to one-shots, throw those concerns out the window! The barbarian wants to uproot a tree and throw it at a bunch of bandits? “Make a strength check!” Do your best to get out of the mindset that your system or setting has strict rules and start treating the PCs less as gritty adventurers and more as Looney Tunes characters. If the rogue wants to pull down a bandit’s pants as she somersaults by, don’t look up the Interact with an Object rule, just let it happen for the sake of hilarity! After all a one-shot is there for the players to have fun and relax. Unless your group specifically wants the game to be fully realistic, try to be open to any idea no matter how silly, because that is probably the moment they’ll tell their friends about.