This post has been delayed a few weeks due to my hectic schedule over the past few weeks, but what I’ve been doing has helped me refine this post. For those not following my personal Twitter, I’ve been participating in RPG Lab’s Women in Tabletop Gaming Month event. I’ve participated in three panels and DMed two one-shot sessions. And that is what I want to talk about today: How to Prepare a One-Shot. This is something I, and many other DMs, routinely run around holiday times, but, the One-Shot has numerous other benefits: a new DM can try out the role without the hassle of planning an entire campaign, a group can play when one or two players cancel at the very last minute, or players can try out new classes. There are other interesting functions, and I may discuss them at the end. However, let’s talk about what goes into preparing a one-shot.
Structure: A one-shot has the same structure as any adventure – a Call to Adventure, an Adventuring Area, and a Resolution. Two things set the one-shot apart from an adventure that’s designed to be part of a larger campaign – the clarity of the Call and the finality of the Resolution.
Call to Adventure: A longer campaign, like a heroic epic, may have a clear Call to Adventure, but it may also have a more subtle call that one truly recognizes after piecing together a series of “strange coincidences” that keep occurring. A classic example is, while exploring caves and bandit hideouts around a town, the party repeatedly finds clothing, weapons, and other items bearing a strange symbol, and, only after 3-4 adventures, do they learn/realize that the symbol belongs to an ancient cult bent on opening a portal to the Abyss and allowing [Insult Demon Lord Here] to enter the world and wreak havoc.
A one-shot, by contrast, cannot have such subtlety. The party must know what they are being called to do. For the DM, this means writing out a clear, discernable objective along the lines of “[Quest Giver] directs you to go to [Location] and [Acquire/Kill/Explore] the [Target Individual/Group/Location/Object] there in order to acquire [Reward].” While you may provide this in greater detail when giving exposition to the party, as you write your notes for the session, you should be able to reduce the entire Call to a sentence that follows that structure. Being able to do that will help streamline your preparation of the Adventure itself by suggesting the main elements that must be clearly articulated: The Quest Giver, the Location, the Main Action, the Target, and the Reward.
Quest Giver: This can be either an individual (Captain of the City Guards, Archmage of the nation, Monarch, head of a particular guild, etc.) or an organization (The Masked Lords of Waterdeep, the Kirin Tor, the High Council of Orcish Clans, etc.) Regardless of whoever fills this role, needs to be someone that the players will have a reason to trust/respect – if not like/admire/adore. Can that trust/respect/admiration be misplaced? Of course. That’s a great way to have a surprising resolution. However, from the onset, there needs to be reason enough to trust the Quest Giver so that the party ventures forth.
The Location: Next, you need a generalized location for the adventure. Will it take place in a small town or a large city? Will it be somewhere within a forest, a desert, a mountain range? At this point, the DM should sketch out a general idea of the main adventuring zone’s geography for possible environmental encounters, random encounters on the way, and/or flavor.
Main Action and Target: What exactly do you want the party to do? Here, the DM needs to decide if a special item needs to be planned/created, if lore needs to be written for the Adventuring Zone, or if a specific combat/role-play encounter with another NPC needs to be planned.
Acquire: This can include quests for stealing a particular item, looting a tomb/ruined temple/ancient structure/ect., or simply functioning as a courier between two parties. Depending on the nature of the object, this may also require setting up traps, combat encounters with guards/rival adventurers/monsters bound to guard the item/etc., or other complications that would prevent the party from easily acquiring the target item.
Explore: This option requires the DM to plan a layout for an area (an unearthed ruin, a sunken ship, a crashed meteor site, etc.) as well as some lore that the party may uncover. Again, there may be traps or “ancient guardians” bound to protect the area. The general purpose of this action is one of role-play and lore gathering, but encounters should be planned to engage different types of players.
Kill: Simply put, someone or some group must die. This can range from killing the dragon blocking access to a sacred river or slaying a large clan of Goblins that has taken up residence near a sacred grove. The target may deserve to die or not, but that is for the party to uncover and decide as the adventure proceeds. This requires at least one combat encounter be prepared that would fit the genre of “boss fight”. Make it interesting. Make it challenging.
Reward: When the Quest Giver presents the Call to Adventure, he or she is likely to offer a reward. The reward should be large enough to tempt the party into risking life and limb to perform the Main Action. Can there be other rewards? Of course. Let those emerge naturally as things progress.
Resolution: Like the Call to Adventure, the Resolution needs to be clear and complete. I know it’s tempting to have that awesome NPC villain you’ve created escape at the last minute but resist the urge in this case. Allow the players to slay your villain (but give the character an awesome death speech!) so that they can have that satisfaction that comes from completing the task and overcoming the foe. Allow them to find the object/artifact – and don’t steal it from under their noses at the last minute. Are they exploring an ancient, long-buried building? Then make the lore interesting and meaningful for the world they inhabit.
Complications: A good one-shot needs to have a clear structure, but that doesn’t mean a DM can’t introduce twists and turns within that structure. Remember that trusty Quest Giver? He or She could be a power-hungry member of a secret society that wants the Item the players are sent to Acquire for nefarious purposes, and so the final encounter becomes the party having to decide whether or not to hand over the item and the complications that may entail. Those “evil monsters/cultists” might be innocents. Someone or something that seems like a dangerous enemy can turn out to be an ally – if treated properly by the party.
The goal should be completable in a single session – so think “manageable” instead of “simple”.
Concluding Thoughts (Why Run a One-Shot): One-shots are great from time to time. While we all love to be part of the epic storytelling that a longer campaign allows, sometimes a break can be beneficial. If the party just went through a major battle or an emotional moment in the campaign, a one-shot can help destress if kept light. Is there a holiday in our world that isn’t happening at the time in the campaign world? Throw a one-shot to celebrate (I do this around Halloween and Krampusnacht). Does a player want to try out being the DM but isn’t sure they can manage an entire campaign? Give them a session to see if they like filling the chair. Also, is there someone who thinks they might be interested in playing tabletop RPGs but isn’t sure? A one-shot is a great way to introduce them to the hobby without demanding a long commitment or investment.
In short, a one-shot can be a great opportunity to do something different. The important things to note as a DM are: keep it manageable for a single session (hence the name) and keep the main aspects clear. It doesn’t have to be simple, but it should be completable.
OH! If you want to see the first of the one-shots I DMed for RPG Labs, here’s the link: Sleep