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The Wonder of the One-Shot

Recently, I’ve been running sporadic one-shot adventures for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition. I’m also booked in to run a 13th Age one-shot at Conpulsion in Edinburgh in early April. But what is a one-shot and why run one?

A one-shot adventure is exactly as it sounds. A time-boxed, single session adventure where the characters are (usually) never used again. There are a number of reasons why you might run a one-shot:

  • To introduce new players to tabletop role-playing games.
  • To try out a new system or new homebrew rules.
  • Perhaps you just want a break from your regular campaign.

In my case, I want to GM for as many different people as possible and make myself a better GM. I’m not running a new system in most of them, continuing my preference for 5e although I plan to challenge myself with Pathfinder (and 13th Age at Conpulsion as previously noted) in due course.

The biggest challenge with one-shot adventures is how to make it work in a single-session. Unlike a longer running campaign, where there is more time for you to allow the players to shape the plot hook, in a one-shot you need them engaged quickly. Not only that, but it must be clear to them what they need to do next.

Get them into the story quickly

You need an explosive plot device. In a recent one-shot I ran, a flaming caravan crashed into the town walls in the dead of night causing panic to break out. A quick investigation finds survivors who tell of an ambush by raiders and exactly where the ambush happened. Game on. The party headed off immediately.

That plot hook could of course have easily been the ambush itself, with the party being the victims rather than those following the information provided by the victims. Either hook quickly leads to the bandit’s lair.

Build encounters for the time available

All of my one-shots are limited to 3 hours. Mostly this is because 3 hour sessions work best with my schedule, but it’s also because, playing remotely over Roll20, I don’t want my players minds to wander. With that in mind, I need to make sure my adventure fits into this time frame. Usually I am for the following components:

  • Introduction/setting the scene/Meeting NPCs
  • First battle
  • Puzzle element
  • Investigation
  • Boss battle

That’s not a hard and fast rule but from experience that fits into around 3 hours. If you find you are starting to overrun then don’t be afraid to truncate combats which are a foregone conclusion in favour of the players. Have monsters run away or surrender. Choose moving the plot along over moving the dice.

Cut the lore

Don’t spend too much time pushing the lore of your homebrew world on the players. Remember, these characters may never be played again. A campaign is like a full movie where the lore and background of both the world can be explored and savoured. A one-shot on the other hand is a jump straight to the action sequence and explosions with (hopefully) a subsequent jump straight to the happy ending.

Don’t sweat the rules

Remember, you are on a timer. If there’s a dispute about a ruling then you can quickly lose a lot of your session arguing the rule or looking it up. Set the expectation at the start of the session that the GM’s word in final on any ruling. Again, prioritise moving the story along over rules minutiae.

Write one-shots for different levels

Different levels bring different opponents and variety is the spice of life. It’s good to vary the types of challenges your players face, particularly if you run one-shots for the same group of players. Even better, if you write a number of one-shots over a range of levels, you can always string them together at some point in the future to form the bones of a campaign. Of course this requires either setting your one-shots in the same world or at least making them settings agnostic.

Those are just some of my recommendations for running one-shot games. If you have any other suggestions, or questions about the points raised in this article then leave a comment below.


Return of the DM View All

I am a 40 something DM/GM located in Scotland. In 2016, I rediscovered the joys of tabletop role-playing games. This blog documents my journey back into the fold.

3 thoughts on “The Wonder of the One-Shot Leave a comment

  1. I know this is a more-than-month-old post, but I just found your blog, and this one caught my eye. I think you have some great points here. Have you ever thought about making a campaign out of one-shots (if that makes sense…)?
    I played once with a group that was not the most reliable for scheduling, so I wrote them as a band of adventurers and each session was “the most interesting thing that happened in the last [year/month/whatever].” So the adventures were unrelated, but the players still had a chance to develop their characters over time and learn the lore and such. But that way, if a player suddenly couldn’t make it, we didn’t have to explain why the character vanished in the middle of a lengthy campaign. It also meant I could have them switch characters or level between sessions (from experience they got “during the rest of the year”) if they wanted to try something new.


    • I’m late in replying to this. Yes, I have considered it. In fact, Tales from the Yawning Portal is kind of based on that concept, although I’m not sure how joined up the leveling is to allow players to go from one module to the next. Sounds like a great idea though.


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