I managed to trick some friends into letting me inflict a One-Shot D&D game on them, so this is perhaps the time to indulge my narcissistic desire to talk about myself and pretend that I meant to do a blog post about this all along.
Most groups are familiar with the One-Shot. It’s what you do when the regular GM has gone on holiday or you’ve managed to drive them mad. It’s normally the home of the weird, the wonderful and the what-the-fuck, and these adventures tend to go down as hilarious memories or dark repressed secrets.
They can be a bit of a struggle to write – a fact that I’m now acutely reminded of. In a long running campaign, you have plenty of time to lay ground work, plan for outcomes, tickle balls and then drop your shitfuck monster on the party to make them cry. To get players invested in a brief plot line in a single game session you need to be efficient with the time you have, both during planning and at the gaming table.
Naturally, I am highly skilled at such things.
This is my honest face.
Shut up, Clay.
Anyway, the way I see it, the necessary components of a One-Shot fall into several general categories.
Why are we here? Funny story, kids, but your mother and I actually met a long, long time ago when our two best friends got simultaneously captured by Kobolds and we both swore vengeance. Good times.
The Hook is, as suggested above, the reason we’re here. The party doesn’t just show up at the dragons cave and decide to work together.
In a regular campaign I’d be more inclined to let the party get to know each other first and so not hit them with the ‘proper’ Hook until everyone is pretty settled in their skin. This lets all the players take time to get a feel for their characters, or explore the setting while the stakes are still low. This helps the players become invested in the world around them, making that big lizard rampage that much more impactful when it does come.
But in a One-Shot, you aint got none of that.
This means that the Hook is kinda important.
What you have to do is decide on the stakes right from the start.
I’m toying with two particular ideas at the moment. I don’t want any of the potential players to get ahead of the game and read up on what they’re gonna be doing so I’ll be a bit vague here.
Idea 1; people will die unless the party stops some nasty bandits from taking their stuff.
I like this idea as we’re all empathetic beings and saving others is a very realistic motivator for wanting to face danger.
Idea 2; you want to eat all the pies.
Ok, this is a stupid and weird one, but it’s a One-Shot, right? The context is rather specific here and is geared to a much more wacky game than the first. I like it because it has magical pies.
Now, whichever of these that I use I have to work out the following:
- The final challenge; what will close the adventure? Do they kill the boss and ride off into the sunset? Do they outsmart the computer and defuse the bomb? Do they get to the prom?
- Identify the motivations of various stakeholders; why peasants no want house smashed? Why dirt eating bad? Who turn out lights?
- Create the antagonist; this is different to the final challenge – Martha Stewart makes great cakes, but only by completing a recipe of hers can I complete my baking qualification, not by ripping off her head.
- Finalize the plot hook; make sure it works, basically. I’ll have a little chat to my players during character creation and discuss what we both want.
What that all means is, ‘Chris needs to make the reason people do things and what happens when they do them happen.’
Set the Scene
Now that you have the adventure’s plot line defined and hook in place, you need to establish what the setting is.
Nude acid beaches?
I like to keep this as brief as possible as it means more talking from me and less imagination from them. Pick a few key features and run with that.
Introduce Your Cast
To help PCs care about the stakes, you want to keep the cast of potential new contacts small and distinctive. Create a short list of characters before starting play, including the following information:
- Character name
- Relationship to party, or how/why they will meet the party
- Connection to the plot
- One or two distinctive characteristics that make them a noteworthy NPC
Once the party have taken the hook, you want to start using techniques that will increase the emotional impact of your adventure.
Think of 24 and how that used such a limited amount of time to keep things tense and intimate. Using the fact that this one shot has a lot to do in a short space of time could really help motivate the party if I use the time constraints right – fast acting poisons on key members of the group, time related curses, exam hand in deadlines, etc.
Provide Multiple Paths to Victory
There can only be one!
But not really. Having only one way to win is like saying ‘all your creativity and agency in this world can only be limited to the narrow outcomes that I, master of the universe have determined to be acceptable. Pleb.’
Since you are trying to keep the adventure short, it can be easy to fall into the trap of railroading your players. To avoid it, plan out at least two options that the party can take that will lead to success. In addition to making it clear to the players that they have choices for addressing the conflict, it will make it easier for you to consider and say yes to alternatives that they think up at the table.
Give the Ending Room to Grow
With a one-shot adventure, you always want the players to walk away feeling satisfied that the story is concluded. Incomplete tasks will make your players feel cheated out of a good ending. However, it can be good to leave room in the ending to start up new chapter in the story if they want. You never know when your players will enjoy your adventure enough to ask you for more. Having an ending that opens up new plot potentials will make the process of expanding from a one-shot adventure to a full campaign easier in the long run.
What do you want?
What are you after out of this adventure? If I read a book, I want certain things from it – entertainment for one, a good plot, solid characters, etc. Think of your story like a meal and ask yourself what kind of satisfaction you want to get out of it?
Are you after a greasy fat burger of a story, full of easy and simple things that you can play without too much thought?
A rich and bloody steak, filling for your emotional and intellectual needs, but challenging enough to make you think?
You tell me.
But what do I want?
I want what I always want; to hurt people. In each and every story I’ve ever written there has been core intent on hurting people on a deep and personal level. I want my players to sit back at the end of the game and breathe a sigh, glad that they took part, but aware that they won’t be the same afterwards.
But that’s just me and, hey, I’m just not normal. You probably just want folks to have fun.