Running a one-shot in D&D is different than running a normal campaign. When you run a one-shot there are a lot of different things to consider that vary a lot from normal campaigns.
A one-shot in D&D is run almost like a normal session but you must pack an entire plot into that one session. Compress a campaign into a single session.
While it may sound easy to compress a campaign into a single session it is much harder than many people think. If you could compress a campaign into a single session most of the time the campaign is pitiful. That is why you will learn some tricks and tips here to help compress that campaign into a fun manageable session.
When running a one-shot in D&D there are some key differences between it and a normal session. The differences are as follows:
1. Your players can die at the drop of a hat.
2. You can try new things and not worry too much about the consequences.
3. You can pre-make characters for your group or take a little bit longer session 0.
4. You need to make the plot crystal clear within 5 minutes and have a great villain.
5. You should railroad players.
6. You always need to be on top of time and funnel your group along.
7. Combat should differ a lot.
8. Player infighting and killing is fine. Hidden motives are fine.
9. TPKs (total party kills) are okay.
10. Your ending must have an amazing climax.
We will go in-depth into these differences starting in order.
Your players can die at the drop of a hat.
Normally when people play Dungeons and Dragons they do not want their character to die. Players put a lot of time and effort into these characters and to see them die is painful since it signifies and an early end.
This makes the player feel like they are missing out on potential future character interactions, but not in a one-shot. In a one-shot, that character is going away possibly forever after this one game no matter what you do. That is why it doesn’t matter what happens to this character.
If a character would die from a trap you do not need to fudge the damage or feel sorry for the misfortune that befell them. Instead, you can give them a new character right away and keep them playing.
If you decide to give the player who died an evil character you can try out many new ideas on how player pvp (player vs player) can work and possibly learn something from the player playing a villain. When you let a player play a villain that player might start to like it. If this happens you might create another dungeon master for your group.
One-shots are meant to make players try new things and experience new ideas. If you are having a hard time envisioning how a player could play a villain I suggest you watch this video. It is a one-shot in D&D that has an interesting idea.
You can try new things and not worry too much about the consequences.
Sometimes it is hard for a dungeon master to try new things in their game. Players can get confused and you might need to prepare a bunch of new material in order to do something new.
On top of all this, you do not even know if what you are trying to pull is something that will work!
Have you ever wanted to pull a heist and see how it goes? Afraid that it will go terribly? That is okay. When players try something new they will be excited about the first session and not pick it apart. If the concept is truly flawed they will be annoyed to go through failure again.
If you do fail, you only fail in one session instead of an entire campaign and you can have fun making the session ridiculous. You make things ridiculous and comical you can salvage a bad session and make the players glad to have tried the one-shot even it didn’t work out.
We do not want to try new things all the time and cannot due to the constraints of our game. If you have a serious game involved around political struggles and intense combat you might not get the chance to play in a Harry Potter magical school setting.
What if you want to play a level 20 character? Not many people have run a campaign up to level 20 and then continued playing. This is an awesome way to introduce new classes and the idea of max level.
As you can see one-shots are where you can try many new ideas that may be weird or unfamiliar. These new experiences open the door for many new opportunities in your main game and you might not fail. You may enjoy that you tried something new and weave it into your game’s narrative.
Don’t get sad about not running a perfect game and realize that the consequences only last for that game. Have fun and try something new so that you can improve and make future games more interesting.
Lastly, if you want to have fun with a wacky idea one-shots are where you can try these concepts out.
You can pre-make characters for your group or take a little bit longer session 0.
In most games, we dislike the idea of making characters for our group. If the dungeon master makes a character and hands it to a player that player will not be invested. When players make characters on their own they become invested and that alone improves the game. Not so with one-shots.
Unlike in a campaign you are not trying to grow a character. People can have a clear goal and act on that goal. Players do not need to be emotionally connected to the character and desire that they grow in one-shots.
In a one-shot in D&D, that character will either die or vanish once the session ends. This alone makes players not want to develop and grow a character. Players are not at fault here and should just have fun. Since the character won’t be developed handing your players pre-build characters is an option.
When should you hand your players’ pre-built characters? If you ever have a lull and want to fill it with a one-shot in D&D have characters ready. Players can just be thrown into a situation, given a little information, and have fun.
Making characters for your players fine because players will not have time to grow these characters. Characters are a minor part of one-shots and can be given secret objectives but not much else.
Many players develop their characters over many sessions. If your players still want to make characters that is a fine alternative too, but not necessary.
Longer session 0
If you are letting players make their characters instead of handing pre-built ones your session 0 will possibly take longer than normal.
Many one-shots are used to convey interesting and unique ideas that will probably never be re-visited. Because of this many one-shots start at a higher level than 1.
If your players ever start at a higher level than 1 or even as high as level 20 make sure they roll in front of you!
When players make characters for one-shots they don’t know what they are doing. Has this player played a level 20 wizard? Most likely they have not and will want to try something new.
When we try new things we will not be perfect. Most of us will get a few things wrong and not even know it. Because of this, you should always have a longer session 0 than what is normal just to make sure that the long and complicated character creation is done right.
Speaking of character creation, each character should have a concrete goal. In a campaign, a player can make a character and be thrown into the world with no knowledge of what to do.
Not having an initial purpose is fine in a campaign but in a one-shot in D&D, it is not. Each player needs to know what the goal is and work towards it or your one shot will not finish.
Give the players more information than they normally would get so that they can make the game run smoothly.
You need to make the plot crystal clear within 5 minutes and have a great villain.
Remember how I stated in the last difference that you need to have a clear goal in session 0? That is important if players make their own characters.
When players make their own characters each person is making an identity. In session 0 you need to give that character a purpose that fits with the one-shot in D&D.
If you give your players pre-made characters they need to have a clear goal or purpose almost instantly.
Tell your players what this game is about.
“You are robbing a bank.” “You are trying to get the best grade in the class.” An evil warlord has conquered a nation. You have gone through all the trash and are fighting him now.”
Within 5 minutes of the game’s start, the players should know the main objective of the game and work towards it.
In a normal campaign, it might take the players an entire session to set up the plot. Do not do that here. Give the players a plot piece and work with it right away. You do not have multiple sessions to set up a story.
Every one-shot in D&D needs some sort of villain.
You would not want your players to go through a normal campaign with a lackluster villain right? If not then why do it in a one-shot.
When you give your players a clear goal to accomplish they are generally opposing someone. Make that person interesting in some way and have the one-shot reflect the villain.
If the one-shot is a robbery make the items and home reflect the end villain who they have to face.
A villain does not have to be evil. The players can be evil in this one shot. Make the villain a powerful threat so that your players will feel accomplished when they kill the villain in the climax or understanding when they all die.
Make your villain hateable. Give your players some reason to hate the villain and make them threatening.
Make your villain cool or interesting. If you make a complex character it is good practice for a normal campaign and gets your players excited to see what you will do in the future.
A good villain is critical to a good one-shot in D&D. Villains will drive the story in some way so do not skirt on good villain creation.
You should railroad players.
Most of the time dungeon masters do not want to railroad players since it is bad. In a one-shot, you should have the complete opposite mindset.
A one-shot in D&D lasts for one session. You have given the players a goal within 5 minutes of the game. Make sure that they accomplish it or die trying.
Players will normally in campaigns do extraneous activities like shop at the market or compete in contests. In a one-shot, you do not have time for this (unless it is part of the one-shot).
Put your players in an environment where there is no escape. Make your players participate in what they should be doing for the one-shot.
You can do this by starting them in a mansion, isolated area, sewer, or whatever. Make sure that players are focused on the task at hand by forcing the environment to make them focus.
If players want to do something else you can discourage them since it will be the end of the one-shot. Tell them that they will fail if they try to go back into town for supplies. Your one-shot is time sensitive so the mission should be as well.
Make it clear that this is the only way and time that the players can accomplish their one-shot goal.
If you railroad your players to stay on track you will not have an issue with time.
You always need to be on top of time and funnel your group along.
The point of railroading your party is so that they do not waste time. I have mentioned how important time is a little bit beforehand, but let’s go into it a bit more.
When you create a one-shot in D&D you have material for one game. You know how long that one game is supposed to last and what is ahead.
Most sessions in a campaign the dungeon master does not know what the players will do. In a one-shot, you know exactly what the players are supposed to do and must do.
The players are put into a situation that is designed from character creation to be in your control. That means that you are able to control the time perfectly as well.
You as a dungeon master can anticipate how long combats will be and how long each encounter will take. Will it take a while for your group to find the key? Make a fail-safe in order to push them forward.
Use the environment that you created to push the players along and take away other distractions.
You have a story to tell in this one-shot. Make sure that story can be told.
Combat should differ a lot.
How should combat differ from a normal game? Think about how long normal combat takes. I have had entire sessions be devoted to one combat. You cannot do that here!
One medium difficulty encounter can take around 30 minutes for some groups. Other groups take 1 hour for the same combat.
You should know your group a little bit and plan for combat to take a little bit longer. This is because your group is playing new characters. They will not know what to do or remember all the rules and will need extra time.
For this reason I would recommend to keep combat light and easy until the final confrontation.
If you give the players easy combats for the majority of the game they will be able to adjust to the new characters. In addition, these new characters will feel amazing and increase player enjoyment.
You want to make your players happy, don’t you? If so keep the combats light in order to increase player happiness and keep control of game pacing.
The final combat is the climax of the one-shot in D&D so you need to make this combat difficult. The players have had some time to adjust to their new characters through small combats.
Because of these small combats, your players are able to show what they have learned. Do not disappoint them and make the final boss powerful. You do not want a lame climax after all.
Player infighting and killing is fine. Hidden motives are fine.
Normally in a campaign, there is an unspoken agreement. Players will work together and not kill one another. In fact, most players shouldn’t even harm their party in any way.
This social code is thrown out the window in one-shots. In one-shots, each person is most of the time playing a selfish character. Players have not had time to build a bond with each other in-game and therefore shouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that this bond will happen in a one-shot in D&D.
Players are strangers to their own characters so who cares what happens to other strangers right? You have a goal so you need to accomplish it. No unspoken rules apply here!
Besides, what are the consequences? The characters will all be done and used at the end of the session so why not have a little bit of fun with it?
Speaking of your own goal, why not add a hidden motive? Your character doesn’t know everyone else so who says that you have the same goal?
If you want to spice up your one-shot and add depth I suggest giving a hidden motive to each character.
Make your players betray one another after the climax for another climax. Finish the game off on a note of awe and betrayal. This way the game becomes more memorable for everyone.
TPKs (total party kills) are okay.
When dungeon masters use monsters and villains to fight the players they (generally) are not actually trying to kill the players.
The trauma for a dungeon master is almost as bad if not worse than what a player suffers. In fact, we have a whole article dedicated to dungeon masters handling player death!
There is some good news for you bloodthirsty dungeon masters out there. TPKs (total party kills) are completely allowed in one-shots.
TPKS are not meant to be used all the time. If players feel cheated and all die for some stupid reason in their opinion they will not be happy. This changes if there is narrative importance in your main campaign.
That is why there are two rules for TPKs in a one-shot in D&D.
- Make the deaths fair.
- If everyone dies make it have an awweeee!!!!! moment.
For the first point, it is fairly straightforward. Do not say that the cave collapses and they die for no reason.
If you need a cave to collapse on the party and kill them give signs throughout the entire session. Talk about how the support beams are cracking and there is shifting here and there in the cave.
If your players die to enemies make it the final villain. You have established by now that the villain is supposed to be powerful. If the players die to the big bad number one, it softens the blow quite a bit.
Speaking of the villain, you can make them the villain in your normal campaign. What better way to introduce the big bad villain in your game than to have the party die to him/her?
In a one-shot this is possible. Make your party fight the villain and die to this overwhelming power. Once they die drop a line or something that immediately connects the villain in the one-shot to the villain in your campaign.
This will cause an aaawwwwweeee! moment where everyone exclaims how amazing that was. The players will get riled up to kill the main villain and want ‘revenge’ even if the campaign characters didn’t die to the main villain.
Another awwwweeee moment is when you drop some amazing bit of information on them. This could be that when the players finally kill the villain they end up dying to an item that is picked up.
This item can once again be connected to your main campaign through references or because the players need to retrieve the item.
An awwweeeee moment can be a spectacular event. Awwwweeee moments are meant to make your players excited about some reveal that will later influence them.
TPKs are not always advised, but in a one-shot, they can be used to great effect and enhance your main campaign.
Your ending must have an amazing climax.
I have mentioned how a villain is supposed to have an amazing climax and that you can make awwwweeee moments happen at the end of your game.
Any way you want to do so, your players need to come away with some sense of satisfaction. This is generally done by having an amazing climax.
If your climax of the story is well done your players will remember the one-shot and want to continue playing.
If your climax is stale players will not be enthusiastic about the next game.
Make sure that your climax is something to remember.
Always build towards it. This one-shot in D&D is crafted by you. You control the pacing, environment, and even railroad players into the climax.
Since you control everything you can make everything subtly refer to the climax in order to enhance the impact.
Make the climax a place that player will be tested and find out something important.
The players can all die if need be and betrayals can happen but make the climax be a memorable point.
I cannot stress this enough. Make the climax something amazing and all the pressure is on this point. Pace the game to make a great climax, and do not leave the players hanging.
By following these 10 steps/differences you will be able to make a great one-shot in D&D.
A one-shot is a wonderful way to experience new things without suffering the consequences. This applies to players and dungeon masters.
Always keep in mind pacing, and make sure that the game runs smoothly even if players need to be railroaded.
The villain at the end is important to a good climax. Always make a great villain and make sure the climax is something to remember.
This has been Wizo and keep rolling!