DMing 101: One-Shot Express (Oh!) Adventure
Sometimes a one-shot or very short adventure is called for. These can be every bit as much fun as multi-year campaigns. The action happens fast and the time element inspires each player to focus on achieving the goal.
Yet the goal itself and the context of the game is, by necessity, very different than an extended campaign. So let us look at what shapes one-shots and short adventures to help everyone (Player and DM) get the most from every minute.
Outlines Keep You Inside the Lines
It can be useful to make a short outline of the adventure. It seems unnecessary, especially for a one-shot, but it can really help you hit the important points and stay on track. With your outline as a guide, you can also look for where the adventure could go on a tangent. This lets you prepare for many contingencies before they happen and, especially, prevent things you don’t want to occur at all.
The Art of Simplicity
In a campaign the players may spend many levels just trying to learn what is even going on. All those Knowledge, Gather Information, and Diplomacy/Intimidate skills are there for a reason. Unless your players have a grasp of the context of the situation, they will be hesitant to pursue any action. This can easily lead to prolonged discussions about the what and why of the matter instead of the how. In short, it eats up valuable time. Below are ways to keep things simple yet fun with a lot of forward momentum.
“Hi, I’m PC Paladin. Here’s my 84 Page Back Story.”
Developing layered characters with rich histories and intriguing motivations is wonderful. As both player and DM, I love the process. It’s also almost entirely useless for a 1-3 session game. There simply isn’t time to invest in all of that. Here it is a matter of expectation. Communicate well with your players on the reason why the PC only needs a basic personality and motivation and they will surely agree with you.
The thing is, although the players understand the structure of the adventure, the PC himself has been living his life since birth. So if the player wants to develop all that history and motivation to get a solid grasp of the PC peeking through the stats on the character sheet, that’s great! They only need to understand that there’s no time to search for the Ten Lost Cousins of PC Paladin.
The Ranger and Cleric Are Already Friends on Facebook
Let’s keep this one simple, no explanation of time management necessary: The PCs already know each other because of ~reasons~ and are traveling together. Let them work out why that is so but don’t sweat yourself over running forty-five minutes into the game so two PCs can posture over their intro.
A Little History Can Help
Give the players the most bare bones world history needed for the adventure at hand. If the plot doesn’t involve Fondu, God of Cheese, then don’t even mention it. If the party has a Cleric, she’ll already have her holy fondue pot ready.
In our scenario below, here’s the setup:
“Your party has been traveling through the Western Kingdom for many days. Funds are low and your growling bellies remind you of that many times an hour. But you sense adventure, and profit, could be as close as the next village.
The kingdom has been abuzz over the last few weeks. Princess Pear, the stepdaughter of King West and older child of two (including West’s son with the Queen), has been betrothed to King East. The marriage is a strictly political union but one that should ensure lasting peace between both kingdoms.
Royal weddings are an excuse for food and coin to flow freely. You can only hope some of both finds its way to you soon.”
Help the players get an immediate grasp of things with a situation that has a very clear solution, at least on the surface. If the peaceful corn farming village of Shucks was privileged to have the entourage of Princess Pear passing through on her way to her wedding in the East, only to have the entourage killed to the last man and the princess abducted by hobgoblins, then the goal is simple: rescue the princess.
No lengthy debates about royal authority are needed. The guards are all dead and the event happened a hundred miles from the castle.
The town doesn’t have true militia and are content to let these brave/stupid adventurers do the rescuing. The mayor can always take credit later and it’s worth it to him to pay the party a reward. After all, if they die he’s not out anything.
Start At the…No, Not the Beginning.
In a full-blown campaign the party might come upon the massacre of the soldiers at the start of the adventure. Seems reasonable. But if we map out their likely courses of action from there we can see how deleterious (word of the day!) this seemingly straightforward approach can be for a one-shot.
The party is likely to do some or all of the following: Check every guard to see if they are alive. Sort through their belonging, while probably appraising worth. Use spells to detect for magic and other lingering effects. Search the vicinity for miscellaneous clues. Follow any tracks they encounter. Those are only the most obvious things. Intrepid adventurers can get so detailed and creative with a crime scene that the DM either annoys them by giving them nothing or throws them a bone. But that single bone can now lead them to begin pursuing things in a way you never intended.
Furthermore, they still have to find the village of Shucks itself. Talk to some locals. Talk to the mayor and ask a thousand questions. Negotiate their price. Get supplies. The list is potentially endless.
While all of this is going on, at least one of your players will probably want to get a drink. After all, he’s a dwarf and it’s written in stone somewhere that dwarves have to visit the closest tavern.
Even if the intention is to gather more information at the tavern, now you have an entire tavern scene to run. What if another member of the party wants to flirt with Bonnie Buxom at the bar because, hey, why not? Why, one of the PCs might even decide they don’t want to follow up on this kidnapping because they rather pursue the incredibly enticing profession of inventing popcorn. It’s all a waste of precious time that could be used achieving forward momentum.
Instead, make the setup simple: The party was passing through Shucks themselves, enjoying a cold pint at that same tavern, when frenzied word of the massacre near town reached their ears. Princess Pear was kidnapped, they say! By hobgoblins, no less! The mayor has hired the party for some reasonable sum (with promise of a huge payoff if they return successfully) and the game opens with the party now several miles from Shucks, approaching the scene of the crime.
Everything you want to set up is already achieved. The characters still get to do all that investigating they were going to do anyway but now you can give them direct leads they can pursue. The bodies have already been cleared but a scan of the area by the party Wizard reveals a very faint aura of Enchantment in the area. It is dying off even now but the Ranger has discovered possible hobgoblin tracks heading south.
The Bard (now at a more opportune moment for the DM) can make that Knowledge, Local check to remember that the hobgoblins used to raid local villages but Shucks made a deal with them years ago to exchange corn-fed sheep for protection from the other “monsters” that lived in the forest. The hobgoblins even guarded this same road in exchange for easy meals and a promise no one from either the East or West would ever encroach on their lands.
Odd that they would break this truce and bring certain war upon themselves with such a blatant act, hmmm? Mystery and action, all leading to that forward momentum we were seeking.
A Little of This. A Little of That.
The hobgoblins aren’t going to be too keen, under any circumstances, with strangers encroaching in their territory. And this armed party of adventurers is sure trouble. There’s no need for random encounters. The hidden trail, revealed by the cunning Ranger, has brought the party straight to the dangerous hobgoblins. Roll for initiative!
After the party deals with the guards (keeping at least one alive) they’ll certainly question them. This can allow for a bit of RP for that Paladin with max ranks in Diplomacy. But the conversation is relatively short. They’re guards and do what they are told. They aren’t stupid enough to admit to any crime but “invite” the party to go talk to their leader, Fynal Fo, who lives in the cave over the ridge. Sure, they expect the party to die horrible deaths but, hey, that’s what invitations are for.
This will soon give the Rogue a chance to search for traps (and there is one) while the party as a whole decides on how best to deal with the cave. Once again, never underestimate your players. They are as likely to smoke out the hobgoblins as sneak through the cave itself.
This once again emphasizes how condensed and straightforward the adventure needs to be. Any discussion will take time. First it was interrogating the hobgoblins (following an entire combat) and now it’s making a plan of attack. The clock is ticking.
Whatever they decide, they only need a few viable options. This helps you plan ahead for each as well as reduce the need to modify too much if your players throw an unexpected approach at you.
Either way, the possibilities of a short cave expedition, traps, and other hobgoblins could be an entire evening unto itself so adjust accordingly. After all, it’s the hobgoblins’ home turf so maybe they all went hunting and left their traps to take care of business. You still get both a combat encounter (from before) and a dungeon/trap scenario for everyone. No repeats. No fuss.
Princess Pear is Not in Another Castle
Nope, she’s here. So is Fynal Fo, ready to kill everyone in the party and happy to do it (after all, “slaughter” without the “s” is just laughter).
The fight might be to the death. That’s fine. … or maybe some members of the party begin to realize that they would do anything to have possession of the unharmed princess solely among their friends. Yeah, that Will save the DM secretly made for them? A few of the party might fall under the magical aura secretly surrounding the princess.
The Short Twist
It’s always fun to have a twist in the game. Even an adventure as straightforward as this one would benefit from it. If anything, it keeps it from being a strictly by-the-numbers scenario of the most trite variety.
So here’s the spin: Pear’s father, King West, has no desire to see a child from his wife’s former marriage take the throne. He wants his own first born son to have that honor. But how to get rid of the girl?
Enter King East, betrothed to Princess Pear. The marriage was arranged for political unification but East doesn’t love the girl. He instead loves the eeeeevil sorceress, Countess Treachery, instead.
But, if love can bring two kingdoms solidly together, war will do the job even better. Both kings want the gold secretly found all throughout the hobgoblin lands. The hobgoblins don’t care about gold. It makes terrible spears and swords. But the land is their home and they aren’t leaving.
So King West pays Countess Treachery a pretty sum to make a gift that King East had sent to Princess Pear prior to her departure to get married. That sapphire necklace she wears has a powerful Enchantment spell on it that compels those nearby to want to feverishly possess the object and keep its wearer safe. It doesn’t override existing relationships though. Quite the opposite, it reinforces them. Worst of all, it can be activated remotely.
Thus the necklace was scryed upon by the countess and activated while the princess’s caravan was passing through this particular area. The princess’s guards, affected by the spell, fought to the death against the similarly affected hobgoblins that already guarded the road (in keeping with their alliance with Shucks).
Even if Fynal Fo were to be released from the spell he’d know he was screwed for kidnapping the princess. When the spell wears off, it means war. The two kings will use the incident to have righteous claim of vengeance against the hobgoblins and, between them, will wipe them out. King West claims the land and puts his son on the throne someday, King East marries his countess, and the two kings split the gold.
This all comes to light when Countess Treachery, still scrying the necklace, sees the party in the vicinity. They are wrecking all the evil plans and she feels motivated to drop in and try to kill them. The unexpected and unknown magical adversary makes for a nice surprise when the party is feeling confident they’ve defeated the hobgoblins without too much damage.
It’s too bad for the countess that, in her haste, she didn’t remove her satchel. Inside is a letter (conveniently pre-written by the DM, of course) from King West thanking her for her help and laying out all the incriminating evidence one could ever need against both kings.
Because this is not an ongoing adventure, be sure to wrap everything up neatly for the adventurers. Your players will want to pursue anything left undone so make things tidy and put a bow on it.
Once the countess’s letter gets into the right hands the political issue is resolved. Most likely Queen West is the one to not only clear things up but also reward the party. The PCs are now the heroes of two kingdoms, on their way to legend.
Why, maybe the adventurers even make things right for the hobgoblins and earn their respect as well. Maybe a bit of that hobgoblin gold ends up in the PCs’ pockets.
How the epilogue is handled depends on both time remaining and any future plans for gaming again with these characters. It can be as simple as the DM describing things, as above, or it could involve a final scene. It’s all a matter of timing and intention.
Keep it simple. Keep it fast. Keep it fun. Deliver a straightforward goal but feel free to drop a surprise in there somewhere. Knowing your players, and their PC, give each a moment to shine.
A well-crafted one-shot adventure can deliver some great memories and capture all the fun of gathering with good friends at the gaming table. And, really, isn’t that why we do this?
(co-written by R. Currence and Michael N.)