How to craft a one-shot D&D adventure

You need something to run at your next game night.

Maybe you’re not ready to start a big campaign. Maybe you need to give your regular DM a break. Maybe you want to try something new.

Enter the one-shot.

This is the adventure that can be run in a single game session. It can be all role-playing. It can be one big combat encounter. It can be whatever, but it’s usually self-contained and it usually takes between three and four hours to complete.

There’s something about running and playing a one-off adventure that is really satisfying both as a DM and a player. When done right, you get the feeling of “I came, I saw, I conquered.”

Whether you’re playing D&D, Pathfinder or really any other RPG, here are some guidelines for crafting a great one-shot adventure.

Introduce a problem that can be solved in a single session. This isn’t the all-encompassing fight against the big bad villain. This isn’t the mighty quest to obtain the artifact that will unite the kingdom. Think of something concrete the players can accomplish but won’t take them days and days. Usually, these are relatively simple quests (find something for the king, steal a valuable item, waylay a caravan of enemy soldiers, locate an important person) or basic combat encounters (explore a ruined temple, chase a thief through the streets, fight an undead infestation).

Don’t make it too big. If you want to raid a castle, think of a small fort with a few walls, buildings and soldiers rather than a castle defended better than Helm’s Deep. You want to make it a challenge, but not so overwhelming or intricate that it’s going to take forever.

Keep things on a rail. You don’t want to railroad your players into anything, but one-shot adventures usually give fairly obvious cues to the players on where to go. Let’s say someone has stolen a wagon full of the king’s gold. Instead of having players grill every soldier and knight in the castle, have the king direct them to an eyewitness that gives away an obvious clue. It lets the players roleplay finding the culprit without shoving them too hard.

Go light on the background. You don’t need the full history of every NPC or every bad guy or everything going on. This is meant to be quick and fun, so you can keep everything pretty light. We don’t need every character’s motivation.

Make it interesting. Throw a few curveballs. If the players are raiding a castle, maybe they find someone already has and the place is littered with dead soldiers. If they go to fight a pack of thieving goblins, perhaps they’re warring with a tribe of kobolds. Maybe they find the thief that the king wants murdered is actually his brother and the true heir to the throne. Make it more exciting than a straight combat encounter.

Balance roleplay with combat. Set up combat encounters by having the players interact with a few NPCs. It makes the players a little more invested in the game if they have to explore the jungle looking for the ruined temple rather than just find it randomly in a clearing. They’re going to be a lot more excited and feel they earned it when they finally get there.

Instead of one big combat encounter, try multiple smaller fights. Give each room or area a little bit different flavor. Think of what is happening in each room of the encounter. What monsters are in there? Mix up the type and numbers of monsters making each little encounter vary in difficulty.

Sew the seeds of further adventure. Especially if you’re using the one-shot to bridge two parts of your campaign or set up for the launch of a campaign, insert NPCs, items or story themes into your one-off that can lead to the next adventure. (You can even do this if you’re just doing another one-shot!) Maybe during the celebratory tavern visit after the fight, a stranger brings a letter. Maybe after rescuing the princess, she asks them to help her get revenge.

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