Sound familiar? Your weekly tabletop group has been grinding through a lengthy campaign, and everyone needs a break to keep things fresh. Maybe you want to try out a different story or setting. Or you’re a newbie GM, who wants to give your forever GM a chance to play, but you’re hesitant to tackle a big commitment. Maybe you’ve run some published adventures, and want a low-stress way to try writing homebrew content. You, my friend, need some RPG or DnD one-shot ideas.

And more importantly, a proven process for taking them from cool ideas to satisfying execution.

An RPG or DnD one-shot can be a fun alternative to an adventure or full campaign. It’s a smaller commitment, intended to be completed in a single gaming session. But just because it’s short doesn’t mean it’s easy. That’s why we’re sharing a fool-proof method to come up with compelling RPG or DnD one-shot ideas, and flesh them out to share at your table – or publish for others to enjoy!

So let’s get started!

Start with the villain

Your inspiration for a one-shot could be a wondrous location, exciting treasure, or thorny problem. But while it’s definitely possible to build a one-shot around any of those things, it’s much faster and easier to start with your antagonist.

Why? Because the villain is the alpha and omega of your one-shot. The actions of the villain kick off the conflict of the adventure, and defeating them in an epic boss battle provides a satisfying conclusion for your players. Because the villain bookends your one-shot like this, it makes sense to start with them.

An easy method for quickly figuring out your villain in a one-shot is answering:

  • Who? This is where you figure out the villain’s name, class, level and species.The villain will be the most important and memorable NPC in a one-shot, so it’s worth being a bit more detailed.
  • What? The goal that they’re trying to achieve.
  • When? Adding a deadline or ticking clock creates urgency. Which circumstances make it essential to make their move soon?
  • How? What actions has the villain taken to achieve their goal? How are they deploying their resources to overcome what stands in their way? What are they willing to do?
  • Why? Why are they pursuing this goal, and why now? What has prevented them from success until now, and what has changed?

One-Shot Idea Example:

The (who) evil necromancer wants to (what) turn the Crown Prince into a zombie-puppet before (when) his coronation next week, but she can’t do it using (how) her usual magic because a rival has stolen her spell book. They want (why) ultimate power over the kingdom to legalize necromancy.

Once you have these elements figured out, you can quickly come up with three effects of the villain’s plans. These effects will serve as the clues that NPCs would notice and comment on, alerting your characters that something strange is going on.

Boom! Now you’ve not only got a villain, you’ve got a set of trusty, tangible plot hooks to grab your players. Experienced GMs with great improv skills (or extremely chaotic players) might be fine with running a session with only this level of prep. Need more? No problem; let’s move on to the next part of your one-shot prep.

💡Itching to get started? Download this printable one-shot planning worksheet created by our founder, professional game designer Janet Forbes.

👉Check out this article for more detailed advice on crafting adventure hooks.

🛠️Looking for a complete DM/GM toolset, compatible with over 40+ RPG systems, including D&D 5e, Pathfinder, and Call of Cthulu? Create a free World Anvil account.

Set the scene: one-shot setting ideas

The effects of your villain plot create your adventure hooks. How do you dangle those hooks in front of the players? By setting the scene, of course, and by using description and NPCs to lure them deeper into your story.

For this layer of one-shot prep, it’s time to generate one-shot ideas for the initial setting. Where will the players start out? Who will they meet, and what will they notice that seems amiss? By prepping these details, you can ensure the players get immersed quickly, and you avoid riffing on unnecessary details that might inadvertently send them careening off in the wrong direction.

Are they in a small village, a big city, or a space station? What kind of people would be most impacted by the villain’s early moves? How can you place the characters in the path of those NPCs or near obvious visible signs of trouble?

Choosing a theme for your one-shot can be one way to spark ideas for setting the scene. Are you going for an epic fantasy adventure, or a murder mystery? Eldritch horror has a very particular feel to it, and so does space opera. Here are some ideas for places to start your one-shot:

  • An enchanted village
  • A haunted forest
  • A cosmopolitan city
  • A decrepit mansion
  • A gritty space port
  • A neon-drenched nightclub
  • A crowded marketplace
  • A lonely mountain cabin
  • A stormy port town
  • A mysterious cavern

👉Check out this article for more detailed advice on setting the scene for a one-shot.

Ideas for one-shot complications

Now it’s time for the one-shot adventure to get rolling! Your players have picked up the clues, and they’re hot on the trail of your villain. But it wouldn’t be much of a challenge if they just rushed straight to the end. This is where you come up with RPG or DnD one-shot ideas for encounters that will stand between your players and the Big Boss Fight.

For a one-shot, three of these scenes are plenty. Keep the locations close together to limit travel time and limit the scope. Planning a second session because your players loved a one-shot is great. Not being able to finish the main story in one sitting because you overstuffed a one-shot is not.

If you promise them resolution in one session, you need to be able to deliver. So if you do plan three encounters, it’s best if only one or two are absolutely necessary. That way, if your players take longer than expected, you have a little flexibility to get them to that satisfying conclusion sooner.

Some encounters and obstacles for your one-shot:

  • Natural creatures driven mad by the villain plot
  • Henchmen sent by the villain to prevent meddling
  • Outraged villagers who think the party is responsible
  • Difficult, dangerous terrain that lies between them and the villain
  • A puzzle or riddle that must be unraveled for direction
  • An object or key that must be obtained to progress
  • Information that must be gained to understand the identity of, or how to defeat, the villain

👉 Get more details on prepping encounters for your one-shot.

Not so fast! RPG & DnD one-shot ideas for plot twists

Unexpected surprises keep your one-shot from feeling stale and cliched, even if you rely on standard fantasy tropes. It’s time to generate some one-shot friendly ideas to throw a shocking plot twist at your players before the final battle.

Adding a plot twist provides a little shake-up and catharsis that can bond your party before facing the villain. Or conversely, it can introduce conflict among them, making the boss fight even more challenging!

Some examples include:

  • A lie is exposed
  • An “ally” betrays the party
  • An “enemy” is revealed as a double-agent
  • The stakes are far higher than believed
  • A difficult, morally-grey choice

👉 Go here to get even more ideas for plot twists!

Build an epic boss fight

You made it to the end! And so did your party! Let’s work on some ideas to reward them with a satisfyingly epic final boss fight.

It’s time to return to your villain notes. Where is their base of operations? Can you make the location itself a challenge, for example placing it at the top of a mountain, or in a seemingly-unassailable fortress?

What are the villain’s resources, and when will they deploy them to counter the threat of the party? Some villains will throw their army of henchmen and minions at the party at the first sign of attack; or even send them as a pre-emptive strike while the players are still approaching. Others will hold back a reserve of elite guards as a last line of defense so they can escape if the players get too close.

Thinking about your villain’s battle strategy will mean you can run the final battle more smoothly, and keep your players guessing. So if and when they valiantly defeat the Big Bad Evil Guy, it will be a memorable experience that will keep them coming back to the table for more.

👉 Get more tips for creating an epic boss fight.

Wrap things up

Whew! Creating your first original one-shot is an adventure of its own, right? Now you’ve made it to the end; but there’s one more thing to do. It’s time to wrap your story up and give your players a chance to celebrate their victory – or mourn their defeat.

If they’ve vanquished the villain, what are the effects of their success? How will the world change now that they’ve removed this malign influence? How will they be rewarded for their heroism? This would include both material rewards (aka treasure) and intangible rewards like recognition, progress towards their personal goals, or access to information or resources they lacked.

If they failed, what are the consequences? How is the impact of the villain’s success visible in the world? What do the characters lose, in addition to the battle? Again, this can be material losses, but also a loss of morale and confidence.

Plus, there’s the possibility of a “successful … for now” ending. Maybe they forced the villain to flee, and delayed rather than eliminated the threat. How do you convey this mixed result?

Last but not least, think ahead to where you and your players want to go from here. Do you want to continue the story of these characters – or start fresh with an all-new one-shot? Great news! This template also works for longer adventures; you just need to scale things up a bit. It’s also possible to create a whole campaign, a one-shot at a time.

👉Get more ideas for wrapping up your one-shot.

💡Ready to get started? Download this great printable worksheet from our founder, game designer Janet Forbes.

🛠️Looking for a complete DM/GM toolset, compatible with over 40+ RPG systems, including D&D 5e, Pathfinder, and Call of Cthulu? Create a free World Anvil account.

Even More One-Shot Advice from World Anvil:

co-authored by Janet Forbes & Kat French