One-shot adventures are a great way to introduce new players to tabletop RPGs, or to run a quick, fun game for experienced players. But one-shots can also be a bit predictable. After all, they’re usually only a few hours long, so there’s not a lot of time to develop a complex plot.
And that’s where plot twists come in! A well-placed plot twist can add a little shock and awe to your one-shot, and it can also keep your players engaged.
Here are a few tips for adding plot twists to your one-shots:
Start with a lie.
One of the easiest ways to add a plot twist is to start with a lie. Maybe the villain isn’t really the villain, or maybe the quest isn’t really what it seems. This can really throw your players for a loop, and it can also help to set the tone for the rest of the adventure. This needs to be something big, though, something core to your story. Make sure it’s something your players will care about and, more importantly, will throw the established scenario on its head!
Introduce an “ally” who betrays the party.
This is a classic plot twist, and it can be a very effective one. If you have an NPC the players trust, you can really surprise them when they betray the party. This can add a lot of drama to the adventure, and it can also make the players question their judgment – and make them slower to trust new NPCs. With a player’s permission, you can even make one of them the secret agent – or have them convert part way through the mission. Again, remember that players may have magical aids like Divine and Commune. If they ask the right questions, this might be revealed earlier than you expect!
Reveal an “enemy” who is actually a double-agent.
This is another classic plot twist, and it can be just as effective as the previous one. If you have an “enemy” the players think is working against them, you can really surprise them when they reveal that they’re actually a double-agent. This can create interesting conflict as the players debate whether they should have seen the NPC’s real motives.
Raise the stakes.
One of the best ways to add a plot twist is to raise the stakes. Maybe the villain isn’t just trying to summon one demon, they’re trying to destroy the world with a demon army invasion. Or maybe the quest isn’t just about finding a magic item, it’s about saving the village. This can really up the ante for your players, and it can also make the villain seem even more dangerous. On the other hand…
That evil guy who’s been raising zombies? Everyone assumed he was building an army of the damned, but he’s just trying to resurrect his wife! This doesn’t up-end everything, but does bring fresh information. And it can set up a great “we’re not so different you and I” villain monologue, or even create sympathy with some players that causes conflict in the party. After all, is the BBEG such a bad guy?
It’s a trap!
The villain has known about the party all along! This can go several ways: the villain might need something the players have brought (“you’ve played right into my hands”) – think a totem, blood of the righteous, a magical item or what have you. On the other hand, the villain may simply have set an ambush for the players – that’s one more obstacle they’ll need to get through while the villain completes his plan, or attempts to escape.
The second body.
This is one used in murder mysteries and whodunnits all the time – the person you think is the murderer ends up dead! It’s a great plot twist because the players go from being confident, to having the rug pulled from under them and having to reassess their information. For a one-shot, once the party discovers the body of the “villain”, this should usually (but not always) be quickly followed up by the reveal of the true villain and their motivations. After all, there isn’t much time and you need to get to that juicy adventure climax.
Present the players with a difficult, morally grey choice.
This is a plot twist idea that will really make your players think. Maybe the players have to choose between saving one person or saving a hundred people. Or maybe they have to choose between killing the villain or letting them go. This can really test the players’ morality, and it can also make the adventure more memorable.
These are just a few ideas for plot twists that you can add to your one-shot adventures. The possibilities are endless, and you can tailor the twists to your own specific campaign. So get creative and add some plot twists to your next one-shot!
💡Ready to get started? Download this great printable one-shot worksheet from our founder, game designer Janet Forbes.
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co-written by Janet Forbes & Kat French