Running a one-shot is a great way to play without the commitment of a long campaign or to test the waters with a new group. But how can you write a D&D adventure that is engaging and leaves your players wanting more? Well, we’re running the Adventure April challenge this month, so now’s a great opportunity to write an amazing one-shot! Here are five tips you can use for your next game!

1. Create an Engaging Storyline

The first step to creating an amazing D&D adventure – whether a one shot or a longer adventure – is to come up with an engaging hook. You can do this in many ways, but I recommend using this sentence as a template:

Someone wants to do something before a time, but they can’t do it using some method because reasons.

This tip comes from Guy Sclanders’ Complete Guide to Creating Epic Campaigns and can be applied to adventures of any duration—from one-shots to 5 year-long campaigns. This sentence will summarize the whole plot of the adventure, and you just need to replace the words in italics! For example:

The evil necromancer wants to turn the king into a zombie before next week, but she can’t do it using her usual necromancy magic because she lost her spell book.

With this, you have your antagonist or villain, the core conflict, a deadline to add more pressure, and what the antagonist will be doing (because what villain has time to just sit in a dark tower waiting for the players to show up?). In this case, the necromancer will be looking for either her spell book, or for a new method to turn people into zombies. This means that your players will clash with her (or her minions) as she goes about trying to achieve these goals. And that’s all you need, really—the rest are extras…

But if you’re not a fan of improvising the whole session, you might want to keep reading our next D&D Adventure tips!

2. Fill Your D&D Adventure with Exciting NPCs

Make a list of the NPCs your players are likely to encounter. There’s the main antagonist and their minions, but you might have an innkeeper, the NPC who gives them the quest, maybe even an ally or two. Since we’re talking about a short adventure, we don’t need to spend a ton of time with them, so these questions should be enough:

  • A Motivation: What do they want? Everyone has a desire: it could be something as mundane as “I want to eat an ice cream” or as deep as “I want to find the meaning of life”. In any case, this will define what the NPC is thinking when the PCs meet them.
  • A Message: What do they do or say? What information do they want to share? This can be at the specific moment they meet with the party or in general.
  • A Secret: What’s something they don’t want to do or say? Everybody has secrets! They might never come into play, but if they do, they give the character a much deeper personality.
  • A Stat block: if you expect the players to fight them, you should have a stat block ready.

Of course, if you love creating characters and have enough time, you can go as crazy as you want. But always keep in mind that most of what you create might never see the light of day, especially in a one-shot.

3. Include Some Beautiful, and Tactical, Battle Maps

Maps are a must if you (or your group) don’t enjoy theater of the mind combat! There are different ways you can go about creating a map: from a simple hand-drawn map on a grid paper to using a specialized mapmaking software like DungeonFog. To create a D&D battle map for your adventure, start by thinking about its purpose. If you want to use it to give your players (and yourself) more tactical options, you’ll want a grid, but also terrain features or furniture that can be used for strategy. But if the goal of the map is to give them a visual reference of the layout or to set the atmosphere, you might not need a grid at all!

The medium in which you play will also change how you create or choose maps. If you’re playing in person, you’ll probably want to draw the map yourself or print one out, with the limitations this has. However, if you’re playing online, you can take advantage of digital maps to get beautiful art, dynamic lighting, and interactive elements like doors and pins, which most VTTs support. You can also upload your map to World Anvil and fill it with interactive pins and labels.

4. Add in Different Kinds of Encounters to the D&D Adventure

A D&D encounter is any scene in which the characters have to solve a specific problem—it doesn’t have to be combat. This will depend on your group, but if your adventure has the same kind of encounter over and over again, it could get boring fast. The solution is simple: add different kinds of encounters! These are only some of the types of encounters that aren’t combat:

  • Puzzles: solve the problem with their intellect alone. These can take a long time, so be careful!
  • Social encounter: convince someone to take an unfavorable deal, interrogate a prisoner for answers, or talk their way into a restricted area.
  • Investigation: great for mystery plots! For example, looking for clues in a room or following someone without being seen.
  • Chases: these are high-action encounters that require quick thinking from your players and yourself.
  • Closed doors: sometimes, the most mundane obstacle can provide the biggest challenge.

However, you have to keep in mind that most of these encounters don’t have defined turn durations. This means that it’s on you to make sure they don’t drag on too long! If you foresee that it will be difficult, having a planned alternative is a good idea. For example, if the players need to solve a difficult puzzle to open a door, you could plan on having an NPC open it from the inside after a while. Make that NPC an enemy guard that raises the alarm and you’ve just upped the stakes!

5. Don’t Forget the Boss Battle—But Don’t Set It in Stone

This is where you go all in and really challenge your players. The first thing you need to decide is what kind of challenge it will be—and no, it doesn’t need to be a boss fight! If the adventure hasn’t been very combat-heavy, another kind of encounter might work better. For example, in a murder mystery, the climax might be simply confronting the murderer. In a heist, the climax will be running away with the gold without being caught. Whatever the case, make it feel as epic as possible within the scope of the adventure. This is the end, so it’s time to make sure your players remember the adventures for years to come.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that you shouldn’t prepare all of the details. Or, if you do, you should be willing to tweak them as you run the adventure, as your players’ actions will probably change how the climax goes. If you don’t think you can adapt the climax as the session is running, don’t worry! There’s nothing wrong with taking a short 5 or 10-minute break before the encounter. (You can totally send the players to go get you extra snacks).

Ready to start working on your next D&D adventure? We’re currently running Adventure April, so create a free World Anvil account to take part!

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