A D&D one shot is an amazing way to explore a new setting or to introduce new players to the hobby. So, how can you make the most out of it? How can you design a one shot your players will remember for years to come? We interviewed Amanda Hamon, an amazing professional game designer, and here are her tips!
Difference between a D&D one shot and other adventures
The fundamental difference between a D&D one shot and any other adventure is time. In a one shot, you need to finish the adventure by the end of the session. This makes time your biggest enemy… but also your biggest ally if you know how to use it to your advantage! It can be an amazing way to add pressure to your players and avoid dragging scenes out too much.
To deal with time, it’s essential to have a clear beginning, but also a clear ending. Longer adventures can be more improvised, and you have time to move things around between sessions. But with one shots, there’s no such thing as “between sessions”—so you need to have a clear plot structure from the beginning! Plan for a 4-hour one shot: that’s enough for a full story with a climactic ending.
Must-haves for any D&D one shot
So, what do you need to prepare no matter what? Amanda told us about four things that will make your one shots better!
- A single map: sure, the introduction to the one shot can be outside the map. But once you get to the meat of the adventure, try to keep everything within a single area. This makes it more focused and gives your players a single defined goal.
- Encounter length: this is especially important with rules-heavy games. Keeping track of how long encounters will take is important, and you should always have additional optional encounters, in case players blow through things.
- A hooky hook: your players can’t say no, otherwise the game will end before it starts. So make sure it’s something their characters would totally accept as a quest or objective!
- Climax: the ending needs to be cinematic, a culmination off all the little seeds and hints you’ve planted throughout the session.
How to avoid railroading: don’t!
Because of the very limited time a one shot has, players need to follow the adventure path you’ve created, no matter what! So this is not about avoiding railroading—it’s about hiding the rails. The first step is making sure that absolutely everything you describe and mention is related to the plot of the one shot. Don’t name-drop a place or a person who’s not relevant: if you do, your players will think it’s important, they’ll want to check it out, and they’ll derail your entire game.
Then, give your players ticking clocks. Not literally, but maybe the one shot is about stopping a world-ending ritual… that will finish in an hour! This forces the players to do something and focus on the task at hand. Make it as clear as possible that saving the world is up to them: a one shot is not a game for slow build-ups, confusing hints, red herrings, and branching paths! Which brings us nicely to…
Player decisions in a D&D one shot
Players should always feel like their decisions have consequences—but just like in the previous section, it’s all about creating an illusion! In a one-shot, you can’t afford the players taking an unexpected turn. So, make sure that all encounters have a clear path forward with no deviations. If you have extra time on your hands, you can absolutely create branching paths, but they should all have the same outcome: the difference should be the path itself. So, for example, different paths have different rewards, but in the end, they all will take the characters to the next encounter.
If your players get stuck taking a decision (for example, they’re researching too much or they don’t know what to do), add in a random NPC to put them back on track. Of course, the NPC should be related to the plot, otherwise they’ll get off-track again! Another way to make them do something is to have a hidden timer: they don’t know it, but in 5 minutes, a red dragon is going to burn down the village they’re in!
Finally, remember that player characters can die in a one shot. Unlike in a campaign, these characters won’t need to be reused in the next session. So, if a player takes a dumb decision that you know will kill their character… let them do it!
Pre-generated characters can be extremely useful because you can create them in a way that perfectly fits the plot of the one-shot. Not only that, but they’re also a great way to introduce people to a new setting or system! With a pre-gen character, they can get a feel for what it’s like, so make sure the characters you create are iconic. If you’re playing high fantasy, you need to have a wizard and a rogue, for example.
As for their backstories and personalities, feel free to give them some uniqueness. Now, it’s a one shot, so don’t feel like you have to write a novel worth of backstories, but giving them some basic information will help your players connect with them better. And make sure they have a reason to work together!
Listen to the full interview!
Want to learn more about designing one shots and how to use them in your stories? Check out the full interview in YouTube and Libsyn (part 1, part 2)!
Who is Amanda Hamon?
Amanda Hamon is the senior designer for Dungeons & Dragons at Wizards of the Coast! She’s also worked with Paizo and is the cocreator of Starfinder. Check out her Twitter!
Want a handy checklist for creating a one-shot? Download this free printable worksheet!
Want to get more tips from experts like Amanda? Follow our podcast! In the next episode, we talk to Dimitris about writing one-eyed characters!
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I like the sly way that railroading is slipped in (“A hooky hook: your players can’t say no, otherwise the game will end before it starts. So make sure it’s something their characters would totally accept as a quest or objective!”) before it is prohibited (“HOW TO AVOID RAILROADING: DON’T!”)! I think there may be an entire discussion on the paradox of running a session (not to mention campaign) without railroading hidden inside this article. Well done!-)