Mind-Blowing One-Night Stand: How to Design a Great D&D One-Shot

With school — and all its obligations — back in our lives, a lot of players don’t have the time to commit to a full-blown D&D campaign. However, for many players, the “itch” to keep on playing goes on. The one-shot adventure is the perfect way to scratch that itch. (If a one-shot doesn’t work, consult your dermatologist.)

A one-shot adventure is a D&D adventure that can be completed in a single session. As this is a broad topic, there’s no way anyone — certainly not I — is an authoritative source on all “good” methods of one-shot creation. However, I’ve turned out a few in my day to good reviews (or polite players), so I’ll do my best to share with you what Connor calls my “secrets.”
Despite the disposable nature of the PCs, settings, enemies and stories, it is important not to entirely disregard these elements. As a DM, you can choose to just pull a few entries from the Monster Manual and run PCs (“player characters”) into them, but it’s nowhere near as fulfilling as discovering enemies in context and having a legitimate reason to defeat them — or find another way around them.

Which means your one-shot needs a story. I find it’s easiest to start with one central theme, setting, item or enemy and work outward from there. For example, in a one-shot I ran for a group I was new to over the summer, I began by deciding I wanted to concentrate my one-shot on a massive necropolis. The first thing I did was draw up an elaborate map of the place, making sure to set up a “final room” for some sort of boss battle. Next, I had to figure out how to take the PCs from a “normal” D&D situation to this place of the dead. That’s where the idea of an oft-robbed hearse came to mind. In exchange for money — a nigh-universal motivator — the PCs would guard a cart bringing a beleaguered town’s dead to the necropolis. This immediately assigned them two objectives: 1) bring the cart to its destination, and 2) return with the cart’s driver alive.

The above example touches on three important components to one-shot creation: story kernel (necropolis), how to introduce the kernel (hearse robberies) and motivation (money). There are infinite possible variations on these. You could choose to use an item like, say, an ancient spellbook of untold power as your story kernel, a wizened, interested archivist as the introduction (he wants them to get it for him) and in exchange the PCs can receive pages from the spellbook, magic items or cold, hard gold (motivation). (A tip: money and power are safe bets as motivators if you’re dealing with a cast of characters you don’t know.)

Once again considering the necropolis adventure, the second objective (protecting the driver) would become the “hook” for the main portion of my one-shot — what was to go on inside the necropolis. (As a side note, I find players appreciate it when a DM proves his story is unified by bringing up seemingly minor details or secondary objectives later on. It gives the story depth and realness and has the added bonus of encouraging your players to pay attention.) The driver was going to have to find his way into that necropolis, putting himself in danger. Otherwise, the PCs could just drop the bodies at the gate and turn around, putting all the graveyard shenanigans I’d cooked up to waste.

Now seems like a good time to point out that players do not like to be “railroaded” — forced to travel on the DM’s tracks, wherever they may take them. One of the main draws of D&D for players is its sandbox nature; characters can explore new and magical worlds. However, this is a one-shot, dammit, so your world concept is probably pretty limited. As such, you need to think up creative ways to create incentives for your players to follow along — at least loosely — the tracks you’ve laid out.

One method is to constantly send threats at your players — fight or die situations mean your players will have to partake in your encounters. This tactic can wear thin, though, as players may begin to feel as if they have no control.

That’s why a good DM must be able to improvise. It’s always good to sit down ahead of time, after you’ve drawn up your adventure, and think of as many of the different things players may do that would derail your adventure as you can. This is easier if you know your players and what types of character decisions they usually make. Ideally, ask your players ahead of time to tell you what type of characters — including roleplaying and mechanical aspects — they plan to play. This allows you to better gauge the difficulty of an encounter for your party and to decide what motivating factors are likely to work. You don’t want to throw a horde of low-level, no-turn-resistance undead at a party full of Good clerics, and you don’t want to try tempting the righteous ascetic with demonic infusions of power.

Whether or not you’re able to get this information before you sit down at the table, you must be prepared either to think on your feet and guide your players back to the story you had in mind, or, if all else fails, dig deep in the notebook and pull out a plausible encounter or two to make the session worth your players’ time. If you don’t have a notebook with some backup encounters, it’s possible, but not advisable, to totally make one up on the fly (trust me). Worst case scenario, you may have to declare rocks fall, everyone dies.

From here, you’ll want to flesh out some story ideas and then see what encounters make sense within your story framework. For instance, I decided to add a final stop for the corpse cart before leaving town, picking up a body fresh from the gallows. With some social interaction, the PCs could find out the man was being hanged for murder and cannibalism. After that, I knew I would make the highwaymen on the road pushovers — Level 1 and 2 rogues against a Level 8 party — as a way of throwing the players off and making the midnight surprise all the more striking. As you may have guessed — if you know your undead lore, anyway — at midnight the players — if they passed their Listen checks — were woken up by the scraping, scratching, pounding or gnawing (depending on how many checks it took before they awoke)  of a newly escaped ghoul hellbent on gnawing on his neighbors.

Using some supplemental book progressions, I advanced the ghoul to become a ghast worthy of eighth-level opponents. This surprise encounter tampered with the common belief among experienced players that each party will only face one mandatory encounter per day. The spellcasters had not rested enough to recover their spells. The fighters hadn’t had enough rest to recover their HP. Because I wanted my one-shot to have a horror-story feel to it, I intentionally tweaked the players’ notion of when their characters could be safe.

While you don’t have to have terror strike in the middle of the night, you may want to consider challenging the notion of a one-per-day encounter limit or attacking your players as they eat, drink and rest at an inn. Or, for added fun, have the inn staff turn on them.

Also, a ghast presents special problems for characters. With the ability to afflict paralysis and ability-draining poison, the ghast attacks not only HP but saves, too. In fact, I’d joked with my players I’d come to refer to my adventure as “Roll Fort,” due to the enormous number of Fortitude saves rolled that night. Attacking characters in ways that affect them beyond their HP is a good way to keep players on their toes and worried for their characters’ lives. Your fighter may have 100 HP, but it only takes two unfortunately high rolls from a Viper Rod (Dungeon Master’s Guide, 1d10 Constitution damage on hit, 1d10 secondary Constitution damage) to kill him.

The next day’s passage to the necropolis would be uneventful. By glossing over the day with such sparse detail, I put all of the anticipation on the necropolis without drawing things out with artificial suspense. By speeding along transitions, you indicate to your players a shift without having to elaborately explain it. My players knew that the ghast could not have been their final fight, and they also knew I had no qualms with breaking convention to threaten their characters. They didn’t know what to expect, other than something bigger and badder than what they’d faced before.

I added an optional encounter with a morose floating ghost warrior just inside the necropolis. He would prove tough if provoked, but he was designed as very reluctant to fight. This low-probability encounter existed to penalize pure hack-and-slash, no-thought play. Opting to fight the peaceful ghost could only serve to waste the PCs’ resources.

After chasing their stupid driver through the necropolis’s gates, they would find him nowhere. At the top of the large, headstone-strewn hill, they’d find perhaps the most common symbol in all of D&D, perhaps in all of fantasy literature, perhaps in all stories: the locked door. The door could only be opened by defeating two pushover skeleton guards who came up from the ground. Once defeated, their bodies would disintegrate, leaving only their jawbones, which just so happened to fit perfectly into the teeth-mark-shaped grooves in the door’s lock mechanism. This simple puzzle allowed more skill- or knowledge-based characters to put their strengths to work in the one-shot, an unfavorable medium for such non-combat-oriented characters.

Once inside, the building presented two paths, more or less identical. One had a room full of zombies; the other, a single vampire. From here, I’d like to talk a little more about rewarding players that chose to play knowledge- and skill-based characters.

After navigating the mausoleum’s halls, our heroes would find themselves in a massive room with walls lined with catacombs. Guarding the door to the final chamber is a zombie sphinx. I drew up a couple death-related riddles for the characters to solve. Each wrong answer or 30-second interval without an attempt caused a zombie or skeleton to animate and drop down from the walls to attack the party. Trying to slash at the zombie sphinx would prove pretty useless. I gave it some insane damage reduction and fast healing. I filled out a stat block for it, but I knew there was pretty much no chance of it ever having to take a swipe at anyone. Riddles answered, the PCs would progress down into the final chamber to hear the screams of their tortured driver and see a Bone Knight (Five Nations) standing beside a doorway.

Once again, skillful characters would be called upon here. The Bone Knight would prove nigh-impossible to distinguish from being another eerie statue without some ranks in Spot. Also, a knowledgeable — or, as in the case of one run-through of this adventure, magpie-like — character with keen eyes would notice the onyx stone resting in one of the slack jaws of the massive ettin corpse in the corner and remove it. With the onyx removed, the ettin could not be brought to unlife through Animate Dead, the preferred method of ally creation for my final bosses. One character’s choice to “climb up the corpse and take the shiny thing” (yes, he was Chaotic Neutral) actually saved the party. At the end of the night, two PCs had died and two had survived; those who made it out only did so by the grace of not having to take on a two-headed giant skeleton.

Skillful characters can become involved in a number of ways. Perhaps the rogue is needed to disarm a particularly crafty trap, or the party needs to pool its mental resources to solve a complex bridge-building puzzle to cross raging rapids, or a still pool of water blocking the party’s way that can be traversed with liberal and creative applications of spells with the “cold” energy descriptor (or boiled away with enough “fire” spells).

My final bosses were the Crypt Keeper (a Dread Necromancer 8; the class is from Heroes of Horror) and a Bone Knight whose character sheet I have since lost. The two would use Animate Dead to bring life to the corpses all around them, or, when castings of that ran low or corpse access was denied, Summon Undead would work in a pinch. The Bone Knight’s undead-bolstering abilities, coupled with his taking the Tomb-Tainted Soul feat (Libris Mortis), made the Dread Necromancer’s charnel touch and negative energy burst class abilities downright nasty. Enemy synergies, and, more importantly, thematically appropriate enemy synergies, contribute to that unified-story, immersive feel.

So, if you could take anything from my babbling, at least take these points:

  • Start planning your adventure by expanding on a single idea you think would be cool to play with
  • Don’t be afraid to mess with convention to keep your players on their toes
  • Increase the difficulty of combat encounters as the adventure progresses
  • Allow all types of characters to find ways to shine

And that’s all I’ve got for this week. Until next week, stay safe, stay smart and don’t play Armored Cancrix.


About Cards 'n' Dice

Cam is a senior journalism and English double major at St. Bonaventure University who was perfectly happy as a nerd strictly of the word variety until Connor persuaded him to try Magic: the Gathering. It was a slippery slope from there to D&D, Sunkist sodas and crack cocaine. My interests tend toward the technical aspects of these games, but we'll see where this blog goes. View all posts by Cards 'n' Dice

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