Ask any dungeon master why they DM and they'll probably say one of two things:
- Because I have a story to tell.
- Because someone has to.
From my experience, most DMs fall into category two. So let's give your hardworking DM a break and run a one-shot! Here's how to build one from scratch!
Step 1: Gather Inspiration
You don't have to come up with a completely new idea to run an interesting one-shot. In fact, you don't have to come up with the idea at all. It's the 21st century and there are plenty of resources online that can help you.
Use Books, TVs, Movies, Online Campaigns, WHATEVER
Have a world or storyline that you absolutely love? Make it into a one-shot! Maybe you love Marvel. Have every player create a character based on a Marvel hero. Love Harry Potter? Have a noseless wizard as your BBEG.
Use Pinterest Boards to Organize Your Resources
It's not just for housewives! You can find everything from maps, monsters, characters, roll tables. You name it, it's probably there. The best part is that you can organize your board into sections to quickly access your resources!
Find a Pre-Made One-Shot
You can find free and low-cost one-shots online from creators everywhere. If you're looking for a place to start, try dmsguild.com!
Step 2: Start with One Detail to Build Around
Start with one detail and focus all aspects of your one-shot around it. For instance, you can start with a town. Perhaps they have a major export but something has halted supply. You can start with the party. Maybe your rogue has stolen something from a powerful noble with an evil backstory. Start with the plot.
For our example, I started with a plot idea: finding missing children. I brainstormed further and added that the children were mysteriously disappearing. A few weeks later, the missing children would reappear at the edge of town, asleep. No matter what the townsfolk did, they couldn't wake the children. Enter our heroic party.
Step 3: Design the Bad Guy
It may seem counterintuitive to start with the end. I promise if you do, everything else will snap into place. Ask yourself several questions about your big bad evil guy:
- What do they want to do?
- How are they doing it?
- Where do they hang out?
- Who are their allies?
- Who are their enemies?
For our example, I found a lot of dream-related monsters, but none of them were exactly what I was looking for. II decided instead to homebrew my own monster. You can find a link that that on the blog soon!
For my choice bad guy, I took aspects of the Dream Larvae, Dream Eater, and Night Hag. Enter the Dream Eater Queen. ISn't she lovely?
This also allowed me another way to keep the children asleep, via larvae. They are small enough to cling to the children and also allow momma bug to siphon their dreams. Gross, but it works!
Step 4: Add the Beginning
Answer these questions about the beginning of your game:
- How do your players get started in the game? Will they start in the heat of battle or arrive after the scene of the crime?
- What are your character class types? This is important to know so that you can add the necessary challenges. You'll want to throw in some lock picking for the rogue or some persuasion chances for the bard. Don't fret too much about this though. It's easy to make up checks on the fly!
For ours, we'll have the players meeting a contact in the town. We'll assume they've already accepted the request from their guild patron. They'll be entering the town hall. There, the captain of the guard will give them the details of finding the children.
He'll give them the clues necessary to begin the search. He'll also mention the holding place of the found children: a medical facility.
TIP: Don't start naming stuff yet!
I find that developing names derails my creative progress. Don't start naming stuff yet. Save that for last, after you've used your brain cells for the hardest part of the one-shot: plotline!
Step 5: Add the Middle
This is where all the clues and encounters come into play. You'll need NPCs, monsters, maps, clues, secrets, and of course treasure!
Who's important for the story? Who will help the clue finding? For our example, we'll need a parent of two, the captain of the guard, and possibly the mayor.
Write down a few bullet points about what they know. Also, write down a brief one-line description of what they look like. This will help you, and your players, differentiate between NPCs. You may also want to jot down a few extra names, in case your players pull an unsuspecting citizen into the mix.
You have the big bad evil guy, but you'll need other smaller encounters to build up to the big guy. I'm going to add a few other monsters in the forest and possibly in the dungeon. We'll stick to the larvae theme.
Clues, Secrets, and Treasure
The children are being returned to the town by fey sprites. But why? Well, this town has a history of leaving out sweets and snacks near a statue in town. This is also where the children are found asleep. We'll need someone to recount the old wives' tale and tradition surrounding the statue.
Develop 3-5 clues that will lead the players to the BBEG. Sprinkle these throughout the story. Think of several ways for your players to fall upon the same clue. This will help keep your players on track., and keep them from being too frustrated.
A quick way to create a dungeon is to find a premade map online and tailor it to your adventure. You'll want to add some of the clues you made above. You'll also want to consider adding an encounter and a puzzle or two here.
Step 6: Add the End
What happens when they kill all the baddies? Do they get cool loot? Free room and board in town? Wrap up the one-shot with a summary.
In our case, they get to see the children waking up and coming home. They'll get some coin from the mayor who posted the job as well. Don't worry about cool items or money much. Anything goes in one-shots, and rewards rarely carry over.
Bonus Tip: Cut Out All the Time Sucks
To keep your one shot to one session, you'll need to cut out some things that are more time-consuming. Here's a list of things you should cut out of your adventure to keep it short:
- Shopping Montages - Instead of spending 30 minutes shopping, give your players items. A couple of healing potions are helpful. You might want to give them any other items you deem necessary for the adventure as well.
- Player Introductions Save the time (and the awkwardness of strangers meeting in a bar). Have the party already know each other in advance. There are a few ways to do this. One of the easiest ways is to have each player write a paragraph about their character. Send these paragraphs out to all your players before sitting down at the table.