The Art of the One-Shot Adventure

One shot adventures can be very difficult to use. They interrupt a campaign, don’t involve a lot of opportunity to advance the characters involved, mechanically or through roleplaying, and offer little in the way of obvious rewards for the players involved—after all, once the one-shot ends, so does their time with that character, so any experience gains or treasure acquired feels meaningless.

Still, there are plenty of good reasons to use one shot adventures:

  • If you can’t get your players together regularly, an episodic series of one shot adventures may allow you to play without needing long recaps.
  • If your play group has a number of players who are only occasionally available, or someone is going on a vacation and your main campaign is on hold, play doesn’t need to wait for everyone to be present.
  • If you are starting a new group and want to see how well the players will be able to work together, it’s a good trial by fire.
  • If a player wants to test a new class or build, or you want to check if playtest material is overpowered, it’s a low-impact way to do so.
  • Running a session with a very different tone from your normal gaming is a great reason for a one shot.

There are ways to use one shot adventures within the structure of an ongoing campaign, as well. One is to use one shots as exposition. The players taking the roles of heroes from the distant past, whose legendary exploits their regular characters grew up hearing tales of, or whom they find themselves becoming in their character’s dreams. This is a good method of giving your campaign world more depth, as you can explore your world’s history in greater depth in an interactive way, rather than simply explaining to them about great events of the past. In this idea it usually works to let the players create the secondary group of characters themselves, either completely on their own or to specific guidelines you give them.

You could also have the players take the role of members of an organization antagonistic to their normal characters, to let them as players have some insight into what’s going on without having to feed that information to their characters. This idea can lead to problems if not handled correctly, though, as you need to take care not to have the two groups of characters come into direct conflict, and there is always the possibility that your players will engage in metagaming.

Another interesting use of one shot adventures, though probably the hardest to use, involves a seemingly unrelated story that sets up events in your regular campaign weeks or months after you run it. Have your players roll up new characters, then run them through a short dungeon or other adventure before killing them off or having them learn some horrible secret that drives them mad. Wait for a few weeks or months, then revisit the setting with their regular characters. The players will feel a sense of foreboding, since they have some inkling of what lies ahead. There’s a lot of setup and planning ahead involved in something like this, but if you pull it off successfully it can become a very memorable part of a campaign. The effect is somewhat lessened if the players are aware in advance of this tactic, but it can still be effective even so.

However you decide to use one shots in your campaign, keep a few important things in mind:

  • Don’t skimp out on the rewards to regular PCs. Grant experience as normal to the usual characters, even if they don’t appear, and handle treasure by giving out more than normal for a few encounters to make up for the “skipped” rewards.
  • Don’t restrict the players too much. You’re already asking them to set aside their usual characters, so don’t force them to play a character they don’t want to. If you do want to use pre-generated characters, give them some choice in which one they use—having twice as many pre-generated characters as you have players is a good rule of thumb for making sure there are enough options. Giving them guidelines to make suitable characters is even better.
  • Always strive to make it fun. Don’t let it turn into a session of your players sitting around and listening to you tell a story. They are still the main characters, and they should never feel peripheral to the action.

With all this in mind, you and your players should find that one shots can be just as enjoyable an experience as regular play.


Comments (2)

King Fumbler (July 22nd, 2009)

"Always strive to make it fun."

Best advice ever.

Meltivore (July 30th, 2009)

Great advice!

One of the best adventures I’ve ever run had three players as orc subchiefs vying to replace the chief who had recently passed. The players ran with the roles in a big way and by the end it was sorted; one of them won with help of the tribe’s shaman, who actually was responsible for the chief’s death and the real ruler of the tribe. This four hour adventure happened over ten years ago and we still talk about it today.

Viva la one-shot!

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