Ask Angry: How to Write a One-Shot

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It’s time for another installment of the sweariest gaming advice column there is! It’s time for Ask Angry! If you want to Ask Angry a question, see this page on how to Ask Angry!

Scarecrow asks:

Do you have any advice for designing and running good, short, one-shot adventures? I’m asking specifically about adventures that would take four to six hours to get through, and could also be run independently.

First of all, here’s some free advice: when you write to a guy who has a reputation for f$&%ing with people who pick funny pseudonyms instead of just using their nice, normal, given name, do not choose a pseudonym that is also the name of a character that was famous for literally having no brain. I mean, the jokes just write themselves at that point. Now, I’ve never been one to go for the comedic low-hanging fruit, but still, even I can’t resist it when someone lobs a nice slow pitch right over the plate.

But anyway…

I’m not sure I understand the last little bit about it “also being run independently.” Do you mean that the one-shot adventure should not be part of an ongoing campaign? Because that’s what one-shot means. I mean, that’s what it’s supposed to mean. When people sit down for a one-shot adventure, they are expecting to never play those characters again. The story and the game are entirely self-contained. Or are you merely asking about short adventures that could ALSO be run as one-shots?

So, let’s lay it out there: a one-shot adventure is one that is entirely self-contained. It doesn’t build on, establish, or exist in the middle of an ongoing story. It’s a one-and-done affair. The players will come into the adventure blindly, with no knowledge of any prior events or backstory. And when they are done with the adventure, win or lose, they will never see those characters again or continue the story in any way.

Now, a one-shot adventure can be played over multiple sessions. Nothing says it can’t. The beginning and the end of the adventure are defined by the adventure itself. But if you’re limiting yourself to one block of time and never having a follow-up session, you can call that a single-session adventure.

Now, single-session adventures DO NOT have to be one-shot adventures. You can build an entire campaign around playing a different single-session adventure every week. And there can be some good reasons why you would want to do that thing. If your group doesn’t meet regularly or there are frequent attendance problems, a series of single-session adventures can make for a great campaign.

Anyway, with the terminology helpfully defined by yours truly because, now we can look at both issues. What’s special about one-shot adventures and what’s special about single-session adventures?

First of all, recall that an adventure begins with a motivation, ends with a resolution, and contains a series of scenes linked together by some sort of structure. Right? That’s what an adventure is. Well, by the definition, there’s almost nothing special about one-shot adventures. If you hold to a strict adventure definition to begin with, every adventure IS self-contained.

BUT…

Most GMs simply don’t run adventures that way. The edges of the adventures, over time, sort of get fuzzy. Many times, GMs who run ongoing campaigns allow the motivations – the reasons for players and their characters to actually care about the resolution – to smear out a bit. For example, the GM might threaten an NPC that was established in a prior adventure as the motivation for the current adventure. That means that the reason for the PCs (and the players) to care was established before. Further, many GMs who run ongoing games can also leave the ending partly unresolved. For example, the villain might escape to become an ongoing rival. Or the resolution itself might create a further problem.

Moreover, many GMs will leave plot-threads dangling to be wrapped up in some future adventure. Or to never be wrapped up. The PCs, for example, might meet a strange NPC necromancer who clearly has his own plans and ulterior motives unrelated to the plot at hand. The NPC’s deal might be revealed in more detail in future adventures. Or it might never be revealed.

In a one-shot adventure, though, the GM can’t do ANY of that. A one-shot adventure MUST begin with clear motivations for the players and their characters. And it must end with a clear, unambiguous resolution (unless you’re doing some artsy, Inception-style bulls$%&, and don’t do that). And any other questions that the adventure establishes MUST be answered – or at least answerable – by the end of the adventure.

What does that mean? First of all, the players have to understand exactly what the goal of the adventure is from the outset. But they also have to understand why it’s important. And the players also have to understand why the adventure will be fun to play from the outset. Now, you might think that’s easy enough to do. You just have to tell the players “you need to rescue the princess from the dragon because the dragon is evil, the princess is innocent, and the former will eat the latter if you don’t, and also this adventure contains a dragon to fight and that’s awesome.” But the problem is that the motivation has to work for ALL of the characters from the outset.

See, if you have a group of noble heroes and their one greedy friend with valuable skills who is just in it for the treasure, you don’t have to worry too much about motivating the greedy friend in an ongoing campaign. The greedy friend will have realized that the noble heroes always end finding a crap-ton of gold and is willing to tag along even if the payoff isn’t immediately obvious. And if a particular adventure doesn’t pay well, the greedy friend will still go along for the next one because the noble heroes are still a pretty good bet overall.

But with the one-shot, you can’t count on ANY history or trend or tendency or relationship between the players except what you explicitly write into the adventure. Or into the characters. Or demand to be written into the characters.

If you run a one-shot adventure in which the players are allowed to create their own characters, you run the risk that a given character won’t give a motherloving f$&% about whatever particular motivation is behind your adventure. I guarantee you that you will almost always get the one a$&hole who decides to play an evil, greedy treasure-hunting thief if you try to run a one-shot based on doing the right thing because it’s the right thing. And if you write an adventure based on any sort of plunder or theft or mercenary crap, you’re going to get one idiot with an upstanding paladin who wants no part of it.

That’s why many GMs who run one-shot adventures will do one of two things. Either they will create their own characters and hand them out to the players OR they will give very specific instructions about the premise of the game when they ask people to make characters for a one-shot adventure.

Creating your own characters is the easiest. When you create characters in tandem with the adventure they are going to play, you can make sure each character has a motivation that matches up with the adventure’s motivations. The PCs in the dragon adventure might consist of the princess’ wizard cousin, the princess’ younger sister who is a knight of the realm, the princess’ childhood friend who is a scoundrel-with-a-heart-of-gold she met in the market that one time when she tried to escape from the castle and visit a whole new world and a gain a new fantastic point of view, and so on.

Alternatively, if the players will make their own characters, you – the GM – can say something like “now, in this adventure, you will be rescuing an evil princess from a beautiful dragon, so you need to explain why your character is willing to do such a thing.” And then each player can come up with reasons like “my character is a trained and licensed Aristocracy Finder who specializes in kidnapped noble scions” or “my character just cares about the ransom” or “my character has always wanted to fight a dragon.”

Whether the players create their own characters or simply choose from a roster of characters you’ve created, the motivations also tell you what the resolution has to look like. The princess must be rescued or dead, the dragon must be slain or driven off, and the characters who expected a reward must receive or not receive that reward depending on the final status of the princess and the dragon. Basically, every expectation has to be paid off in the end OR fail to be paid off because of how the idiot players f$&%ed it up.

As mentioned, the one-shot adventure also has to economize. You, as a GM writing such an adventure, have to be very careful not to pique the players’ curiosity about things that aren’t important to the adventure. If there is an interesting bit of world lore or a character with interesting motives or a mysterious backstory or whatever, it MUST be paid off during the adventure. Or, at least, the payoff must be available even if the idiot players don’t find it. Basically, if there’s a question the players and their characters MIGHT ask about the story or the world, they must be able to find out the answer in the game.

The long-and-short of it comes down to Chekhov’s Gun. Basically, this is a law uttered by Anton Chekhov of Star Wars. He said “if you put a phaser gun in the first part of your Star Wars episode, it must have been used to shoot an Ewok by the end of the episode.” Except he said it in a comically racist Russian accent. Basically, don’t include any details in a one-shot adventure that won’t pay off IN THAT ADVENTURE.

The same goes for any game mechanical crap that won’t pay off before the end of the adventure. For example, one-shot adventures can contain far less treasure than a typical adventure because the players won’t be spending that money later. It just doesn’t matter. And magical items that won’t be useful in the current adventure are pointless to include. In fact, you should assume that ANY magic item you give out WILL be used before the end of the adventure, so don’t put in any magical item that will break the adventure. By the same token, XP doesn’t matter. You don’t even have to count the s$&%. Who cares if the PCs level up? They will never be seen again.

Except for making sure that the motivation and all the plot threads and everything else are entirely self-contained and have no life outside of the adventure, writing a one-shot adventure is no different than writing any other adventure.

Where things really get challenging is writing a single-session adventure.

A single-session adventure presents some very interesting challenges for the adventure writer. By which I mean they can be a major pain in the a$&. And they are a major pain in the a$& for two reasons. First, every minute of game time is a limited resource. And, two, the game cannot run over the allotted time no matter what. It has to be finished by the end of the session.

That second part is actually super important and it’s one I’ve seen many convention GMs forget. In order for an adventure to even BE an adventure, let alone be satisfying, it must contain a motivation and a resolution. That is, it must have a beginning and an ending. Now, the beginning is easy. The adventure literally can’t start without one. But the ending is tough. Here’s the thing: if you run out of time, you can’t just skip the ending without literally ruining the adventure and leaving your players unsatisfied and disappointed. The players MUST see the resolution.

And that rule CANNOT be broken. Even if the players drag their feet and take three extra hours to get through one single combat and even if the players spend the entire session wandering around investigating unrelated plot threads, they must still see the resolution. No matter what. And that can be really, REALLY hard.

For that reason, any adventure that has to fit into a single session just CANNOT be a player-driven experience. If you trust the players to drive the adventure, they will spend their four to six hours doing doughnuts in the parking lot and then still complain when they don’t get to Disney World. I s$&% you not.

For that reason, most single-session adventures are driven by the GM. Moreover, they tend to follow more constrained structures. They tend to be linear or branching. But, even if they are branching, they tend to loop back in on themselves. Sure, you can go left or go right, but both paths eventually lead to the same conclusion. Branching, single-session adventures usually avoid dead-ends where the PCs can go down the wrong path and end up having to double back. If it’s a dungeon, the dungeon doesn’t have long paths that lead nowhere and just waste the PCs’ time. If it’s a mystery, the mystery doesn’t have false leads or red herrings that lead the party astray. Long story short, every path must lead forward. There are no side paths, no dead ends, and no diversions or digressions or detours.

Similarly, if the adventure can fail – that is, if one of the possible resolutions is that the PCs don’t manage to accomplish their goals – then that failure must be very obvious. That is, all of the PCs must die. Or the world must be destroyed. Or the evil god must rise from his slumber and cast a pall of darkness over the lands and seas. Whatever. If the PCs screw up too many scenes or do too many things wrong, there must be a way for you to end the adventure with a failure state.

For those reasons, time constraints actually work WONDERFULLY in single-session, one-shot adventures. The ritual will be completed in six hours. The princess will die in 24 hours if she doesn’t get her insulin. Kuchooloo will awaken at midnight under the Blood Moon. That way, you – as the GM – can say “oops, time’s up, the princess is dead and the ritual is completed and Kuchooloo rips out of the depths of hell and spreads his tentacles of icefire across the world and you’re all killed in horrible and painful ways and also the world ends dumba$&es. Thanks for playing.”

Now, there are some very out-of-game things to consider when it comes to how your adventure can end. And the most important one is “is it okay for the adventure to end early.” For example, pretend the players f$&% up so badly that they lose the entire adventure in the first hour of the session. Is that okay? If it’s a home game with friends, that might be okay. Especially if you don’t care about what those friends think so much. But if the game is a convention game where players have signed up to spend a four-hour block of time on your game and maybe have paid money for it, that can be very unfair.

If the game isn’t one that can end early, time constraints become an even more useful tool. Because, as a GM, you control the flow of time. You can decide how long individual encounters and travel between encounters and all that other s$&% takes. And you can synch it up with the time left in the session. Or, even better, to make it run out faster the later in the session it is. So, if the PCs have 24 hours to stop the ritual and the session is half over, maybe everything they’ve done up to now has taken 18 hours. And if it hasn’t, you need to insert a time sink (like travel, research, or a delay) that swallows up enough time to put them at the 18-hour mark.

And that brings us to the greatest secret of the single-session adventure: time management and the mutable adventure. You, as the GM, need to CONSTANTLY adjust the adventure based on how much time is left. The absolute BEST way to write a single-session adventure, especially a single-session one-shot adventure, is to write the beginning and the ending and then have a pile of scenes you can sneakily add into or remove in the middle of the adventure.

One of my favorites is the road adventure. In this adventure, the PCs must get from point A to point B. Why? Maybe they are carrying medicine or news of an invasion or they are going to an ancient evil temple to stop a ritual. Most of the adventure involves traveling through the wilderness along one of several branching paths with obstacles and encounters popping up along the way. When the session is getting close to the end, you can skip to the end. If the end is a climactic encounter, you can skip to that when there’s one hour left in the session. If the end is just the resolution, you can skip there with ten minutes left.

Chase adventures, race adventures, and escort adventures also work very well for this format. In a chase adventure, the PCs must follow something else through the wilderness and catch them before they get somewhere. Race adventures involve the PCs trying to get somewhere before someone else. And escort adventures are just road adventures where the goal is keeping a person (or thing) alive (or intact or out of the hands of the enemy). All of these adventures involve a constraint, a clear goal, and an easy way for the GM to adjust the time needed.

If a mutable adventure – one in which the GM just adds crap to the middle of the adventure or subtracts it out to fill time – isn’t your cup of tea, the alternative is to carefully control the amount of content in the adventure. Basically, in that adventure, you design exactly enough content to fill the time. And that can be SUPER tricky. But it is doable.

If you want to go for the constrained content adventure, the first thing you have to know is how long it takes to do anything in your system of choice. For example, I find that, in modern editions of D&D and Pathfinder, I can safely assume that a combat takes about an hour, a non-combat obstacle or puzzle takes a half hour, and an interaction scene takes about fifteen minutes. Now, that hour for combat includes the set-up time, the party arguing about whether to rest after the fight, and the party looting the bodies and fighting over what to do with the survivors. In addition, you can assume that you will need fifteen minutes at the beginning of the adventure to start it up and fifteen minutes at the end to finish it.

So, if you have a four hour session, you can have a beginning (15 min), a resolution (15 min), a climactic battle (1 hr), two other battles (2 hr), and one obstacle (30 min). Now, that’s cutting it kind of close, but it’s easily doable. If you find your combats tend to run longer, you can adjust accordingly. For this to work, you need to know your own running habits.

Knowing that information, you can actually make some pretty complex branching adventures that LOOK like freeform open adventures. For example, suppose you have six hours of session to fill. Which means five hours and thirty minutes of time once you subtract the beginning and the ending. Now, suppose the last encounter will be a climactic combat (1 hr). So, you now have four-and-a-half hours to fill.

The first encounter involves an obstacle (30 min). If the PCs defeat that obstacle, they go on to Path A. If they fail to defeat the obstacle, they go on to Path B. Both Path A and Path B must be four hours long. Suppose Path A involves a question of either sneaking in the underground passage or fighting through the front door. Well, fighting through the front door is a combat (1 hr), so sneaking in the underground passage must involve two obstacles (30 min each). And then both of those paths can drop the PCs at the same point in the adventure. If the party bribes their way past the guards (interaction, 15 minutes), then that must lead them to an alternate path with an obstacle (30 minutes) and maybe another interaction later. By carefully planning using game time as a resource, you can build a complex set of branches that always lead forward and swallow up all of the time in the adventure. It’s tricky, but doable.

Either way, a single-session adventure MUST include either a way for you to control the flow of time OR to skip to the end, good or bad OR it must be planned around the game time it will take. Otherwise, you can’t guarantee a resolution. And if you can’t finish an adventure, you shouldn’t start it.

And that leads us to the other aspect of single-session adventures: game time is EXTREMELY valuable. Every minute of the session should be spent PLAYING the game. And I mean PLAYING. Apart from the usual dicking around and chatting and joking and having a good time, which must be kept to a minimum, there are other aspects of RPG sessions that need to be kept under control. For example, exposition must be kept to a minimum. Dicking around with the world must be kept to a minimum. And, most importantly, the GM showing off how awesome the world is must be kept to a minimum.

In a single-session adventure, world building is a waste of time. The players are NOT there to see what an awesome world you created. They are there to play a game and they have a very limited amount of time to play it. So, they don’t care what is unique about your world of Gaia-Terra. Any world building you do want to show off has to be woven seamlessly and efficiently into the narrative.

I’ve seen this happen A LOT at campaign adventures. The GM gets it in their head that they want to do something unique and special and amazing and so they decide to create a unique world with unique elements and then game time gets swallowed up with exposition and world building and knowledge checks that reveal the complex socio-political history of the matriarchal republic of Amazonia or whatever. That s$&% robs players of their game time. They don’t f$&%ing care.

The setting for a convention or single-session adventure should be as generic as possible. And if it is in a specific setting, it should be in the most generic area of that specific setting as possible. And it shouldn’t draw on any specialized knowledge of the world, even if the world is a published setting, unless you know every player sitting down is already an expert in that setting.

If you want to do something special or unique or interesting with your convention – because you have some sort of bulls$&% delusion that that makes your game better (it doesn’t) – you have to do it in the gameplay or the actual story of the adventure. And you have to do it with minimal explanation.

Even the scene that starts the adventure, the one where the heroes receive their quest and learn why its important and agree to accept it, should be as abbreviated as possible. Hell, when I run a convention game, the quintessential single-session, one-shot adventure, I deliver the quest-giving scene as brief exposition:

You’ve been recruited by the Star League to defend the Frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada. While you were out on a training mission, Star League headquarters was destroyed by the Ko-Dan Command Cube. You are the only surviving Starfighters. But fortunately, a group of Bothans have supplied you with the plans for the Command Cube which reveal it’s one critical weakness. Unfortunately, the Ko-Dan have assimilated Captain Picard of the Star League and turned him into a Ko-Dan drone using their Nanothinginie technology. So, you’re facing a foe who knows all of your equipment and tactics. Destroy the Hive Cube and kill or rescue Captain Picard. Good luck.

There we go. Three minutes and the adventure is ready to go. And all of the important details are there. Also notice that there isn’t much world-building because it doesn’t need to be. The players don’t need to know the history of the Star League or the Ko-Dan armada or how the Nanothingies work or who the Bothans are. They have all the information they need.

The point is, anything that isn’t game should be kept to a minimum. Even the stuff required for the game.

And that’s it. One-shot adventures must be self-contained, providing motives for the players and the characters, a resolution, and pretty much nothing else. Single-session adventures must provide a way for the GM to control the flow of time OR a way to skip to the end OR a be carefully designed around the clock and they must recognize that every minute of game time is too valuable to waste on anything that isn’t playing the actual game.

And there you go, Scarecrow. You have a brain. And now you can incorrectly quote the Pythagorean Theorem, give me a hug, and then get the hell off-screen.

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11 thoughts on “Ask Angry: How to Write a One-Shot

  1. Great timing, putting this out before the Christmas/New Year’s period, where the older ones among us have a chance to get together, without this “real life” crap taking away all our game time! Prior to reading the article I considered running a one-shot for friends that come to visit – now I’m almost sure I will do so.

  2. Scarecrow, it’s a trap, do NOT hug Angry! I’m not sure what will happen, but since you’re a scarecrow I’m gonna assume fire…

  3. At one point, my group just got way too big. It was 8 people. Next thing I know, I’m running two separate four-person groups. Down the line, people get busy and I conglomerate remnants of both groups into a new four-person group. But we still have problems getting together with consistency because of recent holidays and upcoming ones. That being said, I’ve started doing a lot of these single-session adventures, that way if somebody doesn’t show up, we can continue on, wrap things up, and jump into a new story the next time we get together.

  4. That’s almost all great advice for an ongoing campaign, too. Minimum backstory and dump them into something that matters right away. I find not piquing players’ (er, characters’) interests with shiny things that don’t matter is critical if I want to keep the story on track and not spend all my time improvising. Or running down the hole of many fantasy authors who are better at introducing plot arcs than resolving them. And as much as I like sprawling space operas and world-spanning fantasy, I prefer economical, more localized stories. Not lecturing the players with backstory, but instead weaving it into the ongoing gameplay (i.e., narrative), is just following the principle of showing rather than telling that’s so critical to good writing. The only problem is that it’s not easy. If it were, I’d have many more awesome books to read.

  5. This is really a great article!

    I have a habit of getting a bit bored with my campaign sometimes so a one-shot seems like a good way to scratch the itch for something different without starting a new campaign. Something like the whole party is one class (with different builds for each) sounds fun and would give us all the chance to explore the possibilities for the class.

  6. Great points and a great read for someone like me who does a lot of one-session adventures! I usually like to find modules that already exist (or even the plot of a movie), then just tweak it to my own needs. Having a bunch of optional encounters in the middle is definitely a technique I use to make sure we stay on schedule.

    It’s really something you just need to feel out with practice. So much depends on the size of your group (5-6+ can slow things down a lot), their levels (a bunch of level 10s sifting through their myriad of spells and abilities can make combat much slower) and their experience level (newbies obviously need that extra bit of time for rule explanations and help along the way).

    Sometimes I can only get through one combat encounter in a one-session adventure, other times it can be as many as 4 or 5.

    I always try to keep a good mix of different types of encounters as well. One or two combats, a couple puzzles or traps and a few social interactions can work together to make a very satisfying little adventure.

  7. In November, I will be reverting to my normal schedule of Megadungeon Monday, Feature Wednesday, and Word of the Week Friday.

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