Whether you want to take a break from your regular campaign, give your DM a week off, introduce some new players to the game, or try out something a bit (or even wildly) different to your usual style of play, running a one-shot is a great way to have a few hours of self-contained fun.
What is a One-Shot?
A One-Shot is a short adventure that can be completed in a single session of play – about 4-6 hours.
One-Shot adventures tend to…
- Start in media res.
- Be self-contained stories.
- Have clear, well-defined goals.
- Comprise a mix of encounter types.
- Involve between four and six encounters.
If you’re a Dungeons & Dragons 5e dungeon master planning your first One-Shot adventure, or an experienced DM just looking for some inspiration, this guide will hopefully help you prepare a fun One-Shot adventure for your players to storm through at your next game night.
There are also quite literally thousands of places from which to draw inspiration and find pre-written content, whether it’s plucking an excellent dungeon from a larger adventure, the plot of your favorite episode of Supernatural, or a specifically pre-written one-shot idea, we’ve also included some of our favorite examples in the resources section at the end.
Pre-Generated Characters Are Your Friends
Unless creating characters is something your group loves, when running a One-Shot, new players especially can really benefit from being handed a pre-generated character.
While you’re welcome to give your players a rough concept and instructions to bring a pre-made character to the session, most players will be happy to have the work done for them ahead of time.
Also, a player is less likely to start out feeling deeply attached to a pregenerated character, and will likely make more interesting choices when they’re not running the risk of killing their 7th level drow edgelord with thirteen pages of backstory and a +1 magic sword.
There’s a bunch of classic pre-generated characters available on the official D&D 5e site here.
“Start at the Dungeon”
When planning a One-Shot adventure, it’s important to remember that you’re effectively herding cats against the clock. No plan survives contact with the enemy, and your players will certainly derail, disrupt, and throw wrenches in your carefully planned encounters no matter how well you laid your plans.
This is okay. This is D&D.
However, we’re running a One-Shot here. You probably have between 4 and 6 hours to get from the beginning to the end and give everybody a satisfying conclusion before Steve’s mom picks him up for oboe practice.
As such, a lot of the advice I’d normally give about things like player agency, avoiding railroading, and presenting a verisimilitudinous world to your players goes right out the window.
If you start in a tavern, with a mysterious stranger waiting at the bar, your players are going to spend the first hour (if you’re lucky) roleplaying their characters, getting in bar fights (yes, multiple bar fights), and trying to rob the innkeeper
If you’re running a longer campaign, then fine. Let your players spend a whole session dicking around in the tavern. Then, have orcs attack the tavern.
But we’re on the clock, here, lads. We have an adventure planned and we need to finish it. Like death itself, the hour of Steve’s mom showing up to take him to oboe practice marches ever closer. Tick Tock.
Basically, my advice for starting a One-Shot boils down to “Put them outside the dungeon”.
It can be tempting – I know, I’ve tried it before – to include scenes where your heroes are issued their quest or the sequence of events which sees them trekking to the dungeon, but often as not this will only serve to unfocus your players.
They’ll latch on to extraneous details in your world, like an inadvertently suspicious merchant, and wrongly assume that this is the adventure.
Players have imperfect knowledge, so they tend to be like dogs chasing cars. You need to put the thing right in front of them if you want to avoid an hour of fruitless debate – after which the tavern burns down.
Wherever your adventure begins, put the players there.
The Power of a Primer
Whether I’m starting a One-Shot or a multi-year campaign, I always give my players a primer – either before the first session or when we sit down to play. It can be as short as a few sentences or as long as a page – anything longer tends to start feeling like a lore-dump.
Here’s one I wrote for a recent mini-campaign:
Do you hear them in the night? Deep, booming… the war drums in the valley. Karnak, the Bloody Hand of The Overlord, is marching on the valley of Yarrow.
His gnoll scouts already stalk the lands, snatching villagers, spying on the millita’s preparations, and burning down the Fort at the Redbriar Bridge. In less than a week, the bulk of Karnak’s forces will arrive – hobgoblins, war trolls, and wolf riders by the hundred.
You, along with all other able-bodied folk in the valley, have been ordered to report to the town of Bream by Lady Montevolk to aid in the doomed defense of Yarrow. Do you hear them? Boom… boom… in the night, the war drums draw near.
While this wouldn’t do for a One-Shot (I’d probably isolate the game to a single encounter, like defending a location or assassinating Karnak or one of his lieutenants) it gives the players some key context, as well as drawing them into the situation at hand.
There’s an army on the way, we need to stop it or we’re all dead. Simple enough.
A Clear Goal
Whether you use a primer or not, it’s important that players starting a One-Shot have a goal.
Clear, well-defined goals keep adventures moving, they make the players more invested, and they help avoid the absolute worst sentence to hear as a DM: “Why are we even doing this, anyway?”
Having a clear goal is also a great place to begin planning your adventure, as there are some great archetypical frameworks to choose from that your players will immediately resonate with. “Oh, rescuing a princess from a dungeon full of goblins. Cool I get it.”
One-Shot Adventure Goals
Rescue Someone: The Baron’s daughter, the blacksmith’s prized albino mule, or the local wizard’s apprentice has been taken in the night by goblins! The goblins left tracks leading away from the site of their attack. Get the daughter/mule/apprentice back alive and you shall be rewarded.
Steal Something: You know the whereabouts of something of great value (a magic item, a lost piece of art, the Baron’s daughter), and this is your best chance to claim it for yourselves.
Kill Something (or Someone): A bugbear warlord, a corrupt merchant, a renegade sorcerer, or some other unambiguously villainous personage is coming to town. Their enemies will pay handsomely if they never arrive.
Escape!: You wake up in a drow prison wagon, or locked within the depths of a necromancer’s tomb, or in the cells beneath the Baron’s castle awaiting execution. Luckily, one of you has managed to get out of their restraints. The guards will be back soon. Good luck.
Stop a Ritual: Foul goat men and their cultist servants are plotting the end of the world. The ritual takes place tonight at a location close by. You must stop it before daybreak lest evil incarnate be released upon these lands.
Perform a Ritual: Evil incarnate was released upon these lands. Now, a powerful mage must gather the necessary supplies to conduct the ritual needed to banish it once again. You must help them obtain these items and protect them while they conduct the necessary rites.
Escort Someone: Supplies, the Baron’s daughter, or any other suitable macguffin is on its way from A to B. A criminal gang is going to try and steal the macguffin before it reaches Point B. You’ve been hired to make sure that doesn’t happen.
These goals could easily be tweaked and twisted to fit almost any encounter you have planned. The encounters are what makes the One-Shot exciting, but even if you just want to run a straightforward dungeon, having a player goal to hang that adventure on is going to do a lot to keep things moving forward.
What’s The Best Party Level for a One-Shot?
You can run a One-Shot at any level. Some players and DMs like to experiment with super high-level play for a One-Shot, as insanely overpowered PCs and crazy monsters make for a fun challenge.
However, I think D&D 5e (especially when you’re introducing new players to the game) shines at 3rd level. Most classes tend to unlock their defining abilities around 3rd level, and characters will have enough hit points that you can throw more exciting challenges at your players without them all getting insta-gibbed because the Young Red Dragon rolled max damage on its breath attack.
If you’re running a One-Shot for a more experienced table, 5th level characters can also make for a fun game. Alternatively, a highly lethal One-Shot where each player brings three or four 1st level characters can also be fun.
A Ticking Clock
The only thing more dramatic than a clear goal is one that needs to be completed in a rapidly shortening length of time. Introducing a ticking clock to your One-Shot is a great way to ratchet up the tension as the session wears on, keep your players focused, and make your world feel more real.
In a meta sense, you as the DM are going to be worrying about time in the real world as you play your One-Shot. So, why not make your players worry about time as well?
Trying to rescue the Baron’s daughter? Good. Racing desperately to rescue the Baron’s daughter before the goblins sacrifice her to their dark god, releasing a plague of demons upon the land? Better.
By setting events in motion, you also give the players some very real consequences if they fail, which should hopefully make them more motivated to keep the momentum up.
When it comes to tracking time, you can use any number of simple tools. I personally use a series of boxes to create a timeline, which also helps me track what the monsters and NPCs are up to at any given moment.
- Hour One: The goblins return to their lair with the Blacksmith’s prize mule.
- Hour Two: The goblins begin their ritual. A roaring fire is lit, sending a column of black smoke into the night’s sky. The front door of the tomb is sealed shut.
- Hour Three: The walls between realities weaken as the ritual continues. Demons begin to appear from portals throughout the goblin lair, attacking goblins and adventurers indiscriminately.
- Hour Four: The ritual is complete. The mule is dragged to the altar and sacrificed, calling forth a greater demon from the void. It eats all the goblins and makes its way towards the surface at the head of its army.
A Self-Contained Location
In much the same way that starting your players outside the dungeon with a clear adventure goal and a ticking clock keeps your One-Shot on track, limiting that adventure to a single, self-contained location is a great way to give your adventure focus.
There are loads of ways to do this, from simply telling your players that this adventure is all about storming a wizard’s tower, to trapping their characters on a ship in the middle of the ocean, or on a speeding train (train robberies make for great One-Shots).
Some possible ideas for a self-contained location include…
- A wizard’s pocket dimension.
- A magical land you can only leave after killing the vampire that rules it.
- A haunted mansion where all the doors are locked.
- A maximum security prison.
- A djinni’s lamp.
Memorable Monsters and Bosses
One of the best ways to make a One-Shot memorable is to have memorable monsters and a great villain. Strahd Von Zarovich, the vampire lord from Castle Ravenloft and the brilliant 5e adventure Curse of Strahd is a great example of a memorable villain whose identity is tied up in the setting and goal of the adventure.
My advice when planning a One-Shot is to build your monsters and boss around a key theme. Running an underwater treasure hunt? Skeletal pirates, giant squid, and a vengeful ghost should all make for a fun, on-point encounter. Maybe throw in a Chuul for good measure.
Since D&D is largely a game about fighting and killing monsters, choosing the right ones for your game is going to be a large part of whether your One-Shot works or not.
Think about not just which kinds of monsters will provide a balanced (or unbalanced, if you’re me) challenge for the party, but also what kinds of monsters will spark your players’ interest.
Running a One-Shot for a group of first time players? Goblins and skeletons will still feel new, while also creating that “classic” D&D experience.
Running a game for an experienced (read: jaded) gang of veteran monster hunters? Take the opportunity to run some truly weird monsters at them, like Flumphs, Githyanki Knights, Carrion Crawlers, or the aforementioned Chuul.
Monster abilities can also be a great central mechanism for your adventure beyond “bag of hit points you must kill in order to pass GO and collect 200 gp”. Doppelgangers, for example, could be replacing people throughout the village, leading you on a paranoid, increasingly desperate hunt.
Also, I would make sure the villain (or the nature of the villain in the case of doppelgangers) is known to the players from the start.
Having the main boss show up repeatedly throughout the adventure to taunt the players and throw another mob of low-level enemies at them is sure to have your players out for blood by the time they finally get a chance for payback.
Designing Diverse Encounters
Now, while D&D is largely a game about killing monsters, there are many other pillars to the adventuring experience, from social encounters to disarming traps and solving puzzles.
In terms of pacing, over the course of a 4-6 hour session, your players are probably going to be able to get through around 4-6 encounters. There are exceptions on both sides of the bell curve, of course, but largely you don’t need to worry about preparing more than 6 encounters for your players.
However, it can be good to fill your One-Shot with a variety of encounters to keep your game feeling fresh as you go.
For example, in our earlier example of players trying to prevent the sacrifice of the blacksmith’s prize mule:
- A goblin patrol outside the lair.
- A goblin guard post inside the first room.
- A pit trap (the rope needed to swing across is on the other side).
- A demon who makes the PCs an offer of help in exchange for buying their shadows (an old superstition which means you will die one year from now).
- A stealthy section where the players have to make their way past a demonically possessed bugbear berserker that’s far too powerful to fight, but will also attack anything on sight, including other goblinoids and demons.
- The final encounter in the ritual chamber with goblins, demons, and one very frightened mule.
While players could very well turn social encounters into combats and combats into social encounters, these six obstacles should hopefully provide enough variety to keep the players thinking and on their toes.
Ending a One-Shot
When time runs out, either in the real world or in-game, the adventure is over. It’s usually a good idea to have something planned in case the players fail in their goal, as well as a suitably handsome reward for their success.
Caption: “Mr. Frodo, this is a One-Shot. We’ve only been walking for two hours.”
The ending of a One-Shot also may present the opportunity to extend the game (assuming everyone had fun) into a longer campaign. If that’s something you’re interested in, having a key villain escape, even though disaster has been averted, can be a great way to get the players hooked back into the story.
Appendix: One-Shot Resources
Hopefully, the advice and examples above will be enough to get your wheels turning. However, if you’re strapped for time or want to read more about designing One-Shots from smarter people than me, then I’ve put together a list of resources and One-Shot adventures that I’ve read, run, or are generally agreed upon to be useful by the community.
Pocket-Sized Perils: Written and illustrated by Brendan Barnett, these fantastic micro-adventures make for excellent one-shot materials. The layout is easy to read and they dispense critical information really well. The 1st level scenario, Ambush in Avenwood is a particularly good One-Shot or jumping off point for a low-level campaign.
The Lost Mines of Phandelver: The first few encounters in the adventure included within the D&D Starter Set make for a great introductory One-Shot which can then easily be expanded into a full campaign. Goblins, a bugbear, caves – it’s got everything someone’s first ever D&D game should contain.
Prepared! by Kobold Press: A great collection of 12 One-Shot adventures, usually with a slightly wacky tone – like my personal favorite which involves goblins building a bizarre “fortress” in the middle of the road.
The Sunless Citadel: Included in the great 5e adventure collection Tales From the Yawning Portal, this is one of my favorite starter adventures in all of D&D 5e – although your players may struggle to finish all of it in a single session.
The Waking of Willowby Hall: This brilliant 3rd level adventure has all the hallmarks of a great one-shot: a ticking clock, a self-contained location, and some memorable monsters. However, the designer, Ben Milton, has statted it out to be compatible with his own game, Knave, as well as older editions of D&D. You may need to take some licenses to make this work in 5e, but the core premise is loads of fun.
Hunting Displacer Beasts: This is a great video by Dael Kingsmill detailing a great, isolated encounter in which your players hunt a pride of Displacer Beasts. It’s evocative, well thought-out, and I’d definitely slot the minigame she made up into my next campaign.
One Page Dungeon Contest: A brilliant community challenge that’s been running since about 2009, which gathers together hundreds of new one-page dungeons every year. Most of them (definitely not all; there’s some weird, kinda trashy stuff in there too) would make excellent candidates for a One-Shot. Also, every year, the winners and better entries are bound up into a compendium.
Hel’s Crow’s Final Rest: Another great One-Shot designed for old-school D&D, this quick module mixes together ancient sea spirits, undead Vikings, and a magic horn to create a surprisingly social-encounter-focused one shot.
Again, you’ll need to do some converting to make it 5e compatible, but this is such a negotiation-focused game that if combat breaks out something’s gone wrong. Still, just cue up the stat blocks for a Knight, a Bandit, a Wight, a Death Knight, and a Water Elemental, and you should be good to go.