"Black Dougal gasps 'Poison!' and falls to the floor. He looks dead."

Monday, May 18, 2009

Some More Thoughts on One-Shot Adventures

Since my post a few weeks ago about Episodic vs Campaign games, I have continued to think about one-shot games or micro-campaigns in general and a Dark Sun one-shot specifically. While the Northern Marches continues to be my main focus, I am enjoying having something else to think about. I like the idea of running some short games as it gives me the chance to pursue other gaming ideas but allowing the Northern Marches to remain the campaign focus.

I have been thinking about how to make a one-shot adventure effective. By "effective", I mean making the session as fun as possible while sticking to a finite time period. Some considerations are:

1. Structure - an appropriately sized location based adventure vs. a plot based adventure with a beginning and end.
2. Giving the players a goal to get the ball rolling - recover the artifact, find the traitor, save the princess, etc.
3. Combining the Goal and the Structure in a way so that the adventure in not a railroad - getting them started but allow them the freedom to do their own thing.
4. Character Mortality - The players won't be as attached to their character so hopefully they will try some wacky stuff but this is balanced against the time constraints and having to roll up new characters.
5. Pushing the players - having a mechanism to keep the pressure on the players to act - recover the artifact before the pillar of fire falls from the sky, find the traitor before he does X, save the princess before she is sacrificed to the dark gods.

I have been considering two possible scenarios for a Dark Sun one-shot. Either the typical "you are a slave in one of the city-states" knowing that the characters will try to escape or a find the mcguffin adventure with a twist.

The Escape Slavery scenario would be a location based adventure focused on the slave pits and escaping the city into the desert.

The find the mcguffin scenario would be more of a plot-based game but to keep it from being a railroad, it would be more about giving the players' the goal and having an idea of how the mcguffin could be recovered. The middle part would be a few vague ideas but more reacting to the players actions while keeping the pressure on them to recover the mcguffin before X happens.

Does anyone have any other thoughts/tips about structuring and/or running a one-shot adventure?


  1. Make the adventure or situation modular so that you can add or remove pieces on the fly if necessary.

  2. When I run a one-shot, it is typically a purchased module - and I only use the 'rules as available'. The core rulebook, in other words, with as little homebrewed, adapted, or modified material as possible. When I run a campaign, I have the time and opportunity to modify, expand, and rewrite as I see fit - and I often come up with pages of stuff, like campaign-specific races and classes, that would be wasted on a one-shot.

    By that standard, your Northern Marches setting is ideal for dropping a one-shot module in anywhere and at any time, while your modified rules for Dark Sun are better suited to an ongoing campaign.

    But, that's just me.

  3. Keeping the players constrained both in time and space is two things which have been vital in all one-shots I've run.

  4. "By that standard, your Northern Marches setting is ideal for dropping a one-shot module in anywhere and at any time, while your modified rules for Dark Sun are better suited to an ongoing campaign."

    That is interesting. One of the reasons why I have been thinking about one-shots lately is the idea that it allows a person to try different things with little to no long-term consequences. To me it would seem that trying modified rules in a one-shot would give the chance to test drive something and if it doesn't work then, "oh well, gave it a chance." I do agree that making a lot of modifications can sink a lot of time into something that may only last one session. But maybe there will be sequels or maybe it turns into a campaign at some point. Also, it is just fun to come up with this stuff.

    "Make the adventure or situation modular so that you can add or remove pieces on the fly if necessary."

    This is a good piece of advice. For a location based one-shot, I try to keep the map quite vanilla with about 6 to 8 locations. But if I am running short on time I can remove a couple of locations and still have the map "make sense".

    For a more "plot" oriented one shot (and I am using the term "plot" just because I haven't come up with a better term yet) it is really made up of the Goal, and the mechanic pushing the players to action. So in itself, it is quite adaptable for time.

    Andreas, can you give some examples of how you keep them constrained?

  5. Using time is easiest, since you can point to a clock on the wall and say

    "When it say 3pm, the water will come pouring in the dungeon and you'll drown like rats. Go!"

    Constrained in space is more involved. If you're playing a site based adventure, you're already constraining. Also, I'd do clear goals like "Find the altar of the flame god" and when they find it, they might find a clue to, say, second level of the dungeon. Otherwise they might mill about to much and go down three tracks at the same time and never getting the satisfaction of completing anything.

  6. Oh, now I see that thanuir was indeed saying roughly the same thing. Oh well.

  7. If you're playing a site based adventure, you're already constraining.
    See, this is one thing I worry about for a one-shot. What happens if the players decide to leave the site? Sure you can give them Goals and you can set up something to push them to action but what if they don't bite? Now this is likely mitigated by the social contract that is established when they say "yes" to playing in the one-shot to start with.

    To me it says that you have to have a fairly descriptive "elevator pitch" for the players to begin with. If they know what the scenario is about, say "yes" to playing it and still abandon the site of the adventure, it becomes their fault.

  8. From my experience of the Dark Sun campaigns I played and ran back in the mid 90s, "Escape Slavery" is a great way to start an ongoing campaign, as once the slaves have escaped they will have a city-state and its surrounding landscape to explore and hide out in.

    For something you know you're not going to be running the next week, try a raid on a merchant caravan. The characters are part of the caravan guard, and the raiders attack in sufficiently overwhelming numbers to drive them into hiding while the caravan is looted. The characters are then stranded in the middle of nowhere, with limited food, water, and other supplies. Allow them to wander in any direction desired, using a random encounter table, and drop in a few set pieces along the way. Wilderness treks are more to the Dark Sun style than dungeons, I've found.

    Keep the focus on trying to stay alive in a brutally hostile environment, and as the game session draws to an end allow them to find an oasis, fort, or similar location as the reward for surviving. Then, you can always come back to Dark Sun at a later date.

    Dark Sun is a world where the players ought to panic more about running out of food and water than running out of hit points.

    And, yeah, it is fun to make stuff up :)