Running a self-contained D&D one-shot can be intimidating! We’re here to walk you through how to run a D&D one-shot and have some fun while doing it.
We’ll go over what exactly a one-shot is and why you would want to consider running one. Next, you’ll read the best ways to prepare for a one-shot as a DM. This includes figuring out the best level to have your players at depending on how much experience they have with D&D. We’ve also got details on the importance of planning out the session (don’t worry, we’ll be sure to keep things simple throughout). Finally, we’ll go over the most intimidating part: the actual running of the one-shot. The duration will be an important part of this, and can be dictated by using some pre-made options!
What is a D&D One-Shot?
A one-shot is just what it sounds like: a D&D story that can be completed in one session. In practice, sometimes they actually take two or three “shots.” The idea stays the same though, a story that can be told quickly and doesn’t have the same level of commitment as a full campaign.
Why should you run a one-shot instead of going for a grand campaign? There are a lot of good reasons to opt for a one-shot. They are a great way to test the waters for a new player or a new DM. The commitment to a one-shot doesn’t lock a player or DM into a weekly game for the foreseeable future. It also gives a new DM a chance to see what does and doesn’t work for them. Do they like combat? Or maybe they prefer the roleplay-focused style of play. For the same reasons, one-shots are a smart way to play with a new group and see how everyone meshes together as a party.
Another reason to run a D&D one shot is simply that they take up less time. It can be difficult to get a group together for more than a couple hours, so being able to pack everything into one session is really helpful. It also allows for a lot more spontaneity. If you have an hour free on Saturday and want to knock out a quick game of D&D, it’s much easier to run a one-shot.
You may also just be taking a break from your main campaign. Your usual DM could be prepping the next boss, region, or story arc for you, and needs a bit for that. I know that’s happened to me! In that case, it can be fun to run a one-shot as a palate cleanser. A chance to try out new ideas, or just take a break from the campaign you’ve been playing for months or years.
Preparation is the most important part of a one-shot, since the experience should be as tight as possible, and being ready beforehand will help this greatly. I recommend preparing a few different things, and making sure you’re ready for any curveballs the players may throw.
First, have a clear goal for the story. What do you want the players to take away from this? Is there an “a-ha!” moment you are going for? It could be as simple as stopping the villain, or maybe it is more complicated like learning that the villain is a projection of the party’s own insecurities and fears.
Next, choose or create appropriate monsters. This will be based on the goal you have for the story, as well as the players’ characters. Make sure that the monsters make sense and aren’t just there to be killed. There should be a purpose for every creature in the story.
Third, have a general idea of the NPCs. These can be as fleshed out or as bare-bones as you want, but again, they should all serve a purpose (even if that purpose is something insignificant or silly)! The more you know about an NPC, the easier it will be to roleplay them convincingly.
Fourth, come up with some key locations. These could be rooms, buildings, caves, forests, whatever is appropriate for your story. As with the NPCs, the key here is to make sure each location has a purpose.
Lastly, keep in mind a sort of flow for the story. It doesn’t necessarily have to be linear, but that would make things easier for you as the DM. Maybe they need to gather a few objects before making their way to the finale of the one-shot – that’s a quick little flowchart for how the story needs to progress.
Skill Levels and Character Selection
Make sure you keep in mind the experience level of each of your players. This should inform you how complex you can make your one-shot. For newer players, starting between 1st and 3rd level is the best course of action. The lower levels allow new players to learn the basics of combat, roleplay, and skill checks without having to worry too much about all these options their characters have. Another option to consider is to go through the character creation process for them, drafting up a character sheet and letting them choose from a pool of pre-generated characters. Maybe you whip up characters that cover your classic party composition – rogue, fighter, wizard, cleric – with a few extras just in case they want to do something different!
For experienced players, any level is potentially playable in a one-shot, but we would recommend levels 5-10. This is where a lot of class features and builds can come online without being a high enough level to get the more game-breaking kinds of spells that are typical of late game casters. That being said, if you have a great story idea that would require higher level characters, by all means, go for it!
In either case, communication with players is going to be key. Whether you’re making character sheets for them to choose from or they want to do a three-way bardlockadin multiclass (it’s really cool, I promise). If you’re going to be the DM, make sure you have a good handle on what your players can and can’t do. Nothing puts a damper on fun like having to rewind because the wizard blew up the town with an errant spell. Communication will make sure you know what you’re working with and allow you to make challenges that will complement the party you have.
Assuming you’ve got your party put together, it’s time to start creating the world they’ll be adventuring in. This is where a lot of people get overwhelmed and give up on the idea of running a one-shot. The truth is, you don’t need to build an entire world.
Planning Your Session(s)
We’ll break the session down into three easy chunks! The adventure has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and each part serves its own purpose.
The beginning should relatively quickly introduce the characters to the setting and what their goals are for the one-shot. It can be done through exposition, like the DM describing the situation, or more directly through in-game actions like a character overhearing a conversation. The most important part is that by the end of the beginning, each player should know what they’re supposed to be doing.
The middle is where all the action happens. The characters are going to be fighting monsters, solving puzzles, and overcoming obstacles. This is the part of the game where the players get to show off what they’ve been working on and the DM gets to put their skills to the test. This is where the players are going to be spending the majority of their time and where they’ll be doing the lion’s share of roleplaying. In the middle, the players have the most agency, and therefore it requires the most preparation.
The end is pretty self-explanatory, and can even come early in case of a TPK (total party kill) during the middle. Bar tragedy, though, the end is where all those loose ends within the one-shot get tied up. The party achieves their goal and are better off for it! The end should have a sense of finality to it, and not just end up being, “Yay, you did it.” Make sure to show the impact of their actions, be it the gratitude of the king for rescuing his queen, the opulent lives the adventurers lead now that they’ve raided the dragon’s horde, or even an open-ended finale to show that there still could be more one-shots for the crew in the future!
I like to run my one-shots with the classic KISS method. It’s unrelated to the glam metal band; it’s an acronym! I tell myself to “Keep It Simple, Stupid!” When running a one-shot there shouldn’t be so many moving parts that you have trouble keeping track. Things should be very straightforward for the purpose of keeping the one-shot concise and actually a one-session experience, instead of an accidental mini-campaign. Try to make it so that your players can focus on the task at hand and not get bogged down in inventory management or keeping track of a million different things. While a large array of NPCs sounds fun and exciting, keeping the cast down to a few important characters will allow players to recall information and what they told the party far easier.
The easiest way to craft a one-shot is to just string together a handful of battles, puzzles, and/or NPC interactions that come between the party and their goal. Throwing in a boss fight of sorts at the end makes for a memorable finale!
Executing Your D&D One-Shot
Now comes the hardest part: getting your group together and playing the one-shot! You’ve done all the prep, so the only thing left to do is, well, to do it! Here are a few tips to help smooth things out on that fateful day.
Keeping things moving is important for your pacing. You don’t want to be stagnant for long in the one-shot, so keeping the flow is the name of the game. If your players are getting bogged down in one area, try to gently prod them along. It’s also a good idea to have some sort of backup plan for if things really start to stall. Maybe you can introduce a time limit or have an NPC show up to give them a nudge in the right direction.
Make sure that everyone in the party is involved! If you have a rogue, throw in a locked door or two to let them flex their expertise in thieves’ tools. A charisma caster? Maybe an encounter can be bested with diplomacy or deception instead of the usual brute force. One-shots are a great opportunity to let everyone in the party have a chance to show off what they’re good at.
Keeping NPC interactions to a minimum may be ideal for a one-shot. Given the limited time frame, we want to be sure the characters themselves are taking center stage. A little exposition can’t hurt, but the one-shot shouldn’t be full of NPCs who want to share their life stories. Plus, that ends up being more work for the DM.
The duration of your one-shot session should cater to the experience of your group. As before, communication is important, so make sure you’re talking with your group about how long they want the one-shot to be. Some starter times to shoot for are as follows. New players should take about one to two hours total – just enough time to get the basic story structure and try out some of their characters’ abilities. This keeps it short and sweet, letting the players decide if they want to come back for more! A more experienced party can go upwards of five or six hours, depending on their ability to commit that day.
Pre-Made D&D One-Shots
There are a fair number of one-shots out there! Curse of Strahd has a one-shot type introduction to get players used to the terrors of Barovia – Death House. This one is pretty deadly, so only go into it with a group that knows their stuff. On that same note, someone has remixed the Curse of Strahd campaign into one-shot titled “Strahd Must Die Tonight!” in which the party needs to defeat Strahd von Zarovich in one night (both in and out of game).
Good resources for campaigns, including one-shots, are DM’s Guild and Kobold Press. Both of these sites have a huge selection of different types of content, and a lot of it for free!
Best D&D One-Shots for New Players
The answer to most any question about what the best content is will be kind of a non-answer. The best D&D one-shot will be whatever one your group has the most fun with! As stated before, a good one for beginners will take place between levels 1 and 3 and last just a few hours. An ideal starter one-shot will present obvious situations for new players to use their characters’ skills, and combat won’t be too deadly.
Are There D&D One-Shot Generators?
There are generators for a whole bunch of content in D&D! ChaosGen has a one-shot generator that gives the context of the player characters, a baddie, some conflict, and even a potential sequel. Another excellent generator is the tools provided by DonJon. They have generators for names, dungeons, item shops, and even entire campaigns.
Are There D&D One-Shot Repositories?
The best places to find ready-to-run one-shots will be the sites mentioned above: DM’s Guild and Kobold Press. These sites have a huge collection of content, and much of it for free!
What Makes a Good D&D One-Shot?
It’s cheesy, but a good D&D one-shot will be one where everyone has fun! It can be edgy, silly, serious, or full to the brim with memes. So long as your group has fun with it, it’s a fantastic one-shot. In technical terms, some things that may help your players enjoy a one-shot could be exciting combat, fun puzzles, or memorable encounters! It all depends on what your group enjoys – if you know you have some tacticians at the table, make sure you focus on presenting them interesting combat scenarios as opposed to writing out meticulous NPC backstories.
How Do You Write a D&D One-Shot?
Steal things! Take ideas from other places if you’re having trouble finding a good starting point. One of the one-shots that my players remember from years ago was just my rip off of The Hunger Games and the battle royale genre in my own setting. Anywhere can be a good starting point. Music, movies, games, books, anything you can think of!
What Level Should Characters be in a D&D One-Shot?
This all depends on your group and what they’re interested in! A low power 1st through 3rd level one-shot could be fun to try out new classes or character ideas. A high stakes romp for 20th level characters would definitely be exciting with all the abilities and power characters can have at that level. This decision is best made with a conversation with your players, figuring out what would be most exciting for everyone.
How Many Encounters Should be in a D&D One-Shot?
This is heavily dependent on the group and the level of the one-shot. A grittier, more difficult one-shot can have encounter after encounter, slowly but surely using up all the available resources of the party. One that is easier could only have three or four encounters, allowing players to use their most powerful abilities without worrying about saving them for later. A good average would be around 6 encounters, and not all of them need to be combat! This makes sure there’s some resource management, but also doesn’t completely drain the party.
How Do You Start a D&D One-Shot?
My favorite way to do it is with a short spiel describing the context of the adventure. If there are any special things about the world that will impact the one-shot, be sure to include those there! Maybe your adventure takes place in a retro-synth high fantasy world where everything feels like it’s from the 80s – this would be the ideal time to describe the world and technology that people can expect.
How Do You End a D&D One-Shot?
Dramatically! The final flourish at the end will be one of the parts players remember most, so no pressure. Something like describing the final blow to the evil necromancer and the chain reaction leading to his entire undead army crumpling without his powers to sustain them. Or maybe there is a ceremony where the princess of the realm thanks the party for rescuing her father from the evil dragon. Anything that is sufficiently “cool” enough and wraps up the story is perfect.
Are There Premade D&D One-Shots?
Yes, there are! There are some in official Wizards of the Coast books, but many more can be found online. Excellent resources for these would be the sites DMs Guild and Kobold Press. Both of these have a wealth of one-shots and other content. A lot of the stuff on those sites is free, so you don’t have to break the bank.
Wrapping Things Up
Finding the right way to approach running a one-shot can be confusing. Hopefully with these tips, that daunting task becomes a bit easier. The most important part about DMing and D&D in general is that you need to make sure that not only is your party enjoying the game, but that you as the DM are also enjoying it! If you’re tearing your hair out trying to figure out what’s next in the campaign, it could be time to take a break. And what better way than to have someone bust out a fun one-shot!