I’m looking for ways to run one-shot adventures that not only can you actually complete in one session, but in a short session with relatively unfocused players – because that’s how I’ve been playing lately. Ideally, I want these sessions to be well enough encapsulated to feel complete, and I want them to have interesting stakes, both fictionally and tactically.
To support this kind of play, I take inspiration from The Dolorous Stroke, which provides a framework for using one-off two-player skirmishes to improvise knightly romances. I’m interested in boiling as much of the adventure scenario as possible to a single scene or situation, while still providing the usual range of interesting play options, and providing some sense of development to the characters’ stories. (I don’t necessarily mean “stories” in the sense of having a character arc, but rather in the sense that PCs’ actions will result in them coming out of the situation altered with new knowledge, power, status, and/or opportunity.)
Below is a checklist for prepping such a scene. Below that is a scene I whipped up using the checklist as a proof of concept. Does the checklist work? I don’t know, I haven’t even run the scene. But I hope to soon, and maybe you can try it too and tell me how it goes.
- strong hook and framing to tie the PCs to the situation and invest them in its outcome
- clear objective or stakes
- An initial set-up with no single obvious course of action
- Tension – something that will radically change the situation if the players take too long
- 2 or 3 “toys” - interactive elements that can alter the situatuon. Not all of them should do something good.
- a cool space with tactical options
- Something to fight
- Something to talk to (can double as something to fight)
- shiny things to take (can double as toys)
- Secret(s) to find
- One or more twists that can disrupt and recontectualize the situation
- hooks to another situation
In the example below, I use some Dungeon World-style leading questions to build up the hooks and context. I like these as a way of quickly giving players a sense of investment in the world and situation, and as a rather expedient way of fleshing out their character’s past. You could also use pregens or PC-agnostic hooks to this end.
Example Scene: Dragon, Spear, and Skull
In an attempt to pay off their debts the party has tracked down the location of the EMERALD BONE SPEAR (+2, doubles jump height). With the help of a young bravo named ZORUSTO and some carefully decrypted maps, they have travelled to the spear’s location in a secret cave in BLACKTHROAT CANYON. They are hunted by the SKULL GANG. From the cave mouth, they see the SPEAR at the bottom the spiral cavern, scintillating in the spray from a nearby waterfall.
- who has grown closest to Zorusto? What did he reveal of his motives for helping?
- how did you survive the SKULL GANG’s ambush a few days back, and what did you lose in the process?
- whose unwanted attention did you attract in your research into the spear’s location?
- why were you able to locate the spear when so many others have failed?
- getting to the spear is dangerous, requiring a long trek along a slick, narrow ledge.
- A waterfall bellows through the cavern, blanketing out most sounds
- a black dragon named OVIR GREEN OF EYE sleeps coiled around the spear.
- along the ledge, a secret chamber full of treasure.
- beyond that chamber, another secret chamber, this with three levers. One controls the waterfall; another controls a second waterfall, currently sealed; the third seals the drain at the base of the chamber. If the drain is sealed the water begins to fill the cavern. The water level will rise at a rate of 5 ft per open fall per minute.
- the cave floor contains several inches of water. The dragon is sensitive to ripples therein.
- Loud noises, or opening the second waterfall, will wake the dragon
- the skull gang will arrive 2d6 turns after the party.
- looks like: Yoshitaka Amano designed a JoJo protagonist
- known to all: spry and skilled with a spear. Fiery and romantic, kind of flirty. Wears a fine jewelled bracelet.
- secret: Each jewel contains a different spell (hold person, sticks to snakes, enlarge, dimension door)
- at the GM’s discretion: for an added twist, Zorusto might be Olizir’s twin sister, VIROZI THE EXILE, here to kill her brother and take his most coveted treasure.
The Skull Gang
- 1 HD each, outnumber the party 2 to 1
- Their leader, CRANGELA MASSIVE, wields a 3-headed flail (+1, +2 vs Law). They all carry black powder guns, which are +2 to hit against armored targets, but take a full minute to reload after a single shot.
- They prefer stealth and trickery over direct confrontation. Nevertheless, they regard violent mischief as a kind of fine art, and carry out their evils with a keen sense of camp
- They want the spear, but will wait for it to be safely away from the dragon unless their hand is forced.
- distributed among the gang members are 2 bolas, a net, 3 bear traps, a bag of caltrops, 6 pints of grease (flammable), and a bag of chalk dust. They also have ample rope and other basic adventuring gear.
- they work for the wizard TRAXEON who sees through Crangela’s false right eye.
- one of four legendary weapons imbued with the spirit of ARNIL, THIRD OF THE DRAGON RIDERS. It is searching for its next champion to reunite it with its siblings and renew the DAWNSTAR EMPIRE. Perhaps one of the PCs? Oh, but what of their debts?
- at the GM’s discretion: if none of the PCs seem a fit and Zorusto is NOT a dragon in disguise, the spear may choose him as its champion. If it does, he will answer its call, challenging anyone who would separate him from it. He deplores trickery and will not steal the spear from a companion, preferring to take it by agreement or by force.