Dungeon Mastering

DM Tools - CREATE YOUR FREE ACCOUNT       About Us       Contact Us       Advertise                   Subscribe to Dungeon MasteringSubscribe

The one-shot session success formula

Written by Expy - Published on October 14, 2009

We don’t always have the opportunity to play in long-winded, epic campaigns. It doesn’t mean we can’t have RPG fun though. Here are some thoughts on running one-shot sessions – games that have a beginning and an end – in 3-5 hours of play.

Nick DiPetrillo and I have a lot of experience with these kind of games thanks to our work on Zombie Murder Mystery. Our customers and playtesters have been loving the 1 game format. I thought I’d share our game prep success formula with you.

Writing a one-shot session can be easy if you know which elements of your story to work on first. Think of a place, a reason for the group to be there, as wells as a conflict, and you’re well on your way.

The one-shot session success formula

This section is adapted from the hard work Nick DiPetrillo put into Zombie Murder Mystery. Thanks Nick!

1. Isolation

Your adventure location should be somewhere hard to get into and out of. This helps limit the scope of the game.

2. Build on assumptions

You don’t want to spend 5 hours preparing for a game that’s going to last less than that. Build on assumptions. This is the golden rule we used for Zombie Murder Mystery – you can read it aloud to your players at the beginning of the session:

“We are building a story together. You can make assumptions about the situations and encounters your characters are in and my job is to go along with whatever you’re assuming unless it directly contradicts something that was already established.”

That sets the tone and opens vast possibilities. Don’t restrict. Enable!

3. Time Limit

Something needs to drive your players into action! If they have all the time in the world they will be hesitant to act. They need something looming over them to spur them forward.

Make it as clear as possible that the threat, the time limit, is final and unavoidable. Otherwise players have a tendency to think they can figure out a way to beat the threat.

4. Stake

The characters should have something at stake. Survival is fine, but the best scenarios have something the characters care about more than their life: power, treasure, redemption, saving the world…


Keep those four things in mind and chances are you’ll play an entertaining game from beginning to end. Have fun!


What do you try to do when you run a one-shot session?

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by Expy

Meet Expy The Red Dragon

Expy is the mascot for DungeonMastering.com and the real mastermind behind Expy Games. He likes to hoard treasure, terrorize neighbors, burn down villages, and tell white dragon jokes..

No matter how fearful the legends claim dragons are, they always end up being defeated in 5 rounds by adventuring parties they encounter. That’s what dragons are – experience points for the heroes in your Dungeons & Dragon party. And this mascot is no different, hence the name Expy.

GD Star Rating
The one-shot session success formula, 4.3 out of 5 based on 4 ratings » Leave a comment



10 Responses to “The one-shot session success formula”
  1. ColoQ says:

    As I’ve grown older, I have had less and less time to do full-on campaigns. The one-shot or mini campaigns I tend to run these days have become integral to me actually getting to game.

    In these games, I find that it becomes necessary to communicate some small ground rules about party interaction. I basically say “I encourage role-playing and I encourage creativity. But, please remember we have a small amount of real-world time to accomplish this story, and unnecessary inter-party arguments can take a long time.”

    I also find that it becomes necessary to ask the players to focus during combat more in a one-shot than in a long-running campaign. Requesting to have players have an action ready the moment it is their turn to act is key to keeping the action bits as snappy as possible.

    All of this gets incorporated in a “housekeeping” segment at the beginning of the day. I think I’ll add your lines about building a story together, Yax. Great wording succinct and to the point.

  2. I think the time limit is important to getting the one shot off, some friends of mine and I in high school had 20 minutes to game every day (during lunch). As the school didn’t allow us to have dice (it was thought of as gambling) we had to take the DM at his word that he was being fair. Although arguments still happened they were fair less of an issue as they were in the spirit of the game, and would give the DM a chance to eat his sandwich.

    I’ve got a Halloween party I’m hosting coming up and my use a variation on the Zombie Murder Mystery to use.

  3. I have never really had much luck with one shot games, so this advice is really helpful. Thanks.

  4. Paul says:

    I find campaigns lock me in too much to a certain character or group of players. I want to focus on one-shots (possibly connected, possibly not) from here on out, so thanks for this advice.

  5. Yax says:

    @ColoQ: Yep. Time is my problem too. I miss college. It’s hard to believe that I’ve had weeks of 5 games in 7 days (4-6 hour games!)

  6. Mountzionryan says:

    My advice for one-shots is this:
    Take your favorite action movie, knead it until it is no longer obvious. Throw in a few twists that aren’t in the movie. There’s your set-up.

    The best one-shot I’ve ever played in was about a group of geeky kids in the 80s who found a pirate map and went looking for the treasure. Turned out the greedy college professor was stealing the treasure. {Goonies+Scooby-Doo=Awesome night of gaming]

    The second bit of advice I give is to plan about 5 scenes with the expectation that you’ll get to do 4. Make three of them the key scenes and the other two non-necessary complications.

  7. Kyle Lynn says:

    Oh my gosh, this sums up the theories I’ve already had about one-shot design! I love how you point out “we are building a story together” as this cannot be emphasized enough. I recently did a one-shot based on the story of The Legend of Zelda Majora’s Mask as it is perfect for this. 3 day time limit, isolation from the rest of the world, and the threat of the entire country being killed off.


Check out what others are saying about this post...
  1. […] Mastering: The one-shot session success formula (item #1: isolation) is excellent, as is Big Bad Good Guy… Wait, What? — think of an […]

  2. […] The one-shot session success formula Last weekend, I ran a one-shot Paranoia game. I needed Yax’s advice, but it came a few days too late for me to learn from. I think my one-short went fairly well, but I could have done better with the advice he gives out. If you’re planning on a one-shot adventure for your group, check out what Yax has to say on the Dungeon Mastering web site. […]

  3. Anonymous says:

    […] One Shot Essays The one-shot session success formula Roleplaying: Designing Good Roleplaying Adventures One Shots: First Steps One Shots: Plot Fast […]

 Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!