GMs: 3 Tips to Help You Run One-Shots Like A Pro

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GM Tips Our series to help Storytellers and Game Masters improve their craft and create memorable roleplaying experiences. Last week, guidance on crafting those awesome dungeon maps, and this week mastering the art of a one-shot campaign.

There comes a time in every gamers life where a handful of friends sit around staring at their Crown Royal dice bag, no game to play, and an evening of free time. Our storyteller hero bravely steps forth and proudly declares that he will run a one-night game (which we all secretly hope will continue for weeks). A compelling and memorable one-shot game takes a different approach to campaign writing than other topics we’ve covered and knowing these upfront will help your improv game.

If you are storytelling for convention tables, running pre-canned modules at your game store, or part of some other structured play network, one-shots can feel constrained. You have a set module and you often feel compelled to follow the exact wording to produce the same outcome every single time the module is run. While that may provide something close to the original writers intent, your sanity will suffer over an entire weekend. The following advice (I really hope) will serve as a way to balance those scales.

Everyone Loves A Villain

loki dagger

The antagonist of the story is the catalyst of the world and the reason for any hero to adventure. Without the call to action, there is no story. In a short game session, a storyteller is best served with a strong iconic villain that opens up the adventure with destruction and chaos. Don’t start the adventure with a long walk down a winding road until you uncover some goblins and have a skirmish. Begin the session with the characters bound, ropes in their mouths, wide-eyed and looking at each other, as the goblins hold knives to their throats. The main end-boss villain issues his final orders before leaving and walks out the door to destroy the world.

Rewriting the opening to a pre-canned module is a tried-and-true method to set the pace. Most adventures are structured with the intent of launching a campaign or stitching two stories together. In a one-shot, you’ve got one night, so you can safely trash irrelevant parts, which means pushing the antagonist right up to the forefront without any mystery on who they are. You should aim to have the players at least see, or witness, the villain taking action at least once every hour of game-play. Even if they aren’t fighting them directly just yet, the face-to-face interaction is vital.

Settle On Setting

Cross-continental campaigns with multiple villages, a cast of NPC’s, and multiple storylines with side quests aren’t going to do you any storyteller favorites in a one-shot. Pick a single cathedral, dungeon, castle, or battleground to conduct your event. Spend the time describing the Prince of Chicago’s high-rise skyscraper in eloquent detail, or the nauseous vomit inducing odors in the sewers as the characters march through Wormwood rather than haze over three separate locations. It’s an obvious tip about time management, but it rings true—focus on quality over quantity. You’ll spend more time roleplaying and less time trying to hurry players along to the next scene.


You may have to do some tinkering with modules if you are using them. They are designed with scene breakpoints in order to string together storylines or allow new characters to enter the fray. During your pre-read, just scan through and determine if you really need location change. A great example is the Death House module out of Curse of Strahd. Do you need to enter into Ravenloft and get lured into the house? Or can you just rewrite it, so the adventure begins within, with ghost children looking at your characters quizzically. The thirty minutes saved of just walking into the house, is more time for action and meaningful roleplay in a oneshot.

Keep That Ending Open

Open Endings

In speeches, you want to open strong and end strong, what you say in the middle is strangely less important. Bringing the session to a close, you always want to leave wiggle room. Close the story, but leave potential for a follow-up. Even if the characters all sacrifice themselves and die a glorious death in order to win, make sure you end with a hint that the story could continue. By doing this, you give the players something to talk about, perhaps a final mic drop moment blows their minds and makes them demand more. I know this is contrary to the idea of a one-shot, but we want memorable one-shots, not ones you forget about two weeks later.

Which also means you need to account for your players actions, and, this is where I struggle with modules the most. I hate defined endings. I’ve run the same module over sixty times and haven’t had the same ending once. Often times going completely off the rails with the players on a journey together. Most storytellers don’t need to be as extreme as I am about player agency, but allow their choices to have consequence and rewards. Just because the module is written with one ending, doesn’t mean you have to adhere to that for a one-shot.

What’s your one-shot advice? Mine was hands down, a 7-hour Cthulhu event based in Antarctica at Gencon with twelve other players. I still remember it even though it’s been eight years. Leave a comment below about your favorite one-shot game you’ve ever played in.

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Image Credit:There is Good In this World, and Vader by Justin Currie of Chasing Artwork, Marvel/Disney, Monte Cooke Games. Follow on Instagram, Deviant, and Facebook

Rick Heinz is the author of The Seventh Age: Dawn, and a storyteller with a focus on LARPs, Wraith: The Oblivion, Eclipse Phase, and many more. You can follow game or urban fantasy related thingies on Twitter or Facebook.

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