Off the Tracks: Preserving Player Agency in a Timed Adventure

Ah yes, the One-Shot. The timed adventure that can so easily spiral into a second, third, sometimes even fourth session…or a new campaign all together!

Now, my aversion to Railroading in D&D is pretty obvious, but even I must admit that there are times where you do want a bit more structure in your gameplay. Particularly when running a timed adventure. I’ve definitely had situations where a one-shot expanded into a second session, usually when the players are so involved in NPC interactions and role-playing that they end up discovering endless sidequests (like establishing gastropubs, getting their library cards, and buying kitschy souvenirs) before even beginning the main storyline! I find myself having to curtail their exploration in favour of moving things along– which I typically hate doing…players enjoying the world is one of the best indicators that you’ve written something good! Why world-build if you’re just going to rush through the plot, right?

That being said, there are ways to preserve player agency and facilitate exploration even when working with a timeline! Here are a few things to you can do to help keep things moving, whether you have one hour or four (you may recognize some of these points from this post):

Structure your story into chapters.

When you know you have a limited amount of time, it’s helpful to organize your adventure into parts, scenes, and chapters. Each of my one-shots begins with a simple Introduction, in which the players are introduced to the setting. The introduction typically flows into an exploration of some sort: whether through NPC interactions or exploring the dungeon. In Dirigible of Dreams, the first chapter is reserved for exploring the streets of Vitrescia, setting the initial goal/objective, and finding the Guilded Monocular. Once they find it, the next chapter begins with gaining entry onto the exclusive Dirigible of Dreams.

By doing this, you can manage each section more easily, and have a better idea of the transition points you need to establish to keep the story moving.

Keep the world open.

Don’t let the time limit stop you from creating an engaging world! Even in one-shots,  your players will appreciate the life you breathe into the markets, taverns, and dungeons you create for them. Have enough NPCs and places for them to explore that the world still feels alive. You don’t want the video game NPC effect, where the only people you can talk to are the ones with specific quest information.

Just make sure you maintain the right scope: focus on the immediate setting for the story rather than developing the entire region. While using one-shots to further develop a campaign setting can be incredibly useful– all of the adventures I write take place within Iyastera, just in different regions and timelines– that information is unlikely to impact your one-shot outside of lore drops. This will also help keep you focused and organized during gameplay.

Plan multiple solutions.

Keeping the world open means that you can’t rely on the party to go to that single shopkeeper that has the only key to solving the puzzle, or activating a questline. If there is a key bit of information that you know they will need, be sure to create multiple ways for them to access that information. Be flexible in the NPC info and lore drops– you can even jot down some notes to diversify the manner in which different NPC share said information. If the shopkeeper is more friendly about sharing information, make another character a bit more withholding. Scale NPC cooperation with how well the party role-plays their interactions. If they burn a bridge, there is no reason for that NPC to help them. You can also have the party overhear snippets of the clues they need. 

The same goes for items. If there is a key “quest item”, think of a few different ways it could come into their possession. This way you’re still driving the story to the desired endpoint, but the players determine how they get there. Remember even in a timed adventure, the journey is the most important part!

Use “The Nudge”.

If your party is getting sidetracked with the world you’ve created, or just not quite getting some of the breadcrumbs you’re leaving for them, use something I like to call The Nudge. This is where you drop an event or a person right in their path that they have to respond to, to spark action. In the Luminous Lake, many groups got drawn in when talking to Innkeeper Merrick and his honeycakes, or Aven and Twig, the Ranger and Fairy duo who manned the belltower. Far from cutting their interactions short as a DM, I used events external to those interactions to move the story along. Shouting at the harbour would interrupt the conversation or Barnardo the Druid would stumble in looking for them. In either case, the Nudge is something outside of the player’s control that helps the story move along in an organic, but effective way.

Keep an eye on the clock.

Finally, remember to keep an eye on the clock. Have rough time limits in mind for each of the different scenes and segments that you’ve planned (i.e. 2 minutes for scene setting, 10-15 minutes for initial exploration and NPC interactions, etc.). That way, if you notice you’re running out of time and need to move the plot along, you know when to pull out the Nudge you’ve kept handy in your back pocket. Another tip: always give yourself more time than you think you need for any combat encounter. Each party runs through an encounter a little differently and nothing is worse as a player than feeling rushed through your turn.

Once you’ve hit the final battle and/or climax of the story, don’t be afraid to wrap up the adventure with a more narrative conclusion. You can even pre-prepare it so you don’t have to completely improvise. It allows for a smoother transition to the end of the tale and lets you showcase your immersive and evocative storytelling while weaving a beautiful victory scene that they will not forget!

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