“Hey, let’s play D&D this weekend!”
Imagine getting that text on a Thursday night. If you’re a player, this could be really exciting! But what if you’re the “Designated DM” of your group? Are you ready to run a last-minute session? If not, that text can quickly change from exciting to anxiety-inducing in no time at all! You could buy a pre-made module from DMsGuild or check out some Adventurer’s League content, but you’ve been wanting to try your hand at something new, a homebrewed adventure that will be unique to your party.
Homebrewed games sometimes have a reputation for being a lot of work…and that’s not entirely false. With homebrew, the world, settings, story, and characters are all your own, whereas a pre-written adventure is designed to be all-inclusive. But don’t be discouraged! When it comes to a One Shot, it’s completely possible to create a full, self-contained adventure in just a few hours…just remember to keep the plot simple. The session should have a clear beginning, middle, and end, with a handful of interesting places and NPCs for the party to interact with. The memorable moments will come from the flavour you add during gameplay. For a quick-build, just focus on the basic framework!
I tested this process during a Chill Creation stream last week, in which we created a full One Shot adventure with a plot, NPCs, and combat encounter in just about three hours (though you could probably have the basics done in less time…we had a lot of conversations along the way)! I used the D&D Storytelling Workshop program as an initial guide and came up with the following steps for an adventure Quick-Build:
Step 1: Genre and Premise
This is the original “idea spark”, the brainstormed concept that will become the seed for your adventure. For a One-Shot, you need a central problem or challenge for the party to solve. It doesn’t need to be overly complex…you can create a mystery, a search and rescue, or an escort mission. Choose something simple and don’t be afraid to pull inspiration from elsewhere. They say there are no new stories, but no one will tell the story the way you do!
In our example, we started with a horror/halloween theme and decided to have a kidnapping of some sort in a pumpkin patch. This would serve as our central conflict. With that decided, we move on to the bulk of our prep…
Step 2: Plot
This step takes the longest, as this is where you are creating the roadmap for your adventure. Don’t worry about going into too much detail right now, just think about what needs to happen at each stage in order for the story to progress. Using the workshop guide, we broke the plot down into its five sub-segments:
Introduction: This is where you introduce the setting for the story, maybe some NPCs, and the main plot hook– in our case, the kidnapping. Think of this as “Part One” to your One-Shot.
In our example, the Introduction opens with the party being invited to partake in the local harvest festival as a thank you for ridding the nearby farms of some pesky vermin. As they are exploring a bit, an NPC will rush up to them and ask for help: the mayor’s daughter has gone missing! She was helping gather pumpkins for the traditional pumpkin carving contest, when she simply disappeared!
This isn’t the first time someone has disappeared in the pumpkin patch…this town has a local legend called the “Spirit’s Feast”. When someone goes missing, they have to be found before sunrise the next morning or else they will be gone forever, doomed to feed the hungry spirits that roam the hills this time every year. The party now has to learn more about this legend and find out what happened to the daughter.
Rising Action: In this stage, the party has to learn as much as they can about the challenge at hand, and arm themselves with the tools and knowledge they need to defeat the “Big Bad Evil Guy” (BBEG). Think of this as “Part Two” to your One-Shot, which often is the longest segment of the adventure.
In our example, the party uses this time to learn more about the Spirits’ Feast and begin searching for the girl. During their investigations, they’ll discover details about past accounts of people going missing and meet some skeptics who think that the Spirits’ Feast is nothing more than a tale…and that the some mortal foe is behind the kidnappings.
As they investigate, they will discover connections between some of the townsfolk and the past victims (A Farmer, a Town Guard, and a Teacher). They will find items that once belonged to the victims in the homes or workplaces of three suspects, all of whom have been suffering from mysterious bouts of memory loss and fatigue. They have no memory of what happened during the time of the disappearances and don’t know why the items were in their possession in the first place. This suspicious behaviour will lead the party to watch the suspects more closely…and they will spot one of them leaving their home in the middle of the night to to wander out to the field.
The NPC will be unresponsive, as if under some sort of trance, and lead the party behind one of the mounds in the pumpkin patch which, upon closer inspection, actually hides an earthen tunnel leading to an underground den of some sort. The party can continue to follow the NPC until he leads them to the end of the tunnel…
Climax: This is the height of the plot, the culminating battle where the party will fight the BBEG! For me, this is typically the start of Part Three of the One-Shot.
Once the party enters the main chamber of the burrow, they will see the kidnapped child, seemingly asleep, with the other two suspects. They, along with the first NPC will have a subtle glow to their eyes and appear to be under the same sort of trance…glassy-eyed and slack-jawed. They seem to be waiting for something and pay no heed to the adventurers. In moments, a figure will materialize out of the shadows, wearing robes made from darkness and a jack o’lantern on its head. The figure will screech and point at the party…they must fight to save the girl!
For this example, we used the on-going themes of the story to do a quick search online and choose a Demizen Wraith for the BBEG. For the NPC townsfolk, you can either give them simple Commoner stats or, for increased difficulty, modified Thrall stats. The party will have the option of simply knocking the NPCs unconscious instead of killing them outright, which will help them snap out of the enchantment and regain their memories.
Falling Action: This is where we find out “what happens next”, and the party can learn the answers to most (if not all) of the remaining questions. This is often a shorter, more transitory segment of the plot and leads quickly to the story’s Resolution.
In our example, the party is (hopefully) victorious against the wraith, who disappears upon deafeat, leaving only the Jack O’Lantern helmet behind. The NPCs return to their senses, with only vague memories of recent events or past kidnappings. The girl, who had been unconscious, is nonetheless safe and unharmed!
The party can return to the surface and bring the girl home to the Mayor. If they bring the pumpkin head with them, they can learn its history!
The now-fossilized pumpkin head looks like the same one from accounts of the very first pumpkin carving contest long ago, organized by the current Mayor’s ancestor. That first contest was held in an attempt to impress the visiting nobles who owned the land at the time. The noble became angered at the frivolous waste of crops they “owned” and had the then-mayor executed. In a rage, the villagers attacked the noble in revenge for their beloved leader, and the noble died wearing the very pumpkin head he cruelly mocked.
The soul of the noble lived on, consumed by a lasting anger towards the town and an unfulfilled greed for ownership of the land, which is still used to grow pumpkins today.
Resolution: This is the end of the story, where the party can either return to their homes, forever changed by their experience, or continue travelling to the next adventure! Either way, the latest danger is defeated and the players can enjoy a victorious (if not happy) ending!
With the daughter returned safely and the Wraith defeated (at least for now) the adventurers are hailed as heroes and are rewarded for their continued good deeds! They are allowed to keep the likely-cursed pumpkin head (the townsfolk aren’t overly fond of it now), along with gold and a boon or favour from the Mayor.
Step Three: Locations and NPCs
Now that you’ve created the roadmap for your adventure, you can fill in some of the other details that will help keep your players engaged! Time to select a few simple settings and NPC descriptions. There’s no need to go crazy creating everything you think the town “would have”. That’s better served for campaign worldbuilding! Just think about the places your party will need to visit to progress through the story and gain the information they will need! For a stand-alone adventure, you don’t need more than a handful of simple places to keep things moving along. Here’s what we came up with for our example:
- Town Inn: Every good setting has an Inn or Public House! This is where many of the townsfolk will gather to gossip and share information. A good starting point for the investigation! It could be full of people talking about the disappearance and the old tales of the Spirits’ Feast, kept cozy with a crackling fire and hot food from the kitchen.
- Marketplace: This is where most of the commerce and celebratory events take place. Perhaps the party is here when they first are told of the kidnapping. Imagine a few shop stalls and townsfolk putting out decorations.
- NPC homes: These don’t have to be very detailed, just think about the types of furniture and furnishings you may find in someone’s home! Beds, tables and chairs, simple kitchens, clothing…the types of mundane items you might find in your own room! This is where the party would find clues during their investigation.
- Pumpkin Patch: The scene of the crime! Imagine a healthy pumpkin patch, sprawled across low, rolling hills.
- Wraith’s Den: Underground, beneath the center of the pumpkin patch, where the party will fight the Wraith.
- Mayor: Andre La Mus, Gnome
- Daughter: Elsie La Mus, Gnome
- Suspects: Geoff the Blacksmith, Morgan the Captain of the Guard, and Chadwick the Chef
And with that, you have the basic components of a One-Shot! You can always fill in a bit more as you go, but remember that you don’t need pages and pages of prose written…you just need the roadmap for the story, some good descriptions, and interesting NPCs to help the party along! As long as you have those things, the rest comes from the imaginations of your players! You can pair these steps with the Campaign Prep article here, to help you prepare!
Once it’s cleaned up and formatted, you’ll be able to check out this quick-build One Shot for yourself, for free download here on the site!