My friends and I have played Dungeons & Dragons, or D&D, for decades.
Sometimes you want to play a long campaign, and sometimes you want a quick, one-off adventure.
Here’s how to write a D&D one-shot:
You write a D&D one-shot by following the one-shot formula. This means keeping the story as fun and simple as possible: simple goals, simple conflicts, simple encounters, simple setting, and simple story structure with high stakes and clear deadlines.
In this article, I’ve included everything I’ve ever learned about how to write a D&D one-shot that your players will love.
What Is a D&D One-Shot?
What exactly are one-shots in D&D? And how are one-shots different from full-blown D&D stories and adventures?
A one-shot is a self-contained adventure designed to take players through a story arc within four to six hours. One-shots are not long D&D stories where you and your friends play for several days to finish the entire campaign.
In that regard, it is important for you to make sure that your one shot doesn’t last for a very long time, or else you and your friends won’t be able to finish it in one session.
When I say “self-contained,” I mean everything (story, setting, characters, etc) starts and ends with the session. In other words, you play a new set of characters that you may never play again.
The story, setting, and world do not exist outside of the one-shot session.
Of course, you can choose to write your one-shot this way or choose to connect your one-shot to other, future adventures.
20 Best Ways To Write a D&D One Shot (Complete Guide for Beginners)
Let’s look at 20 of the best tips to help you write a D&D one-shot. These tips will guide you even if you are a complete beginner who has never written a D&D campaign.
But, even if you have written full campaigns for years, you might also learn something new.
1) Follow the D&D one-shot formula
There is a formula that has worked wonderfully for me.
The formula for a D&D one-shot is: Simple goal + simple conflict + simple setting + simple structure + high stakes + deadline = a good D&D one-shot.
All of these elements will be further explained in other tips, but sticking to this overall formula will help you design a compelling adventure.
You can also use this formula, with a few tweaks, to create a full-fledged D&D campaign.
2) Find inspiration in the twisted familiar
When it comes to D&D one-shots, players want something that feels familiar to them—with a slight twist.
They are not looking for completely original stories where they need to start from zero just to get invested in the game. Instead, D&D players tend to be more invested in stories that draw inspiration from something that they already know.
Don’t be overly creative with your one shot. Let me explain.
After all, plenty of D&D stories, fantasy movies, and shows draw inspiration from works that were written before them. There is no reason why you shouldn’t do the same.
Here are a few examples of twisting the familiar:
- A troll who runs a bridge-building business.
- A princess who saves the prince from the dragon.
- A band of orcs who protect a town.
- A new type of magical weapon, like a flaming sword made of ice.
- A dungeon where the players escape, only to face slimes from the slime forest hidden underneath the city.
Anything from my list is fair game. You can twist anything you want—settings, NPCs, enemies, and plots.
Just remember to have fun with it.
3) Chose a single goal and small conflict
Each D&D story should have specific goals and conflicts written for the players.
That means that you shouldn’t write something that is too big for a one-shot adventure. Micro campaigns should be simple and straightforward, straight lines instead of a wandering spaghetti of subplots.
So, choose a single, small, one-shot-sized story problem.
Something that your players can solve in a few hours of gameplay. This means your one-shot should center on taking down a kingpin, not an entire kingdom.
4) Simplify things
One of the biggest characteristics of a good one-shot is simplicity. The more complex the adventure, the longer it will take to complete.
The simpler the one-shot is, the quicker it is for players to finish it.
So, when you plan your one-shot, reduce it down to something even a child could understand. It doesn’t have to be rocket science.
Here are a few simple frameworks you can use:
5) Story structure
In line with how you need to make your one-shot simple, you should also clearly establish the parts of the story as beginning, middle, and end.
Every story includes a structure:
- The beginning is where you introduce the problem that the players need to solve.
- The middle part is where the challenges escalate to make the story interesting.
- The end should allow the characters to resolve the problem.
I’ll discuss the parts of the story in more detail later.
For now, let’s continue to look at what you need for an adventure to work well as a one-shot.
6) Grow your one-shot from the players
When you write your one-shot, one of the best methods is to grow it from your characters.
Keep this player information in mind:
- Roleplaying experience
- Their preferences
- How much time you have for the session
Even though you’re the DM, it doesn’t mean that your players don’t impact your planning. You might want to use certain themes or hooks that your players enjoy.
You may also want to play with your players’ preferences.
For example, they may prefer a higher ratio of puzzles or social interactions over combat encounters.
7) Prepare a flexible number of scenes
It’s a good idea to create more D&D scenes than you need.
That way, you can add or delete scenes based on how long the game goes or what choices your players make during the session.
If a scene is taking longer than expected, and you need to speed things up, simply delete a few scenes. But if one of your scenes ends early and there’s still more story to tell, add in another “pocket” scene.
Flexible planning makes for a memorable adventure.
8) Start strong
The beginning of your one-shot is very important. It’s where you establish the essential information your players need to complete the mission.
Start strong with a compelling hook that drives your players into the adventure.
Here’s what you need to do in the introduction: Establish the setting, problem, the stakes, and the deadline for accomplishing the goal. You want to balance giving out enough information with giving out too much information.
Too little information will confuse your players. Too much might spoil any surprises you have planned.
9) Design a worthwhile villian
The villain you cook up for your one-shot will make or break your adventure. The better your villain, the better the one-shot.
You can design a good villain by:
- Giving them a flaw
- Making their motives believable and powerful
- Not always relying on D&D tropes like evil wizards, dragons, and liches
Here’s a simple template you can use:
The villain, [NAME], has a flaw: [TYPE OF FLAW]. The [TYPE OF FLAW] is what drives [NAME]’s motives. For example, the young orc lord, Orcus, must raid a town to prove that he’s as strong and competent as his dying father wants him to be.
10) Throw dragons at them
In other words, don’t make the one-shot too easy. It wouldn’t be D&D without some action.
After all, D&D is all about action with fantasy elements. And action is very important in a one-shot because you have no room for dull parts that will only prolong the session.
Instead, go right to the meat of things by launching into action.
Then throw more “dragons” at them:
- Plot complications
- Combat encounters
The more connected your “dragons” are to the central plot of the one-shot, the more integrated the entire adventure will feel.
11) Make it personal
As with any story, it is important to make sure that the plot is compelling and interesting.
A good way to make a D&D one-shot truly epic is by making it personal for the player characters in some way. This will give the players a reason to care about what happens throughout the story.
Connect the plot to the characters (their mission, fears, emotional flaws, etc).
For example, the bad guy kidnaps the character’s family or threatens their hometown.
12) Give them a deadline
Give your D&D players a deadline for accomplishing the goal of the one-shot adventure.
Every good adventure has a deadline.
The characters will need to accomplish the goal in time or something bad will happen. This principle is seen in movies, books, and D&D campaigns alike, but it is especially important when designing a one-shot adventure for your players.
A deadline heightens tension, story momentum, and motivates the players to stay on track.
13) Maintain momentum
I recommend that you maintain momentum in your D&D one-shot campaigns.
One-shots need to keep the players’ attention.
If too much time is wasted on small talk or describing a scene that does not advance your plot, then it could lead to a sagging middle bogged down with detail. If players feel bored, they might get restless.
This is how you can boost momentum:
- Remind your players of the deadline
- Kill an important NPC (non player character)
- Give a clue to solve the puzzle
- Keep a regular beat of combat encounters (1 per hour, etc)
14) Raise the stakes
Another way to maintain momentum is to raise the stakes of the adventure. In your one-shot campaign, you should make it clear very early in the adventure what will happen if your players fail.
Typically, there are both personal and adventure-wide stakes.
Personal stakes relate to the players themselves. Perhaps one of your players’ romantic interests is in danger. Perhaps the party will be trapped on an island for the rest of their lives.
Adventure-wide stakes relate to the world around the players.
Maybe all of the people of a small village will revolt, or a bandit king will be able to successfully raid halfling communities.
Include both of these stakes (personal and adventure-wide) in your one-shot.
Make sure to explain how the stakes impact your players. If you do this, they’ll feel more attached to the adventure—after all, failure might mean the end for them.
15) Pre-create the characters
Since a one-shot is self-contained, you can save time by pre-creating the characters your players will use during the adventure.
I suggest you keep the character profiles simple.
One easy way to make characters is to use a character background template.
16) Constrain with a crucible
A crucible is a setting or environment that your players can’t leave.
It could be a cave, ship, or barricaded castle. Whatever it is, the point of adding a crucible to your one-shot campaign is so that you can force your players into taking action.
Your players can’t leave, run away, or escape.
There is nothing for them to do but move forward with the adventure.
17) Construct gaurdrails
Guardrails help limit player choices to move the adventure forward. Instead of an open-play adventure with unlimited options, narrow the choices with guardrails.
A guardrail might use a locked door, uncrossable river, deadline, high stakes, or personal threats lobbed by NPCs.
Anything that keeps the players on track with the adventure or limits choices is a guardrail (so, yes, guardrails are like mini crucibles).
18) Keep the details light
When writing D&D one-shots, keep the details light.
You have a limited amount of time, so going too deep into details will slow down the campaign. Don’t spend too much time creating backgrounds for characters, settings, or plot points.
The best way to do this is by planning and using outlines/templates.
Outlines involve three distinct parts:
- The start and end of the campaign.
- The middle, which includes a few scenes in a sequence. These should be connected with each other and the end goal.
- Optional “pocket” scenes to add in case the adventure goes faster than possible.
19) End with satisfaction
Make sure that the end of the one-shot is satisfying enough so that the players feel a sense of victory and purpose.
Doing this will make the players want to play again and keep coming back for more.
If you end on a loss, it might not feel as satisfying or fun. It makes the impact of the gameplay lose its meaning, especially if they fought hard for most of the session or one of the player characters died along the way.
To write a satisfying ending:
- Tie up all of the important loose ends
- Allow the players to solve the main conflict
- Allow the players to save someone or something
- Allow the players to defeat the bad guy/gal
- Do not have the bad guy win
- Do not have the bad guy escape to fight another day (this might be ok in a longer campaign)
20) End with an open door
As much as it sounds like one, this tip is not a contradiction.
Make sure that you keep an open-ended conclusion that leaves room for a sequel or future adventure.
At the end of the campaign, hint at a potential follow-up session.
For example, a friend or relative of the bad guy/girl promises revenge on the players. Or, the players find a new area that is unknown to them and may lead to another adventure.
The key is to use secondary or smaller threads (not major ones).
Here’s a great video with bonus tips on creating one-shot campaigns:
How Do You Write a Good D&D One Shot?
To write a good D&D one-shot, mix planning with improv.
Create a basic outline using the tips and templates in this article, but leave room for flexibility within the crucible and guardrails that you’ve set up in the campaign.
A good one-shot is well-structured with just enough room for DM and player creativity.
A D&D one-shot that excites your players usually has:
- Clear goals and plot problems
- A mix of scenes (mystery, action, planning, decision, regrouping, emotion, etc.)
- Varied encounters (combat, non-combat, random)
- Different settings (different rooms, parts of town, landscapes)
- A progression of difficulty (easy, medium, and difficult)
- High points (or pillar events)
Think of “high points” like the movie trailer for your one-shot adventure.
What are the big action scenes? The major emotional moments? Include around three of these pillar points in your one-shot, paced out over the course of the adventure.
How Do You Write a Fun D&D One-Shot?
How do you write a fun D&D one-shot?
You write a fun D&D one-shot by allowing the players to co-create the story during the adventure, starting with higher-level characters, and planning fun scenes and encounters.
When planning your one-shot, make room for the players to help decide what happens next.
This is called “playing into the game” and it works for both players and gamemasters. To achieve this, you need to give the players a few options in each scene or encounter.
Unless your one-shot is designed for players new to D&D, it’s a good idea to pre-create level 3 or higher characters.
Higher-level characters have more abilities, items, and can handle tougher situations. Since this is a one-off adventure, you don’t need to start with 100% new characters.
You can also bake fun into your one-shot.
The best way to come up with fun scenes is to ask yourself, “How can I make this more fun?” in the planning stage. For example, instead of your players taking a boat to the mysterious island, perhaps they hitch a ride on a whale or with mermaids.
Instead of battling on a flat field, force your players to fight on a slippery mud-covered slope.
There’s always a way to make any “normal” encounter 10X more fun.
A bonus tip is to create characters or NPCs using funny random character generators like Who the F is my character?
How Long Does a D&D One-Shot Last?
A D&D one-shot usually lasts for 3-5 hours.
That’s long enough to build an interesting and satisfying beginning, middle, and end. You can also finish the entire adventure in a single day.
Any longer, and you’re not technically playing a one-shot.
If you do end up creating a longer adventure (8+ hours), you can always split it into two, shorter one-shot adventures.
How Many Sessions Is a D&D One-Shot?
A D&D one-shot is usually only one single session.
This session is completely self-contained, including a complete adventure from start to finish. Although some one-shots can be split into several sessions, most DMs and players complete the micro-adventure on the same day.
Remember, a single session can last up to 8 hours of gameplay.
How Many Encounters Is a One-Shot?
The number of encounters in your one-shot depends on how long each encounter lasts.
I would shoot for 1-2 encounters per hour mixed in with other types of scenes, such as exploring, mystery, and decision-making.
With this rule of thumb, you can plan for 3-10 total encounters over the course of your one-shot. If some of the encounters take longer than expected, you can always cut a few out to save time.
D&D One-Shot Template
You can use a simple one-shot D&D template to create your adventure.
It includes space for you to write out your one-shot formula, how the adventure begins, what happens in the middle, how it ends, and your DM notes.
A template allows you to plan and organize your micro campaign in one place.
D&D One Shot Ideas
To get your juices flowing, here is a list of D&D one-shot ideas:
- Players search for a kidnapped prince in a goblin-infested cave.
- Players wake up in a quarantined castle overun by zombies.
- Players must solve an ancient riddle before midnight.
- Players search for treasure in an ancient temple.
- Players discover a hidden room in the town library.
- Players recover stolen magical items from a dark cult.
- Players investigate a mysterious spike of theft in their town.
- Players are invited to an eccentric noble’s masquerade party.
- The players sneak into an enemy castle in order to kill the lord.
- The players hear rumors about a haunted, magical forest.
- The players witness a dragon attack while staying at an inn.
- The players find themselves in a town facing destruction by orcs.
- The players are sent to negotiate with an orc tribe about raiding the local village.
- A group of adventurers rescue a kidnapped elven prince from minotaur slavers.
- An invasion of locusts threatens the local farmers.
- Players get arrested and need to break out of a dungeon prison.
- Players find a strange idol in an ancient tomb.
- A mysterious plague is turning the local villagers into zombies.
- Players must cross a haunted graveyard to get home.
- A flood has stranded the players at their favorite inn.
- The players rescue a group of nobles from bandits and earn reward money.
- Pirates attack the players’ ship.
- The players must escort a trouble-making noble home from a wild, drunken festival.
- The players are hired as security for a local festival.
- Players exprience a “Groundhog Day” one-shot where they keep reliving the same day.
- Players are thrown into a “Hunger Games” one-shot where they must kill other NPCs to survive.
- Players get caught up in a gladiator one-shot where they must fight a series of enemies.
D&D One Shot Generator
You can also use D&D one-shot generators to automatically create adventures for you.
Here is a shortlist of generators:
D&D One-Shots for Beginners
If you want to create a one-shot for beginners, you have lots of options.
When you plan a one-shot for new players, remember to introduce them to all the basics of gameplay:
- Magical items
- Exploring a dungeon
- Simple combat encounters
- Simple NPC social encounters
- Taking D&D notes
Here is a table with pre-written D&D one-shots for beginner DMs and players (level 1-4):
|Down and Out in WaterDeep
|The Delian Tomb
|Lost Mine of Phandelver (first chapter)
|A Baleful Awakening
|Not a Creature Was Stirring
|A Most Potent Brew
|Mad God’s Key
|Death Frost Doom
|Embers of Elwood
|Tower of the Mad Mage
|Harried in Hillsfar
|Outlaws of the Iron Route
|Bad Business in Parnast
|A Scream in the Night
|Shadows over the Moonsea
|Wolves of Welton
|Mines of Madness
You can find most of these one-shots for free by Googling the name of the adventure. If not free, you can usually get them for a few dollars as downloadable PDFs.
D&D High Level One-Shots
If you want to create a one-shot for characters at higher levels, you’ll want to double down on the “hardness factor” of the adventure. This means harder puzzles, mysteries, and combat encounters.
Here is a table with pre-written higher-level one-shots (level 5+):
|A Wild Sheep Chase
|The Secrets of Skyhorn Lighthouse
|The Egg Hunt
|That Sinking Feeling
|Depths of Felk Mor
|The Drowning Caverns of the Fish God
|Lich Queen’s Begotten
|To Wake the Leviathan
|Lord of Gloomthrone
|Horror Under the Mountain
|Court of the Lunar King
|Domain of Dread: Timbergorge
Top 10 Best D&D One-Shots
If we’re talking about the very best D&D one-shots (regardless of levels), then here are my favorites.
Top 10 best one-shots:
- Level 1: The Delian Tomb
- Level 1: Lost Mine of Phandelver
- Level 1-2: Death Frost Doom
- Level 1-3: Death House
- Level 1-4: Outlaws of the Iron Route
- Level 5: A Wild Sheep Chase
- Level 8 one-shot 5e: The Egg Hunt
- Level 10 one-shot for D&D 5e: The Drowning Caverns of the Fish God
- Level 15 one-shot: Court of the Lunar King
- Level 20 one-shot: Hellbound Heist
Final Thoughts: How To Write a D&D One-Shot
If you follow the advice in this article, you’ll be well on your way to writing an unforgettable and fun D&D one-shot.
You may want to bookmark this article so that you can come back to it in the future.