How to Prep a One Shot for Dungeons & Dragons

Running a one shot should be a simple and fun experience. We’ve got an easy, step-by-step guide for you to make the process painless for you.

If you’re looking for reasons to run a shorter story session, make sure to check out our article on five reasons why you should schedule a one shot with your group today.

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed here are my own. This post may contain affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I may earn a small commission.

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Simplify your Preparation and Take Delight in Running a One Shot

Up front, you need to know this: Your ENTIRE prep time should be shorter than the amount of time it takes your players to complete the adventure. This is critical, because if you are doing insane amounts of work for what amounts to a pretty short playtime, that means there are some issues in your workflow or priorities. (Unless, of course, you WANTED to spend four hours watercolor painting all of your hand drawn, painstakingly gridded maps because you love the process. I get it.)

In this article, I’ll go through my exact order of operations when prepping a one shot. I’ve been the forever DM for over twenty years, and I’m happy to share what I’ve figured out along the way.

Getting the One Shot Ready

Timing & Workload

Overworking can burn you out and make your own enjoyment of the actual game lackluster, especially if the session doesn’t go as planned, if it gets canceled or rescheduled (and you have to prep all over again in three weeks after forgetting it all), or if your players don’t enjoy the session as much as you hoped. It happens.

Generally speaking, your players should be doing most of the work. It’s a little different from your main campaign, which I’ll talk about below, but think about it like this: You are inflating a bouncy house and inviting them in. It’s their job to jump around and talk to or fight anyone who shows up, but they’re just playing in the bouncy house.

You can’t possibly have prepared every iteration of what will happen inside those soft plastic walls, but this is what separates a good Game Master from a great one: your ability—and mostly, your willingness—to improvise as necessary.

The Work: Do This

When I prepare a one shot, here is my order of operations:

  • Decide the theme or purpose
  • See what’s already out there and pick one
  • Check Reddit, just in case
  • Finalize Decisions

1) Decide the theme or purpose

Seasons are a great excuse for a one shot! You can focus on an upcoming holiday or birthday, treat them to some super horror, a crazy tough grinder session, something really funny, a different setting/system… the list goes on. If you’re looking for reasons to party, I have some for you here.

2) See what’s already out there

If someone has already created something you think is amazing, use it. You can always modify it if needed for your table. There’s an insane amount of content available for TTRPGs these days, and if you haven’t started looking at it, here’s my advice to you: You can’t do everything, even if you want to. Don’t let it all overwhelm you. If you need resources, or a place to start, I linked some for you at the bottom of this article.

3) Check Reddit

Reddit’s DMAcademy, DnD, D&DNext, and other related subreddits are awesome resources. My experiences have been really positive and the community is vibrant, helpful, and super creative.

Some of my best ideas have been inspired by discussions here. I like to search for my theme or potential modules and see if anyone is talking about them. Even more obscure things may have a few comments to help sway you one way or another.

4) Make a final decision on a premade module, or make your own

I heavily lean towards personally modified premade adventures. I am a busy person with a lot of real life responsibilities, and while I’d love to take hours to write a new adventure, I don’t have that kind of time. I can, however, modify a premade for my table pretty quickly and easily. Plus, in doing this I am supporting the creative community, which I like to do.

Once you’ve decided on your content, the rest pretty much sets up itself. Read through it, feel comfortable in the primary settings and characters, and take a few notes if you need. Remember, you’re building a bouncy house. Not a whole neighborhood. If you need help on the specifics of how to visualize a session prep, take a look at our article here.

On Writing Your Own Adventures

If you have fun writing adventures, you have a great idea for your one shot, and you have the time and means to do it, then why would you waste your time looking up resources other people have made? For comparison? No. You should focus on what works best for you. Don’t let yourself be influenced one way or another by a bunch of strangers on the internet (including me) when you know what’s best for your table.

Social media can be an awesome resource, but it can also be filled with people who say incredibly ridiculous, mind-numbing, and evil things. Use it as a tool, not as a way to crush your plans and fill you with insecurity. You’re worth more than that.

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How Prepping a One Shot is Different from a Campaign

It’s Quicker

We prep for our primary campaigns a lot in the beginning, and then a lot more as we play. And then more as the story progresses. It becomes part of our lives. A one shot doesn’t have that lasting responsibility attached to it. We spend a couple hours thinking about fun things or making fun things, and then we’re ready to go.

There’s Less Pressure

If you don’t have a background story for an NPC, or ideas of how things in the region play out after “the event” in the one shot, it doesn’t matter. Actually, you shouldn’t. If something more detailed and outside the scope of my preparation comes up, sometimes I will ask my players.

Put the onus on them. It’s quite funny and I suggest you try it sometime. For example:

“Hey DM. So, this captain of the guard, do we recognize him?”

“Sure, you do. In fact, you actually remember a run-in you had with him last year. Want to tell us about it?”

Your players will take this in one of two ways: Excited, or nervous. Try to pick the players that will have fun with it. It can give you a lot to work with for your improv, but it does require that you trust your players a bit.

Worst case scenario? If your player comes up with something horrific, you can diffuse it by saying something like: “Well, that certainly tells us about the strange fantasies your character has. Fortunately, Captain of the Guard was actually found innocent as he had a strong alibi. He still dislikes you for accusing him of murdering your family, though.” Or whatever. Hopefully your players don’t have a habit of making your life difficult.

You Have More Flexibility in Preparations

Since it’s just one session, you don’t have to commit to anything long-term. That means you can switch up mechanics, add homebrew content, use a different setting, or do whatever you’ve been aching to do. Have fun with it. It’s just one game, and hopefully you and your players have the kind of relationship where they can communicate to you if they loved something (or not).

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Decision Making During a One Shot is Different from a Campaign

When we run our main games, we consider a lot of factors. Recurring attendance, life and death of PCs over time, that villain that just won’t die, NPCs who light up the table when they arrive. If our players do something insane in our primary campaign, we get to figure out the ramifications on the story and the characters.

With a one shot, not so much. It is born and it dies in the same session, and with few exceptions, it exists in the same rhetorical dimension as bad decisions in Las Vegas. They stay there.

This gives us enormous freedom, and it gives our players a break, too. If you, DM, don’t have any idea of what happens to the town after they solve the crime, that’s fine. You shouldn’t. This is a one shot, and it disappears from the multiverse as soon as you’re done with it.

This also means you can loosen up a bit. Give your players an opportunity to flex their idiot muscle a bit in a one shot. They’ll have fun, respect your flexibility, and it will give them an outlet so they don’t go all murder-hobo in your main game.

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Setting Expectations

It doesn’t matter if you are dealing with children, adults, coworkers, friends or family. You have to set your expectations clearly, both for yourself and others.

It is the number one rule in communicating effectively and it makes sure that everyone has their emotions set to something reasonable for the day. For a one shot with your gaming group, you should discuss with them whether food is happening and who is doing what, the start and stop times or estimates, attire/costumes, and how much your players need to have completed on their character sheets before the game starts. Some one shots don’t really need much. Some need it all.

You should also consider communicating to them the theming and concept for your one shot. They may want to make a character that suits the environment more aptly, and if there are horror or other elements of heightened emotional concern, make sure you’re doing your due diligence and taking care of your players.

If you’ve never had a conversation with them about tough subjects, MCDM has a free toolkit you can use. It’s not just for you. It’s for them, too. Unless you’ve known them their entire lives, (and even if you have) there’s a chance they’ve had an experience they’d rather not re-live at the table, when they’re supposed to be relaxing and having fun.

The Feedback

We love feedback as game masters. Preferably in the form of “Thanks” and “I had a blast!” but we’ll take what we can get. I am fortunate to have a highly communicative group that tells me really wonderful things weekly, but you may not have that luxury.

So…ask. Ask them what they liked about the session, and if there’s anything they’d like you to consider adding to the main campaign. A new homebrew concept? An NPC they loved? You don’t have to do it, but if they loved something, maybe find a way to make it resurface.

In my game, my players recently had a one shot where they solved a murder mystery. They named their detective group Detectives R Us, and I had them make totally tricked out characters. Guess who they’ll be competing with for new quests with at the adventurer’s guild in their main game?

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Closing Thoughts

Setting up a one shot should be a simple and fun experience. If you’re looking for some content for running a one shot, make sure to take a look at our list of recommended resources here.

Do you have any tips for prepping a one shot that I missed here? I’d love to read about it in the comments below.

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Love, Malice. I hope you enjoyed the article! I'm here if you have any questions. Feel free to leave a comment below!

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