Designing Single-Session Adventures part 2

In part 1 of this series on single-session adventures, Michael gave the broad strokes of adventure design, from the desired playstyle to decisions on system and settings. Now we move into more specific adventure construction advice.

If you missed the previous article, find it here:

Designing the Adventure part 1

Consider Multiple Environments

George Lucas explained that when making his original three Star Wars movies, he wanted three very different environments in each film. This practice conveys to the viewer three very different moods in a single movie (in just a few hours), and it also lends a slightly epic feel to the story. In the original Star Wars, we have the barren desert of Tatooine, then the cold and colorless interior of the Death Star, and finally the black vacuum of space as the rebel ships try to destroy the Death Star. In The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas gave us the frozen wastes of Hoth, the humid swamps of Dagobah, and the ethereal cloud city of Bespin. In Return of the Jedi, we start in the lifeless desert of Tatooine, move to the lush forest moon of Endor, and end inside the colorless reconstructed Death Star. Gary Gygax, consciously or not, used the same approach in G1: Against the Giants. The PCs first infiltrate the timber-framed steading of the hill giant chief, then invade the glacial rift of the frost giant jarl, and conclude in the volcanic halls of the fire giant king.

I like this approach, and it is often easy to accomplish. Given the time crunch in a single-session game, some DMs may balk at the idea of moving the PCs great distances (far enough to have very different environments). However, first remember that a dungeon is a very different environment than the area just outside it—be it swamp, frozen tundra, rainforest, rocky hills, etc. Thus, you can get two environments almost effortlessly. Just look for another.

On the other hand, if you would like to transport the PCs great distances for a truly epic story, you can do this easily. An obvious means, at least in a high-fantasy game, is powerful magic. If you wish to downplay magic or reserve it for more important things, you can simply announce that weeks or months pass after each major benchmark of the adventure. You can pass months in just minutes, while the story keeps an epic feel. For example, the first part of a quest might take the PCs to a jungle in a tropical southern sea. After accomplishing their objective in that location, the DM can explain that three months pass as the characters take ship to their next destination in the frozen northlands. Think of Raiders of the Lost Ark as an example. After certain exciting scenes, the film shows Indy moving between continents by tracing a red line across a map. It takes only seconds, but it implies days or weeks of travel for the character. With such power at your disposal, do not balk at the idea of using very different environments, as they will make the session more memorable. Also, very different environments tend to lend themselves to more interesting hazards and monsters.

Create Player Characters

Most players love to make their own characters. However, character creation can burn a great deal of time—the most precious commodity in a single-session game. Also, the single-session game often denies players the satisfaction that they usually gain from developing their PCs over the course of many months and years. In most cases, the PCs will not even gain a level, or if they do by the end of the adventure, it’s academic. Thus, pre-generated characters work much better for single-session games.

Another reason for using pre-generated PCs is that it allows the DM to set the tone of the game even more than usual. Under normal circumstances, a DM should have some input during character creation. They may forbid certain classes or races if they do not jibe with the setting, they may help the player to tie the new PC to the setting, they may provide custom spell lists for clerics, etc. In a single-session adventure, they can go even further by creating the PC’s stats and by providing starting equipment. It seems trivial, but the DM can thereby ensure that the PCs have the needed abilities and gear to handle the dangers that they plan to throw at them. It may be as simple as providing a PC with an item that the player might typically overlook, but which might come in handy in an encounter.

If you decide to provide pre-generated characters, avoid the DM trap of making one PC overpowered or indispensable. Every player wants to feel that his or her PC is important. Do not unconsciously create a main character, as all others will feel neglected. Spread the skills, abilities, and magic items evenly. This is not about the game being fair (a common obsession in recent years that I find silly). It is about each player having fun by feeling that their PC has something to offer (which is not silly).

If you plan to use pre-generated characters, why not also take the opportunity to spice them up? Anyone can roll dice and buy equipment. Give your players a treat by giving each PC a unique ability or benefit. It need not be game changing. Perhaps a PC has keen hearing (+20% to hear noise checks) or a keen sense of smell (+5 to tracking and a 20% chance to detect some poisons). Perhaps they have keen eyesight (+10% to spot checks or to tracking). Perhaps one PC is a natural brawler (they get a small bonus to grappling checks or unarmed combat). Perhaps one PC has a minor psionic power (don’t even bother with existing psionic systems, as most are Byzantine in complexity. Just allow the PC to produce a minor effect, such as ESP, telepathy, clairvoyance, clairaudience, etc. It need not be as powerful as a magic-user spell). Perhaps a magic-user has a unique spell that they invented. You get the idea. The possibilities are endless, but each gives the PC something special. The better abilities add something new instead of simply boosting an existing stat.

A variation on the above idea allows the DM to encourage certain behavior from the PCs. I do this when the envisioned adventure needs a certain flavor. For example, a few years ago I ran a game about old adventurers coming out of retirement to save the day one last time. Yet players do not like to fail so getting them to act blind, deaf, forgetful, and arthritic can be difficult. The solution was to explain each unique handicap and to provide a few mechanical bonuses whenever the player sufficiently played up the handicap. For example, consider the old cleric with acute hearing loss. I wanted him acting both religious and deaf during most of the game, but how to persuade the player to do this? First, to convey his devout nature in so short an adventure, he received a +1 to any roll (which he could reserve for later use) when he quoted sacred scripture (the player could make up whatever he wanted). He could also gain a +3 to any roll whenever he pretended to mishear something and parroted back a wrong phrase. Someone would yell, “Look, a fire!” Looking confused, he could respond with “What? I don’t see a squire.” For a different example, consider the drunken druid. He received a +1 to any roll whenever he wasted a round by slurring his words imperceptibly or by pretending to sneak a drink. He received +3 to any roll for every round that he blacked out or otherwise put himself out of commission during combat. They stacked, too, so if he wasted three rounds bumbling about, he could get a +9 on an attack. Though +9 is a huge bonus, realize that the player has to see the incentive as worthwhile. In our case, the results were hilarious. Players accrued their many bonuses for use in important encounters, while the game took on the intended tone. As DM, you cannot force that. You need to encourage it, and offering in-game bonuses proved to be very effective. Of course, this works with more than comedy. If you want to run a horror-themed game, you may wish to encourage different behaviors. Characters in a horror story almost always fret and panic, whereas PCs rarely do. Characters also do really stupid things (like putting your back to a window at night when a serial killer is on the loose in the neighborhood), while PCs are usually much wiser. However, you might get more of the desired feel with proper incentives.

If you make pre-generated PCs, make more than you expect that you’ll need. You may have a last-minute addition to the game. Also, if a PC dies, you might allow the player to run an extra pre-generated PC instead of twiddling his or her thumbs for the remainder of the session. As the session is not that long anyway, allowing the player to drop out of the game might be acceptable. In fact, in a short horror game, it may be preferable to produce an increasing sense of loneliness in the remaining PCs. However, having a few extra pre-generated PCs at least gives you the option of allowing the player to continue if that would benefit the game.

If you decide to allow players to roll up their own PCs, by all means have them do it before game day. Again, time is precious. With the advent of programs like Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds, you can even run a character creation session several days before your planned game. Using these, you can see all of the players’ rolls, as they appear right on the screen.

Plan Encounters Carefully

Time is precious, and, no matter what you do, you will likely find yourself racing against the clock.  Players usually manage to waste (or otherwise burn) incredible amounts of time. Thus, it is crucial to limit the number of planned encounters. Someone once suggested that the DM should estimate the number of encounters needed and then drastically cut back. I discovered this the hard way, while running three or four single-session adventures in just a few years. I cut back the scope of each subsequent adventure, and I got to the point where I could not fathom the PCs failing to get through X encounters in twelve hours. Yet, they never failed to surprise me! Late in the game, you do not want to be forced to chop great encounters, which took time and effort to create, because you are running out of time. Better to plan properly beforehand.

To this end, I strongly suggest embracing the concept of the “Five Room Dungeon” (or 5RD), explained by Johnn Four from Even if you do not follow his guidelines exactly, you will end up with a very brief but satisfying adventure. You can always add to this core. Though you should read his many articles on the topic, I can provide a very brief outline here. I should mention that the ‘rooms’ are not real rooms. Think of them as planned encounters, and they can occur indoors or outdoors, in cities or in the wilderness.

‘Room #1’ is an entry area, which often contains a guardian. Something must prevent most people from getting the treasure or finding the secret, or they would have done it already. The guardian may be a monster, but it could also be any danger or obstacle that keeps people away. It might also be that the path forward (whatever that looks like) is somehow hidden, and the secret lies in Room #1. This first encounter can really establish the mood of the adventure and get players psyched.

‘Room #2’ often contains some obstacle that cannot be thrashed with a sword. It may be a puzzle, a floor covered with poisonous snakes, or a merchant that must be bribed. Once you have this nailed down, go back to Room #1 and plant clues about this room.

‘Room #3’ often features a trick, trap, or hazard. This often provides a setback after the PCs successfully overcome the first two rooms. The possible variations are endless, but the setback builds tension.

‘Room #4’ features the large conflict or climactic battle. It almost always features a monster/arch-villain. It might have unexpected powers or surprises for the PCs. Its lair might also be trapped. This is where you pull out all the stops to make the encounter memorable. If the monster/arch-villain has a weakness, this is where the PCs exploit it.

‘Room #5’ features the rewards, a big reveal, and sometimes a plot twist. The PCs can finally get the treasure or rescue the princess, but sometimes there is as final danger. It may not threaten death, but it could endanger their success. Also, the PCs might learn of some great truth—the identity of the villain, the cause for the monster’s existence, the location of the dungeon, etc.

For a moment, to see the wisdom of this design, consider the opening of one of my favorite movies, Raiders of the Lost Ark. It begins in media res, with Indy in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, accompanied by three henchmen, deep in Hovito territory. In this case, ‘Room #1’ is the entry area to the Chachapoyan temple. The terrain and the natives keep away the curious, and the jungle further obscures the entrance. As for a guardian monster, Indy and his traitorous sidekick, Sapito, encounter dozens of tarantulas. In ‘Room #2’, Indy discovers a light-triggered spike-trap, which already killed his competitor. There is also a rectangular pit to cross. Finally, there are dozens of poison dart traps in the idol room, each triggered by a concealed pressure plate on the floor. In ‘Room #3’ (physically it’s the same room), Indy removes the golden idol but suffers a big setback when the room begins to collapse. He dodges the darts and falling rocks, only to find a stone door descending to trap him. Worse, his sidekick chooses this moment to betray him. Nevertheless, Indy re-crosses the pit, ducks under the door and recovers the idol. Just when he might exhale, he must run from a giant boulder that threatens to crush him or to trap him inside the temple. In Room #4, Indy is back outside, confronted by his archrival and an entire host of Hovito warriors with poisoned darts. They take the idol from him. Rather than fight, Indy chooses to run, and a wild chase scene follows. He narrowly escapes by leaping onto the pontoon of his friend’s biplane. Finally, ‘Room #5’ is back at the university. Indy’s friend, Marcus Brody, agrees to purchase the treasures that Indy did recover. Indy has also figured out where to reacquire the golden idol (Marrakesh in Morocco). However, we also get a plot twist here, as Brody introduces Indy to the men from Army Intelligence, from whom he learns about the dig to find the Ark of the Covenant. The formula works. Those opening twelve minutes or so are legendary and power-packed. If you only had that much time for a movie, that is how you would want to spend them. Any additional minutes that they might add are gravy.

Now, to be honest, I rarely adhere to the exact 5RD formula, but I do keep it in mind. The point is to start small. The above ‘rooms’ give you the bare-bones requirements of a fun adventure. Start with those to ensure that the players get at least a taste of those basics that make the game great—combat, role-playing, traps, lore, treasure, an unexpected twist, etc.

Once you have those, add encounters to beef up the fun, but use a modular approach to do so. Whenever possible, design encounters so that they are optional, meaning that, if you were running horribly short on time, you could remove them without ruining the adventure. As a high school history teacher, I use a similar approach with lesson planning by first developing the core of the lesson. With that done, I then prepare some worthwhile and related bonus material, which I use if it looks like I’ll finish the lesson early. With a little practice, only you will know the difference between the core and the extras.

Another tip on encounters that I try to follow (and sometimes fail to do) is to lead with the cool stuff. You probably already know that your finale will be great, as most DMs plan for that. Yet, starting a game with a great encounter can really ramp up excitement and set the tone for the rest of the session (Raiders of the Lost Ark is a perfect example). While this sounds great, I have struggled with this in the past because many classic stories start slowly. The buildup of tension is gradual, which makes the ending seem so climactic. Consider The Hobbit or The Fellowship of the Ring as popular examples. Thus, I have waffled back and forth as to which is better—starting with a bang or the gradual buildup. After some thought, I concluded that we can possibly get the best of both worlds, at least if the game session is longer than three or four hours. After starting with a bang, you can slow things down and allow for a gradual buildup. With a session of ten or twelve hours, this is definitely possible.

Make Memorable Monsters

Your players are choosing to spend their limited free time with you. It is your responsibility to give them your best. This tip applies to campaigns as well as to single-session adventures, but when your entire game will last only a few hours, you have a very narrow window to create lasting memories. Can you have fun with stock monsters? Sure. Yet, why not tweak most of them just a bit for added fun.

You need not invent whole new monsters out of thin air. I’m certainly not that creative. Start by finding a small way to tweak several of your monsters. One example that I used last year was to make a rust monster look like a carrion crawler. The players naturally recoiled from the creature, but shock and horror set in when the first PC’s armor turned to reddish-orange dust. They still talk about it many months later, and it required only a very small change.

Make Memorable Magic Items

The above concept applies also to magic items. A design rule that I use in my regular campaigns is to avoid generic magic items like the plague. No hero or heroine in fantasy literature ever defeated the terrible monster with a +2 sword. The idea of a generic magic item flies in the face of the whole concept. By its very nature, magic should be wondrous and special. Most magical items in literature had a specific history, name, and purpose. Consider just a few examples from Tolkien’s books. Each ring of power was unique. You also have the elven-made ‘seeing stones’ called Palantíri. Gandalf’s staff seems to be unique, as does Saruman’s. Bilbo carried an elven short sword named Sting, and Aragon carried a legendary blade, renamed Andúril. Gandalf killed the great goblin with the elven-blade called Glamdring, while Thorin Oakenshield fought goblins with Orcrist. In Arthurian literature, King Arthur sometimes fought with Caliburn, a sword of exceptional sharpness. Other times, he fought with Excalibur, which in one battle shone with blinding light. Furthermore, Excalibur’s sheath prevented the wearer from losing even a single drop of blood. Sir Gawaine wielded Galatine, the wicked Sir Mordred wielded Clarent, etc. You get the idea. Nowhere did a noble knight rein in his snorting destrier and draw the legendary ‘Sword +2’ from its scabbard. To make your short game more memorable, try to make each magic item unique.

If the prospect seems daunting, start small. At the very least, don’t call an item by the name in the book, and whatever you do, don’t call it a +2 weapon. Instead of a +2 flail, allow them to find the ‘Flail of Sir Ector’, which provides a +2 bonus to attacks and to damage. For added flair, give it one small tweak. Perhaps the bonus rises to +3 when used between sunrise and noon, and falls to only +1 during hours of darkness.

In a single-session adventure, you can narrow the purpose or special powers of an item more so than usual, for the PCs and the item may never see action again. For example, in my holiday-themed adventure that I first ran last year, the PCs found a magical silver chain that could bind the spectral wolves that were terrorizing the villagers. Designed centuries ago for use on those wolves, it worked only on those wolves. Now, in a normal campaign, such a treasure might be of limited use and value, but in a single-session adventure, such an item shines.

Finally, while you are tweaking your magic items, take a sentence or two to describe each item. A scroll of protection against demons is boring (though useful). Instead, allow the PCs to find a bone scroll case, measuring seven palms in length and covered with tiny runes in an unknown script. Inside, they find a thick roll of trimmed parchment sheets, sewn together, end-to-end. The first and last sheets of the roll are sewn with waxed thread to a rod of silver, each as thick as a man’s thumb. The text of the scroll, written with purple ink, is in ancient Aquilonian. Several detailed pictograms, gilded and wonderfully illuminated, adorn the margins and the spaces between paragraphs. Pentagrams and triangles seem to be common motifs.

If you don’t have time to do this for all magical items, then do it for at least one or two. Then provide one or two lines of detail for the remaining items. For example, you might note that a magical sword has a sapphire cabochon set into its pommel and an engraving in elfin along the length of the blade. Your players will remember your efforts fondly.

Next time, Michael will move on to advice about preparing for and running the game.

This is the fourth of four entries in this series. The full series includes:

Designing Single-Session Adventures part 1
Designing Single-Session Adventures part 2
Prep for Single-Session Adventures
Running the Single-Session Adventure

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