Running the Single Session Adventure

The fourth and final piece of a series on designing and running one-shot scenarios.

If you missed any of the earlier articles, find them here:

Designing the Adventure part 1 • Design part 2 • Prep for the Session


Encourage Play that Saves Time

In Part 1 of this series, I wrote that I would avoid issues pertaining to social graces (or lack thereof), but the question of whether players should toy around with electronic devices at the table applies to single-session adventures more than to normal adventure and campaigns. Suffice to say that your group should be in agreement on how to handle this, for delays could result in failure to complete the adventure, which would ruin the entire session for everyone. If need be, have a quick discussion on this before the game starts.

The DM will find it more important than ever to handle THAT player—the one that makes all the bad jokes that have nothing to do with gaming—the same one that side-tracks everything by recounting his day at work in the middle of the game. You are adults so you need no advice on how to handle it, but be aware that not addressing it could possible ruin the game for everyone if you don’t finish.

Whether in my classroom at work or at the gaming table, I dislike playing policeman. I will offer just one non-confrontational tip in dealing with time-consuming, disruptive behavior at single-session games. I like to keep players focused by introducing in-game consequence if they run out of time. In one of my single-session adventures, I matched game time to real time. They had until midnight to break the curse. At the stroke of midnight, the game ended. It was very effective. They policed themselves and even shortened breaks. In my upcoming adventure, I will let them know that if they fail to kill the dragon by the time the game ends, the dragon will fly out of its lair and burn their hometown to ash. Everyone will lose.

You might also ensure beforehand that the group has an effective caller or party leader. These need not be the same thing, though in my experience both roles have usually fallen to the same player. For any that may be newer to the game, I’ll take just a few sentences to elaborate. The idea of a party leader is obvious enough, and there are countless reasons why one PC might be the leader. Leaders can lead with an iron fist (“We’re going this way!”) or with a velvet glove (“We’ve talked about it, and that way seems to be better because of X and Y. Are you with me?”) Here’s something to remember, though: It is nice if the party leader is the PC with the highest charisma or the one that makes the most sense in the story (maybe he’s the king’s cousin). However, as DM, you must care about which player runs the party leader. You can have the best PC in the world on paper, but if played by a mild mannered, easygoing, and indecisive player, he will fail. We are looking for ways to save time so find a player to herd the cats for you and to push them along in a timely fashion. Focus on your players. As I tend to be a perfectionist (I have issues), I would probably try to find a way for my best player leader to somehow end up with a PC that should be the leader in the story. It can be as simple as making the PC the cousin of the NPC that sends the group on its adventure, no matter how unlikely a leader that PC may be. Be creative. If your best player leader wants to play a lowly street thief who normally wouldn’t lead anyone, get creative. Thinking of Conan the Barbarian, perhaps a local king rounds up the PC thief and tasks him with a job, saying that he’s heard of the thief’s ingenuity. He then asks the thief to gather his friends to help him, and perhaps the king supplies him with other muscle if necessary (the friends and added muscle are the other PCs).

If you have never heard of a caller, here’s the gist: In the early days of D&D, the makers of the game realized the need for order if a party wished to succeed. Compared to other games at the time, which were very structured, fantasy role-playing seemed like a free-for-all (there’s no set turn order, no designated leader, no rules on where to go or what to do, etc.) Thus, they came up with the idea of having one player, regardless of whether their PC is the party leader, to be the primary channel of communication between the DM and the other players. In many ways, they are like a congressional whip. It is their job to keep players focused, to move discussion along, to direct the other players’ efforts so that stuff gets done quickly and efficiently. They are not the decision maker, but the one that forces matters so that decisions are made quickly and efficiently. With this in mind, think of your players. Who is the most organized? Who tends to step up when others are spinning their wheels? Who is vocal, without being a bully? That player is your best choice for caller. Again, I have found it easiest to simply devise a reason for that player’s PC to be the party leader, but you need not do this. I am naturally the kind of player that makes a good caller, but I have no need to run things in the game. I can easily ‘herd the cats’ and still defer to another player for final decisions. It’s your call, but some sort of structure will help your group to save time.

Make Good Use of your Modular Design

While discussing encounters, I mentioned that it is wise to start with a core that makes for a satisfying adventure. You can then add encounters in modular fashion, meaning that you could remove them if you were running short on time. Well, if you took that advice, here is where you use it to full effect.

Before play, I usually make a very rough estimated timeline for myself. It is very crude and almost always wrong, but it gives me some sense of how I imagine that the session will progress. For example:

09:00-10:00 — Players arrive, chat, and eat breakfast
10:00-11:00 — Initial Rumors and Handouts, Encounter 1
11:00-12:00 — Encounters 2 and 3
12:00-01:00 — Lunch (try to start by 12:45 if possible)
01:00-02:00 — Encounter 4
02:00-03:00 — Encounter 5 (optional) and 6
03:00-04:00 — Encounters 7 (optional) and 8
04:00-05:00 — Encounter 9 (order pizza at 4:30)
05:00-06:00 — Eat dinner
06:00-07:00 — PCs enter lower dungeon, Encounter 10
07:00-08:00 — Encounter 11
08:00-09:00 — Encounter 12 (grand finale)
09:00-10:00 — Wrap up & rewards, clean up, goodbyes

You might be surprised by how little I have planned for each one-hour chunk. This leaves plenty of time for player discussion, debate, exploration, role-playing, etc. When I first started doing this years ago, my timelines were much more ambitious. I have learned through hard experience to cut back drastically. Obviously, allot more time for your large combats. Consider simple things like traps and riddles. You might imagine that a trap or riddle might only take five minutes, but it could take thirty! Account for this.

Armed with this timeline, I can see by 2:00 p.m. how closely we are sticking to the timeline. If we were on track or just a few minutes behind, I would include the first optional encounter (Encounter 5). On the other hand, if we were 30 minutes or more behind, I might skip that and get us back on track. At 3:00 p.m., I could assess again and decide whether to include the next optional encounter (Encounter 7). If the encounters are truly modular, your game will not suffer by their removal (at least from a players’ point of view—you will always know how much cooler it would have been had they been included). Also, you may want to allot more time to the last few encounters, not just the finale. They are usually not optional, and since you cannot remove them, ensure that you leave time to complete them.

Play Fast and Loose

In a single-session adventure, fun is paramount—more so than in a regular campaign. That may sound silly because all gaming is meant to be fun, but in normal campaigns, you can endure disruptions, weave together deep plots, fiddle with mechanics, look up rules, and take your time. In the single-session adventure, you have mere hours to make wonderful memories. Excitement and laughs should trump both story and mechanics. If you forget a rule and cannot find it within thirty seconds, just make a ruling and run with it. If a player wants to do something crazy, let him try it and give him a chance for success (this is a good rule of thumb for regular campaigns too). Richly reward success in such endeavors, and make failure cinematic and exciting. This way, it’s a win-win for the group.

Parting Gifts

If you supplied pre-generated characters, allow the players to keep their character sheets as mementos.

For my upcoming single-session adventure, I plan to run two groups through it on different dates. I will use a uniform scoring system, like those used at GenCon, to score each group. A player suggested that each player bring a small game-related item to the game (new set of dice, dice tower, dice bag, miniature, etc.), and the winning group gets the spoils. That sounds like fun, especially because I convinced them to bring a bag of cookies for the DM.

Last Thoughts

If you haven’t run a single-session adventure, you should definitely give it a try. It’s challenging to be sure, but in many ways it is easier to try than running an entire campaign. They also provide great satisfaction because you actually get to finish (ask yourself how many times a campaign just fizzled out after several months or years—it’s frustrating). Also, because the adventure is brief, you can learn from your experience and quickly make adjustments for your next adventure. Thus, you will see improvements in your DMing skills much quicker than you might with a campaign or longer adventure. Furthermore, the brief nature of the adventure often entices DMs to try wackier stuff than they might try otherwise, and this often makes for a very fun and memorable game. Last of all, for some of us at least, the single-session adventure brings back much of the nostalgia of our youth, when we played D&D for hours on long, hot, summer days, guzzling ice tea and bloating ourselves on pizza. We cheered, we laughed, and we often conquered. The single-session adventure, properly designed and run, packs all of that fun into one day. It’s fantastic.


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

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.