Writing a One-Shot

The first of two posts discussing tips and tricks for writing and running one-shot adventures

I’ve recently found myself repeating the same advice online to various people about writing and running one-shot adventures. Something I’ve accidentally become knowledgeable about while developing Strive. It might save some time to have a couple of blog posts I could link to. This week we’ll cover writing the adventure and next week we’ll cover running it.

If you’ve never run a one-shot before, I recommend finding some highly rated and recommended adventures in your preferred system and running at least 3. It’s not going to be easy writing an adventure if you don’t understand how other people have done it. Read as many as possible even if you’re not going to run them. Even if you’re a seasoned campaign GM, one-shots are a different animal.

The Story

The First step is deciding on the genre and type of story you’re interested in. Is it going to be a Fantasy bank heist, a Sci-Fi murder mystery or a modern military thriller.

The easiest way to write your first adventure is to pick a film or tv episode and work out how you’d recreate it in the RPG system you’re using. How would Oceans 11 look as a Sci-Fi heist, or Blade Runner in a fantasy world, with shapeshifters instead of replicas.


The biggest limiting factor you have is time. A One-Shot should last 3-4 hours and needs to be a self-contained story. The easiest way to make sure you’re not creating way more content that you need is to stick to a few simple rules.

  • A plot that keeps the story in one main Town/City/Dungeon and will encourage the players to drive the plot forward e.g. a time limit
  • Have the characters start off working for the same organisation, or give them the same common goal that will drive the plot
  • Split the story into 3 main acts with a definite event that will push the story into the next act that the players must go through
  • No more than 4 main locations
  • No more than 4 main NPCs
  • Three possible enemy encounters  (One of which is an end boss)

The Template

Open a word document and fill out the following sections.

  1. Synopsis – A brief overview of the adventure.
  2. Acts – The three stages of the synopsis, with a clear event that marks the end of each act and the beginning of the next.
  3. Intro – What happens before the adventure starts, this includes explaining to the players who they’ll be and what they’re doing.
  4. Story – A more in depth analysis of the story.
  5. Characters – Names, descriptions and motivations of the 4 main characters. Also include a few minor characters with much shorter descriptions.
  6. Locations – The main location the story takes in (e.g. Town) and 4 the more specific locations (e.g. Pub, Jail, Shop). Include the descriptions you will tell the players when they first enter and the characters they will find here.
  7. Enemies – There should be 3 encounters with enemies that you can use if necessary and one final boss fight. You will always use at least 1 of these enemy encounters and the final boss. The other enemies are there so these encounters are prepped if you need to use them.
  8. Items – Any story specific items that will be used. Include where they will be found, what the players need to do to get them and the effect they will have. Any more than 4 of these is too many.
  9. Story Map – A way of visualising the adventure that is explained in greater detail below.

The approach that works for me is to only fill in the synopsis at first. Coming up with very broad strokes of a story but it forces you to think of the whole story, you can’t have a synopsis without saying what you think the ending is. Once I’ve done that, I stop writing. In fact, I stop thinking about the adventure completely. It’s amazing what the brain can come up when you’re not forcing it to have an idea.

I Come back a day or two later and fill in as much of the rest of the sections as possible. Even if you know what you’re putting in is a placeholder and you want to put something better in, a lot of the time it’s the act of writing down the worse idea that will trigger something better. Once it’s filled in I take another break and relax again.

Re-reading it having had another couple of days away from it, I’m always amazed how rubbish it looks. Once I start working on it again though, I realise how much less daunting and easier it is to improve something that exists compared to creating from scratch. Normally I’ll get a lot of ideas at this point, constantly referring to the scope to make sure I’m not adding too much content.

Once I’ve got here I try and set a date for the adventure to be played as soon as possible. This is because otherwise the game won’t be played until I consider it finished but the game will never be finished until it’s been played. If I don’t have a hard deadline for this it’ll never get done.

The Story Map (or how I learned to stop worrying and love railroading)

Railroading is often used as a dirty word when talking about GM styles. Griffin McElroy is constantly accused of railroading by listeners of The Adventure Zone, and he’s running a story based podcast. “I’m worried I’m Railroading my players” is a common post on online RPG communities. Every GM will have to railroad at some point and never more so than when they’re running a One-Shot.

There are ways to make your railroading not seem like railroading, and a technique I lifted and adapted from a reddit post is something I call a story map. A story map for an adventure I wrote called ‘ Making a Mountain out of a Mudhill’ in which the players have to investigate rumours of an evil wizard in a town call Mudhill is below.

This won’t make much sense to you. Without the rest of the template it’s meaningless. It’s read from the outside in, so the outer ring is what happens immediately after the intro and the very middle bit is the final boss.

The different characters in the outer ring are the 4 main characters in the 4 locations, and there’s a way to interact with each of them that will move the players into Act 2, which is the confrontation with the Wizard and then into Act 3, the boss fight against the Shambling Horror.

The red boxes in the corner are the enemies. These are optional scenes for the GM to add in if the players are moving through the story too fast, or leave out if they’re moving through the story too slowly,

The great thing about this system is that while it is undoubtedly an adventure on rails, it has a start point and an end point that can never change no matter what the players decide to do. There are different routes to the end point and the players decide how they end up in the middle. Another layer could be added if the story is more complicated or you want to add more variance but the principle remains the same.

Remember this is all stuff I’ve cobbled together and that works for me. I’m not expecting you to copy this exactly, more just add it to your own toolkit for creating adventures. I’ve read so many things that have influenced this system and borrowed so many ideas that I have no idea what I’ve come up with or where any of it’s from. Stealing ideas from other GMs is a surefire way to get ahead but adapting them to your own tastes and style is how you become much better. So steal this idea, and turn it into something better.

Next post – Running a one-Shot

Filed under: BlogTagged with: , ,

No comment yet, add your voice below!

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comment *
Name *
Email *

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