Ask The GM: Preplanning A One-Shot

By John Serpico on


Luca asks – I go to a lot of gaming cons and one of my favorite things to do is to play pick-up D&D games. I’d like to have my own one-shot so that I can run games as well as play them. What’s the best way to build a one-shot to play with folks you are meeting for the first time?


Building a one-shot for a group of friends is challenging in and of itself. But building one for strangers that you don’t know and that may not know each other adds an extra layer of complexity that you’re going to have to navigate. You’re going to be unsure how the party will interact with each other, how they will solve problems, and the pace at which they play. And you’re going to have to take all of that variability into account.

That said, I think it will be a great challenge and I strongly encourage you to do it. GMing for strangers is one of the best ways to learn how to improvise at the table, which is a skill you can bring back to your own gaming group at home. So, given that, here are some tips that you can hopefully put to good use:

Don’t be too ambitious. When you’re running a multi-session game with friends, if you don’t get to the big climactic moment at the end of the night, you can just postpone it until the next night. But with a convention one-shot, you can only expect a two or three hour commitment from the players. So the big question is what can you accomplish in three hours? From my experience, that’s enough time for an appetizer and a main course. For example, if you want to do something combat heavy, maybe it’s an encounter on the road with some beasts on the way to the villain’s keep, and then a big battle with the villain. There may be traps or conversations or problem solving along the way, but if you’re building things around combat, think “one small and one big.” The same applies for something puzzle focused. You want to make sure things end with a bang, so you need to make sure they get to that bang.

Be prepared to leave things out. Let’s say you stick to that appetizer and main course approach. You prepare a session in which the party is asked by a local lord to recover a stolen artifact from bandits that have taken over an abandoned mine. You want the party to have to figure out how to navigate through a forest, then fight kobolds in the forest (the appetizer), find some useful equipment at an old campsite, then approach the cave, enter it, find proof that the lord’s adviser had let the bandits steal the artifact, and then into a huge brawl with the bandits (the main course). All of those non-combat things are interesting and would round out the story. But you need to be prepared to gloss over them if the party is not moving at the pace you expect. If the group decides to engage in complicated negotiations with the lord over payment, maybe you strip away the equipment discovery or truncate the kobold encounter. You want to reach the ending, and make the last thing the party does feel epic instead of rushed. So be prepared to hit the gas to get them there.

Cap the number of players, and have more character sheets than players. Plan the game for a certain number of people and don’t exceed that number. I personally prefer a five person game for a convention, since that allows for a variety of classes while still giving everyone plenty of stage time. If you’re bringing pre-generated character sheets (which I recommend), bring two or three more sheets than players, so no one feels like they’re “stuck” with a class they don’t want. You will be tempted to let one or two more people in, but rest assured that sticking with your cap will help them and help your game.

Set expectations. Plan your “welcome to the table” speech ahead of time and put everything in that speech you want out of the game. Do you want everyone to stay in character? Let them know before they sit down. Do you want to emphasize that the game should be about teamwork? Boldly declare it. If you give everyone the terms of service, so to speak, they’re likely to follow them.

You’re going to have a great time building this and running it. Just be confident, prepared and ready to adapt.

Happy GMing!

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