Guest Post: Effective Preparation for a One-Shot

22334399426_7fd635708e_zThis is the third post in a guest series on One-Shot RPG adventures. Today, we check in with Jarin Dnd. Jarin is a frequent contributor/game master to the Facebook One-Shot Group, which has been mentioned previously in the series. – jw


In my 30 years involved with Dungeons & Dragons, Spelljammer, Shadowrun, and a few other tabletop roleplaying games, I have been both a player and a Game Master (Dungeon Master) on numerous campaigns, one-shot spin-off sessions of longer campaigns and adventures that lasted only two or three sessions. After moving and taking almost a year off, I found myself missing the storytelling and friends I had made over the years. As this yearning to return grew, I found several YouTube channels focused on the Tabletop RPGs that I grew up loving and quickly started watching them daily. As I listened to live game plays and discussions by such people as Esper the Bard, DawnforgedCast, Fistful of Dice, Tabletop Terrors, and BeABetterGamemaster, I remembered the 30 years of good times and the awesome stories I had helped tell, including a campaign that I ran several times with no single group lasting long enough together to complete it.

One night, during my normal routine of watching a live gameplay sessions, followed by one of Dawnforgecast’s “Ask a DM” videos, and was amazed to discover that the question I had been pondering for weeks was the focus of the episode. That question was “No-one in my area plays… how am I to find a group of people to play with?” He had many suggestions, one of which was to go on Facebook and join the “Tabletop RPG One Shot Group.”

It’s been about a sixteen months since I joined the group, and I have improved my preparation methods and skills as a GM both for hosting one-shot sessions as well as longer campaigns. Some of the reasons I like using one-shots is that it gives me the ability to GM for a wide range of players, to find who I feel most comfortable with; and to try crazy settings, themes and moods (such as underwater adventures, a flying mount race, etc.) that would be hard to develop into a full campaign, only to discover the players had no interest in that type of thing. In addition, the preparation time for a one-shot is much less than I am used to, and if I see players are really enjoying the session, I can offer to turn it into a full campaign for them. As a player, I like the one-shots because they give me a chance to play new systems and settings without having to worry about knowing all the rules or mechanics of the game system.

In this article, however, I wish to offer a little bit of advice for those considering trying a one-shot or online sessions, and show you a quick method I use to plan the basic plot and scenes in a one shot.

The Game System:

Pick a game system that you are familiar with, or at least have access to the basic core rulebooks. In my case, I stick with Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, although I am currently reading the core books for Pathfinder, Fate, and Star Wars Edge of the Empire to expand my knowledge.

The Setting:

When I pick a setting for a one-shot session that I will be running, I first consider the mood and theme I want to tell a story in. Usually, this will result in something along the lines of a high fantasy world with a middling amount of magic, which is largely unexplored. Sometimes, it will also result in the type of adventure I wish to run such as: a murder mystery, a large-scale invasion etc.

The Players:

Once I determine the setting, I come up with a simple name that conveys the setting (i.e. Under the Ocean) and I pick a day and time that I will be available for a minimum of 3 to 5 hours which I find is a pretty typical length for one shot sessions. Then, I create a event for the “Tabletop RPG One Shot Group” and post a interest link including a brief description of what level characters I expect players to use, how they should determine their stats, etc. I tend to post this on Sunday night or Monday morning and I post the full week’s schedule all at once. My one-shot schedule usually consists of two weekly on-going campaigns through the one shot group and one or two other one-shots with occasionally a special event thrown in such as 6 one shots taking place within a 24 hour period.

After this is done, I sit back and wait for people to make comments or send me a message to which I reply as soon as possible, taking players on a first-come first-served basis for four spaces in the group. For the fifth space I usually handpick someone that I have played with, or have had in prior sessions that I know has what I look for in a player. I also have three alternate players who will be on standby in case players don’t make it to the session.

The Plotline:

For a plotline I use the following method for all my one-shots and campaigns. Using this method, I spend about 30 minutes prepping for all my sessions (not including the addition of monster stats to my notes). The method is simple: It’s called the “IARR” method, which stands for Introduction, Action, Role-Playing, Result. I often take these four categories and make a table for each location I expect to use in a session. As part of this table, I include a row for each of the possible players, resulting in four to five rows total.

I fill out each box as ideas come to me. In the below table, I show what I prepped for a one-shot in which the characters found a possessed teddy bear:

Intro Action Role-Play Result
Lord Alric holds a feast and welcomes characters to his keep. Characters introduce themselves, then huntsman reports to Lord Alric about mounds appearing on the road and undead attacks. Characters question the huntsman. Lord Alric asks the party to investigate these mounds and warn the people on the farms outside of the keep to come into the keep.
Leaving keep:

3 farms to east; road to north; forest to northwest; mound on road about ½ day’s travel

Characters decide where to go. As characters travel to destination, a ragged farmer appears and begs for help because family is trapped on farm. Characters decide to rescue family or continue to destination (if family rescue then ghoul combat).

Character flashback to loss of family.

Party comes across graveyard with hut and well. Little girl’s voice comes from teddy bear asking for help. Character flashback about putting spirits to rest and not every spirit is evil or to be feared. Party recovers girl’s body from well and buries it in grandmothers open grave…discover traces of digging and corpses gone.
Outside mound (thule attack) Combat with the thule Character flashback to war and almost dying. Possessed teddy bear gives hint about a cult of necromancers behind the undead attack and party returns to the keep.

After I fill out the table for the general plot arc of the one-shot session (or campaign session), I do additional tables for any locations that may be needed. For example, in the one-shot session diagramed above involved going into the forest, I would do a second table in the same manner, and write out the basic concepts of the forest along with any details and scenery that would be included. After the tables are done, I spend about a hour adding monster stat blocks to my notes and adapting the monsters to fit my setting and combat encounters.

The Player Characters:

I usually give players a description of how to make their characters, including which source books I allow, the standard array for stat points as found in the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Player Handbook, and what I allow above and beyond basic starting gear. I also use a quick character generator to allow pre-fab characters for players that have a class and race concept they wish to play.

Start of the One shot or Campaign Session:

For roughly the first half hour of a session, I talk with the players, to give them the basic setting, mood, and theme of the session. I also explain the type of behavior I expect from players, including things like group cooperation, character development, story-telling, general respect, sharing the spotlight, etc. I also ask the players what they expect or would like to see included in the session, and I adapt my session notes to include their suggestions as much as possible.

After the session, I spend about ten minutes or so asking each player the following two questions to get their feedback. Firstly: “What scene or event was the highlight of this session for your character and for you as a player?” Secondly: “In what areas do you feel that I, as a DM, could improve?”


This is just a brief commentary on preparation for one-shots and campaigns from my own personal experience. I hope everyone was able to take something valuable from this article, and will continue to explore the wonderful realm of role-playing games, as well as the community that has grown around Facebook, YouTube, and the Tabletop RPG One Shot Group.