Tag Archives: dungeon

How to Write Single Session Adventures for RPGs (with examples)

Whether you’re new to RPGs like D&D or you just want a fresh perspective as a veteran, we’ve got some suggestions to creating a single session adventure in a couple of hours (which, over a week isn’t that long at all when you think about it).

Writing a whole campaign for table top role-play games like Dungeons & Dragons can be daunting, especially if you’re new to the role of games master (GM) or dungeon master (DM). It doesn’t need to be difficult, which is why I’m setting out how to write a single session adventure and how make it a worthy story!

Definition

A single session adventure takes place for a single gaming session – usually around 3 hours or an evening of game play. It is designed to resolve itself by player interaction at the end of the session, allowing the players to move their characters on. It is a great way to introduce yourself as a new GM to the game because the effort involved is minimal compared to writing a full campaign. That said, extra credit for proper design such as maps and non-playing characters really helps!

Single session adventures need to be concise, so some of the work the GM has to undertake can be a bit more intense: the game needs to start succinctly, the players need to be hooked in right from the start and the game needs to build up to the end smoothly.

I’m going to be running with an adventure example so you can see how it builds up. If you’re lucky I’ll throw in some diagrams to explain what I’m talking about.

Note: I’m not writing this with any game system in mind, although I’ll use generic fantasy elements like those found in D&D. The advice and technique should apply to just about any setting or game.

First Step: The Facts

Identify what the facts are in your adventure – this is the most creative part of the design stage because what you’re doing is setting the plot. The players don’t need to know these facts – it is their job to find the clues and put the pieces of the puzzle together much like a murder mystery show. The clues culminate into the facts and then there is a resolution, in games like Dungeons & Dragons this is normally the second to last encounter: facing the enemy.

Look on the facts of your adventure like the synopsis of a story or a film. It needs to be only be a line or two at most.

Example fact: A Hag is living near a village and has sleep-charmed one or more of the villagers to kidnap young children and take them to her grotto where she devours them or uses them in dark rituals to proliferate her coven. Travellers have also gone missing in the night, leaving all of their belongings behind in the small village inn.

From this simple factual synopsis, we have the antagonist of our story, the method and locations of their actions and finally a reason as to why – creating her own coven of hangs or witches.

Second Step: The Clues & Encounters

A single session adventure should have no more than 3-4 key encounters where the players are able to discover clues. Clues are simple bits of information that, when combined with other clues point the finger or give a direction for the players to investigate further, leading to the showdown encounter which is the resolution. Clues do not have to be combat engagements – your players will be playing different characters with different skills and abilities and you are going to want to provide something for everyone in some of your encounters. Each clue should involve a different style of play for accommodate skills and abilities. This is a story, not a series of fights.

Here’s a diagram showing ways you can organise your clues to make the adventure coherent to you and your players. It is not a comprehensive diagram, but covers the basics which should be more than enough for your single session adventure:

clues for resolutions

Route 1 is linear and fair for first time players. Route 2 starts with the first clue, requiring at least clue two or three to be discovered before heading to the final resolution. Route 3 implies that any clue may lead to the end resolution. Personally, Route 2 is my chosen style as it gives the players a natural feel for the progression of the plot and doesn’t lead right to the resolution after a single clue.

Examples clue encounters

I’ve picked four clues which the players may encounter.

The first clue is that a child vanished in the night from the family’s log cabin. The players can investigate the cabin and realise that there are no signs of forced entry, and under questioning the parents, the bar to the front door was still in place in the morning. Rogue like characters, or trap masters will enjoy setting up their own traps to see where the thief comes from, or analysing the events, possibly suspecting the parents (which is true, but the parents are not aware of their actions).

The second clue is that the elders of the village have been having dreams where they have taken up their young ones and carried them through the forest in the dead of night, to a stone altar where a beautiful woman waits in a strange scant clothing, a tall horned figure lingers in her shadow, never quite realised clearly. Stone altars, strange large creatures and witch-like individuals should inspire the lore masters and religious or cult focused characters.

The third clue involves tracking bare footprints that lead from the village into the forest. Outdoor characters and hunters / trackers will enjoy finding clues such as broken branches or torn clothing (matching the villagers nightwear). Nature characters such as druids will likely notice that the fauna of the forest is very quiet, and that there is evidence of corruption in the flora: leaves are slightly yellowed, new growth is not as vibrant or strong.

The fourth clue is optional, as the players may not try to set up a watch and see if another child or traveller goes missing. This clue / encounter should lead the party into the thick of the forest where the hag will be awaiting her sacrifice. The players will likely forcibly engage the hag, who will make her escape and let the horned figure do her fighting. Tracking the hag from here will lead to the final resolution.

If you feel the party is going too fast, you can include some other encounters as red herrings – bandits camped nearby the main road, wandering monsters which, once dealt with, turn out not to be the culprit!

You should write short introduction paragraphs for each area which gives the details the players need to start investigating. Use the clues you have already written to help you with this. My example is attached to the first clue – clues two and three can probably fit into the map of the village we’ve already given to the players.

“The abandoned cabin sits in shadow, empty of life. The door has been flung open, the bar that held it shut discarded on the floor. From the outside, the various windows have remained closed, firmly held shut by their wooden bars. Inside is cold, hidden away from sunlight and without a fire to keep the house dry. The three rooms are separated by door frames covered in heavy fabrics. The beds are disturbed.”

From this description, your players will want to begin their investigation of the various rooms, asking you questions and poking around for more clues. In this instance, it is clear that the kidnapper did not force their way in, suggesting there is another way into the cabin (which there is not). After a thorough search the players will probably conclude that the kidnapper came from inside the house and may suspect the family – which is another intense encounter which can develop from the clue.

Third Step: Draw the Players In

This is often referred to in RPGs as the plot hook – the device you use to draw the players in and make them want to participate in the adventure. For longer games that last several sessions you can play on plot hooks by enticing players one at a time, but in single sessions you can’t afford to spend the time tailoring the hook for each character.

This is usually the last step for me, as don’t often use personal character hooks (my players are pretty good at that themselves). Arguably this step could be the first or last for many GMs – it’s all down to how you feel about it.

Start the game by asking their characters why they are on the road or why they may be in the village. Take no more than 5 minutes to round this information up. If you have completely new players, you’ll want to do this before the gaming session.

You’ll find that some players are quite good at giving you a little bit of character plot themselves – likely they will provide you some of their own motivation.

Fourth Step: Extra Credits

Maps will be essential to the players immersion for a single session game. Keep them simple: a map of the village will suffice as a centerpiece for the gaming table or space. Make it larger than it needs to be so the players can add to it as they explore or learn about points of interest from the locals – particularly the outdoor type characters, your Rangers, Druids, Hunter etc.

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Have a dungeon, by all means, but keep it small, maybe 4-6 areas in said dungeon at most. Again, add elements that will give each class or character type something to play with to utilise their abilities such as traps, moral obligations, conundrums, and obviously monsters and bad-guys.

Have a two tailed ending. This is where the clues may allow for different approaches to affect the resolution of the adventure. This could be helping one faction over the other, using a faction to thwart the other or toppling both factions at once. In order for this to happen, consider two or more factions where one is a definite enemy, and the others as possible enemies.

In our current example, one of the townsfolk may have control of the hag, perhaps they hold a fetish which stop the hag from killing them, and so they use the hag for their own agenda, perhaps they suffered at the hands of the villagers years ago and now have an avenue for their revenge. You’ll need to edit your primary fact from your first step.

Fifth Step: Running the Game, Pacing and Rhythm

You should start the gaming session from this point and describe the setting to them from the outset. Leave no room for them to be in different places or occupied with other events unless you can trust the players to come together quickly. I’ve including an example opening description, feel free to use it as a template.

‘Winter in the northern reaches comes sharply this time of year and is unforgiving to the lost and weary. You have been travelling through dark forests for several days. Seeing the first village in what seems like months, you happily head to the warm glow of fires. The village is quiet as occasional snowflakes fall silently. Well wrapped stragglers hurry indoors, some clutching babies close to their chests or dragging resisting children indoors. A single guard approaches holding a torch high to see you all clearly in the growing darkness. She carries a well service sword on her hip. “We don’t see travellers much here – we’re shunned,” she points to a large, scruffy two-story building in the centre of the village, ‘You’ll find rest there, but beware, people have gone missing in the night, locals and travellers alike. If it wasn’t for the coming blizzard, I’d tell you to keep walking.” She nods curtly and continues her patrol.’

In this opening, we set the scene: winter and cold, the characters should be seeking shelter. We give them a location, the village. Being dark, children and being called in, which seems normal at first. The guard, although taciturn doesn’t provide the mission as such, but she does lay the ground work, suggesting the village is not a highly regarded by outsiders and that people go missing. Finally, the players are told a blizzard is coming, so they will likely want to seek shelter and stay a while. Once the players are at the Inn, they can begin questioning the suspicious and untrusting locals, which is an encounter in itself and helps you set up the clues.

So, it is a bit cliché, but this is a working example which I hope gives you an idea of how to draw the players in without making it seem forced. Nothing kills the immersion that keeping your players rigidly in the story, you need them to feel like they want to stay and investigate.

So far, we have the clues, encounters and the plot hook to get the players drawn in. You’ve already got the meat of the adventure set out, now you need to add the garnishes and side orders.

And the last bit…

Keeping the flow of the game is vital for single session adventures. More than ever the party must not dawdle about, wondering where to go next – if they do, they’re eating into the valuable session time and need to get moving. My simple advice here is to keep the players active. If they don’t seem to be doing anything, for example in the evening of the first night at the Inn, then get them to commit to sleep or carry out an action.

If the players are stumped and are not sure what to do next, bring an encounter to them, but make them work for it – don’t spoon feed them! If the following morning they are sat outside wondering where to start, add a small encounter where another child has gone missing: a mother’s shriek. If they still don’t investigate, the villagers gather around the house and begin weeping – another child is missing and then they active ask the characters to help them investigate, which should lead them to the first clue.

There you have it –  a single session game planned out and underway in a couple of hours of work. If, like me, you get the odd 10 minutes here or there, jot down your ideas, add to them, let them grow.

If you give yourself a finite number of key encounters, the rest pretty much writes itself and you’ll be steaming ahead with tonnes of possible ideas, just waiting to be played!

That’s all for today!

We’ve been working hard on NaNoWriMo, Pulp RPG, adventures modules, proofing, editing and brainstorm, all whilst holding down full-time jobs. We’re getting there 😉

J.D Ferris, CC

D&D and Dice Manipulation – Two opposing styles of Dungeon Masters

I’ve been thinking really hard recently about why I enjoy some Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) games over others.

Let me explain; we run a gaming session where the DM chair is a hot seat – we take it in turns to run a game that lasts 3 or more sessions to keep the game fresh. We play once a week for about 3 hours. The world is continuous, so whatever happens in one adventure still happened when a new DM takes over. We each have a personal pool of characters we choose for each new adventure, which kind of builds up a nice cohort experience (oh cool, today I’m playing alongside Sam quick-fingers, I love that guy!)

Switching DMs has its good points; we never burn out as the DM and if a style of play or game session isn’t working, we aren’t stuck with it for too long. We have our own styles of adventure design and things go well.

What I’ve struggled with over the last couple of years is the fudging of dice rolls as a DM. I know I do it on rare occasions to ensure that most of what I’ve written is never missed, so long as the narrative of the game is maintained, and I know it happens with the other DMs in the group, and of course outside of that group (I play D&D over a large area of players).

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What am I talking about?

Dice fudging is when you, as the DM, roll your dice behind your nice screen in secret and choose to omit a certain dice roll for whatever reason; avoid killing a character by accident or in a lame fashion, making that save for the NPC so the encounter has some meaning etc. I prefer the term dice manipulation, as we’re not always disregarding the dice wholly, we’re just trying to make our session better.

It isn’t cool for a player to fudge their dice rolls – we call that cheating, so why do we as DMs accept it as part of our game?

I’m in two minds about it currently, and I’m hoping to put a case forward for each style of play.

Benefits of dice manipulation

When we manipulate the result of a dice roll, often we are doing so to keep our narrative on track and stop the train from derailing itself by chance. This isn’t really a bad thing, as the effort we put into the design of the game and the story should be fully realised. Sometimes the party will miss a vital clue or aspect of your game which they really need to see, so it is more of a gentle nudge.

Encouraging new players to games like D&D may require them to enjoy their first few sessions in a safe environment. Since our first characters to the game are often the fondest, losing that character can really put a new player down, especially for the younger ones.

As a DM, we can cover up our mistakes by smoothing over something we hadn’t taken into account, such as forgetting about a creature’s ability to survive certain conditions (or not) or realising too late that the monsters stat line makes it too easy to kill a character in a single, easy to hit roll.

These ideas are all fine and dandy, but when we take a closer look, are we not just pandering to players expectations of an easy game or covering our own shortcomings of a poorly written or thought out adventure?

Why we should NOT manipulate the dice

For better or worse, luck is part of the game – it’s why we use dice. As mentioned before, in a situation where a player decides to manipulate the dice roll, we call it cheating. Technically the DM can’t cheat as they are the arbiter of the rules and guidelines, but the element of chance should stand up to our rolling too – if there’s a critical roll of the dice that decides the outcome of the whole adventure, chances are we’ve done something wrong in our design step. Whatever the roll is, the players must keep to it, so why shouldn’t we?

The game is hard and so surviving the game should be the greatest reward of all. If we take away this element of danger from our players, we’re allowing them to succeed with ease and that isn’t in the spirit of things. Nothing adds tension to the game like knowing your DM is not averse to wiping your lovely creation out with not so much as a grin.

Every action has a consequence, and if the players rely on stupid ideas working when in the reality they didn’t or shouldn’t, we’re not doing them any favours. Knowing the action could fail, knowing that their character is on the knife edge means they come up with creative but believable ideas and they accept that chance alone is not enough to succeed.

Both styles of DM are valid, I think, and I will expect that if I change my own style to the harsh reality check, then those players I game with are likely to get a little miffed. But they’ll do the same to me, which may rekindle that aspect of the game which I desire most…

Ball-tightening fear.

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In an odd sort of way I’m chastising myself for allowing my player base to get it too comfortable, which has turned both running a game and playing a game stale, unrewarding. A bit of realistic grit in their eye will help my style of game. To that end I have, over the last few months, stopped:

  • Handing the players treasure they wouldn’t have found,
  • Avoiding critical hits – they take that damage and they smile at me for it,
  • Creating useless traps that rely on dice rolls only.

Some things I have started to:

  • Create encounters that don’t completely challenge the party right away – I want them to feel like they’re in control right up until the last encounter, where the bad guys don’t mess around.
  • Punish stupid ideas, unless I find them completely amusing – think you can kill a bear with a teaspoon? Try it…

And the result of these changes?

Fully engaged, role-playing groups who soak up the atmosphere and think wisely about what they do. They don’t always get it right, but when they do they really do, and when they don’t? They often end up travelling home to rest before planning another expedition out.

Let me know if you’ve experienced anything I’ve mentioned. We can learn from these opinions…

J.D Ferris, CC