One-shots are an excellent choice for a small pick up game of D&D 5e. A short adventure is a subset of one-shots that last one session ideally, but can last up to two sessions at most. Planning or creating a short 1-2 session adventure is considerably more difficult than it sounds.
For me, personally, this has been a struggle to carry-out for the west marches campaign my friends and I have sporadically played the past few months. Typically when I make an adventure it’s part of a larger campaign that meets on a regular basis, so it’s not the end of the world if it takes more than one session to complete.
That being said, it’s difficult to have a multi-session adventure for our west marches campaign. Ideally, you want the same people to play in both sessions. This can be hard to coordinate since west marches campaigns have an ad-hoc style of determining when play sessions happen.
So far, I’ve successfully had 1 of my 2 adventures last a single session. Some of this was out of my control since the party did things very differently or interacted with the setting more than I expected, but I know that I crammed way too much content into a 3-4 hour session.
I’m currently writing up my annual Christmas one session one-shot and figured it would be a great idea to talk about what I need to do to keep everything contained into a single game night.
What is a Short Adventure?
A short adventure is a more specific sub-set of one-shot adventures. For reference, a one-shot adventure is a self-contained story that can be part of a larger campaign or could stand on its own as a proper story. A short adventure is a one-shot that lasts ideally 1 game session but can carry over to 2 sessions at the most.
This is where the challenge lies in creating a short adventure for D&D 5e. We need to combine all the elements of a story and the fun parts of D&D into a 3-6 hour time period, depending on how long your sessions last.
Ideally, we’ll plan to have the adventure take 3 hours, so we give ourselves plenty of breathing room if we happen to need an extra session to finish the adventure.
In my opinion, creating the story is the easiest part of planning a short D&D 5e adventure. Realistically, it’s going to be the first thing you think of when you go to create your adventure. What’s the problem, and what does the party have to do to resolve it? It’s that simple.
The real issue is figuring out how to translate that into a D&D 5e game and how to shave it down to a ~3-hour playthrough. This can be even more difficult to accomplish if your group consists of more than 2-5 players.
What are the Timesinks of an Adventure?
Timesinks are events or things that take a lot of time to accomplish or complete. Generally, a good timesink is an investment because it comes with a substantial reward. For example, long, arduous combat encounters can be considered a timesink, but they’re typically very fun and can award a lot of experience points.
Timesinks are usually a staple of RPGs. You’re investing time to gain experience to make your character more powerful. However, when we have a limited amount of time we need to take a step back and look at what parts of the system we’re using chew up a huge amount of time.
D&D 5e is by far my favorite TTRPG system. It’s also full of huge timesinks. The combat is engaging and strategic, but it can be bloated and lengthy because of this. Of course, this is made even worse when you have a large number of players as I’ve mentioned earlier.
I’ve made roughly one Christmas short adventure a year since I started playing D&D 5e plus a few other random one-shots throughout this time. The Christmas short adventures have always somehow managed to last only a single 3-4 hour session of play. I tend to have issues with my other one-shots and short adventures taking more than the allotted session time.
A pattern I noticed when I began writing this year’s short adventure was that my Christmas one-shots tend to have fewer combat encounters than my typical adventures. I’ll throw in between 2-3 combat encounters in a Christmas one-shot instead of my normal 4-5 and this seems to make a big difference in playtime.
In fact, this seems like it could make for a good formula. Your maximum number of combat encounters should be one combat encounter for each hour of expected playtime. This works well for a one-shot since ideally it’ll have a balance of role-playing, problem-solving, and combat.
That being said, I’m not sure that this formula could carry-over to regular adventure creation. Dungeon crawls are full of quick combat encounters for example. But, it seems to work well for a well-balanced one-shot or short adventure.
Role-playing that isn’t Pertinent to the Adventure
The way I’ve worded this makes it seem like this is a bad thing. It’s not. In fact, you should chalk up any extracurricular role-playing as a huge success. Your players are invested enough in the game that they’re doing extra role-playing. You shouldn’t discourage your group from having fun.
However, it’s something to keep in mind when creating a short adventure. Your players may want to interact with your story more than you anticipated, so take this into account.
Don’t make a ton of interesting and unique NPCs, make a smaller number of NPCs. There’s still plenty of role-playing to be had, but there’s not a laundry list of people that your players can have 15-20 minute conversations with.
It also helps to have a clearly-defined goal set for the party before they begin the adventure. Don’t have them role-play the part where they get/find the quest. That’s time-consuming and ultimately doesn’t bring a whole lot of value to the session for a time-constrained one-shot.
I’ve written a whole article on how to keep your players focused on the game. Unfocused players are possibly the most problematic timesink you can deal with in any game. This goes double for any game that has some sort of time constraints like a short adventure.
You want your players to be engaged in any game session, but you should aim for an above-average level of engagement for any session with a limited amount of playtime. As the DM you should make it a point to engage each player and craft an adventure that appeals to the whole group.
If your players love to role-play, focus on role-playing. If your group loves combat, focus on combat. You get the point.
I’d also make sure to politely ask people to keep outside distractions to a minimum. You want people focused on the game so you don’t have to waste time re-explaining things, or long pauses in combat that can break immersion and waste time.
There’s always the chance that our short adventure takes two sessions instead of the anticipated one. This isn’t the end of the world, but it’s not always the ideal situation.
For example, you may still have stuff left to complete the adventure, but it’s going to take the party too long to complete it to extend the session. In this case, let’s say it’s one extra hour of playtime. That could be too much time to extend a session for depending on the life circumstances of everyone in the group.
However, that’s not enough time to make the follow-up session worthwhile for the group to play. It’s kind of a hassle to get everyone together to play an hour or so of D&D. So what are our options?
The most obvious is probably to find ways to extend the short adventure a tiny bit. Add in an extra room or two of the dungeon, or one extra twist in your story. The challenge is going to be to make sure that these additions make sense from a narrative standpoint and keep the same mechanical feeling of the adventure.
Another option, if this is a group that you do a regular campaign with, is to keep your short adventure as-is and just switch over to your regular campaign when you’re done!
Of course, it’s the holidays too. You could just keep the short adventure as-is and throw on a corny movie. Actually, this is a pretty solid strategy regardless of the time of year.
There are some techniques that we can use to prevent our short adventure from bleeding over into a second session too. My personal go-to is removing sections on the fly.
About halfway through the session take a short break and look over what the party still has left to do in the adventure. Determine whether or not this is a doable amount of content to get through. From there make some adjustments or cut-out some of the lengthier sections entirely.
The real challenge is to make sure that the story and the adventure make sense after your on-the-fly adjustments. Don’t remove essential components of the adventure, but if you can manage to remove some random encounters or trash fights you could prevent a potential session bleed-over.
This can be a bit tricky if you’ve assembled a premade battle map on Roll20 or a Virtual Table Top. Your edits are going to be much more obvious, or completely impossible depending on if you need to edit the map files and re-upload everything.
That being said, an empty room isn’t always the worst thing that can happen in the essence of time. You may even scare your players into thinking there’s something wrong or the enemy is hidden. The downside to this is that your party spends more time searching for the supposed enemy than they would’ve in completing the original encounter.
One-shots are great fun, but there are sometimes when you want to be sure you contain everything in a neat package. My suggestion is to make a short adventure with the intentions of the adventure only lasting upwards of 3-4 hours, or a single session.
These small adventures come with their own, unique challenges. You need to have a complete story that can wrap itself up in a short amount of playtime while still playing Dungeons and Dragons. This is no easy feat considering events like combat encounters can be huge timesinks in D&D.
My advice is to limit the number of NPC interactions and combat encounters that your players can deal with. Give them the plot hook before the session even starts to save time and ensure that they have a goal to move towards. These limitations will help you stay in your time-limit, and keep everyone focused!