MATT: Hello! My name is Matthew Mercer. I’m a voice actor and the Dungeon Master for Critical Role here at Geek amp; Sundry, and today’s episode of GM tips revolves around some ideas on writing an all-encapsulated story for a single game session, otherwise known as the one-shot. [intro music] MATT: I’ve found one-shots extremely fun and handy, whether it be a bite-sized introduction to a new game system, or tabletop games in general for a group of players, or as a fun break in a long-running game to allow new characters to be tried out. Hell, letting someone else GM for once, so the usual GM can actually play.
Here I will outline a basic structure for designing your own one-shot that you can then take, alter, and customize however you see fit. I recommend first getting an idea of the kind of characters the players wish to play. These decisions can easily inform your design, as the intent is for everyone to have fun. Ask around, or even host a character creation meetup in advance of the one-shot if possible.
Sometimes folks might prefer to choose from pre-existing characters you’ve already created, so then you can spend some time building a few pre-made characters to have available for selection at the start of the session. Next up, what do you want to be the theme or style of the game? If you know the players well, consider what kind of adventure they would be into. If not, ask them what kind of adventure they all enjoy and would look forward to. Do they love something dungeon-delve-y, with traps and monsters? Do they prefer intrigue and social subterfuge in a tense political game? Do they love noir-like mysteries and unfolding a convoluted plot? Do they each prefer a different style? Really, guys? Really? I– It’s okay.
It’s really helping me here. Once you have a style chosen, or a good mix, depending, think of a corresponding plot hook. This is where most one-shots can quickly fall apart. You need a good, strong, easily-read plot hook, because this is supposed to be an all-inclusive, full-arc story in a single session.
You don’t want your party wandering for half of it, wondering what the hell they’re supposed to do. Find a way to have the meat of the story grab them early, with a strong inciting incident. For instance, as they are drinking in the tavern, boom! The western wall explodes in a shower of splinters as a massive, insane Totatok bull begins goring the customers with its horns. After slaying the creature, they discover a series of strange markings on the normally docile beast.
They appear deliberate, arcane, and recent. Who could have done this, and why? Or during a celebration surrounding the maiden voyage of a major trade ship, an assassin attempts to slay a member of the party, as well as two other officials involved with the trade ship’s company. When the chaos dies down, a ring on the assassin’s hand holds the crest of a particular noble house. And so on.
Decide who or what the big bad is. You want to design a climax to your story that is both thrilling and worth the toil in getting to it. Design a fun villain for the adventure that fits the theme. If the climax of your story is a monster hunt, think of an interesting and dangerous monster that could be responsible for your inciting incident, whether directly or indirectly, and a unique battleground that will test their capabilities.
If it’s a showdown with a mastermind, why did they do their dastardly deeds, and what resources do they have at their disposal? Manpower, traps, and weaponry that would challenge the party. If it’s a race against time, what unstoppable calamity or ungodly entity is barreling toward them, and what is the key to them stopping its arrival? Hmm? Now, time to fill in the middle. Design a handful of key NPCs that would contain information on the story and the characters within it. List a few key tidbits of information they would know and can offer the party, should they ask or pay accordingly.
Perhaps give them a few items they can help the party with. Know where these NPCs might be found, but know that you can have them show up wherever you want to keep the story going. Maybe you thought the party might meet them in a moonlight clearing, but they’ve circumvented it? Have the same NPC meet them at the cave entrance, or be found wounded partway into the dungeon. Design a few social encounters with NPCs of dubious intent.
Perhaps free agents looking to use both sides of this struggle, and allow the players a chance to make an alliance. or an enemy. Prepare possible combat scenarios in case these situations go south, which they always generally do. Design some challenges that are tailored to the player characters’ abilities.
Someone made a charismatic faceman? Offer some opportunities for them to lie or persuade their way deeper into the story. Someone make a roguish spy? Throw in some hidden traps and locked doorways to give them some much-needed utility within the party dynamic. Someone make a brutish strongwoman? Consider a few chances for feats of strength to save the day. Try your best to allow each player a moment or two to really shine.
Also, come up with a list of possible loot or equipment the party can discover. You can marry them to specific story beats and locations, or tailor them on the fly, depending on what they do. You can also create key locations where major story beats can occur to tie your inciting incident to the climax of the story. Give yourself a couple of written sentences of description to really set the scene with each locale, underlying their importance.
If you want, you can even design a few backup, non-necessary locales to have in your back pocket to enable easier player exploration. I would also recommend dodging the quot;you are all strangers and meet in a barquot; intro. It’s awkward. It’s time-consuming.
It’s rarely fun. Talk with the players about ways they can already know each other in the story, or they could always be a band of adventurers when they start. If you must make them strangers, consider a way to have them all drawn together definitely, and forced to become allies very quickly. Maybe they were each summoned by a missive, by a mysterious matron, each selected for some unknown purpose.
That kind of thing. Finally– biggest step– keep it moving. I can’t tell you enough how many times I’ve written an elaborate one-shot and found the party had only discovered one fourth of the story beats by the middle of our allotted time to play. Try your best to keep the story rolling when the players seem to lull or become confused.
Move the appearance of an NPC sooner than expected to help nudge the group forward, or have them discover another clue that further points in the direction of the next story beat. Even just atmospheric tension can help keep the story driving forward, like growing thunder coming from a mysterious arcane storm. For extra credit, prepare some fun, short epilogues for each character, describing their victorious sunset or vicious death. Mind you, this structure works for pretty much any story in your RPG game, not just the one-shot.
You can elongate and expand on any of these elements to flesh out an entire arc, and please, feel free to. Go. I hope you’ve had a wonderful time watching. I hope the tips on this episode have been handy to you in some way, shape, or form.
Thank you so much for watching. You can find me on Geek amp; Sundry’s Critical Role’s Twitch, Thursdays at 7:00pm Pacific time, and I’ll see you on the internet.