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How to Use One-Shots to Enhance D&D Campaigns

In Dungeons & Dragons, campaigns are stories told over the course of many months or years, comprised of multiple adventures and narratives and a diverse cast of characters. During campaigns, players usually portray a single character, unless their character dies or retires. These characters strike out into a wild frontier crawling with goblins and cave spiders, race against a vicious demon lord’s cult, and descend into the labyrinthine depths of the Underdark to retrieve primeval relics. They develop. They grow in power. They explore the world. The players might be having a swell time, you might be having a fantastic time…

But all of you could use a break from those characters and their story sometimes and that doesn’t mean sacrificing the intensity or development of the campaign. In fact, you can build a brief adventure that enhances the campaign as a whole while giving the players and yourself the opportunity to build on the story in an interesting way.

One-shots are a stellar tool to segment and zhuzh up your D&D campaign. They also provide ample opportunity to test new and provocative ideas.

If you’ve never heard of them before, one-shots are single-session adventures. Usually, the players make characters specifically for the one-shot, knowing that they’ll likely only live to see this single escapade. One-shots are excellent ways to introduce people to D&D or play a quick adventure on the fly, but I’d also argue they can be a welcome respite from an ongoing D&D campaign while deeply enhancing that very same campaign.

Let’s explore this concept.

The Other Side of the Story

One-shots can give the players the opportunity to portray the folk they fight when playing their regular characters. They also give you the chance to portray the player characters’ allies in a different light.

Imagine this: the player characters are battling a group of mysterious radicals in the main campaign who are targeting people of power in a city district. Their intentions aren’t yet clear, but their methods are: they use a combination of necromancy, artifice, and manipulation to get the job done. After a few conflicts on the surface, the party decides to delve below the city to confront the enemy faction.

Before they do, however, you decide to run a one-shot for which the players will create characters a part of this enemy faction. This not only gives the players a chance to play the bad guys, it allows them to curate the nasty beasties they’ll be battling as their main characters. During the one-shot, the players will learn interesting tid bits about their enemy’s structure and possible goals. They will also participate in the successful completion of a vile objective of the villain. Perhaps they’ll even carry out the execution of one of their main party’s allies — truly horrible. Of course, you need to be careful not to reveal too much during this one-shot; layer it with snapshots of everything, don’t lay it all out for the players. They’ll want to discover the truth with their main characters.

I can vouch for the “other side of the story” one-shot style because I just used it in my Caught in Galen campaign. In fact, it’s the example outlined above. We reached a perfect moment in the story for a one-shot, one of the players couldn’t play that week, and I knew the group was up for playing the baddies for a moment. For this style of one-shot, you definitely need players who are ready to “be evil” and not meta-game with the knowledge they learn. It might take some discussion to plan, but it’s definitely worth the trouble.

Into the Past

While most campaigns stay firmly in the present, one-shots can take the world to the recent, ancient, or mythic past for a session or two.

Ideally, hundreds of events lead up to the events of a D&D campaign. The world is ancient. It’s full of conflict. Some of these ancient conflicts are bound to directly impact the origins or story of the campaign. If you and your players are looking for a quick break, search the lore vaults for a key moment in world history and create a session around it. The outcome might already be determined since it’s already happened, but there has to be room for the players to add their own flair or unique touch to the event.

Here are six “into the past” one-shot ideas:
  1. In the present, the party attempts to slay a demon lord in its abyssal home. In the past, the play as the very first heroes who fought and trapped the fiend in the Abyss.
  2. In the present, the party engineers a peace treaty between warring nations. In the past, they participate in one of the greatest battles in the war’s history and witness sheer devastation.
  3. In the present, the party delves into the ancient dungeon in which all their parents descended and vanished. In the past, they portray their parents and discover hints of their ultimate fate.
  4. In the present, the party explores the wide world together, not remembering a time when they didn’t know each other. In the past, they play out the first time they all met (the campaign must have started with all of them knowing each other).
  5. In the present, the party treks across a savage land trying to collect the pieces of a powerful entity. In the past, they engineer the entity’s fragmentation as villains.
  6. In the present, the party slowly blazes a trail through a silver-filled archipelago. In the past, they depict its native inhabitants first dealing with the arrival of outsiders.
These ideas merely serve as inspiration for you and your campaign. Float this concept past your players. I guarantee at least a few of them will want to try it out! Who could turn down a chance to shape history?

The Forgotten Plot

What happens to all those narrative strings that get torn apart by the massive tapestry that is the main campaign’s story? With one-shots, you and your players can find out!

The stakes are often raised at a rapid rate in D&D campaigns. One day, the party might be slaying giant rats for a petrified merchant who is probably infected with wererat lycanthropy. Two weeks later, the party is ascending Mount Celestia to save a doomed celestial from a surprise devil invasion from the Astral Plane. Unfortunately, there’s no time or proper reason to discover whether or not the petrified merchant is a wererat — the doomed celestial needs to be rescued! Unless, of course, you decide to formally end the loose plot thread with a one-shot.

One-shots are ideal for concluding plots that the players outleveled or forgot about at the time, then remembered down the line and really wanted to discover how it finished. Use “the forgotten plot” one-shot style to break up the campaign and finish off these stories.

Unsure of what might constitute a forgotten plot? Here are four ideas:
  1. The one-shot explores what happened to a beloved but pushed-to-the-side nonplayer character.
  2. The one-shot delves down an unexplored but enticing passage in a dangerous dungeon.
  3. The one-shot pieces together what a retired/split player character is up to nowadays.
  4. The one-shot establishes the fate of a villain who became to weak for the party to notice.
As always, be up front with your players about these ideas. Some players might not like the idea of tying loose plot threads in one-shots, preferring to forgo the finality and leave them open-ended.

Disconnected, Maybe?

Doing away with all these other options, you could drop your players in a quick and dirty adventure completely unrelated to the primary campaign.

While not directly enhancing the story of the campaign, a one-shot will break-up the monotony of playing the same character week after week or month after month. It’s a breath of fresh air and will be welcomed by most. “Disconnected, maybe?” style one-shots also leave lots of room for you to be creative and crazy as the Dungeon Master. The main campaign might be a political intrigue masterpiece in an urban environment, but the one-shot could take place in a frozen northland that’s scoured by gnolls, a tropical paradise haunted by a lovely medusa, or a temperate moon inhabited by savage tribes of lizardfolk and mind flayers.

Of course, if the opportunity presents itself, the one-shot might not end up disconnected at all. Sometimes, plots weave themselves together beautifully.

A Testing Ground for New Ideas

No matter which type of one-shot you decide to pursue, you and your players can use one-shots to test new concepts in your D&D game or world.

Since it’s a single session, don’t be afraid to try something radical. If you’ve always wanted to try using Matt Colville’s action-oriented monsters but thought they’d be too powerful, test the idea in a one-shot! Desperate to design an interesting and effective trap but don’t want it to accidentally kill the primary party? Put it in your one-shot. This also goes for roleplaying. Iterate on your existing practices and do new stuff. Get up and walk around during the session if you don’t already do so. Pitch a few new voices to your players, they’ll love them (no promises there)!

As for your players, encourage them to discover new aspects of the game they enjoy. Convince them to play classes they’ve never considered before. Allow them to use Unearthed Arcana or even homebrew of your or their own design. Throw insane magic items their way, but remember those items might make it back to the main characters. Let them portray monsters like beholders or dragons. Truly, go wild.

In the one-shot I ran this week for Caught in Galen, I tried out a few concepts. First, the entire party was evil (or at least morally grey) and monstrous. It was made up of a troll, a bugbear, a lizardfolk, and a kobold. That was new for me. Second, I decided to start the session by handing out notecards. Each notecard had a secondary objective I said was unique to each character, something they had to try and achieve in addition the the entire party’s primary objective.
This led to something I usually abhor during the main campaign: player versus player combat. However, it wasn’t frustrating in the slightest. It was a great twist. Even though the one-shot wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be (mostly my bad), I’d consider this experiment a success and it encourages me to continue to foray into more unknown territory using one-shots.

In Summary

One-shots can be utilized in numerous ways to enhance your D&D campaign. To be succinct, I narrowed these unlimited enhancements to five concepts:
  1. One-shots allow you to explore the other side of the story and let your players be the villains. Be careful to not reveal too much during these villainous excursions, though; instead, entice your players.
  2. One-shots give opportunities to venture into the past and forge history.
  3. One-shots help close loose plot threads. From the mystery of the magic golden bauble from session three, to the forgotten disappearance of that swell halfling woman, you can finish off anything!
  4. One-shots break-up the monotony of the campaign.
  5. One-shots provide a testing ground for new ideas for both Dungeon Masters and Players.
Don’t discount how useful one-shots can be. They can help transform a repetitive, year-long campaign that will end thanks to boredom to a three-year campaign with a vigorous and excited group of players.

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  1. We have a player in our local group that refuses to play one shots. Believes they are a waste of time. Any ideas how to get them on board with playing one?

    1. Find out what they enjoy, tailor that one-shot to their preference, and try to fit it in your world/campaign's story. Ensure it makes an impact on the current campaign's characters and the story as a whole. Perhaps the effects are positive, but there is always a risk of there being consequences.

      If they enjoy heist movies, plan an all-halfling raid into a trapped vault guarded by warforged, iron golems, and a massive speaking door. Do they love battling big monsters? Create a one-shot where they're playing mythic heroes, battling monsters that rival the power of current-day deities. Did they adore an NPC that fell off the face of the campaign? Return to that character and discover their fate, satisfying their desire and tightening a loose plot point.

      I hope that helped! Let me know if they decide to give one-shots a try.


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