Making a Module Part One: Designing a One Shot Campaign to Run in Exactly One Session

Making a Module Part One: Designing a One Shot Campaign to Run in Exactly One Session

Lots of folks have written a D&D campaign, and if you haven’t but you’ve been thinking about it, I think you should. The Kingdom of Gallus and the Trouble with Brunch was far from the first campaign that I’ve written, but it’s the first one that I wrote with the intention to publish, and I’d like to share some of what I learned with you, whether you want to publish your adventure or not. Whether you’ve had a campaign rattling in the back of your mind for years, or you’ve just started thinking of ideas, this series of posts should help you avoid some of the traps I’ve fallen into over the years.

My goal when I started writing Gallus was to create a story-heavy campaign that could be played by beginners or experienced players alike. I wanted my story to fit into a variety of settings so people with existing campaigns could use it as a down-time adventure in between story arks, but to be self-contained so beginner players could start out with a short, light, fun adventure. I like the stereotypical fantasy-land aesthetic, so I wanted to keep that, but I also wanted to add a little humour and silliness to lighten up a genre that often takes itself very seriously. Hence: talking chickens.

There were a variety of challenges in putting this campaign together to realize my initial vision, and addressing them properly will take some time, so I’ll go through these challenges in several posts. Today’s post is about brevity: making sure that your one shot stays a one shot, but is long enough for your players to enjoy.

A glass of syllabub, which is a frothed cream desert, alongside a set of dice, with a book looming in the background.

What is a one-shot?

First, let’s define a one-shot TTRPG campaign and talk about why one shots are hard. A one-shot campaign – whether you’re playing 5th edition, Pathfinder, Blades in the Dark, Monster of the Week or whatever system you like – is a campaign that starts and finishes in one session, typically four to eight hours of play. Some one-shots end up spanning two days if the players are exploring casually or having a lot of fun in the setting, and I think that’s ok. We aren’t Critical Role here, we don’t have a strict time limit: we’re just having fun.

Writing a campaign to take place over the course of one session can be tough. You have to balance realism with time-management: make the world and the characters feel real while moving the players along. The term “railroad” – destroying the realism of the campaign by forcing players to make a particular choice – is generally a dirty word in the TTRPG community. But, if you’re trying to run a session in one night, it’s honestly going to end up being at least a bit of a railroad. It doesn’t have to feel like one, but there is an ending, and you need to get there before Ernest falls asleep in his popcorn. You can make changes and tweaks to the campaign as you go, but there are some tricks you can use to keep the campaign the right length.

First, let’s talk about keeping the campaign long enough, because sometimes that’s hard. A general rule is to make sure there are about five or six “encounters” per game. That is, five or six puzzles, battles, protracted encounters with NPCs, etc. To make sure groups would get to all five or six encounters at least drew out what I thought was the shortest path that someone could take through the adventure I had in mind and then tweaked it until it felt real and had at least five or six encounters. If the shortest path would take about four hours to play, I reasoned, then most groups would take at least that long. In playtesting, that turned out to be true. Once I knew the shortest path, I could create a very open world around that path, making sure that other encounters gently lead back toward it.

Once your campaign is long enough, the challenge becomes managing time so the campaign doesn’t run too long and so the players don’t get bored. One trick is to make the world small but rich. The town where players spend the most time in The Kingdom of Gallus and the Trouble with Brunch only has a handful of houses, five shops, one tavern, and a town hall. There are maybe 15 pre-defined characters. But they all have rich descriptions that give the GM a good base to improvise on.

I described the locations and their occupants with concise prompts that a DM can run with, giving NPCs some zest, but without bogging down the module with unnecessary detail about their whole life story. For example, this is the description of an egg farmer: “Deltront is a kind young man who inherited the egg farm from his father. He grew up there and has been raising chickens since he was a child. He has a pet chicken named Helga who follows him wherever he goes on the farm and who eyes visitors suspiciously. Deltront loves chickens and has been to Gallus several times. He has a Kingdom of Gallus visitor pin from Bildar’s Chicken Coop that he proudly wears on his shirt every day.” The description is relatively short, but it creates an image in your mind of Deltront that can be built upon with improv.

When the players get stuck (or you need to move them along because it’s nearly midnight and Beth is about to turn into a pumpkin), it helps to have hints prepared to guide them along. One way I did this in Gallus is with a list of town rumours. Importantly, these hints aren’t assigned to any NPC in particular since you can’t know in what order the players will talk to which character. They’re general rumours that anyone might know, so when the players ask Timmy the innkeeper whether he knows anything about the monster that’s been plaguing the town, the DM can have him say, “You know, Dave got drunk the other night and swore up and down he’d seen a big hairy man in the woods by the creek. Dave tells some tall tales when he’s drunk, but he seemed spooked.” (That’s a random example, by the way. There are no bigfoots in my module…. Or are there?)

The last tip here is, unfortunately, the most work: playtesting and/or experience. Experience will help you guess more accurately how long a party will take to progress through a given encounter, where they will get stuck, what they will fixate on, tactical choices that will move them along, and details to expand on to make the world more realistic. If you can, run your campaign with a few different groups and take notes. Tweak things between groups so your campaign gets better and better each time. Don’t be afraid to rewrite places and characters, move them around, or throw them away altogether.

That’s it for my tips on managing time in a one-shot campaign! Next time, I’ll talk about creating stats for encounters and custom monsters, responding to (and preparing for) when players don’t do what you expect them to (because they never will), and possibly some notes about getting your campaign edited if you want to publish it. If you’d like to be notified when that comes out, you can subscribe to our newsletter (which is sent out less than once a month).

And, if you’d like to try out The Kingdom of Gallus and the Trouble with Brunch yourself, it’s available – hand-signed by me – in our store.

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