Anatomy of a One-Shot

Anatomy.jpg

What is a one-shot? Generally, a one-shot tabletop RPG is a self-contained interactive narrative story that can be completed in 2-6 hours. (There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, such as the Death House module in Curse of Strahd; some one-shots take much longer and are connected to larger stories, but if they have a clear conclusion, they are considered one-shots.)

If you're not sure what comprises a one-shot module, check out the outline below. 

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INTRODUCTION

This section includes everything DM/GMs need to get started with your module. 

Adventure Hook

This is how the players can get involved with the story. Some RPG writers write extensive adventure hooks; others put less thought into this, knowing that it’s ultimately up to the DM/GM. Ideas for adventure hooks include:

  • Overhearing a rumor in a tavern;

  • Receiving a letter from a mysterious stranger;

  • Randomly stumbling upon old ruins;

  • Getting “lost” in the wilderness and encountering someone who gives the characters a quest.

Synopsis

Because one-shots are self-contained — meaning, they have a clear beginning, middle, and end — it’s important for DMs to know the “goal” of the story. This is where your synopsis comes in, which should be an overview of your story and the main goal of it.

NOTE: Unlike a full campaign, in which writers have the freedom to provide many options and outcomes, a one-shot is typically a bit more limited. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t ample opportunity for role-play, but that the players will be more focused on completing the story. Many new writers often worry about “railroading,” which means providing one specific way for the narrative to unfold rather than accounting for lots of character choices. But you know what? It’s OK if your first one-shot is a bit railroad-y. Write the story you want to write, and as you learn more about game design, you’ll be able to think more creatively about how to let stories play out without forcing it.

Notes for the GM

You’ll likely include notes for GMs throughout the module, but the introduction is a great place to give GMs ideas to keep in mind. For example, is there a certain atmosphere the GM should evoke (like, the whole story takes place at night)? Is there a sense of urgency they should aspire for? Your module, while fiction, is a guide book more than a story. It’s important to give GMs all the information and tools they need as clearly as possible. 

BODY

This is the “meat” of your story and where you outline the narrative “beats” of it. For a one-shot, thinking in chapters is useful. (Some writers call these "scenes.") And as you’re starting out, plan for three chapters

Are you familiar with “dramatic structure”? (Shout-out to my fellow English grads!) This is, essentially, what comprises the elements of a story. Freytag’s Pyramid easily demonstrates this:

Freytags_pyramid.svg.png

So your chapters might be broken up as follows:

Chapter 1:

  • Exposition: Setting the scene (literally). Where are your characters, who do they meet, and what are they doing?
  • Rising Action part 1: What is the “quest” they’ve been given?

Chapter 2:

  • Rising Action part 2: What happens once they embark on their quest? What do they do and encounter? What challenges are presented to them? This is where the tension is built.

Chapter 3:

  • Climax: What is the final challenge they need to overcome to complete the goal and the story? This might be a boss battle; an escape from a quaking mountain/volcano; a rescue; etc. Not every game needs to end in an epic battle, although that’s certainly OK too!
  • Falling Action: What are the consequences of what has transpired?
  • Denouement: The conclusion and epilogue of the story. 

STATS & MAPS

Because a one-shot module is a resource guide, it’s helpful to include whatever resources are needed to efficiently run the game. This includes statistics for any NPCs, creatures, places, or items the characters encounter. 

Maps are tricky and require a unique skill set. Your first map does not have to be fancy. If all you want to create is a simple drawing with squares/circles marking where items/characters are, that’s totally fine! 

You can also opt out of maps entirely and allow the GM to focus on “theater of the mind.” If you choose to go this route, be sure to describe in clear detail what the players are seeing and what the layout is of wherever they are (including directional/dimensional information, such as how wide a precipice is, how long a tunnel is, etc.) 

NOTE: If you're planning on releasing your one-shot as a paid product, there are some rules about using existing stats in your module (such as pulling from the Monster Manual). I am not a lawyer and can’t provide official legal advice, but I’ll provide some resources in the coming weeks that may help with this. 

OPTIONAL ADDITIONS

As you write, you may choose to include the following information to help GMs run your story:

  • Tactics: It’s helpful for GMs to have some ideas for how to best use the enemies in battles.

  • Motivations: For both ally and enemy NPCs, it’s useful for the GM to know what motivates their actions so they can role-play them to the fullest.

  • Lore/mythology/world-building: A one-shot can be part of a bigger story and bigger universe. Include tidbits of lore throughout your module to give the GM context for how this story fits in to a larger narrative. 

  • Optional side quest: If you have an idea for something that might be fun that doesn’t necessarily fit in to your main story, you can include it as an optional side quest. This shouldn’t dominate your main story, but may provide another route of exploration for players. 

Recommended reading: How to Construct a One-Shot Adventure