Do you struggle to keep one-shot adventures from becoming two-shots, overflowing their intended single session? Turns out there’s no silver bullet solution, but there are some helpful things to keep in mind that should give you some help.
I asked the community and got some fantastic feedback and ideas for how folks that lead these games can use their pre-game prep and in-game focus to manage how long their one-shots run.
The idea of a one-shot just sounds like a blast to me, both as a player and as a game master. One-shots offer the chance to get a group into a fun group of roles, blast through some action, and (if all goes well) experience a nice wrap up to the whole experience.
So why can I never seem to limit them to a single session?
For a quick holiday game last year, I ran my amazing group of online players through a holiday themed dungeon set right in their current campaign. They got to use their own characters, the experience became somewhat canon in the world (though it’s yet to be seen how canon, cue evil laughter and mustache twirling), and it was going to be a lot more dangerous than our game normally is. I had it all planned out, just a few rooms, a maximum of three fights, and a puzzle or two.
But that single session holiday special quickly expanded to fill two entire sessions. It ended up still being a lot of fun, but I kept coming back to the question of “What could I have done differently to limit the whole thing to one session while staying satisfying to play?”
How Can Dungeon Masters Manage Session Length for One-Shots?
The tabletop roleplaying game community is jam packed with decades of experience and knowledge. Knowing this, I dipped into that well and asked folks on TikTok and Reddit for their tips and advice for keeping shorter games nice and short (yet still satisfying), and the response was really wonderful. So many folks out there are willing to offer you their own perspectives, and all in all I found it really insightful.
Some of the advice may feel a little bit common sense, though examining my process through those ‘common sense’ lenses has helped me reframe some of my assumptions and understanding of these shorter games in a way that I found really valuable.
This list is my attempt to distill of all of that advice into digestible, easily used advice. Hopefully I’ve done all these wonderful and helpful folks justice! The condensed advice generally falls within one of two buckets: how you plan for your game and how you run the game at the table. Which makes sense, right? Planning and running an adventure expected to last a single session (and often have no relation to any larger campaigns currently running) is a very different animal than planning for a sprawling sandbox campaign that you’d hope to play at your table for a year.
Let’s get into it!
Managing One-Shot Length During Pre-Game Prep
The advice for keeping your one-shot adventures limited to one session generally related to Planning an adventure that fits in just a few hours should be different from planning a sprawling sandbox campaign you hope to play with your table for a year.
Plan the Flow of your One-Shot
More than just removing superfluous scenes, details, and interactions from your adventure, it can be really helpful when planning a one-shot to write out an outline, flow chart, or any other tool. A scribble in a notebook will even do. However you do it, determine what the big, impactful moments and encounters of this game will be and try to lay them out clearly.
One recommendation that I really liked was to break your one-shot or short campaign into a clearly defined series of story arcs. For a one-shot, three seems to be the magic number.
Say you have a one-shot planned with three main parts: a bank heist, a chase through the city, and a climactic battle. This three arc structure can work exceptionally well in helping you plan a coherent adventure that builds in a satisfying way, and will allow you to more easily keep an eye on where the group is within the game relative to the time you have for your session.
Having a plan in front of you while running the game will end up being part of some of the tips below, but at the very minimum it can help you focus your attention on these bigger, more important scenes rather than getting lost in the weeds of the story and wasting time on distractions.
Set Game Length and Content Expectations With Your Players
A pretty common refrain in much of the advice I got from folks was ensuring your players really know what to expect. This is especially helpful if your table is typically one to get distracted quickly, spend a lot of time roleplaying, or dig into the minutiae of the game and adventure.
When running a one-shot or short campaign, the community tends to recommend being pretty clear and explicit with your players on how this game will differ from their normal longer form experiences. Let them know that you’ll be doing less of the ‘in-between’ stuff and working to jump from most important scene to most important scene.
Especially if your players are used to a looser style of play with longer, more drawn out scenes, letting them know at the start of the session that you’ll be pushing things along more quickly can help them know what’s to come and feel less like you’re simply rushing them. Getting everyone on the same page tends to make for a more harmonious experience all around.
Nothing can derail a one-shot’s timeframe like an hour long shopping adventure where the party expects to spend time getting to know the NPC because, let’s face it, you’re a good GM who made that shopkeeper interesting, engaging, and probably just a little bit sexy.
Trim the Fat
Where the tip on setting clear expectations with your players is focused fully on them, trimming the fat from your time-constrained adventure is fully on the shoulders of the GM. If there are any parts of what you’re planning to put in front of your players that doesn’t quickly advance the story to the next key scene, use the all powerful GM tool of the hand wave to gloss over it.
A really good example of this that I tend to fall into a lot is travel. In our normal game, my group tends to spend a good amount of time on travel. I like to pepper the world with interesting events, weird stuff for them to see and experience, and offer their characters time to interact and form better bonds (which always make it more satisfying to use as I see fit later, of course).
But these kinds of long, drawn out scenes really have no place in a one-shot. If you have fluff in your adventure that you want to run in a single session, take a note from Uncle Joey and cut. it. out.
Plan Less Than You Think You Need
Though similar in intent to “trimming the fat” above, less can truly be more when it comes to one-shots. If you add lots of interesting detail and encounters to fill every minute of the time you have for your session, you’ll quickly find that it’s all expanded to fill the space… without the added complication of, oh I dunno, players.
By keeping the content of a one-shot pared down to something less than you think you’d normally plan, you build in wiggle room for yourself. I know that, for me, planning enough to fill the time makes me feel safe that the players won’t just blast through it all in an hour and be left thinking “Is that it?”
I’d hazard a guess that in 99% of our games, this wouldn’t really be a worry. Your players will take the time you offer them and fill it with roleplay, exploration of the world around them, and solving the problem at hand.
Note: It doesn’t hurt to have some backups on hand, an additional combat encounter or puzzle for instance. But don’t worry about spending too much time on it, and don’t invest so much time and care into it that you’re assuming the players will experience that content. If your table somehow manages to control their instincts to fill time and rushes forward, you can always pull a backup plan out of your pocket.
Ensure the Party Has a Clear, Concise Goal
There is something so incredibly exciting and interesting about a broad sandbox style campaign where the party feels like they can go anywhere, do anything, and there will be something exciting or interesting to see. If offers a sense of wonder that is one of the things I really love about tabletop games in general.
But one-shots are not the place for these sweeping kinds of gameplay. Your adventure should set a very clear goal in front of the adventuring party (slay the dragon, defeat the lich, find the magical talisman, etc) to give a distinct sense of focus to this abbreviated game.
It’s far easier to guide the flow of a game (and allow your players to set their expectations of what they’ll experience) when there is a very clear goal in mind.
Personally, I have no problem placing this initial goal in front of them before the game actually starts so that they enter the process with this in mind.
Does that mean you can’t throw any twists at them during the game, or the group can’t change their mind as to how they’ll approach that end goal? Not at all! But keeping things simpler and more clear in a one-shot can help you cut the fluff, and having a specific, actionable goal for the party to work towards can be a valuable tool to keep things driving forward.
Managing One-Shot Length Mid-Game
Similar to changing up how you plan a one-shot versus a full campaign, you’ll find it useful towards the goal of keeping your quick adventure to a single session by changing the way you run the game. Keeping players moving quickly though that short of a game requires different guardrails and a different play style.
Start with a Bang (or a Fireball)
Your party finds themselves on the street of their home city when BAM. FWOOSH. A fireball detonates in the street, scattering people everywhere and causing absolute chaos. Standing up from the cobblestones, the party sees their nemesis, the murderous warlock they’ve been tasked by the city to stop, cackling in the street before dashing off into a dark alley. The chase is on.
When a game is a larger, longer affair, the action might take a little bit of time to ramp up. We want to meet the characters and get to know them, see the world around them a bit, and let things take some time to evolve.
But one-shots don’t offer the luxury of time, so drop a fireball on their heads and get things moving.
Obviously it doesn’t have to be a fireball, but after a brief moment to get oriented with their characters, throw them into the action immediately. Make it engaging, exciting, and be a big flashing arrow towards where they should go next. You don’t want the fireball to be a mystery that the party has to spend an hour investigating, show them who did it and let them go haring off across the city in pursuit.
If you dump your players into the action right away, you’ll find it easier to keep them in motion and on their toes, and you’ll find you spend less time on the bits that cause your one-shot to lose time without driving towards a satisfying end.
Know Your Adventure’s Key Points and Watch the Clock
Keeping an eye on the clock is a tip that multiple people called out in my quest for help keeping my one-shots short. When you have a clear plan as to what your one-shot will contain and what the party will be doing at what point in the flow, you can more easily make adjustments based on the length of your session.
With the example of a three-arc story, and knowing what time your game will start and how long you expect it to run, you can note down when you’d expect the party to be at various parts of the planned adventure. Maybe the party’s bank heist is expected to take an hour to play through, and you start at 5:00 PM, so you can generally expect that if you make it to the chase by 6:00 PM. The party dashes out the doors with the bags of gold in hand at 5:55 PM, and you’re on track.
If you find yourself at 5:45 and the players are still in the lobby of the bank, you know something is up and you need to move the action along. You might bypass some puzzles or a combat encounter and shoehorn those party members right into the vault, getting the flow of the action back on track.
Likewise, if the party whips through the heist by 5:30 PM, you know you have a little room to play with some added roleplay, a quick puzzle, or a combat encounter on their way out of the bank (though let’s not get crazy with the length of these or you’ll quickly find yourself in dreaded two-shot territory).
Combine keeping an eye on the clock with your clear session plan and you’ll have a really good view of where the party is in the game relative to where they should be based on the time.
Keep Things Moving by Knowing When to Move the Party (and Players) Along
The tips above on organizing and planning out your one-shot adventure and keeping an eye on the clock will be instantly derailed by almost any group of players (I could end the sentence there, probably 🤣) if you aren’t able to step in and advance the action effectively. A combat encounter, puzzle, or even something as simple as a conversation with an NPC can easily drag on when the players are engaged and into the roleplay.
Which can feel like weird advice, right? We normally want our players immersed, engaging deeply with the world you’ve created. In a normal campaign, that can be a really good thing. You want your players invested in the world around their characters, taking time to absorb it and experience it.
But when you’re running a shorter form game, keeping things on track often involves pushing the action along and moving them past those bits that slow things down and start to push your adventure into another session.
This isn’t always easy, but if you’re using something like a three act plan for your adventure, you should have the tools you need to keep things pushing forward. Say the party has gotten distracted talking to an NPC in the initial part of the game, and things are slowing down. The clock is ticking onward, and the party needs to get moving, but they’re happily engrossed with what they’re doing. You know what happens next already in your plan, and moving them towards that next bit of the action should be a matter of just… making it happen.
Maybe they need to get from their bank heist to a local noble’s safe house, but they’ve been waylaid by an offhand NPC you mentioned on the street that they took for important. To get them moving, you could always pop members of the city watch onto the street who just spotted your party on the run, and suddenly an interesting conversation with an NPC has turned into a wild chase through the streets of the city.
Keep The Tension and Action High and Skip the Subtlety
This tip is mostly a different lens on a similar idea covered above, but an important one: you don’t have time for subtlety, and you don’t have time to take your foot off the tension gas.
With one-shots, the community seems to agree: keep your players’ feet to the fire and make sure they always know that there are high stakes if they don’t keep moving. If there is always danger at their heels, stopping to rest and feel a little bit of relief isn’t really an option.
There could be room for a little rest, but only if your intent is to use that relative moment of peace to amp up the tension once again.
Likewise, moments of subtle storytelling and gameplay tend to distract from the goals of the one-shot rather than add to. Make the motives of NPCs clear, keep that clearly defined mission the party is on front and center, and don’t go wild hiding clues everywhere that will cause the group to stop and search for them and set the game up for a slow down.
Don’t Be Afraid to Railroad your Players (At Least a Little)
You’ll notice I’ve used the term “off the rails” a few times in this article, and normally the image of a vehicle on a road made of rails is enough to make game masters froth at the mouth. But this is on purpose, as a little railroading in the context of a short-form game can be a godsend to beleaguered game masters.
In a full campaign, especially those where you’re seeking to create an open world where the party has freedom to explore what they wish, railroading feels like you wrote a story that you want to force your friends to listen to. Which is almost always no fun for the players as it takes away agency.
But in a one-shot, a little time on some rails here and there can be hugely helpful for keeping the game moving forward towards a satisfying conclusion at the end of a single session.
With a clear plan for your one-shot adventure in hand, you can determine where in the game you need to carry your players along. The previous section’s example of herding your players along using the city watch could be a nice example of this, making it clear where they should go next rather than allowing them to feel it out for themselves.
Does your one-shot need to be fully on rails, with the players simply interacting with whatever you push them to next? Not necessarily the whole thing, but segments of rails you can pop the characters onto and off of can be exceptionally useful tools.
Get Comfortable Leaning on Improv
This is a tip that came from a few different folks in the community, and one that I can definitely get behind: if you’re running one-shots and things go off the rails, improv.
Being comfortable leaning into the improv in your games in general is a great tip, and one that’s almost always led my table to some fun and unexpected encounters. It takes a level of knowing your world and being knowledgable of your story to make work in larger campaigns without causing the occasional plot hole or issue, but in one-shots it’s super helpful.
The general rule is that your players will always do things that are unexpected, even if you’re playing a more closely managed short game versus a big, sprawling sandbox. Being able to react to those wild and unexpected moments in a way that makes sense, is fun and engaging, and keeps the action moving (especially with a one-shot plan at hand) will go a long way toward tightening up your one-shot flow.
One-Shots, the White Whale of My TTRPG Experience
All in all, one-shots are a tool that I’ve been pretty terrible at using so far, but the dream is there. I have a vision of a West Marches-inspired campaign structure that leans pretty heavily on one-shots, so I have some time coming up to really dig in and get some practice.
But even folks new to one-shots like myself can get some benefit from the expertise of the community and start to run faster, tighter one-shot adventures at their tables.
Article featured image by liuzishan on Freepik