Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is as follows: create and run a Pathfinder session adventure for a group that includes at least one brand-new player and can be completed in a single four-to-five-hour session. The catch? You have less than one week to put the whole thing together.
One week of prep time for a Pathfinder session might not sound too rough to those of you out there who have an abundance of free time to spend on such things, but for those of us who work full-time, write, blog, and still attempt to wrestle some sort of social life into that maelstrom, it can be a real challenge. So, what’s the right way to tackle this sort of scenario? I was recently put into such a situation, and attempted to rise to the challenge. Let’s look at some of the possible methods for putting together a one-shot adventure on short notice.
The first option is the easiest: run a module! There are tons of great pre-written adventures out there, regardless of the RPG you’re playing. Since my game of choice is Pathfinder, that gives us a large number of modules to choose from, many of which are pretty brilliant. The only complicating factor there is that little clause about being able to complete it in a single session- and most modules, though designed to be fairly brief, will still last two or three sessions, realistically. A one-shot should probably have no more than three combat encounters, as those tend to be the most time-consuming and rule-intensive events in most games. Some modules feature large dungeons with fifteen to twenty encounters therein- sometimes more than that. In my experience, I’ve found that modules make for great mini-campaigns, but not particularly great one-shots.
Now, modules aren’t the only type of pre-written adventures you can rely on; Pathfinder Society Scenarios are designed specifically to be completed in a single session. They tend to be light on role-play, however, like Pathfinder Society in general- don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean there’s no room at all for inter-character dialogue and interacting with NPCs, but in general Pathfinder Society Scenarios tend to feel a little… flat, in my experience. They also assume that all player characters are a part of the Pathfinder Society, a network of adventurers that pretty much just get hired to do all kinds of work across Pathfinder’s default campaign setting, Golarion. It’s fun if you really love combat, but Society tends to cater toward the power-gamery side of things. The Scenarios are cheap, though, at about four bucks a pop to download… but let’s assume that we don’t have any interest in spending money on something pre-made.
That leads to our second option: homebrewing an adventure. Now we’re cookin’- homebrew is, in my opinion, where the true strength of the RPG lies. So we’re going to press on without the aid of modules or pre-fab adventures (mostly), and try our damnedest to put together something that is not only fun, but won’t overwhelm a newbie and can be completed in four-to-five hours.
Here’s the process I went through, step-by-step:
1. Pick a theme.
What kind of theme will the adventure have? Gothic horror? High-seas adventure? Urban intrigue? A good-ol’ fashion dungeon crawl? Pick one and stick with it. I always like a bit of a horror element in my adventures, so I decided to try to put together a dark, mysterious adventure that begins with the player characters being left stranded in an isolated location swarming with hostiles.
2. Pick a good monster or two- especially if they have synergy.
This is where a site like The Daily Bestiary comes in handy. You can come up with a great adventure hook on the spot if you have the right monster to center it on. My personal suggestion is to pick a monster that has some kind of association with another creature, so that you can easily come up with a variety of encounters- nobody wants to just fight the same thing over and over again. For instance, for my one-shot, I looked through some of the low-CR monsters and found the Akata- an unusual, blue, lion-shaped extraplanar creature with head-tentacles and a particularly nasty (and interesting) ability; they can infect other creatures with parasites that transform them into “void zombies,” giving them a nasty extended tongue attack. It’s not only a dangerous power for any monster to have, it opens up a ton of doors for you as the GM! No longer must you struggle to figure out why all these neat monsters you’ve picked out are hanging out together. That’s synergy, baby! If I’m planning a one-shot with about three encounters, I’m already pretty much covered with just the Akata and a couple of void zombies. The template can even be applied to non-human creatures, for extra deviousness.
3. Keep the location reined in!
In a full-length campaign, traveling long distances and exploring a variety of environments is part of the thrill. In a one-shot, however, you don’t have time to move the players around a bunch of different locations, so my strategy of choice is to pick a single location- a lonely mansion in the woods, an underground cavern, a boat out on the high seas- and roll with it. Flesh this location out as best you can, keeping it relatively small but interesting- no “plain, rectangular room with 10’ ceilings and two doors” like you might find in any average dungeon. For my one-shot, I start the players off in a wrecked vehicle, give them free reign to explore the surrounding wilderness, with the only safe haven nearby being a quiet, seemingly-abandoned mansion on a looming hill nearby.
Tips & Tricks
Mine modules for maps, locations, and encounter ideas ahead of time. These things are written by industry professionals who (usually) know what they’re doing. Even if I’m not running a module, I’ll sometimes poke my nose into one that covers the same level range as the one-shot I’m running and see if there are any fun bits to swipe and alter to fit my needs.
Consider pre-making your players’ character sheets for them. Pre-generated characters are a love it or hate it sort of thing, but they can save a load of time when you’re in a pinch- creating a character sheet can take upwards of an hour, especially if you’re working with a new player, so anything that saves some time is worth looking at. If I’m making pre-gens, I’ll ask the players ahead of time what race and class they’re interested in playing, and make all of the mechanical decisions (stats, equipment, etc.) before allowing them to fill in all the “flavor”- the name, gender, personality, and backstory for themselves.
For new players, keep the game as exciting and fast-paced as you can, while allowing them ample time to roleplay and make decisions. I wouldn’t recommend a slow-paced dungeon crawl for a first-time player, as a long sequence of exploring rooms that might not have anything of note in them can be boring, and packing every chamber with enemies to fight is both too time-consuming and too video-gamey. Showing new players what makes tabletop gaming great is important- so focus on what makes it special: imagination, improvisation, and unpredictability. Keep things loose and fun.
When you’re not running any games, if an idea for an adventure hook hits you, jot it down! I keep a folder in Evernote where I record all my ideas for future games, mostly one-shots or module-length mini-campaigns. In a pinch, you can grab one of those ideas and run with it.
The next time you have some buddies asking you to run a game for them on short notice, keep this stuff in mind. There’s no need to panic! Running a game on short notice doesn’t have to be stressful. And, really, the whole point of RPGs is to have fun- so if at any point you feel as if you aren’t doing that, change your direction!
Or you could just play Monopoly instead, I suppose… ;)