Monday, 26 February 2018

Dungeon Master: The One-shot Trilogy

Having just talked about one-shots, I thought it would be a good time to talk about one-shot trilogies. It's quite the seemingly contradictory term, however it's a nice framework available to Dungeon Masters. The idea here is simple. We've all seen movies that get extended into a trilogy. Each movie, ideally, should be a complete story on its own but taken together add up to something bigger. We can do the same thing in our games. It's really more of a three-shot, but “one-shot trilogy” is how I first heard it introduced and it stuck.

Complete Story

I've found that this kind of setup works best if each session is a full complete story. It's also what makes it a one-shot trilogy and not a super mini campaign. Mini campaigns can be a lot of fun too, but they are a different method and less restrictive. That's a nice thing, but sometimes more constraints help bring out the best work. The time spent for introductions before jumping into the meat of things decreases after the first section, since we'd have set up the settings and backstory by then and will be adding to it, but we'll still expect to have a complete story.

Rough Structure

In my rather short career as a Dungeon Master I've seen quite a few of these kinds of games. One of my earliest Dungeon Masters liked this setup because it meant that you could have a more involved story than a one-shot, but still had much better odds of finishing the whole story. It also let him play around with everything and come up with new concepts each time, which he liked a lot.

Seeing these play out, and seeing them happen a few times without having a specific term applied, there were typically some rough structures that came about. I think they are helpful to consider and think about, but they are also vague enough that they allow for a lot of wiggle room.

High Level Overview of General Structure


This introduces the player characters to each other, the world, and the conflict that will be the source of the story to come by having the players directly contribute to it. Mistakes made by the players bringing about the conflict, getting dragged into events already unfolding due to luck or fate, and willingly wading into it either naively or knowingly are common starting points.

Since we still have limited time to work with, I've found that trying to get most of the information relating to the trilogy is important at this stage. The biggest challenge here tends to be still having a compelling and interesting ending that ties things together nicely but still leaves room in the next one-shot to expand. In a lot of cases the main conflict hasn't been touched but some level of closure tends to work best.


The player characters have won a great victory. Or they prevented a crushing defeat but didn't exactly win either. Regardless, there is still work to be done. Complications can occur both as a result of the ending of the previous one-shot or also as a result of actions taken here. Progress should still be made towards the end goal, otherwise it could feel like meaningless meandering, but it shouldn't be a simple journey either. I've seen it work otherwise but it's not easy.

Since we've gotten most of our information out in the previous one-shot, we can jump into the meat of the adventure. We could have held out a few important revelations but by the end of this one almost everything should be known. If there are some shocking twists planned, making sure you can count all the new bits of information needed on one hand tends to be a good sanity test. Being interesting between 2 well focused sections like this can also be a challenge. Also make sure to wrap up the complications to some degree so that they can be neatly completed closed in the ending. The solution here tends to be to make sure it directly contributes to the ending/solution in some way. In practice this also means that a complication is introduced, partially addressed, but isn't solved. There is also some room for more complications in the next section, but it should be light to keep this structure and a natural result from the events here.

The Ending

It is now time to end things. This will either be a great victory, or victory won at a great cost, or a form of Pyrrhic victory for the player character's enemies (the enemy will now lose, though the players may not see the final blow). Things are wrapped up.

A large part of this often ends up writing itself. The challenge tends to be to close everything nearly. All of this is greatly contributed to by the foundation built by the previous one shots. If there is too much to close because the complications weren't properly handled, this section can be sloppy. Likewise, if we didn't manage to introduce everything previously, it may not feel like much of an earned conclusion. The pieces should be in play, can be guessed at, or aren't too much of a stretch. In other words, everything should be close by and setup. Now it's time to draw it all together and clean up. Ideally this section should be a lot of effort on the part of the players to bend things to their will.

Past 3 One-Shots

We can add more complication sections and extend this structure past 3 sections. This can work very well but doing too many complication sections can make things feel more drawn out than you'd want. It can also start to look like a regular campaign, which isn't what we are after here. The whole point of the restrictions is to give a focused and efficient story. This structure can be very refreshing after a long campaign.

Other Considerations

All three parts don't need to involve the same characters. I've played 2 of these where all 3 one-shot's didn't share player characters. In one, an ancient evil was accidentally unleashed by the players in one-shot 1, though they got what they were after. In one-shot 2, the same characters sealed the evil but were not able to destroy it. One-shot 3 had a different set of characters years later finding a way to find where the ancient evil's prison was to destroy it, racing against a group who would seek to release it again.

In the other, an ancient necromatic evil was unleashed. The players, unable to find a permanent solution, restored the status quo. Years later, the ancient evil was guarded ever since to prevent its release. Some of the player characters were descendants of the original group. A new plan was hatched to release the evil once again and the players stopped it. Finally, hundreds of years later a method to destroy the evil was finally found. However, the player character's, some of them descendants from the characters in the previous 2 one-shots, were unable to convince the establishment of following through with this plan. What followed was a story of betrayal and manipulation to attempt to release the evil before it was finally destroyed or failing that, keeping it intact but sealed. Break in and destroy it themselves or try to convince the authorities that it should be done were the main options. Trying to play long distant relatives of previous characters can be an interesting role-play challenge. Hopefully these outlines inspire someone out there. We succeeded in stopping the plot in one-shot 2, however, I suspect it may have led to an extra one-shot to close things off before heading into the conclusion if we failed.

Interconnected Trilogies

Instead of making more and more sessions in the same story, you can make trilogies that are connected in some way. It could be location, or it could be a common thread such as an antagonist with different plans over the centuries and millennia. Each attempt would be a vastly different plot that would take 3 one-shots to prevent. I've found that antagonists, players, locations, and items work quite well in this regard.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Dungeon Master: The Art of the One-shot

One-shots have many differences compared to long campaigns. These differences can make for unique challenges but also for unique experiences. The unique constraints often lead to different approaches out of pure necessity, but also new challenges. I can't possibly go over every challenge that could come up, but I hope to go over some of the most important ones. It also let's me put my thoughts down in a coherent way, which is always a plus. You don't realize some things until you try to write them down, after all.

Ideal Length

This kind of thing often comes down to person preference. However I find that 4 hours tends to work best for me. It gives a good amount of time to work with, and is still feasible amount of time for guests. Admittedly it gets kind of close to being too long for a lot of people, but that's roughly where you'd want it I think. A length of time as long as possible but still not inconvenient for your players. 2 hours can work too, but it's a very different skill. You need to be extremely precise and prepared for those kinds of situations and may need to push things along at times to keep them moving at the desired pace. Some groups can spent that long in an inn talking about the last adventure so it really is a challenge. However, it can also be a great experience because there is no filler or anything unnecessary. It's the condensed best things you could come up with.

What I Want

Typically when planning a one-shot, there are a few things I want. I want at least one major and iconic role-play situation. It's the kind of thing that right after, days later, perhaps even years later, they will talk about fondly. I also want to include some kind of combat encounter. People typically like their combat encounters so I usually feel that I want to have at least one. This way the decision of what character they chose means something. Otherwise, players who enjoy the combat aspect will tend to feel like I wasted their time forcing them to pick between a barbarian and a fighter.

I also find I get the best results if there is something else happening in the encounter. It could be the whole place collapsing on their heads, it could be someone trying to escape with something important, it could be an attempt to buy time while a baddie opens a portal to hell. It could also be something unique about the combat encounter itself, such as a creature capable of hiding in shadows or fog that uses hit and run tactics. Again, what I found best here is if there is some problem they need to solve. Everything I mentioned previously, put another way, is just a problem I'm presenting the players beyond “kill everyone”.

Pre-Generated Characters

Pre-generated characters can be a massive boon in these kinds of situations. It can be a lot to ask someone to create a character for a 2 hour session. This is especially true if the person never played a tabletop game before and you want to introduce them. In these cases you could whip one up yourself quickly a head of time after asking your players what kind of character they'd like to play.

It can also be a surprisingly good change to not come up with your own character. It's a great way to break a rut and it's also very safe. If it turns out you don't feel like you have a lot to work with the character you chose, you may never use them at the end of the session anyway. At the best case scenario though, you could find yourself enjoying a very different experience. Of course, a pre-gen character still leaves a lot of room for a player to make the character their own. You are given a starting point but where you take the character is up to you. It's the being pushed out of your comfort zone that can lead to great new experiences, though I must also preface this thought with the admission that it doesn't always work out. However, it can still be that all important seed. Different seeds can grow to different results.

Having this kind of power is also interesting from the perspective of a Dungeon Master. It further lets you have an element of control over the session and can be an opportunity to say something about the world. Limiting abilities and classes does the same, but it's a different mechanism. I would never advocate preventing players from making their own characters when they want to. It pays off massively from the perspective of player engagement. However, if you find yourself in a situation where you need pre-generated characters because your players won't have the time to create a character from scratch before the session, want the challenge or whatever other reason, it's a valid option. Some players don't mind the challenge either. They may in fact welcome a new character they never would've played had they had that control. If you have these players, there is nothing wrong with giving them what they want.

The Setup

Setup time is a big enough problem in long campaigns. Since we have even less time to work with, having things run like a well oiled machine is even more important. 10 minutes out of 4 hours may not feel like a long time during play to wait, but the number of things you could have done with those 10 minutes is surprising. It's also one of the easiest things to trim down while not drastically changing the adventure itself. Overrunning the time limit is very common.

If you can, have the rooms ready to go if you are using tiles. It always amazes me how much time this ends up saving over the course of a session. For a massive mega dungeon this isn't always possible, especially when using 3D dungeon tiles. However, you probably aren't going to be running a massive mega dungeon in 4 hours. If you can't get all of the rooms ready ahead of time, get as many as you can and have the remaining rooms planned out. With fewer rooms it's easier to remember, and you'd want to have notes ready as well. This goes for more than just the arrangement of tiles. You'll want to have well organized notes ready if you are like me. It speeds things up, helps me immensely, and at such a smaller scale tends to be easily manageable. The less amount of time looking at rules, the better.

The Ending

The ending is very important for a one-shot. You aren't building to something in the future like you can do in a normal campaign. This is where all the build up throughout the adventure was leading. It's now or never. Now, I'm not saying that you should always give your players exactly what they want. Most of the time you probably should come close, but ironically giving your players exactly what they want may not be what your players want. Making it just slightly different enough to have a bit of a surprise often works well from my experience. It's the idea of giving your players what they want even if it's not the specifics they would have told you. Again though, you'll need to know your players. The ending doesn't necessarily always need to be completely satisfying from a writing and character perspective. It needs to make sense, be shaped by your players through their actions, and bring satisfaction to your players. What would satisfy the player's character and what would satisfy the player do not necessarily align. Some character's players even create characters that they want to be unsatisfied and lead to tragic results.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Dungeon Master: Multi-Visit Dungeon

Dungeon design can be a tricky thing. There about as many ways to design a dungeon as there are Dungeon Masters to design them. Still, there are general goals and ideas a Dungeon Master has when creating a dungeon that help guide the design. One is between a single visit and multi-visit dungeon. It makes sense that a dungeon meant to be visited once would be different than a dungeon that is meant to be probed multiple times and explored over time. As a result, I hope to write a little bit about multi-visit dungeons.

Unintentionally Switching

Over the course of a game, it's not out of the realm of possibility that things won't go to plan. A group that is particularly lucky, clever, or both can go through dungeon meant to be explored over multiple visits. Likewise, a dungeon meant for a single visit can be surprisingly difficult to overcome and force a strategic retreat. This time I'll be focusing on the design step of the dungeon. However, similar considerations can be used to turn a dungeon originally meant to be explored in one go into a multi-visit dungeon. In this case, there's not too much that can be done outside of adding secret passages, and adding new residents as well as a purpose to return. Still, similar ideas can be applied. What we are doing in this case is building on top of an existing dungeon to form a multi-visit dungeon after the fact. This new dungeon can then be examined and treated in much the same way as a multi-visit dungeon. It just wasn't the intention from the start.

Types of Obstacles

Typically the obstacles in a dungeon are creatures or something else. The key difference here is that creatures can reorganize after taking casualties as well as call for backup. A 354 year old trap, however, often stays disabled until a character re-activates it. This isn't a cut and dry rule though. Some traps can be disabled for some amount of time after being overcome. Typically, however, once it's overcome it can be overcome in the same way again. This means that if players remember what the dungeon was like, it'll be easier to go further into it next time. From a design perspective it's probably better to think about it as obstacles that will change (creatures, maybe a particularly complex trap) and those that will remain the same (spike pit, dart trap, riddle door, etc.).

Infinitely Impenetrable

When dealing with creatures or other kinds of obstacles that reset, you want to avoid getting into a situation where your players are forever stuck at the same level of the dungeon. Even if it's not really infinitely, each foray into the dungeon should feel a bit different. It could be because different creatures moved in (I seem to recall this being quite common), or because the distribution of forces was changed in response to the previous attack. The most obvious way to do this is by letting your players get through the first part of the dungeon more easily. Above all, you don't want a copy past of the previous layout but with some of the inner group redistributed. This makes going through the same area a chore.

Rough Estimate

I tend to like to do estimates of how long it would take to go through the dungeon and how far they'd go through. These estimates are useful so I know roughly how long it'll take and to try to keep a dungeon from overstaying its welcome. However, it shouldn't be an actual outline of how things should go. I use it merely as an estimation tool.Things will probably go different than you expected but you should still know what you were hoping to achieve when designing a dungeon.

Some Events

As they leave and return, some things could happen. In my notes I tend to call these things events. They can be a good way to mix things up between visits. New residents, or even the evidence of an adventurer group that got in way over their heads can help add some life and colour to an adventure (and guilt if they died due to traps the party reset before leaving). It tends to be a bit difficult for me to come up with these on the fly so I prefer to brainstorm a head of time. Then I can choose as few or as many as I want to use later.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Dungeon Master: Magic Item Drawbacks Examples

Magic items are an incredibly iconic part of a campaign. Over the course of one, each player character will typically have at least one item that is associated to them. While it isn't always the most useful of items, it can be hard not to think of the item when thinking about the character even years after the end of a campaign. In my experience, one of the things that makes an item memorable is an element of risk. It could be a risk to try and get a more powerful outcome to happen, or it could be the threat of a bad outcome. I'll begin by looking at some properties that can be added to a magic item for this particular purpose.

When Does the Drawback Happen?

In the games I took part in a player typically has to perform a roll similar to a death saving throw when making use of an item like this. If they beat it (roll 10 or higher), everything is fine. If they don't, a drawback occurs. We nicknamed this a “drawback roll” and it only applied to specific magic items. You can of course scale the difficulty as you'd like. Some items may have a very rare chance as low as 1 out of 20. You can also make it specific to the item, however it can get hard to remember a whole slew of different DCs. However, such a problem is easily avoided if magic items are carefully handed out. You can also include a skill or attribute modifier on the roll as you would any other check. The circumstance can also modify things, especially if the item is sentient. The short version is there are a lot of ways to have fun with this idea and I saw these rolls played with a lot.

Format For Properties

I've been trying to mostly keep things system neutral and use D&D 5th edition for examples. For this reason, the first paragraph after italics will be an explanation of the intended draw back. After that, I'll provide a sample implementation for D&D 5th edition. In the case of multiple version, I provide alternates below. Naturally, damage can be adjusted. I won't bother to list those as alternates.


Your arrow quickly leaves your bow and hits the target square in the chest. He falls over with a twist and lies motionless on the ground. You feel slightly weaker compared to before your shot.

The idea behind this item is that there is a chance to take some damage after an attack. The idea is that there is added risk with such an item. It's usually intended for a weapon, but also works well with a staff or other magical item. The damage taken typically should reflect the strength of the effect caused by the item.

Example Implementation: After an option is chosen, perform the drawback roll. In the event of a failure, roll 1d6 multiplied by the strength of the effect. The damage can be high to make it risky to use or low to allow repeated use by high level characters but also careful use by low-level characters.

Alt 1: Instead of taking damage, the user gains a level of exhaustion.

Alt 2: Instead of taking damage, the user can only take an action or move action until the end of their next turn (can be moved to 1d4 instead for more punishment).


Your arcane power is focused through your staff. Released in the form of a pitch black sphere, it flies ahead and explodes on impact. Shadows, acting like black fire, engulf all that are caught in it's blast.

The idea behind this trait is linked to a magic item I saw in use. The item was a staff that allowed the necromancer that was attuned to it to channel any spell through it. Doing so allowed them to change the type of damage dealt by the spell to necrotic. It also let them try to enhance its power.

Example Implementation: The object has 10 charges. 1-5 can be used at a time. Each charge adds 1d6 damage to the spell channeled through the staff. After an option is chosen, perform the drawback roll. In the event of a failure, the user of the object takes damage equal to the bonus damage.


As you try to activate its ability, the snakes engraved on the item seem to come alive!

The idea behind this item is that using it has a chance of failure. This unreliability makes using it a risk. Here is also an alternate version where later actions take a penalty. In game wise it can also be described as a defect in the item itself.

Example Implementation: When attempting to use the object, perform a drawback roll. In the event of a failure, nothing happens.

Alt 1: Enemies have advantage against the user and the character using the item has disadvantage on saves.

Alt 2: The user has disadvantage on checks/attacks and enemies have advantage on saves imposed by the character using the item until the end of their next turn.


The item erupts in brilliant bright light and warmth. You still see glowing white even after the warmth subsides.

This drawback was originally belonging to a sword that could erupt in bright like, sort of like a sun blade. However, it also blinded people for some length of time. The user and their allies were also not immune to this effect. There was also another sword but instead it blinded the user when trying to use it's power.

You will need to set a DC for enemies to resist the effect. Typically the user did a drawback roll instead in order to give them a better chance to resist. Characters who knew it was coming could try to cover their eyes.It's up to you if you want the item to affect party members or if the wielder has some level of control as long as they succeeded on their drawback roll. 

Example Implementation: When attempting to use the the property, perform a drawback roll. In the event of a failure, you are blinded until the end of your next turn.

Alt 1: When attempting to use a property, perform a drawback roll. In the event of a failure, you are blinded for 1d4 turns.


All sound, ins a single moment, fades away.

The point of this drawback was to decrease perception and increase chances of walking into ambushed but also served to force the user to depend on their party members.

Example Implementation: When attempting to use a property, perform a drawback roll. In the event of a failure, you are deafened for one hour. Think of interesting ways this would effect role-playing. 

Alt 1: You are deafened for 1 turn instead.  


A single moment later, you can no longer hear your friend speaking. The chirping of crickets can still be heard in the distance.

Legend has it that it belonged to a thief and a mage hunter over the years. Who it was originally meant for is a mystery lost to time.

Having an easy way to cast silence is a useful thing for anyone who wants to sneak around or fight wizards. However, it can also be a downside to your own in close quarters. This item originally had 2 properties. One was to use silence as normal, or a slightly modified version of the silence spell. The other had a chance to activate it unintentionally as well. This works best on a player who has a conscience and feels bad for making their party spellcasters suffer. Also if they cast spells. The other time I saw it was on a magic staff. Made things rather tough.

Example Implementation: When attempting to use a property, perform a drawback roll. In the event of a failure, silence is cast centred on the item until the end of your next turn.

Shadow Realm

You feel a cold chill run down your spine as the world fades away. Darkness surrounds you from every direction.

The intention of this item was shadow magic. The drawback could also be an advantage in certain situations and the player used it to survive blasts that otherwise would have killed them. In this case, they could never use the property directly.

Example Implementation: When attempting to use the the property, perform a drawback roll. In the event of a failure, they are trapped in a shadow realm until the end of their next turn (similar to a forced ethereal form).