During my time running games of Dungeons and Dragons, I find that one of the things I do most often is run one shots, particularly one shots for new people. In my circle of friends, I am one of the few people willing to DM, and in their circles of friends, I am usually the only one. This means that I end up doing a lot of one shots for people who have never played before. In a way, I consider the DMing of new players a sort of specialty of mine; I have gotten pretty efficient at building new characters quickly and even have some of the rules memorized, like how to find AC and attack bonuses. When my friends’ friends and family members want to play D&D for the first time, I tend to be the person they turn to. Thus when some of Neli’s friends and family members decided they wanted to try out the game, it was time for a new one shot.
This group consisted of five people, which is one more than the main group I DM but one less than the Vrotha one shot I ran for my sister, which was the most I have ever DMed. Eli and Neli participated to help fill out the party and assist the new players. Eli’s character was a sweet little urchin monk named Tai, who had a heart of gold and an intelligence of four. Neli played Amethyst, a young human assassin rogue who studied under the tutelage of Thanos. Thanos was a hardened and lethal human assassin rogue played by Yazmine, Neli’s sister. Vidia, a sun elf Bard, was Julia’s character. Julia was the sister of Yazmine and Neli, and played the part of a bard well. Finally, Oskan, a sun elf sorcerer, was a noble native to the land, and was played by Juan Miguel, a friend of the sisters. The group was eclectic and fun, and interacted well from a role-playing standpoint from the beginning, likely due to their close nature.
The process of coming up with this one shot was difficult for me. While I believe my one shots tend to be better sessions than the canonical ones for my main campaign, they take a lot more work to come up with because they need to be self-contained, and I usually don’t have as much material to work with as far as context and character backgrounds. This particular session didn’t fall into place until the afternoon we played. Some of the characters needed finishing touches like armor and spells, so as the players worked on their characters I was frantically trying to finish and print off my notes.
When I run one shots, I like to use them as an opportunity to expand and construct new parts of my world. With this one, I decided to set it in Aestoreacia, the kingdom of sun elves and desert elves. This worked out due to the heritage of a few of the players, particularly Oskan. At the very beginning of the session, Oskan was sent a secret coded letter asking him to meet. At a bar known as The Nightingale, the designated location, Oskan found Gremoria, one of the fellow nobles residing in the capital city of Estella. She requested the help of the group to sneak into the house of another noble and retrieve a trusted advisor who had been kidnapped and a vase that was a family heirloom for her family. “Bitchmoria”, as Juan Miguel fondly called her, insisted that they would not get payment for the job unless they were able to retrieve both things. Reluctantly, the party set out for the estate of the targeted family.
Although the Ildrimsan family was away from their estate, there were several guards surrounding the building and a wall separating the mansion from the streets of Estella. The group did some reconnaissance, with Vidia drawing some of the guards away, but they found that it would be incredibly difficult to scale the wall. After some intense deliberation, Juan Miguel asked if Oskan would know enough about the family to impersonate one of the family members. With a good roll and a Disguise Self spell, Oskan approached the guards, pretending to be the oldest son of the family. Some persuasion rolls ensued (with advantage due to the spell) and the group found their way inside the mansion.
From here the group wasn’t sure where to go, so they began searching the area for the kidnapped advisor. In one of the towers of the mansion, they found a brig with two cells. However, both of the cells held the same person-a male desert elf with leather armor and stubborn attitude. The party was taken aback, uncertain which one was the real Fentoris. Both of them began clamoring for the PCs attention, insisting any of the questions the party might throw at them they could answer. Juan Miguel used a history roll to see what he could remember about Gremoria’s family history that might be useful to them. A quick info dump ensued, and the group finally settled on the question “What is the name of Gremoria’s oldest child?” The one on the left answered that Nae’min was the oldest son of Gremoria, which was true to the public. However, the Fentoris on the right answered “I don’t know, she never told me. It wasn’t supposed to happen.” This threw the PCs into a tizzy, and speculations about affairs began to fly. The group decided that this was the real Fentoris, but once they did the second one opened his cage, flaunted the key in front of the PCs, and swallowed it. A battle ensued, Thanos struck the final blow, and Tai shoved his hand into the creature’s stomach to retrieve the key as the body transformed into the grey, indistinguishable form of a doppelganger.
With Fentoris released, the PCs were ready to head off and find the heirloom, but the advisor revealed that there were some special papers in another room of the mansion that he needed to retrieve. He tried to convince the group to go on ahead and find the vase while he looked for the papers, but naturally the party didn’t trust him. They divided up, two of them shadowing Fentoris and the other three looking for the vase. Eventually, Tai, Vidia, and Amethyst found the vase surrounded by pressure plate traps, but not before Tai got a face full of fire and went down. Vidia managed to bring him back, and Tai was unbelievable shocked and maybe a little excited that he basically died. Meanwhile Fentoris got frozen by a security glyph, and Oskan and Thanos skirted past him to look through the room for the papers he was so desperate for. Eventually, both parties managed to retrieve the object they were seeking, and with some spells they managed to disable the glyph holding Fentoris in place. With their treasure in hand, the group set off to return to the place where Gremoria lay in wait.
The PCs managed to get past the guards by having Fentoris hold the vase and turning him invisible. One of the guards nearly recognized Vidia from her attempt to distract them, but an order from the still-disguised Oskan made them stand down. The trip back was uneventful, and the group confronted Gremoria with the papers and the knowledge about her supposed affair. Gremoria’s hands were tied, and each of them walked out with an enormous pile of gold in order to ensure their silence. The last thing that the party heard as they left The Nightingale was Gremoria screaming in frustration and burning the papers the party had brought her, as each of the PCs relished in the gold that they had blackmailed her for.
Personally, I think that this session is one of the best I have ever run. It seems ironic due to the fact that it was difficult to come up with and was more than a bit hastily thrown together. Despite the scenario, the session went great, the group had a lot of fun, and I learned some very valuable lessons from it.
- Be careful about dropping bombshells for a different campaign
One of the greatest moments of the one shot came when the group was blackmailing Gremoria about her secret child. In a moment that shocked two of the players, it was revealed that Gremoria’s secret child was actually Bel, Reagan’s little half elf barbarian from the main campaign. The name drop shocked Eli and made Neli run out of the room screaming, though the rest of the group was more than a little confused. I hadn’t originally intended to reveal that they had been working for Gremoria the whole time; it was just supposed to be a coincidence, something that might pay off a year or so later if the main group ever made it to Aestoreacia. However, the PCs immediate suspicion of the secret child and their insistence on blackmailing her forced my hand a bit, and us such the bomb was dropped. The end result was more of a surprising easter egg for players rather than the characters. I really want to avoid doing this sort of thing in the future; telling the players secrets that have weight on the main campaign while they’re doing a one shot can a) distract from the current one shot and b) make I harder for the players to avoid metagaming down the line. The more the players know that their characters don’t, it becomes harder for the players to separate that knowledge and roleplay effectively. Luckily, the reveal that it was Bel’s mom that they had been working for wasn’t essential to the plot of the campaign and didn’t reveal any secrets, but it is still something that I want to be careful about going forward, even if it was very much worth it this time around.
- Dropping a character in immediately can be a great way to hook the player
When the session started, I described the surroundings that the players were in before immediately addressing Oskan and handing him a letter. The letter was coded, meaning that before the group got into anything else, they had to solve a puzzle. Additionally, the message was sent from Gremoria to Oskan, one noble to another. This played heavily into Oskan’s character, and gave his player in particular more to go on. Similarly, the puzzle was a quick way to engage everyone-the equivalent of dropping your characters in media res without the danger that comes with a battle. I highly recommend using this method to get a session going, particularly for a one shot with new players. Starting off the session with a puzzle will let your players feel victorious and excited, and you can set the tone for the rest of the session.
- The first time a character goes down can be a scary moment for a DM
The moment that Tai stared the trap in the face and got a face full of fire was a terrifying one. Immediately he fell unconscious, which is the first time when I was DMing that a character had gone down. (There’s probably a deeper commentary about this moment that shows how I play the game, but that’s a post for another day.) I wasn’t the only one shocked however. The entire table was freaked out by the fact that Tai was unconscious, particularly Neli and Julia because their characters were in the same room. Vidia quickly rushed to Ty’s aid and delivered a healing spell, which brought him back from the edge of death. Tai himself seemed impressed and awestruck that he had died, which allowed for some sighs of relief and strange looks at the table. It was interesting to see how the group reacted to a death; those who hadn’t played before seemed a bit confused and alarm, while Eli was somewhat resigned to Tai’s fate. Neli meanwhile seemed the most shocked, likely due to the fact that she had been playing awhile and knew how serious going down was but had never seen it. The whole experience was a unique one, and one that sticks in my head even now as a DM. It’s a nice reminder that even in a world of high fantasy there is still some consequence to a character’s actions.
- Don’t be afraid to use a character’s background, even just for a one shot
One of the things that really allowed the session to fall into place was Oskan’s noble background. It made it much more plausible that Gremoria, a noble herself, would reach out to the PCs for their assistance. Similarly, when sneaking into the estate and determining who the real advisor was, Oskan’s ability to “recall” information about the nobility gave Juan Miguel and the other players some excellent tools to solve the puzzles set in front of them. Even just for a one shot, using a player’s background can not only tie them into the story quickly and effectively, but can prompt the players to roleplay where they otherwise might not and get them to think outside of the box. A player with an urchin or criminal background might be helpful in a big city setting if the party needs a quiet path that won’t attract attention. Similarly, an acolyte might know the best place to get supplies for facing against the undead, hermits and outlanders can have advantages in wild terrain. Pay attention to your players’ chosen backgrounds and find ways to tie the scenario and the setting into the character, particularly if the players quickly engage and roleplay in a way that is consistent with that background. It will make the world feel so much more authentic and your players will be engaged in the session and their character.
Even nearly five months later, I am still prouder of this session than I am of almost anything else that I’ve done as a Dungeon Master. The players were all incredibly engaged, doing some of the best strategizing that I have ever seen in a game and becoming incredibly invested in these characters in such a short amount of time. Even if I don’t include the reveal about Bel’s mother, the game was fun for the players, which means it was fun for me as a DM. It’s moments like these that revitalize my love for the game and make me want to introduce it to everyone I know so they can participate in the amazing world of Dungeons and Dragons.
Questions, comments, or concerns? Leave me a comment below or find me on Twitter @DandDDM.