ProTips for Running a One-Shot

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None of these guys are sitting down, either.
None of these guys are sitting down, either.

Last night, I ran an event for my local D&D MeetUp group called “Dungeon Master Challenge” (link). I was a player at this event and, of course, the organizer. The ‘challenge’ aspect is actually a secondary focus here, just a tool used to try and push DM’s to do their best. My main goal for this event was, in fact, to enact a kind of D&D speed dating; get a whole bunch of players in the room, and run them through just a taste of each DM’s style in the hopes that at least a couple of people find some new friends and expand their gaming circle a bit. In the end, that aspect was successful. Here’s a recap of some Do’s and Don’t’s that I would recommend for this kind of public, one-off, convention-style game. Later, I’ll be posting the adventure Sean brought to the game that I helped out with. Some of these tips are super obvious and common knowledge to me. I sometimes forget how long I’ve been into this hobby and how much I’ve learned over the years. Which is to say, I feel for the younger DM’s out there who haven’t had my years of experience, and I hope they take my words and gain some understanding out of them.

  1. Bring Pre-Generated character sheets of your own creation. Fire up a word processor and put in the effort to make a clean sheet with all the info a player needs in an easily accessible format.
  2. Have dice, minis, and pencils at the ready. Assume you’re going to get players in your group who are completely new to the hobby.
  3. Run a snappy game. This isn’t your home game and you’re not developing a lengthy plot. In a public game, no matter how good you are, chances are at least half your players don’t like your style and just want this to be over quickly.
  4. Offer a variety of things to do. Have puzzles, riddles, exploration, social interaction, and yeah I guess some combat at the end. Assume that this is your one and only chance to show off all of your stuff. Show these players what you’re really capable of.
  5. Hand out over-the-top powerful rewards. These characters can’t break your campaign, because they’re not part of your campaign.
  6. Don’t give out rewards that can’t be used in a one-shot. Focus on the game at hand, not some hypothetical campaign that these players aren’t actually playing.
  7. Be loud. Be so loud and exciting that the people at adjacent tables are more interested in your game than their own.
  8. Have an epic finish. Everyone feels better walking away from the table at the ends of a particularly tough struggle whose conclusion wraps everything up.
  9. Use handouts. Lots of handouts and props. Nuance and subtlety of your words get obliterated in these kinds of environments – go for things the players can see and feel.
  10. Don’t put in a game effect that negates a player’s turn. They lose interest in the game immediately.
  11. Don’t let players fiddle with their cellphones. That’s a sure sign that they are bored and/or confused and you need to immediately talk to them and find out what you, Dungeon Master, are doing wrong.
  12. Throw away your DM screen. This is a hobby of emotions, as opposed to (for example) war games which are hobbies of calculation. A screen blocks off your facial expressions from the players.
  13. Please stand up, please stand up. While sitting, you’re at a lower energy level. You want high engagement here, so stand up and shout! Every once in awhile, sit down and get eye-to-eye with the players to emphasize a particularly dark or somber tone in the story.
  14. Be incredibly obvious with your plot. Throw away veiled ideas and hints. Boldly state what is happening and why. You need to hook your players’ interests from the first moment.
  15. Get weird. This is your one, best chance to be memorable. Push the envelope of your creativity and do things you think are cool that would never fly in your home game. Mess with characters, have wacky magic effects, and just let loose.

So now you tell me:
What are your tips & tricks for running a better one-shot game?

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