Cake Mix, Not Actual Cakes – Running Pre-Written Adventures

I’m currently running (and playing) far more campaign games than one-shots (perhaps that’s why posting here has slowed down a little). In many of the games I’m running, I’m using pre-published adventures, and I’ve done this for one-shots as well.

While it’s easy to think that this will make things easier, in practice I end up doing a similar amount of prep. Using a pre-written adventure gives you an easy lead-in or hook, and can showcases some good ideas (I ran a one-shot of Village of Homlett for 13th Age a few years ago, and it allowed me to show a ‘classic’ adventure in a new light). But often the structure of pre-published modules needs some work to make it one-shot ready. Below is some advice about adapting published materials for a one-shot.

Read the Thing

You need to not only read it, but read it closely enough to get the overall structure of the thing. I take the odd note as I read, and try to sketch out a likely structure of play, breaking it into scenes. Weirdly, this is much harder to do in a location/dungeon-based game, but I try to get an idea of the order things will be encountered in based on the map.

I’ll usually do a quick sketch of what the structure could look like – at this stage I’m probably already cutting out unnecessary scenes – so I’ve got some idea how it’ll play. In particular, I need to have the start of the session really clear in my mind; I’ll usually write notes down to where I talk about rules or safety tools, even planning out the pre-game conversations.

Start Big

In a one-shot (and in any game session, in my opinion) you need to start with an exciting, action-filled scene. If your adventure doesn’t have one, you’ll need to add one. It could be that you add an extra scene in at the start, but given you’ll probably be trying to cut things out, you could always just start the action later than the adventure assumes. I’ve said before that the door to the dungeon is the earliest your one-shot should start, and don’t be afraid to go further than that, for example…

You’ve broken into the crypt beneath the church, and bypassed the traps – fighting some giant rats along the way – that kept out the previous tomb raiders. As you click the pressure points into place, you see the dust swirl out of a much more ancient, much more deadly, crypt – serried ranks of hanging corpses line the sides of a corridor covered with ancient runes, and as the dust moves you see them begin to reach towards you, as the runes begin to shift and swirl before your eyes!

Cut What You Can – Add If You Must

In general, unless your adventure was written as a one-shot (and even if it was, depending on the time you have and your taste in pacing), you’ll have to cut out some of it. Using the example above, it’s perfectly fine to montage through some dungeoneering, and I don’t think a one-shot ever benefits from finding empty rooms – so cut them out ruthlessly.

Prep Notes - including a hastily-scribbled ship name I'd forgotten to prep!
Prep Notes Example

Start by thinking about what the key encounters you would have to have for it to still make sense as a story, and think about whether you need to add anything to that. The things to add could be:

  • existing threads of plot or scenes that back-up what you are running
  • additional encounters that aren’t in the adventure you’re prepping but help to bring it all together
  • scenes or encounters that help with versimilitude, to give some sense of place beyond the one-shot

I have a few ready-reckoners in my head for what makes a good one-shot – between 1 and 3 interesting NPCs (who could be allies or enemies), 2 or 3 challenging fights or similar action scenes, a maximum of 1 puzzle or moral quandary. Often it’s the NPCs that need to be added – alongside some less interesting NPCs being cut. In the past I’ve added sympathetic goblins to dungeons, or trapped tomb robbers, that the PCs could aid or hinder (and vice versa) – it gives you some chance for a bit of roleplaying amidst the one-shot pace.

Pace is Everything, Therefore Structure is Everything

The most important skill in delivery of a one-shot is consistent control of pace – when it’s high action, the pace should be fast and breezy, but with quieter moments so the players (and you) can catch breath. Running a published adventure can make this more of a challenge, as it’s not obvious (because you haven’t written it yourself) what you can cut or change without affecting the overall plot.

I’d recommend a quick scene/structure map of the one-shot as a really essential pre exercise, and something to have to hand as you run the one-shot. This structure will give you an idea of what I mean – note that often the middle scenes can take place in any order, but usually I have a good idea of the finale, and I always know how it’s going to start. Often if I’m running from a published adventure I don’t need very much detail within the scene (unless I’ve changed it) but how they fit together is key to keep the action moving.

What are your favourite published one-shots? Any that you can recommend, or that make running a one-shot easier? As always, comment below or get me on twitter @milnermaths.


  1. […] Cake Mix, Not Actual Cakes – Running Pre-Written Adventures @ Burn After Running –  Unsurprisingly for a blog that concentrates on running one-shots, this post has a lot of really good advice about running one-shots. I think the single best piece of advice that the author gives is to “start big”. A lacklustre start is not great for a one-shot, and it works really well when you jump straight into the action. The rest of the article is also good, but this is the best point. […]



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