Cut to the Chase Scene – 5 In Medias Res Starts for your One-Shot

I’ve blogged before about the importance of a strong start in your one-shots, and a good way to achieve that is to start in medias res – in the midst of the action.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

In Medias Res as a term was coined by Horace in his Ars Poetica, when he pointed out that Homer’s games of D&D he was running down the Parthenon didn’t start ab ovo – with the dragon hatching from the egg – but right in the middle of a pitched battle against orcs. Or something like that. What it means for us is a reliable way to get dice rolling within the first twenty minutes – and get the pace tripping along right from the start.

So, here are 5 In Medias Res’s to get your one-shots off to a bang.

The Previous-Quest-Maguffin

Gamma World’s famous flow-chart – more fun to look at than play through, in my experience

Begin at the end of the last adventure – where they find a fantastical item that spurs them on to the main quest. A good chance for an ‘easy’ section of dungeoning – a ‘training level’ – to get the item, and then some problem solving / roleplay to interpret the item and pick up the trail.

Credit to Dirk the Dice of The Grognard Files who did this in a memorable Gamma World one-shot that I’ve shamelessly stolen (both here, and in other con games) – in that game we used the infamous artifact flowchart to decipher the mission.

Trapped in the Tomb

Don’t just start at the door to the dungeon, have the party on the wrong side of it as the trap triggers and the door closes behind them. You might want to have another peril activate at the same time, just to lay it on thick that they need to find a way out – as well as whatever they came here for in the first place.

Note that if you’re doing this you’ll need some NPCs or other roleplaying opportunities in the tomb/dungeon/derelict space station in order to make this more interesting – so throw in a chatty mummy/off-message AI/reactivated golem for the PCs to interact with and help/hinder them as well.

The Contest

You don’t think just anyone gets to represent the king while plundering the treasures of the forgotten jungles? No, every year you must compete for the privilege against the nations most foolhardy heroes. Feel free to have some of the failed contestants travel over there anyway as a rival adventuring party – that the PCs will eventually have to save and/or fight.

In terms of pacing, don’t make the contest too long, or it might become the focal point of the whole session – a few skill checks or a simple combat should be enough. Last year I started a Legend of the 5 Rings campaign with each PC describing the gift they’d brought for the daimyo they’d appeared to serve, and then make a skill check for how successful their gift had been – and one bushi’s terrible sake became a recurring theme for the whole campaign.

In Medias Res-ervoir Dogs

The heist (dungeon crawl, assassination, saving the city, etc…) went wrong – or at least drew a lot of heat. Now they’re on the run, trying to escape and fix things. A good way to start with a chase scene – either using the RPGs chase mechanics or just some opposed skill checks or a fight.

This is a good example of a fight with a clear objective – and an opportunity to intersperse the scene with flashbacks of the actual job they’re running from. Note that in Reservoir Dogs they just lie low and chew scenery at each other – diverge from the film in your game and have them carry out the even bigger score that will make things right, hunt down the contact who betrayed them, or finally get the jewels back.

Zombies Attack!

Wherever the PCs are at the start (tavern, castle, space station, etc…) is suddenly subject to an invasion. A recent session of Deadlands I played in started with zombies crawling through the saloon floor, and it’s a well tested method for starting with a bang.

As with Trapped in the Tomb, you’ll need to make sure there’s a few NPCs for the PCs to interact with during the session so it’s not just a string of fights, but having the call to action be an actual invasion is a classic trope. See here for more ideas about managing invasions – you might want to think about what weakness of the attackers can be exploited, and how they can find it, for instance.

So, five ways to start your one-shot with a bang – what other ways have you seen a one-shot started? Let me know in the comments.

How to Play One-Shots

Looking on the horizon to the tentative return of in-person conventions, it’s worth talking about how to be a good player at a convention. As I’ve said before, in order to run good one-shots, the best thing you can do is play lots of them, and I certainly try to have a 50% running / 50% playing in my campaign and one-shot play (current 2021 figures show a 49%/51% running/playing split, which I can live with!)

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

A convention is a great opportunity to experience different GMing styles, see a system in action, and consider how you would run a similar game – and it’s great to try to be the best players we can be. So, here goes – my top 5 tips to be a great player in a one-shot TTRPG.

Be Prepared

Standard stuff here: arrive on time, talk to the other players, introduce yourself and them, try to make the start of the game as smooth as it can be. I know GMs should do this as well, but your GM has the next three hours to worry about as well, so cut them some slack if they don’t remember everything – pick up the slack.

An empty game table with lots of dice, notes, character sheets, card names, and D&D books
Don’t rely on the DM to bring all those dice!

Bring pencils, dice, that sort of thing. Be helpful about suggesting breaks – it can be difficult to read the energy of the table if you’re GMing. In terms of rules, if you’re familiar, feel free to suggest – but remember it’s the GMs game. If there’s a fumble for a ruling, or a need to look stuff up – volunteer to do it, or if you’ve a suggested fix, suggest it – you can help to keep the pace flowing. If you know the system, you can always volunteer to track initiative or do any of those little housekeeping things that come up sometimes.

Be a Good Plot-Hook Doggo

I went through a six month period of running a lot of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4e (WHFRP) at cons when it first came out. I always included a rat catcher in the pregens, as a nod to a classic WFRP trope – they begin play with a “small but vicious dog.” I didn’t realise until I started running, but that dog was a godsend. Any time the players needed a nudge in the direction of plot, their dog would run off – often after real or imagined sausages (lean into the tropes, everyone).

And as a player, you should be that dog. Tilt for likely plot hooks – don’t turtle, and pull your fellow PCs with you. Presented with a hook, your job is to wolf it down and try and swallow the fishing line, and don’t hold back. Pursue where you think the plot is aggressively, and you’ll help everyone at the table.

Play Up

“Playing Up” is a concept from LARP about supporting other players by giving them cool opportunities to shine. You ask the other character questions, try to give them opportunities to show their character off, make the spotlight time for them.

One of the hardest things to encourage as a con GM is speaking in character – take this on-board and help to encourage it. Rather than comment on what your character sees, ask another PC about it. Do the same in combat, too – speak while doing your action in-character to make your spotlight shine, and suggest tactics in-character (if it’s that sort of game).

Have A Shtick

Similar to this, it helps to have a “shtick” for your PC – pick up on a roleplaying quirk like you would an NPC and lean into it a little. It’s unlikely to be annoying over the three hours as long as you keep pointing towards the plot, and it will encourage everyone else to bring something to the game as well.

Standard improv advice says, incidentally, to always do the obvious thing unless you’ve got an obviously better idea – so do this. Orcs burst through the door – attack them! Your other players can be the voices of reason – be prepared to tilt at windmills.

Show You’re Having Fun

Listen actively – especially if online, smile and nod, and help to bring some energy to the table. Look, I know at F2F cons this can be difficult on the second or third day, when sleep deprivation and the energy of running games and drinking beer hits – but you’ve been there as a GM when the table looks back at you like they’d rather be asleep. Help you GM out by showing enthusiasm and responding positively to his ideas, especially at the start. GMing at cons is hard – the best of us get nervous about it at the time. So help them out by being the best player you can be.

There you go, five tips to be a better player. What would you add to this? Let me know in the comments or at @milnermaths.

Prep Techniques / Review – Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master

For the next of my series of Prep Techniques, which so far includes 5 Room Dungeons and Three Places, I’m going to multiclass into a review. Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, by SlyFlourish, is a 96-page guide to session, and campaign, prep – with lots more besides.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

It’s a great method for session prep – and it wouldn’t be fair for me to try and abbreviate it here. Mike talks a lot of sense, and I think I agree with him about almost everything (he’s not a fan of Skill Challenges, and that’s where we disagree!) You can hear him on the Smart Party interview here, or check out his YouTube channel (which has got some great walkthroughs of prep, including of D&D published adventures). He’s an active blogger, and the blog complements the book well with lots of examples of it in practice.

The Fluff

First up, the title is a little broader than it implies with the “Dungeon Master” term. While it’s true this method has its origins in D&D, and the examples through the book prep a D&D session, it’s broadly applicable to any RPG and genre. I ran a Legends of the 5 Rings campaign using this method for every session (and the campaign approaches here), and I’m sure it would be relevant to any genre or style.

In fact, a lot of the core ideas point towards running a more narrative game, and so this prep method is eminently suitable for this. In particular, the Secrets and Clues section is a great way to think about your game without holding onto ideas too tightly – his prep method gives a broad canvas for the session to take place on, which PBTA and FITD games need.

The Crunch

It presents an 8-step method for session prep, starting with considering the characters, and moving all the way towards magic item rewards. Further sections of the book dismantle this list, and trim it down as far as 3 steps, depending on time available and other ideas.

As a bare minimum, your 3-step prep is a Strong Start (an action or exciting scene – could be, but not always, a fight) – some Secrets and Clues (ten things that the PCs discover – not tied to locations, NPCs or scenes) – and three or more Fantastic Locations (exciting places that will feature in the adventure). Additional steps add more background and flavour, and all are designed to be efficient in terms of fun at the table compared to prep time.

There’s also guidance on building campaigns (using Dungeon World-style Fronts) and about linking ongoing sessions as well – but the Secrets and Clues sections really is the brilliant idea at the core of this. By separating knowledge discovery from specific encounters, the GM (DM?) can be liberal with information and have them appear where players want to go.

The One-Shot

The prep style described here is very suitable for a one-shot, although I’d adapt a few stages. The first step – where you consider the characters and their skills and abilities – is similar to starting with pregens, building them and having them in mind – and for me I like to have a clear idea of not just my starting scene but also what my ending will look like – for a one-shot I think it’s important to end on a high, too.

There’s great advice about improvising NPCs, and adding more narrative stuff to play, that are particularly relevant to one-shot play – having a good hook to hang your NPC portrayal on, and allowing players to own some of their triumphs, is a great technique for a con game.

In short, I can’t really recommend this enough – and I’d urge you to try it out for whatever system or game you’re running. I’ve not really looked at the previous book (the Lazy Dungeon Master) – but I think it is distinct, and this review has made me dig it out and take a look – so I’d recommend much of his work.

Fighting Talk, Part Two – Dangerous Places

In the previous post, I talked about planning your battles in terms of the enemies you face. I’m going to talk about the setting of the battle now – both in terms of where it fits into your plot and the actual battlefield.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

I’m going to talk about three things you can mix up to make your fights more dynamic – objectives, terrain, and traps – and give some options you can pick from for each of these. In most cases, less is more – you don’t need more than one or two of these options in each fight to make it interesting, and too many will slow the fight down. In lots of cases, these will make it a more challenging fight for the PCs, too – so you might need to bear that in mind when planning your opposition.


Terrain (map from 2 Minute Tabletop) in full use in Vaesen

The default fight objective in TTRPGs can often be “kill all these monsters” – and while this is simple and has clear victory conditions, it’s not the most interesting in terms of interacting with your environment – optimal strategy is usually to just avoid dangerous areas of the map and engage you opponents as quickly as you can. Better to think about where the fight fits into the narrative of the game and pick from one of these for at least one of the fights in the session:

  • Escort an NPC to safety – you just need to get a trusted NPC across the map. Give them an action if you like, so they can draw trouble to the PCs by trying to ineffectively attack themselves.
  • Steal an item from an opponent. The caves may be crawling with goblins – but you just need to get the shaman’s headdress and get out again. If the players want to stealth through instead of fighting, I’d use a skill challenge.
  • Traverse the area – maybe all the PCs need to do is get across the map in one piece. Their opposition may be very numerous, but they don’t have to defeat them all.
  • Hold the line – the PCs need to defend a defensible position. Again, if there’s cover and support, they can survive a slightly tougher opposition. Of course, this can be inverted – have them assault a position themselves.

There are plenty more options – for more ideas, look to skirmish board/minis games scenarios, who are often really inventive with what the PCs have to do – and provide mechanical support which you can adapt for your game. Video games, too, often have interesting mission objectives you can use.


How many fights in TTRPGs basically take place in featureless arenas? Or, worse, neat dungeon corridors? Mix it up by including some terrain types, and either force or encourage the PCs to interact with them

  • Strew the battlefield with “difficult” terrain that hampers movement. If you have a possible path or clearing in it, this gives a place for the opposition to defend – and of course missile combat will be more effective in this fight if the PCs can’t engage enemies as quickly as before
  • Provide cover in open spaces, and have enemies use it. Once the PCs notice that the goblins are hiding behind the columns, they’re likely to start using them too.
  • Choke points – bridges over rivers or chasms, or routes through otherwise impassable terrain – allow a part of the battlefield to become more important, and give some level of tactics to the fight
  • Higher and lower ground. Put archers on the top of inaccessible columns, forcing the players to climb them or try and snipe them from below. Place the NPC that needs rescuing at the foot of a pit so they have to fight their way back out. Height advantage makes your battles more dynamic and interesting.

You can check your rules system of choice for rules for each of these – most trad TTRPGs betray their wargaming origins in covering this pretty well – but feel free to just busk them for the scenario. A simple bonus or penalty to attacks or defence can go a long way to providing flavour.


I’m not a huge fan of the isolated trap, the random pit in a dungeon that is either a slight inconvenience or an arbitrary fatality – but put those traps in a dynamic environment like a battlefield and I’m much more interested.

  • Pit traps can, of course, litter the floor – and the opposition will usually know where they are. Arrow tripwires, too, can be used – make sure you allow players a chance to survey the battlefield once one triggers (maybe a good use for a Perception check?) so they can discover them, rather than have them at the mercy of these with nothing they can do about them.
  • Random terrain elements that are active – maybe that pit of lava belches poisonous gas at the end of every round, or one of the columns collapses at random as the temple shakes itself apart. Again, offer clues as to what their nature is and allow PCs to mitigate their effects through careful play.
  • Man-made terrain and traps – trenches and other siege defences – show that the opposition have been planning for this.

Sources of Inspiration

I’ve talked already about using board games and video games as inspiration sources, but there are a few TTRPG products that add to this.

  • A lot of D&D4e scenarios have excellent battle design, as you’d expect for a game that put a lot of effort into making fights fun. Lots of these adapt well, but in particular Dungeon Delve – a series of mini-adventures for a range of levels – has lots that can be stolen and adapted
  • For a less map-driven example, the 13th Age Battle Scenes offer a similar set of mini-adventures based around (usually) three fights, designed to offer a dynamic challenge.
  • If you want some sci-fi examples, the Wrath and Glory adventures Bloody Gates and On The Wings of Valkyries offer examples of how a battlefield-based adventure can be run and made less map-reliant. Presenting a battle as a sequence of linked scenes is a great approach – see in particular how clearing the minefield is presented in Bloody Gates.
  • For another genre approach, the encounter building advice in Sentinel Comics Roleplaying Game is excellent – thinking in terms of environments, challenges, and opponents – most of whom are Minions or Lieutenants – gives some excellent advice for building dynamic encounters, some of which inspired these posts.

I’m sure I’ve missed some off – so let me know what else you’d say is good battle-building advice.