The First Two Pillars in One-Shot Design – Combat and Roleplaying

In the DMG, D&D talks about the three pillars of D&D play as combat, roleplaying and exploration. While this is a generic way to look at play (and I think the first two are probably better defined in the collective mind than the third), it’s a useful check to see if your one-shot adventure has balance. I’m going to look at each one in turn, and how you can tweak your one-shot if you think it’s missing one or more of them.

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This should be easy, right? Well, I think good combat in one-shots is tricky – that’s why I wrote about it here and here. I would say that, while it’s great to be able to circumvent combat challenges, if I’m playing an action-oriented one-shot system, I want at least one challenging combat in a one-shot that can’t be avoided. At least one of the pregens is likely to shine in combat, and missing it out is sub-optimal. And maybe even in less combaty systems – I’m sure a lot of Call of Cthulhu one-shots could be improved by a tussle with some cultists somewhere along the way.

Saying “a challenging combat” means different things in different systems, but I think it’s as much about fight duration as actual peril. A fight of around 3 full rounds (of everyone taking a turn) is about the optimum I reckon – and I’m sure there’s some maths people can do for individual systems to make this work. For D&D and similar systems with a ‘balance’ system, it’s probably around at least the “Hard” mark of wherever you balance encounters; although in Feng Shui and Conan 2d20, just use the guidance they supply, they already balance combat well for one-shots.

Don’t have enough combat in your one-shot? Bandits, gangsters or men with guns should be easy to add – if you’re not sure about timings put them in at the start and give them clues to lead to the next scene – just don’t add them for the sake of it, link them to the plot.


Easy to miss, and easy to fix. A good rule of thumb is around 3 NPCs that the players could meaningfully interact with, and who have relevance to their mission. They might not spend lots of time with all three, but it gives them some options as to how to relate to the NPCs. Ideally they’ve got some link to at least one of the pregens – even if they’re both high elves – and to make them shine, give them some contrasting wants and needs. This doesn’t have to be massively complex or dramatic, just enough for them to need to rub up against the plot to achieve these goals.

For example, the tramp merchant wants rid of the pirates plaguing his shipping lines, but he also needs to keep costs down super-low. The princess-to-be wants her prince rescuing, but also wants a more exciting suitor. The crime boss wants his rival offed, but needs everyone to think he did it himself. All of these, even if only tangential to the plot, offer a meaningful interaction where both outcomes are interesting.

To make them pop at the table, give each of these three a schtick to use at the table – rubbing their eyes, a facial mannerism, an accent even if you’ve got the chops for it. For a con one-shot, don’t worry about this being a bit corny – broad brush strokes work best. Both “Basil Brush” and “Terry Jones playing a woman” voices have done me proud over my years of convention GMing!

Don’t have enough roleplaying in your one-shot? Stick in a neutral, or even a friendy NPC, and give them some conflicting motivations to get in the way and rub against the PCs.


Now, this is trickier. You see, I’m not sure if even D&D is clear on what makes exploration fun – which is why this will be continued next week!


  1. Another thought provoking piece, Guy.
    I’m looking forward to your next post, mainly because I feel that D&D does nothing to make exploration an enjoyable and rewarding experience in its own right.



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