Worldbuilding for One Shots

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One shot, or single session adventures, are a great way to play games at conventions or game stores, tell shorter stories, introduce a new player to RPGs, experience a new game system, and play games with friends you rarely get to play with. They are fun, fast, and lack the time commitment of a longer campaign but they’re not without their issues. It can be more difficult to get player buy-in during a one shot, since they know they won’t be playing in this world or with this character again anytime soon (and in many cases, ever). I’ve found myself, both as a player and game master, caring less about the story of a one shot because I won’t be investing as much time in it.

Fear not! We can get both the fast, furious fun of one shot games and the buy-in of a longer campaign. How? By doing some light worldbuilding and relationship building at the top of your game. Here’s how to do that if you’re running a single session adventure.

Three Things

If you’re running a one shot, first ask yourself, what are the three big things my players need to know about the story of the world? For instance, my world of Exploration Age has an incredibly detailed history filled with recently discovered continents, land grabs, mysterious organizations, religions, adventurers guilds, unique monsters, magic technology, and more. If I was running my free (shameless plug) adventure The Wererat Den, I COULD list all of that off to help build the world for the players, but that is way more than they need to know. It’s hard for me not to list it all, because I want to share my baby, but ultimately it is the story that pulls the players into the world, not your lecture about it. It’s a “show, don’t tell” scenario.

Limit yourself to those three things someone NEEDS to know to play the adventure. If only one or two are required, so much the better. For The Wererat Den, those three things are….

  1. Taliana is a country that is home to mainly elves and halflings. It is full of lush temperate forests and as such one of its main exports is lumber.
  2. The Brotherhood of the Moon is a terrorist organization of lycanthropes that wants to turn the entire population of Taliana into werewolves, wererats, wereboars, and more. They believe lycanthropes are superior to other humanoids and that non-lycanthrope humanoids should evolve or die. (Think Brotherhood of Evil Mutants but werefolk instead.)
  3. People in Taliana travel on magic roads (called swifty roads) that connect to magic wagon wheels (called swifty wheels) and horseshoes (call swifty horseshoes) that speed up travel. Still the journey between cities can be long, so there are inns along each long stretch of road for people to stop when traveling from city to city.

Ask Questions

A great way to build the world during a one shot is to get players involved. Jot down their responses so you can pull in details they created later to make the world more meaningful to them (more on that below). A player is less likely to forget a detail they create. There’s three kinds of questions to ask.

  1. Introductory Questions. At the start of a one shot, allow each player to go around and introduce their character. Consider doing this Dusk City Outlaws style, which involves a quick action montage where we see what each character is doing when the story first focuses on them (like the opening credits of an ensemble heist movie). As each player describes their character, make note of any significant details (such as mentions of a specific scar, fancy sword, organization they belong to, person hunting them, important relationship, etc.) and when the description is done ask one lead question about an important detail and note the response. These questions should be phrased in a way that help you build your world such as, “In what town did you meet your spouse and do they still live there?” or “Who gave you your sword and what makes it more special than others?” or “Tell me about a time the person hunting you caught up to you. Where was it and how did you get away?”
  2. Follow Up Introductory Relationship Questions. Once each character has been introduced, ask the players to form relationships among their characters. This brings them together in a meaningful way, and puts the onus on them to bring the party together (instead of you spending time trying to convince the druid who just wants to be a tree to join the party… but that’s another blog post). The questions you ask should form meaningful relationships between the player characters and build the world. Here are some examples:
    • Tell me how and when the player to your left’s character saved your life.
    • The two of you are strangers from the same far off place. Why have you traveled so far from home together?
    • It’s odd to see a dragonborn, an elf, and a tiefling raised together as foster children. Who were your parents and what did your community think of you growing up?
    • Dariac the Bloody is hunting you. How and where did Shelby’s character save you from him once? (This one ties in responses to the first type of question.)
  3. Questions During Play. As you play, ask follow-up questions that help create the world. “Where did you get that set of thieves’ tools?” “The bartender is someone you met long ago in another place. Who is it?” “The villain is running to the temple of an evil god. What is this god’s name and what evil act are they the patron of?” Write down these responses as well. Give your players as much control over the story as you and they are comfortable with and be sure to ask different players these questions directly so one more dominant personality doesn’t have all the fun.
Working in Responses

Working in the responses to a question during a one shot is easier than you think. You may not work in the answer to every single question, and that’s ok. Work in as much as you feel comfortable doing. For instance, maybe the main villain’s henchman can be the same person with whom one of the characters has a score to settle. The inn where the characters get a job is owned by one of their relatives. The magic sword in the dragon’s hoard once belonged to a character’s parent. Change what you can in the adventure to make it more meaningful to the story the players are telling you they want to experience so their characters become a bigger part of that story. You’ll get great emotional investment in return.

More at the End

If you’ve got some time after you run your one shot, go ahead and expand on the world. For instance, I might say “Hey if you liked The Wererat Den, Exploration Age is a big, ol’ world with tons to offer. Jungle ruins, unexplored wilderness, warring factions, secret guilds, moral quandaries, and a lot more. Do you have any questions or thoughts about it?” Let the conversation flow naturally if your players are interested. You never know… you might end up with a new campaign in the world you’ve created together!

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