Best Ideas For Running A DND One-Shot

One-shots are a great way of introducing new players to Dungeons & Dragons or playing a quick game without requiring too much preparation. They can have great stories and fun combat elements in a short gaming session, making them an excellent choice for groups who can’t commit to a regular campaign.

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Many great one-shot adventures are published by Wizards of the Coast or other content creators on DMsGuild. But if you want to prepare a quick one-shot yourself, there are many themes and ideas that can be great for a D&D game.

Updated December 6, 2023, by Doruk Kaptan: Dungeons & Dragons, as fun as it is, can be a lot of work, especially for the DM. However, you can take a break, experiment, and see what the game has to offer that you otherwise may not see in action by organizing a one-shot. New and exciting ideas for an adventure that lasts one or two sessions are shared daily. After all, this is significantly less preparation for a similar or even elevated experience. Make sure to sprinkle a few one-shots as you’re playing a long campaign, too, as it can be such a breath of fresh air. Here are some examples to get the gears turning.

20 Mistaken For Heroes

You Just Have One Of Those Faces, You Suppose

DND Barbarian shirtless standing in a cloudy environment
Hill Giant Herdgorger by Chris Rahn

In this one-shot adventure, your players will take on the role of humble villagers who are more used to sticking to a local tavern for a few drinks rather than venturing out on epic adventures. But, when mistaken for a group of similar-looking high-level adventurers, your players are soon swept up in an epic quest that they are woefully underqualified for. They are not cut out for the enemies they are about to face and must get creative with their plans to save their tiny village. From battling giants to taking on an evil wizard, having low-level players fighting a mighty foe is an exciting concept.

Alternatively, your players could play as ordinary people from the real world, suddenly teleported into a fantasy realm with newfound class abilities. They must adapt to their new reality to find a way home. Although, perhaps by the end of the session, some of them will want to stay in Faerûn permanently. Who says a one-shot cannot evolve into a full campaign after all?

19 One Day Before Retirement

Your Party Is Getting Too Old For This

an old man thinks about something - NOT D&D
Art by TSRodriguez

In contrast to the previous one-shot idea, your players can instead play as high-level adventurers, perhaps a little past their prime. They are mere days from retirement when they are asked to head off one last time on a quick adventure to save the world. Typical hero shenanigans are to be expected, but there’s a reason the group was planning to retire. You can give them various debuffs and curses they have gathered over a long lifetime of adventuring that will mess with their abilities at unexpected moments during the adventure.

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They might struggle to recall important details. They might have sudden back pain in the middle of combat. The players can play as a group of grumpy, battle-weary heroes fed up with adventure. But will they all make it to retirement, or will this be one quest too many? This one-shot allows you to play with a high-level party without their mass of abilities, making it too easy for them to succeed.

18 Post-Apocalypse Survivors

Can’t Be A Winner All The Time

Dungeons And Dragons - Princes Of The Apocalypse Cover Art Of Winged Creatures Causing A Storm
Princes Of The Apocalypse By Raymond Swanland

Set in a devastating apocalypse after the end of a failed campaign, this One-shot idea explores the aftermath and how survivors can gather together to keep going. Your players are seeking a safe haven at the end of the world. Perhaps they have heard rumors of a place not too far from them. Maybe they are just trying to provide hope for the group they have vowed to keep safe. You can set up a mini road-trip-like adventure full of tense, brief encounters before concluding at the promised shelter. Will it be the safe haven they hoped for, or is it a trap?

A follow-up one-shot scenario could involve the same group of survivors attempting to secure their safe haven. It could be ambushed by the new overlords of this apocalyptic land, or perhaps an environmental threat, such as flooding, risks the safety of everyone inside. It is a race against time to keep the place secure from the looming threats beyond its walls.

17 The Suicide Squad

Bonus Points If Someone In The Party Is A Were-shark

A character breaks into a prison to speak to the prisoner
Prisoner 13 Prisoner Heist Scene Art By Katerina Ladon

The idea of a group of expendable prisoners being sent on a deadly mission is iconic for a reason. The archetype of a “Suicide Squad” is fun and not too sustainable, which makes it perfect for a one-shot. The premise is simple: all the characters are imprisoned and needed for a dangerous mission by the imprisoner.

This concept streamlines many of the more complex ideas of D&D. You don’t need a complicated backstory, a personal goal, a motivation, or even a morally good character to play. The players are simply trying to earn their freedom through this adventure that’s forced onto them. Make sure to let your players play as shady characters to maximize tension and enjoy the fireworks.

16 Battle Of The Bards

Lootin’ And Lutin’

a halfling plays a lute in a tavern
Bard Artwork via Wizards of the Coast

A giant festival is taking place where all the best bands have gathered to compete. Your players will be one of the bands competing, having to design their epic performances for the stage, perhaps using magic to make it a spectacle, too. Their performances in each round will be compared to the other bands and judged by a stern judging panel and the roaring crowd. The routines get increasingly dangerous each time, too, with the stage transforming around them. This one-shot can have a lot of variety, with social encounters, plenty of skill challenges, and perhaps even combat if the rival bands get rowdy.

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Although an all-Bard party could be exciting, it is not necessary. A Barbarian could take on the role of the band’s bodyguard. Their music manager could be a sneaky Rogue set on sabotaging the rival bands’ performances. This one-shot will likely be silly and over the top, exploring the behind-the-scenes and thrilling performances during the contest. With a few good dice rolls and a hell of a performance, perhaps your players will become the best band in all of Faerûn.

15 Playing Minions When The BBEG Is On Holiday

When The Dragon’s Away, The Kobolds Will Play

d&d goblins standing on a rocky cliff with weapons
Cragmaw Tribe Goblins via Wizards of the Coast

The big, bad, evil villain has decided to head off on a much-needed holiday to rest and recover after a humiliating defeat from an adventuring party. In their absence, who is left in charge of the evil lair? The minions, of course. In this wacky one-shot, your friends get to play as minions who must keep an elaborate lair clean and tidy until the villain returns. But what happens when there is an unexpected guest or a birthday party gets out of hand? The group must work together to handle a series of chaotic shenanigans before they face the wrath of their boss.

There are many possibilities for a D&D one-shot idea within this initial concept. The setting works perfectly with players who want to try out an evil character. But it is even better if they embrace the bumbling minion trope to add to the chaos. You could even play as low-level monsters, too. This one-shot works best as a mixture of horror and humor.

14 The BBEG Power Fantasy

Aren’t You Tired Of Being Nice All The Time?

Strahd von Zarovich, a vampire from the Ravenloft setting, holds a fist to his chest as he looks down.
Strahd von Zarovich via Wizards of the Coast

On the flip side of that, you can easily play as the big bad evil guys of the setting. Imagine several evil warlords, demigods, and powerful antagonists coming together to fight against those pesky, stubborn adventurers. This works great as a way to satisfy both the power itch and the evil itch that many players have.

You could even borrow the characters from existing lore. Imagine having your party consist of the likes of Strahd, Vecna, Xanathar, and the Demogorgon. This could lead to an all-out power struggle between the players, hilarious encounters with lower-ranking lieutenants, and a great foil in a party of NPC heroes.

13 A Time-Sensitive Curse

Go Ahead, Interact With That Npc For An Hour

mage shocks zombies with lightning on roof
D&D – Curse of Strahd DM Screen by Sidharth Chaturvedi 

Your party has annoyed the wrong person and has awoken to find themselves cursed the following day. This curse might manifest as difficult status conditions that worsen over time. Alternatively, it could be even stranger, such as causing constant wild magic surges or transforming the party into random creatures. No matter what you decide the curse should be, ensure it escalates with each passing hour. Your players now have a limited time to find the cure before they are overwhelmed by the curse.

This one-shot adds a sense of urgency, especially if you escalate the curse in real-time. They must find the person who cursed them and get it lifted, all in the space of one session. You can incorporate all sorts of surprises for your players and see how they act under pressure.

12 Visiting The Domains Of Dread

Come For The Adventure, Stay Because You Can’t Find Your Way Out

Ghosts stand around a young person, one of which holds them on a chain
art via Van Richtens Guide to Ravenloft

The Domains of Dread offers the perfect setting for a terrifying one-shot. You can use one of the various examples in Van Richten’s Guide To Ravenloft or craft your own sinister domain. A one-shot idea focused on the Domains of Dread typically begins with your players being engulfed by mists and find themselves in an isolated little world. There is no escape, not without defeating the domain’s Darklord. This Darklord could be an evil puppet, a leader of a pack of werewolves, or anything else you can think of.

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A Domain of Dread could be as big or as small as you like. It could even be a single room, but there is always a straightforward goal: escape and return to Faerûn, or whatever your custom setting is. This keeps the story simple for a one-shot and keeps the players from getting too off track, especially if you make the domain too dangerous to want to stick around in. You can keep players on their toes in Ravenloft by changing rules and adding all sorts of homebrew encounters for them to face.

11 The Arena

“Leave The Arena Now And Rest, You’ve Earned It”

Dungeons & Dragons artwork of the Yon Arena full of people watching a show
Yon By Julian Kok

This next one-shot idea is inspired by the Arena faction from The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. In this one-shot campaign, your players are gladiators in a local fighting arena and are keen to prove themselves as champions. The prize might be a large amount of gold, or perhaps they are fighting for their freedom. No matter the reason, they need to fight to survive. They might also earn new equipment between each round to help them specialize in various fighting styles.

This one-shot is designed to be combat-heavy, as your players get to use all of their skills to defeat their opponents. If you want to, this could even be a player-vs-player event to see a few high-level players go head-to-head. For those who want more than just combat, you can always turn the entire arena into a puzzle, with moving platforms and various areas to confuse and mess with the party.

10 Haunted House

You’re Not Along During Your Next Long Rest

D&D Van Richten's Guide To Ravenloft - Van Richten writing notes with a ghost behind him
D&D Van Richten’s Guide To Ravenloft – via Wizards of the Coast

Strange noises have been heard from one of the noble’s mansions, and no one has seen them out in town for over a month. The townsfolk are afraid to go inside and investigate. On the one hand, they fear getting caught breaking in if the family is still there. On the other hand, they are even more afraid of the voices they hear around the mansion at night. So, they ask a group of adventurers for their help.

Haunted Houses are a perfect setting for a DND one-shot. They can be filled with puzzles and traps, and so many DnD monsters, such as ghosts, willow wisps, wights, or other undead monsters, can inhabit these houses. Based on the difficulty of the puzzles and the challenge rating of the monsters you use, this one-shot can be suitable for any level. Make sure to sprinkle easter eggs relating to the backstory of the house and its previous inhabitants to make it feel eerie.

9 Night At The Museum

Roll A History Check

Dungeons And Dragons - Candlekeep Mysteries Cover Art of Adventurers Reading from a book in a old library
Candlekeep Mysteries Cover Art By Clint Cearley

A group of thieves targeted the Museum of Magical Creatures and Mysteries. The museum’s defenses were activated, but they got away. The museum’s curator, a wizard, puts up a bounty for anyone who can enter the museum, get past its defenses, and find any clues leading to the culprits.

Museums have a lot of potential for creating exciting and challenging dungeon crawls, yet they are underused in most D&D settings. In a world full of magic and mystical creatures, museums can be one of the most fascinating places to visit. A higher-level party would be more appropriate for this one-shot to reach its full potential.

8 Murder Mystery

Crime Is Harder To Solve When Magic Is Involved

D&D Candlekeep Mysteries artwork of a Beholder At A Party next to a bard
The Bard And The Beholder By Zuzanna Wuzyk

It’s a usual night of rabble-rousing, drinking, and singing in the tavern. Until suddenly, a strong wind blows out every light in the tavern, and impenetrable darkness fills the room. The barman starts lighting up the lanterns and torches again, and when the room is lit again, the lifeless and bleeding body of one of the patrons is left on the ground. One of the guards, spending the night in the tavern, locks the door until they can find out who the murderer is.

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Murder Mystery parties are classic role-playing games, and with a few adjustments, they can be turned into fun one-shot D&D ideas for 5E filled with social interactions, crime-solving, and even challenging combat when the murderer is revealed. Since the dungeon master can role-play NPCs, it’s not necessary for one of the players to be the murderer, and they can work together to solve the mystery. The killer can be anything from a regular person who fought with the victim to dangerous creatures disguised as humanoids with ulterior motives. Since most of the game revolves around role-playing, this setting would be perfect for low-level characters, even as low as level one.

7 Pirating Life

Be It The Open Sea Or The Astral Sea

Image showing a Hammerhead ship from D&D Spelljammer, with people milling around loading the ship.
Hammerhead Ship by Ralph Horsley.

Pirating over the seas can be a lot of fun in a D&D game. Still, most parties in typical campaigns are good characters, or even if they are evil, dedicating a whole campaign to pirating can get repetitive. But, for a one-shot, this setting can be the perfect opportunity for misdeeds, fun combat encounters, and much pirate talk. There are great homebrew sources online for handling ship battles, and epic and memorable fights can occur when boarding a ship. These cool one-shots would be most suitable for mid-level characters unless you want to throw more dangerous monsters like Krakens at your players.

With the official Spelljammer sourcebooks, you can set up some exciting one-session campaigns in space instead. Your players can become Spelljamming pirates, landing upon a new mysterious planet and seeking incredible loot and adventure, blurring the line between science fiction and fantasy in a memorable way. Be sure to have a few sea chanties ready to go, as it will immediately set the mood.

6 Heist

Just One More Job And You’re Set For Life

A group of adventurers flee a village during the night
Fleeing Escapess in the Night by Brian Valeza

The temple’s treasury is famous for holding wealth beyond imagination. Be it coins, gems, or powerful magical artifacts, a group of adventurers hears about this opportunity, and they devise a plan to find their way into the treasury and run away with everything they can get their hands on.

Planning heists can be very fun for a DND one-shot, and you can even print out a few maps and hand them out to your players and watch as they devise chaotic ways to get inside the target location. This type of one-shot would be best for a mid-level party, as pulling off a successful heist does require some powerful abilities. As the DM, you should be prepared for feats, spells, and abilities that might make some of the more mundane obstacles obsolete, though, and prepare accordingly.

5 Dragon’s Lair

A Horde Of Gold Awaits

D&D Fizban's Tresury Of Dragons Cover Art of a wizard casting a shield as two dragons fight above the party
Fizban’s Tresury Of Dragons Cover Art By Chris Rahn

A stranger comes up to the party and notifies them of an ancient dragon’s lair in the nearby mountain range. He promises to help them defeat the dragon but doesn’t want a share of the treasures. He just wants to clear out the lair. While mysterious, he seems honest enough, and the dragon’s treasure hoard is tempting enough for the adventurers to agree. After the dragon is defeated, the stranger reveals his true form as a dragon of another color. He tricked the party into taking back his lair from a rival dragon, and now that the party is bruised and spent, he tries to finish them off. The ensuing battle would be challenging and memorable.

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One of the most common complaints that DND players have is that they don’t face that many dragons in the game. Well, with this one-shot for a party of mid to high-level characters, your players won’t ask for more dragons for a while. Make sure to consider the dragons’ intellect, though, as they are supposed to be much more than beat sticks with complex desires and motivations.

4 Prison Break

“Hope Can Be A Dangerous Thing”

Prison of Revel's End Keys from the Golden Vault
D&D Prison of Revel’s End via Wizards of the Coast

A few adventurers have been jailed for their past crimes, but now they have decided to use their collective talents and break free. They must face guards and defenses set up in the prison empty-handed to reach their goal.

This setting’s benefit is that players must rely on their creativity to escape prison without their weapons and armor or material components for their spells. This one-shot would be perfect for low-level characters, but you can crank the difficulty higher by imprisoning them in more dangerous planes such as the Hells or the Abyss. This one-shot, in particular, also makes for a great jumping-off point for whole campaigns.

3 Fighting The Classic Villains

Get Ready, Tasha. We’re Coming For You

Out Of The Abyss Cover Art with a two headed Demogorgon
Out Of The Abyss By Tyler Jacobson

Many players have heard stories of fighting classic DND villains and demigods such as Tiamat, Vecna, Orchus, or Tarrasques, but they haven’t experienced these high-level fights themselves. So, preparing a one-shot for fighting these powerful villains is always a fun and popular option.

Players can create level 20 characters even, which they rarely experience in most campaigns. But even as powerful as most classes are at max level, facing these villains will surely be one of the most challenging DND fights they will experience. If you have an ongoing campaign, this could even serve the function of an epilogue, seeing the familiar heroes at their peak.

2 The Magical Carnival

Step Up, One And All, For An Unforgettable Show!

Bard in dramatic lightning in DND
Neverwinter Bard via Wizards of the Coast

A magical carnival of mysterious origin appears near the adventurers, and they’re promptly invited to join and uncover its mysteries. This is a concept so fun that even Baldur’s Gate 3 had a similar sequence included. This would entail several attractions and/or encounters that your party would face in the setting of a whimsical carnival or circus.

The great thing about this is that it can be splashed into almost any existing campaign and not feel out of place. Maybe it even fits into a larger narrative: the playground of a powerful wizard or villain. Regardless, a magical carnival provides a great change of pace into the more nonsensical and whimsical elements of D&D.

1 The Wrong Setting

You’re Not In Fantasy-Kansas Anymore

The Outer Worlds 2 on the Xbox Series X
The Outer Worlds 2 via Obsidian Entertainment

One of the best aspects of a one-shot is that you aren’t obligated to commit to it. It can simply be an off-shoot adventure to experiment. Thus, it could be endlessly fun to mix and match settings. What if your pulp fantasy adventurers find themselves in a gloomy steampunk setting? What if they end up in an advanced sci-fi world? The possibilities are endless.

The idea of a typical D&D party traveling the galaxy in a spacecraft is enough to imagine the ensuing hilarity. Sure, this would require some work on the DM’s part, as they’d have to reskin and adjust quite a bit to fit the rules, but it’s worth it. This multiversal adventure could even be an excellent way to experiment with different settings to see if you like them for a potential future campaign without too much of a time commitment.

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