I've been looking forward to talking about Swords of the Serpentine for a very long time. It's on pre-order now; I participated in the playtest and have the Adventurer's Edition; I really want to see the final version.
I thought I'd talk about one-shot design this time out and use Swords as an example.
A One-Shot is a simple adventure that theoretically can be slotted into any campaign or played as a one-off with disposable characters. It has no significance in a campaign's ongoing plot but can be modified to fit. An ideal one-off is short and simple enough to be played in one session of about 4 hours, more or less. Often the point of a one-off is to teach new players the rules, but it could as easily be used as a filler or special occasion scenario. In Night's Black Agents, The Van Helsing Letter is a one-off.
Serpentine's Main Rules talk about one-shot construction and offers considerable advice, including:
- Strong Premise: Pick an exciting and adventurous plot hook for the adventure.
- Start with Action: Starting with a short action sequence immediately helps new players focus, and teaches them combat rules in just a few moments.
- Clear Goals: Give the Heroes specific goals for the adventure. Whether that’s “find the idol,” “blackmail the noble,” “uncover the Sorcerer,” or “rob the treasury,” starting with a clear goal gives a one-shot momentum.
So what makes a premise strong? A premise is strong when it compels action. A knock on the door compels action, a gunshot is more compelling, and the building you're in going up in a blazing inferno is more compelling still. The premise has to make the players want to get up and do something immediately, because that thing, whatever it may be, is important enough to grab their attention and get them moving.
The old first edition DMG said something about loot that's relevant here:
While it is possible to reduce treasure in these areas to some extent so as to prolong the period of lower costs, what kind of dragon hoard, for example, doesn't have gold and gems? It is simply more heroic for players to have their characters swaggering around with pouches full of gems and tossing out gold pieces than it is for them to have coppers. Heroic fantasy is made of fortunes and king's ransoms in loot gained most cleverly and bravely and lost in a twinkling by various means - thievery, gambling, debauchery, gift-giving, bribes, and so forth. The reality AD&D seeks to create through role-playing is that of the mythical heroes such as Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Kothar, Elric and their ilk. When treasure is spoken of, it is more stirring when participants know it to be TREASURE!
You should apply the same philosophy to your Premise. It's got to be Big. It's got to be Four-Color. This is swords and sorcery, after all. If ever there was a genre where everything is larger than life, it's this one.
Whichever Goal your characters are trying to achieve, it ought to be no more than once sentence long. Devoting paragraphs to backstory and intricate diplomacy is not encouraged. Find the idol is great. Twenty paragraphs describing the idol, those who've sought it over the years, why it's important to an obscure sect of Outlander sorcerers and so on is an appalling waste of time and effort.
Finally, a one-shot needs only one major adversary, and at most one minor adversary. This isn't the time for complicating the narrative with side-plots. The minor adversary doesn't have to be daggers drawn with the characters; it could be a rival, or some troublesome incorruptible City Watchman. This character is there to be the irritant, the foil. not the nemesis. The Villain, on the other hand, is there to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and as bubblegum hasn't been invented yet he's a bit of a monomaniac.
Incidentally for those GMs looking for Serpentine setting-specific NPC naming conventions, I recommend this resource.
With all that in mind:
Premise: a Giant Scorpion brought into Eversink to guard sorcerer Tranquilo's tower escaped and is living somewhere in the Tangle, the poorest part of the Goddess Denari's eternal city. Rumor has it that when the scorpion did a bunk it carried off Tranquilo and the wizard's famous Grimoire, and there are plenty of would-be sorcerers who'd pay good money for that book. Besides, Tranquilo won't need it any more ...
Complication: a barbarian, Bloody-Ax Kang, is also after the scorpion, to prove his power and to make a trophy shield out of its carapace. Kang isn't much of a reader and will probably destroy the Grimoire if he finds it first.
Goal: Recover the Grimoire.
Complication to be uncovered during play: the Scorpion's pregnant, which is why it ran off; it wants somewhere peaceful to give birth and raise its brood. It's carrying a number of juveniles on its back right now, some of which might be old enough to wander around on their own.
From wikipedia: The size of a brood varies by species, from three to over 100. Before giving birth, the female elevates the front of her body and positions her pedipalps and front legs under her to catch the young. The young emerge one by one from the genital opercula, expel the embryonic membrane, if any, and are placed on the mother's back where they remain until they have gone though at least one molt. The period before the first molt is called the pro-juvenile stage; the young are unable to feed or sting, but have suckers on their tarsi, used to hold on to their mother. This period lasts 5 to 25 days, depending on the species.
Secondary Goal to be uncovered during play: kill or otherwise deal with the Scorpion's brood, before they grow and become a real threat to the Tangle.
Start with Action: the characters hear screams and see something large and black scuttling over the highest points of the Tangle. Chase scene! Bloody-Ax also saw the whatever-it-was and is in hot pursuit.
Ultimate Location? Well, that's up to the Game Master. I see it as some tumbledown slum near the Hospital (and all those tasty sick citizens) but the Tangle's a big place. She could be anywhere ...