A common problem with a group of D&D players is that it’s difficult to find the time. It’s especially difficult for a Dungeon Master (DM) to find the time to plan. That’s where the DnD one-shot comes in. It’s a beautiful thing for so many groups who can barely eek out some time and just want something that scratches that itch for one night. But just like it can be difficult to plan a long, sprawling campaign, coming up with (free) D&D one-shot ideas isn’t always that easy. So some ideas and tips for DnD one-shots, collected all in one place, seems like something that would be helpful to many seeking such a thing.
What is a D&D one-shot adventure? It’s an adventure that is meant to be completed in one session of the people playing. It is self-contained, though many are used as a side quest or the beginning of a longer campaign. It is meant to be done with minimal planning, though many of them would be better if the DM at least read through the adventure and basic information and stats beforehand. DnD one-shots usually exist on just 3-6 pages of description which often include perhaps a few maps and some monster and NPC stats. It will likely include pre-made characters for everyone to choose from. It will likely describe the setup (oftentimes it is simple, and possibly can be added to an existing campaign), and will likely include one major encounter and a few locations, obstacles, and minor encounters leading up to the main encounter. That’s a D&D one-shot.
So here we have it. I’ve subscribed to numerous sites, subreddits, and newsletters, and I’ve had to throw together my own DnD one-shot from time to time. But I’ve never sat down to compile a solid list of ideas and tips for doing such a thing. So here it is, compiled from a host of places and advice from fellow D&D players and DMs. And all of the ones I am listing are FREE. Here… we… go!
List of Free D&D One Shot Ideas
The Delian Tomb
Described as a First Level Adventure for First Time Players, this one comes from Matt Colvilles. It includes Bugbears, Goblins, Skeletons, and all the fun stuff that is iconic with dungeon crawling DnD campaigns. It also includes many of the other typical things, such as a tavern to start out in, pressure plate traps, and magic items.
Wild Sheep Chase
Described as a 4th/5th level adventure for 5e players, this is a fun one from Winghorn Press. And yes, it involves lots of sheep, shepherds, and BAAAd news. Many of these are D&D one shots for beginners, kids, and teenagers to get them interested in D&D adventuring. This is a good example of one such DnD one-shot for just such a thing.
The Cold Bounty
Described as a free D&D one shot 5e adventure suitable for 4-6 2nd level characters, The Cold Bounty is set in the cold mountain range of Zark, but as stated it can easily be translated to any icy kingdom of the DM’s preference. It includes collecting a bounty for a beast called FAT FARLSBAG, along with Yetis, Hobgoblins, and all kinds of goodies. You can find this and many others at 1shotadventures.com
From Lightheart Adventures, this free DnD one shot adventure is described as a trek through crystalline caverns fraught with danger and an encounter with a crystal elemental, best suited for adventurers Level 4-5.
Oceans of Greed
From MonkeyDM, this free D&D one shot idea is described as a 5e seafaring adventure designed for 4-6 Level 8 characters. It’s filled with mini-games to give the impression of boarding a high seas casino. It is also full of unique monsters, such as a golden golem and something called a “Hunk”… interesting!
Race to the Ruins
As far as free D&D one shot ideas, this is another option that is set in a Wildlands setting, intended for 3-6 players. Race to the Ruins, an introduction to the Anhult Wildlands by George Sanders, includes a competing party and several possible adventure hooks that can help you to customize your group from the start.
An Omen in the Stars
This free D&D one shot idea is specifically for Sandy Petersen’s Cthulhu Mythos for 5e, but ultimately can be used as a standalone one-shot idea for many purposes. It is intended for a party of four 1st-2nd Level characters, with several pre-generated characters provided in the appendix. Her is the setup:
Three nights ago, a burst of light erupted in the sky over Ashlund’s Folly observatory. Since then, no one has seen or heard from old Ashlund, the caretaker. What transpired at the observatory that night and what became of Ashlund? The characters climb the Slopes of Kaza to discover the answers, only to confront enemies they never knew existed and face alien creatures from beyond the stars.
Ice Road Trackers
This D&D one shot idea is technically the 1st part of a 4-part adventure, but many may still find plenty to enjoy just with the first part. Of course, you can purchase the rest, or like I sometimes do, make some modifications that may turn it into something slightly different and shorter than the full campaign that is intended. In the case of Ice Road Trackers, you are on a trek toward Icewind Dale, when the venture turns deadly. An avalanche blocks the passage of the adventurers through the Spine of the World. And that’s only the beginning.
The Gribbits Detective Agency
Designed for 1st Level characters, this D&D one shot idea is something that many people crave, and that is a good mystery in their D&D one shot. It still involves a lot of the fantastical fun of other one-shots on this list, but it gets away from a simple hack-and-slash and presents the mystery of missing Janos Meer, the powerful underworld figure known as the Beggar King. That’s a fun setup!
D&D Halloween One Shots
Night of the Living Dead
From Kahul using Homebrewery, this zombie-based free Halloween D&D one shot idea is described as a short adventure for four Level 1 characters, or any party of roughly equivalent strength. It’s specifically described as a D&D one shot for beginners, both DM and players, so it’s a great starter for many interested for some Halloween or spooky fun but perhaps are still new to RPGs (or just want something simple). Not to spoil it too much, but look at the title… they are going to encounter some undead on this caper. Sounds gnarly!
The Eldrich Farm
This one I found on reddit I personally modified and used myself for my usual D&D group. Zombie farm animals, that’s just good fun! My major modification was that I wanted them to encounter a zombie Cockatrice (keeping with the farm animal theme), so I allowed my group of 4 to play as 9th Level characters, as well as made a mechanism so that they weren’t expected to actually defeat the Cockatrice, just survive it for a period of time. A Cockatrice, like a dragon, is way too much to handle for a D&D one shot unless you have some way for them to escape without defeating it. It worked out really well, though we didn’t finish until about 2AM.
The Mound in the Yard
Described as a slasher (but don’t tell adventurers beforehand that is what it is!), this free Halloween D&D one shot idea includes 6 pre-generated characters so GMs can get started right away. It isn’t exactly D&D in that it isn’t fantasy, but it would be easy to add a few minor adjustments. Ultimately the “slasher” genre has a lot of tropes that he goes into detail here. The key is to stick with the advice and the tropes that are suggested, just tweak around the edges a little if you want to modify it a bit to fit your group or have it be a little more D&D-like. Although it’s in rural-Tennessee, if you wanted it to be somewhere Tennessee-like, it wouldn’t take much to get there.
Those the Comet Brings
As described here, Dead Light is considered one of the most quintessential DnD Halloween adventures, specifically from Call of Cthulhu. It is short, but it isn’t free. And I want this to be a list of free D&D one shot ideas, so here is a great alternative. Here is the setup: “The characters are (mostly) teenagers heading to the Jersey Shore for some sun, waves, and beer. Suddenly, strange radiation brings their car to a halt in the Pine Barrens… and they stumble on to a horrible scene involving dead bodies, a mysterious meteor, and dangerous creatures from another star.” I’m in!
The Haunting of Chesterfield
Speaking of. This is a Lovecraftian, Call of Cthulhu-style adventure. It is intended for 3-6 Level 3 players in a one-shot setting. As described, the story itself is one that borrows from Lovecraftian themes as a small town stumbles upon a mysterious artifact that has fallen from the great beyond, warping the minds of those that call Chesterfield home. With lots of great details and a fun hook, this is one of several free Halloween D&D one shot ideas here that is perfect for many looking for that H.P. Lovecraft vibe.
The Haunted Cornfield
Ah, cornfields and scarecrows. That’s Halloween, baby! This haunted one-shot is set in Barovia, a grim burgh found in Curse of Strahd, and can be run as a one-shot for a party of 1st Level adventurers. The description is less extensive than some others on this list, but for some looking to fill in the gaps with their own details, it could work well.
The Banderhobb Coven
This one shot is intended for 5th Level characters. The setup involves a coven of sea hags (which the adventurers won’t know at the beginning). It’s a nice mix of seafaring adventure and horror, with some nice details and gruesome characters.
This is an optional mini-adventure as part of Curse of Strahd, which is a good example of something that can be adapted into a one-shot. It’s designed for Level 1 characters to advance them to Level 3, which can be helpful to know if you want to play on, while intending for it to be a one-shot may mean that isn’t a major concern. It involves creepy children, a creepy house, mist, dungeons and crypts, and all kinds of classic Halloween stuff. Awesome!
Tips for Running a One Shot DnD Campaign
Here are a few tips for running a successful one-shot D&D campaign:
- Have a clear goal in mind: One-shot campaigns are shorter and more focused than full-length campaigns, so it’s important to have a clear goal or objective for the players to accomplish. This will help keep the game focused and give the players a sense of direction.
- Start with a hook: Introduce the players to the setting and story with an interesting hook or premise. You’ll notice that many of the one shot DnD ideas on this list just go ahead and outline “the hook” in the description. A hook will help draw them into the game and give them a reason to care about what’s happening.
- Keep it simple: One-shot campaigns don’t have a lot of time for complex character development or intricate plotlines. Keep things simple and focus on the action and adventure.
- Be flexible: Things don’t always go as planned in D&D, so be prepared to adapt and change course if necessary. This is always the case with D&D, but it’s even more important with one-shot sessions because you don’t have much time to get everyone on-track again.
- Encourage role-playing: One-shot campaigns are a great opportunity for players to try out different character roles and personalities. Encourage them to get into character and have fun with it.
- End with a bang: Make the ending memorable and satisfying. A strong finish can help make the entire game feel more impactful and rewarding.