D&D 5E Planning Out an Improvised One-Shot for Tonight!


He / Him
Most of the players can't make it to the game tonight, so I offered to run a one-shot for the one remaining player and the DM. Rather than plan out something in advance, or use a published adventure, I'm going to improvise the game tonight. BUT I'm going to create a structure in advance to help my improvised game!

I'm going to be using my Dragon's Hoard System that I detailed in this thread here.

I've got this structure written down in my notebook. Once I've established who the characters are, I will take a few minutes to jot down loose ideas. I'm planning out three scenes, knowing I might just get to two of them. Each scene might be a social, exploration, or combat scenario, depending on how the characters approach it. The goal tonight is to create a satisfying narrative with a definitive ending.

Right now I'm just planning the structure, but I will update this after the adventure to let you know how it went!

One-Shot Adventure

Hoard Icon (1).png
Dragon's Hoard: What is the goal of the adventure, or the win condition?


Dragon Icon.png
Dragon: What is preventing the characters from achieving their goal?


Cave Icon.png
Cave: Where do the characters need to be in order to achieve their goal?


Sword Icon.png
Sword: What object or information do the characters need to access the Cave, defeat the Dragon, or find the Hoard?


Old Man Icon.png
Old Man in the Tavern: Who or what is the source of information that launches the adventure?


Once I've written down an idea for each of those, I will then translate it into a loose three-act structure, with a brief phrase idea for how it could play out as a Social, Exploration, or Combat scenario. For example, if the characters need to get a magic axe from an ogre, it could lead to Tricking the Ogre (social), Sneaking Past the Ogre (exploration), or Fighting the Ogre (combat). I don't need to plan much more than that, because I can just follow the lead of the players.

For each scene though, I want a brief plan of what will happen if they succeed, and what will happen if they fail. Since this is a one-shot, I want to focus on failing forward. So in the above scenario, success means they get the magic axe. Failure might mean they get the magic axe, but it's broken and will shatter after its first use!

Scene 1



Scene 2



Scene 3



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He / Him
Since there will only be two players in the game tonight, and I don't want to play out a TPK, I'm going to use the following House Rules:

1) Injuries instead of Unconscious

When a character reaches 0 Hit Points, rather than falling Unconscious they will make a Death Saving Throw. If they succeed, they remain at 0 Hit Points. If they fail, they remain at 0 Hit Points and take on an Injury (modified from the DMG list). Each time they take damage at 0 Hit Points, they must make another Death Saving Throw or take on a second injury. Rolling a natural 20 on a Death Saving Throw heals the character 1 Hit Point.

Lingering Injuries
1Lose an EyeYou have disadvantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight. If you have already lost an eye, you are permanently blinded.
2Lose an Arm or HandYou can no longer hold anything with two hands, and you can only hold a single object at a time.
3Lose a Foot or LegYour speed on foot in halved, and you must use a cane, crutch, or prosthetic leg. You fall prone after using the Dash action. You have disadvantage on ability checks made to balance.
4LimpYour speed on foot is reduced by 5 feet. You must make a DC 10 Dexterity Saving Throw after using the Dash Action, or fall prone.
5-7Internal InjuryWhenever you take an action and move in a round of combat, you must make a DC 15 Constitution Saving Throw or lose hit points equal to your Proficiency Bonus.
8 - 10Broken RibWhenever you take an action and move in a round of combat, you must make a DC 10 Constitution Saving Throw or lose hit points equal to your Proficiency Bonus.
11 - 13Horrible ScarYou are disfigured to the extent that the wound can’t be easily concealed. When interacting with creatures who can see you, you have disadvantage on Charisma (Persuasion) checks and advantage on Charisma (Intimidation) checks.
14 - 16Festering WoundYour Hit Point Maximum is reduced by a number equal to your Proficiency Bonus.
17 - 19Minor ScarThe scar doesn’t have any adverse effects, but is a good excuse to tell a story.
20Roll Twice-

2) Heroic Resting

Short Rests will take 10 Minutes. Long Rests will take 1 Hour.


I'm not sure any other house rules are needed!


He / Him
Here's my reflection from last night's game:

Characters: We wound up doing a "backstory adventure" about one of the characters, a Sea Witchy Half-Orc Druid named Typha. The other player (usually the DM in our current campaign) rolled up a Half-Elf Wizard named Nightrose. I asked some questions and based on the players' answers, I wrote down the following:
  • Typha used to live on an isolated island with dangerous plants and animals
  • Nightrose could be sent by an NPC from the current campaign to get something from Typha
  • Typha would prefer to trick the NPC rather than give something of real power
  • Nightrose came from a noble family, but rejected her heritage
Based on that information, I set out the following elements:

Dragon's Hoard: A magic spring that can provide either blessed or cursed water

Dragon: Angry beasts being hunted by members of Nighrose's family

Cave: A crater at the top of the mountain at the center of the island

Sword: A dangerous hike up the mountain

Old Man in the Tavern: A nature spirit being communed with in a ritual

With those elements written out, I set out my three scenes, with quick ideas about how they could be Social, Exploration, or Combat encounters:

Scene 1: Communion with Nature Spirit

Social: negotiate a price
Exploration: rid elemental of pollution
Combat: fight elemental

Success: told which path to the crater is safe
Failure: told to take a more dangerous path (poison plants?)

Scene 2: Journey Up the Mountain

Social: encounter royal hunters
Exploration: sneak by royal hunters being stalked by awakened tree
Combat: fight royal hunters, angry elementals?

Success: reach crater unharmed
Failure: reach crater with exhaustion

Scene 3: Forbidden Spring with Angry Animal Spirits

Social: soothe angry spirits
Exploration: sneak past or cure angry spirits
Combat: fight angry spirits

Success: get water, choose Blessed or Cursed
Failure: get water, Random if Blessed or Cursed

Overall this took me about five minutes to write down, knowing that I probably wasn't going to stick exactly to this plan. The adventure did variate in really satisfying ways! In my next post I'll write out what actually happened.


He / Him
We started off with the characters having summoned a water weird at the shore, hoping to find safe passage to the Forbidden Spring. I randomly found stats for a "Polluted Water Weird" so I decided to lean into this.

The Water Weird had been polluted by technology brought by a naval party sent by Nightrose's royal family. During the conversation, it was revealed that somehow these invaders were hidden from the spirits of the island.

The characters started to try to cure the water weird of its pollution, so I ran the scene as an Exploration Encounter, focusing on skills, tools, and magic. They ultimately failed, which meant they would have a dangerous journey ahead!

The characters decided to investigate these invaders which were on the other side of the island. With a natural 20 on a survival check, Typha knew of a shortcut, a gully that would be dry in this season.

Because the characters had failed to cure the Water Weird, I had them encounter poisonous plants during the journey. Nightrose collected some of the plants, which would play into a future scene!

The characters found a Lieutenant leading a Gnomish Screamer (a Duergar Screamer, but with a gnome who is still alive) up the mountain, cutting a swath through the forest to reach the Forbidden Spring. Nightrose recognized the Lieutenant, and in their conversation the Lieutenant attempted to poison Nightrose. She turned the tables and used the poisonous plants she had collected to poison the Lieutenant!

It was revealed that Nightrose's younger sister had sent the naval fleet to collect water from the Forbidden Spring so she could curse her family and take over the noble house.

It felt about time for a fight, so I had the poisoned Lieutenant command the Screamer to attack! We had a great little combat with the characters running through the gulch and trees, avoiding the Screamer's buzzsaw and launching spells.

With both enemies defeated, the characters saw an encampment of elves on the shore below, and a battleship in the water. They knew smoke from the exploded Screamer would draw scouts, so they decided to set a trap.

So far the adventure had been following my plan pretty well, but I could tell there was going to be a pivot ahead. I pulled a classic DM move and called for a bathroom break so I could think through the ending of the adventure.

The characters set a trap using Spike Growth, and found out from the captured scouts that their commander had a Gnomish device that kept the naval camp obscured from the island spirits. The characters "convinced" the scouts to bring them back as false prisoners so they could destroy the device.

In the commander's tent, the characters found the device. Whereas the Lieutenant had been wheedling and power hungry, I had the Commander be intelligent and aloof, working with the self knowledge that she was just a cog in the machine of the nobility. I felt this would be a good way to push the scene towards a Social Encounter.

The characters negotiated and agreed to bring the Commander water from the spring if the elves disabled the cloaking device and retreated to their ship.

In front of the elves, Typha summoned back the Water Weird and asked for access to the Spring. With the device disabled, the Water Weird's mind was clearer, and it opened a safe path. It also taught the two characters an intricate ritual to draw the water from the spring, and either Bless it or Curse it.

At the Forbidden Spring, the characters rolled very poorly on their Ability Checks to enact the ritual! They still drew water from the spring, but it would be randomly decided if they had blessed or cursed water.

We rolled to find the results. The royal navy sailed away with blessed water (though not very powerful). Nightrose returned to her employer with powerfully cursed water. This NPC (Gundran Rockseeker from Lost Mines of Phandelver) launched our campaign, so we decided the curse from the Forbidden Spring led to his capture!

All in all it was a very fun and satisfying evening. I had a great time using my DMing muscles again, and the Dragon's Hoard planning sheet definitely helped me create a solid improvised adventure.

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