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I'm planning to run a few one-off adventures in D&D 4 for my group. They just don't have the time or energy for an ongoing adventure. We've done this a couple of times over the last few years to introduce new systems (dnd 3.0 and 4.0) and it's taken a ton of time (much more prep than play) to create the characters and scenario for this kind of thing.

What can I do to prepare an interesting and fun one-off adventure faster/easier but provide characters the players will enjoy?

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I've One-upped all of the answers that are already here.

You have two issues, how to create an adventure quickly, and how to keep the workload down.

Pregenerated characters are a good idea.. BUT you may want to get the PCs to build them just to save your own workload. To compromise- give the PCs some guidelines: "you are all playing dwarves" or "Arcane power source only" or "Just Essentials PCs" is a good way to get everything focused from the start. You might say "two of you are strikers, one of you is a leader, and one of you is a defender. Your choice which is which. This guidenace gets the players started about what kind of character they should make if you decide to go that way.

Both the Delves, and the Encounter group type deals are also good calls. If you have access to the Adventure Builder/DDI, it's also pretty easy to shoot out some printouts of monster blocks and recombine them into encounters according to the formula that an encounter budget is equal to

PC-level level in monster XP (1st level =100xp etc) * number of PCs 
+/- Give or take a few levels of bump.

So if you print out a single kobold slinger, kobold dragonshield, kobold miner (minion) and kobold wyrmpriest- you can turn that into 4 (or 40) different encounters just by altering the mixup.

This is a standard Dungeoneering Adventure Plan. There's nothing amazing about this, but it does work, especially and as long as you remember that the "story" is what players and their characters do, not anything you plan for.

  1. Grab a big stack of dungeon tiles or just creative with a battlemap and markers.

  2. Improvise a reason for adventurers to take on a monster-lair. Even just "there's treasure there" or "they are kidnapping people.."

  3. As the players explore- describe, improvise the lair room by room. It could be 3 rooms or 30 or 300. But there are only 2-4 encounters you need to run. Be sure to improvise terrain and atmosphere! You might even draw dungeon tiles randomly from a deck.

  4. Whenever you get to an encounter, drop in an improvised mix of the monsters you chose that somehow approximates the encounter formula. Be sure to improvise terrain and atmosphere again!

  5. Plan 3 or 4 treasure drops. Some of the treasure might be unguarded, trapped, hidden, or inaccessible (for example, a ring at the bottom of a deep well, or a chest behind a closed porticullis gate).

  6. Consider putting at least one skill challenge (perhaps a complicated puzzle or trap) and at least one NPC encounter (in a dungeon perhaps this could be an encounter with prisoners, a ghost, a fellow adventurer, a crazy outcast kobold..or anything else).

No story planned, improvise everything. Let the PCs explore the characters, and do whatever they like. Go with the flow, play off what the PCs do.

Example of an Improv 4e Adventure:

If you have 4 level 1 characters, that's about 400xp to work with.

  • early in the adventure you might use 2 dragonshields (thats 250xp) and 2 slingers (200xp) that have set themselves up with some barricades and such. Guards.

  • Later on, after exploring several rooms, the kobolds ambush from a room with overhanging ledges. Use 2 more slingers, a wyrmpriest and 4 minions.

  • Later on the PCs encounter a group of enslaved miners, whom they rescue. And the miners tell the PCs about a dragon-idol the kobolds are forcing them to excavate. Roleplay roleplay. Invent NPCs. Do it on the spot if necessary.

  • Later on the PCs might come across the dragon idol itself, which is magically unstable, intelligent and able to collapse part of the caverns unless the pCs intervene via religion, history, arcana, and theivery- to calm it/remove it's magical residuum core.etc. Skill challenge.

  • Improvise some tracks or trails that lead through the kobold warrens to a final lair.

  • Wrap up the final encounter with a wyrmpriest, a dragonshield and 10 minions and the rest of the treasure.

To make it less of a railroad, generate the encounters beforehand (and create 2x or 3x as many) and create a map and matrix. That's really not that much more work, especially in 4e.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not a great on-the-fly guy, but this makes it sound very do-able. Thanks for a great answer. \$\endgroup\$ – digitaljoel Sep 16 '10 at 20:58
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Two other options that require less work on your part would be using the Chaos Scar adventures from D&D Insider or using the Dungeon Delve book. Both provide short adventures of 3-5 encounters that are designed for minimal DM prep. The Chaos Scar is a setting, so even though the adventures are all modular/independent you could still get a sense of development over time.

The blog "Beyond the Black Gate" did a good series on episodic play that you might also find useful. The general focus is towards older editions, but most of it isn't rules-specific.

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4e's encounter style of play works well for this. One combat encounter, one skill challenge, tied together by roleplaying (and the skill challenge is really just mechanism around roleplaying). With the DMG's guidelines for exp its very easy to pull one together. I recommend a month subscription to Insider, which gives you character builder which makes character creation very easy (as long as optimization isn't crucial) and monster builder which allows you to quickly grab monsters based on exp requirements.

I do this with my kids and it works wonderfully.

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Use the Encounter Groups in the 4th edition Monster Manual.

They have a lot of pre-built encounters you can use with virtually no effort on your part.

For example, I opened it, heading for "Goblin" but I came across the Gnolls first. There are 3 encounters, one at 4th level, one at 6th, and one at 7th. That should make for a nice night of gaming for a 4th or 5th level party. You can throw in whatever amount of effort you want to tie things together.

If you need characters as well, one place to visit is the CharOp wiki on the WoTC boards. You can also use the Character Builder and have it preselect every option for each character for you. If you do this, I'd suggest you treat the characters 1-2 levels below what they actually are. The Character Builder doesn't have a lot of intelligence behind its choices.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I tend to be too picky on character creation. For a one shot adventure, I really like your thoughts on character builder auto-gen characters. \$\endgroup\$ – digitaljoel Sep 16 '10 at 15:57
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Cut down on the at-table-prep by creating pre-generated characters, more than you have players so that there's a bit of choice. I'd suggest say 3 pre-gens for each role.

Alternatively get a load of laptops together and multiple installs of the character builder. Quickly knocking up a character with the builder can be nice and quick if you don't worry too much about over optimising.

For encounter ideas there's lots in the answers already given.

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