D&D Oneshot: 300 Wands
As a GM, preparing for a session at the last minute sucks, especially if you’re not sure how many people will be playing. Plus, if you’re going to play with people who are new to D&D or TTRPGs, that eats away from your precious one-shot session time. So, I stole (as all GMs do) a setting called the Commoner Curse of 300 Wands. This session can be played with any number of players, and with minimal onboarding and teaching required. It can be roleplay-heavy, or combat-heavy, depending on how your players roll. It’s goofy, casual, and a great story to keep in your back pocket.
The players are paid by a wizard’s assistant to perform some magical experimentation. The assistant shows the party a barrel of 300 unlabeled magical wands, and asks them to identify their effects by casting them at stuff (go outside the town first, though!). That’s it.
Everything else can be (and will have to be) improvised on the spot. I start off by drawing a very basic compass map at the start of the session, so that players can have places to go and test their wands. For example:
mountains (frost dragon here) N ^ | waterfalls W <- town -> E forest (sunken treasure) | (bandit hideout here) v S silver mines (ongoing theft)
Each of these directions has a ‘hook’ that players can sink their teeth into. You don’t necessarily need to give them the hooks (some of them can be a fun surprise), but I give a few of them to the party via an in-town job board. The players can use a job from there to test their wands, and kill two birds with one stone.
In terms of gameplay, every time a player casts a wand at a target the GM rolls 1d10,000 to pull a random magical effect from the Net Libram of Random Magical Effects (a list of spells from a Pathfinder module). If the effect is boring or not applicable, you can roll again. Some of these effects take a while to become visible or known. For example, a player may be confronted by a religious cult who claims that the player is their messiah in the future. I tell the players that they either don’t notice any effects, or give them a subtle hint (you feel somewhat divine). This gets fun when players, thinking that most wands are safe, spam multiple effects at the same time.
Practically speaking, rolling and tracking effects can get tedious. I wrote a web app to make this go smoother. You add your players to the app, and click a button to add a random effect to their character. Any rolls described in the spell effect (player grows 1d4 additional fingers on their hand) are automatically rolled for you.
So, that’s the setup for the story. What happens next?
The beauty of this setup is that since the spells are so chaotic, they end up driving the story! Players head north to the mountains in order to slay an evil ice dragon, and fight bandits and beasts along the way. During the journey, they use a wand which summons a giant demon in the nearest town. They also use a wand which causes a death cult, devoted to one of the players, to form across the continent. The players don’t see this just yet. As they crest the mountain peak, they see their hometown engulfed in flames as a 20-story monster stomps on it, and see tens of thousands of pilgrims marching up the mountain towards them, eager to meet their prophet.
What do the players do? What do the cultists want? What happens to the town? What does the demon want? You, as the GM, serve to take the chaos created by the wands and funnel it into an enjoyable story. Take a look at what your players are like, what they enjoy, and try to understand how they’re reading the events in the story so far. Then use that knowledge to tailor the story for maximum fun.