One thing I remember as I review my old gaming records is how often I used to create whole adventures around a single encounter. Whether through laziness (got tired of stocking dungeons), thriftiness (I had no money for modules), or practicality (the short attention spans of young players) some days the only adventure would be one Big Bad…or Big Bad Fight.
I guess the term for this in 21st century parlance would be a “set-piece” encounter, or perhaps a “Boss Fight.” Except I might not even have non-Boss monsters (save perhaps as a warm up encounter). Generally, these One Encounter scenarios were of the scourge variety, something like “the Tarrasque has awakened from centuries long slumber and is ravaging the countryside…what are you going to do?”
The scourge monster doesn’t exist in a dungeon…hell, they may not even have a lair, or treasure of which to speak (though reward was possible from a grateful lord/ruler). XP-wise, I’d generally award a blanket amount of experience depending on the scourge…generally enough that every PC could gain a level from the encounter.
Perhaps an example or two would serve.
When I was youngling, some of my first exposures to fantasy was the animated Rankin/Bass films The Hobbit and The Return of the King. I drew heavily from both for adventures (micro- and otherwise)…the latter, for example, provided me a scourge encounter with a Witch-King figure that duplicates the Battle of the Pelennor Fields (that’s for another post on the perils of being a self-taught DM).
However, from The Hobbit the dragon Smaug makes a great single encounter adventure. I was never too comfortable with placing dragons in dungeons (though I know I did so often enough). I mean, I just pictured dragons as so BIG…how did you get them down those 10’ corridors?
Far better to put the dragon in a big cave at the top of a lonely mountain and have him terrorizing the kingdom, waiting for a group of adventurers to come a-slaying. Sure, the adventurers may encounter a group of, say, trolls or giant spiders on the way to old Smaug’s lair, but there was no additional dungeon that needed to be traversed. Just getting up to the dragon’s mountain lair and figuring out a way to defeat him was “trap and trick” enough. Not to mention the inherent deadliness of an Ancient Red Dragon. Why needlessly complicate or obscure the encounter with a bunch of little, minor encounters. The scourge is a suitable encounter for a party at full strength.
Single Encounter Adventures (SEAs) were some of my favorites back in the day. As long as the encounter was fierce enough, there was plenty with which to occupy a party of adventurers for several hours (real time)…talking, strategizing, planning, encountering, and (if lucky) dividing the loot afterwards.
Not every SEA need be a scourge; any properly scaled antagonist can work for this type of day-long session. Examples: an oppressive Lord/tyrant lives in this castle with his soldiers and maybe a pet wizard or beastie…what are you going to do about it? An evil cleric operates out of this shrine...how are you going to handle him and his acolytes?
A mega-dungeon can require a serious amount of time and commitment from the party wishing to plumb its depths, whereas a one-off encounter with a memorable opponent can be handled in an afternoon. Plus, players can later say, “Hey, remember when we took out Argle-Shmargle the Mighty? Joe and Fred got smoked, but the rest of us came out hella’ rich! That was cool!” Maybe I AM lazy, but we seemed to have a blast with these kind of sessions.