One Hour D&D and Why Even Write Adventures?

I’ve been avoiding the D&D Next talk. I read some of the blogs who are talking about it but honestly, why bother? WotC will put out what they want to, when they’re ready to. Seriously, until they’re ready to do an honest-to-god open playtest I don’t see the point in speculating (or playing, “Guess if Mike and Monte are crazy?!?). WotC and D&D are pretty much the last things on my mind these days…

But… (there’s always a but with these things)

I was reading some of the blogs about the One-Hour D&D Game and I realized something important about my own gaming. So I suppose I have Mike Mearls to thank for that revelation… I realized that I don’t write adventures. The times when I try to write “adventures” are the times when my gaming goes off the rails and stops being fun. I don’t want or need ‘adventures’ in the sense that Mearls is discussing them and that may have been a big part of my stress in 4E. The encounter design style may have been a big part of why DM’ing 4E made me want to go on a baby-seal punching rampage. (I really hated DM’ing 4E, if you can’t tell.)

Don’t get me wrong, I use adventures and I appreciate my many years of reading Dungeon magazine for all the fantastic adventures contained therein. But I don’t actually run adventures. I could say that my preferred DM style is closer to a sandbox but I don’t really build huge wilderness maps and then turn players entirely loose in them either… Hmm.

Mostly, here’s my play style/DM style. We play. If a session is a four hour talking head session where the PCs sit around and talk to NPCs? That’s awesome. If we raid an Imperial installation and kill stormtroopers? Also awesome. If we do a combination of both? Equally awesome. The point is that I let the players set the pace and only intervene when I see things lagging and need to inject a little life into a session. If the players are doing fine on their own I just sit back and answer questions as needed. We don’t concern ourselves with a formula of interaction, exploration, combat… we do what seems natural that night. If the PCs are tracking down information about a cult they encountered then we might travel to a new city, get in a bar fight, talk to a sage, pick up a side quest on the docks, go back to the sage in a few days and learn what he has to say, then head out and look for the cult again — or maybe we won’t — maybe the side quest on the docks turns into the new quest we think is awesome so we follow it. Happens all the time. We’re not really looking for closure or endings or a tightly contained media experience — I can get that playing a video game or watching a movie. We’re playing to indulge in the fantasy of being someone else and living another life — real life John Carters transported to another place — if only in our imaginations.

When I think back to some of the finest adventures I’ve ever read they all had many ways in and out of them and were defined more by a sense of “stuff’s out there” than “go do this now.” Look at Keep on the Borderlands… yes it’s a sandbox style thingy but it’s also a keep full of people to define, a wilderness full of wacky stuff, and a series of odd “dungeons” to be explored… but it’s also an evocative place defined by its isolation and it’s tenuous connection to an unnamed civilization somewhere else. There are no “goals” in KotB. It is a place with people and things to interact with. Players set the pace of exploration and their own goals. If they want to spend an entire session sitting around the keep talking to the shopkeepers or the priest, or each other, or join the guards, or turn around and head toward that nebulous civilization, they can do all of those things and none are more important than any other…

Another adventure I love, Caravan to Ein Arris defines the other end of the spectrum for me (still in a good way). Caravan is an adventure that has clear scenes, clear goals, clear roles for the party, and a very cinema-inspired feel to it. It reads like the treatment for an awesome desert action movie. But honestly, the pace is very relaxed. If it takes the PCs one session to gloss through a desert trip, awesome… If however they spend two sessions playing out that same desert trip, or three, so what? I love this adventure and I’ve run it more than once and despite its clear structure it comes out very differently each time… (it also, amazingly enough has a couple of social scenes in it that are potential “save or die” situations — it’s an awesome adventure).

I realize that a lot of people are busy and play “restricted” sessions and that public play is all the rage for D&D but seriously — for me — I lose the joy when I’m put on a timeline (or when I put players on one). I’m not saying that play shouldn’t have events, sometimes, where hurrying isn’t valuable but rather that, like all else, those situations evolve themselves naturally. I can’t force a player or a group of players to care about something — they have to come to it in their own time — and as a GM, I don’t mind giving that to them. But I certainly don’t need the dramatic tension of the “one-hour adventure” to remain involved… to me it sounds awful.


8 responses

  1. The word “adventure” seems to be loaded with connotations that didn’t really exist early on. I tend to associate it with the Caravan to Ein Arris style more than anything else. The real trick seems to be to set up individual scenes that allow for multiple approaches, outcomes, and solutions… without derailing the “real” plot so that you can use the later scenes. Games with elaborate tactical combat rules tend towards this approach, too, so it isn’t just stuff oriented towards “role playing” that develop this way.

    The thing that is so striking about Keep on the Borderlands when it’s played with the rule set that came in the old Basic Set is that there isn’t any adventure there at all. There’s no indended plot. With the exceptions of introducing your characters at the gate and discovering the Caves… there are no pre-set scenes. Playing it by the book, you don’t have any adventure that would be worthy of a novel or a movie. You organize a series of lightening raids. Maybe “name level” characters go on adventures. First level characters go on sorties. And the bulk of the play time centers on the players hashing out their plans.

    I don’t think Mearls is aware of this distinction, but here’s the real irony: a typical Borderlands sortie can be played in about an hour. That makes Basic D&D about as much of a time commitment as a game of Sorry or Parcheesi. Maybe Tom Moldvay was ahead of his time when he edited that rule set?

    1. Yeah, the word adventure is loaded with baggage. I really wanted to use the word module when describing KotB but refrained because that could not be associated with the “modules” of rules we keep hearing about as part of D&DNext.

      And you are right, there is no “Story” to KotB. The story is entirely generated by the players. Most of the NPCs in the Keep don’t even have names — just titles. And that, for me, was awesome when I was a budding DM. I thought the point (and still contend that it is) was to have stats that I could put all the name and personality into and so my Keep would be really different than my friend Robbie’s which was different than my later DM Bruce’s. That was part of the charm for me.

      I think there was more in the way of “scenes” in that module than you give it credit for though… the Mad Hermit was always one of my favorite bits to play out (and I loved the homage to him in Paizo’s Kingmaker AP). There was more on that map than just the Caves even though they were clearly the majority of the content.

      I’m not trying to play guess what’s in my head with Mearls and Cook this time around. When Next comes out I’ll give it a look, it might be awesome and I don’t want to prejudge, but pretty much everything I hear them saying (er, read them writing) leaves me shrugging my shoulders and saying, “so what?” I already have at least 4 fantasy games that I love and can run at the drop of a hat, so what can they possibly do that would make me want to buy a new one? They might succeed… but NextD&D is going to be a hard sell to me.

  2. I’m going to do something shocking and actually agree with Mearls.

    D&D should (emphasis SHOULD) support “pick-up” games of an hour just as well as it handles long term story arcs and all-nighter games. Those vignette adventures should be something the game is targeted to handle.

    That’s not to say 1 hour adventures built on the identical framework of:

    ~10 minutes for Chargen
    ~15 minutes to introduce the adventure
    ~20 minutes of adventure consisting of (pick up to any multiple of 3 – Trap, Trick, Encounter, Combat, etc.)
    ~10 minutes of adventure culmination
    ~5 minutes of cool-down, wrap-up and advancement

    But I believe it’s true that a lot of the nostalgic appeal of the OSR is the ease of which a game could be played “at the drop of a hat” and have it be enjoyable over the course of an hour or so.

    Later editions of D&D made that somewhat difficult.

    I’ve experienced 3E games where character generation took an hour alone.
    I’ve also experienced 4E games where a single combat lasted an hour.

    And while these aren’t necessarily the norm, they occur far too often for my preference.

    So if the game should be focused anywhere, it should be done so with a conscious eye to the adventure as a vignette and a campaign as a series of adventures.

  3. Well, I suppose I’m not so much explicitly disagreeing with Mearls as I am reflecting on my own play style but overall, I find that I do disagree. I think the primary unit of measurement when designing a game should be the campaign level, not the adventure level.

    I agree that part of the appeal of old school play is the ease of play. I am completely on board with that and find myself realizing more and more that I’m a rules-light fan.

    Maybe I’m crazy — but I think that building a game conscious of the needs of long-term play with the ability to scale “long-term” to whatever that means to a group (like college students who play for a semester and then switch games after break, for example) is much more useful than designing from the bottom up (that is, from the encounter level or the adventure level). A long adventure might actually work out to be a campaign (KotB or Caravan to Ein Arris) for some groups whereas they might be the jumping off point for a really long campaign for another group.

    I think ease-of-play at the table during a given session is a vital design goal and one I wholeheartedly support. And if that facilitates one-hour sessions and pick up games then that’s a good outcome. But I want to know that D&D (or any game) is being designed with campaign play in mind first and adventure play second, not the other way around. This is a lesson that I would have thought they learned from 4E which practically fell apart at the seams the farther you got from the heroic tier.

    Just my two cents.

  4. I agree with your assessment that the game should foster campaign-style play, but I think we disagree on how to get there (either down from campaign to adventure or up from adventure to campaign.)

    However, what’s even more interesting is that it appears where you feel 4E broke down at a campaign level and hence perceive a one-hour design goal as a further unnecessary removal from that style of play as the primary design goal, I felt that 4E fell apart for completely different reasons that the concept of the one-hour game tries to address – namely one of supported ease of short term play.

  5. You’re right. I do think that “designing to the encounter” is part of why 4E had the negative results you see. By designing with the view that the encounter was the primary building block (and mostly we’re talking about combat encounters here) that it led the design to need to pack as much “Stuff” into the encounter unit as possible. This, in my opinion, led to the ridiculous hour+ long combats and other problems you bring up.

    I do think that you are right, the two goals are in some respects separate rather than connected. I don’t explicitly see the one-hour design goal as “bad” just not indicative of a style of play I’m at all interested in. I don’t want sharp, discrete adventure units when I play. I want to have players act in the context of what’s going on and have it naturally bleed into other events. I tend to view my play and planning as holistic events centered around “what my come next” rather than specifically goal-oriented or event-oriented.

    I think 4E fell apart for a lot of reasons (pushed out the door before it was fully ready, encounter-based design, poor scaling at higher levels, limited choices hidden behind a wave of “options,” overwhelming reliance on the “math” and balance) and that’s after playing/running it religiously for the first two years it was out. I suppose I don’t have any interest in getting caught up on WotC’s treadmill of despair again.

  6. You make some good points, and my experience with 4E would support your concerns.

    However, I wonder if we’re both guilty of making a mountain out of a molehill by assuming that when Mearls says D&DNext should support episodic, one-hour play mode, we’re interpreting that as a primary design focus that will overtake campaign-centric play.

    As an aside: Awesome this – Treadmill of Despair… how long before WotC releases a M:TG card for that?

  7. […] Rhetorical Gamer had an interesting post about the One Hour D&D game that you really should go read. Don’t worry, I’ll […]

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