Monday, March 19, 2012

Picking Nits From Mike Mearls Latest Column - The One Hour D&D Game

"Can You Speed It Up?  We've Got To Wrap This Up in An Hour!"

Here's the link to the article without my comments ;)

This week, I'd like to talk about one of our design goals in general terms so that you can gain a sense of how we're approaching the next iteration of the game. (would it be wrong to refer to this as the "weekly stroke job"? ;)

Replaying the 1981 Basic Set recently has been eye opening (I'm sure). Even including the rules I've added to the game, character creation took somewhere between 5 and 10 minutes (That's about right up to and including AD&D 1e, so long as you know what you want to play ahead of time - and aren't using the UA method of "class directed character generation) In about 45 minutes of play, we created an entire party of adventurers (dwarf fighter, human magic-user, halfling thief), (halfing thief in Basic D&D?) kicked off an adventure with the characters just outside of a ruined keep, and explored six different rooms in a small dungeon. That exploration included two battles with goblins and hobgoblins. We played at a fairly relaxed pace (apparently there's no goofing around or catching up with the other players). There was plenty of roleplaying between the characters and frequent questions on the rules as the players navigated both basic D&D and my house rules.

In my mind, D&D must absolutely support this type of play (you will have to keep complexity at OD&D levels - no grid, no dozens of options). By no means should it be the only way to play D&D, but it must be an enjoyable way to play the game that doesn't come across as a crippled or incomplete experience (I don't see how a 45 minute game can compete with a 4hr game, but it should be interesting). You should be able to play a complete adventure in an hour. Not a single encounter, not a character creation session, but a complete scenario that would strike any reasonable player as an adventure with a beginning, middle, and end (I'm going to put this on the same level as "the one game to rule them all" - more marketing bullshit). That statement was one of the guiding principles that helped launch this entire process.

So what exactly should happen in an hour? One of the first proof of concept adventures I ran captures what I'm aiming at. In this adventure, the characters bought a treasure map from a halfling, traveled through a forest to the purported location of an orc lord's tomb, dodged a few traps in the tomb and solved a puzzle needed to gain access to the inner sanctum, battled skeletons that ambushed them, and then defeated the vengeful spirit of the orc lord and the animated statues that guarded his tomb. With the orc lord laid to his final rest, the characters claimed his magical axe and a small cache of gems (all this in 45 minutes, with a game that is going to support 4e style tactics?  wanna buy a bridge?)

This sort of adventure is exactly what I'd like players to experience in the next iteration of the game (did Mike nerf Turning the Undead for this adventure?) . In the adventure I ran, there was an NPC to interact with, a puzzle to solve, a couple of tense battles, and a reward at the end of the line (I'm not sure you can play a board game in 45 minutes). It shouldn't surprise you that the three pillars of D&D that we've talked about—combat, exploration, and interaction—all played a key role in the adventure. Best of all, the adventure created a consistent sense of tension. The fights were brief but sharp, with the characters pushed to the edge of defeat before rallying to victory (they were first level characters.  will fights be just as quick at 5th, at 10th?). The puzzle in the tomb and the interaction with the halfling each took about as much time as both of the fights.

Ideally, if we aim for a complete adventure in an hour, we hit a few important milestones:
  • The core rules are easy to use. They create a game that moves quickly but is still satisfying. (tastes great, less filling?)
  • Character complexity doesn't spill on to the table and slow the game down. (er, but if the complexity doesn't hit the table, it probably isn't really all that complex) It's OK for someone to have a complex character. It's irritating if that character takes significantly longer to resolve typical actions. (guess they aren't going to be using 4e style combat and challenge resolutions)
  • Monsters are easy to understand at the table. This relates to the statement about characters above. It's OK for some monsters to be complex, but that complexity should give the DM a flexible, challenging monster, not one that needs lots of time to resolve at the table. (I'll believe this when I see it)
  • The DM needs rules that can allow for adventures with as many fights as needed, from a single big brawl to a number of shorter fights. I'd like to see an adventure design system that gives me a suggested total XP value for monsters and traps to use so that I can push the characters to the limit of their abilities (formulating encounters is not the way to go.  it takes the soul out of the game.  but as the soul's been missing since 2e, I guess I shouldn't have expected different). I can then spend that XP for one battle, lots of little battles, or just sprinkle monsters in an environment as I choose. (sounds like the Bob Ross style of adventure design)
Of course, I don't expect everyone to give up how they've been playing D&D for years to focus on running one-hour adventures (why not?  Save or Die tweaked to death, Turning Undead nerfed, multi-edition feel at one table - yes, I think you expect one hour sessions to be the new norm). By focusing on this benchmark, however, we create a starting point that we can use to expand to longer sessions of play. It's much easier to create a game that supports a one-hour session, and then use that to build out to two-hour, four-hour, or day-long gaming (gaming is usually around 4 hours give or take, and has been since 1974.  So working off a 4 hours standard session would have been the norm).

Ideally, focusing on the adventure as the basic unit of DM design also helps us cover different campaign styles. A sandbox DM can stock a region as one or more adventures, using higher-level XP targets to map the peril inherent in an area (again with this XP target bullshit.  it seems less like a RPG and more like a spreadsheet). The forest next to town might be built with enough monsters and treasures to equal one or two 1st-level adventures, while the forbidding mountains to the south are stocked with the equivalent of a 10th-level adventure. By focusing on an adventure—or a play session, depending on how you approach things—we can build a system that is more flexible and better matches the different styles that DMs bring to the table. (but a 1 hour adventure and a 4 hour adventure aren't going to be stocked the same, or offer the same challenge - why do I hear the boys in marketing throwing more bullshit our way?  "Hey, lets aim to do 1 hour gaming sessions, because everyone knows time is short these days.  so with 1 hour sessions, we can get more people to play.  and if it takes them 14 1 hr sessions to level, so much the better, as they'll be coming back for more and more!"  Bleh!)


  1. Sounds like a new solution to parties that can't manage resources. If it's one hour of gaming with a couple of short sharp clashes, then casting spells like there's no random encounters is the way to go.

  2. yep, and here's the kicker - this is going to be the default design -

    It's much easier to create a game that supports a one-hour session, and then use that to build out to two-hour, four-hour, or day-long gaming

    fun, so figure on running out of spells and heals in an hour...

  3. "using higher-level XP targets to map the peril inherent in an area"

    What in the hell does that mean? The "map the peril"????
    "XP targets"????

    When D&D5 was announced I really thought it might be good to go back, but you know what? You talked me out of it, well your comments about their stupid ideas. I can clearly see that they are not making a game for me. I don't care about any damn XP target, or some challenge level mapped in either short bursts or long drawn out encounters. You know what I want?

    Ffun. Period. Some damn fun. Clearly WotC has no idea what that means and they can take their game, they will not be getting a penny from me for this thing they are making.

  4. Love these, keep'em coming :)

    Matt, sure sounds like DMing for dummies.

    Resource management is crucial to D&D game play. They'd better not screw that up...again.

  5. @kiltedyaksman - There's a show most mondays, and whenever else the boys give me material to work with ;)

  6. "figure on running out of spells and heals in an hour..."

    No problem. The party takes a quick breather, and we're good to go again! (This might be accomplished by some kind of "milestone" mechanic, if they want to preserve some dignity.)

  7. i'm sure there's a mechanic from 4e they can steal for this.

    why do i feel they are over designing?

    or is that just what game designers have to do? because the more they turn the game into a "paint by numbers" type system - that requires spreadsheets for adventure design - the less it appeals to me

  8. I'm OK with the amount of design they're putting into the project. But I would rather they went for show, not tell.

    For a new ref, having a strong module to start with means more than just being able to play immediately - it creates an example of how to do things right. Student artists in other media frequently do studies of the works of masters. The same approach would surely benefit dungeon designers.

  9. Pay attention to the columns. First he said he's playing Basic. Last time he then said he's playing 4e. Now it's basic again. I think "weekly stroke job" is very apt.

  10. Meh.I was kinda of with him until I got to the XP values malarkey. That totally misses the point for me.

    One of the fun things about B/X is you're never sure how many encounters (random or otherwise) are going to occur in a given session. Because it's up to the players as well as the dice. It depends what decisions they make, what they engage with and what they ignore, how much time they spend pissing about (and get more WM rolls).

    Even a decision as mundane as 'do we go east or wes?' or 'which door do we try first?' can totally change the number of encounters, pacing of the game, the whole evening of play.

    The concept of a set XP value to adventures just sounds exactly like the sort of pre-programmed shit that is, in my opinion, anathema to adventure gaming.

  11. At this point, I think they are ultimately aiming to develop a D&D themed, skirmish-based scaling board game.

    It's Wizbro, after all.

  12. Me, I run Savage Worlds. We can easily get a great deal done in an hour, though we play for longer. I find the limiting factor to how much progress can be made is players' ability to choose actions; the crunch is not an issue.


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