Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Session's Worth

So, what's "a session's worth" of stuff?

Now, we all know that one trip to the shield-polisher with the funny accent could end up as a session's worth, and, hey, if so, excellent. But assuming--as I do when writing and adventure--that the PCs are just gonna burn through every obstacle and smell no roses, how much do you need just to get through a day?

I pretty much do things a day at a time--throw enough down to keep the girls busy for a night, probably leaving some danglers, repeat the next week. So I'm often wondering: what's the minimum I can do today and still have D&D in every direction and no improvising. (Not that mind improvising, but I like scheming more.)

I threw together a dungeon (all crawl, no NPCs) a few weeks ago on an hour-and-a-half notice that, barring any outbreaks of outside-the-box genius, would have to break down to something like: 1 minor mystery room, 1 or 2 simple, shortish fights (party split two ways and did both of them), 1 major mystery room, 2 fights of varying degrees of complexity, one with tricks thrown in. I don't remember the layout and it's too hot in LA today to get up and look but I'm guessing it was 12-15 rooms.

So--assumign you want to plan everything ahead, and if you figure you might get an all rock no talk day, how much do you figure is a session's worth of material?


  1. My group tends to play for three-to-four hour sessions once a week. I've found, when running games, that we tend to get through the equivalent of two sides of an A4 sheet of notes in that time.

    You can see one of my Call of Cthulhu scenarios here, to get an idea of how much detail I go into. This one took about four hours to play.

    I ran a Savage Worlds scenario a few months ago which ran to two sides of notes, but the players got so into the first side (the social bit) that they spent the entire session doing that and missed the second side (the action sequence) completely.

    Neither experience is D&D (although the SW game was set in Eberron), but they might be useful data for you nonetheless.

  2. It seems to depend on the mood my players are in. Last week they spent the entire session conducting a knock-down drag-out with a small subset of an Underdark slaver operation; other times there's nearly no combat but copious exploration, which is sufficient if I made the ruin eerie and intriguing enough.

  3. Goodness, I hear you on the heat. Summer finally arrived on the first day of fall.

    When I prep for World of Darkness, I try to outline, say, six scenes. Three might be strictly role-playing and deal with existing plot lines. Two scenes will introduce new characters or tension. A sixth scene has the potential to turn violent. So that's 3 role-play for old business, 2 role-play for new business and 1 fight.

    I wonder if someone could formulate a basic gaming recipe. I use them when I cook with good results, so I wonder if someone could develop a formula for a night's fun?

  4. I now run 6-9 hours sessions for 3-9 players almost every Saturday. I'm playing with three different groups.

    I don't usually design adventures in the classic sense. I design worlds and/or universes and have a general idea of what is happening throughout them. The players are told of various goings on and are sometimes assigned or hired to do things but they are welcome to take matters into their own hands, pick a direction and go. If, on the way to save the Kingdom of the Dwarves, my players suddenly decide to go east to the mysterious Mountains at the End of the World its no problem. I know what that place is like, who lives there and how they act.

    To achieve this type of campaign I usually do craploads of prep work for several months before I even begin a campaign. While the campaign is running I do very little. Some art here, a modification or addition there and so forth.

    With certain types of campaigns that require more structure by nature (Star Trek and Superheroes), I adjust my particular approach a bit. I still work pretty hard to detail the universe but I leave a lot open while I work on periodically between session while the campaign is running.

  5. @jayson

    my question isn't really how much you go through, it's what's the minimum you'd prepare for a day


    yeah, I figured. that's why this question is sort of dungeon-centric. it

  6. I hear ya, although even my dungeons (when I do them which, granted, is not often) are set up this way.

    Place a dungeon (old ruin, monster den/tunnels, cult hideout) somewhere and wait for the PCs to find it. :)

  7. I usually prepare three Acts, with three Scenes in each Act. Pacing is something I am constantly working on; I am bad at keeping things tight, & will let the players meander only to realize they don't WANT to be meandering, so I step in & throw in a jump cut or something.

  8. For a dungeon? I'd prep 3-4 combat encounters, one of which would be beyond the PCs' capabilities (since you can count on them to exceed your expectations). Two locations that primarily exist for mood and tone. Two problem-solving locations. I've never seen an "all rock no talk" session, so 2 chances for PCs to use conversation and Charisma on something.

    That said, I'll cop to being a terrible dungeon designer.

  9. I generally run for 10 players once a month, usually an all day session. When it comes to dungeon planning I tend to underdo it, since such a large group chews through monsters quite fast, and all my frilly planning and cool monsters are dead before their second turn. Last session in the dungeon I found I needed to do very little prep. I have one central puzzle room, the puzzle opens the doors which line the walls. Most of the doors only have a monster behind them, so a half dozen quick notes on what's in there (monster and an interesting piece of treasure for their level). There are two ways out of here, one of which is already open. (A few quick scribbles on what the Genie slavers are up to in their gem mine, and what type of beasts they have) And the other way is opened by the puzzle (portal to demi-planar jungle, PC's must get the pelt of the legendary tiger, because it is the only map out of the jungle and to the next area of the dungeon)

    Beyond a few short notes about what types of monsters i want to use, and maybe some page references if there are a lot of them, and the solutions to and consequences of any puzzles, I find I don't plan much at all for a dungeon session. With 10 players, I often get one or two no-shows, someone is late, or must leave early, so it's hard to bank on who all will be there for which fights. By having only a vague idea of what will happen today I'm able to scale all my encounters to be a challenge for the number of players I actually have, not how many I was expecting. With a month in between sessions the rest of my prep is an unquantifiable amount of daydreaming about what this NPC or that monster really wants, flowery descriptions of things the PC's might find or do, and so forth. If I leave out some little detail or description, it's no big deal, so long as I can feel the way things are supposed to fit together, it's no problem to get through the day.

  10. Ah, I see I misunderstood your question a bit. I hope the link is still useful nonetheless.

    Nowadays I come up with a situation ("attempted murder on an airship" was the one I did for Eberron), come up with about five or six interesting NPCs (I think I used one of your random NPC tables for this), and three or four events to throw in at certain points.

    I do it in this order because the NPCs will react to the situation, and their reactions may prompt or cause the events.

    Then I try to get that onto two sides of A4, as I know I'll get through that much in the time I've got.

    I might draw a map or two, or some sketches of the NPCs if it's going to be important to keep track of them, but generally I know if I get to the end of the second side of A4 with my notes, I've done enough for the session.

    I hope that's more helpful.

  11. Not relevant to your post but maybe relevant to your interests: Serpent Generator.

  12. For me, in a planned 4 hour sitting, I would normally throw together 3 or 4 small skirmishes and one large set piece battle. Normally a few scouts or patrols to soften/warm them up and then the guy running the show with his entourage to really pick up the pace.

    the hope is that they'll start the fight feeling like they've bitten off more than they can chew, or maybe they shouldn't have used some of their big spells so early, but still have them scrape through and survive in the end.

    I find it helps sell the premise that big guy is worthy of note and makes the victory in the end feel sweeter.

    Of course the bathroom breaks, drink refills & conversations on the state of UK schools tended to mean we only got the skirmishes done that week but at least I was usually ready.

  13. For an all-rock, no talk, dungeon crawl, session my record is 36 (of 37 and a bit) pages of notes, but that was a three-day-weekend-sleep-at-the-table-pussy kind of session.

    Generally I'll have players' burn through 4 pages of notes/encounters when they've got their sh!t together and the session is the usual 8-10 hours on a saturday, with Booty identification & XP distribution taking place via e-mail.

  14. Prepare at least 3 things that don't have clearly defined "ends" to them.

    Maybe its an endless library with interesting books in it, or ongoing hostilities in the region between 2 wicked forces, or an evil forest or cave with XY in it where X is an undefinable number and Y is something #@$&ing metal, a device with many possibilities, a manor house with an inpenatrable mystery that not even you, the DM understand, a book which tries to possess a player...

    I say make up 3 things because at least 1 aught to entice your players - the undefined resolution is the key though, because it allows for any other "plot" elements to begin mixing in your or your player's minds.

    Its also a good idea to come up with about 3 more concrete encounters/ideas which have fairly obvious or predictable resolutions - these may turn out differently and be just as influential to the game as the open-ended ideas.

  15. The minimum I'll prepare is 4-5 pages for a session, allowing me an occasional break from prep for a week, or some extra plot for when the players get aggressive and go further than I'd expected.

    Left turns are rare; Though when they happen I wing it for the rest of the session (which usually slows things down), taking lots of notes, then start work on the new plot if the players like it and want to continue on at it.

  16. Ah. Yes, I kind of started thinking I might have completely misunderstood.

    I agree with the range of 3-5 pages' worth, both sides (including maps) depending on how densely you pack it; say one big furball fight and one or two smaller encounters...

  17. I play a 4th edition campaign, and for the level my players have reached, I generally feel pretty safe if I have stuff for two serious combat encounters. Of course, if they can run in more than one direction, I need to have two combat encounters in any direction. Might need three if I run into an all rock, no talk session, but the chances for that seem very, very small.

  18. @rubberduck--

    that's interesting 'cause it would appear to confirm what people always say about 4e--that it's all about the big long combats. Is that your experience?

  19. 3 pages.

    The first page is the introductory paragraph which I read to set the stage for the nights game. The second page is a map and whatever hand written notes I have made that week on my graph paper notebook (I went from 5 Star to Moleskin recently, and love the smaller, leatherness of it and the pale yellow pages.)Finally the 3rd page is the monster stat blocks of any encounters. I stat up 4-6, and plan on using 1-2, rarely 3.

    Answering your question to the duck about playing 4e, for us it is about 50/50 regular old role playing and exploring and arguing UNTIL its time for the big long combats, or as I like to call them, the epic scenes of gut-wrenching, skull-splitting mayhem and destruction ;)

  20. I'm with Panzer re: running 4E. As far as time expenditure goes, we split about 50/50 on combat vs. RP & exploration. Some sessions are weighted more heavily toward one or the other, naturally.

    The reports are true that 4E combat takes longer than early-edition combat. That said, I think it takes a comparable amount of time to 3E combat, but non-caster characters have more options, and everyone does more (gets in more rounds, and actions) in any given fight. It's more mobile and dynamic and the monsters have a wide and interesting variety of abilities which provide great tactical problem solving even when used just as written.

    Back to the original question, I prep a relatively small amount of written material, as my notes are mostly pretty sketchy reminders and I improvise a lot of details. Call it 2-3 sides of 6"-9" notebook paper (with monster names & HP, but usually not stats, as I mostly run them out of the book, maybe with a tweak or two), and 1-2 pages of 8.5x11 graph paper for maps. My maps will usually incorporate a number of details on them that I don't need to duplicate in the written notes. If it's a dense dungeon I might be working from the same map sheet for a couple of sessions. My notes will usually fit easily on one word-processed page if for some reason I type up the adventure outline; which happens more often if I'm making up a new monster wholesale. This is for a 4-6 hr session.

  21. I've always wanted to do a prep-free game. I mean not really prep free, I'd make up a bunch of random tables for everything, but then either come up things in real time or, if nothing comes, consult a chart. No scheming, no advance planning, nothing.

    I actually did start doing that with hit points, I randomly generated a couple of pages of d8 rolls and use them for hit dice rolls. Use 1 entry per 1HD monster, or for larger ones block of contiguous sections and total them up. Much easier than rolling hp for wandering monsters.

  22. For just a pure dungeon crawl with minimal RP, I pretty much agree with Uncle Matt. Three or four combat encounters, one of which being a "boss" fight, which is significantly tougher than the others. Optionally, one or more of these combat encounters may be solvable with dialogue. A couple areas to set the tone for the dungeon(Cave, mausoleum, whatever.). A couple trap/puzzle/thinking areas. So say 7 to 12 areas, the exact numbers of each dependant upon party composition and player personalities.

  23. It's important to plot, plan and scheme. But I find improv is invaluable.

  24. A typical session for my group is between 2 and 4 hours long. My planning really depends on the size group I'm running. With a large group (6 or more people), I will usually plan 1-2 big combats, and a plot development or 2. For a small group (5 or less), I plan 3-4 fights, and up to 5 plot developments, depending on various factors unique to each campaign.