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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Thoughts on a One-Hour D&D Game

by Ken Newquist / March 22, 2012

Mike Mearls talks about the concept of a one-hour D&D game in his latest Legends & Lore post. The goal here isn't to boil all D&D games down to 1-hour, but rather to benchmark what you can actually do in an hour. No doubt inspired by his lunchtime D&D sessions, Mearls envisions a game in which you can get in a role-playing encounter, a few quick encounters with traps and/or enemies, and a boss fight.

It sounds excellent to me. I've been running my own lunchtime game for the last year and a half, and the sort of things that Mike talks about are exactly the sort of things I like to do in my game. Of course, I'm doing it with Savage Worlds, which lends itself to this sort of thing (particularly with one-hit minions) but I'd love to see a D&D game that's efficient and fast enough to take on this kind of challenge.

Extrapolating it out over a night of gaming, and you could have a 5-8 small combats and perhaps two or three "boss" fights. Rather than getting bogged down in combat, you'd be able to quickly advance the story. That should make players and game masters happy, and even if game play slows down at higher levels -- say 2 combats an hour instead of 4 -- that's still better than what we have with high level 3.x or 4.x D&D.

I think the big question, particularly for diehard D&D 3.x and 4.x fans, is this: is D&D still D&D when it runs this fast? What do you lose in order to accomplish this feat? I have friends who still long for the weapon speed-based initiatives of D&D 2nd Edition's Player's Option books. I have others who love 4E's interrupt-driven style of combat, where people are constantly engaged because they have the potential to act on every segment. I don't know how either group would respond to a combat so fast that it's over in 5-10 minutes.

For me, I think the answer is "yes" ... as long as your combat options at the table still feel "D&Dish". To me that means having a good mix of combat, skill, and magic capabilities. I don't think those options need to be as extensive as what you see in 3.x, 4.x or Pathfinder, but players need to feel like they aren't boxed in by what they can't do.

I like the implications of faster game play. If small fights can be fast, than it stands to reason that big fights can still be pretty quick. That's not something we see much off in D&D, but it's a staple of Savage Worlds. It changes the kinds of stories you can tell -- suddenly you can have the PCs facing off against a small horde of orcs.

It may also mean that you can introduce things like meaningful sidekicks. They can be problematic in regular D&D, which already has to content with innumerable player abilities, but in a fast-playing verison of D&D, you could have the plucky squire swing a sword, and still have the game move at a rapid pace.

I also like the idea of being able to launch directly into a combat to kick off a Sunday night game without having it bog down the night's session. I also like the idea of being able to have a series of running fights, Three Musketeers-style, with fights punctating the narrative.

I know not everyone will like this fast and furious approach to combat -- some like to have the full breadth of options, no matter what impact it has on game play. For me it's the sort of move that could lure me back to the game.


I believe the one-hour game (what I refer to as the "pickup game") is a great target design goal and a real nod to pre AD&D (or maybe 2E) times when you could go from 0 to dungeon in less than 15 minutes.

Complexity can (and for some groups will) always be added to the base system, but it's hard to strip it away as a default stance. And if another design goal is to be modular, then this should be the starting point of the system.

I agree. I think having a good, fast, simple base would let you have these kinds of games, while allowing for the possibility of adding in as much complexity as you like.

Now the end days of 2nd Edition D&D weren't my favorite in terms of rules, because everyone was playing by a different set (kits, player's options, etc.) but I could see it working with D&D Next if that was a design goal.

e.g. tiered initiative system and weapon speeds becomes an option you add to the base game by an optional rule book. The same could happen for Armor-as-Damage-Reduction or any other rule that adds an added degree of realism ... and bookkeeping.

The challenge for WotC (as I see it) is that (as I understand it) they wish to try to create a modular system where Player/Group A uses nothing but the base rules while Player/Group B uses some bolt-on(s) and both experience the same level of game as measured by some incredibly subjective metrics.

What I have yet to get a definitive answer on is if the modularity is granular enough to allow for Player A and Player B to be in the same Group or if the bolt-on(s) are group specific.

The player-level granular model would lend itself to a very new-gamer friendly system while the group-level model would be easier... though in many's eyes, that would place the game right back to 2E with all the splat books and optional rules.

Rodney Thompson touched on part of this in his "Rule of Three" column from Feb. 7, 2012 when he talked about balancing a "modular" character against a less complex one.

Keeping in mind that the design is still early, there is a lot that can be done in terms of selection of options to make it so that two characters are statistically within an acceptable area of balance with one another. For a good example of the genesis of this concept, look at the slayer fighter (from Heroes of the Fallen Land) as compared to the basic fighter (from the 4th Edition Player's Handbook). The player of a slayer just makes fewer choices and by default does not access more complex systems (encounter and daily powers, for example). Alhough the Player's Handbook fighter has a wider variety of options, the slayer holds its own in a party alongside that fighter, because we built the character specifically to make that so.

I think it's going to be a little bit of Column A and a little bit of Column B. I would expect a fair degree of compatibility between different core options -- e.g. the 4E example above. But I could also see the game evolving along different lines for different groups -- for example, introducing Vancian magic into the game (if not part of the core mechanic) could fundamentally transform power levels within the group, and make it less compatible with other, non-Vancian groups (even while everything was internally consistent within that campaign).

If they can clearly label hero level options vs. campaign level options, and design accordingly, they could avoid some of the 2E pitfalls. The big problem with 2E was that they didn't have a cohesive plan for rolling out these optional rules, which led to things like four different ways to disarm someone. :) Having a plan will go a long way toward making all this work.

I think it's indictive of today's fast food culture that faster is better. I find and have always found that anything quick isn't that great. D&D like good food should be savored and earned through hard work. Just my "old man" opinion.

D&D is what type of game? RPG. It's a Role Playing Game! One hour sessions are not Role Playing!

This isn't my experience, at least in an ongoing campaign. My lunchtime game meets twice a week, from noon-1 p.m. That's the equivalent of one two hour session, which is on the short side, but gives us enough time to have some fun combat and role-playing encounters.

There are times when a combat stretches out over two sessions, but we just leave things set up in the game room so we can pick up where we left off. Sometimes we have sessions that are nothing but role-playing. It takes us a little longer to move the story along simply because we don't have those 4-hour blocks of time, but over the last year things have worked out surprisingly well.

I will say I think the reason this works is because we play Savage Worlds. It's fast, it's efficient, and we don't get bogged down managing sacks of hit points. I don't think D&D needs to be as stripped down as Savage Worlds, but I think using an hour as a building block is a good idea. If you can get a respectable amount of combat and role-playing done in an hour, then four hours should work even better. I'm not saying that ever fight needs to be wrapped up in 20 minutes, but I like the idea that a two hour fight could be something truly epic.