D&D, My Way

As I’ve blogged before, one of my 2022 gaming plans is to run a ‘proper’ game of D&D – one of the big campaigns, or an Adventurer’s League series. I did this in 2020, managing to get up to about 10th level of the Eberron AL series of adventures, and I’ve got a pretty good idea of what my flavour of D&D would look like if I did it again. 

I’ve played enough different games now to know that D&D, while an excellent game, isn’t always to my tastes. So here are the things I’d do to run D&D, my way.

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Milestone, and Frequent, Leveling

I don’t have time to level up every 4 sessions, nor to track XP. We’ll level up when the game demands it, and it’ll probably be every 2 sessions at the slowest – I could easily be persuaded by 1 level a session. This gives the players new toys to play with quickly, and stops the game being samey in gameplay, which is a risk with D&D. It also makes campaign length manageable – 4-12 session seasons are my normal campaign length these days, with a chance to go back and revisit if needed.

Zoom in, Zoom out

There’ll be liberal use of montages for long journeys and ongoing scenes. PCs schmoozing at an important party? We don’t need to play out every moment of it, we’ll just zoom into the important NPC conversations. There are games that do journeys and travel well – for me, D&D is not one of them – so we’ll cut to the chase. Likewise, state intent and then roleplay a bit, make a roll, is how we’ll do social conflict.

No Shopping, No Encumbrance

Encumbrance is another idea we don’t need, as is lengthy equipment lists. PCs in my D&D have an adventurer’s kit of common useful items for their travels – if they want something that we think is a stretch, they can always make a skill check to see if they’ve got it. Likewise we’ll not spend any time roleplaying encounters with shopkeepers – you do your shopping off-table, and we only zoom in (as above) on the exciting stuff.

Player Ownership of Backgrounds

You’re playing a snow elf? Cool, you get to define as much as you want about snow elves in this world. You used to serve with the Imperial Navy? Cool, tell me about how they recruit new sailors. As long as I can spin it into any plot that I might have for the game, players are free to negotiate their backgrounds as part of their characters at the table.

One note, though – this happens in play. I don’t want anyone showing up with 500 words of backstory for their 1st level character – we can’t collaborate if we do that. It comes out at the table, so any ideas you might have need to be held onto lightly.

Begrudgingly, Grids

I’ve gone on record before to say that grids, maps and minis aren’t necessary, even for games like Pathfinder that pretend they are, but I’ll be using battle maps. I’m running online, so this isn’t really any extra prep, and – having played a sorcerer in a recent Theros run – without them you really lose some of the options for PCs (and monsters) when they hit area-effect attacks and movement around the battlefield.

I’ll not be using dynamic lighting though – I find it both unreasonably fiddly and complex not knowing what the players can see, but also weirdly making it feel a lot more like a mini skirmish game instead of an RPG – without really adding anything. I’ll begrudgingly use Fog of War if it means I can have one map for a big location, but that’s about it.

No Dungeon Expeditions

Yeah, we’ll go to dangerous underground locations, but we’ll be in and out in the day. I don’t think D&D supports the “try and camp in an empty room” jeopardy (at least not in 5th ed – this was a bigger deal in the OSR days) – and it screws with the fight economy. So we’ll just not do it – other games like Torchbearer and Trophy handle this a lot better anyway. This means some dungeons and adventure locations will be mixed up to remove non-essential rooms and encounters – we’ll fill those with…

Montages and Skill Challenges

13th Age-style Montages will let us cut some of the less essential bits out when we zoom out of the adventure, while still adding some epicness to the world. Likewise, some stuff we’ll handle with Skill Challenges, either using the 4e system or one of these here or here. The standard 5e Group Skill Check rules aren’t too bad, either, and they’re often underused, so we’ll have plenty of that.

Alternate Plot and Subplot

Given that we’re levelling every 2 sessions, we’ll aim to alternate between a big metaplot session and a more character-driven side quest once we get going. This won’t always fit in the narrative of the adventure I’m running, but where it does I’ve found it gives a really good balance in game between often quite railroady big plot sessions, and more flexible character-driven sessions. These might still be pretty linear, but they’ll be taken from player requests so will allow us to get more done.

Moar Magic Items

Despite my dislike for equipment tracking, I want to make magic items a bigger deal. I think I often forget about them as rewards, and when I was running the AL campaign some of the rewards were a big stingy, so I want to make them a feature even if they mean I have to adjust some of the opposition to balance them. They’re a key cool bit of D&D that I haven’t focussed on enough in the past, so I need to make more of them.

So, that’s how I’d run D&D my way. Anything you’d add, or think I’m being controversial about? I’m still musing on what to run, and who for – I’ve only got one player confirmed, so shout up if you’re interested! Currently thinking Rime of the Frostmaiden or Curse of Strahd, but could be persuaded by Witchlight as well – if you’ve got and recommendations, let me have them! I need to have a proper look at Tales from the Yawning Portal, too – I think that might break my no multi-day dungeoning rule, but it’s a way to cover a lot of classic adventures in turn. Saltmarsh may be a better option. As I said, I need recommendations!

Making a Session Out Of It – Unsure Footing (Rime of the Frostmaiden)

Ages ago, I started blogging about One Hour One Shots – a chance to get the gist of what a TTRPG was in just an hour, rather than needing a whole session of 3-4. I reviewed some, and even had one published (for free) as a demo scenario for Hunters of Alexandria. My thinking has moved on a bit since then.

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These days, the proliferation of online gaming means most of us are getting used to 2-3 hour long sessions as the norm; and, to be frank, when I get back to face to face gaming I’d be happy sticking with this length as the norm. Good online play is tighter; you tend to get as much done in 2-3 hours as you do in 4-5 hours face to face by minimising cross-chat.

And, while this is going on, Wizards of the Coast appear to be embracing the idea. A lot of 1st level adventures being published now present a series of mini-quests – each taking about an hour to play through – and I’m all in favour of this. The Essentials Box has a series of mini-quests that the PCs pick up in whatever order they want, and Rime of the Frostmaiden begins with a short quest in each of the towns where the action starts.

I’m going to explore drawing these mini-plots out to a full one-shot length in the next few blog posts, coving pulling a one-shot out of a published adventure – starting with expanding a shorter scenario into a full one-shot session.

Rime of the Frostmaiden: Unsure Footing

We’ll start with Unsure Footing, available at the link here from Wizard’s Stay In And Game promotion (under the D&D Celebration 2020 Header). It’s a starter adventure for Rime of the Frostmaiden, so it’s all frozen cursed north, but it also has lots of talking animals in, which is right up my street. It’s actually designed to be four 1-hour adventures where the PCs can complete up to 4 of them, but for this example we’ll just look at Unsure Footing, the first mini-quest they can do.

Fig. 1 – Unsure Footing Basic Structure

Summarising the plot as written, it looks like Fig. 1. The PCs are rescued from an avalanche by some awakened animals, and introduced to a talking walrus called Mother Tusk, who asks them to help her by rescuing some otters who have not returned. They track the otters to find them in a cave full of ice slides pursued by wolves, who they fight. They then have to try to warm up and survive the frozen trek back to safety with the otters. It’s designed to take about an hour.

To begin with, let’s look at what can be fleshed out easily here – the Avalanche scene at the start is a very quick, and peril-free, encounter – let’s make a bit more of that. While it sounds like an exciting scene, an awakened muskrat appears immediately and guides them to safety – there’s no need for the dice to hit the table at all, much less any actual peril.

And an arctic survival challenge to return isn’t much of a finale for a one-shot; the wolves fight could be, but I’m not sure if even on ice slides a fight with a few wolves is big enough. When you rescue the otters, they mention that they were running away from an owlbear, so let’s have him appear at the exit to the caves and a final fight with him. One big bad in D&D is often swingy (and let’s not worry about owlbears being CR 3 for our 1st level party for now), so let’s give him some minions – maybe a flock of evil owls who herald him.

Hacking the avalanche, we can have the muskrat ride to the rescue after a few rounds of avalanche peril – firstly requiring Acrobatics, Athletics, or Survival checks from everybody (keep these relatively easy at DC 8 for now) to avoid taking 1d4 damage from the buffeting snow, and then have a warm-up fight on the shifting snows for a couple of rounds. To foreshadow the ‘big bad,’ we’ll have a flock of owls attack them – at CR 0 they won’t be too much of a threat, but the need to make a skill check each round to maintain footing will be the real challenge. Again, this is more of a warm-up fight, but let’s have 5 owls attack – they can only do 1hp damage a round, so the avalanche is more of a threat than them.

Have the muskrat appear and rescue them on the third round no matter what, and take them to Mother Tusk, where – it is a one-shot after all – they get a slap-up meal of whatever awakened animals can muster and have a Long Rest so they’re all ready for the adventure proper. Not only does the walrus tell them about her otters, but speaks of a terrifying owlbear who has been stalking them, in a pretty-obvious foreshadowing of the big bad. Maybe she even talks of the flock of owls as his heralds.

They can track the otters, find them, and fight the wolves as normal – this is a really cool scene – and let’s have some clues available – the wolves seek to sacrifice the otters to the owlbear to appease them, leaving room for them to join forces when the owlbear attacks.

The ‘getting warmed up in the cave’ bit, I can take or leave. I think the point is meant to be to reinforce how deadly the environment is, but it reads a bit attritional to me – and they’ve got to have a tough fight after this, so I’d be loathe to give my PCs any exhaustion at this stage. I think I’d probably have, depending on the group, one of the below options

  • The “Trad” Option – getting warmed up and out of the ice slide cave is a skill challenge, 5 successes before 3 failures on a DC 10 check of an appropriate skill. On a success they make it out and can compose themselves before the fight – give everyone inspiration. On a failure, they still make it out but are tired and drained – they’ll have disadvantage on all rolls for the first round (including initiative)
  • The “Story” Option – ask the players to montage how they escape – maybe finding another route through the ice caves, encountering other creatures, and making inventive ways to climb up and get warm. You can use the 13th Age Montage system, or just go round and ask for mini-scenes.

And then let’s add a fight with the “owlbear.” Let’s reskin the owlbear as a CR 1 Brown Bear, but with Beak instead of Bite and darkvision. A quick calculation shows that having 6 CR 0 Owls with him should make for an encounter just between Hard and Deadly for 5 PCs, and if they have the wolves helping them we could beef up the number of owls a bit.

And there you are – a con-length one-shot from a short mini-encounter. In the next post I’ll dig into ways to do this more generally from mini-adventures (including looking at one for WFRP instead of D&D) and how this can work.