Nathan Smith
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Running a Short-Term RPG Campaign On Time

April 1, 2021, 3:38 PMD&D

You've got three sessions, two hours apiece. There are seven players. None of them have used the virtual tabletop you use to run games. There are bound to be discord problems, Foundry problems, and more. How do you get it all done in three sessions without boring the players?

A normal session timeline

In my experience, D&D sessions go like this:

Session is scheduled for 6pm-8pm.

  • 5:45pm - I get on voice chat. I'm in Foundry putting the finishing touches on everything and reviewing my notes
  • 5:50pm - players start to show up, people start chatting
  • 6:10pm - the last player arrives
  • 6:17pm - chatting is winding down, or I nudge people to wind it down
  • 6:20pm - I ask the players to recap the last session and we start playing
  • 8:05pm - We end the session, chat for a bit
  • 8:20pm - We finish chatting and log off

That structure is pretty consistent - players are going to show up a bit late, the game will start a bit late. This is normal stuff, but when you're on a tight schedule with a small budget of sessions, you need to plan for it. Because in a one-shot/two-shot/three-shot type of game...

Everything is optional

Seriously, everything. I managed to get my players through the last session only by cutting things out. The final boss, a resurrected, undead dragon zombie pieced together from multiple sources of dragon parts? Cut. The chase sequence where the players had to flee from a horde of bloodthirsty goblins? Cut. An entire session's worth of quest? Cut.

All exposition, all enemies, all skill checks, all combat, it's all optional. I like to treat D&D like a social experience; the main goal is to interact with other people in a fun, meaningful way. Sure, hitting zombies with swords is fun, but even if all we do is talk for two hours, that doesn't mean the session wasn't a success. A session is only a failure when people don't have fun.

Leave yourself, and your players, some breathing room

When you're on a budget, you want to make sure to prepare less than you think players will finish. I talked a lot about cutting stuff, but it's easier to pad out the time you have with good old fashioned roleplaying than it is to remove a delicate piece of a carefully crafted narrative. Keep the plot points simple, easy to communicate, and something you can expand upon... or not, if you run out of time. The entire plot for my three session, seven player whirlwind:

  1. There's an evil dragon cult doing evil dragon stuff
  2. One member of the cult is trying to create an undead dragon with stolen parts from dead dragons.

And that's it. The fully expanded version that I ended up with looked like:

  1. A Harper sends the players on a mission, where they get the first inkling something is happening. They meet a person they will later find out is a member of the cult.
  2. A local woman's family has been kidnapped by goblins! The players see the goblins talking with a mysterious hooded figure and also the person they saw previously.
  3. After saving the woman's family, another captive tells the players that a dragon used to live in this cave! But it was killed, and missing some body parts.
  4. The Harper sends them to check on a friend, a priest of Kelemvor who cares for a crypt. The crypt is a trap! But underneath it is the evil necromancer's lab.
  5. The players stop the dragon cultist, preventing the zombie dragon from being raised.

That structure could have been expanded or could have been shrunk. If I hadn't gotten all the way through the goblin cave rescue, maybe the necromancer would have been there in the cave instead of underneath a crypt. There are so many ways to fit things into the time you have. Always be adjusting, reacting, and adapting.

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