30 in 30: High Speed D&D

Here’s a thought. What if at the end of every session, your characters increased in level. Every. Single. Time. That’s 30 levels in just 30 sessions. High Speed D&D!

There’s several advantages to this approach, both mechanically and thematically. In pure rules terms it means there’s no need to track XP at the gametable; just provide level-appropriate challenges and keep the action moving. The players get to tinker with their characters between sessions and always bring something new to the game that they’re eager to try. It’s also a great way to “test-drive” a class or race before letting it loose in your real campaign.

But there’s much, much more to it than that.

In a way, Fourth Edition D&D is structured like a traditional fantasy novel trilogy. There’s Book 1 – the Heroic Tier – where our heroes are capable and self-assured but not quite yet found their own identity in the world. In Book 2 – the Paragon Tier – the central characters have saved the world/vale/land/girl at least once and are established as heroes of the first order. By Book 3 – the Epic Tier – the heroes are true masters of their arts and are ready to face the Big Bad Uber-Villain in their own realm. Think of D&D in terms of a Raymond E Feist trilogy (Magician/Silverthorn/A Darkness at Sethanon, say), and you’re there.

In those terms, each game session is a chapter, and there’s 10 chapters in each book. That’s 30 sessions of game time, about 90 hours play if each session lasts around 3 hours. If you game once a week that’s well over 6 months of fun, and in that time the pace doesn’t let up at all. I’ll admit that the old grognard in me feels there’s a wrongness to all this – after all, I was brought in playing Classic D&D where you’d be lucky to increase a level in a year, never mind about every single session. But the point is that 4e D&D isn’t your grandma’s D&D. It’s a new game that brings new possibilities and opportunities to the table. And y’know what – some of them are Real Fun!

The key to pulling off this kind of High Speed D&D is to slightly change the way you, as GM, approach scenario design. Instead of thinking in terms of Encounters, think in terms of Events.

An Event is, basically, Something that Happens. Every single session should have one, and ideally no more than one. The Event is (aside from providing a fun night’s entertainment for a bunch of folks) the reason why the session happens. Going back to the book comparison, the Event is what happens in each chapter to move the story forward.

Example Events might include:

  • the heroes discover the identity of the killer
  • they discover a powerful magic item
  • the villain abducts one of the hero’s daughters/sons/goldfish
  • a clue is found
  • an unexpected ally appears
  • a birthday party
  • etc

Add on to that D&D Encounters as required by the plot and prefered gaming style. If your players like hack-and-slash, have the birthday party invaded by Orcs. Whatever. The important part is the Event, and how that moves the story forward. While the Event is what’s important, it’s the Encounters which set the pace. Put too many into one session and it bogs down and might roll over to the next session. Put too few (or none) and the hacky slasher players will get bored quickly. It’s cool to run a session with no combat encounters at all, but only you will know how your players will respond. In my group I aim for just one or two each session with the bulk of the game spent in role-playing and interraction. YMMV, of course.

Use tools such as Asmor’s Random Encounter Generator or my Monster Manual Encounter Table to put the encounters together for each level/session where they’re needed, but don’t over-fill. It’s easy enough to add another encounter on the fly in 4e D&D. It’s harder to take one away if you’re trying to weave a tale.

When it comes to allocating treasure, 4e’s Treasure Parcel system becomes redundant if you’re increasing the characters’ level after every single session. It’s pointless (and pretty silly) to try and give out a Treasure Parcel every game, so instead just give them what they need, when they need it. Weave the magic items into the plot so that the players feel that each one is special and unique. Just as magic items should be, in other words.

Here’s a quick bare-bones example showing the first five sessions I’m planning for a demon-themed campaign. I’m using just the Encounters listed in the Monster Manual, for simplicity and laziness.

Session 1/Level1
Location: Fallcrest
Event: Barstomun Strongbeard is murdered! His head is split in two.
Encounters: 2 Goblin Warriors, 2 Fire Beetles, 1 Goblin Blackblade

Session 2/Level2
Location: Fallcrest
Event: Heroes discover links between Barstomun and a cult who worship two-headed apes
Encounters: 2 Shadowhunter Bats, 1 Goblin Hexer (two-headed), 2 Goblin Skullcleavers

Session 3/Level3
Location: The Tombwood
Event: A clue leads the heroes into the Tombwood where a portal to the Feywild stands open!
Encounters: 1 Imp, 1 Goblin Hexer, 1 Goblin Skullcleaver, 2 Goblin Warriors, 4 Goblin Cutters

Session 4/Level4
Location: The Feywild
Event: They meet an unlikely ally – a Gnoll Huntmaster – who gives the an enchanted boneshard blade
Encounters: 1 Gnoll Huntmaster, 6 Hyenas

Session 5/Level5
Location: The Feywild, at the Court of the Forbidden King
Event: Discovery of a demonic plot to invade Nentir Vale through the Feywild!
Encounters: 2 Human Mages (both two-headed), 6 Human Lackeys, 1 Evistro Demon

Later sessions will pit the heroes against vicious two-headed apes, demons, cultists and worse until they finally get to face off against none other than Demogorgon himself! Not bad for 30 sessions, eh?

Till next time!

28 Comments on “30 in 30: High Speed D&D”

  1. Heh this is kind of how my current D&D campaign is going. It’s not intentional, and the last few sessions have managed to keep the players just shy of level 5; so it hasn’t been every session…but it’s close. All I’m doing is not dividing the XP rewards amongst the 4 players. This is intentional; since we’re all getting a bit older, the hosts of our gaming habitat have a couple of kids now, we decided this way we’ll see the game quicker but still give everyone enough time to fit into their shoes with new powers and such.

    Rev. Lazaros last blog post..Site Update 5/16/09

  2. I was actually contemplating something like this recently. I’m not sure what I’ll be running less, but I imagine it will run about three sessions and I want folks to get the most out of those three as is humanly possible.

    dr. checkmates last blog post..Time Capsule

  3. god, i’ve had a thread going about this subject on the wizards forums for a long time. I guess great minds think alike.

    Here is the thread where we talked about it for a while. This was a couple months ago now i guess…


    I’ve taken it a bit of a different way though, i must admist, making gold completely worthless and the game world has been completely destroyed, making the players rush towards epic level saviors of the world a much more important thing than in other games. The characters have a god-like artificier on their side who can make them an item every day, which allows them to keep gearing up at a fairly expedious rate.

    I was challenged by friends of mine to actually write the entire campaign from start to finish accounting for every single meeting and every single encounter before hand… yes, that means a LOT OF RAILROADING, but what do you expect, you’re getting a level every night, you’re going to have to follow the DM’s pace. I’m also running the game using a different style of Encounter setup, with several easy encounters during heroic tier and then fewer and fewer as the level increases.

    Check out the thread, i’ll have to talk to you more about this later. Peace!

  4. @shinobicow Hey that’s a great thread – thanks for the link. It’s good to know I’m not the only one thinking along these lines.

    I love the line “I think this is similar to how Jack Bauer (from ’24’) plays Dungeons and Dragons as well.”. Hehehe.

  5. lol, yea. Glad that you found it and thought it was interesting. It’s taking me an enormous ammount of work to actually plan my thirthy dame game out to its fullest. It’s kind of turning into more of a Gauntlet Legneds type scenario where the player’s have to go defeat an area, turn it upside down looking for items and keys, then use them to unlock other parts of the world. I’ve got some interesting homebrew rules that i’m using for it, which i’ll put up on my blog later, when i have more time to dedicate to it…. i’m in this one for the long hall, but i would kind of like to put together a general rules guideline for actually making your own 30 day game, using different assumptions about player level, time played each day, number of game sessions per week/month (my games met every day for a while there. We all live in the same dorm complex in Tokyo and during the winter, we didn’t have class and didn’t have money to go anywhere, so i taught them all to play DnD and we were advancing at a really rapid pace in order to showcase how different powers at different levels can work out, but still using the same characters that the players had gotten to know, in order to give them that same connection and desire for the character to grow and develop). I’m hoping that if i can do this, than people might actually use those rules guidelines to be some sweet, but rather simple, linear campaigns. Since you don’t have to worry about your players being miffed from railroading (since you’re essentially bribing them with a level and a sweet magic item in order to run the game the direction you want to run it) it wouldn’t be all that hard to make a vast world spanning linear adventure that puts the characters against some form of awesome end of the world power. And yes, Jack Bauer can come too :)

  6. This is a fantastic idea. My group finds it harder and harder to get together every week to play. Something about real life getting in the way (wife, kids, work, etc). By committing to this style of D&D you ensure that the PCs will get to play every level within a year, even if you don’t play every week. I’m going to suggest this to my guys and see if they’d like to try this for our next long-term (30 week) campaign. Thanks for the suggestion.

  7. Well, i tried to post before, but it doesn’t look like my comment showed up…

    I’m posting what i’m working on as far as my 30 day game goes. So far i’m plugging right along, but i haven’t gotten very far into planning the actual combat encounters and such, mostly its just been laying down house rules and elaborating on changes to the system. If you want to see what i’ve done with it head over to my blog: http://thedumpstat.blogspot.com

    Hope to get your comments on it.

    shinobicows last blog post..The 30 Day Game Part 1

  8. your experience may vary, but i tried to fast-track my 3.5 eberron campaign this way for a while, and my group hated it. with a burning hatred which made other, lesser burning hatreds cower and curse their pathetic hatefulness. i was kind of surprised by the reaction, but we returned to leveling every 3-4 sessions and they were much happier.

  9. @Drow Yes, it’s not something that would work for everyone, and certainly wouldn’t work for every game either. I’d be interested to know exactly what it was that they hated though, just out of curiosity.

  10. @wulf; i think they just like playing with the toys they have for a while before getting new toys. spellcasters in particular.

  11. Yes, yes, and yes. IMHO, Greywulf, you have nailed the description of a DMing/campaign approach that is coming out of the current state and evolution of hobby gaming.
    First, unlike the earliest days of RPGs where most players were high school or college age, many of us are well beyond those years and have much less time to play. Your approach makes the most of the limited gamign time we have by cutting out unimportant details in favor of story events that really matter. The downside, of course, is possibly losing some of the characrer development nuances and details, but I think it’s a fair price to pay.
    Second, it is a path to eventually using much more of the material provided in the core books than just Heroic Tier stuff. In my first two decades of playing D&D, no one ever advanced higher than 15th level and even then, that was after years of play. After a while I often felt all the high level spells and monsters and magic items were just filler. We tried a game starting as high level characters once, and no one enjoyed it because they hadn’t worked their way up, didn’t really know the abilities, and didn’t have any sense of real meaning or “history” from previous sessions. What you outlined solves this nicely. (I love your trilogy book analogy as well.)
    Finally, this approach starts to rival the feeling of “advancement” that MMOs have come to offer, and which many players look for. I can see that as my players have played MMOs over the past decade, they aren’t looking for a game that duplicates the online experience but they DO like seeing their characters progress in power and abilities. My group only meets once a month for 6-8 hours, so this approach will work well. I’ve tried to make our games advance at a faster rate without losing all sense of XP gain and it’s been moderately successful — the players are now 7th level after about 10 game sessions, or roughly 60 hours of play. I think I would prefer they were about 10th level by now, but none of them are really complaining so things seem to be on track.
    Most of all, I like your idea because it puts the characters and the story front and center. Ultimately, these are usually two of the most satisfying elements of most D&D games.
    Thanks for this great post!!

    Steve the DMs last blog post..Nentir Vale: The Unaligned

  12. @Drow Ah, that makes sense. This kind of high-speed playing is more of a high-speed taste test rather than a full blown satisfying meal, and in your players’ case they want the meal. That’s cool.

    @Steve Glad you like it and thanks for the kind words :D It does strike me that this is a direction that D&D is heading toward, and in some ways (if it’s a playstyle which appeals to your group), there’s a lot going for it too. Me, I like the choice. I’m planning a high-speed game which is going to give us space to play at all levels of the game, then bring that knowledge back to our slower campaign so we know what to expect. That’s the theory, anyhow.

  13. This is intriguing.

    I’ve already basically done away with tracking experience in my games, and just hand out levels when I feel it’s appropriate. Generally that happens at or after a major story event. But I’ve never done it quite that quickly. Usually it works out to 3-5 sessions.

  14. This is similar to how I plan to run my next campaign, except I was thinking of the tiers as seasons in a television series. 10 episodes per season, with the possibility of some 2-parters if I feel they haven’t accomplished enough for a level, or I just want to take longer in a certain level.

    I also plan to remove the enhancement bonus from magic items. No +2 longswords, or +1 full plate. I will still be giving out magical items, I just want them to be more meaningful than what is requirement to keep up with the leveling.

    I will be tweaking the NPCes in the background to balance against this. If you care to read about the math needed to balance this out, I have it posted on my blog:

    Milambuss last blog post..Time Stop, May 22nd

  15. I’m playing in four games right now, and two of them (which alternate on Thursday evenings) are doing this. So it’ll take twice as long, but it’s definitely speed D&D.

    It is fun, but I definitely prefer the dynamic of my Sunday games, where you get at least a few sessions’ practice with your powers before growing new ones.

  16. This is an incredible concept. On the issue of railroading, meticulously plotting something out like this can definitely lead to railroading of players and your typical A to B to C to etc. I can think of one way to defeat that, give the power to the players, and still use this system.

    To avoid railroading, change your focus. Don’t think about how the PCs would do something or what would happen to the PCs. The PCs don’t need to be the focus when designing the campaign.

    Focus on what the NPCs would do. Design the story from the villain’s point of view. Think about where the villain would go, who he would ally with, and what he would do. Don’t design a campaign to -ANTICIPATE- what the PCs would do. Design a campaign where the NPCs -REACT- to what the PCs do.

    In a fast moving campaign like this ‘High Speed D&D’ would feel like, you’re going to really have to avoid railroading. You can do this by fleshing out good NPCs with personalities and goals. Play them in a reactionary way as opposed to a anticipatory way.

    I hope that idea comes through. I could probably write an entire post on that. Maybe I will… :)
    .-= Samuel Van Der Wall´s last blog ..The DM’s Call: Information =-.

  17. @Samuel Thanks! You make a good point about railroading. I thing the key is to recognise that the story doesn’t belong to the GM; he’s just the one who sets events in motion. After that, the story really does start to develop a life as it’s own as each player takes a hand in the creation.

    For something like my Endday campaign there’s a definite, utter end in sight though the players could still affect the ultimate outcome. I’ve no idea how though, and finding that out is going to be a part of my fun :D

  18. Psychologically, your players may see the campaign as being a fraud. Rocketing through levels removes their intrinsic value as milestones as they are no longer earned by the players, but just doled out every session. I think you’ll have to be careful to avoid this perception, if it can be done.

    In addition, you’ve set up an expectation that the heroes cannot die (or they’ll never reach level 30), which might prove problematic if they do. At best, it might affect the perception of danger in encounters – at worst, removing it completely.

    Also, you’ve removed one of your primary reward mechanisms as a DM by doing this and will need a strong replacement to incentivise player behaviour.
    .-= The Recursion King´s last blog ..The best villians… =-.

  19. @RecursionKing

    If each session is filled with tension and good storytelling, then it can work. The point of this kind of campaign is to tell a story (and also, IMHO, to let both players and DMs actually experience 30 levels of character advancement.) When I ran D&D games in my teens and 20s, I always did XP “by the book”, and even though we played many sessions over years of time, my players were lucky to reach the low teens in levels after 4-5 years of play. Personally, I don’t want to have to make that kind of time investment to get a sense of character development and story progression.

    In my current game, we’ve played once a month for about a year now and the PCs are 8th level. Nothing feels “off” or too easy, we’re all having a good time, and no player has behaved as though they “cannot die” or that things are not ‘dangerous’. But even at this rate, it might take 4 more years for them to reach level 30! (Still too slow in my book.)

    In the end, your players will be the biggest factor in determining whether this can succeed. If the players get bored by this style of advancement, then your point is likely very true. They will be cored precisely because they don’t feel any tension or drama or threat to their characters. On the other hand, if your players are like mine and enjoy storytelling as well as seeing their characters advance and get new powers/skills, then it can work well.
    .-= Steve the DM´s last blog ..Nentir Vale: The Unaligned =-.

  20. Yep. The particulars of the game I run are slightly different from what Greywulf originally wrote. Sometimes we have to meet twice for them to complete a level’s-worth of encounters. But the overall effect is similar when compared to my previous campaign: there is much less time between levels.
    .-= Steve the DM´s last blog ..Nentir Vale: The Unaligned =-.

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