Last Updated on January 22, 2023
Largely because of the discomfort of online play — jittery video, microphones on mute, the endless agonizing series of half started sentences and missed nonverbal cues — and the mental fatigue it induces, I’ve been trying to cut down my gaming sessions to between two and three hours, and I’m not the only one.
“Let’s Stop There”
More and more, no matter whether you’re playing D&D 5e or any other tabletop roleplaying game, the actual length of time spent at the table — especially in online groups that used to play in person — seems to be shrinking across the board (so to speak).
As a result, I’ve been feeling this increased pressure to make sure that none of the precious two or three hours I spend playing D&D each week is “wasted.”
I want to get through the adventure and stir up conflict, and if I didn’t have at least one really awesome encounter, combat, or interaction in a session, I feel like the time was wasted and my players must hate me.
If I could just take a moment to scoop up this pile of gibbering DM neuroses and shovel it into the big, demonic-rune-inscribed box marked “Show to Therapist,” we can get back to the idea of a “wasted” adventure.
Obviously, the idea of wasting a session is largely nonsense; I know my players, and they have just as much fun wandering around village markets and getting drunk with blacksmiths as they do when they’re neck deep in ghouls and goblins.
Some might say more fun, but goblins and ghouls are what I sold everyone on as the core concept of this campaign and, also importantly, I’m here for the goblins and ghouls.
So, what I want to talk about today is how to maximize the time you spend doing all the juicy bits of D&D — the dungeons, the dragons, the plot — and cut down the flab.
I’m not saying the flab is bad at all.
I’ve enjoyed haggling for 40 minutes with shopkeepers in the past (on both sides of the DM screen), but I think that that style of play benefits more from a different context to the current “two hours over Discord on a weeknight” format that I think a lot of people have been stuck with for the past few years.
In the “olden days” (a time and place that barely exist but are going to be yanked from the void as a means to the end of this metaphor), a session of D&D could last all day.
Four hours is often spoken about as being the minimum length of time for a game, and adventure design reflected that.
Modules designed to last “one or two sessions” could easily eat up eight to 10 hours of play in person.
Take that online where things tend to run slower anyway, and a one or two session adventure is suddenly four sessions minimum.
So, how do we go from a four-hour in-person session and hit the same amount of content in two to three hours?
(This is also totally a valid question to apply to shorter in-person sessions as well; I’ve just been exclusively curtailed to online play for almost three years now, so that’s the perspective I’m coming from).
As with the 5 Ways To Speed Up Combat article I did the other week, I have a few solutions that vary in terms of how drastically they’re going to affect your game.
Pick one, pick two, or smash them all together into an unholy house rule cronenberg monster. These are just some ideas that have worked for me.
Getting Player Buy-In
Before I get into all the somewhat drastic ways you can squeeze all the D&D you can out of a single session, I should stress that if you’re going to give one or more of these methods a try, they might require a little bit of player-DM communication ahead of time.
A lot of what I’m about to suggest breaks with the natural flow of a D&D session, not to mention handwaves some of the things that people might see as an essential part of the adventuring experience.
We’re going to mess around with time, we’re going to expect players to be committed to the adventure beforehand rather than sitting around all evening in a tavern, and all this requires your players to buy into the goal of squeezing as much D&D out of the session as possible.
If everyone isn’t on board, you might face accusations of “railroading,” and while it’s true that this style of session puts the game on a bit more of a linear track, in a shorter campaign or a one shot especially, the juice is definitely worth the squeeze.
“You Don’t All Meet in the Tavern”
Any DM who starts a session in a tavern and isn’t prepared to conduct the entire session in the tavern is lying to themselves.
It’s not that PCs in a tavern don’t know where the plot is. They know that the broody looking man in the corner with a cloak pulled low over his eyes is waiting to tell them about a secret quest. And it’s not like they don’t want to go on the quest.
It’s just that first they’d like to know what’s on the menu at this inn, whether the beer’s good, if they can play their lute to get the beer for free and why not, and whether they can lure the innkeeper outside to beat them up for not accepting lewd songs as payment, and… you get the idea.
If you want the players to do a dungeon and you only have a limited amount of time to do the dungeon, then start the session outside the dungeon.
Likewise, if you want to run a short campaign, don’t spend a single minute in a tavern.
Set the rule that the first 10 minutes of every session are for figuring out what you did during downtime, after which you jump-cut the story to the start of the adventure.
This is called hard framing, and it will speed up your game immensely. Start in medias res (to borrow a film term), and start the night by describing the entrance to the ancient temple looming out of the jungle or the fearsome cry of a hellhound on the party’s trail. Or just ask them to roll for initiative.
When I do this, I like to start strong and then, once the first encounter is out of the way, work backwards a little with questions that establish and flesh out the stuff that happened back in town.
You can phrase questions in a way that both lets the players take a little turn in the DM’s chair — getting them to flesh out the world — but also supplies them with information and prevents them from accidentally rewriting important bits of your prep.
For example, the session begins with the players locked in a life or death struggle with an undead tiger in the ruins of an ancient temple.
One of the players frightens the tiger away with a silver holy symbol, and it flees deeper into the ruins.
As the party collects themselves to resume the hunt, I ask the player: “What was it about the story told by the only villager who survived an attack by the beast that let you know it fears silver?”
This is an especially effective device if you want to link several different adventures into a short campaign. You can also use these establishing questions I mentioned above to fill in the blanks between the two adventures.
“When you think back on the man who brought you the piece of paper with the whereabouts of the cult’s next meeting, in retrospect, what was it about him that should have let you know this was a trap?”
Followed by “What small item did you manage to hang onto when the cult threw you into their dungeon?” and “You recognize one of the cultists as a villager you rescued from the temple last session. What do you say to them as they pass your cell?”
These kinds of questions let the players have a little more narrative control that I think D&D 5e players are used to, and I’ve never yet done this for a group and not had a good response.
Flashbacks of Inspiration
One of the reasons I think that players mess around so much in town is that they want to make sure they “complete” all the available options.
This is quite a video-gamey approach, but I understand the desire to exhaust every possible branch of a dialogue tree before moving on.
I can also understand that players in a game where the opportunity to wander around town for a day hiring retainers, questioning townsfolk, and buying rope might feel cheated if you throw them into a game where they, as players, haven’t had all that prep time.
So, the solution (which I’m liberally cribbing from John Harper’s amazing ttrpg Blades in the Dark) is to allow players to spend inspiration to “flash back” to a moment before and rewrite a small piece of history.
For example, in a jailbreak scenario, the escaping players have been imprisoned for a week and are finally busting out only to come face to face with a prison guard just a few feet from the exit.
A player who has inspiration burns it to flash back to earlier that day to the moment where she discretely poisoned the guard’s dinner, or when she bribed him, or anything else she thinks is plausible.
The DM has her roll (there should always be a chance of failure) or rolls, or both, and then time resumes as the outcome is revealed.
Perhaps the guard lets them pass, or slumps to the ground sick to his stomach, or draws his sword and raises the alarm.
The point is, the momentum of the session wasn’t disrupted by approaching time in a completely linear way.
I know, I know. It’s quite a drastic house rule, and fair warning — it will change the way that 5e feels to play, but for a one shot or short campaign, I think it works great.
And lastly, once the climactic finale of the adventure has been reached, here’s a way you can wrap things up in a way that’s satisfying and prevents the players from sitting around for 10 minutes, slowly losing interest as you wind everything down: ask the players.
Ask your players what happens next. Why not? If the adventure and the campaign are over, what’s to stop you from relinquishing your hold on this universe a little?
Ask the players questions about what’s happening to their characters a few days, or week, or months — even years down the line?
Ask specific questions like: “What kind of cosmic justice befalls that nobleman who betrayed you?” and “What kind of business does your character start, and why does it fail?”
None of this is especially revolutionary, but here comes the fun bit: You can also use “epilogues” mid-adventure. Heck! You can use them mid-session.
When an encounter ends, ask the group a leading question (remember: don’t give them too much control, especially if you’re midway through an adventure. And always retain your veto privileges), and give whomever answers inspiration.
- “You finish off the last of the goblins… What do you find in the leader’s pockets that lets you know they’ve got a camp somewhere in the hills to the north?”
- “What is it about the goblins that lets you know they worship the evil dragon goddess Tiamat?”
- “What signs of other goblin attacks do you see as you make your way out of the mountains?”
By effectively outsourcing bits of the DM’s role as a scene describer (while also ensuring that your players get the critical information they need, like “there are goblins about, and they worship Tiamat”), you’re making sure that your session is a lot more full of people roleplaying together rather than your players sitting around listening to you narrate or you sitting listening to your players argue about whether to rob a shopkeeper.
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I played my first tabletop RPG (Pathfinder 1e, specifically) in college. I rocked up late to the first session with an unread rulebook and a human bard called Nick Jugger. It was a rocky start but I had a blast and now, the better part of a decade later, I play, write, and write about tabletop RPGs (mostly 5e, but also PBtA, Forged in the Dark and OSR) games for a living, which is wild.