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