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The One-Hour D&D Game
Legends and Lore
Mike Mearls

T his week, I'd like to talk about one of our design goals in general terms so that you can gain a sense of how we're approaching the next iteration of the game.

Replaying the 1981 Basic Set recently has been eye opening. Even including the rules I've added to the game, character creation took somewhere between 5 and 10 minutes. In about 45 minutes of play, we created an entire party of adventurers (dwarf fighter, human magic-user, halfling thief), kicked off an adventure with the characters just outside of a ruined keep, and explored six different rooms in a small dungeon. That exploration included two battles with goblins and hobgoblins. We played at a fairly relaxed pace. There was plenty of roleplaying between the characters and frequent questions on the rules as the players navigated both basic D&D and my house rules.

In my mind, D&D must absolutely support this type of play. By no means should it be the only way to play D&D, but it must be an enjoyable way to play the game that doesn't come across as a crippled or incomplete experience. You should be able to play a complete adventure in an hour. Not a single encounter, not a character creation session, but a complete scenario that would strike any reasonable player as an adventure with a beginning, middle, and end. That statement was one of the guiding principles that helped launch this entire process.

So what exactly should happen in an hour? One of the first proof of concept adventures I ran captures what I'm aiming at. In this adventure, the characters bought a treasure map from a halfling, traveled through a forest to the purported location of an orc lord's tomb, dodged a few traps in the tomb and solved a puzzle needed to gain access to the inner sanctum, battled skeletons that ambushed them, and then defeated the vengeful spirit of the orc lord and the animated statues that guarded his tomb. With the orc lord laid to his final rest, the characters claimed his magical axe and a small cache of gems.

This sort of adventure is exactly what I'd like players to experience in the next iteration of the game. In the adventure I ran, there was an NPC to interact with, a puzzle to solve, a couple of tense battles, and a reward at the end of the line. It shouldn't surprise you that the three pillars of D&D that we've talked about—combat, exploration, and interaction—all played a key role in the adventure. Best of all, the adventure created a consistent sense of tension. The fights were brief but sharp, with the characters pushed to the edge of defeat before rallying to victory. The puzzle in the tomb and the interaction with the halfling each took about as much time as both of the fights.

Ideally, if we aim for a complete adventure in an hour, we hit a few important milestones:

  • The core rules are easy to use. They create a game that moves quickly but is still satisfying.
  • Character complexity doesn't spill on to the table and slow the game down. It's OK for someone to have a complex character. It's irritating if that character takes significantly longer to resolve typical actions.
  • Monsters are easy to understand at the table. This relates to the statement about characters above. It's OK for some monsters to be complex, but that complexity should give the DM a flexible, challenging monster, not one that needs lots of time to resolve at the table.
  • The DM needs rules that can allow for adventures with as many fights as needed, from a single big brawl to a number of shorter fights. I'd like to see an adventure design system that gives me a suggested total XP value for monsters and traps to use so that I can push the characters to the limit of their abilities. I can then spend that XP for one battle, lots of little battles, or just sprinkle monsters in an environment as I choose.

Of course, I don't expect everyone to give up how they've been playing D&D for years to focus on running one-hour adventures. By focusing on this benchmark, however, we create a starting point that we can use to expand to longer sessions of play. It's much easier to create a game that supports a one-hour session, and then use that to build out to two-hour, four-hour, or day-long gaming.

Ideally, focusing on the adventure as the basic unit of DM design also helps us cover different campaign styles. A sandbox DM can stock a region as one or more adventures, using higher-level XP targets to map the peril inherent in an area. The forest next to town might be built with enough monsters and treasures to equal one or two 1st-level adventures, while the forbidding mountains to the south are stocked with the equivalent of a 10th-level adventure. By focusing on an adventure—or a play session, depending on how you approach things—we can build a system that is more flexible and better matches the different styles that DMs bring to the table.

Last Week's Poll Results

What do you think of Mike's approach to turning the undead?
I prefer this approach to turning undead over previous versions. 1919 47.3%
I like the version of turning found in basic D&D, AD&D, and 2nd Edition D&D. 613 15.1%
I like the idea of turning undead, but I don't like any of these versions. 533 13.2%
I like 4th Edition's version. 504 12.4%
I like 3rd Edition's version. 346 8.5%
I don't think turn undead should be in the game. 138 3.4%
Total 4053 100.0%

Mike Mearls
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He led the design for 5th Edition D&D. His other credits include the Castle Ravenloft board game, Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition, and Player’s Handbook 2 for 3rd Edition.
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