I’ve got two sessions of D&D under my belt after our summer hiatus. The group is now smaller, with only four PCs, so I had expected that fights would be quicker and I’d easily be able to get in two per session, based on a 3 hour session. I thought this would work out well, since often, before, we’d only get in one fight a night due to the length of combat. I figured 45 minutes per fight left an hour and a half of random chit chat and role playing. Another consideration was the pace of advancement; I wanted the group to level up at nearly the same rate, even though we are now meeting only every other week.
This plan has not worked out well, at all. The primary reason seems to be the length of our sessions is now considerably shorter. We’ve been much closer to two hours max for both weeks so far. There have only been two combat encounters, one per session, due to these time constraints. There has not been a conscious decision to shorten the sessions, it’s just different this time around. I don’t see this change as a bad thing, but I’ve had to reevaluate my goals for each evening of D&D as a result.
“There can only be one…”
With a hard limit of two hours, there’s really no way to get in more than one “normal” combat encounter. Even with a group of four (Essentials thief, slayer, cavalier, and mage) fights last at least 45 minutes. Admittedly, I have been bumping up the challenge a bit by pitting the party against foes balanced for a standard 5-PC group. But still, fights take a while, even with initiative trackers, open monster stats, and easy-to-play classes.
After turning it over in my head for a while, I’ve come to the conclusion that one major combat encounter per night is going to work out just fine. There are lots of benefits to this scheme. If I have a full two weeks to plan one single encounter, I can spend more time making it something special. I can find or create better maps, look for monsters and villains with interesting powers and abilities, or even write up a bit of flavor text ahead of time.
One fight per night also avoids another pitfall of my previous sessions. Many times, I would feel obligated to cram those two fights in each week regardless if it made sense for the story or not. Often, the group would take a different path than I expected, which made it tough to rationalize the fights I had prepared. Or, sometimes the exploration and roleplaying took quite a bit of time, and I felt like I had to rush to get to the next encounter, instead of letting it progress at a more reasonable pace. But when there’s only one fight to worry about, I have a bit more freedom.
For example, last week, the group was exploring a cave that held a temple of Tiamat. I had a fight with three abishai and a bunch of kobold minions ready to go. As the characters explored, I described the rooms and pretty much followed their lead. When it came to a natural point in the narrative, I plopped down my battle map and ran the encounter. It didn’t feel rushed or out of place at all; I simply waited for the opportune moment instead of railroading in a heavy-handed manner to “get the fights in”.
Moving in sloooooowwww mooootiionnnn…
Of course, there are some drawbacks to only having one encounter per session. Perhaps the biggest is the rate of experience gain. Previously, the group was leveling up fairly quickly, from level one to level seven in 17 sessions. That’s a level every two to three evenings of play. Figuring PCs level every six to eight fights or so, that roughly corresponds to two or three combats per evening for our previous sessions.
So what can I do when the goal is one fight a night? Going at that same rate of XP gain, my group would expect to level every three months, give or take. That is far, far too slow. Gaining a level is one of the biggest rewards a player can have, and generally means more to them than giving their character magic items or monetary rewards. So I have to adjust the rate of experience gain somehow.
This can be accomplished several ways. The key is to give them plenty experience for non-combat related actions. I am far more lenient with awarding experience points for overcoming puzzles and traps than I previously have been. I’ve started using lots of complexity one skill challenges, too. Even something simple like crossing a chasm in a cavern can be handled this way. It doesn’t take long to pass four skill checks, and you can “officially” reward XP equal to a monster of the PC’s level for doing so. I typically bump that up a bit, just to keep the pace going.
Another adjustment I made, as I said earlier, is to spend more on my XP budget than I normally would. I start off with the standard budget for five PCs, and often adjust upwards from there. This creates fights that are somewhat more challenging, which is another plus, as there is a sense of danger and intensity. I also use lots and lots of minions, often bringing them to the table in multiple waves, since they are easy to deal with while still making the PCs feel heroic. The mage and paladin like fighting the minions while the two strikers concentrate on the tougher foes. It’s a win win for everyone!
The “one fight per night” model isn’t for everyone, and I understand that. However, it seems to be what my group wants. Though I’d prefer a bit longer sessions personally, I am more than willing to accommodate my players. If there was one thing that this long D&D-less summer taught me, it’s that a little D&D is far better than none. With a few tweaks here and there, the one fight session should work out just fine.