The best campaigns last 4 hours

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Random thoughts

I’ve been spending an awful lot of time on my laptop recently. I’m not getting much out of it except a tendinitis. Made me wonder about D&D characters who crawl dungeons non-stop. Do they ever get nagging injuries from the repetition of the same combat motions repeated over and over again? I can’t wait to tell the cleric in my game that he’s got a tennis elbow from swinging that hammer of his too much. A monk with arthritis would also get a chuckle out of me.

The one-game adventure – tournament style

This is one of my all-time favorites, but I hardly get to do it because it takes a lot of preparation. The first time I participated in a D&D tournament, I was in high school. I had no clue what to expect. Showing up with dice was all we had to do.

When we sat down in the room with the 2 DMs – yes, 2 – the rules were explained:

  • The clock is ticking even though the actual adventure hasn’t started. In 4 hours the game is over.
  • A brief description of 5 characters is read to the 5 players. The players each choose 1 character before looking at the specific stats.
  • The players have one private background & role-playing info sheet that they must keep private.
  • Once all the characters are handed out, the players decide when they are ready to start the game. The longer they take to familiarize themselves with the characters, the less time they have to complete the quest. But the quest will be a hard one and the characters skills and abilities might all have a specific use in the game.
  • The game starts and there is a storyline that forces the players to rush through the quest – meaning they must finishing in 4 hours of real-time.
  • No holds barred. No pity. It’s a deadly adventure from the very first minute. Tough fights and mind-numbing puzzles.
  • We were judged on a bunch of factors (role-playing, efficiency, success, etc.) that don’t really matter unless you’re really running a tournament.

There are a number of things that make this tournament style game fun.

The characters are not meant to be played over a long campaign

That can be a refreshing change from the same old characters the players have been playing for years. It also means that the emotional attachment to the character is not the same. That makes a big difference for the DM. I love being totally ruthless but rarely get to do it. I’m nice like that.

The biggest impact it has is on the roleplaying. You can have complex character interactions that would become annoying over a long campaign. The characters are created by the DM and the players are not allowed to share all the information about their characters. So there can be – no there should be – friction between characters. Who cares if they get into a dispute that cannot be settled – it’s a four hours game!

The encounters are tougher

Too bad if a character is lost along the way. Freed of all the restrains of planning for the long-haul, I can really push the players’ limits. The characters are also created for this specific adventure. They will have skills and abilities that will allow the whole group to survive combats or traps. Everyone relies on everyone else. And since the PCs are tailor-made for the adventure, the situations can be prepared more thouroughly – they will be spectacularly detailed, and deadly.

You won’t be late for your appointment

It’s over after 4 hours. You can plan for an afternoon appointment.

The players get a sneak peak at the dungeon master’s side of the tale

The players get to read the entire DM notes after the game! Isn’t that great for them? They could never do that in a normal game or they would find out what’s going to happen next – or find out that their DM improvizes and fudges dice rolls.

Seeing the players panic when time is almost up is priceless

My players are smart and there’s usually not that much pressure to perform perfectly and quickly. They plan their expeditions well. Their characters are well thought-out. But in a tournament style game they are completely out of their comfort zone. The first time I saw a headless chicken run around I thought it looked like a character near the end of tournament style game.

Making it a tournament

If you want to make it a tournament and publicize the event and have people subscribe you are in for a ton of work. But it’s worth it. I have played in 2 tournaments like the one I just described and held three of them. Each module was about 60 pages thick – for 4 hours of play it is a lot of work. I had between 5 and 12 parties going through the same quest and they success rate – meaning the good guys won – was about 30% with about 80% of the parties making it to the final scene.

If you’re interested in holding an event like this one I’ll be happy to offer my counsel.

4 thoughts on “The best campaigns last 4 hours”

  1. I’m actually fairly interested in running an event like this, but the whole concept of scoring a game like this is difficult to understand. This may be an old article, but if anyone would like to share insight, I’d love to hear it.

  2. Early death is what makes this kind of game exciting. There’s no emotional attachment and no reason to fudge the dice so early death could happen but the game should be planned to keep the players in the game at least 2 hours.

    I’ve had to kill overconfident characters in a tournament-style game.

    In my ongoing campaign I warn my players out-of-game that they are developping the Chosen One Syndrome if they get too reckless.

    Can’t do that in the 4 hour campaign though. It definitely adds an edge to the game.

  3. Just curious, but how did you handle the players who’s characters died early on, leaving them with nothing to do for the rest of the 4 hours?

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