DnD 5e - Practical Guide to One-Hour D&D Sessions
Last Updated: March 4th, 2021
I, like many players, look forward to game sessions which can often run 4-6 hours, and that is the amount of play time to which I've become accustomed. But my schedule isn't as flexible as it used to be. I can't usually dedicate an entire afternoon to playing D&D, and I'm sure many of you fine folks reading this have found yourselves in similar situation where your desire to play dramatically exceeds your capacity to schedule play time.
Early in the days of Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition's design process, Mike Mearls published a post on WotC's D&D blog about running a Dungeons and Dragons session in one hour. (The archived version of the D&D site is borderline unusable, but Mearls' post is still easily accessible via the Web Archive).
Since reading that post nearly a decade ago, the idea of a one-hour D&D session has haunted my thoughts. Could this be done? Is it practical? What would it really take? What would it cost? Would it be fun?
In this article I will provide a method to run meaningful, engaging, and fun sessions of Dungeons and Dragons in one hour. No cheats, no tricks, no rule changes. I'm going to work within the framework of D&D 5e's official rules and prove to you (and to myself) that this can be done, that it can be fun, and that you (and my group and I) can play a one-hour one-shot or run a full campaign in one-hour sessions on Tuesday nights after your kids go to bed and still get to sleep at a reasonable time since you need to go to work tomorrow morning.
Table of Contents
- Before the Campaign Starts
- Anatomy of a One-Hour Session
- Adventure Design
- Running Published Adventures
- Running the Session
- Special Sessions
- Between Sessions
- Case Studies in the One-Hour Session
Before the Campaign Starts
Like any game of Dungeons and Dragons, you'll need to do some amount of prep work before you play. If you're already running an ongoing game, you may be able to skip parts of this, but you may want to make some adjustments based on the advice below to make things work smoothly in the one-hour format.
Like any good campaign, start with "Session 0". Make this your first one-hour session. Expect not to do any actual adventuring in this session, but spend that time making characters and setting expectations.
I also recommend my Pre-Game Survey to help determine the style and tone of your game, and to catch any problems which might arise during play. This is especially important for groups where the players might not know each other very well yet.
Your players will likely feel uncertain about one-hour sessions if this is their first time playing in a campaign with such short sessions. Some things will feel unusual, and some parts of the game may not see as much play as they may expect. Remember: different isn't necessarily bad. Keep an open mind, and this can be a lot of fun for everyone.
A few considerations around the characters the party will help to keep your game moving at a steady pace, which will help you fit more fun into a short session.
Keep the Party Small
I generally recommend parties of 3 to 6 player characters in a typical campaign, but in a one-hour session fewer players is necessary. I suggest 2 to 4 players since more players means that each player gets less time in the spotlight.
Try to avoid "pets" in the party. Anything that has its own pool of actions (familiars, summons, animal companions, etc.) will cause combat to take longer. Avoid them as much as you possibly can.
Keep Characters Simple
I love character optimization. But optimized characters are often complicated, and complicated characters frequently mean long, complicated turns. This is not the game for those characters. Sticking to character options included in the SRD is a great starting point, but if your group is extremely comfortable with the rules you can likely manage characters more complex than that.
While I understand the temptation, be very cautious when exploring any rules systems that are considered "optional". Feats and Multiclassing can create interesting characters, but they're also much more complex than single-class characters.
If you or your group are relatively new to the game, or if you just don't feel confident in your proficiency with the rules, consider running a game where all of the player characters use Sidekick classes. Sidekick characters are admittedly less powerful and less exciting than typical player characters, but they're also simpler so they're a great way to build proficiency with the game rules.
I can't realistically expect that everyone in your group will read this page (though I would love it if they did), but your players will need a basic understanding of a few points that will help them acclimate to one-hour sessions. The text below is intended to serve as a handout to your players, establishing a working agreement between you and them which explains what they can expect.
Copy+Paste the text below into a message or a physical handout to your group, ask the players to read it thoroughly, and consider pointing to the handout during game sessions if players are having trouble. If they're still stuck, point them back to this page.
One-Hour Session Primer
You're about to play in a One-Hour D&D Session. Keeping a few things in mind before and during your game will help make the game more fun for everyone.
- Minimize Distractions: Get comfortable before the game starts. Finish your snacks and drinks, put down your phone (unless it has your character sheet), etc. Plan to stay in your seat for an hour. In a one-hour session, if you let yourself be distracted, you're going to miss out on the fun.
- Keep Characters Simple: Keep your character mechanically simple. If your character requires a lot of tracking during the game or relies on a bunch of complicated mechanics like status effects or pets, save that character for a different game.
- One Short Rest During the Session: If there is more than one combat encounter during the session, there will be time for a Short Rest, and so long as you don't actively court disaster I as the DM will not interrupt that rest. Long Rests will occur between sessions, and generally characters will start each session fully rested.
- Pass the Spotlight Quickly: When you're talking, be concise so that everyone gets time to contribute. In combat, keep your turns short and act quickly.
- Decisive Action is Rewarded: Make decisions quickly and don't second guess yourself. The DM will not punish you for making an imperfect decision quickly. Focus on maintaining momentum and moving forward.
- Time is Precious: The session is only one hour long, and we want to do as much as possible in that hour. If we have time, we may run a few minutes over if everyone's schedule allows it, but we will try to fit everything into one hour. If we are short on time, I as the DM may cut parts of the session, and I'll tell you what we skipped after the session.
- If it Can Be Done Between Sessions, it Probably Will Be: Things like long rests, leveling up, buying items, and sometimes even talking to minor NPCs (Shopkeepers, etc.) will be done between sessions. During the session, we're adventuring.
- There Are Exceptions to Every Rule: Generally, all of the rules above will hold firm, but occasionally the DM needs to go outside the confines of those rules.
Resting effectively slams the brakes on your session. Your group might be carving their way through a dungeon, when suddenly the spellcaster declares nap time and everything stops while everyone checks boxes or flips cards or rolls hit dice or whatever else you need to do.
Setting expectations for when you as the DM will allow rests will help maintain the pace of your game. This doesn't require changes to the official rules or use of a variant rule (though we'll discuss them below); just a friendly agreement between you and your party.
Everyone Starts Fresh
Everyone begins every session (with exceptions for two-part sessions) as though they had just completed a long rest. Provided that your previous session ends at a natural stopping point (which is the goal of the One-Hour D&D Session), assume that the party took at least one Long Rest between sessions. That (usually) means full hit points, spell slots, etc.
If the party ended part-way through an adventure, consider giving them a Short Rest instead as a compromise. That means that players go into the session with most or all of their points, and many characters will recharge class features so that they don't spend the session relying on cantrips and regular weapon attacks and asking when they can take a nap.
Expect One Short Rest
Plan to take one Short Rest per game session. Expect it to happen somewhere in the middle of the hour, especially right after a combat encounter, and make it as fast as possible. Consider taking the average of hit dice rolled, or simply raise the characters to full hit points. Ideally, they'll be taking a Long Rest at the end of the session so there's no other time to use their hit dice, and on average rolling all of a character's hit dice restores a number of hit points roughly equal to their hit point maximum unless they have certain racial traits or feats.
If you want to squeeze a character moment into the tiny bit of downtime in your hour-long session, ask the players to describe in one sentence what they do while resting. Counting treasure, polishing their weapon, playfully teasing a party member, etc. can all say a lot about the character without spending minutes talking through a charming, but lengthy character interaction.
You might reasonably ask "why include a short rest at all?" The answer is purely for class balance reasons. If you have a long rest at either end of the adventure, spellcasters like the Druid and the Wizard get way more powerful compared to characters like the Battle Master Fighter and the Warlock, both of which depend on short rests to recharge their class features.
But if your group isn't concerned about that balance discrepancy, going without short rests can be totally fine. Some sessions won't require a short rest (such as if there's only one combat encounter) either way, but some groups may choose to ignore short rests even in extended campaigns. There are few wrong answers here, so do what works for your group.
Don't Interrupt Rests
Unless the players do something truly, profoundly, and impressively stupid, don't interrupt their rest during the session. If you do that, that one encounter becomes the session. The players will be short on resources which allow them to quickly defeat their enemies and re-conducting all of the rest tracking will eat a lot of time on top of the mental context switching which the players need to do in order to go from adventuring to resting to fighting to resting then back to adventuring.
That said, interrupting a long rest can be an exciting and surprising session in a long campaign. However, I recommend only doing this once as it can become a frustrating trope if it's a reoccurring event.
Long Rests Between Sessions
Players take a long rest between sessions. It's that simple. All the complicated stuff like preparing spells and such all gets neatly shuffled off to the hundreds of hours which take place between your precious hour-long chunks of play time.
Anatomy of a One-Hour Session
In 60 minutes, you can do a surprising amount of gaming, but you'll need to set some expectations for yourself before you plan your adventures in order to have a good sense of how much you can actually fit into one session.
To measure how much we can fit into one session, we'll break up our one hour into 12 blocks of roughly 5 minutes each. With a budget of 12 blocks, we can then "spend" that budget to put things into our session. A typical self-contained one-hour session will require one block for exposition at the beginning and one block for wrap-up at the end, so you'll usually have 10 blocks to work with (though there are always exceptions). Special Sessions (see below) may not require this planning step, or may require that you approach it in an unusual way.
I've listed some ideas below for typical things to put into your sessions with an estimated block cost. The blocks are presented in alphabetical order, and I fully expect that people will mix and match them in wonderful and unexpected ways. With the possible exception of the Exposition and Wrap-Up blocks, none of these blocks are absolutely necessary in any one session. Use what you need, and skip what you don't. Just be sure to keep your sessions diverse to keep your game interesting.
- Combat (1 or more blocks): If a combat is so trivial that you expect it to end in one turn, it's worth only 1 block. A typical combat should be worth 2 blocks. An unusually complex encounter should be 3 blocks. If you need more blocks for one encounter, consider a Boss Fight session. For help deciding how complex your encounter is, see Encounter Complexity, below. For tips on keeping combat fast, see Running Combat, below.
- Decision Point (1 block): A meaningful decision point in the adventure, such as opening one of two potentially dangerous doors, will often justify a brief discussion from the party. In that case, allocating a block will give the players a moment to talk. You may be able to combine this with a Short Rest block to squeeze some more content into your adventure.
- Exposition (1 block): The stuff at the beginning of the adventure that sets the scene before you set the players loose. Include a brief description of any events which happened "off screen", such as traveling, mundane stuff like camping and foraging, and anything else that would happen without the players needing to do anything strenuous.
- Puzzle (1-2 blocks): Depending on how complicated your puzzle is (or how bad your party is at puzzles), you may need to allow more time for your party to work it out. See Designing Puzzles below for suggestions on how to design puzzles which won't eat a ton of play time.
- Short Rest (1): Players will need a moment to mark things on their character sheets, roll hit dice, etc. This is a great way to have time pass in-game (traveling between locations, waiting for an event, laying a trap for a foe, etc.), and you may even be able to squeeze some inter-player roleplaying in while people roll hit dice and such.
- Social Interaction (1 or more blocks): Talking to people takes up a surprising among of time even for the most basic social interactions. If the scene is worth roleplaying, it's worth a block or two of time, but it's up to you know to know what scenes are worth roleplaying.
- Treasure Horde (1 block): If your players ask to loot bodies, tell them that they find pocket lint, and you'll give them a handful of coins at the end of the session. But when they find some significant quantity of treasure, such as a laden chest or a dragon's horde, take a few minutes to describe it to them a little. This is especially important if they find magic items or other expensive items. You can give them exact values after the session, but they may want to use the magic items right away.
- Wrap-Up (1 block): "The boss is dead, good night" is a deeply unsatisfying conclusion to an hour of swashbuckling adventure. Take a few minutes to describe what happens after the fighting and looting are done. You want to leave the players in a good position to either go straight to adventuring the next session or to perform downtime activities between sessions. Leaving the party in the depths of dungeon is like leaving dirty dishes in the sink. It's fine if you're out of time, but you need to clean up after yourself at some point. (Yes, there are dirty dishes in my sink right now.)
Adventure and Session Design
Accommodating a one-hour game session will require that you, the DM, make some adjustments to the way that you plan, write, and prepare adventures.
Your players have one hour. What are they going to do with it? Are they going to acquire an item? Defeat a challenge? Answer a question? In a one-hour session, the analysis paralysis imposed by an open field of possibilities can cause your game to grind to a halt. Picking a goal for your sessions can do a lot to keep your sessions on track and your players engaged.
This goal should be specific and achievable within the scope of the session. If your adventure is a dungeon crawl, "clear the dungeon of monsters" is a sufficiently specific goal, but may not be achievable within a one-hour session unless you keep the dungeon small enough to fit into the session.
Once your goal is set, consider sharing this goal with your players. Having the whole group aware of the goal of the session gives players a guiding principle that will influence their actions and help them make decisions. For example, if your players know that the goal of a session is to recover an item from an enemy, they may look for expedient ways to recover that item without bogging the session down in back-to-back combats as the players fight their way through multiple encounters.
You don't always need to tell players the goal of the session. Sometimes if it serves your story it's best to not reveal a goal or to give players a goal that is intentionally misleading. Just remember that giving the players a goal before the sessions can be a helpful tool to direct the outcome of the session and use that tool as you see fit.
The 5-Room Dungeon, a revolutionary and defining concept in adventure design, is easy to convert into a one-hour session. If you keep in mind other advice I've laid out on this page, you can fit a 5-room dungeon into a one-hour session perfectly, giving you a satisfying adventuring experience every session.
If you sign up for Johnn's Newsletter (which I enjoy quite a bit), he'll send you a link to download his free 5-Room Dungeons PDF, which includes roughly 50 pages of very sound DM advice followed by a 250+ page compilation of 5-room dungeons. Whenever I need to get an adventure together in a hurry, I crack this thing open, pick a 5-room dungeon at random, put my own spin on it, build out the encounters, and throw together a quick map. All told, you can turn one of the 5-room dungeons into a real, detailed adventure in about half an hour (depending on how much time you put into the maps and such).
Designing puzzles for an adventure is an art, and one that deserves its own lengthy article. So rather than send you off to some other page to read up on how to design an elaborate, intricate puzzle, I'm going to suggest some extremely basic advice that should help you produce puzzles which are fun and interesting without turning into a massive time sink.
The Concept of Your Puzzle
Keep the concept simple. Like, ridiculously simply.
I once wrote a puzzle where the players flipped a series of switches on a machine to make it spit out a prize, and behind the scenes each switch made a formula add or subtract 1 with the goal of reaching a total value of 0. My group is pretty smart, and most of them are really good at math, puzzles, and games of all sorts. That puzzle took my party half an hour. There were four switches.
A one-hour session does not have time for a 30-minute puzzle. You have maybe 10-15 minutes at most. Whatever your concept is needs to be incredibly simple. If a player can solve the puzzle by saying one sentence, that's a good indication that it's simple enough.
If you need inspiration, here are some ideas and examples of how to use them:
Fill in the Blank
A very simple word puzzle. Give the players a sentence with a missing word that they need to discover, guess, or otherwise solve. Wherever possible, accept synonyms. If the answer is "leap" and your players say "jump", let them have it.
- Before you stands a mighty set of stone doors. You see no handles or any other mechanism to open them. Carving in the stone arch above the door are words written in ancient runes, but the text has faded as the ages have weathered the stones. "Here is buried Corgold the Wretched. Long may they..." the final word is indecipherable.
The players need to recite the full sentence aloud to open the door. They might reasonably answer "reign", "rule", "rest", or something else. But the puzzle is that the dungeon was built by Corgold's enemies to prevent him from returning, so instead the answer could be "rot", "suffer", or something similar.
This dungeon would likely include clues as to the nature of Corgold and the creatures which interred them here, but players could also use an Intelligence (History) check to get a clue.
Players need to adjust some mechanism such as pulling a level, turning a crank, or pushing buttons. This changes one piece of the puzzles state with the goal of reaching a target state.
Limiting the changes that the players can make to 2 keeps the variations on answers small in number. If there are two levers with 2 positions, there are 4 possible answers. If there are three such levers, there are now 8 possible answers. The more answers there are, the longer it will take to solve the puzzle.
However, if there are few answers there is nothing to stop players from guessing each of the limited number of answers until they get the right one. Consider adding a minor consequence such as a small amount of damage if they answer incorrectly. If the players can mitigate that damage somehow, consider that a reward for bringing the right character options to do that.
- A great stone floats above you, held in place by a steady stream of magical lightning, which illuminates the room. Two more stones lie upon the wet stone floor, and a fourth floats silently above the door across the room. Beneath the first stone, a small pedestal features two levels set into a horizontal surface.
The players need to adjust both levels upward, but there are two surprises: first, if they get the settings wrong the floor electrifies and everyone takes lightning damage; second, the levers reset after the first lever is moved. Pushing a lever upward moves the corresponding stone upward, and moving both stones completes a circuit which opens the door, but if the second stone is on the floor the lightning bolt hits the wet floor instead of completing the circuit. The solution is to move the second lever up, then move the first level up. Moving a level down does nothing. Both levers start in a "neutral" position.
This isn't a hard puzzle, but it's got a nasty surprise and players should feel clever once they've sorted it out. And, best of all, this should only take a few minutes.
Objects in Slots
A puzzle so simple that children too young to speak can solve it, the goal of this type of puzzle is to take one or more objects and place those objects into the corresponding slot. Typically, the complexity here is either in finding the object or in finding the right slot. Adding more objects and slots adds to the complexity, so sometimes one object/slot is enough if it's difficult to identify the right object, or you may want multiple slots if it's easy to find the objects for them.
- The hall is blocked almost entirely by three statues of faceless humanoids. Slight indentations on the faces match the shape of the strange white masks worn by the creatures you defeated only moments ago.
The clue here is pretty obvious. The players defeated three monsters in masks, and they need to put the masks on the right statues. With three masks and three statues there are 6 possible combinations, so this will be a fast puzzle. If you add descriptions which make it easy to match the monsters to the statues, players could solve this very quickly. If they get it wrong, consider a minor consequence like knocking the players prone and dealing a small amount of damage.
If you have a top-down view of a maze, mazes are typically easy. If you don't know that you're in a maze, you might be fully lost before you realize that you're in it. The maze doesn't even need to be especially complex. You could walk into a local restaurant, grab a kid's menu, steal the crayons and the maze off the menu, and you've got a worthy challenge and also some crayons.
If you're feeling especially devious, throw in a secret door or a moving wall to increase the complexity.
It's difficult to describe an example maze, unfortunately, but I'm sure you can use your favorite search engine to find children's mazes.
Designing Combat Encounters
Designing encounters for a typical adventure in a typical campaign is fairly simple. Stick to the "Adventuring Day" rules, budget your XP appropriately, and you'll be able to offer your players a series of appropriate challenges which will stretch their resources and capabilities without killing them all (usually).
But we have one hour with a Long Rest at either end and possibly a Short Rest in the middle. Your players are going into encounters with more of their expendable resources than the game expects. If you're doing 2 combat encounters per session (which is a perfectly reasonable number) with a Short Rest in the middle, many classes will go into each of those fights at full strength. Warlocks might never cast Eldritch Blast, which is a great example of just how much the format can change game balance and character build decisions, and therefore how much you need to adjust how you design encounters.
With only one hour of play time, there's a very strict limit on how much fighting you can squeeze into a session. Combat can eat a lot of time, especially in groups which are newer to the game and less proficient with the rules. You need to keep your time constraints in mind when planning how much combat will take place in one session.
For the same reason that we're planning to include an optional Short Rest in each session, I recommend at least two combat encounters. Depending on the nature of the adventure and the encounters, you might include up to four. I wouldn't risk any more than that, and 4 would be a game session dominated by combat.
You can adjust how long combat will take by adjusting the complexity of the encounter. Unfortunately, things that make encounters complicated also tend to make them interesting, so throwing out all of the complexity can often make your combat encounters boring.
The absolute floor of complexity is a single-monster encounter where the monster has no unique features. An Ogre is a great example: they're a big ball of numbers and the ogre and your party take turns poking each other until someone runs out of hit points. While carving through that encounter may be satisfying the first few times, it quickly becomes a stale number crunch or a race to see which of your party's spellcasters can save-or-suck the encounter the fastest.
On the opposite end are boss monsters: creatures with legendary and/or lair actions. These monsters should be saved for special sessions where facing these foes is the only thing which happens during that session. (We'll discuss this more later).
You want your encounters to fall somewhere in between those two extremes, and since you need to fit them all into a one-hour timeframe, you'll need to balance complexity across all of your planned encounters. Making one encounter simpler (and therefore faster to get through) buys you time for other encounters.
As a loose guideline, judge the complexity of your encounter on a scale of 0 to 4, where 0 is very simple and 4 is very complex.
Each item from the list below costs one point of complexity. If your encounter's complexity exceeds 4, it may be too complicated for the typical one-hour session format and may fare better in a Boss Fight or All Combat session.
- Complicated Resistances: Resistances which your party may have trouble addressing, such as lycanthropes resistance to non-silvered non-magic weapons
- Crowd Control Effects: Anything which applies status conditions which inhibit the players, such as the Troglodyte's Stench or the Ghoul's paralyzing claws
- Lair Actions
- Legendary Actions
- Multiple Enemies:
- Spellcasters: Spellcasters are complicated enemies that require additional thought and tracking which you don't typically need to do when the enemies' tactics amount to moving and swinging a weapon
- Terrain Features: Cover, difficult terrain, a moving floor, or anything else which makes moving through the encounter difficult
- Traps during the encounter: Fights get much more complicated when every other space causes the room to fill with poison gas
If you're adhering to the time blocks system described above under Anatomy of a Session, you can roughly judge the time requirements for level-appropriate encounters based on their complexity. 0 complexity encounters may take 1-2 blocks. 1 to 2 complexity encounters may take 2 or 3 blocks. 3 or 4 complexity encounters will almost certainly take 3 blocks.
Since players will have more of their expendable resources available due to the way we're handling rest mechanics, players will be more ready and willing to spend those precious resources. As a result, they'll tear through level-appropriate encounters unimpeded. I recommended planning for all of your encounters to fall into the Hard or Deadly ranges.
You don't always need traps, but they're a great tool in designing your adventure. Simple traps like a poison needle in a door handle can reinforce a sense of danger without bringing your session to a screeching halt while the party attempts to leap between floor tiles or outrun of rolling boulder.
Simple traps have a trigger, an effect, and then they're done. These are great traps because they can create a persistent sense of danger between combat encounters so your players aren't just stumbling around like they own the place.
While these traps are simple and have a miniscule effect on your timeline, I still recommend using them sparingly. "Fun house dungeons" like Tomb of Horrors can be a fun novelty, but Dungeons and Dragons moved away from fun house dungeons for a good reason: most people don't enjoy them.
Complex traps are those that go beyond the simple trigger/effect mechanic. Traps like a flooding room, crushing walls, poisonous gas, and swinging blades can all take a considerable amount of time during the game. If you use one of these traps, expect to dedicate several minutes to it.
Running Published Adventures
If you're running a published adventure or campaign, you'll likely need to adjustment the way that you prepare for game sessions.
Adapting Published Adventures
Adapting most published adventures will take some work. You'll likely need to deviate from the pacing guidelines that I've laid out in this article, especially the rest mechanics. The pace of the adventure will frequently look much more like a regular game split into one-hour chunks unless you put in a bunch of work to break things down to fit the one-hour timeframe.
Published Adventures Well-Suited to One-Hour Sessions
Most published adventures are not designed for one-hour sessions. Since such short sessions are absolutely not the form, it makes sense that published content is designed for typical multi-hour sessions where you don't need a logical stopping point every 60 minutes. However, there are a handful of notable exceptions.
The One Page Dungeon contest has run since 2019, and a one-page dungeon is a perfect amount of content to run in a one-hour session. The dungeons are technically game-agnostic, so you'll need to add stats for the monsters and balance the encounters on your own. Grab your Monster Manual and open up an Encounter Builder and you should be able to put together an encounter in a hurry with almost no effort.
Running the Session
Running a one-hour session is mostly the same as running a regular session. However, all of those little time-saving tricks that experience DMs accumulate over years of practice become considerably more important when you only have one hour to play.
This session isn't a comprehensive guide on how to run your game faster, but I'll offer some suggestions which are easy to adopt that will save lots of time.
Get Comfortable Ahead of Time
If you want snacks or drinks on hand, prepare them ahead of time. Open bags of chips, cans/bottles of beverages, and whatever else. Use the restroom right before the session starts. If you need to get out of your chair, you're going to lose 10 minutes at the very minimum.
Put down your phone. If you're playing remotely, turn off other applications. I'm just as guilty as anyone else, so no judgement. But resist the urge to distract yourself during the game. It's one hour. It's less than the length a full-length movie; pretend that you're in a theater. Silence your cell phones and don't spill your drink on the floor.
To minimize distraction from snacks, I recommend snacks that won't get stuck in your teeth (popcorn), make a mess (Cheetos, Doritos), or cause you to cough (nuts). Go for something small that's easy to swallow if you suddenly need to talk. Ritz crackers are a great option, especially if you have something to wash them down with.
To minimize distraction from drinks, I recommend something with a fix cap which you can drink through. A sports water bottle is a great container, provided that your beverage isn't carbonated. Something that requires you to repeatedly remove and reattach a cap is going to make things worse, both by making it take longer to drink and by increasing the risk of knocking over your drink while you do so. Leaving the cap off is often preferable despite the increased risk of spillage compared to a fixed cap.
If you're clumsy like me and still want to drink something carbonated, consider acquiring an Erlenmeyer flask and a reusable straw. Erlenmeyer flasks are difficult to knock over due to the wide base, and the straw adds the benefit of not needing your hands to get a drink and not repeatedly agitating your delicious beverage and losing the carbonation.
Don't Split the Party
The first rule of survival in D&D is "Don't Split the Party", and it still applies in one-hour sessions. Running two or more parallel groups will dramatically slow down your game, and your one-hour games will quickly turn into one-hour periods of intense frustration for everyone.
Keep Things Moving
As the DM, you're responsible for keeping the game running at a healthy pace. While your players can do a lot to slow things down, as DM you're empowered with the ability to speed things up. Your primary goal when making decisions is to keep the game running quickly enough to fit into one hour without missing any of the wonderful content that you created.
Check the Rules Later
If there is a rules dispute, make a decision based on your understanding of the rules, and write yourself a note to check the actual rules later. If you open up a rulebook to check something, you're going to lose 10 minutes every time. If you get the rule wrong, your ruling will only last for the rest of the session, so the impact is small. If your incorrect ruling is actively harmful to a player, offer them Inspiration at the beginning of your next session.
I can't tell you how many times my games have come to a screeching halt for hours at a time because we couldn't make a decision. Agonizing over which door to open or which hallway to walk down can turn into a pointless time sink. Encourage your players to discuss and decide quickly.
If they're stuck, set a time limit of 2 to 5 minutes and start a timer. If they can't come to a consensus, tell them to vote. If the vote is tied, pick at random from the options which received votes.
In DnD, success is (usually) binary: you do the thing or you fail to the thing. This can often mean that players failing a check halts progress until they find another solution. This halts the momentum of the session while the players look for some other solution to that same problem or they retry their checks until they succeed, eating time while they do so.
Rather than punishing the whole table by eating real-world time, "fail forward". Even if players fail a task of some sort, move the game along. Impose some appropriate consequence for failure, but don't actually stop the game to make them try again.
For example: The party has defeated a group of hobgoblins guarding a locked door in the hobgoblin's dungeon hideout. One guard had a key hidden on their body, but the party failed their Intelligence (Investigation) check to find it while looting the bodies. The DM allows them to "fail forward", but as "punishment" for failure, they now need to get through the door some other way.
The players can choose to pick the lock, break the door down, or get past the door by some other means like spending spell slots to disintegrate the door or teleport past it. In a sense, this is just a secondary challenge if they failed the first, but since the Investigation check was quick (one roll), it's fine. If players fail to pick the lock, the enemies in the next encounter hear them and prepare an ambush. If they choose to break down the door and fail their Strength check, maybe give them a level of Exhaustion or a small amount of damage. If they use a spell, they've spent an appropriate resource, so you don't need to tax them further. However they proceed, they'll still get through the door but they'll either need to succeed on a check or face a consequence, or they'll need to spend a resource to guarantee success.
Combat is an easy way to eat time. In a 4-6 hour session, jumping into combat is one of my favorite ways to stall while I figure out where to take the story. But in a one-hour session, every time swords come out, you're rolling the dice on how much time you're going to spend in combat. I've seen fights against a single goblin take 10+ minutes because everyone was rolling terribly and no one could hit each other.
Everything I'm going to suggest here is good advice for running combats in general, but it's absolutely crucial in a one-hour game session.
Make Encounters Meaningful
Does this encounter really need to be happen? Remember that you only have one hour, and combat is going to consume a bug chunk that time for each combat encounter. If you're adding an encounter that's just some random throw-away minions for the party to kill before they move onto the real threats, strongly consider removing that encounter entirely.
That said, combat can be a lot of fun. Generally it's more fun to have fewer but more interesting encounters, so skip the filler fights and focus on having a small number of interesting encounters\ that actually matter to the story you're trying to tell.
You know you're going to have a combat encounter. You know what monsters are going to be in it, and you know their stats. None of those things are going to change between the start of your session and when combat starts.
Roll initiative for the monsters when you create the encounter. That will save you a full minute per encounter. Your players can roll initiative as they normally would, you can determine the initiative order, and you're ready to fight.
You might even roll initiative for your players, but players have some annoying ways to make their Initiative rolls unpredictable like Guidance and Enhance Ability. Plus, your players might feel bad that you rolled for them. Rolling initiative feels really minor, but it's a surprisingly important part of getting into a combat mindset.
Talk on Your Own Turn
I don't consider table talk to be bad, and I'm perfectly happy to let me players discuss tactics and make decisions collaboratively during combat. The DM gets to make decisions for all of the enemies, so enemies think collectively at the speed of thought, while players are reduced to the comparably glacial medium of verbal discussion, so it's totally fair to allow them to discuss how each player should spend their turn, especially when combat isn't going well for the party.
But this isn't a normal game. We don't have time for every turn to take 5 minutes while the party agonizes over spell lists and positioning and plans out their next several turns out loud and the DM makes dubious promises that they won't use that information against them. We need to keep things moving.
So: Players may only talk on their own turn. You can break the rule if the player really needs help from the party, and you might allow yes/no responses from the other players, but generally discouraging table talk will encourage players to make their own decisions quickly and will keep turns short.
Encourage Decisive Action
Encourage your players to decide and act quickly. This may take some time to build a good habit, but planning their turn in advance and deciding what they want to do quickly will keep turns short, which will then keep combat short.
If you need to encourage players, Inspiration is a great reward for consistently acting quickly.
Time Limits on Turns
This is the "nuclear option" for keeping turns short, but sometimes you need to really go crazy to get players to adapt. Set a 1-minute timer when a player's turn starts. If they don't at least declare their actions by the end of the turn, their character takes the Dodge action.
Enforcing this sucks. It will make players unhappy. Don't spring this on your players without everyone agreeing to it, and be flexible if players are making an honest effort.
End Combat Early
Most creatures won't fight to the death, but many DMs assume that every intelligent creature is perfectly happy to die in combat any time a player character walks into the room. This is not only unrealistic, it also adds a long period of "cleanup" at the end of a fight where the players won't waste expendable resources because they've clearly already won, so everyone is just making attacks and casting cantrips and waiting for the enemies to run out of hit points.
Don't let that happen. It's not fun for anyone, and it takes forever.
Instead, it's perfectly reasonable for many enemies to retreat or surrender. If that's not an option (zombies are too dumb to run away), consider dropping the remaining enemies to 1 hit point so players can finish them off quickly, but they may not realize that you've cheated in their favor.
Running Social Interactions
Social interactions are where the bulk of "roleplaying" happens (I argue that "character acting" is a more accurate term, but that's a different article), and it's very easy to spend a lot of time there. In fact, a one-hour session with nothing but roleplaying is a lot of fun. But we'll cover that under Special Sessions, below.
Make Scenes Meaningful
For every scene which you intend to roleplay, consider why that scene is important enough to roleplay. If your party needs to buy horses, that scene is likely not interesting enough to devote time to roleplaying. If your party needs to question a local explorer for clues about a local dungeon, roleplaying that scene offers a chance for the players to gather crucial information so it's a great scene to roleplay.
For scenes that you choose to skip over, describe to the party what happens in a single sentence. "You visit a farm at the edge of town and purchase horses for your journey." If a decision needs to be made, ask the party for a quick answer. "Do you also purchase a wagon? Or are you happy with just the horses?"
If You're Going to Roll, Get Straight to It
While a lot of roleplaying can be handled by play acting, anything with a chance of failure will require a roll of some kind. Rolls in social situations prevent your silver-tongued players from turning their 8 Charisma barbarian into charming extension of themselves, and conversely they allow less charismatic players to play charismatic characters.
Let your players roleplay enough to get an idea of what they want to happen, but if there's a pass/fail situation you should get to rolling dice as quickly as possible and move on. You don't need to spend the whole game session arguing with an NPC about how much to charge for a treasure map. Get an idea of what the players want, exchange a couple lines of dialog, then roll a die.
Pass the Spotlight
Pass the spotlight between players quickly. In a one-hour session things need to happen quickly, so whole roleplaying scenes can come and go without individual players getting a chance to speak. Try to interact directly with each player at least once. Even if one player is the party's "Face", don't let them totally monopolize your time, even if they do the bulk of the talking for the party.
Sometimes you need to break out of the usual format of the one-hour game session to accommodate specific elements of the game. These sessions should be the minority of your game sessions, but how often they take place will vary depending on the story you're telling.
Whether it's a war, a gladiator arena, or just a really populous dungeon, sometimes you're going to have sessions which are nothing but combat. These can be fun occasionally, especially if the party has just hit a point in the level progression where they get a significant power increase (levels 5, 11, and 17). But don't bring these out too often or you risk turning your game into a tactical miniatures game and missing out on the other fun aspects of D&D.
Sometimes you want to fight a dragon or a lich or something. These fights tend to be long, complex, and high stakes.
For boss fights, I recommend breaking our usual rules around resting. Instead of a Long Rest at the end of the previous session, give the players a Short Rest. If players have become accustomed to the usual rest mechanics, warn them about this at the beginning of the session before the boss fight session (The "Pre-Boss Fight" session). Otherwise, your players might expend all of their expendable resources and find themselves out of options during the boss fight.
While doing a "Pre-Boss Fight" session may not be strictly necessary, it can be a helpful balancing tool. Walking into an encounter at full strength with all of a character's resources often allows players to overcome encounters which are far above appropriate CR for their level. This is especially problematic for classes that recharge on long rests, as those classes are balanced around rationing their resources over the course of an adventuring day.
To point to an obvious example: wizards do very well when there's one encounter between each long rest, but warlocks are more effective when there are multiple encounters with short rests spaced throughout the day. A Pre-Boss Fight session balances the game so that neither style of recovery has an unfair advantage within the unusual playstyle of the One-Hour Session.
To make the proposed timeline absolutely simple, here it is step-by-step:
- Session 1: Pre-Boss Fight
- Players begin the session fresh, as though they had just completed a long rest.
- DM informs the party that the next session will be a boss fight. This session will include an optional Short Rest in the middle and a Short Rest at the end rather than the usual Long Rest. There will be no downtime for the characters between sessions other than the Short Rest.
- Normal session happens (Use the Block System as you normally would)
- Session ends with a Short Rest rather than the typical long rest.
- Session 2: Boss Fight
- Session begins at the end of the previous session's Short Rest.
- Fight the boss
- Other stuff
- Long Rest
Sometimes you will have a session where there is no fighting expected to occur. Maybe it's a social situation, or maybe you're doing some exploring or survival simulation stuff. Either way, these sessions can be a fun change of pace, especially if there has been a Boss Fight or an All Combat session recently or if there has been a stretch of sessions with little roleplaying, such as an extended dungeon crawl.
In these cases, keep in mind my advice above under Running Social Interactions. With more room for roleplaying, you can afford some less significant roleplaying scenes like interacting with very minor NPCs. You might also have solo scenes where individual characters are briefly separated from the party and the player is given a chance to explore their character's personality beyond their role in the party.
The Double Session
5-room dungeons are great, but sometimes you need something a little too meaty to fit into one one-hour session. A 5-room dungeon is a great, compact format, but sometimes you just need a bigger space to your story.
In these cases, much like Boss Fight sessions, I recommend ending one session with a Short Rest and beginning the second session at the end of that Short Rest, and like the Boss Fight sessions I recommend informing the players that this is a possibility.
While many groups handle shopping quickly by deducting gold and adding items, sometimes a shopping session can be a lot of fun, especially if the party is buying unusually things like real estate, magic items, or pets. You likely don't need to roleplay the party buying torches, but if your party expresses interest in buying something unusual you may want to plan ahead.
If your players want to purchase magic items, I recommend reading my Practical Guide to Using Magic Items. Knowing what items you want to be available to your players will make your session easier to run and will require less panicked flipping through sourcebooks.
A ton of things can happen between game sessions. Probably more than you realize. In fact, anything that requires you to keep a rulebook open (with the likely exception of reading spell descriptions) can probably be handled between game sessions. If the DM needs to be involved, that can easily be handled by any number of text mediums: email, text message, Discord, whatever. The DM doesn't need to be there while you spend some gold on tents and torches.
Moving these activities outside of the one-hour session allows the core gameplay to shine when the group is together, and lets the paperwork, spreadsheets, and lifestyle simulation mechanics run in the hundreds of hours between sessions.
As an added benefit, I find that as a player I enjoy these activities between sessions because it lets me play the game a little while I look forward to the next session.
If you're not using Milestone Experience, you're likely awarding numerical experience points. You might (and probably should) know the number of experience points players will earn during the session, especially if you managed to perfectly plan and execute a one-hour session. However, your players don't need that information thrown at them in the last 60 seconds of the game session. It's perfectly fine to send that information to them the next day via your text medium of choice.
If you are using the Milestone Experience, I recommend having players level up in two sessions until they reach level 3, then in 4 sessions after that. If you're playing weekly, that will means that players generally gain a level once a month. That definitely feels slow, but remember that compared to a 4-6 hour sessions that means that players will gain levels much faster than a typical campaign in terms of hours played at each character level.
Unless there are magic items in a pile of loot, the party likely doesn't need to know exactly what's in a treasure horde right when they find it. They can count their coppers when the adventurers return to town, and you can send them an itemized list the day after the session at the same time that you send them their experience points.
Make one exception for magic items. If you put a +1 sword into that pile of treasure, tell the players about it so that they can start using it right away.
If your players gained a level after a session, advancing their character should be done between sessions. If they show up to the next session without applying their new level, make them wait. They'll only be a level short for one hour so they're not exactly suffering.
If you need to spend gold it can probably be done between sessions. Ask players to keep a list of what they bought and how much they spent and have them send it to your when they're done shopping so you can watch for anything weird or if they bought something that you said they can't have. Maybe the town they're in doesn't sell bread or something, I don't know.
Downtime activities are a really fun mechanic, especially if you're using the expanded rules presented in Xanathar's Guide to Everything. But they're also a simulation mechanic which works by rolling on tables in the book, and there is very little reason to do any of that during your one-hour session. Do that stuff outside of the game session and communicate via text.
If you want your players to have downtime between games, tell them how many days of downtime they get to spend before something compels them to return to adventuring.
Case Studies in the One-Hour Session
All the advice above sends very authoritative and informed, and I've tried very hard to convince you that I know what I'm talking about. But I'm inclined to doubt most things that people tell me unless it's presented with proof, so I'd be a hypocrite not to put my own advice to the test.
Below are post-mortem notes from several test sessions which several DMs (including me) ran to test the advice above, to see how works in practice, and to improve upon this article. If you've run a one-hour session using this article, email me and tell me all about it. If you're getting ready to run your first one-hour session, reading some of the notes below may be helpful.
RPGBOT Session 1: 3 Level 1 Characters
I got some friends together and ran a one-hour one-shot session. The party included a kalasthar barbarian, a halfling rogue, and a nymph bard (using homebrew racial traits built using the race builder in Monstrous Races). I built a quick 5-room dungeon using kobolds as the antagonists. The objective of the adventure was to recover something that an NPC described only as "my golden treasure", which had been stolen by kobolds.
While we had a lot of fun, this was definitely a learning experience for me. We started on time, had very minimal technical issues (we played over roll20, which the whole group is proficient with), and no interruptions. Despite getting those parts right, we still didn't get through the whole adventure in one hour. Even after spending hours writing about how to run a one-hour session, I got it wrong.
And that's okay! Failure is a fantastic teacher, and I learned more from what went wrong than from what went right, and I'd like to share the insights I gained.
I used the Time Blocks system described above to budget my time, and I used the 5-Room Dungeon format to plan points of interest in the adventure:
- Introduction (1 block): You start in a tavern after a night's rest.
- Meet the NPC (1 block): "My Golden Treasure was stolen by kobolds and I want it back"
- Encounter 1 (3 blocks): Fight kobolds in a cave (5-Room Dungeon 1: Entrance and Guardian)
- Puzzle 1 (1 block): Tunnel ceiling help up by poles (5-Room Dungeon 2: Puzzle)
- Encounter 2 (3 blocks): Kobold Scale Sorcerer+Guards ambush (5-Room Dungeon 4: Big Battle)
- Puzzle 2 (1 block): Dangerous slide with traps (5-Room Dungeon 3: Trick/Setback)
- Social Encounter (1 block): The dragon and "My Golden Treasure" (5-Room Dungeon 5: Revelation)
- Conclusion (1 block): Return "My Golden Treasure" to the NPC
Things started off really well. The players followed the plot rails happily and didn't spend much time mucking about once I laid out the adventure. They had a brief chat with some NPCs, got the quest, and went on their way. We stayed right on schedule through blocks 1 and 2 and got into Encounter 1 right on the 10-minute mark. We had some brief but amusing character moments in there despite the short time period.
Things went off the rails in encounter 1 because my players tried harder than I expected to take a peaceful approach. None of them spoke Draconic and the kobolds only spoke Draconic, and they struggled to work past the language barrier. The party's barbarian was telepathic (kalasthar) and tried to negotiate, and the party's bard managed to work out a small trade by pantomiming, but they couldn't get any information about the treasure which the NPC described. Eventually they decided to attack the kobolds, but we were 10 minutes into the encounter at that point. Once swords came out things went quickly, but it still took another 15 minutes to finish the encounter, so we were way behind on time. We were at roughly 35 minutes and had gotten through 25 minutes' worth of content.
The next block went very quickly, fortunately. I expected the players to spend a moment discussing how to bypass the trap (two poles holding up an unstable ceiling), but the barbarian's player is a man of action and he simply lifted the poles so that the party could move underneath. I anticipated this and imposed an Athletics check with a medium DC which he passed easily. We hit roughly 40 minutes with 20 minutes to go and 30 minutes of content to cover.
I knew I was short on time at this point and tried to rush things along. The next room was full of kobolds and the room was too large for torch light to reveal the whole room from the entrance, so the players were ambushed by a Kobold Scale Sorcerer and three regular kobolds. Despite the ambush, the sorcerer missed with their initial round of Scorching Ray, and the players cut through the regular kobolds with ease (12 AC and five hit points isn't exactly durable). The sorcerer managed to drop the bard to 0 hp and the rogue to 1 hp, but I decided to cut its hit points if they could hit it once or twice.
But, of course, we got into a 3-round series of no one hitting. Eventually the barbarian and the rogue each got a hit in and I decided that the sorcerer was dead. At this point we were just past 55 minutes and basically out of time. I cut the second puzzle, described a brief sequence where the players went down a natural slide to find a dragon's lair with a small, yapping dog with long golden hair. The dog's collar had a tag which read "My Golden Treasure", which was intended to be a light-hearted joke, but I had to skip over both that and the social encounter with a young green dragon (clearly too strong to fight) in the name of time.
The dragon told the players to take the yappy thing and get out, and they went back to the NPC as heroes. The End. Not quite as climactic as I hoped, but we did have a good time.
So: What went wrong? And what could I have done better?
It's pretty clear to me that the combat encounters are where I fell short. I knew that I was going to need more time for the encounters, so I budgeted 3 time blocks (15 minutes) for each of them, but that still wasn't enough. Looking back, I failed to follow some of my own advice on running combat. I didn't pre-roll initiative, and I didn't encourage decisive action. I let the players have their fun (and it really was a fun interaction, which is probably why I let it drag out), but I didn't adjust accordingly. I essentially added a 10-minute social encounter that I hadn't planned for, and I hoped that I could make up that time later.
Having made that mistake, the best thing I could have done was to End Combat Early. Or, even better, I probably should have just skipped the combat entirely. I had designed a fun encounter involving a bunch of kobolds throwing rocks and lots of kobolds running and screaming, and I wanted to play that out. But instead, I should have just let the players have their peaceful solution and looked for a way to make that work so that we could stay on track. Sure, I wouldn't get to play my fun encounter, but there will be more encounters in the future, and I could always recycle it if the players never saw the plan play out.
The second encounter was a problem, too, though it didn't go over time. The cycle of repeated attacks and misses dragging on for rounds is a nightmare situation which groups frequently find themselves in, and my own games are no exception. I could have simply declared that the kobold sorcerer fell over dead, but that's anticlimactic. The most obvious solution was to have the sorcerer surrender, but that could have quickly turned into another lengthy social encounter, and unless I still had time allotted for the combat encounter, I would have put myself further behind.
What I should have done is have the sorcerer surrender early in the encounter once the regular kobolds were defeated and the barbarian had gotten into melee with the sorcerer. At that point it was a one-sided game of hit point attrition which the sorcerer had no hope of winning, and if the sorcerer had surrendered, I would have had 5 or 10 minutes which I had budgeted for combat which could have turned into a brief social encounter.
To summarize: I fell down on the combat encounters. I need to remember my own advice (as well as years of advice from other experience people on blogs, podcasts, and videos) on how to run combat quickly, and I need to not fixate on my own ideas of how any given situation will play out. If I can make that work, I think things will go better next time.
If you're looking for an easy introduction to one-hour sessions, I've made my adventure available as a Google Doc. I might eventually clean it up for more formal publication, but the google doc will need to suffice for now.
Community DM Zev Vitali
Zev Vitali ran the same adventure that I wrote for my own one-hour session, and shared some really great feedback. The Player Handout was originally their idea.
Zev ran a group of 3 players running level 1 characters. They followed roughly the same course as my players did, but Zev wisely allowed them to talk through the first encounter rather than fighting their way through, and then Zev's players spent more time than mine did on other parts of the adventure. It's fun that any two groups will experience the same adventure so differently, even in such a limited timeframe. Zev's group managed to finish on time, but they had to rush through the end of the adventure like my group did.
Zev and their players were kind enough to share specific feedback that I've incorporated into the article above and summarized here:
- The limit of one short rest was difficult and they spent a lot of time deciding when to rest. As a result, I added some text to the article above explaining that players should expect to rest after the first combat encounter, provided that there is more than one in the session, and that the DM won't punish them for doing so.
- They felt time pressure during the obstacles. This made them feel like they didn’t have the chance to think things through. To some degree this is intentional. The one-hour session demands quick, decisive action, and the DM is encouraged to reward that style of play. I've added some text above to help set this expectation better.
- We’re worried how well this would work with higher level characters. Me too! High-level characters tend to move through content slower, especially in combat. I'm still working on how to handle that but keeping characters simple and the DM understanding encounter complexity can help keep things moving along.
- Before we played, I made a list of tips / what to expect for my players. This was a stroke of genius, and I turned Zev's handout into the Player Handout detailed earlier in the article.
- We all felt a rushed. Maybe plan for more time for one-shots, but allow things to spill over in extended campaigns. I'm hesitant to recommend this as advice, but it's important for you (the reader) to understand that people playing and running one-hour sessions experience a feeling of time pressure. That's fine, and to some degree that is the nature of a one-hour session. If you have the luxury of more time, I won't show up in your game and insist that you wrap things up when the clock hits 60 minutes. If you need a few more minutes to wrap up the adventure, that may be fine if everyone has time for that. Letting things spill over into the next session may be fine, too, but remember that your next session is also going to be one hour long, so anything that you miss today means something may need to be cut next time.
Final Thoughts: "My players and I did enjoy the one hour format. We definitely had fun. I think I might explore it in the future, but since we have time for weekly five-hour sessions, it’s not really something I feel I need right now. (Possibly if I was going to DM for a second group, but that’s not really something I have the bandwidth for currently.) I am really interested in the idea of a one hour session though. I think constraints often force creativity and can lead to really original and fun ideas. "
Community DM Swyn the Liar (games 1 and 2)
Swyn DMs two weekly ongoing groups with players. They're a good mix of experience: some are in their first campaign, while others have been playing for years. Both of Swyn's groups volunteered to participate (I'm told that they're all readers, so thank you to any of you fine folks who see this.), so Swyn was able to provide feedback based on running two one-hour sessions with mostly different groups of players (one player was in both games). Better still, he ran both games at 5th level, providing some great insight on running one-hour game sessions above level 1.
Swyn shared a ton of details about his adventures, how he used the planning blocks system, and and how his games played out over the course of the session. His first adventure was a bank heist, in which four players broke into a bank, stole an item, and escaped. His second adventure involved seeking revenge on a former ally, who they fought across a river of magma while also fighting over an evil magic sword. Both adventures sounded like a ton of fun, and from what Swyn told me his players enjoyed the adventures, and they enjoyed the one-hour session format enough that they asked if they could continue to use it.
Swyn was kind enough to provide a huge amount of feedback which I've summarized here, and which I've incorporated in several places in the article above.
- Players liked having a clear goal from the beginning. Giving players the end goal for the one-hour session ahead of time seemed to really work here. While that's not always possible, establishing a clear goal that fits within one one-hour session can be a great way to keep the game on track and keep players enaged. Sometimes that goal will complete a story, as it does in a one-shot, but sometimes it might be something like "explore this wing of the dungeon" which is part of a larger story.
- The players enjoyed the combat and thought it felt fast paced with high stakes. In large part, this falls on whoever wrote the adventure and on the DM (often that's the same person). Designing an encounter which is fun, interesting, and fits within the time constrants of a one-hour session is a challenge, but with time and practice (and maybe a couple more articles that I need to write) a DM can achieve that consistently.
- Combat was the most difficult to stick to regular blocks. Considering I had the same problem, this isn't surprising. Keeping combat fast is objectively hard in DnD. I recommend some tips above under Running Combat, but I need to do some more research there.
- Swyn used Matt Colville's "Action Oriented Monsters"" to make solo monsters more interesting to fight. There are million ways to keep combat interesting, and it looks like this one works really well for Swyn's group. I haven't dug into it in detail, and it's definitely beyond the scope of this article, but Matt Colville is a smart guy with a lot of good ideas so combining his Action Oriented Monsters with the one-hour session system seems like a winning combination.
- The players felt they didn't know their characters well enough. This is typical for one-shots, and a one-hour session doesn't help. Sometimes you'll need to go into a one-shot knowing that no one has time to explore their character in depth, but for long-form campaigns you'll have time to revisit them again and you can do a lot to explore your character between sessions.
- The players liked that there were a variety of encounter types back-to-back. This is one of the strengths of one-hour sessions. With little time to spend hanging around and poking things with 10-foot poles, players move quickly between blocks, experiencing each long enough to enjoy them but never long enough for them to grow tiresome or frustrating (though the DM often needs to remember to end combat early). It's also the duty of whoever wrote the adventure to make sure that the content blocks are diverse. Single-topic special sessions can be a lot of fun, but to keep those special sessions special they should be infrequent. Most sessions should have a good mix of content.
- Leading up to the session, "asynchronous role play" helped make the hour session feel more meaningful. In a one-shot, this may just involve establishing your characters and the party before the one-hour adventure begins in earnest. In long-form campaign, asynchronous play between sessions can be a huge opportunity to remain engaged with the game, and can be a great way to explore your characters without the time pressure of the actual game session.
- Creating the quest was very easy with the block system. I only needed a one sentence adventure hook and a setting. Then I picked some blocks in and figured out how they fit together.
- I created a single battle map relied on theatre of mind for the rest, supplemented by images of important characters and locations only. I'm a very visual person and I tend to rely on maps even when we're not in combat. I think I need to give this method a try and see how it works out.
- Because each block was only 5 minutes or so, there wasn't time for them to lose interest. They knew if they didn't listen now, they would miss out on something important. This point was useful enough that I added it to the Player Handout
- Neither game involved a short rest. Players got to not worry about conserving resources and just let the enemy have it, but still felt challenged despite the freedom of resources. I improve my advice under Expect One Short Rest after reading this. I was thinking of it as a necessary hard rule, but thinking of it as a strong recommendation with some totally valid exceptions is a better idea.
Final Thoughts: "We will continue trying this game design. The groups had a lot of fun and so did I. If anything this is a really great DM skill test that requires quick thinking and effective planning. I am hoping other people will see the benefit in using the block system, or at least that line of thinking, to improve their own games, one hour or not. We normally play 2-3 hour sessions and several of my players mentioned in more detail that They can get fatigued from continuous play. Using this system maintained the same energy level for every encounter which led to a more action-packed feel."
For more from Swyn, check out their Instagram where they post character art and game maps.
Community DM Swyn the Liar (game 3)
After messaging me to exchange notes, Swyn went back and ran a third one-hour session. This time he was less adventurous with his encounters, and he stuck to published stat blocks and stayed within what I would consider a "typical" one-hour session. This makes for an excellent example, so I've included more of Swyn's notes than usual.
Swyn continued the story of his second adventure with the same players and characters. This time, the party was chasing down a contact of the former ally who they took revenge upon in the previous session. The session went extremely well, featured two combat encounters with a short rest, and finished in one hour and four minutes.
Swyn laid out his session, and an abbreviated version of Swyn's accompanying play report follows:
- 1 block exposition: Fill the party in about the days since last played.
- 1 block social encounter: Speak to an old contact, a hobgoblin named Krogt about selling the reliquary they found during the last quest. Krogt asks to bring it to his lock box while they wait.
- 2 blocks combat: Henich was working with Krogt. With him dead and the sword destroyed Krogt wants the crew dead. No one will miss them anyways. Krogt locks the crew in the room. Poisonous gas leaks in from concealed pipes on the walls, dealing poison damage each round. Krogt is heard breaking open a crate. A gelatinous cube slips through the cracks of the door.
- 1 block puzzle: The door is locked and barred from the other side. How do they open it?
- 1 block short rest: Sitting in the back of a horse pulled carriage, the group is led to Krogts hideout.
- 2 blocks combat: In the hideout, a door is guarded by a banderhobb. Kill it or distract it long enough to get the door open.
- 1 block social encounter: Confront Krogt as he is shoving belongings into a bag.
- 1 block decision point: Kill Krogt or take his deal?
- 1 block treasure hoard: Krogt has a lot of nice things.
- 1 block wrap up: They ride into the sunset.
"Things went incredibly smoothly. During the first fight, the players were shocked (in a good way) to enter combat so fast and rightly assumed this would not be the only combat of the adventure. They also knew there would be no long rest immediately following the encounter. Despite this, players used some of their daily resources. The barbarian expended a rage, the Samurai Fighter used fighting spirit, and the ranger expended a charge from his magical bow. The constant poison damage ensured both that the crew raced to get out as soon as possible while also giving them a very good reason to rest. There could be variations on this such as falling into a pit of snakes where the small snakes do poison damage once per round and a large snake poses a threat."
"Pairing the short rest with travel seemed natural to everyone. They managed to squeeze an improved social encounter where they "forcefully hired" a stable boy to lead them to Krogts hideout. With the boy manning the horse, they were free to rest in the carriage. Everyone rolled full hit dice and mostly managed to get their HP back except for Dringo who rolled 4 1's and a 6. Players said that they were happy the short rest was "forced." To bring the short rest into play I said "While you ride in the carriage, the group has time to catch their breath and clear the smell of poison from their clothes. Take a short rest." I think pairing it with natural breaks in the progression of the story makes sense and helps it feel natural. It also gave an illusion of time passing in game which was really nice."
"The banderhobb fight was short but challenging. I chose the banderhobb because it has a lot of the qualities I described as being benefits of action oriented monsters. A large creature misty stepping through shadows and swallowing people (Tikk was nearly eaten) made for a really fun fight."
"Confronting Krogt played out as a combined social encounter and decision point. The group deliberated for a while on whether he was worth more to them alive or dead, but ultimately decided he couldn't be trusted."
"Compared to the last game, the players said the adventure had the same action packed feel. They also noted that with these one hour sessions and asynchronous discussion, it is really easy to drop the characters into all sorts of situations witrhout worrying about how they got there. One player compared it to the Mandalorian where you don't know everything that happened between episodes but it doesn't matter. Only today's story is important. The story is going to continue asynchronously for a while and even though we have only played for 2 hours with these characters, everyone is forming an attachment to them."
"It's pretty amazing the amount of story you can tell in such little time."
In closing, Swyn mentioned that one of his players is curious to try DMing for the first time, and they want to use the One-Hour DnD Session format to do so. I'll update this page if they're kind enough to share game notes.
The One-Hour Session is an idea that has haunted me for literal years. Bringing it to life is exciting. If you're short on time, or if you just want to run tight, self-contained, high-energy sessions, the One-Hour Session format may be just what you need to make that happen.
If you and your group give One-Hour Sessions a try, email me about it. This is a very new concept, and I'm still looking for ways to perfect it. No matter how many times I inflict my idea upon my own gaming groups, fresh perspectives and new ideas can do a lot to make the One-Hour Session system better for everyone.