One-Hour D&D, why Mike Mearls is right, and speed of play

Yesterday I read Mike Mearls’ Legends and Lore post on The One Hour D&D Game and found myself nodding along with what he had to say. I think I agree with what he’s doing here, he’s trying to up D&D’s speed of play. My list of games run recently goes like this: D&D 4E, Pathfinder, Savage Worlds. In truth, I’ve started to realize that’s because I’m trying to increase Speed of Play. When I talk about speed of play, I’m talking about the ability of the Game Master to make the session in a short period of time. I’m talking about the actual game taking up less time for everyone to have the amount of fun they associate with the hobby.

Which I think is what Michael over at Neuroglyph completely missed when he posted his article about a few D&D Next Legends and Lore topics(You’ll have to scroll down to find the section on the One Hour D&D article). With all due respect, I think he’s discounting the experiences of others who play the game when he makes statements like “Today’s Legend & Lore article strikes me as both baffling, and shows a complete detachment for what D&D gamers really want from their game.” Pretty hyperbolic, ain’t it? I’m a D&D gamer for the most part, and… I’d like it if I could play in an hour. Well, specifically, I’d like what I think the Neuroglyph article’s author is missing: I’d like to play A LOT in an hour. At least a lot more than I can with the current representations of D&D. If I can run a side trek adventure in an hour or so, and a “full length” adventure in a four hour game session, I’m a pretty happy man. This not only supports epic, campaign style play, but also episodic or sandbox play. I understand that “D&D is not a board game,” but I think that the style of game Mike Mearls is designing supports a wider range of play styles. I understand it when the Neuroglyph article says that it’s not about how much game you can pack in, but it IS about getting an amount of game done with which your group is satisfied.

I’ll sum this up with a response to his closing argument about the idea of a “One-hour D&D adventure,” which I really take to mean being able to control discretely how much time the mechanics of an adventure are going to take, so that you can focus on the role playing and story and (Let’s be honest, this is D&D) heroic combat/exploration.

So, Neuroglyph says “Adding an expectation of one-hour D&D adventuring into D&D Next, and making that concept part of the design paradigm goes wildly against what “classic” D&D has always been: a role-playing game where it takes as long as it takes to get through an adventure and a campaign!”

Ah, sorry, I think you’ve overstepped your mandate here. “Classic” D&D has been about the Dungeon Master controlling every aspect of the game and world. D&D 4E was, in some people’s opinions, an excellent example of this on the monster and DC end of things. However, this was at the cost of verisimilitude. What I think Mearls wants the DM to have control of is the amount of time it takes to play, and the ‘amount’ of time that it takes to play the game. He’s talking about modular complexity, and the flexibility that it gives players. In order to achieve that, he’s breaking the game down into a unit of real-world time. That’s good, that’s modularity. Modularity is an idea that has worked for GURPS for years. That’s a game with three combat systems and a host of optional rules, and a successful one at that. I think that starting with a base line, and working upwards to modular play, might just be what D&D Next needs to be successful.

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5 comments

  1. Neuroglyph

    While I appreciate the critique on my blog, I think you rather missed my point: Why should a one-hour game be a priority of design when it’s already been done before?

    D&D Gamers who want to play the “One-Hour D&D” scene need only look to the older editions of D&D for their fix. Basic, AD&D, and Second Edition combats could all be run in an hour because characters and monsters were very simplified, having few options in combats except to move and swing – with the exception of the Wizards and Clerics who could move and swing or move and choose a spell to cast. A DM could run a pack of orcs by literally grabbing a handful of d20s, assigning targets, and rolling them at the same time. I know, because I played that game for years, and have no desire to go back to it – and I suspect few 4E players, particularly ones who started playing D&D with this edition, would.

    But it’s clear that the evolution of D&D has moved from a simplistic game engine to engines of greater and greater complexity, as evident when you start looking at OGL/d20, Pathfinder, and 4E. To me, and most likely to many other 4E fans, the next logical stage in the evolution of D&D would be to create a leaner and meaner 4E engine, which would be more effective and contain more “Classic D&D”-tropes. Instead we are being offered a devolved game system, with concepts and systems in it which have already been fully explored in previous game editions.

    So if you want a one-hour game, it’s already out there in old D&D editions. What continues to baffle me is why the rest of us have to sacrifice our desire for complexity and our gaming style just to be part of the Next Edition.

    • J.L.B.

      Thanks for your reply. I’m really interested in what you’ve got to say – and it reminds me of something I was thinking, a niggling doubt in the back of my mind, in fact, while I was writing this very post:

      Perhaps I should be looking at the various editions of D&D as different games entirely, and not as iterations of the same game.

      Which is the subject, I think, of an entirely different post.

      On to your response:

      With your statement here, I think you are right that I did miss the point of your post and much better understand it now. You’re worried about a regression of the rules, while I’m worried about the idea of real-world time as relates to adventure design becoming unmanageable. While I enjoy the 4E engine, I do wish it was ‘leaner and meaner’ – but the question of what that would actually look like, how it would play, et cetera, doesn’t seem to be one anybody wants to answer. I certainly think 4E was a step forward, but for me it was ultimately a step forward that became unplayable and cumbersome without house rules. That’s not a game I can play sustainably over time, which was too bad.

      I think what you’re talking about is a kind of 4E2, but why should “D&D Next” be 4E2 instead of a new game? 4E is so incredibly different from 3.5 that it really is, in truth, a different game. I’d like to know what kind of “Classic D&D” tropes you think belong in 4E. Because for me, one of them is that the game would ‘play’ a lot faster. I understand that you don’t think the speed of play in 4E is a problem, but the level of system mastery that belies your opinion isn’t one that’s realistic for a lot of groups. It would be dishonest for me not to admit here that when you spoke of several combats, a skill challenge, and dinner in a three and a half hour (3.5, heh) session I was a little jealous – a lot of us don’t get that from our games. I wasn’t getting it until I started playing Savage Worlds regularly. However, I think it’s too soon to rule out the idea that “Next” could be a good game and include a one-hour session. I hope you (and others) do too. Otherwise I worry that we’ll end up with a pathfinderization of 4E out there somewhere – I don’t think anyone wants this (admittedly, large) corner of the tabletop RPG hobby to fracture any further.

  2. Hunterian7

    It is good to see differing opinions expressed in a civil way. I don’t want to derail your blog with all my issues with Mike Mearls but I will say I’m afraid of what he has in mind for D&D Next. The retro nostalgia is upsetting at times and one has to wonder how far they are moving away from 4th edition. Rodney just stated that they are making the nine alignments part of the core. While a minor detail it is troubling. Every time I read Wizards Presents Races & Classes and Wizards Presents Worlds & Monsters I am reminded of how much in danger we are in regressing again. 4th brought D&D into the future- the 2000s. Read Stephen Radney-McFarlands blog on Self Indulgent at Neogrognard- he’s summing up my sentiments on D&D Next. This is 2012, not 1990.

    • Greg Jayson

      I can’t say that I find the idea of regression to be a purely distasteful one, as long as it is done right. There were plenty of good 3 and 3.5 elements that didn’t make it into 4e, just as I am sure there will be plenty of good 4e elements that won’t make it into DnD Next. I do think that balancing those “retro” elements with new concepts and dynamics will be a tricky thing, but it can be done, and I’m enough of an optimist to hope it will at least attempt to get that balance right.

      In addition, a move away from 4e is needed if they want to speed up play time. Of the many things that 4e did well, speed of combat was not one of them in any of the games I ever played.

  3. micahblackburn

    I have to say that ‘if’ they can provide that kind of experience, in an hour, I’ll be pleasantly surprised and happy to stump up my money. As an adult with adult friends I sadly don’t have a lot of time to game like I used to. I’m lucky if we get 2-2 1/2 hours of gaming into our weekly sessions. So, getting a lot of play in a shorter amount of time is very important to me.

    I’m running Adventure Conqueror King right now and finding the old school game does allow for a lot more encounters in a play session. While I used to accuse old school d&d of providing no options other than move and swing for martial characters, I’m finding that (at least with ACKS variations on the rules) that’s not been true. When do you use your burning oil? What about the holy water? Can I wrestle my companion out of the way of that attack? Etc, etc. So yeah, 5E will have to provide short play sessions for me to really bite.

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