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This sent my mind reeling and here's where it went.
Essentially the question at hand is How can I provide an interesting D&D session within very tight time constraints?
I am reading in the following assumptions:
- Each session is part of a longer campaign.
- A session should provide at least one very interesting decision, the outcome of which has a bearing on the unfolding of the campaign.
Furthermore I propose the following principles as a matter of personal taste:
- A session should be planned and executed in such a way that maximizes the amount of time spent engaging in interesting decision-making.
- The structure of the campaign respects player agency and allows players a significant degree of agency in directing its development.
- A session should be compact and run smoothly and swiftly. Frequent backtracking is undesirable; each session should at least offer at least one novel possibility.
So here's a lunch-hour campaign I came up with, assuming 30-60 minute sessions:
Journey to the Center of the Earth
In the depths of an ancient mine is a tunnel that goes on for miles. It is rumoured to lead to a massive dungeon complex that reaches to the Center of the Earth, where the treasure-laden city of the First Ones is fabled to hold riches unimaginable. A bold group of adventurers has decided to delve into the tunnel and see if the stories are true.
This gigadungeon is made up to two types of part: Nodes and passages. Nodes are small- to medium-sized adventure areas, containing the usual dungeon fare. Passages lead between two or more nodes, but are extremely long - they take hours, sometimes days, to cross. The difference between nodes and passages is usually very clearly demarcated and unmistakable; the party will know when they find a new passage. Furthermore, passages are often covered with very visible hints about where they lead (eg., a passage leading to a dragon's would be lined with images of treasure and fire. Or maybe even just drawings of a dragon). A passage may not be explored in the same session in which it is discovered but offers new options for future sessions. A single node should take about 1-3 sessions to clear.
The party travels with several detachments* of hirelings; scouts, men-at-arms, perhaps a sage. These can be deployed in between session to perform their various services: Scouts will provide partial maps and information on a node's inhabitants but will not engage in combat; men-at-arms will patrol previously cleared areas to keep out intruders and stand guard at night; sages will attempt to decipher coded documents, follow up on clues, and are assumed to have researched the dungeon extensively. And so on. New detachments can be enlisted through play, but also lost (scouts abducted, men-at-arms zombified, sages driven mad, etc.). Dispatching a detachment always requires some form of compensation for its services.
The party advances by exploring and clearing nodes. XP is awarded for each node cleared, depending on how deep it is, and a cleared node is generally safe to camp out in for at least a few days, until some new thing comes to claim it. Some nodes are just plain safe. The party always ends the session by heading to a nearby safe node or passage.
Food, light, water, and other consumable resources are tracked rigorously. The party will have to find new sources of these resources as they explore, and will have to maintain a decent stockpile of treasure to keep their detachments paid and happy.
A session goes as follows: During the first 5-10 minutes, the DM tells the results of the previous session's detachment dispaches, if any, and tells the PCs what nodes are attached to their current position and what they know about them. The players choose a node to explore. This decision is binding: This is what they're doing this session. The next 20-50 minutes are spent exploring the node. In the last 5-10 minutes of the session, the PC leave the current node and choose a safe location nearby in which to rest. Rations and water are consumed. The players decide how to assign their detachments and the session ends. The DM will determine the outcome of the detachment's activities and prepare accordingly before the next session.
Note that the detachments actually serve to guide a DM's prep. Passages contain hints about where they lead, which should inform the players' decision about where to scout. This in turn tells the DM which nodes to prep. You may even have a meta-rule that the DM is not beholden to prep unscouted nodes, or that a node must be scouted before the party can explore it.
*Thanks to Chris McDowall for the detachment idea. Except oops I just noticed he calls them delegations. Whatever. More on these here.