My name is Mike Lemmer, and the last campaign I GMed stalled a year ago. Eager to shake the rust off before starting a new one, I posted a call to arms on the RPTools forums for an adventure set in 4th edition D&D’s Living Forgotten Realms. I vowed to create & run 6 homemade My Realms sessions in just 7 weeks. No homebrew world, no unique powers or items, no falling back on a session of just RP if an encounter wasn’t ready. Just me, my players, and basic D&D. This is my recounting of how it went and what I learned.
Back to Basics
Living campaigns are what happens when tabletop gaming meets parallel universe theory. The same adventures are played out hundreds of times amongst thousands of players. Even after the initial results are tallied and the results determined, they continue to live, like wraiths of gaming sessions past trying to kill PCs years after their release. They could spark a lot of debates, like how to avoid metagaming when you’ve already played the entire adventure on a different character, or how to handle temporal paradoxes when playing adventures out of order (“So, I retroactively killed our previous quest giver…”), but what interested me was the standardization of Living Forgotten Realms’s (LFR’s) gaming sessions.
Knowing the differences in GMing styles, and the temptation to do milk runs for loot, each LFR session must adhere to set requirements, constraints, and guidelines. They must have this much XP from combats and skill challenges; PCs can choose from set treasure bundles if they survive the session; these options are allowed, those aren’t; no funny variants; no excessive extended rests; bring each session to a good stopping point. Looking for the flexibility and house rulings of personal campaigns? This ain’t the place for them. Here, each session is grown from the same framework and the rules are followed like lab procedures, even for GMs’ personally-made My Realms sessions. Is it restrictive? Yes. But that’s what made it appealing.
Limitations force you to focus on the basics. Just as writing short stories teaches you to cut the fat off your prose and make sure it has some meat on it, the standardized session makes you cut off the bells & whistles and examine the key parts. How do you make a good encounter? How do you keep your sessions going at a decent clip? Can you fit a satisfying plot into 4 hours? If you can do all that, it can only improve your personal campaign. And after building 3 encounters a week, making just 1 or 2 will be a breeze…
Building 3 encounters a week, however, wasn’t nearly as frustrating as not getting to all of them.
The first session was a warning klaxon about what I could fit in. I insisted on keeping every encounter in there and we ended the session one turn into the final battle. Everyone agreed to finish it up before the next session, but it cut an hour out of that one and forced me to trim out a major encounter. It also wasn’t satisfying to the players; the first session was exhausting, the second session felt rushed. I went back to the drawing board and broke out the equations.
LFR sessions are supposed to be stuffed with XP. They each need enough XP for 3 regular encounters, at least. Those need to be fit into a 4-5 hour span. If I wanted to fit in any RP, I had to average an hour per encounter. Was I? How could I prove it? Science, of course.
I began watching the clock, jotting down the time each combat turn begin, noting what lengthened a turn. My informal results? The first turn took up a good half-hour. After that, turn time dropped exponentially as powers were expended and monsters dropped. The 2nd turn averaged 20 minutes, the 3rd took 10. Cleaning up the stragglers took about 5 minutes a turn. By then, most of the monsters were just waiting to die; I could remove those boring parts.
My monsters needed an “Out”. Around the 50-minute mark, my monsters turned into fleeing cowards or reckless skirmishers. Both options shortened combat while spicing up the last turns of combat. Instead of monsters getting locked into a slow death by the PCs, they began taking huge risks to escape the party or skewer the wizard in the back. The resulting deaths by opportunity attacks felt swift and organic. But my combats still averaged an hour long.
With practice, I learned our limits: we could fit in 3 encounters max, or 2 encounters with a decent amount of RP. I pushed them at my peril. One session, I had to cut out the Guard-the-Gate finale and its elite monster because I spent an hour attacking them with a random herd of draconic wildebeasts. The lesson? When in doubt, cut a non-vital encounter. If it was necessary, you’ll be glad you did. If it wasn’t, you can always fill in the gap with RP.
It wasn’t until my last session I got the bright idea of tracking how much damage the party’s taken. I wish I had tracked that sooner; the damage drops off faster than the turn lengths! When the 1st turn took half the combat, it also dealt out two-thirds of the damage the party took. I still need more data to test my theories, but this could suggest a radical change for exciting combats: try to end each combat after the 2nd turn and use the time saved to add another fight. Risky, but tempting. Maybe I’ll toss my players against a clan of cowardly kobolds next…
(To Be Continued…)