The Second Fury of Gruumsh
“Sessions” in this sense would be all of the actions, battles, encounters, checks, rolls, and anything else that happens during a single sit-down game of D&D. When creating a session, I tend to focus on making the dungeon, lair, or city it takes place in be just large enough for it to fill one day worth of play. In fact, it may be a good rule of thumb to try to craft dungeons or missions to last a single session since it gives a good place to stop or pick up again. If you are like me, you can use the time between sessions as a time skip to pass useless things like waiting for a certain day to come or extended overland travel.
Each session should have a goal for the players to accomplish, even if that goal is not immediately clear. Good goals can be acquiring a certain item, killing a certain enemy or enemies, and clearing out a lair or creatures. Of course, a session doesn’t have to be combat oriented. The goal could just as easily be convincing the prince of the city-state to allow you safe passage out of the city by boat, tricking the duke into sending aid to a rival duke to hold off an invasion, or going to trial to convince a judge to let your ally out of jail for a crime he didn’t (or perhaps he did) commit.
If the goal is clear, a standard DM usually has a single way the task can be completed in mind, but is willing to accept realistic alternatives. Myself, I prefer having a few ways worked out that could effectively work, though my players usually decide killing everything works just fine.
If the goal is unclear, it is necessary to have multiple methods of accomplishing the goal so that players can come across at least one of them while trying to discover how to advance. If there is only a single way to complete a goal, you may come across a situation where the players don’t or can’t think of it, either ruining the session and preventing its completion, or forcing you to give them the solution, a form of lazy deus ex machina. The best fix you can come up with is quickly creating an NPC to give them the answer, which is actually something you should have done in the first place as one of the alternate solutions.
During a game one of my friends was DMing, our party ran into a tunnel with a nearly impassable wall of rapidly-spinning air, behind which two high level spellcasters were wasting us with spells. We tried forcing our way through, even firing arrows through, but the winds destroyed all of our attempts. Admittedly, it was a pretty cool and creative obstacle we had to overcome, but we just couldn’t figure out how. We spent about half an hour trying to break through the thing, finally giving up, frustrated. The DM eventually had to tell us the solution, which was getting runes tattooed on our bodied at one of the local shops which would let us pass through. It was true that he had mentioned the runemaker’s shop, but it was in passing and we didn’t really give it much thought. We were also reluctant to leave the dungeon after we had initially entered it, so the idea never occured to us. To top it off, I was really against the idea of putting tattoos on my monk, but that was just an aesthetics thing. In short, always have multiple solutions or make the answer more obvious, such as putting a rune on the floor in front of the wall of wind that glows when we approach, pushing us away, and making the same rune glow on the enemies. It’s not very subtle, but it would have circumvented all that frustration.
As I’ve said, goals can be clear, but they can also be vague. “Discover what the Duke’s prized family treasure is” is slightly vague if all you know is he lives in a city outside of the capital and keeps the treasure with him at all times. One mission I have planned for the future, perhaps when my players are level 15+, involves some elements I cannot really discuss without giving too much away, but the goal is going to be “find out what happened to X,” X being a surprising thing indeed.
That mission for discovering X is one of my grandest missions I’ve created, taking place in a dungeon that delves a thousand feet underground and almost a thousand feet in each direction. This dungeon is planned to be four sessions long. While I did say that having sessions end at the finish of a quest is a great idea, it is also good to mix it up with larger quests to make things interesting. Even though the dungeon is longer, however, I won’t just make the players stop in the middle of the adventure and say “okay, we’re done for now.” If I want to make it good for the players, I may have a sub-boss encounter or some such, followed by an area intended for resting. Perhaps right before each rest they will discover something about whatever they are searching for, giving them the opportunity to accrue knowledge as they go deeper.
Where to end a session is key. For a single-session quest, you want some finality: slay the boss, rescue the hostages, collapse the entrance of the mine shaft, something. Make it clear the mission is either concluded, or very close to it. A boss fight is always an excellent place to finish, though you could always have a few weak enemies after the boss, giving the players the sense of just cleaning up the leftovers.
If the mission is cut into multiple parts, find an interesting point to end the session. Perhaps the party just pulled the lever that opened the massive entrance gate to that underground Drow fortress. Maybe they defeated the enemy’s right-hand man, who gave them some key info before he expired. Perhaps the ground collapsed beneath the party and they plummeted 300 feet into an underground lake, which also adds the interesting twist that they are no longer fighting their way in, but fighting their way out.
Please, always take into consideration what type of players you have. If they love fighting and hate diplomacy and things like that, give them what they want. This is a game after all and it should be fun. That doesn’t mean you can’t TRY diplomacy and see if they take to it, or sneak in some really small checks every once in a while, but don’t make an entire session discussing trade routes and diplomatic ties when your players just want to crack skulls.
As I discussed before, handing out treasure at various opportunities is key, but you have to plan them accordingly. If you like doing lump sums of treasure at the end of sessions, give a reason why the party found 15000 GP and two powerful rings after defeating that lizardman general. Maybe you found his bedchambers nearby and looted his possessions. Maybe he had a bag of holding on him that contained all this stuff. Maybe he was guarding a treasury. The players may not think twice about where the treasures come from, but if they do they will see holes in it that might irk them.
Another very important thing to keep in mind through all this is how powerful your characters actually are. I don’t just mean their level and equipment, but also how much damage they can do. Take a look at the enemies you are going to put into that dungeon and add up all of their hit points. How many do they have? 2000? How much damage do your players do on average? 10? Why, that mean they have to land 200 attacks at par damage to kill all of your monsters. And since their chance to hit will probably be between 20-50%, that means they might have to attack anywhere between 400-1000 times. Wow. I hope you guys have all night and the next day as well, because that is going to be one long session.
And yes, this is a mistake I have made. Not quite as bad as I make it sound, but the session did last much longer than anticipated and we had to carry it over to the next game day. And since I keep stats, I can inform you that, yes, the party did WELL over 2000 damage, but the average damage was about 15 and the accuracy was 67% overall, so roughly 200 attack rolls were required.
Sorry. I like math a little too much.