Start Your 5E D&D Campaign with a Single Encounter
How long is a typical session of fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons? When I was much younger with many fewer responsibilities my friends and I gathered to play D&D for a lot longer than the game sessions I experience these days. Scheduling and time management are factors in this as well as the influence of online gaming both streamed or simply using communication software to connect with fellow players. Newer Dungeon Masters and those curious about what life is like on the other side of the DM screen already have lots to consider (and feel anxious about) and session length is rarely something I see discussed when it comes to 5E D&D or any other tabletop roleplaying game for that matter. So let’s get into it.
Session length is what you make it
As usual whenever these sorts of ideas emerge the first place I turn is the official 5E D&D material. I won’t claim I’ve exhaustively examined every bit of text in those books and sources so I can’t say with 100% certainty but I’m pretty sure session length isn’t touched on anywhere. The closest I found is unsurprisingly in the introduction found in the free Basic Rules, which is also in the Player’s Handbook.
“Adventures vary in length and complexity. A short adventure might present only a few challenges, and it might take no more than a single game session to complete. A long adventure can involve hundreds of combats, interactions, and other challenges, and take dozens of sessions to play through, stretching over weeks or months of real time. Usually, the end of an adventure is marked by the adventurers heading back to civilization to rest and enjoy the spoils of their labors.”
Players can glean there’s no particular length of time for a game session and there’s no examples provided to give any other impression. A short adventure with a handful of challenging scenarios might take a single session, sure, but how long is this? The text differentiates between sessions and adventures but only in a vague way. After characters complete a few challenges during a short adventure they’re expected to return to civilization for rest and I can imagine players wholly new to 5E D&D taking this to heart. It’s what the How to Play section indicates after all.
A brief follow up to the text above suggests players think of an adventure as a single episode of a TV series so perhaps the idea of session length lasting 30-60 minutes finds some footing. After a string of related adventures a season emerges and a campaign establishes itself once these seasons wrap up for the final time. Chapter three in the Dungeon Master’s Guide builds on this concept as regards creating adventures, which the text explains share features of novels, movies, comic book issues and TV show episodes.
Still and all there’s no definitive explanation for session length in the official text as far as I can tell. The forms of media used as illustrations for adventure construction certainly don’t make this any clearer. The more I think about it this seems like a strange omission. I understand the amorphous nature of tabletop RPGs and I’m sure lots of people reading this right now do too, which kind of makes the point for me. Experienced players know session length basically amounts to however much time an individual group can and wants to play. A group of new players with a new DM though won’t find a clear answer unless they look elsewhere.
During the earlier years of 5E D&D when I often played Adventurers League games those sessions were scheduled for two or four hour blocks. I want to say the guidelines for creating and running these organized play adventures indicated as much. Beyond this streamed games and actual play examples, videos, blogs and other sources of tips and advice present a wide swath of session length examples. There’s one such video in this very post looking at session length of two hours. As a dyed in the wool Critter I enjoy watching those nerdy ass voice actors play D&D for three, four, five or more hours every Thursday. The most recent episode was the longest to date in their second campaign as a matter of fact. On the other side of the spectrum a show called D&D AARPG from a few years ago comprised sessions running about 30 minutes each.
The bigger issue when it comes to session length isn’t necessarily the lack of specificity in the official material but this lack does create a challenge for onboarding new players — particularly DMs. Starting small and only preparing enough material for one session is solid advice but missing from this in pretty much every single instance I come across it is what this means in the first place. If a session length is eight hours or one hour then starting small means something very different.
I’ve taken to advocating new DMs offer to run a single encounter with a 30 minute session length for players when they’re getting started. I don’t mean an introductory adventure — I’m talking about one encounter. No quest giver, no mustering the characters and describing their appearances, no shopping or traveling to the quest location. Simply place the characters in a location with things to interact with and see what happens.
Using Lost Mine of Phandelver as an example a first session begins with the party on the Triboar Trail coming around a bend and spotting two dead horses sprawled about fifty feet ahead blocking the path. The session ends after the party deals with this situation. I don’t want to give any spoilers but I think this scenario would take about 30 minutes. Everyone ought to get a chance to do something cool, contribute to the experience and (hopefully) share enough of both their character’s and their own thoughts, ideas and perspectives to give the DM plenty of material to work with for next time. Maybe they’ll continue more or less along the same adventure. Maybe something happens during the encounter and the party develops their own goal. Whatever the results if the group gets back together for another session it shouldn’t be too difficult to prepare for it — they’ll only be playing for 30 minutes after all. (Or will they? With some experience under their belts this group might dial up the session length to find their sweet spot.)
The same approach works with homebrew material too and perhaps even better. With a DM in complete control of the design space they’re free to create and prepare exactly the kind of material they need. This covers not only session length but also considers the individual DM’s strengths and weaknesses along with player preferences. For example if a DM doesn’t feel as confident about portraying NPCs then extra time and care can go into this aspect. In contrast a DM who’s confident in their descriptive and exploratory skills can use a single bullet point to guide themselves during as session. “Brutal arctic wilderness” might give a DM all they need to proceed. In case you’re wondering these are all self-referential examples.
The main reason I strongly advocate short session length particularly for new DMs is because a game of 5E D&D can very quickly overwhelm an unprepared DM. Experience brings perspective on how a DM can spend time preparing for a million possibilities only to discover players do the million and first thing right from the get go. Starting a game session with characters already at the point of engagement mitigates this uncertainty. At the same time it leaves the future completely open to progress in whatever direction the encounter leads.
Encouraging deeper collaboration between DMs and the other players in a game is something we strongly advocate around here at Nerdarchy. Our Out of the Box: Encounters for Fifth Edition book makes an excellent example of this philosophy. Each of the 55 encounters present a dynamic scenario ready to drop right into a 5E D&D game. Without any assumptions regarding whether any individual encounter focuses on exploration, social interaction or combat the interactions and outcomes depend entirely on the players. Instead the encounters include lots of guidance and suggestions directly for Game Masters to not only anticipate and handle the out of the box way most players approach games but encourage and invite such developments.
Down on the Farm is one of my favorite encounters from the book to illustrate the point. Adventurers making their way through a forest find themselves in an area infested with spiders. Depending how a party reacts to the circumstances and explores the environment they may wind up discovering clues pointing to much greater problems, which the encounter text points out as a distinct possibility. This kind of outcome is indicative of many of the encounters and in my experience just about every game I’ve ever run. Over time a DM develops improvisational skills to help move forward smoothly but imagine a 30 minute session length featuring only this encounter. Now the DM’s got plenty of time to prepare for the next session informed by however the party handled this one.
We recently changed gears with our monthly Patreon rewards to double down and really explore the design space for single encounters. In our experience the best RPG sessions emerge when the players engage with the scenario and each other. When each player gets an opportunity to shine and do their cool thing, create a memorable moment and experience the ups and downs of dice rolls we consider this a success so when we think about session length the number of people in the group makes a difference.
In a two hour session with a group of five people, one of whom is the DM, you might consider each player getting about 15-20 minutes of time and 40 minutes to an hour for the DM. Managing this time calls on everyone in the group to participate. In the game content we create it’s important to us to include lots of different ways to facilitate this in a useful and practical way. Encounter text speaks directly to the DM with guidance, reminders and suggestions for providing engagement opportunities. We’ve found preparing material especially focused on creating these entry points tends to result in excellent interaction between the players and groups developing their own unique stories spun from the particular things they engaged with during a scenario.
I’m planting my flag in the two to three hour session length camp. There’s enough 5E D&D ideas bouncing around in my imagination (and a healthy dose of passing the ball and thrusting agency onto the players) to drop characters into a scenario and wile away the next few hours. And anything beyond this session length is doomed to fizzle out, at least in my experience. Gathering a group of adults on any kind of consistent basis is hard enough. Push the session length much more than a movie run time and prospects dwindle pretty quickly.
How about you? What’s your ideal session length for 5E D&D or the TTRPG of your choice? Whatever the length of time you prefer how does it factor into your approach to preparing or just thinking about the material you’ll use while running the game? I hope to read lots of great comments because if I’m honest this stuff fascinates me and I look forward to seeing new perspectives.