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I'm a new DM starting a campaign I've written myself. I have a party of 4 players right now- three have been playing for years, one has never played before. My problem is I'm not sure how to tell how long my adventure is going to last.

In the first adventure I've written they encounter two battles before having to leave the town they're in to get to the next part of the campaign.

Is there a way to tell how long your adventures are going to be? Should I just write out the second part as well just in case we get through the first part fairly quickly?

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This strongly depends on how your group plays. I'd recommend trying to have what you think will be a couple sessions planned in advance when you start, and then see how quickly the group actually gets through that. –  Oblivious Sage Apr 29 '13 at 1:17
All depends on luck (dice rolls), PC roleplaying, decision-making etc.. It's very difficult if not impossible to tell how long exactly a game can take. You can only do that after you host a few sessions and get a feeling of how long things usually take, but even that can differ drastically depending on sessions. –  MMM Apr 29 '13 at 10:18
And some groups are just a lot slower than others. My friends kibitz a lot, which slows down everything, but especially tactical encounters. –  Bradd Szonye Apr 30 '13 at 1:07
I play with a very heavy RP group. Due to us spending more time describing details the story progresses at a molasses pace (but that's what we like). It was revealed by the DM a few months ago that where we are now is where he was anticipating us being over a year ago. Our last encounter was the first with an actual combat in five or six sessions. –  madrius May 1 '13 at 21:14
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5 Answers 5

There's no easy way to tell how long an adventure will last. Sometimes they'll run through several adventures' worth of material in an evening, and sometimes they'll spend forever on what you thought was a minor task.

Some reasons why material can take less time than you expect:

  • The party thinks of a solution you didn't think of. Maybe you assumed the party would try to attack the fortress, but then they figure out a way to flood out the defenders.
  • They don't realize the importance of a lead. Someone is kidnapped right in front of them in town, but they think it's just some minor street crime and won't take any of your hints.
  • They recognize the possible adventure but decide it would be immoral. (This happened with my group recently. They found some ancient artifacts with some bones in a cave, then decided to leave the artifacts in the cave and seal it up, since disturbing the dead would be wrong.)

Some reasons why material can take more time than you expect:

  • The party doesn't recognize a solution that you thought was obvious. There's a simple way to climb over the wall, but they get bogged down in trying to dig under it. Maybe it works, but the plan takes a lot longer than you expected.
  • They think some minor background material is actually a major plot point. Some kid steals a ring in the marketplace, and they think they've stumbled on a den of thieves and spend all evening scouting out the town.
  • They see the task you've set before them, and they recognize its importance, but they spend far more time preparing than you expected. A two-day jaunt through peaceful wilderness, and they go spending a week gathering maps, supplies, and a guide to lead them through.

But there are some things you can do to prepare:

  • Prepare more material than you think you'll need.
  • Prepare material that's small and that isn't tied to a particular location. Highwaymen could rob people on just about any road, a magical tree that never loses its leaves could be placed in just about any forest.
  • Follow the party's lead. If they think they've stumbled on a smuggling operation where you don't have anything planned, let them be right and give them some smugglers to deal with.
  • Prepare some random encounter tables. Not just monsters to fight, but people to encounter, gossip to hear, artifacts to find, signs to read, trails to follow.
  • Don't be single-tracked. If the party bypasses something you hoped they'd explore, don't let your planning go to waste. Reincorporate the missed content in a future adventure.
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That's all fantastic advice and a lot to take into consideration. (: Thank youu! That's going to help me out with planning out their adventures so much. I don't want them to blast through what I planned and then be bored the rest of the time. –  Bobby Carlos Apr 29 '13 at 3:25
Planning smaller encounters and not defining where they happen so you can randomly, or by choice, place them in the players path is very helpful. You can keep these encounters even if you don't "use" them this time around. Lastly fun is fun, it doesn't need to have a limit or a length. All to often we try to "control the fun", don't do it if you can help it. –  Vethor Apr 29 '13 at 3:38
They get sidetracked by the scenery. They quickly figured out there was no way they were getting the loot but they still spent half a session goofing off with the living objects only teleporter in a shaft. –  Loren Pechtel May 2 '13 at 2:01
@LorenPechtel, that sounds like a great session! They enjoyed the scenery and had fun playing around with the things in the game. –  Joe May 2 '13 at 2:13
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Play with your players and you'll get a general sense for how long an adventure will be.

Really, there's not much of another way, though you can do some quick estimations.

  1. How much content is there? Remember that a session in a tabletop game isn't necessarily linear-or even necessarily on topic at all. If you've got a lot of adiaphorous options for players to follow, it can go longer than if you don't. For instance, if you can allow players to sandbox through a town on the fly and you're good enough to pull it off, you can keep sessions to a minimum of a certain length. Of course, the downside of this is that you can also bore the heck out of your players, though I was in an awesome Pathfinder game once where basically we just tested what spells each of the casters got in a ton of wacky situations for one session, and it was fun regardless (but, again, that was a comedy-friendly campaign, so the cat using a spell to turn himself into mist to grab the dragon's treasure while it slept was more or less average).
  2. Who are your players? Players who know each other or are more likely to banter will take longer per session as a general rule, as will players who roleplay heavily instead of just saying "I do this, roll the dice.". ("I, Belethon, son of Ekemol, vanquisher of Thrask, Defender of the North, will smite the foul dragon with my mighty blade!" has a certain ring to it that you can't do in just five seconds.)
  3. Who are you, as a GM. My players have gotten pretty used to rather terse descriptions from me; I don't do flowery and verbose language (at least not in narration), and I hate describing things in any way that isn't strictly utilitarian. I do "You step into a room, 15'x10', 7' tall, and it's dark, but you make out a bloodstain in corner.", while someone else might say "Entering the room, you are immediately struck by how oppressive it is. It's small, and the air is musty. The room is dimly lit by the torches from the hallway, and there's a bloodied patch of ground in one of the corners where someone met a foul fate." It may not sound like much, but over the course of a whole session it can make several minutes' difference in your game.
  4. Do you have alternatives? If you have to come up with something on the fly, you'll typically shorten your session (though occasionally you'll wind up extending it, but this is, in my experience, the rarer of the two). Having worked on interactive fiction, I've got to say that the important thing when working on a campaign is to look through each of your players' eyes; what possible assets do they have? In my experience, most players are very heavily character-oriented (and those who aren't tend to do stereotypical action-movie or swords-and-sorcery things) in terms of the options they consider, both from a roleplaying and a rollplaying perspective, so if the druid sees a creature he'll try to charm it, while the fighter's response would be more violent by default.
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Good answers above, but there are so many factors involved that you cannot easily estimate this until you have experience running things for this group with this particular system.

For my 3.5 group I used to reckon I needed about an hour for a solid encounter, so expect to manage two encounters per session max. Exploration, description and roleplaying encounters can add a lot to that.

The question behind this question is... if they are having a good time, does it matter how fast they consume your material?

If they take three sessions to use the stuff you prepared for one session then you have no problem as far as I can see. If they are burning through your prepared material much faster than you expected then you have a problem.

To handle that you can

  • Tweak progress in-game by taking more or less time with exploration and descriptions and allowing more or fewer breaks and social time. That takes some experience... so it does not help you much right now.
  • Expect to mess up some times and say sorry. "Wow guys, you really made amazing progress... so we need to end the session for this time and I will have more for you next time."
  • Prepare for it. Have about twice as much prep as you could ever expect to use: it does not go bad if it has to wait around a while.
  • Hone your improv skills so that you are comfortable adding extra encounters on the fly.
  • Add side-quests You can have optional stuff, one-shot adventures with no impact on your campaign, ready to drop in to any session. I find it helps to have a few typical monsters and NPCs on index cards that you can just pull out as needed.

Good luck and have fun!

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The old Dream Park RPG from R. Talsorian Games had an excellent adventure-development concept called a Beat Chart. I haven't played Dream Park in twenty years, but I've been writing Beat Charts for my adventures ever since. It's that useful.

In a nutshell, the Beat Chart divides the adventure into Beats, which are chunks of the adventure that either challenge or inform the players. The first Beat is always the Hook, which draws them in. Beats then alternate between Developments (plot points that move the story forward) and Cliffhangers (combats, puzzles, or other challenges), the results of which are not certain. The second-to-last Beat is always the Climax (the mother of all Cliffhangers and the culmination of the story), and the last Beat is the Resolution (the final Development that resolves everything).

"Great", you say. "What's that have to do with anything?"

Well, the important bit is that each beat is supposed to take roughly 30 minutes to play out. So, if you want to write a four-hour adventure, you need an eight-beat chart. Three of those beats are covered (Hook, Cliffhanger, Resolution) so you just need to come up with the rest.

What I've found in practice is that depending on the adventure and the group, Development Beats will probably take fifteen minutes or so (kinda hard to stretch out a Foreshadowing to a half-hour) and Cliffhangers, if they're combats, probably 30 to 45 minutes. Either way, you're covered. And, Beats also make for a logical stopping point when you've run out of time; if you end on Beat 6, just pick up from Beat 7 next week.

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That's a really nice way to break it down. It doesn't help with the player's reactions (as discussed in other answers), but for planning purposes it's a great idea. –  Bobson Jul 17 at 20:49
That's true. It doesn't take into account that players may skip Beats, or go out of order. I'm currently running games for two different groups; one chews through content quickly and the other is far more cautious, so for the fast group I plan about 1.5x as many Beats as I do for the slow one. –  Sandalfoot Jul 17 at 21:21
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One way I figure how long an adventure will take:

  • Add up the planned scenes of roleplaying and estimate an hour for each of them (my group tends to be very talky, and we also lose focus easily making fun of names and quoting Monty Python in the middle of drdamatic scenes. In fact, the more serious the scene the more the other players TRY to make the serious player(s) and DM crack up).
  • Figure how many combats you plan to run and estimate about 2-3 hours (we run 3.5, so if your system is faster, adjust accordingly).
  • Add the "fudge factor", since I'm a somewhat novice DM and my group likes to split off into 1 on 1 time (a major gripe, but that's another rant), I just add up the two bullet points and then double it.

To prepare for my game sessions, I will:

  1. Figure out where the group is currently.
  2. Did the PC actions last game change any NPC plans? Adjust accordingly.
  3. Where are the PCs headed now? What plot points need to be revealed to the PCs?
  4. Once I know where the PCs are, and where they are likely to go in the next session, I prepare the logical next 2 sessions worth of material. Luckily my players sometimes are very nice so I end up using last week's "extra" prep for this week's content and then preparing "extra" content in case they move faster than I plan.
  5. Next, I ask my self how I would derail the plot. What would my players think up to side-step traps, pitfalls, dangers, fights, etc? If I know that a PC is attracted to shiny things like a ferret with no attentnion span, then I plan to either not dangle shiny in front of them at crossroads, or figure out how to get them back together once the thief has either got the shiny or is in jail. I don't really prep much other than to know what kinds of NPCs that will be needed somewhat quickly.
  6. The last thing I typically do is review everything through to make sure none of it falls apart, and review my name cheatsheet (I am bad at naming, so I have a list of unpurposed names so when the PCs want to know the plot-unimportant smithy's name, I have a list of choices).
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