I played some D&D this weekend - more on that tomorrow - and while doing so I seriously started thinking about how to run a normal leveling up type campaign at an even faster pace. The goal would be to experience the full range of levels in the game in roughly a year. I'm thinking specifically of 4th Edition D&D but I'd be open to trying it in other level based games as well.
I can think of two ways to start: with a pre-built set of adventures or with a core concept such as "Against the Giants" or "Against the Dragons". The idea would be to play a complete "encounter" or short adventure entirely within one session once a week or more likely once every other week. After each session the party levels up and the next session is set at one level higher.
- Experience every level of a class in a relatively short period of time
- A complete campaign in a fixed period of time (complete in some senses anyway)
- A chance to run/play a new campaign every year
- Some players are going to love it - episodic play is great
- Sessions are going to be tight
- Mission type focus comes at the expense of just wandering around, and some NPC interaction
- No real room for bigger adventures spanning multiple sessions
- Some players are going to hate it - episodic play is terrible
Structuring the campaign
Using a set of unrelated prebuilt encounters like Dungeon Delve means there's no overarching theme or plot so to some degree your players are just going to have to buy in and agree that this is what they want to do. Think of it as a set of short stories chronicling the career of a group of heroes - you don't get a story about every adventure they had, nor do you get text covering all the downtime in between - what you get is a story focusing on the biggest and best adventures they have, and the other stuff comes in the form of the author's notes before or after or in between each story. Alternately, think of a movie series, like the Bond films: we don't get an exhaustive rundown of everything he does and we don't typically get a serialized story. That's the approach I'm thinking of taking.
If you hand craft this thing then you can work in a theme such as a creature type, a nation, or a power from the outer planes that is the focus of the game. The level 1 adventure might focus on the tower of an evil wizard with a quasit familiar, and by level 30 the party is taking on Orcus himself, with a trail of crushed demonic types littering the way between the two.
You could theme the party too, if the players are agreeable - this campaign is about a dwarven quest for vengeance against the lord of the frost giants. Or maybe it's a group of humans trying to get as rich as possible. Or a group of elves and allies out to slay Lolth once and for all. There are certainly some options here but getting players to agree to them could be tricky.
Structuring the sessions
One limitation here is that a lot of the shopping and chit-chat is going to have to happen in between sessions, via email or messageboard or however your group likes to communicate. To get in a full short adventure the focus really needs to be on what's happening right now in the game. I would use "en media res" as my default, with a very flexible timescale, as it's the most sensible way to account for last week's session being against the pirates of the gulf and this week's session being against giants up in the mountains. Something like this:
"It's been six months since you vanquished the Black Fang pirate band in the Gulf of Storms. Recently a messenger from the Monastery of the Blue Ox that giants are stirring in the mountains and have begun raiding local farms and travelers. They seek your assistance in this, given your reputation as mighty slayers of giant kind." You agreed to dispatch this threat and have traveled to the hold of the giant king, facing down terrible beasts and giant patrols alike. You now stand outside the gates, prepared for action."
Now the "what do you do" type questions start, ideally from the players looking over the area, the guards, and anything else they think is important. Augury type spells might be cast, summoning spells might be used, and then action starts happening. Ideally this introduction would be sent out ahead of time so the players could do any prep they wanted to do, like crafting items. Stuff like this.
Everybody comes in ready to go, actions happen and a good time is had by all. Everyone has a new story to tell. Next time, hopefully the same group comes along and more fun is had. I might be a little more restrictive on character swapping for this campaign as character continuity is going to be the main thread holding it together, especially with something like the Dungeon Delve approach. For a new player, sure, jump on in, but for an existing player I'd probably press them to pick one character and stick with it for the whole campaign, especially after the party has been stable for a while. Sure, characters die and that has to be accounted for, but other than that and new players stability would be a bonus here.
The other potential obstacle I see here is gear: so much of D&D is built on magic items that I would have to really think about how to handle this. For this one, since it's a structured situation anyway, I would probably be OK with the "wishlist" approach that a lot of 4E game take. This would give the players a fair amount of control over how their characters develop and it eliminates the need for the DM to keep up with it. Within the game, it's easy enough to handle this: Option 1, the Paladin has heard that a legendary holy avenger was taken by this demon lord -now he has another reason to be interested as he can reclaim the sword. Option 2: After finishing off the giants the monastery awards the fighter a mighty blade that it has long held in keeping for a worthy bearer - and the fighter just proved worthy.
For 4E the goal is the run to lvl 30. I'd go with the delve model of 3 encounters, just enough to work through in an evening. I've found skill challenges to go much faster than combat so there might be room for more if a skill challenge was a big part of one or two of them.
For 3.5/Pathfinder I think the same concept would work, you'd just have to monitor how fast things were moving to fine tune it for your group. In 4E fights tend to take a certain amount of time, but I remember 3E as being more swingy - having the right tool could shorten a battle considerably, while having the wrong set drew it out some. You also only have 20 levels to worry about so it could take a lot less time to accomplish.
For BECMI I think it works too, but you have fewer tools for setting up encounters, especially at the higher levels. For levels 1-10 sure, but you get up to level 30 in the master set and I think there will be more swing than in 3E's high levels.
For Older school AD&D I think I would put a lower level cap on it - no more than 20 for sure, and maybe even 18. That would let M-U's get to their highest level spells for a level or two before wrapping up.
Heck it might be worth a shot in a d20 Star Wars game too. It would certainly be easy enough to plot something out that made sense anyway. I think you're going to need even more player buy-in though than D&D.
What it comes down to really is how you want to spend your game time. My current 4E campaign is running around 30 sessions now and the party is at 10th level and it's been one long uninterrupted arc. If we took the "WF4EC" approach we still would have played 30 sessions, but we would be at level 30 and would have less of an epic tale but more and smaller tales. After running multiple campaigns where everyone expects to start at level 1 and work their way up the ladder only to have a TPK or loss of interest reset the game, it would be nice to explore the higher end of the level scale in months instead of years.