How to Plan a Shorter D&D Session for Kids

Planning Gone Wrong

I have found the biggest difference between running a D&D game for kids and running one for adults is how long a game session runs. The average group of adults may sit around a table, or talk over discord, and play for four to six hours at a time. For playing with kids, I find most sessions only last one to two hours, and are often shorter than an hour.

Pacing an adventure for adults is difficult enough, and much has already been written on the topic. In a blog post titled Timing and Pacing Adventures, Mike Shea (AKA Sly Flourish), author of the Laze Dungeon Master books, gives some great advice on session pacing. About the struggle to design adventures that are well paced yet open and nonlinear, he states the following:

How the characters interact with an encounter has a big impact on the time it takes to run that encounter. Multiply that out by the number of encounters in the adventure and you could have an adventure that takes an hour or six depending on how things go. Given that we’re generally aiming for around four hours, give or take, a window that wide isn’t useful.

Sly Flourish, Timing and Pacing Adventures

Most session planning advice out there will use this four hour session at its foundation. Pre-written adventures, both long campaign meant to take months or years to play and a short adventure intended to be completed in a few or a single session, are also typically written with this session length in mind.

So the question is, how do we plan and run meaningful sessions for kids in less than half the time? How do we make them to be engaging for the players and advance the the adventure story forward for the characters?

In this post I’m going to take a look at some strategies for planning short, but open and nonlinear, game sessions. In a future post I will talk about how to run a short session. Which strategies work for you will depend largely on the kids playing the game. No two gaming groups are alike and no two kids are either. It may take many sessions of play to figure out how best to structure the game for your kid’s enjoyment.

A word of caution: with such little time in a session, it can be tempting to force certain encounters to happen. This is referred to as railroading the game. Your planning won’t go to wast and the players won’t miss important events and information if you just make them take the north path instead of the south one. But beware, this most often results in unsatisfying games for your players. Players, especially kids, enjoy the agency afforded to them in TTRPGs like D&D. Unlike in a video game, a D&D character can go anywhere and do anything. There are no invisible walls blocking areas of the map or NPCs with just a few predetermined lines of dialogue. Try not to limit their creativity. Instead, expect them to do the unexpected. Plan a nonlinear game and learn to roll with the punches as you run each session.

Planning for a Shorter Session

Some DMs spend hours prepping the game while other will do little more than make a few bullet points on an index card. When planning a shorter session, don’t plan too much. That may sound obvious, but it can be easy to get carried away. I find great joy in planning out all of the fantastic places, people, and events that my characters may encounter. If you enjoy this, do it. Take note of these ideas when you have them, but don’t plan too much in advance. You don’t need to have the entire world and story mapped out before the first session.

In a one to two hour session, you are not likely to have more than a few encounters. Having a a good grasp of a few key things they are most likely to encounter in the next session is far more important than knowing who the ruler of the neighboring kingdom is or why there are three moons in the sky above your world.

The Nonlinear Session Plan

As a rule of thumb, I plan just three to four simple combat and/or social encounters, or one to two complex ones for a single game session. I plan for this many encounters, but with the understanding that I may only complete half of these encounters this session. I also try to leave time between planned encounters for role playing minor social interactions and exploration scenes.

Focus on putting together a short list of keys people, places, and things the players are likely to encounter in this session. To help craft your encounters, think of three or four answers to the following questions:

  • What are the character’s goals?
  • Where might the characters go?
  • Who might the characters encounter?
  • What might the characters find?
  • What might the characters learn?

What are the character’s goals?

The first step is to take stock of where the characters are now and what the characters’ individual and collective goals are. What are the player characters working towards? What mystery are they trying to uncover? What villain are they trying to thwart? On an individual level, what is each character trying to achieve? Is there something from their backstory they are trying to find out more about? Do they have an item or powerful ability they are working to gain?

I like to start a game session by asking the players to recap the previous session. I then fill in any thing important that they missed. If it was not clearly stated by the player, I ask if they remember where they are going and what they are trying to achieve. If their answer does not align with what I understand the adventure objectives to be, I know that I must either refocus the game on the campaign objectives or adjust the campaign to align with the player’s goals. The later is often the solution more enjoyable for the players.

When sessions are short and a week or more apart, it can be easy for the players to loose track of the overarching goals. As you go about planning the session, think of ways to advance the adventure forward, if even just a little, towards the character’s and party’s objectives.

Where might the characters go?

Take a look at the map. Where are the characters now and what locations are they likely to visit this session? If the previous session ended en route to somewhere, you may have a pretty good idea where they are going. But if the last session ended at the conclusion of a quest, you may need to start the session with an encounter that acts as a spring board to get the party moving. Think of a few interesting locations and reasons the characters would want to go there.

Remember, the world is vast and open. The characters are not on a railroad barreling towards a destination with no stops along the way. (Unless they are on a train, in which case, be prepared for the characters to jump off the caboose or derail the entire train.) Even if the characters are heading to a specific destination, be prepared for them to stray from the path at least a little.

What is between where they are and where they are going? As you describe a mountain they pass while traveling, the players may decide that they can afford a slight detour and want to know what treasure may be hidden in this mountain. Or this might be the day your ranger decides he just has to find a giant lizard to become his animal companion. You may want to plan for something to be in that mountain and drop hints that something is there in your description.

Think about what major landmarks and other interesting features each location has. Take a moment to think about how you will describe it to the players and how the location will interact with them. Prepare any obstacles, traps, or puzzles the location may contain. You don’t necessarily need to plan out an elaborate encounter for each of these features, but think of how the players might try to overcome an obstacle and set a difficulty class for it.

Who might the characters encounter?

Taking a look at where the party is likely to go, make a list of who they might encounter there or along the way. What NPCs (friendly or otherwise) and monsters are they likely to run into. Think about how these creatures will react to the players. A friendly NPC may provide directions or aid to the party, while a hostile creature may be an obstacle they have to find a way around or fight their way through.

When planning for a short session, each interaction with an NPC should serve a purpose. It should work to add to the player’s enjoyment of the game and progression of the campaign. Balancing those two things can be difficult. When in doubt, error on the side of player enjoyment. While I prefer not to use truly random encounters, like the random encounter tables presented in many pre-written adventures, sometimes it’s okay to have a random battle with goblins if your players enjoy combat and it has been a while since they have had a good fight

A social interaction may serve as a challenge for the players. Someone may be blocking the path forward or guarding information the party needs. Such interactions with a hostile NPC may turn to combat. You will need to have the relevant stats prepared for such NPCs and monsters. At the very least you will want to think about what the creature’s motivations are. Think about why are they there and what purpose do they serve to the adventure.

You don’t need to write out full conversations of dialogue for each NPC. Having a shopkeeper’s greeting or villain’s monologue written out ahead of time can be helpful, but not necessary. Take a few moments for each NPC to think about how they will “sound”. If you enjoy doing voices that’s great, but an NPC’s sound is more than just putting on a voice. Think about how they will talk to the players. Will they be talkative or will the characters need to make a persuasion or intimidation check to get anything out of them?

What might the characters find?

When the party gets to the locations you are preparing, or pick the pockets of an NPC, what will will they find? This includes treasure in dungeons, inventory in shops, and other items that help make the world feel rich and full. Make a list of items that they might find in any location, like treasure that might be in a chest after any difficulty encounter. But also, think of those locations they are likely to visit and make note of a few unique items they may find in these places.

I like to keep a short lists of treasure prepared. These are the items the party may find as loot after defeating an enemy or exploring a dangerous location. It usually includes gold, gems, minor magic items, potions, spell scrolls, and other treasures. The Dungeon Master’s Guide has useful tables for creating such lists. You can also find random treasure generators online to help you.

Depending on the difficulty of an encounter, I may deal out parts of the treasure list in small doses or give the entire hoard as a reward for reaching a significant milestone. If they come across an abandoned wagon they may find just a few items from the list while the rest of the treasure waits for them in the dungeon boss’s coat closet.

I also keep a short list for each player of weapons, armor, and/or magic items they would enjoy gaining as a reward or finding for purchase in a shop. See my post about giving the players what they want for more about giving out personalized rewards.

What might the characters learn?

Characters should uncover more than items as they adventure. Think about what secrets and clues they might also find. Things they may learn to help in achieving their goals. Or things the players have yet to learn about the world. Through the course of a campaign, you can slowly reviewal layers of the villain’s plans and build up the world as the characters explore new areas, encounter NPCs, and otherwise interact with the world around them.

Revealing a little more each time you play helps each session feel engaging to the players. It also allows you to build out the world layer upon layer as you go. In this way, you do not need to have every corner of the map planned in detail before the camping starts. Instead, you can fill in the gaps as you plan and play each session.

In a short session, having a list of just three or four secrets and clues the characters are likely to find will help you progress the campaign and keep the players interested in your overarching story while not slowing things down too much. If too many sessions pass without the characters learning something new about the villain’s plans, the players are likely to forget, or worse loose interest, in that part of the game. On the other hand, revealing too much at once can feel like you are spoon feeding them a story rather than allowing them to play a game.

Aim to drop one or two clues each session. This should move things forward while keeping the players at a healthy level of suspense. I find it particularly helpful to drop a secret or clue at the end of a session. This creates that suspense and helps kick off the start of the next session as the players will want to act on that information.

You will know you are close to hitting the mark when the players are asking you for more information or to keep the game going when you’ve reached the end of a session. When they do, resist the temptation to give them information their characters have yet to learn.

Putting it All Together

Once you have three or four answers to each of the above questions, you can put them together into a few encounters most likely to occur in the next game session. Use the places, people, monsters, and things from these answers to develop simple encounter outlines. How much time you put into preparing these encounters will depend a lot on your style of DMing. If you are an experienced DM and good at improvising, you may not need much more than the three to four bullet pointed answers for each question. Other DMs, myself included, will benefit from a little more prep.

You are aiming for two to four encounters. Review the locations and who or what will be found there. Depending on your stile of play at the table, you may want to put together a sketch, map, or visual aid to help present each encounter to the players. Google image search is usually where I start with this. There are a lot of great resources online for finding these types of aids. When you find a map or other aid source you like, bookmark it.

For social interactions, find a stat block for the NPCs, both the friendly and hostile ones. Even if the encounter does not turn to combat, it helps to have a stat block ready for setting the DC of a persuasion, insight, stealth, or other ability check. And if the encounter is likely to turn violet, you will want to review the stat blocks and make adjustments if needed to balance the fight to the party.

Look at what the characters may find this session (items, secrets, and clues) and think about what conditions must be met or obstacles overcome to find them. For hazards, traps, and puzzles you will want to spend some time considering the DC for any ability checks required. Think about what strategies the players are likely to use and plan for them.

Once you have put this all together you should have a few handy lists and outlines to aid in running the game. Keep your plans open and loose. Allow room to adapt to the players actions. And be prepared to take an NPC, treasure, or secret you thought would appear in one location and drop it into another location.

What’s Next

Take your notes into the session and keep an open mind. Be prepared to adjust your plans on the fly. Remember to take notes during play and check off which of your plans was actually used. The unused plans you will most likely be able to carry forward into planning the next session. In this way, planning subsequent sessions may not require nearly as much work. You will likely have several answers to the planning questions that have gone unused and are still relevant. You may just need to refresh the lists and encounters you’ve already planned.

In a future post, we will look at how to run a session with this short and open game mindset. We will discuss ways of running concise and meaningful combat and social interactions as well as leaning into what the players enjoy most. And not least of all, we will talk about how to be okay with your planning going unused.

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Published by Brandon Hansen

Hi, I’m Brandon. I enjoy playing D&D and being a dad. Not necessarily in that order. Prestidaditation is a place where I talk about the intersection of these two passions.

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