D&D in a box

I'm looking for a way to play a D&D-like game in about 2 hours. And before I reinvent a wheel that's doubtless been explored many ways before, I wanted to ask you lovely people for suggestions for existing games.

Context: We've been playing OSR-like D&D in an open-world sandbox using Lamentations of the Flame Princess mixed with home-brew rules, followed by another sandbox using 5E but similar OSR priorities. We've also been playing some Dungeon World. Now, we have a period where I have much less free time coming up, so I want something that's self-contained, requires no prep, and can be played in a short space of time, but still gives us a D&D fix. Also, for a while I've wanted a way of running a short, self-contained thing that feels like D&D to give various friends and family members a first taste.

Wishlist (not expecting to get everything, but this would be ideal for me right now):
  • Focused on the dungeon (rather than time spent in town, politics, wilderness exploration, etc.)
  • OSR priorities: challenge, play to find out what happens, non-linear, not focused on combat, not focused on stats. Doesn't necessarily have to be super-lethal, but I'm not against that either.
  • ~2 hours start to finish. This means we're not getting a whole big dungeon. More like a complicated situation - a few rooms, some relationships between those rooms, multiple ways of approaching them.
  • Premade dungeon and premade characters - possibly with some tickbox customization that takes 10 minutes. This then implies you'd need multiple of these dungeons and accompanying pregens, so you can play different scenarios. Although re-playability of a single dungeon would be a lovely extra!
  • Lightweight, easy rules (and fiction-first priorities)
  • Characters with fun abilities - I'm not really wanting the OSR feel of peasants with sticks here. I think for my target audience it would be more fun to pick up and play a game where the wizard has a bunch of tricks up their sleeves and the rogue can spiderclimb, or what have you. What I'm interested in is applying fantastical powers to problem solving. So not just how can we use these bales of hay and flasks of alum to solve this puzzle, but how can we use the ability to drink fire and spit it out again to solve problems.
"Why don't you just...
  • ...play a classic D&D module using a classic ruleset, like LotFP, The Black Hack, etc?" Because those take much longer. It can easily take several long sessions to get anywhere with these classic modules, even if I did some work to add pregens with a sensible loadout. If you have a module that you think is really good and plays out in the time needed, then by all means point me at it!
  • ...play such and such a 3E/4E/5E/Pathfinder product" I'm pretty ignorant here of what's out there, so please do tell me if you think there's something that would work. But I suspect they would run afoul of my desire for OSR priorities (I expect most of these to be pretty linear battle crawls) and also my desire for lightweight rules. I don't want to have to teach anything like that complexity.
  • ...play a one-shot of Dungeon World". This one we will probably do as well! But I also want a game that is more challenge oriented, and has a predetermined dungeon to explore.
Does this already exist?


  • B/X:

    Honestly, I've had the best results with B/X and B2 Keep on the Borderlands. The characters are one-trick ponies though, but the OSR mentality rules supreme (players need to try weird stuff not on their character sheets to even survive).

    I've run it many times in 4-hour slots, but to run it in 2 hours, you'd need to skip the keep and drop them right into the Caves of Chaos with a couple rumors. If you want them to feel less helpless, make them 3rd level, even 5th level. There's still plenty of challenge in there for them. Use the free Labyrinth Lord rules, which is based on Moldvay/Cook B/X D&D. (It uses descending armor class, by the way.)

    I'd worry less about "playing out" a complete scenario and just use the time to get them to an interesting adventure and show them what the game is like. If they have to leave a lot of the adventure on the table, doesn't that just make them want more? You just need a satisfying conclusion.

    If you want to stick with 5e:

    It sounds like you don't. But...

    Adventurers League (AL) produces countless two-hour adventures for organized play. They tend to be focused on a single encounter / combat with a bit of the other stuff wrapped around it. Maybe too combat-oriented for your liking.

    Check out DM's Guild for cheap sources. The AL stuff and pregens might be free.

    The D&D Starter Set for 5e has 5 pregens and an intro module with at least one encounter that can be completed in 2 hours. I'd recommend skipping the road encounter and going right to the cave with a bit of exposition.
  • How much of the two hours will you spend on orientation, explaining the game, explaining characters, etc.? In my experience, it can take 30-60 minutes to initiate a table of new players to a D&D-like game.
  • I really like Deeds and Doers for a lightweight game. It's great for a D&D feel but within a lunch hour.

    I also wrote two modules for it. One is a reworking of Tomb of Horrors. I think I have a few other modules around that aren't hosted at Tao Games.
  • edited January 4
    Are you familiar with any of the following?

    Lots of options for this kind of gaming, I think!


    One-Page Dungeons


    Dyson's Delves


    (Might be some free ones HERE.)

    Michael Prescott's Trilemma Adventures ( @Fuseboy )


    Depending on how light-hearted you're willing to get, some people have amazingly fun games with randomly-generated dungeons. An example:


    Games and Rules

    Some rulesets which might be well-suited for what you're trying to do:

    Maze Rats


    (A nice ruleset, but potentially too "peasants with sticks" for your purposes.)

    Into the Odd


    Red Box Hack


    Old School Hack (derived from Red Box Hack, but more polished - though I still prefer the original)

    Same link as above.

    World of Dungeons


    @Dirk 's "Rogue, Warrior, Sage" might be perfect for you, as well, and it has "adventure starters".

  • Paul,

    How well do any of those meet this condition?

    OSR priorities: challenge, play to find out what happens, non-linear, not focused on combat, not focused on stats. Doesn't necessarily have to be super-lethal, but I'm not against that either.
  • Thanks all for the suggestions! Being low on time means I may also struggle to read and respond very often, but the input is very appreciated.

    @Adam_Dray: My aim here is not just for introducing new players, but also for my existing group now we have less time and continuity. I'd be okay if it took 2 hours for people who have played some kind of trad RPG before, and a bit longer for complete newcomers.

    @akooser: Deeds & Doers is neat! I've downloaded it and taken a look at the modules, but not the actual rules yet. The 30m slot for Deeds & Doers makes me more confident that what I'm trying to do is possible! And I can see how you could spin together two or three of those modules to make a longer play session.

    Anyone else here had experience with Deeds & Doers and care to recommend it / give an opinion on it?

    @Paul_T: Lots to unpack here: My experience with Dyson and Trilemma (absolutely love Prescott's work, by the way) is that they are reasonably meaty - I don't know whether they would fit into a single 2 hour delve. Possibly my friends spend a lot more time "debating" the next step, but we've easily spent that long on a mere handful of rooms. Whereas some of my favourites from Trilemma really shine with repeated forays - e.g. Sky-blind Spire. Also, a lot of Trilemma's juiciness comes from the way they play well in a sandbox - the rewards aren't treasure but new tools for interacting with the world at large.

    One Page Dungeons is a good thought! I think some of those would be short enough. And, actually, maybe some of Dyson Logos' stuff - I can't remember, it's been a while since I looked.

    I will look at the rulesets when I get time, although if anyone had time to give a bit of a elevator pitch / short description of their strengths / weaknesses that'd be very helpful!
  • Paul,

    How well do any of those meet this condition?

    OSR priorities: challenge, play to find out what happens, non-linear, not focused on combat, not focused on stats. Doesn't necessarily have to be super-lethal, but I'm not against that either.
    I think they all do!

    Rogue, Warrior, Sage is very different in style/design, though. It's very OSR in style/aesthetic but not at all in terms of design.

    Old School Hack is more regimented than the others, rules-wise (it's possible to play it a little boardgamey, I'd think), but still in the ballpark.
  • Martin,

    I ran a 30-session "open table" megadungeon campaign in two-hour sessions once a week (online, but it works fine at the table). It's perfect for "less time and continuity." Let me know if you want me to point you to info about that.
  • A side comment:

    In my experience, having a "complete" adventure when playing in an OSR style might not be a really useful goal. (After all, in many of these games, you're likely to do and have to start over - and that, almost certainly, means you won't get a "self-contained" story in two hours.)

    The "interact with some stuff and see what happens" nature of OSR-style play means you can just do it for a while and have fun, even if you don't reach some kind of meaningful conclusion.

    Adam's game is an example of adding meaning and continuity to that via a larger context (and people interacting with that outside of the game, by posting character journals, planning future adventures, and so forth), but that's not really necessary.

    I have a friend who runs an ongoing OSR game for "whoever shows up", and though I've never made it to two consecutive sessions, it's still enjoyable. The rules are light enough that the sessions are short - two hours or so, as you say.

    You might also really look at the "randomly generated dungeons" thread - it sounds surprisingly fulfilling and fun, if light gaming is what is desired!
  • Anyone else here had experience with Deeds & Doers and care to recommend it / give an opinion on it?
    I think it's legit. Requires certain GM skills to maintain the challenge in a sharp way, considering the compact way it presents dungeons, but definitely doable.

    In general my own experience is that it's not so much the rules but the procedures that eat up time in old school play. You can get your 2-hour session with your preferred mechanics (probably, unless they're somehow exceptionally complex) as long as you change up your GMing style to emphasize straightforward, aggressive procedural progress.

    I would particularly recommend using a minute timer (e.g. a little hour-glass, like some boardgames use) and incorporating it into your GMing style. Make it clear to the players that this session/campaign will be all about rash speed, and that every "player beat" will be a quick time event. Let the sand run out, and the GM continues on the premise that the adventurers hesitated instead of doing something. Holds true for social situations, exploration and combat, no matter what.

    (I would say "player turn", except that'd mix up with the mechanical concept. By "beat" I mean the moment when the GM stops explaining the situation and starts waiting for player input. All play is made of these beats, the back and forth between the GM and the party.)

    You will also want to strip out certain traditional concerns to streamline play and fit more stuff into two hours. I would rather let you determine for yourself which parts of the game to strip, as that's what you've been doing anyway while running your game - I have no idea if you track mule train feed and watering stops, for example, but odds are that you don't. So just find more of the stuff that you can live without while still retaining the parts that are important to the sorts of challenges you want to present, and strip those away. Shoot for only a few discrete, self-aware types of challenge. For example: this campaign will be about dungeon risk-taking, and therefore I strip away equipment micromanagement.

    A combination of these procedural and focus choices will make something reasonably simple (e.g. LotFP) run much, much quicker. You should find that if you skip equipment stuff, mapping and pre-combat position play (replace them with dice rolls and stuff), you'll discover a type of D&D that resembles nothing as much as a television game show. Something like this:

    GM: OK, you go into the dungeon. There's a bunch of tunnels (shows map), which you navigate (rolls a random tunnel branch) to arrive... in a room with monsters. Roll for operational acumen.

    GM: You have the operational upper hand. Flee or fight?

    GM: OK, you control this room. A bit of fluff here, , but now that you have a bit of dungeon knowledge, which way should we go? Search room more thoroughly, go to some other place - point it on the map?

    And in every spot, if the players dither, move on without them. Random encounter checks occur every time they spend any time pondering, and at the end of every minute-glass, too. You should obviously encourage them to use a caller - a party chair-man is near mandatory for this style of dungeoneering, because time is of the essence and you don't want to have lazy players drag everybody down.
  • There are medieval fantasy reskins of Danger Patrol and Pocket Danger Patrol.
    Character creation, under 5 minutes
    Adventure creation, under 5 minuted
    Play a whole adventure from start to finish, under 2 hours.
    If you can't find the reskins online, send me a PM
  • Tiny Dungeon and Index Card RPG also look good as quick-n-dirty minimalist dungeon crawls. I picked them up on a whim during a recent DTRPG sale, but haven’t had a chance to do more than skim the books. Anyone played them?
  • I can do quick blurbs for the games I listed. They fall roughly into three categories.

    Into the Odd and Maze Rats are both stripped-down old school D&D rules. Maze Rats is, in many ways, a hack of Into the Odd.

    They are elegant and simple rules for challenge-based adventuring in a dungeon environment.

    Maze Rats has random tables for everything and some good "how it works" demo videos on YouTube. The only potential downside, as I mentioned above, is it definitely leans towards "peasants with sticks".

    Into the Odd is similar but quirky in a different way. There are elements of more modern technology (e.g. Gunpowder weapons) and funky weird magic items which might cause you more trouble rather than less.

    Red Box Hack is a colourful "rollicking fun adventure" ruleset with light cartoon colour (though I've hacked it to remove that - I can link to that thread if desired). It's not as recognizably D&D, and more on the heroic and special/unique characters side of things.

    Old School Hack is someone else's more developed and codified version of the same ruleset. If you like more codified rules and a more polished presentation, you'll like it better. I like Red Box Hack's openness and weird character abilities better, however.

    Otherwise they are quite similar.

    Danger Patrol and its derivatives are similar in style, I'd say, as well: less fantasy Vietnam and more superhero cartoon fantasy with exciting action sequences.

    World of Dungeons is PbtA: a version of D&D using Apocalypse World mechanics, stripped down to the minimum rules required. It's presented as a game from the late 70s or early 80s. Stylistically in between the two categories above.

    Rogue, Warrior, Sage, is also PbtA based/inspired and is more like Sword & Sorcery fiction. Characters are powerful and iconic. My guess is that it wouldn't work well with large groups. Less dungeon crawl in style and more like dramatic "fantasy fiction".

    It has beautiful fictional prompts, both in character creation and in the adventure starters. Very different stylistically from the others.
  • I’ve always wanted to play Old School Hack, mostly because I admire its combat rules — a bit board-gamey, yeah, but they appear to let everyone pick their actions simultaneously and then resolve things in an order that makes sense, and _quickly_. My holy grail for D&D-type games is something where combat has meaningful tactical decisions but moves fast, so,an “encounter” is over before my ADD kicks in.

    I really like the looks of Rogue, Warrior Sage, though I’ve hardly played any PBtA games and the flow of play still confuses me. It reminds me of On Mighty Thews, a similarly minimalist sword-and-sorcery game. They share a bent toward collaborative world-building during play.

    I just remembered I should mention The Fantasy Trip: Steve Jackson’s first RPG. It began in 1977 as two tactical combat micro-wargames (Melee and Wizard) and was then extended into a full role-laying game in 1981. The combat was great; you could make a few characters in five minutes and have them fight. I never got to play the RPG, but it was one of the first to have a general skill system IIRC. It was out of print for decades due to copyright limbo, but SJG recovered the rights and ran a Kickstarter last year for a new edition, which I’m eagerly awaiting in the mail...
  • Tiny Dungeon and Index Card RPG also look good as quick-n-dirty minimalist dungeon crawls. I picked them up on a whim during a recent DTRPG sale, but haven’t had a chance to do more than skim the books. Anyone played them?
    I played a really fun game of Index Card RPG at a con last year (good enough I went and bought a copy afterwards). I haven't played since but it's in my bag for off the cuff play if I need some.

    Rules are simple, and it's got some nice things to keep the game fast (e.g. everyone takes a turn clockwise around the table, at all times and including the GM).
  • I really like Deeds and Doers for a lightweight game. It's great for a D&D feel but within a lunch hour.

    I also wrote two modules for it. One is a reworking of Tomb of Horrors. I think I have a few other modules around that aren't hosted at Tao Games.

    After all these years, still have a crush on Deeds & Doers, especially for its elegance and sharpness.
    I'm interested by the modules you're talking about: can they be found somewhere?
  • @brunobord There are a few down near the bottom of the Deeds and Doers link.

    The others modules are on my hard drive somewhere. Let me poke around.
  • I've designed "Magic and Steel" with most of the features you're looking for.
    Have a look.
  • edited January 24
    Especially for repeat play with a same-ish group, I'd especially echo Paul's suggestion for Into the Odd.

    It's very fast to get off the ground for new groups, but the weird and interesting artifacts (all magic comes through artifacts) strongly leans into your "use fantastical abilities to solve problems" criterion (which is also my preferred mode of play in this paradigm). Highly recommended.
  • Into the odd and derivatives are a good fit. Some adventures on the author's blog: http://www.bastionland.com/search/label/dungeon - a couple of them are short.

    I would stay far from Danger patrol et al. From some short exposure, they are more about creating action (movie) sequences and solving them by mechanical manipulation and resource allocation. Quite far from OSR.

    If one of Red box / Old school hacks is the one with bears as characters and awesome points and so on, it would probably be possible to play it with OSR priorities, but it would easier to just take an OSR game to begin with.

    World of dungeons does not define what magic and can not do, so that has to be negotiated in or before play. If this is not a problem, it could work.


    One option is to take a megadungeon game. Character creation is very fast (have premade equipment bundles) anyway. Give the map(s) drawn by the previous players to next ones. Always roll a couple of rumours about the megadungeon and start playing. Remind the players a bit before the time is running out that they should return to civilization to cash in and avoid horrible consequences.
  • edited February 3
    I agree with that.

    Something like Into the Odd is perfect in terms of "OSR priorities", but the others (like Red Box Hack) are better in terms of "colourful character abilities". I actually don't know of a game that does both well!
  • Hunter x Hunter does this in anime. Some day a fan will adapt it.... some day before I am 64 I hope.
  • One way to play an OSR campaign facilitating short sessions is to use an "Escape the Dungeon" table at session end if the characters are still stuck in the Dungeon eg
  • I like Adventurers Revised, cute little system:
    It's got slightly more crunch than Into the Odd, for folks who like that :)
  • That's a pretty interesting document! Much less flavourful than the other games mentioned here, but pretty thorough. It reminds me of late 90's/early 2000's "generic RPG" design - sort of a bit of nostalgia trip for me to read.
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