what constitutes an “adventure?”

Earlier editions frequently make references to the “adventure” as if it were a discrete unit of some sort. I’ve never known exactly what it is. Is it, like, one game module? One game session? One game day?

Here’s an interesting passage from the 2e DMG, in which “adventure” seems to be used as a synonym for “game session”:

Most passing time occurs within a single adventure: Spells rarely carry over from adventure to adventure (unless the session is stopped with the characters lost in winding caverns or the like); rounds of combat, while taking several game minutes, don’t affect or spill over into subsequent adventures; days of travel often have no effect other than healing and the consumption of supplies.

If the DM wants, this is the only sort of timekeeping required. Time passed in previous adventures has little or no effect on the current session–each session or adventure is distinct and separate. For example, in one adventure, the characters spend a few hours in the dungeon, get injured, have some success, and return wounded. The night’s game session ends with them returning to their home base. Next game session, the DM announces, “A week or so has passed since you last went out. Everybody is healed and rested. People with spells can pick new ones.” The DM has chosen not to worry about the passage of time in this instance. An entire campaign can be played this way. Here’s another example: In one adventure, a group of characters travels for three weeks and has several encounters, ending camped outside some ruins. The next session starts after the characters have camped for five days, so they can heal their wounds. Several hours pass as they explore the ruins, but no one is particularly hurt when they return to camp, and the game session ends.

The next session starts the morning after their previous adventure, everyone having gotten a good rest. The characters set out again. They spend a week on the road and arrive at a village. Here, the mage insists everyone wait while he researches a vital spell. Again, the game session ends. The next session begins two months later, after the mage has learned his spell and continues from there.

It’s difficult to read “adventure” as anything other than a synonym for “session” in here. If it did, a “session stopped with the characters lost in winding caverns” would not, as it does, constitute two adventures. Also, constructions like “In one adventure… Next game session…” suggest that there is no distinction in the authors’ minds between the concepts.

And what do you make of this advice from the D&D Companion set?

After reaching “Name” level, characters should gain a new level for each 3 to 8 adventures. More adventures can cause player frustration; fewer adventures can make the game too easy, and eventually bore them. If you play twice or more each week, 6 to 8 adventures per level gained is recommended. If your games are once a week or less often, 3 to 5 adventures per level are recommended.

Again, “adventure” here may well be a synonym for “game session”. If not, what’s the relevance of the number of times you play per week? If it doesn’t mean game session, what does it mean? One castle? One dungeon? One module?

On the other hand, “adventure” is sometimes used as a synonym for “module”. The D&D Expert set says, for instance, that “The Isle of Dread is a wilderness adventure designed for use with the D&D Expert rules.” There’s no way that the Isle of Dread is meant to be played in one session. And there’s no way that characters are meant to play through 3 to 8 giant modules like Isle of Dread in order to gain one level.

Is “adventure” one of those words like “level” with a lot of meanings?

I have a feeling that “adventure” usually means something vague: not exactly “game session”, but maybe “the amount of exploration that the DM thinks will take approximately one game session”. But I’m interested in what you guys think. Is there some old-school assumption about this word’s meaning that never made it into a rule book?

Lots of games have explicit game-session mechanics. Savage Worlds give you so many bennies per game session, for instance. Many D&D fans reject the idea of something that artificial as an explicit rules element. However, it seems to me that the game session has been baked into D&D since at least the 80s.

The funny thing is that 5e developers say that they’re thinking of returning to the “adventure” as an explicit challenge-balancing mechanism. If you take them literally, that sounds like a return to the game session as as a game mechanic.

7 Responses to “what constitutes an “adventure?””

  1. Well, to quote bilbo in the new “Hobbit” movie, “I’m going on an adventure.” It couls also mean a whole campaign. Ijn the context of the Companion quote, I would say that is inferred by the context. At higher levels, a campaign seems about right, especiially if one is headed for Immortal level.

    That could be abstract as well, though. think of something like Pendragon’s manor management system or Ars Magica’s seasonal accounting for the Covenant.

  2. Rory Rory says:

    I usually think of an adventure as a relatively self contained story or series of events. It can last one or more sessions (usually multiple sessions). So a dungeon is an obvious example: the PCs goes into the dungeon and one or more game sessions later they complete the dungeon and the adventure is over. Alternatively, an adventure might just be several encounters (some planned, some freestyle) leading up to a climactic event or boss battle.

    In my experience, it is fairly rare for an adventure to only last one session. Usually a few hours just isn’t long enough to accommodate several fights and encounters, which is what you need for some kind of story arc.

  3. Funny you should mention this – the campaign I’ve recently started does use “adventure” as a technical term, though none of my previous campaigns ever have. The in-game organization that the players work for, a mercenary corps called the Gallant Shields, promotes characters based on the number of successfully completed missions. Thus far (five sessions in) each session is a discrete adventure. Eventually there will be adventures that take multiple sessions, but I think the current structure has been kind of awesome for the game’s pacing.

  4. Pandora says:

    I think it depends on the assumptions made by the writers. How long were sessions back then? When I was at college, a weekend 6-8 hour session was the norm, but these days its more like a weekday evening for 2-4 hours. And how big are the dungeons involved?

    For me an “adventure” is a single dungeon, or a plot in an urban environment. But mega dungeons, hex crawling, and so on, throw that balance off.

  5. Jason says:

    I think of an adventure as basically a quest. The PCs receive a quest, follow it, complete it, go back to normal, and then start a new adventure.

    When the 5e developers talk about it, I think they mean ‘a collection of different scenarios’, the idea being that the adventure will contain combat, exploration, interaction, etc, and PCs will have different times to shine during each.

    Although, adventures in 4e and 5e are effectively structured by the ‘adventuring day’ anyway, since PCs have daily health and spells that reset when they sleep, so that when a new day dawns they’re essentially starting over. That isn’t as much the case in 3e and previous, which used recovery systems. 5e does have some variant resting rules so far, which I keep intending to use but don’t.

    And then all groups have some amount of time between sessions, during which players’ memories fade. So I think overall the case for the ‘adventure as session’ is strong, even though I haven’t traditionally thought of it that way.

  6. […] four-hour work week Reading 2e books, I discovered that the "adventure" and the game session used to be virtually synonymous. Nowadays, we think of session-based mechanics as strictly indie-game territory. Interestingly, in […]

  7. Lord Crimson says:

    I think “adventure” was probably one of those words where everyone assumed everyone else knew what they meant, but since no one talked about it, you ended up with different writers using the same term from different assumptions. And even the same writers modifying their definition over time while, again, failing to be explicit about what they meant.

    Some of the commenters suggest that “adventure” should be a completed “quest” (“Go rescue the damsel”, “steal back the sacred artifact”, “kill the evil wizard before he completes his evil goal”), but, as we know from M”G”M, quests weren’t really the norm in the earliest instances of the game, and it didn’t really become “the norm” until sometime between 1st and 2nd Ed AD&D.

    Thus, back in the LBB age, I’d suggest that “adventure” probably was another term for “foray away from civilization”. One trip out and back (regardless of the number of sessions that trip took) was one “adventure”. Of course, since people didn’t want to get their PCs stuck on an adventure with a bunch of folks who may not be available to play in the next session, it was probably considered “good form” to head back to town and end “the adventure” at the end of a session.

    Mentzer also seeming to use it more as something similar to “foray” in the Basic set. Page 12 of the Mentzer Basic DMG sort of supports this: “Before any game begins, the DM and players should set a time for the game to end — and stick to it. An adventure might end before that time… They may be allowed to ‘go home, rest a day or two, and return’ if time permits further adventuring.”

    But once we’re talking about the Companion Rules, I think it more reasonable to assume that an “adventure” could and, in fact, should be made up of multiple sessions (a story arc, if you will), since the focus of the game has shifted from “looting dungeons and exploring the wilderness” to “building castles and going on epic quests”. A “foray” makes a nice discrete unit in the former case but not so much in the latter.

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