Friday, August 5, 2016


It's time.

It's been a quiet month on the blogfront. Coming off a string of deadlines and conventions, I've been thinking a great deal about time. 

Specifically, how there never seems to be enough of it.

Time is Relative

This guy knew what was up.
But really, that depends on what you're doing, doesn't it? I might not have enough time to vacuum the apartment, or finish reading Dan Abnett's Ravenor trilogy1,, but I seem to keep finding ways I always have time to meet a deadline2.

Its not that there isn't enough time - there very clearly is - it's that there isn't enough time to get to everything I'd like to. Like everyone else, I have to prioritize if I want to get anything done.

Now, this isn't going to be a post on time management strategies - goodness knows that a quick Google search will provide more than you'll ever need on that front - but rather, I wanted to talk a little bit about pacing and duration in fiction, but specifically how those elements come into play in RPGs.


Not all mediums are created equal. A novel has more room for slow burn storytelling than an ongoing longform television series does, which in turn has a greater capacity than a film, which still trumps network TV. Now, that's not to say that more is always better - plenty of films have died an unpleasant death by trying to stretch a good thirty-minute story into a two-hour epic - but different types of stories benefit from being handled differently. 

It's not something we usually talk about in RPGs. 

In fairness, timeslot isn't always something we can control. You might have a killer group of dynamic, nuanced characters, a compelling and epic narrative, and truly deep strategic challenges all going for you, but if your gaming group meets for three hours on alternating Wednesday nights, that can be tough to pull off. Equally tricky is the superb "Popcorn GM3" who has a tight, action-packed romp all ready to go, and is now trying to fit that into an eight-hour long weekend game session.

Gameplay is also going to be affected by this. I love 2D fighting games - Street Fighter II Turbo remains my all-time jam - but matches are short for a reason. I wouldn't want to play a half-hour round of Street Fighter any more than I'd want to keep my chess matches to three minutes or less; and not just because in both cases, I'd be losing in embarrassing fashion.

I mean, that too

The practical elements of RPG mechanics can be deeply affected by time constraints. Games like Savage Worlds and Spirit of the Century (and later, Fate Core) have carved out impressive niches for themselves by mechanically supporting shorter sessions from the ground up. Easy to pick up, fast and elegant resolution, and character creation doesn't take long at all. If you've got a weeknight game with limited time, and an inconsistent cast - like the games' creators had when they were first making their rulesets - then you've got a toolset tailored to your needs. And if not, you might like those games anyway - they've certainly been used in long-running, long-term games over the years with great success - but then again, you might want something with a bit more detail, if you've got the time to make use of it.

Point being, there are a lot of practical things that your timeslot is going to affect, and it's worth keeping that in mind.


Let's say you've just read a good novel. Hooray! But now you're thinking: would it be even better as a trilogy? How about a seven-part series? Maybe an ongoing serial - like in mainstream comics or television - that just keeps going until interest wanes, or the writers go insane?

Or maybe, just maybe, it would have been best served as a short story?

On one hand, professionally produced entertainment has its own unique pressures - there's no producer breathing down the GM's neck, trying to wring a trilogy out of a completed storyline - so this should be easier to approach objectively. On the other hand, between creative fatigue, falling in love with a particular element, or audience demand, RPGs also grapple with the issue of how long a given story should run for. In some ways, it can be worse.

But not every type of story can hold up over long periods of time, or in short ones for that matter. Blitzing through the entirety of the Lord of the Rings trilogy in a 90 minute film would have been an unmitigated disaster, yes - but so would dragging Casablanca through three films at 11+ hours, with a prequel trilogy in the works.

"Hurry up and do it, Rick, before we get Casablanca: The Musical on Ice. Just, just let it end already."
Basically, you want to make sure you're giving your game the right amount of time for the story you're trying to create. Early D&D had a very strong serial episodic theme baked in - again, the game had a lot of qualities that we'd associate with "Roguelikes" today - and so most games were assumed to follow that model. Like comic books, or The Simpsons4, it was assumed that your game was a series of loosely-connected episodes featuring the same characters in the same world, and that you'd drive that car until it ran out of gas.

It's a good model! It's just not the only one.

If you're telling the kind of story that lends itself to that format - say, plucky teen investigators solve supernatural mysteries, and fight a different monster every week - then yeah, maybe ride that train all night.

Conversely, if you're trying to tell the story of how plucky teen investigators gradually discover the alien horror of their small town, in increasingly Lovecraftian fashion? Well, that story has a beginning, middle, and definitely an end. Too many games rob themselves of satisfying conclusions out of a (totally understandable) desire to keep a good thing going.

Sometimes, things come to an end, and that's ok.

Bottom line, the duration of your game has a sizable impact on the type of game you run, and vice versa. Getting those into alignment can go a long way towards a more satisfying experience from top to bottom.


In Hamlet's Hit Points - which is absolutely worth checking out - Robin Laws talks about the beats of a story; moments that lead the audience toward either hope or fear, taking them on an emotional roller coaster before the tale's through. And while this is entirely delightful on its own, it also serves to highlight another aspect of gaming that doesn't get talked about a lot: pacing.

Putting thought into the pace of your gaming sessions can work wonders. Not just from an emotional standpoint: while that's (really) important, there's also a variety of practical concerns to manage. In any given game, the PCs might be:
  • Questioning witnesses
  • Engaging in combat
  • Getting to know other characters
  • Searching a room for clues
...and so on. And while those are different scenes from an emotional standpoint - as audience and characters - they're also different from a practical standpoint as players. Simply put, we do a lot of different stuff in RPGs, and mixing types can be useful. Looking at our examples above, the players are doing different things, right? 
  • Questioning witnesses - players are talking, possibly checking notes, maybe the occasional roll
  • Engaging in combat - players are rolling dice, interacting with their character sheets, and possibly other peripherals like maps and miniatures, while also describing action
  • Getting to know other characters - players are primarily talking
  • Searching a room for clues - players are briefly describing action, listening to narration, and rolling dice
So that sequence alternates between roleplay-focused dramatic scenes and mechanics-focused procedural scenes. That's one way to do it, but certainly not the only way; just keep an eye on the flow of your sessions. If something's starting to feel a little stale, you might do well to shift to a different kind of scene, not just in terms of content, but in what the players are doing. A combat followed by a chase, followed by a combat can be exactly what you want - or it can be a bit too much of the same thing - but it pays to know which.

Like always, a dash of mindfulness regarding your group will go a long way.

Our Time is at an End

RPGs can be a time-consuming hobby, but that doesn't have to be a bad thing. Like anything else, we have to prioritize. And by keeping tabs on the runtime, duration, and pace of our sessions, we can master this terrible force, and put it to work for us, like ladies and lords... of time. I guess? If only there were a conveniently geeky pop-culture reference to make here.

It was my hope that this joke would be bigger on the inside.
Regardless, that's all the time we have. On a related note, if people would like to see a checklist for pace (as I've sometimes used myself,) let me know, and I'll whip one up.

Until next.... man, I can't do it. Until next installment.



1 - Which is a crying shame. Dan Abnett's a hell of an author, and after reading his excellent Eisenhorn trilogy, I finally understood why people like Warhammer 40K! Highly recommended.

2 - I've said it before, and I'll likely do so in the future - just being the person who reliably shows up to work is a marketable and important skill. Hone your craft, chase excellence, but for the love of all that is good, make your deadlines.

3 - Sometimes referred to as a "Beer & Pretzels GM," but I don't drink beer, nor am I super fond of pretzels. Trivia! Anyway, it's used to describe a more casual style, like a summer action flick - fun, usually violent, and don't think too hard about the plot as that's not really the point.

4 - Sometimes I think that The Simpsons will outlive not only its creators, but every human being who was alive at the time of its creation. In the post-apocalyptic hellscape of humanity's distant future, it'll be mutant cockroaches eating Twinkies and watching The Simpsons. 

In other news, life after the apocalypse sounds distressingly similar to my teenage years.