By its nature, a short session doesn’t offer a lot of game time so it’s important to be able to maximize the time you have. As I said in my last Short Sessions post, a three hour session will not equate to three hours of actual play. (I should have clarified this a bit more in my previous post, but I consider a “short session” to be anything under 4 hours).
One of the biggest time-wasters is the starting time of the session. I’ve experienced three hour sessions that didn’t get started until almost an hour was lost. While this isn’t a problem if you plan on using the first hour for social/dinner time, it can be if your session goal requires as much of the three hours as possible.
Here are a few tips I’ve gathered in my almost three decades of GMing (cut it out, I GMed my first game at 9!). Hopefully, this advice will aid those trying to start longer sessions as well. Note also that these tips are in addition to the “polite request” that it’s time to start the game.
End the previous session with something exciting. Anticipation is a great motivator. New campaigns already have a built-in level of excitement, and you can tap into this by giving the players something to think about from the previous session. If you left the game on a cliffhanger (especially if the life of a PC or two hangs in the balance), the players are going to come motivated to play. While previous excitement may not be enough on its own to get the session started, it does help when applying other starting motivators.
Establish a firm start time. Over the years, you’d be surprised at how many short session campaigns I’ve been involved with that had start times of “when everybody gets here” or “between 6 and 7.” If you offer a time spectrum, expect to start towards the end of that spectrum. If you start “when everybody gets here” then you’ve given the players license to take their time. Note that you don’t have to draconically follow your firm start time; if you want to hold off for 15 more minutes, more power to you. That said, “Okay guys, we’re supposed to start at 7 and it’s already 7:15” holds much more weight than “Gee, I know we said ‘between 7 and 8’ but I was hoping to start by 7:15.”
If possible, use a different spot to gather than the gaming table. I’m lucky enough to have my front room and dining room separated by French doors. By having my players meet in the front room, I can keep the dining room as a sort of “sacred space.” Once I say “let’s take it to the table,” the players get into the mindset of starting. In an apartment, you might want to have people gather around the TV (although I suggest keeping the TV off) or anywhere else other than the gaming table. The kitchen is often a good place as well, especially if you’re making coffee (we Philadelphians love our coffee!).
Keep an easily-read clock in full view. I’m not picking on anyone in particular, but most groups have that one guy (it always seems to be a male) that showed up to game, game, game. He’s going to want to play at 7:00, not 7:01. Putting a large clock in full view provides him (and anyone else interested in starting) with a large reminder that game time is ticking away (and for you young whippersnappers, “ticking” is what clocks used to do when you used to say “it’s about half past three” rather than “it’s 3:27”).
Establish rituals. No, I don’t mean ring the game table with lit candles while you stick your athame in the chalice (although what a fun way that would be to start a session!). People tend to be creatures of habit and gamers are no exception. Turning on a campaign theme song or opening montage does the trick very well and it has the benefit of giving players a couple of minutes to settle down. Similarly, asking the players for a recap not only helps get things started, but it immediately gets the players thinking about the game (especially if you offer an XP award for recaps).
In my D&D campaign, I run the game at a players’ house. I make it a point to keep character sheets. Not only does this help me prep, but it also provides a ritual: “the handing out of the sheets.” I also hand out the previous session’s XP at this time. If it’s enough for leveling up, the players get excited over acquiring and wanting to use new kewl powerz. If not, it can still motivate starting “come on guys, I only need 150xp to level up! Let’s get moving!”
What about you? What do you do to get things moving?
[Thanks to John Arcadian for inspiring this post!]