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Short Sessions: Time-Saving Tips

Howdy! It’s been a while since I did a “Short Session” post, so I thought it was time for another!

When running a short session, your biggest enemy is time. You only have a short amount of it to get a lot accomplished. The last thing you need is to get bogged down with unnecessary time-consuming tasks. Here’re a few time-savers I’ve developed over the years.

Use Familiar Locations

If your scenes are set in familiar places, it cuts down on a lot of description while still still putting the images you want in the minds of the players. My group has lived in the Philadelphia area for a long time. If I set a campaign at the Jersey shore, I don’t need to describe its environs for my players to get the mental images. Note that “familiar locations” don’t have to be real. In my D&D games, telling the PCs that they’re heading to Freeport evokes certain images and flavor.


Pictures are worth a thousand words. I save a lot of time describing NPCs by surfing up appropriate actors. Ditto if I need a visual of a palace, castle, or sleepy fishing village.

Sketch Combat Scenes Before the Game

While my “short session” games are usually devoid of miniatures and battlemaps, I still have to describe the combat area when it happens. Having a quick sketch handy makes it easy for players to work out spacial relationships and more accurately describe their actions. It also cuts down on “repeat actions.” (e.g. “My character slides down the bannister, tommy-gun blazing, and kicks out the door at the foot of the stairs.” “Um, there is no door at the foot of the stairs.” “Yes, there is! You just said there was a door at the foot of the stairs!” “No, I told you that there was a door downstairs. It’s actually ten feet down the hall to the right from the landing.”).

Use Map Geomorphs

Nothing kills time like sketching out rooms and hallways, especially irregular-shaped ones. This can especially be a pain in the butt if you’re using one of those published adventures that don’t shape their rooms and hallways to the grid.

A number of companies, especially in the PDF market, offer map geomorphs that you can quickly whip out. However, since it’s fairly quick to sketch square rooms and straight hallways, it is often enough if you print out some appropriately-sized graph/hex paper and just sketch and pre-cut the irregularly shaped rooms that your group will enter.

Tackling this problem another way, you may wish to redraw a published map so it does follow the lines of the grid, saving you some pain and suffering during game time.

Use Minions

Don’t let players get bogged down fighting riff-raff. In the movies, no-name thugs go down with one shot. Make your thugs do the same. And, just like in the movies, you can always spring a surprise on them by having a minion not go down in a single blow, or perk up for one last shot from the pool of blood your PCs left her in (and allow a second hit to finish her off).

Assume Competency

Your PCs are police detectives and the game starts at a crime scene. Do you really need them to play out discovering the initial clues (all of which are necessary to run through the adventure). Let the PCs chat up the officers that discovered the scene while you feed them the clues they need. No rolls or leading questions are necessary.

Also, allow characters to automatically make checks that are within their area of expertise, especially if failing those checks just results in player embarassment and delay. If your burglar PC only gets called on to pick one lock in a two-hour session and flubs it, it’ll leave a bitter taste.

One trick I’ve learned in this area is the “second chance” rule. I’ll set the situation up so that the PC will get what she needs even if she fails. The catch is that she’ll need extra time to do it. For example, if a PC hacker is trying to get information in X-Corp’s secret file but flubs the roll, I’ll rule that she got the information but can’t immediately decode it. I’ll then offer her ways to figure it out (work on cracking it while the PCs are going from Point A to Point B, go meet a hacker friend that’s familiar with the code, figure out what literary book the designer of the security code used to crack it).

I hope that helped, and I’d love to hear other ideas on how to optimize a short session!

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "Short Sessions: Time-Saving Tips"

#1 Comment By PatrickWR On September 30, 2008 @ 7:09 am

Short sessions are all about the singular moments: uncovering a key clue, defeating a major villain or pivoting the game around an important plot point. Any one of these elements could be the focal point of a short (>3 hours, in my book) session, but I’d caution against introducing two or more “singular moments” unless the players are really in a mood to cover a lot of ground in a short period of time. It makes the postgame analysis a little less clear (“Well, we drove off the goblins, but then we found the mountain pass leading into the dwarf fortress, so…where do you guys want to leave it?”).

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On September 30, 2008 @ 9:35 am

I like the “assume competency” suggestions, particularly the second chance rule. Extra time, broken tools, and additional complications all sound like good ways to delay success. You get to keep the tension of the roll, but the plot keeps moving forward even on a failure.

#3 Comment By Swordgleam On September 30, 2008 @ 1:08 pm

The second chance rule sounds good even for normal sessions, especially to avoid bottlenecks.

#4 Comment By Sarlax On September 30, 2008 @ 4:57 pm

One trick I’ve learned in this area is the “second chance” rule. I’ll set the situation up so that the PC will get what she needs even if she fails.

This just gave me a thought. If there is some critical event, one way to speed things along might be to take the initial check for success as a baseline that grows at a constant rate until success is met. For instance, in Storyteller, the difficulty to pick a lock might be 4. On the first roll, two successes are garnered. After that, each additional turn gains another 2 successes. In D&D, you might add +5 to the original roll, every round, until it’s opened.

This guarantees that success comes, but it includes a penalty for now doing well initially. It also eliminates the slow-down factor of rolling every round, so you can just skip to the outcome.

IE, you have a scene in which the PCs are FBI agents trying to stop terrorists. They’ve caught one but the others are escaping. The DC (using d20 terms) to successfully Intimidate the prisoner into revealing the hideout is 25, and the first roll is a 12. If you have a rule like +5 per time unit, this tells you that the DC is met in 3 units of time, but you don’t have to make the player roll 3 more times to get to the information, which is the whole point of the encounter.

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On October 1, 2008 @ 7:24 am

Nice coverage of the topic. I’ve unconsciously been adopting the “Assume Competency” aspect, but now I’ll make it a conscious decision.

My battlecry when time gets short is “Semper Gumby!”. Be willing to handwave or skip parts of the adventure if they won’t fit in the time allotted.

#6 Comment By DocRyder On October 1, 2008 @ 8:53 pm

Gumshoe is built on the “Assume Competency” model. The assumption is that the characters find the clues, the rolls are for interpretation.

Players can also use a couple of these. I’ve known a couple of players who scour the Internet and magazines for photos to use to represent their characters. They can also use familiar locations for their own homes.

I’ve also picked up realty books with floor layouts, and pretty much any building maps I can find. I also have a book full of “maps” based on TV sets. All of these are useful as “Familiar Locations.”

#7 Pingback By System matters − Episode 23 – Zeitersparnis On November 20, 2009 @ 12:15 pm

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