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.
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).
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!