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Short Sessions: How to Cope

As a thirtysomething gamer, my groups tend to be made up of people with careers and families. As such, we don’t have a lot of time to game. In some cases, we’re lucky to set aside three hours a week (or every two weeks) to game. And as those of you that have GMed for any significant period of time know, setting aside three hours does not equal three hours of play.

Short sessions can be a blessing and a curse for GMs. It’s a blessing in the sense that there’s less to prep for. It’s much easier to prepare two hours’ worth of material than six hours’ worth. Depending on the system, a single combat or intense negotiation could eat up most of that time.

On the flip side, a short session can also be a curse. An investigative mystery could take several sessions to solve, during which players forget key information from previous sessions. A single PC’s subplot could sideline the entire session. Finally, a meandering plot can lead to apathy and adventure fatigue, which could cause attendance issues.

Here are few things I’ve learned from running short sessions:

Set a Session Goal. Every session should make the players feel that they’ve accomplished (or had a chance to accomplish) something. Often, you can figure this out in advance. For example, the PCs are investigating a criminal gang that has been expanding their operations in a new area of the city. Your first session goal might be to have the PCs discover why they are expanding operations (a new, more ruthless gang is forcing them out of their old territiory) by confronting the gang leader.

Keep the Plot Moving. This goes hand in hand with setting the session goal. Don’t let the players spin their wheels for too long. If they need a clue, provide one. If they need guidance, aid them. If they are way off the track, bring them back. While red herrings can be fun, an extended red herring could eat up the entire session (and then some) and unnecessarily slow the adventure to a crawl. Worse, you might find some overworked players nodding off.

Recap at the Beginning. If you’re running short sessions, it’s probably because you and your fellow gamers don’t have a lot of free time. If you want to keep things moving, give a quick recap at the beginning of each session. This will refresh the players’ memories and correct any misremembered information.

Trim the Subplots. Most campaigns have subplots. A superhero may be trying to keep her identity secret from her boyfriend. A smuggler may have to avoid bounty hunters at every starport. Two PCs may start a romance. In some cases, the players may actually enjoy the subplots more than the actual adventure (this is common in superhero campaigns, where the trials and tribulations of maintaining a secret identity can be much more fun than beating up the villain of the week). Subplots, however, have a tendency to brush the main plot aside and, in some cases, leave some players spending the entire session watching another player have fun. While subplots should not be discouraged, you should limit the time spent on them, especially if they add nothing to the main adventure.

Keep Investigations Simple. If you are running an investigative adventure, don’t load up on the red herrings, dead ends, and clue trails. Start easy; you can always add more layers once your players are more comfortable. In most cases, a three-act model is sufficient. The PCs gather clues in Act I; this leads them to a confrontation and more clues in Act II; which leads to a final confrontation in Act III.

Use a comfortable rules set. The more comfortable your group is with the rules, the less time is spent rifling through rulebooks during the session. Also, pick a system that can resolve conflicts (especially combat, D&D 3.5, I’m looking at you!) relatively quickly. I once ran a 7th Sea campaign where players actively resisted having to fight, because they knew it would eat up the entire session.

Keep Important Rules at Hand. Always have the most important rules ready. GM screens are great for this, but a cheat sheet or two can be just as effective. If a PC has special abilities, give her a crib sheet with those abilities spelled out.

Those are few of my guidelines, how about you? How do you run an effective short session?

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "Short Sessions: How to Cope"

#1 Comment By ChattyDM On May 12, 2008 @ 5:00 am

I agree totally here. I’m stuck with the same issues.

Hopefully D&D 4e will have shorter fights or at least very entertaining ones.

Great post.

#2 Pingback By » Ding, The Stew is Ready, Hope You Like Gnomes. On May 12, 2008 @ 5:13 am

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#3 Comment By Fang Langford On May 12, 2008 @ 8:06 am

I’m not as sure as Chatty.

I rather think this would solid GMing at all times, not just shorts. In my gamemastering, I work more on a social angle; everyone understands that while some corners will be cut, I will make my best effort to bring on the awesome in a short space of time and work my butt off to keep the fun from dropping off suddenly afterward.

To me the key is get there, get it done and then give them teh kewl open-endedly until time runs out. Everything listed here is Standard Operating Procedure (SOP).

p.s. I usually refer to the above by the cute saying, “The top three things to practice while gamemastering: PACING, PACING, PACING!”

#4 Comment By Martin Ralya On May 12, 2008 @ 8:18 am

My group’s short sessions are longer than yours, Walt (usually 4-6 hours), but the principle is the same.

This is a great post, and I dig your practical advice. I’d add a couple other things based on my group’s recent experience with shorter sessions:

1. Get in the right mindset. Every step of my prep has to be bounced off the goal of completing the session in a reduced time.

2. Know what my group needs to make a short session fly. For us, starting right away instead of starting with dinner. We spend 10-15 minutes catching up and chatting, and then dive right in.

3. Having everyone on the same page. Short sessions are a necessary evil — usually an alternative to not gaming at all — so we work together to make the most of them.

#5 Comment By argokirby On May 12, 2008 @ 8:43 am

I’m in the exact same boat, we play once a week and have a 3 hour session, but only get about 2 hours of play in. I love the sub-plots because they build the back story. What I found works well: run the back story during the week through e-mails and chat.
The sub-plots can be done out of the path of the story line. For example, I spent several weeks on a sub plot of a gnome decorating his home in the city. We played two days of “in town time” over several weeks; while at the main game session the gnome was with the rest of the party crawling through the dungeon.
The gnome player had lots of fun, and the rest of the party benefited from his decked out lair.

#6 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On May 12, 2008 @ 8:45 am

People who game in a store or library setting (like me!) — where your room or table is reserved for a set period of time — can really benefit from this advice.

Good tips.

Trimming the subplots is the toughest cut through, because this is often where good character interplay develops. I try to limit subpot/sidetrek adventures to about one every fifth session — and then use them mainly to change the pace. That way they remain a part of the gaming experience, but even if I must concede their limited use because of short sessions.

#7 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On May 12, 2008 @ 9:09 am

My campaign has weekly three-hour sessions, plus it’s an online chat-based game, so I have a host of technical considerations on top of these issues. The shorter (and more frequent) prep times are pretty sweet though.

I don’t like to spend time on red herrings, either, but I’ve also eliminated “random” encounters and incidental combats that don’t pose a serious threat to the PCs. Chat-based combat just takes too long to waste the group’s time like that – any fight I expect to send their way is plot-related. The “set pieces” in the published Eberron adventures are the sort of thing I’m going for.

And it never hurts to roll initiative for all your opponents in advance. ; )

As for subplots, my group moves those forward in short-fiction interludes between the sessions. Luckily, though, much of what my players came up with dovetails into my overall plot, so they don’t “intrude” on everyone’s good time when they pop up in-session.

#8 Comment By Scott Martin On May 12, 2008 @ 10:13 am

Your first point, Setting a Session Goal, works very well on even smaller time scales too. If you’re good about having a goal for each scene, you can accomplish a lot in a very short time. That’s something that’s still surprising me after running Primetime Adventures for a while– if you start scenes with a goal or conflict in mind, you whip through them awfully quick.

#9 Comment By JohnTaber On May 12, 2008 @ 10:38 am

Very well put. I have been running short 4 hour games now for almost 5 years. During that time I was forced to learn many of these tricks the hard way. 😉

As a sideline note…I know that I sometimes have a problem with railroading. My last campaign I really tried to improve it. When I asked my gaming group about it during a session their response surprised me. They wanted MORE railroading. The reason was the session length. With more direction they spend less time debating which direction to go. Don’t figure… 🙂

#10 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On May 12, 2008 @ 10:50 am

Thanks for the comments, everybody. I really struggled with what to post first. Your comments have already spawned a couple of post ideas in my head 🙂

#11 Comment By robosnake On May 12, 2008 @ 5:33 pm

Hey, just found out about the blog. Nice.

I would add: steal something from the indie/story games crowd and give scene framing some thought in a shorter game. Make sure the scene is clear in your head, and that there is a clear reason for it being there. I hate, particularly in games like D&D, where half of a session is taken up shopping in the PhB or DMG for new equipment, or so a player can drag out a conversation with a “tavern wench” or something.

I’ve found that its pretty easy to gloss over unimportant scenes and events – fights the PCs will walk through without a problem, conversations that aren’t key to the storyline, and so on. That way, when you describe a scene in more detail and spent more time on it, everyone gets the hint that this is important…

#12 Comment By John Arcadian On May 12, 2008 @ 6:48 pm

With our limited time, all my group gets is short sessions. This is some good solid advice that will come in handy to keep my sessions rolling. Got any tips on getting the group to come to focus at the gaming table? The biggest chunk out of game time is the players getting ready to game.

#13 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On May 13, 2008 @ 6:14 am

Nice post; very pertinent for me, as Baby #1 is inbound in about six weeks… 🙂

Things I’ve found to be helpful:

Used the phrase “Time passes” when you want to get to the cool stuff. You can overdo this.

To get the group in the gaming mood, email them all a few days before the session with a reminder to have everything ready when they get there. Email them again the day before with the same reminder.

A Google or Yahoo Group is great for stuff that can be handled away from the table (buying/selling stuff, negotiations, travelogues, etc.). And IM sessions are great for solo play, so you don’t have to make four people wait while the fifth goes to chat with the local Thieves Guild…

#14 Comment By tman On May 13, 2008 @ 8:13 am

My group plays for 4 hours every two weeks, so maximum play time is a real consideration. As others have mentioned, I use email to make the time more useful.

* Big list of treasure? I email the list to the players between games and everyone can haggle over it between sessions. Ditto for identifying magic items and the like.
* The King has a mission he wants you to go on? My kings always summon the party to the throne room in between sessions. Then they give their long-winded description of what they want. This works really well because a) nobody interrupts the king (roleplay), b) everyone sees the whole message clearly, c) nobody interrupts the DM (Monty Python/Buffy/LOTR reference)
* Time in town getting new items is all handled between sessions. Each player has a dedicated email session to handle what they are doing with or without the other players. Somebody doing research gets their results. Then that player has to deliver the information to the party (fun when they forget stuff too!).
* Big battle coming up? Get the plan together between games. Sometimes, they have their own email separate from me so I get surprised by their strategy at the table. Those are great fun!
* Invites to the next game – I do a little recap to remind everyone where they are and what they are doing. I even BCC two spouses to remind them what nights husbands won’t be available.

I sometimes do little ‘behind your back’ writeups where the NPCs or the villains scheme behind the PC’s backs just for flavor or foreshadowing.

Email between games has really improved the enjoyment at the table!

#15 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On May 13, 2008 @ 8:37 am

I’m guilty of railroading, too, but only because my group has PCs with such clearly defined personalities. It’s not hard for me to find ways to motivate them toward the “right” course of action, which keeps our sessions on-task.

And if they -do- veer off course, I only have to wing it for a couple of hours, then I have a whole week to prep something else!

#16 Comment By Beatnik Gamer On May 13, 2008 @ 4:54 pm

As a tangent to this, may I suggest a bowl (of gnome stew, whether it’s made of gnomes or for for gnomes) that deals with the issue of running games at conventions.

Running games at cons is important as it lets people show off their favorite games to new vict… er, players and can get people to buy into new game systems and settings.

When running a con game you not only have a short session (4 hours IME) but you have no idea who/what is going to show up and how many (^ is the usual limit, less can show up.)

So running a game at a con is a unique challenge and a potentially rewarding experience as it can get in new gamers, or send then screaming into the night if handled badly…

#17 Comment By Omnus On May 13, 2008 @ 9:03 pm

The other consideration with convention gaming that goes well beyond the already-demanding limitation of length to game is the necessity to have a finish to it. There is nothing, nothing I tell you, worse than having the referee or DM look at his watch and end the game abruptly through no fault of your own because of shoddy time management or other, deeper flaws in the game. If you have a regular or semi-regular group and can only game in short stretches, you pick up the game where you left off. You can’t do this in a con.

At a convention, the DM must really clamp down. All the above principles become essential. Railroading? What kind: B&O, or a little Reading, perhaps? Subplots? Totally expendable. Having the rules at hand? Tattoo them to any exposed skin available. And most importantly, lock down the kind of nonsense at a table that can kill a group’s forward momentum. Find out who needs to be coddled and spoon-feed them to keep them involved before they get to be a distraction. Head off the rules lawyers. Get the the end, whatever that end is, to avoid that Bad Ending of quitting before the game should be finished.

So Sayeth Omnus.

#18 Comment By Professor Tanhauser On May 13, 2008 @ 9:08 pm

Like I said under my first alias here, which I couldn’t log in again as for some reason, we ought to have a bowl about running convention games, and I also suggest calling each blog a ‘bowl”.

#19 Pingback By Kingbeast’s Lair » Blog Archive » Gnome Stew On Short Session On July 22, 2008 @ 3:55 pm

[…] The folks over at the Gnome Stew blog really have something great going.  If you have not seen their blog head on over and subscribe.  One thread that I found particularly interesting was about considerations when running short sessions.  As these days everyone has kids and such most of my sessions are short.  I learned everything in this post after suffering through it for a couple of years.  Save yourself the hardship and give it a read now.  […]

#20 Comment By troy812 On March 5, 2009 @ 9:54 am

What a great article! More useful than most published material out there!

#21 Pingback By Ding! The Stew is Ready. Hope You Like Gnomes. : Critical Hits On January 24, 2010 @ 4:53 pm

[…] really liked the Short Sessions: How to Cope by Walt Icantspellhislastnamejustnow as it plays directly in our gaming […]

#22 Comment By RunebladeJack On August 30, 2016 @ 8:31 pm

The email conversations during the week are often where much of the prep work for the next mission is done (by the players), and the treasure tallying comes into play, and it works very well. I cannot encourage this enough for regular game groups.

For convention games:
~ Give player character only the gear they need for the mission (too much stuff in a list makes things confusion for some players and can be distracting)
~ Give them a very brief intro and make sure they understand the characters are all teammates or friends to encourage teamwork (some con games have total strangers gaming together, and trust is not always easy for some)
~ Start with action (after the brief intro), where they are already in the thick of some event and can’t get sidetracked by going shopping before the ship leaves the port.