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Short Sessions: Let’s Get This Party Started!

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 [1], 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 [2]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!]

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Short Sessions: Let’s Get This Party Started!"

#1 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On May 13, 2008 @ 7:03 am

I hear you. My group’s last couple sessions have ended up being “Eh. Let’s sit around and shoot the breeze instead of actually play.” sessions. While one time it was because we were a player short, last time apparently no one (aside from me) felt like playing. I’m really enjoying our current game, and looking forward to playing next weekend. If you’re reading this guys (and you had better be since I invited you!) next week I want to play!

#2 Comment By Wallwalker On May 13, 2008 @ 8:06 am

This is really handy for me, considering that almost all of my sessions up ’til now have been short (we play on Sunday nights and people have work on Monday morning, so I try to keep my sessions to four hours max, not counting any subplots or solo time that any of the players choose to take outside of the game. But that’s another story.)

Regarding set starting times:
What are your thoughts on starting without a player when you know that someone’s going to be late? That’s been an issue several times in my game, and it was only last week (after waiting for about twenty minutes after my revised starting time after she’d called to say she was late) that I finally said without prompting, “Look, she’s later than I’d expected, and I hate to start without her, but the rest of you guys are ready to go and I can bring her character in later. I’m going to start this game now.” Everyone else agreed, which was gratifying and made me feel less like a jerk. Also, she came in about… oh, twenty minutes or so later, and she didn’t mind that we’d started without her. I’m going to remember that next time it becomes an issue, and go ahead and start within a reasonable interval of my starting time even if we’re short a person.
(Also, ending the last game on a cliffhanger seems to have helped.)

#3 Comment By Taliesin On May 13, 2008 @ 8:32 am

Our group only plays about once a month or so, so starting on time is crucial to us. We don’t necessarily have short sessions by most peoples’ standards, but we want to milk the full amount of gaming time from each session.

One thing I do is create a game log on a WordPress blog after each session. I started out writing a narrative of the session, but the long sessions made that impossible. (A shorter session might make that do-able.) I’ve found that this helps the players think about the game in between sessions, which makes them more eager to play when the next session happens.

I’m looking at starting a recap sort of thing, after reading your tips. Maybe something using Powerpoint?

Good tips!

#4 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On May 13, 2008 @ 8:41 am

Thanks for reading, Wallwalker!

My first thought is that you might need to move to a more reasonable starting time. From what you wrote, it sounds like people have problems making it on time. It might save you some aggravation if you push the start time back 30 minutes or even an hour (it’s less time to play, but it sounds like that’s what you’re doing anyway).

I’m less concerned about your extremely late player, because it doesn’t sound like a chronic issue. We all run late occasionally, and she did call (some people tend to be overly optimistic in time estimates when running late).

#5 Comment By Lee Hanna On May 13, 2008 @ 9:35 am

One of my groups has just shifted from once-a-month, Saturday afternoons, to irregular (hopefully closer to 2/month), Friday nights. We are all 35+ with mutliple school-age kids. So far, the one Friday night, meet-as-soon-as-we-can-get-off-work and the stay-home parents get the pizza, went rather well. We impressed on ourselves to hold the socializing to the supper time, and once the table is cleared for PC sheets and dice, it’s on!
It’s one for one successful, so far. It’s definitely a help that we’ve minimized the scheduling entities (families): the group is three married couples and one single parent, so of 6 players + 1 GM, we are only up against 4 family schedules.
Game #2 of this schedule is at the end of the month, I’m crossing my fingers! (June is already looking like a washout, as we are into Origins preparations or family vacation.)

#6 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On May 13, 2008 @ 9:50 am

I always work on the same day that we play. No matter how early I cut out of work, my chores and other tasks (not to mention last-minute prep) always keep me busy right up until game time. But that way, I’m ready to start when it’s -time- to start. My players are often getting their dinners together, but they’re “present” enough to start – it’s an online, chat-based game.

There’s always a period of catching up while we get ready, but as soon as I type “COLD BLOOD Episode 28” (or whichever), and a one-sentence recap, everyone knows it’s time to get into character. If I finished strongly enough last session (either with a cliffhanger or foreshadowing), that’s all it takes – unless a fight was about to start, in which case we roll initiative and I set the scene with something like *There are three of these creatures, loosely surrounding you.*

#7 Comment By LordVreeg On May 13, 2008 @ 10:52 am

Short sessions do seem to become more the norm the longer a group survives. Due to the amount of time spent in recap/dinner/closeout mode, the amount of real, time-advancing gaming is a lot less than it used to be.

I’ve found it very important to change the expectation, both internally, and for the group. The days of finishing a town session, geting to an adventure, and then getting part-way through it in one session are over, once you go to shorter sessions. So it becomes important to set that expectation.
On the surface, setting the expectaion that less will get done makes it easier to play. But at a more subconsious level, if this is done properly, players will treat the time more preciously.

And as Lee mentioned, we keep the (very important, but distracting) socializing to dinner, but once the dice come out, it’s down to business.

#8 Comment By oddysey On May 13, 2008 @ 12:13 pm

The last (very short) campaign I ran had a lot of short sessions, because people had stuff going on pretty much every day. No good long blocks of time. I did use the “gather in one place, game in another” technique, and that helped, but it made me miss high school. Every Friday night, from 5 to whenever people have to get picked up. A good time for gaming, if nothing else.

Oh, and rituals are great. Not only do they provide a clear start time, they can go a long way to establishing the mood of a game.

#9 Comment By Martin Ralya On May 14, 2008 @ 2:43 pm

I like the sacred ritual idea, Walt — that’s a really good way to put it. We don’t usually have problems starting on time (except when we arrive for D&D and 3/4 of us go, “Wait, we leveled?” — I know, I’m a horrible, horrible person), but we also don’t treat our gaming area this way. It might help us get cracking even faster if we did.