It’s every GM’s worst fear: a combat scene that drags on forever as players lose interest. What are some tips for keeping combat scenes focused and interesting? Andy and Chris are joined by Caitlin Sanders to share their thoughts and experiences.
Have you ever run a game for just two people–or a group of ten? Does your game group size fluctuate from week to week? Jessica Snyder joins Chris and Andy to discuss the challenges (and fun!) of running games for groups of varying sizes.
Have you ever imported a rule or system from a different roleplaying game into the one you’re running? Andy and Chris are joined by Mark French as they discuss GURPS-eating rabbits, which games model recoilless rifles, and also the topic at hand.
Episode 5 appendix:
What do props and handouts add to a roleplaying game session? Special guest gamemaster Kyle Latino joins Chris and Andy to discuss the pros and cons of using handouts in your game.
Episode 4 appendix:
What makes a good DM screen, and what do they add to the game? Special guest gamemaster Matt Wilson joins Andy and Chris to talk about how they do (or don’t) use dungeon master’s screens.
Episode 3 appendix (AKA things that got mentioned):
- Eternal Lies, a Trail of Cthulhu campaign that Matt is preparing to run with the Gumshoe Quickshock system.
- The World’s Greatest Screen by Hammerdog Games, the customizable GM screen Matt uses in his games.
- Top Secret S/I, an espionage RPG from the 80s whose player-facing GM screen Andy is fond of.
- The hilariously over-the-top Hackmaster GM screen.
- A review of module I6: Ravenloft with an image and mention of its gorgeous isometric map, which appeared on its cover/GM screen.
What’s a GM to do when their best-laid plans are derailed by pesky players? Andy and Chris discuss the many ways roleplaying game sessions can go awry.
Transcript below provided by Barbara Tozier!
Episode 2: How to stop derails from happening?
Chris: Hello and welcome to _Roll for Topic_ an RPG podcast. This is a podcast where GMs discuss various elements of running the game. So let’s do some quick introductions. My name is Chris Salzman…
Andy: …and I’m Andy Rau.
Chris: Andy, what exactly are we going to do first here? We typically have a role at the beginning of the session. What is that that for?
Andy: Yeah, so what we do on the show, Chris, if you weren’t aware, is we roll a D10 and we look on a chart to find out exactly what topic we’ll be discussing. I have a chart in front of me numbered one through 10 and you’re going to roll a D10 and that’s going to determine what we talk about.
Chris: Okay, cool. All right, so I’m going to roll that right now.
[sound of dice rolling]
Chris: It’s… Oh, I got a 10!
Andy: A 10. Okay. Chris, what we will be discussing today according to our chart, is how to deal with session derails. So that that would be players going off-plot or players doing something that the GM was not expecting.
Chris: Well my players always stick to exactly what I was planning for. So I don’t know about you…
Andy: Well this is going to be a really short show then, because my players always do the exact same.
Chris: Yeah whatever I prepped is exactly what they seem to want to do.
Andy: That’s perfect. Yes.
Chris: Yeah, this is actually a really interesting one that we rolled on, because my last session was maybe you could almost call it 100% a derail. This was a session we went more or less completely off book. They just decided to… they were wrapping up a plot point and they decided to do it in a way I was not expecting, that involved most of the townsfolk.
Chris: In a town that they were in, pretty much all the NPCs that they had been relating with were at this public trial of the big bad evil person in the campaign that they were running. So they held this public trial and everybody showed up and so there was a lot of very cool interactions between different NPCs and different motivations coming out of the woodworks, and I was just kind of sitting behind the screen going, “Oh goodness, what am I gonna do? What am I going to do?” as it just got a little crazier and crazier. But yeah, it ended up being a really, really fun session. And they had no combat rolls whatsoever.
Chris: This is a _Dungeons & Dragons_ game so that’s sometimes rare for that to happen.
Andy: What did you feel like when you started seeing things going off of course, the course you had imagined it would take? Was that a scary feeling? Or were you like, “Hey, this is really fun. Let’s see where this goes.”
Chris: I think it depends on your GM style, right? I sort of like this thing as long as there’s a framework to fall back on. So if they had come to a brand new town for example, and we were introducing a bunch of brand new NPCs, then that would have been hard and scary. But since I had a good handle on what was going on in the town and who wanted what out of the trial, it just made for a lot of fun at that point. I think the other thing, too, that I always try to keep in mind is the players just assume that you’re on top of things most of the time, I guess, unless you’re very bad GM. They sort of assume that you have some vision in your head. So even if you don’t necessarily have it ahead of time, and you’re just inventing it on the fly, it tends to work out okay. It’s like… you’re like a duck on the water, right? You look calm on the surface while you’re paddling.
Andy: I think it’s important to take a minute and assure everyone who might be listening that *you* are not a bad GM. You’re an *amazing* GM. Take it from me and Chris. You’re incredible.
Chris: Yes. I mean that’s why we have the podcast, right?
Andy: A person who was a bad GM would not be listening to this podcast.
Chris: Yes. I guess I’m interested right… So that’s very fresh in my mind, that sort of session derail, I guess. That’s a very particular kind of derail. I’m wondering, the spirit of this topic might be more… players just trying something dumb or way out there. “Wha… What’s going on?” Do you have anything that you’re thinking about?
Andy: Well, I can tell you a story of me not knowing what to do with a player derail from my gaming history. I distinctly remember once introducing a new player to role-playing. He had not role played before. We happened to be playing the old _Middle Earth_ role playing game and I still remember very vividly what happened. I had a plot set up, and the plot was that the player needed to travel from one town to another: from point A to point B.
Chris: Seems straightforward.
Andy: Right? But then, of course, midway along that route, something would come up that would divert them off of their course, and that’s where the adventure was. So I don’t remember what the exact thing was, your classic generic adventure, as “you’re on the road to Neverwinter and oh, here’s the wreckage of a merchant caravan or something that was ambushed. And there’s the goblin track leading to the forest. What do you do?” The expectation is that the players will, of course, follow the adventure that you have planned, head off of the track and go have their adventure. Well this, and in fact, I think most veteran players know when a GM is hinting at them that “hey, this is where the adventure is, you should go down this trail.” But I was playing with someone who wasn’t a veteran adventurer at all. And he was like, “well, that’s not…” when he came across upon that distraction, where the heart of the adventure was supposed to lie, he was like, “well, that’s not what I’m being paid to do. So I’m just going to stay on the road to Minas Tirith,” or wherever he was headed and I didn’t know what to do. I had no idea what to do. So, I just ended up saying after confirming that he was sure and I wasn’t even very subtle about it, “are you sure you don’t want to go follow that troll path?” or whatever it was. I ended up just saying, “well, that’s the adventure you get, that was it.” And I never played a role playing game with him again, and to my knowledge, he has never played another RPG.
Chris: Yeah, well, because he tried it that one time and it wasn’t very fun.
Andy: It genuinely was not very fun for anyone. And I guess I don’t blame him for walking away from that session going, “what the heck was that?”
Chris: I’m curious. You clearly had some time to think about this and think about what you did wrong, but what would you do? What would Andy today do if that happened?
Andy: Great question. I don’t, this will sound terrible, but I don’t exactly know what I would do in that situation. I think probably the main problem was that the player just didn’t have a big enough incentive to go off of the beaten path, off of the plan and into the adventure I had designed. He was probably thinking pretty logically, “Why on earth if I’m headed to city B, would I allow myself to be distracted by a bunch of goblins?” or whatever it was. So I think what I would do now is just make sure that if I am hoping to lure players off of the path they were expecting to be on, just to make sure that that lure has a strong enough hook, in either the personalities of the player characters or by some other means. That there’s a good chance that in fact they will be tempted to go follow the adventure path.
Chris: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. That’s the D&D starter set for 5e, right? That’s the beginning part of the adventure, you’re traveling from one place to another and you run across the wreckage of an ambush.
Chris: Right. But you recognize parts of that ambush as someone that you knew. So, in that way, if it was just some random cart that was overturned, it’d be pretty easy to just sidestep it and keep going.
Chris: I’m wondering about the… a subset of this question is, I think, that a player just killing the momentum…
Chris: Totally. Have you ever had that happen where a player just gets really interested in something that just does not have anything to do with what the rest of the party wants?
Andy: Definitely. And it happens in all sorts of different ways, right? It happens with players just getting it in their heads to go left when you really think they ought to be going right and you’ve tried to seed in their minds that they should turn right. It also happens with players coming into the game with a different expectation for what they want to be doing. If what’s fun for them and what they’re looking forward to doing in the game is different from what’s fun for you and maybe the rest of the group, you’re going to be fighting those derails basically every time they are talking.
Chris: Have you had players like that, who clearly want something out of the game that they’re just not going to find out your table?
Andy: Yeah, definitely. I’m struggling to think of a specific example. I can’t really point to too many players in my gaming history that were just enormously at odds with the rest of the group. I think that almost every player, at some point in the career of their player characters, they’re just going to want to do something that’s a little different. Or that’s, I don’t know, they’re just going to get a little bug in their minds to go explore something, or do something, or make a choice or, be stubborn about something you didn’t expect them to be stubborn about. So I think that this isn’t just a topic of “How do you deal with the one guy who’s constantly derailing the game” and it’s more question of “Everybody is going to probably derail the game in a way that’s really unique to them. How do you as GM prepare yourself when somebody unexpectedly throws you a curveball?” What do you think about that? How about you? Does anyone spring to mind when we talk about player derails, as someone that you’ve played with who’s really constantly throwing this sort of thing at you?
Chris: Yeah, although oddly, the more that I think about this, it was in a good way. I think there are derails where… so some people just want to watch the world burn, but other people, they want to explore something that you haven’t really thought of, or bring something to the game that you haven’t thought of. So a couple players that I’m thinking about in particular will ask me about something that I haven’t thought about. In that moment, your decision is either,
“Oh, well, there’s nothing there because I didn’t think about it.” Or, you can say, “oh, maybe there’s something there because, I didn’t think about it. Well, let’s see.” Oftentimes, if that happens, and I’m just totally at a loss for how to answer that question, if someone’s like, “Oh, well, is there a secret passage in this room? Or is there, some…” Whatever it is, “is there’s something that I haven’t seen in this room?” I’ll just ask them to make a roll at that point. Then you can buy yourself a minute, which is always nice, but then, if it comes up with a good roll, well, why not reward that creativity? There’s obviously a point at which that can go too far, where people are just searching for stuff just to see what happens when they roll. For the most part, I think players understand that tension that they’ve introduced, if that makes sense…
Chris: …where, it’s like, “Okay, well, I’ve just asked for something that maybe the GM hasn’t fully thought through, let’s see what happens. If it’s nothing, that’s fine. If it is something, great!” I would just add, I would rarely gate some sort of big thing behind that curiosity. It would just be a small flavor thing is usually what I try to do.
Andy: How much pressure do you feel as a GM to roll with the derail versus saying, “I don’t know, that’s not something I planned or thought about.” Would you, could you ever say to a player “I don’t know what the name of that person is,” or “I don’t know the answer to your question or, to what you’re doing. That’s not what I planned, let’s skip it and move on.” Could you ever say that? Or do you feel pressure to try and fake it until you make it?
Chris: Yeah, I feel some pressure to fake it. But I think that’s a good pressure. I can be creative within a framework pretty well, and if I have that framework too solidified in my own head, it can be very hard to break out of that. But if a player breaks me out of that, then it can be a good extra thing, extra flavor to add to the game. There’s this one session that really sticks out in my mind, that I ran during one of my lunch games, where they had decided that they wanted to go up to another city. They wanted to stop exactly what they were supposed to be doing and go do something that was totally separate from what they were doing, and I was a little scared. I was like, “Well, if you do that, we’re going to introduce this whole new city and this is just getting so off the beaten path from what you’re trying to do.” What I ended up doing was I gave them a choice in the game because they were trying to clear out a goblin stronghold such as what they were supposed to be doing. While they were on the road up to the other city, I had some goblins show up off in the distance. So then it was their decision. “If you want to keep going down this path, sure, we’ll figure it out but also, I’m reminding you very specifically of this thing you’re supposed to be doing, this thing that you are saying no to right now.” Thankfully, they took the bait, if you will, and went up towards the goblins and things went off from there. But it was an interesting moment because that was something that’s, of course, not written in the adventure for what to do if they decide that they’re not going to go to the goblin stronghold. So I did think a little bit on my feet and it ended up being a really interesting combat encounter, too.
Andy: One thing that’s occurred to me as we chat here is that when we say the word “derail,” we are suggesting the presence of a rail, right? I know gamers have lots of different feelings about “railroading as a thing” adventure. So where on a scale between… on the one hand, you have a very tightly defined plot that you are expecting the players to go through, and that you plan to nudge them along to reach a foreordained conclusion or plot points. If that’s on one end of the spectrum, and on the other end of the spectrum is a “there is no story but… here’s a region full of NPCs with plot hooks and you make your own story.” Where do you fall when you come to a game session?
Chris: I definitely fall on the pre-written module end of things, but flavoring it as they’re going through. Partly that’s just because of the time that I have available to me to play. I think if I had more time in a more regular group that met for hours at a time, maybe once a week, I would be more open to the, “well, let’s just kind of see what happens” sort of thing. But since, for at least one of my groups, a couple months can go past before we can meet back up, it’s very valuable to have everything written down by someone else who’s thought through the whole thing. Because otherwise, you come back to the session and it’s like, “Well, okay, what’s my character’s name first of all?” And then “What were we doing?” If you have a module you can kind of jump back into and say, “okay, well, we’re roughly here and… if you’ve forgotten stuff I can just look it up.” It sort of puts more burden, I think, on the GM for holding the state of the world in their head if you’re doing pure homebrew, hundred percent homebrew. That’s not where my gifts lie. Some people are really good at that, but it’s hard enough for me to juggle three NPCs let alone everybody that they might… What about you? Where do you fall?
Andy: Yeah, I share your general approach, I think. I have a lot of fondness in the abstract for the open world, very little pre-written plot. “Let’s see where your character motivations and interests take the story.” I’m very attracted to that idea, but in practice I don’t really run games like that very much for many of the same reasons you do… Most of my games these days are with busy adults, or with my kids and their friends. And there could be a big gap between game sessions. For instance, when you have busy adults who are committing to get together once a month for a game session, that time is precious, that time is not being spent with their family or their work or whatever it is. And as a GM, I feel a little more pressure in sessions like that to make their time be worth it. This might be a misguided idea but if we end up kind of futzing around to no effect for three hours in one of those once a month sessions, that kind of feels to me like I wasted people’s time. That might not be the right way to think about it, but that’s certainly how I feel. So I feel a little pressure in those cases to have more of a plot that I can keep moving. When you don’t meet as frequently, I feel like you just can’t afford some of those filler, more aimless distractions and sessions that when you’re 13 and playing four times a week, you can easily indulge.
Chris: Yeah, it’s almost like, if you have the written module, you can introduce that next big event that moves things forward. You always have that written down. I think, at least in D&D, that’s the game that I’m playing right now most heavily, it can tend to be a very silly game, just by the nature of it.
Chris: So if you can balance the rails of the pre-written adventure with the silliness of the party kind of bumbling through and making jokes and stuff, it’s a good counterpoint to each other. So you have this very serious plot going on, but then you also have “the dwarf fell over and dropped the mace.” Or they just want to make jokes all the time, or make fun of the evil guy. So that can be… that to me is a good balance between those things where I think I would have a hard time if you had that sort of silliness of D&D, but then also you have to indulge in their kind of weird, weird jokes because that’s the plot points you’re being given.
Chris: Which I can imagine… teenagers playing, right? That can get quickly get pretty off color, and gross.
Andy: Of course, yeah.
Chris: But with adults, I think the opposite happens. It’s just kind of like boredom, and “well, there’s probably something else I’d rather do with my time than this.” Where’s the line? When you’re talking about a derail? Where’s the line between someone just constantly joking, and then really fully derailing the whole session?
Andy: I think most groups probably have at least someone who’s more inclined to be joking around a lot. It probably just depends a lot on the character of… the personalities in your group. I mean, as a GM, one of the things you have to be constantly doing is reading the table. I think if you know your players pretty well, it’s usually pretty clear when things are starting to go a little awry. Have you had this pop up in some of your games?
Chris: Yeah, I think so. Where you just have to gently step in or forcefully step in, “okay, this is the thing you should be focusing on.”
Andy: We’ve talked, I know you and I have talked in the past about filler content, and that I think there are some situations in role playing games that tend to lend themselves to being deraily. I find things start to derail when players are given a little bit too much time to figure out what they’re going to do next, a little too much time to plan what their next move is or how they’re going to tackle the next challenge, or, to debate how they’re going to respond to a job offer. I find that sometimes, if you aren’t putting a little bit of pressure on people to keep the pace going, keep the momentum up, people’s brains are… they’re just naturally going to start drifting around and you can find yourself getting off track. Sometimes maybe it’s just a matter of saying, “all right let’s wrap this up,” “let’s all…,” “let’s focus,” “this guy needs an answer now” or
“the sun is about to set,” “it’s time to make a decision.” Maybe some in-game ways like that prompt people to, like, “okay, let’s get back on the road.”
Chris: Do derails happen in dungeons as much as they do in town?
Andy: In my experience, not so much. Although no… for me, most of the derailing happens in between the adventuring part of a game. Once they’re out in a dungeon or, once they’re in an environment like a dungeon there’s a lot of constraints that you as a GM can use to put pressure on them to keep moving or to keep on course. It’s those more open-ended things like when they’re interacting with NPCs around town, or they’re going shopping, or they’re hanging out at the inn after their adventure. It’s those times like that, where there’s just less inherent structure in the scene, that I think you’re more likely to have people start getting it in their minds to do something that you weren’t planning on them doing.
Chris: It’s tough, because the character work part of the game that tends to happen, at least in my experience, in towns or when it is a little bit more downtime. It’s like you want to have some of that, but then the adventuring part, it’s a little bit harder to have a heart-to-heart conversation between two players about whatever they need to talk about. But that has me wondering about introducing some of that into dungeons a bit more, if there’s a way to do that. Or even just within town, giving some harder limits about what’s ahead of them rather than just being totally open. “You’re in town, here are your tasks, we’re going to rapid fire take care of them.” Or, “the town’s on fire, you only have a certain amount of time.”
Andy: Yes, absolutely.
Chris: Or something’s happening like the town guards, or the king’s guard is coming down south so you have one day to prepare what you’re going to do in that one day. Because then you can still have some of that ability to sit down and talk, but then there’s also some “you gotta keep moving.”
Andy: Absolutely. Sometimes a derail is the players’ way of telling you the kind of game they’d rather be playing than the one they’re playing right now.
Andy: I could probably come up with a good number of examples here. One area in which derails can be kind of dangerous is… I have run a lot _Call of Cthulhu_ in my gaming life. That’s more of an investigative game where players are looking for clues and trying to unravel mysteries. And in games like that, it’s not too hard for players to follow red herrings or to think that some random NPC you don’t even have a name for is the villain they need to know. That certainly happened. For example, I was talking about sometimes they’re kind of telling you the kind of game they would like to be playing: I remember one _Call of Cthulhu_ game, one of the characters had a background as being a psychic. And when they rolled up the character, I didn’t really think that the psychic character was going to be like a real psychic with actual psychic powers. I just thought it was a flavorful background. Once we started the game, it became clear that the player had envisioned their character as a psychic with psychic powers, and so they at all of the scenes they were visiting, the player was saying, “I’m going to touch the murder weapon and focus and what kind of vision do I see, or what?” And I had no idea! It ended up being kind of terrifyingly fun, as I switched from what I thought was going to be a pretty gritty straightforward detective mystery story to a psychic detectives following… Clearly the players were having a lot of fun with it, and they thought it was really cool that the player was getting these psychic flashes and I was just kind of madly making up on the spot these visions and psychic clues this person could be getting. I had no idea where it was all going to end. It ended up being really fun. That’s something I look at; in that was an example where the player just had a different idea of what was fun about their character than I did. I am glad that I didn’t say “Oh, hey. No, actually, you don’t actually have real psychic powers. That’s just a piece of flavor background.” I’m glad that I resisted the urge to do that, because I certainly had that urge. Instead, I just did this panicky “Sure! You’re saying you see a vision or you’re hearing voices or something.” I’m glad that I tried to run with it, even if I definitely wasn’t completely successful with it, because… I don’t know, people had more fun and it ended up being a neat part of the game.
Chris: It’s like there’s almost a difference between a derail that snaps you out of your thing that you have planned and a derail that’s just someone that needs to goof off for a minute because they need to blow off some steam.
Andy: Yeah, absolutely. One thing we didn’t do at the beginning of this discussion was define what a derail is, because there’s all kinds of derails, right? There’s derails because somebody won’t stop cracking jokes in your serious horror game. And there’s derails because the players just make an in-game decision that throws away a huge amount of the planning that you’ve done. There’s all kinds of ways that games can go awry and so maybe this conversation is at risk of getting a little too broad…
Chris: Yeah, so “derails can be good for the GM” is where we really came around. The question as written was “How to stop derails from happening?”
Chris: It’s like, “No. Let more of them happen.”
Andy: Yes, well we’ve really come around in just our short discussion here, Chris.
Chris: I have one little final story then we should wrap up. I was running a one shot one time in which the one shot was literally a train heist and a couple of the players did not want to get on the train. The derail almost actually happened, because it was “why aren’t you getting on the rails that I presented to you?”
Andy: Oh my goodness, Chris, this story. This story would have been perfect if they had actually literally derailed the train against your wishes. That would have been the perfect closer to this discussion.
Chris: Yeah, it really would have been. I need to revive that. That train heist was really good, and the thing that I learned from it was that I just needed to start on the train. Not trying to get them to get onto the train.
Andy: Yes. If you do have to, if you are really counting on the players turning left instead of right, you need to maybe start the game with them turning left.
Chris: Or you turn them left and then a quick flashback to before. All right. Well, let’s wrap up there. Again, this has been _Roll for Topic_. My name is Chris Salzman.
Andy: And I’m Andy Rau.
Chris: Thank you so much for listening. Bye.
Is it possible to run a satisfying game session in just one or two hours? In this inaugural episode, Andy and Chris share their experiences running game sessions with very tight time constraints.
Transcript below provided by Barbara Tozier!
Episode 1: How to run a game in two hours or less
Chris: Hello, and welcome to _Roll for Topic_ an RPG podcast. This is a podcast where we have GMs discussing various topics related to running games. Let’s do some quick introductions. My name is Chris Salzman.
Andy: My name is Andy Rau.
Chris: We are two GMs, we’ve known each other for a while, but we decided to do this podcast to get a chance to sit down and talk more specifically about one topic relating to, “Hey, you’re the GM. How do you keep this thing going smoothly?” So to that end, we have created a D10 table with a number of topics on it. This is… our hook here is that every time we record, we pull up that table, we’re going to roll a D10, see what comes up, and then we’ll use that as our topic. This helps us to not over prep, which is a good thing when you’re dealing with GMs.
Andy: All right, Chris, I’m going to need a D10 roll from you, please.
Chris: Ok, all right. Thank you.
Andy: No modifiers.
[sound of dice rolling]
Chris: Yes, all right. That is a nine. So what’s nine on our table?
Andy: All right, let me consult our table here, Chris. Today our topic with the result of nine: we will be discussing how you fit a game into two hours.
Chris: Ooh. Okay. Should we keep it narrowed to two hours? Or should we just be like, “How do you fit a game in one hour, two hours, four hours, et cetera?”
Andy: Yeah, let’s give ourselves a little leeway and say, “How do you run a really short tight game?”
Chris: Yeah. Okay. Well, I have some thoughts, but why don’t you dive in first.
Andy: This has been one of my big goals as a GM over the last couple of years, and that is getting the game experience down to just a couple hours and it’s entirely because of my life circumstances. Like everybody else, I don’t have as much time to game as I did in my youth. But the main thing is I’m playing more and more with kids, with my own kids and their friends, and I have discovered that over a couple of hours, you… the game really goes south with kids under the age of 12 or 13. So my daughter is 11, I play with her a fair amount with her friends. And I have just found that if I’m going over two hours, I start to lose them and they start getting silly and things like that. I have also found this and it’s makes for a much easier pitch for my kind of casual gamer friends who are not super enthused at the… who can’t or aren’t enthused about the idea of taking six hours on their Friday night. Like we used to, we start at 6pm and then people are heading home at like 1:15 in the morning. That’s not really something I can ask from my adult friends with kids and jobs anymore so…. Two hours is maybe a little too short for adults, but I have been trying to keep the games I play with my casual gamer friends somewhere in like the three hour vicinity.
Chris: That’s interesting. So you mentioned when you were younger you’d do six-, seven-hour sessions.
Chris: So if like that, I guess now I’m just really curious. Like, what was the longest session you ever played?
Andy: Oh, I don’t know. The longest session, and I’m reaching way back into the mists of memory that are clouded by nostalgia…. One of the first times I ever played _Dungeons and Dragons_. This is mid ’80s, I was introduced to _Dungeons and Dragons_ by my cousin who I was visiting for the summer. And he broke out this, “Have you heard of this, this thing called _Dungeons and Dragons_?” I had vaguely heard that it was satanic. He had a bunch of modules and I recall starting playing this on like a Friday afternoon and finishing on like a Sunday evening. Obviously we slept in there, but I’m pretty sure we just played D&D. This is unthinkable to me now. I mean, there’s no way I could do this now, but I’m pretty sure we played D&D for like 12 hours a day for three days. I never topped that experience. It was a heck of a jump into the deep end of role-playing, by the way.
Chris: I mean, that’s probably for your own health, it’s good that you haven’t done that.
Andy: Oh, yes, yes. Occasionally I’ll read about people, adult gamers saying like, “Oh, yeah, my friends that I rented a cabin and we went up and we played for 12 or 16 hours a day.” And that sounds really cool, but I also just don’t see how I could possibly hack that at this point. I have trouble sitting down and doing any one thing for more than an hour and a half or something, even playing a video game I love or something like that. It’s hard for me to do that.
Chris: Oh, yeah, I can imagine. A couple months ago, I got together with some friends, and they wanted to… I think a couple of them hadn’t played D&D before, so we ran through kind of a pretty basic scenario, which was fun. I ended up GMing for like, two three- or four-hour sessions in one day. I was just wiped out, I was a little bit sick, anyway. I mean, there’s just…, once you’re past 25, you can’t do that anymore, I think.
Andy: Yeah, for sure.
Chris: I just don’t have the stamina and especially once you have kids, it’s just like, yeah, the whole…
Chris: The whole concept changes.
Andy: I don’t know who said this, but I remember reading and it stuck with me: somebody, some game designer or somebody on a forum somewhere saying that role-playing is like “one hour of fun fit into four hours.”
Chris: Yeah, yeah.
Andy: And what I found when I am playing in longer games, like at a convention where it’s typical for a game to occupy a four-hour time slot or occasionally even more, is that you do start, somewhere around hour four or hour four-and-a-half, you do start to realize how much of your typical game is this filler that’s not really that fun.
Chris: Um, hmm.
Andy: So part of the motivation for getting the game time down is to identify that stuff where nobody’s really having fun doing this. It’s filler content, it’s not really adding anything. See if you can at least tone some of that down, if not strip it out altogether.
Chris: Are there are there particular things that you’re thinking about?
Andy: So the bane of my games, the thing that frustrates me… I’ve been in groups where shopping ends up being this huge time consuming thing and this is not something I’ve ever really been interested in spending a lot of time in game doing. But obviously other people dig it and if anybody listening to this loves role-playing out there two hours of shopping for swords in _Waterdeep_ or whatever, more power to you. But what usually happens if it’s not shopping… anything where one player has a bug to do something, like they really want to buy a magical spell while they’re here in town. Or, if you’re spending more than 10 or 15 minutes on your one player tangent, it really starts to drag the whole momentum of the whole game down.
Chris: Yeah. Usually, if something like that starts to happen, I will either just say like, “I don’t care here. Just look through the book and tell me what you bought.”
Andy: That’s where I’ve come, like, “Here. It’s on page 43 of the _Players Handbook_. Just…”
Chris: “… tell me what you have bought. They have it in stock, sure.”
Chris: Sometimes what I’ll do is if I *can*, try to split the party and then you can bounce back and forth between people and give people some time to think and then also have a more interesting interaction for other people. But yeah, like stuff like that, you can just kill it. Or, sometimes what I’ve done is, “take a look in between now and next session and then tell me.”
Andy: Yes, absolutely. A lot of this stuff you can totally, you can handle it via email in between sessions. You can handle it… I mean, if you really do want to role play this out and I can definitely see some… I can definitely think of scenarios where you would want to take a player aside and let them role play out an experience that’s important to their character. Just meet an hour before the game and run through that with them, or have lunch with them during the week or something like that.
Chris: Yeah, that’s interesting. Are there other filler things that you’ve noticed that when you cut them out the game doesn’t really lose anything?
Andy: So the other big momentum killer for games that I’ve run and have been in is planning. I *love* listening and giving players the opportunity to plan how they’re going to tackle a challenge. So, just to come up with something like they need to sneak into a castle that’s heavily guarded and has various obstacles they’ll have to take into account in getting into the castle. I love, love, love hearing players plan how they’re going to do it. It’s super fun and it usually… and it’s also really beneficial as a GM to hear what they’re thinking of and planning. It often gives me ideas and how to run the encounter.
Chris: Oh, totally. Yeah, there’s *absolutely* a pack of goblins there. Sure.
Andy: Yeah, exactly. Yes. And you’ll learn. They’ll point out all the things you hadn’t thought about. And then you can pretend that you had thought about them. But, the downside I find: it’s really easy for these planning sessions to go on *forever* because, and it’s not it’s not like the players are doing it wrong or something, but it’s hard to know when you’ve planned enough and you can’t read the GM’s mind and know the level of detail that the GM is expecting from your plan. And so I have often found myself in games where the planning is fun for a while, and then it reaches this tedious point where like maybe two players are going back and forth about some dumb detail that, as GM, I know it doesn’t even really matter. I mean, I don’t want to say that it happens in every game but… that one and the shopping thing are like the two things that immediately popped to mind as “when does time get wasted and drawn out in games I’m in?”
Chris: When do you… so say you’re trying to hit that two hours, and you have a group that is just arguing about like, well, “should we go into the west door or the east door?” And you’re like, “they’re both the same door.” When you have that, are there any things that you do to speed them up?
Andy: Oh, so I wish I had, I wish I had an arsenal of good ways to kind of — in the spirit of the game — get players moving.
Andy: But, usually, honestly at this point in my life I’m more inclined to just say, “Hey guys, let’s wrap this up. Let’s call it good. Trust me whatever you’ve got in mind, you’ve thought about it more than I thought… you put more thought into this plan than I put into this whole adventure so we’re all good.”
Chris: Yeah, there’s something nice about just being very direct and honest. I’ve done that a couple times, in games where I’m just like, “look you can explore more if you want, but there’s nothing else here for you. I did not hide any more secret treasure in this dungeon. We can keep moving.”
Andy: Yeah there’s… that is a… well, I’ll hold that thought and get onto it, but I wanted to say, yeah, there’s some certainly unsettled but probably better ways to put a little pressure on people to wrap up the planning, and that is just to remind them that “hey, the hour’s getting late…” or, you hear sirens in the distance or,… come up with some way to remind them. And players being pretty cool, will, probably understand what you’re doing, right?
Chris: That’s, yeah, that’s actually a really good way to do it. So another thing that I’ve done, which I’m not exactly proud of, but is sometimes effective is just hold up my hand and start counting down from five.
Andy: Oh, interesting.
Chris: And then, when you get down to zero, then roll it on a wandering monster table, something like that.
Andy: That’s scary. That’s intimidating.
Chris: Or it’s just a bluff.
Chris: I hope none of my players are listening to this. But yeah, I mean, just straight up bluff. But, the thing is, you’re right, the people are just kind of going back and forth on something that doesn’t exactly matter. And that can be fun, but if you’re reading the table, and you’re realizing it’s just two players and the other three are sitting there bored out of their minds, it’s not good.
Andy: Something you mentioned called to mind another way that filler time ends up taking up space in your game. I didn’t realize until I started having this increased pressure to keep games to a reasonable length, how long typical combats drag on beyond the point where there’s any question about the outcome.
Chris: Um, hmm.
Andy: This is probably true of a lot of action scenes and encounters in general, but it’s pretty obvious in combat. There’s usually a point in any combat where it’s really obvious that the PCs are going to win. They’re over that hump, that initial period… they’re over that initial period of threat and maybe they’ve taken out the boss and they’re cleaning up the goblin guards or whatever. That’s not usually very exciting to play out, there’s no tension in the combat, why are we even doing it? I think you have to be careful with this, because it introduces a kind of a meta game aspect that can kill some immersion if you do it too carelessly. But I have started being a little bit quicker to say, “all right…, you guys round up the remaining bandits, and we’re done with the combat,” trying to move that along once it becomes painfully obvious what’s going to happen. Do you run into that situation?
Chris: Yeah, every once in a while. So the most recent time… I have a lunchtime game that I run (I’ll get into that next) but they were chasing a pack of — I think they were zombies — down a hallway, something like that. The cleric had cast “turn undead” and all the zombies were running away, and it’s just like “okay you’re chasing four of them, all of you are together at full health and you have a bunch of spell slots and stuff, so…”
Andy: There’s no question.
Chris: Eventually they got to a wall and I just said, “Okay, everybody roll your attack at the same time,” essentially. And then they did that and then obviously they all hit.
Chris: So combat was done, but I did allow them to still have that roll just in case it would have mattered, just in case they all rolled ones or something like that. So that was one thing I experimented with. Once you get to that point where everybody’s surrounding the last enemy like that, just go ahead and have them all roll at the same time and see what happens, rather than roll, wait… next person goes.
Andy: That’s a good idea. Yeah, once you reach that point you can stop this artificial turn by turn structure and just let everybody roll.
Chris: Yeah, especially when the boss is not intelligent in any way. So, if they’re fighting a gigantic skeleton, you’re not going to sit there and reason with it at some point when it gets down low on its HP… you can just jump to the conclusion. I think that’s okay.
Chris: The way that I run into this two hour limit is, I run a weekly lunchtime game, so at 1pm on Fridays we get together and play for an hour.
Andy: An hour. That’s pretty tight, that’s really tight.
Chris: It’s *very* tight. The way that I describe it is that it ends up being sort of like a TV show at that point, so you very quickly get to some sort of conflict, you resolve it, and then set a cliffhanger for the next session, next episode whatever you want to call it. But since you’re doing that you really don’t have time to spend a bunch of time debating about what your plan is. Because combat… because the session might be a single combat between the party and an enemy, and they might take 10 minutes to decide how they’re going to do it, and then it takes 40 minutes to do the actual combat, and then you have 10 minutes of wrap up. And, too, since it’s on a Friday during the work day, most of them are… some people are actually bringing their lunch with them. You’ll see you have some of that other stuff going on at the table, too. I’d say, though, it’s really fun, and from a GM’s perspective it does train you and teach you how to look for those cliffhangers and those story beats that are just a little bit more interesting than, “Okay, well, you enter the next room, you go to the next room, you go to the next room,” because you want things to have some sort of natural interest. I don’t do it right every time, but I’m getting kind of better at it. I’ve been doing this for about a year.
Andy: Yeah. You know, that makes me think that it’s something that you don’t really read. I don’t really remember reading in the _Dungeon Master’s Guide_ and stuff is this element of pacing. I don’t think most D&D, generally speaking, I don’t think people talk about D&D games in terms of pacing out the time you’re playing. I don’t remember reading about this in the DMG or elsewhere, but you really have to think about that when — you would *really* have to think about that with a one hour lunch session. If you have a… if you just had a dud of a session, everyone just… it’s an unsatisfying experience. That’s just kind of a waste of time that’s going to really drag your campaign down.
Chris: Oh yeah. Yeah, I’ve definitely had some duds of sessions, too. It was like, well, “is anyone going to come back next week?” I hope they had fun, yeah.
Andy: How do you, besides just practicing, get used to it? How do you… you can’t naturally have a cliffhanger once every hour in a game without putting some real effort into it. So, can you describe what a typical hour long session looks like? Have you, do you design the adventures with this one hour thing in mind? Do you keep this in mind while you’re plotting out encounters?
Chris: Yeah, keep in mind whenever we’re coming to the table, It’s like “okay, what’s…?” It basically comes down to “what’s the most important thing to happen?” Where are they at, whatever they said as their next intention, then what’s the important thing to happen that can drive the story ahead. And you can make a cliffhanger pretty much out of everything. So if they’ve just finished combat, the next thing that can happen is they enter a room and there’s something that they really want to explore, but we’re done. So they just… again, they’re doing the starter set, which I think is designed a little bit better than some other adventures for doing this style of play. One cliffhanger example that I thought was pretty fun was there’s a spectator in one of the rooms in the way back of a cave. It’s an old, blasted out blacksmithery, so they opened the door… they finally figure out a way to open the door and inside there’s this giant floating green ball with a bunch of eyestalks and stuff.
Andy: Yeah. Let’s hear it for the spectator, by the way. That’s, you know, beholders are kind of old hat now.
Andy: Spectators! That’s some good stuff right there.
Chris: Yeah. It was fun. So we ended there with the description of the room, and there’s this green floating thing that gurgles in your head, “Hello!” or whatever. So for them, the people that that knew D&D were like “oh my goodness, it’s a beholder,” because all they got was a description of the eyestalks and floating green mass and the other people were like, “what is that thing?” So when we hit the table then the next week, they knew exactly what they were dealing with.
Andy: Oh, interesting.
Chris: As far as a typical session…, so, once we actually all get there, which is going to take five or 10 minutes for everybody to gather, we do a quick check in if there’s any administrative things like, “Hey, who isn’t here, who’s coming next week?” those sorts of things. We do a quick recap. I’ve been having *them* do the recap which helps them set the stage…
Andy: That’s a great idea.
Chris: …although I know there’s lots of GMs that say “players should never be the one recapping,” but whatever.
Andy: Oh, no, I think that’s a great idea.
Chris: Yeah, so they do a quick recap, tell me what they think happened. I can correct them, if there’s anything that doesn’t make sense or whatever, and then we just hit the ground running from there. So they’ll, if they’re in a dungeon, they’ll probably get through a couple of rooms. If they’re fighting a big boss, they might just do that boss. Those sorts of things.
Chris: I guess what I should say is interesting from a GM perspective, because often if you’re sitting down for a three- or four-hour session, you’re not really sure where it’s going to go. When you have it broken down into one hour chunks you can be reasonably sure what the next couple things are going to do.
Andy: Oh, that makes sense.
Chris: Yeah, so you can almost split up your GM prep into these discrete blocks as well. Because sitting down, I mean, prepping for a four-hour session, you… you could just spend 30 hours doing that, but if it’s a one-hour session and you know that they’re about to face a spectator, then you’re just going to prep “What does that thing sound like? What can it do?” All those sorts of things.
Andy: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I haven’t had the pressure of running in one hour chunks but two hours is not too much additional time. What I’ve found is, it really helps when planning for a short session, like two hours, that you have to design an adventure… where it’s not going to be too hard to accelerate the final showdown or whatever…
Chris: Um hmm.
Andy: …if you are coming up on two hours and the players have not made as much progress as you want. I have *never* in my decades of running games ever had an adventure naturally wrap up early, no matter how simple or short I think I’ve written an adventure. It always just takes longer, and you think I would learn by now how to accurately budget time but I haven’t. So it means, for me it means if there are key items or key pieces of knowledge that the players are going to need to have to successfully complete the adventure, you have to get those out pretty early on because you just can’t count on that they’re going to get to the later game content in the time you have. I’m talking about something where it’s kind of important to wrap up the story in one night. If you’re going to be meeting next week and can pick up where you left off this isn’t as big a deal. But in a one shot or convention one shot or something like that…, I try to make sure that the key stuff is available for them pretty early in the adventure, or it’s stuff that I can easily move up if I can see that time is running short. I have definitely blown it and not been able to wrap up a short adventure in the time slot allotted. And it’s a real downer when you aren’t going to be getting together again anytime soon to continue and you had to quit right before the final showdown or something like that.
Andy: So you do have to think, is there… just keep in mind “I might have to move, to have this end satisfactorily, I might have to move the final stuff up rapidly.” So is that going to work geographically? Is that going to work in a plot way? So design your adventure so that you can do that.
Chris: That’s pretty interesting. So does it come down to things like, where every NPC is going to tell them “yeah that Watchtower over there is pretty creepy…”
Andy: Yes, I mean if you have to get blatant about it. Some of the cost of doing this is that sometimes you have to drop a little bit of that immersion and just herd people along. I don’t mean in a super restrictive railroading way. But people who are here to play a two hour game also understand that we all need to respect each other’s time. And so if I need to start having the NPCs get a little heavy handed with… then so be it.
Chris: Yeah. Well, I mean, we’ve all had the experience where you as the GM, you’re sitting there being like, “this is so obvious. How do you not understand how to make this connection?”
Chris: Or, “Why haven’t you explored this very obvious path?” But as a player, sometimes you’re not interested in that or otherwise you’ve just overlooked it, or you just don’t have the full picture in your head. So sometimes it’s very easy to miss that. And then, so if you’re playing a four-hour session, it can be very easy for the GM to just sit back like, “well, hour three they’ll pick it up.” But if you only have one or two hours it’s really got to keep moving.
Andy: The way this manifests most frequently in my games is basically redesigning dungeons on the fly to chop out extraneous side paths and things like that. So if they were going to have three different corridors they could go down, but time is short, well, I just take out two of them and there’s really only one way for them to go. Or I just make sure that whichever corridor they take just goes to the place they need to get to. That gets tricky though, because, and I’ve run into this recently: a well-designed dungeon won’t be a linear slog towards the end. And I think it’s important to not lose that. I think it’s important not to just impose total linearity on, for instance, a dungeon encounter. But when you have a nonlinear dungeon it means that players could get lucky or smart and figure it out quickly or they could turn left way at the beginning and then find themselves just spending huge amounts of time in this extraneous part of the dungeon that’s cool but isn’t bringing them any closer to the finale. So I don’t know I guess it’s tough. It’s hard, if you design the dungeon too small or too linear people can plow through it too quickly. If you design it too big, you need to be prepared for the risk that they’re going to roam off and you’ll either have to waste a lot of time or you’ll have to redesign it on the fly to channel them where they need to go.
Chris: Yeah. I don’t know how good you are at maps and cartography and stuff, but I have a really hard time doing that. When I’m looking at a dungeon that’s already drawn out and then also trying to draw it out for them on the table, I have just the hardest time making adjustments.
Andy: Yes. On more than one occasion players have tried to map out a dungeon, so I just kind of freehand sketch dungeons usually on a whiteboard or a battle map as they’re exploring. And I don’t pay too much attention to dimensions and occasionally I have had players who do pay attention to “exactly how wide is this room?” We’ll try to map it, and we’ll quickly find out my dungeon is this non-Euclidean nightmare that couldn’t possibly exist in the real world.
Chris: Yeah, when you’re drawing kind of squiggly lines to connect two…
Andy: Yes, exactly…
Chris: …two rooms.
Andy: “But wait [doesn’t] the whole audience chamber have to be in between these two things?” and so look it’s, look it’s fantasy come on!
Andy: A wizard did it.
Chris: This was interesting. So I play in a _Seventh Sea_ game which is a very different style of game than _Dungeons and Dragons_. But in _Seventh Sea_, at least the way that my GM is running it, we skip over a lot of the exploring the dungeon part of it. And the thing that he said that really kind of stuck with me was, “well you’re all heroes, of course you would make it through the dungeon to the final encounter.”
Andy: Oh, interesting.
Chris: We had one session where we were in this very creepy dungeon. But we just kind of jumped to the final part of it, which was honestly the most interesting part of it. It wouldn’t have been all that great had we wandered through a maze slowly. Especially in that system which is just not designed for these small encounters with stuff. But it did make me wonder, if your players like the dungeon exploration part of it, by all means keep going with that. But if what they really like is the big interesting boss encounters, why not just give that to them quicker?
Andy: Yeah, that’s a great point! The pressure of time like that, it really makes you think, “what is actually fun?” What is actually fun?
Andy: And not in an objective sense. But what is really actually fun for my group? Maybe they do like the foot-by-foot tactical maneuvering through the dungeon, round by round. Or maybe they’re fine with just “Yeah, you make it through this dungeon, and here you are. And here’s the cackling boss at the end of it.”
Chris: It seems like the conclusion to “how do you fit a game into two hours” is just to strip away anything that isn’t fun for your party.
Chris: Which seems like the obvious thing but I think it’s very easy to fall back on “well I’ve got to have a shopping part, I’ve got to have these NPCs do these things, I’ve got to have dungeon exploration and a boss fight” for it to be a full session. But really when it comes down to it I think each session ends up being its own unique thing.
Chris: And that’s what keeps people coming back to the table over and over. It’s like, “Oh, what’s going to happen this time? Am I even going to roll a die this time, or are we just going to talk to the shopkeeper for a couple hours?”
Andy: I think that’s a really important point, but I think also that one of the challenges of running shorter games is there is value in some of that downtime, some of that not fun time. You have to be a little careful if you’re just flying from amazing scene to amazing scene. I feel like it might start feeling like when you play the boss rush mode of a video game or something, where, yes, you are skipping to the most awesome and amazing fights, but there’s other stuff in this game, the slower, less awesome stuff that contributed to the whole experience being a satisfactory one. In a short one- or two-hour game session, you might just have to give up some of that slow… that downtime or that slower, not as exciting stuff and just accept that as the cost of doing business.
Chris: Yes. Except that the purity of your game might be compromised. But, that’s okay…
Andy: Well, we can’t have that!
Chris: …because people still had fun and that’s kind of the point.
Andy: I guess that’s it? Yeah, that’s it. “Did you have fun?” That’s really all that matters.
Chris: All right, so we should wrap up. This was actually a really interesting conversation, as always went in different directions than I thought it was going to.
Andy: Yeah, I love this not knowing exactly what we’re going to talk about.
Andy: And yeah, at the beginning of this conversation, I think, “how could I possibly talk about this for more than about a minute and a half?” and yet here we are.
Chris: Okay. Yep. So yet again, you’ve been listening to _Roll for Topic_ an RPG podcast. I’m Chris Salzman.
Andy: And I’m Andy Rau.
Chris: Have a good day, bye.