GM Tricks: Short Session vs. Long Session

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A friend who’d primarily played in and run long-session games found herself about to run a weekly game on work nights, and asked for my advice on how short sessions differ from long. Here it is, repackaged and with advice from the other side (for those who’ve done short games but are intimidated by the longer form).


As a meta-consideration, how often you’re going to run the game can make a big difference. In general, the less often you can play, the longer you’ll want to play when you do get to play. The longer you go between sessions, the more your players will forget, and the less inertia you’ll have at the start of a session (which lets you get even less done, as your players try to rediscover their characters and remember their goals).

  • If you’re playing monthly or less frequently, you generally want to get enough done in a session to reach a solid stopping point, where time can pass in play as well as out of play; if you leave your players in the middle of a mission or dungeon and they don’t play for a month, it’s going to take forever to get them back up to speed.
  • Conversely, if you’re playing weekly (or more frequently!?), you can often leave off at the closest break that makes sense as soon as you’re ready to quit for the night, and trust your players to remember what’s going on when you resume.
  • When you’re playing every other week, you’re in a weird spot where you don’t really want to leave too many irons in the fire, but you also don’t have to end on too much of a solid note. Your players will forget minor things, but probably not major things.

All of these issues can be mitigated by having someone at the table that takes copious notes and can recap the events of the last session at the start of the new one. It’s a really big help to have someone like that, and if one of your players is a natural game journalist, encourage it.

Short Sessions

For a short session, I’m generally assuming that this is a weeknight at or after dinner for 3-4 hours. Some of this might not apply if you’re squeezing in gaming at an odd time, and your session length restriction is not because you’re playing after work/school. Some of this may apply even more seriously if you’re only playing for an hour or two during a mealtime. The three big limitations of a short session are side chatter, spotlight time, and combat time.

If possible, establish a set schedule of when you’re focusing on the game and how much table chatter is too much, and make sure everyone sticks to it. Nothing kills your time worse than people gabbing about what they’ve been up to all week and otherwise chatting about meaningful but non-game things. Your biggest issues are how long it takes to actually get started and how often people get sidetracked once you start playing.

The first is a function largely of when people show up and when they’ve eaten. I tend to not even try to get people in game until everyone’s there and done eating; if you try to start and someone shows up later and/or someone’s still eating, it can be really hard to make the game go because they’re a distraction. Conversely, you want to make sure people aren’t showing up super late or taking forever to eat. It also really helps if your players see each other more often than game night, particularly if they’re good friends: if your game time is the only time good friends are going to see each other face-to-face this week, it becomes much harder to get them to focus on the game instead of catching up.

The second you have more control over, but you may have to be more draconian than you’d like. Small jokes are fine if they don’t derail focus on the game: it’s when someone tells a joke and someone else uses that as a “that reminds me…” to talk about something else that causes a problem. You basically have to yank those back to the game if they go on for more than a few seconds, and start to determine which people can safely quip without breaking focus, and which people can’t even be trusted with one-liners. If you’ve got a cut-up that’s causing problems, you have to school yourself and the other players to not reward the behavior; people that are constantly trying for a laugh to the detriment of the focus on the game will (generally) eventually pick up that people aren’t that amused at the distraction and pull back, as long as they’re getting tolerant annoyance off the others rather than laughs.

Player spotlight time is best kept small in short sessions. If a player is off doing something that takes a while and is doing it solo, that can potentially eat up a huge chunk of your playtime so the rest of the players don’t get similar focus for the evening. If a player wants to go off and accomplish something alone, try to narrate it down and err on the side of just letting her accomplish it (particularly if it doesn’t have a major impact on the main plot). If you want there to be a chance of failure, try to sum everything up to a few quick dice rolls, with varying degrees of accomplishment depending on how many rolls are a success.

In general, try to just err on the side of giving players what they want if it won’t make a big impact on the story. Time spent on them convincing you that they can do something and then having to improvise challenges for it, when you’re pretty sure it’s going to be a success, can be wasted time. You can just as easily offer them a devil’s bargain of something like, “Okay, you can do that, but it’ll result in the town guard being pissed at you.” The caveat is that you can absolutely play out unplanned side-excursions if everyone at the table seems super into it. It’s not about using narration to gloss over everything outside of the main plot, so much as not wasting time that could be more productively spent.

Combat time can be a huge pain for shorter games, particularly in D&D and other heavily tactical games with mapping and miniatures for fights. Particularly for games with slower combat, but possibly for any game where fights can eat up too much time: try to figure out if there’s a reasonable game resource you can use as a “narrated success” tax. For example, in D&D 4e and 5e, if there’s a fight that the PCs will get to take a short rest after, you can just ask them to use up a couple of healing surges/hit dice and maybe a daily resource. Then just describe the gist of the fight with a total success. Essentially, if you think there’s no chance of anyone getting seriously injured, using permanent resources, or being that engaged in the fight, it’s perfectly fine to just describe how flawlessly they party wiped out the minor threat and move on so there’s more table time for more interesting fights.

This is possibly more relevant to running modules (where there are often a bunch of filler encounters that don’t affect the plot or really challenge the players), but even when you’re planning your own stuff, be ready to throw out your babies if you realize you’ve put in a combat encounter that won’t actually raise the tension much but will eat up a lot of time to play out. You could even do this on purpose: plan out fights where all you have is a description of what’s in the room but you haven’t bothered to organize the stats, and they’re essentially just opportunities to make the players feel awesome and to let you burn off some of their daily resources before a real fight. Conversely, if players are clever enough to get around them or roleplay through, then they save the resources, but if they totally mess something up you can add a couple of speedbump fights together into a real threat.

Long Sessions

I consider a long session to be over four hours (often six or more hours). You’ll generally get to have these on weekends and holidays unless you’re still young enough to manage an after-dinner-until-after-midnight session without everyone falling asleep before the end. They often overlap at least one mealtime (unless you have an early lunch and a late dinner with a session in between), so the biggest considerations for long sessions are blood-sugar and attention-span related.

For short sessions, particularly those that start with or right after dinner, table snacks are fun but rarely required. For long sessions, they’re more or less essential. You should absolutely get in the habit of either rotating snack duty or getting everyone used to bringing a little something to the table such that there’s a bounty of available foods. You should also work out the healthiest assortment of foods that the group will eat and can afford: cheesy poofs and candy are fine when you’re still in college, but nuts, veggies, and fine cheeses are better for the over-thirties to not wreck their increasingly delicate internal mechanisms. All of these things are to keep hunger from being a distraction.

Unless you truly bring copious snacks or lay out a buffet, a mealtime is probably going to hit mid-session and will require a pause (to consume the food, even if you can get it to the table quickly, but usually to make, order, or go get the food as well). But that’s fine, because one of the problems with long sessions anyway is the mid-session lull. After three or four hours, it’s hard to maintain tension and attention spans start to wander. So even if you don’t have a meal break, plan your game as if you did. Try to have a major story beat, cliffhanger, accomplishment, or other stopping point happen close to the middle of your session time. Then break for food (or just take a general purpose stretch, conversation, and smoke break if you aren’t breaking for food). Ramp back up slowly after the break so you can end the session on another high point (i.e., it’s very much like stapling two short sessions together around a meal break). The break and ability to ramp up again gradually helps with fraying attention spans in the middle of the session.

GM Tricks: Starting a New Campaign

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The Seven Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding have been floating around over the weekend. Coincidentally, a friend asked me for advice on his campaign intro document. Those two together got me thinking about the following.

If you’re the sole GM for your group, and whatever you want to run is what gets played, then this advice may not be tremendously useful to you (though it’s still recommended for getting your players totally on board). It’s meant mostly for groups like mine, where several of your players also like to GM, everyone has limited time to game, and they have to be choosey about what campaigns they commit to playing.

The Pitch

If your players have been bugging you to run a particular game, this is the easy part. “You guys want to play X, right?” you will say, “Well that’s what I’m running.” Most of the time these will be games with an existing setting; your players already have visions of the kind of characters they’d want to play and things they want to do in the world. Even if they weren’t specifically asking to play, using a game with a defined setting that your players already understand makes it much easier to get them on board (or convince them that this isn’t the game for them).

But what if you’re trying to sell them on something you’ve invented? This is most common for fantasy games, but of course fits any sci-fi, modern, historical, etc. games where you’re doing most of the heavy lifting of setting design to match your own vision. This can also include existing games that your players are unfamiliar with; you have to explain to them why you like the setting enough to run it.

Your first step is the high concept. This is your classic Hollywood pithy summary of the game idea, ideally in one sentence. You can go the reference route, using non-game media (“It’s like Blade Runner meets Lord of the Rings!”) or existing games (“It’s like Vampire: the Masquerade meets Birthright!”). If nothing you can think to reference that your players would know seems close enough, you can expand the ideas into a short form (e.g., “You’re an elite cadre of Doppleganger-hunters within a kingdom at war; anyone could be a shapeshifter, even your party members!” or “You’re Dukes that have just broken free of a mad king and turned to the Vampire Lords for aid in the civil war.”).

You’re looking for the “…go on” moment, where you’ve piqued their interest enough that they’re ready to hear more.

That’s when you give them the elevator pitch: a couple of paragraphs of information about the game. You’re still in concept phase; you should be pointing out the things about the game that you love the most and anything you know your players are also particularly interested in. What are your players going to get to do in the game? What are they going to get out of it that they haven’t out of every other game they’ve played? Act like your players are your busy boss and you have one minute to sell them on your dream.

You’re looking for the “tell me more about…” moment. Then, and only then, do you whip out the twenty page player document you wrote up or start going on at length.

What you’re trying to create is a spark of interest that will carry them through the lead up into the game and have them bursting with ideas during chargen. Sure, they’re your friends and might feel obligated to play whatever you put out there. But if they’re anything like my players, they’re busy people that are only going to get around to reading what you’ve written about your setting quickly if you give them a good reason. Working from a high concept to an elevator pitch to a background document also ensures they know what you really want to focus on, and what themes they should be looking for in the grander document.

Ultimately, though, you don’t want to feel like your players are in your game because yours is the only game in town, even if it’s true. If you treat them like you know you’re competing for their free time with other hobbies, games, and leisure-time activities, you’ll have a lot more inertia at the start of your campaign. And, if nothing else, early investment in the concept leads to player characters better tuned towards what you want them to do, which should keep you from having to throw plots at the wall early on hoping one will stick.

The Player Document

So now that you’ve gotten buy in, you have to actually give the players enough information to begin interfacing with your campaign setting.

Not all players like to read big documents. Even your most interested readers can get overwhelmed with too much minutia. The biggest trick to player information is that less is more; the shorter you can get your document, the more likely it is that all of it will get read all the way through. Thus, the trick is to keep it as short as possible while telling the players everything they need to know to make characters. Three pages is great. More than a dozen is pushing it.

You’re not trying to hit everything a new character would need to know, just what’s important for players to know when they’re making characters. They can always ask you more questions about specifics (and, ideally, you have enough space in your design for them to suggest ideas they think are cool that you then work in). Instead, you need your document to be three things:

  • Succinct: Break everything down into bite-sized nuggets. Here is a kingdom, here is a group players can belong to, here are some bad guys, etc. There’s a reason why White Wolf got so far on the splat model; every part of your setting that can have its own high concept makes it easier for your players to each focus on elements of interest. One guy sees that there are druids fighting against desert-creating mages and is all on board. One girl wants to be a pirate that fights the undead plague. Again, it’s better to let your players ask you for more information than to bury them under too much up front.
  • Cool: Everything you put in your document needs to burn with why the players should care. Why did you put this in here? What does it do that’s unusual and interesting? Why did you need to make your own setting instead of using an off the shelf one with tweaks? Your introductory document needs to show why you’re excited to run this campaign; your enthusiasm is hopefully infectious. If you put something in your document that you don’t have a reasonable expectation that your players will look at and say “that’s cool,” take it out or change it until it is cool.
  • Aspirational: Players, bless their hearts, are easily won over with the shiny. It’s a big win to let them start play as something awesome. It’s an even bigger win to suggest how they’ll become even more awesome if they’re in for the long haul. Special groups, vacant leadership positions, and long-lost abilities and items are great things to suggest in your document. If you’re planning a long campaign, you want your players to have long-term plans from the first session; these plans might change, but being able to make them is an excellent channel for creativity in character creation.

Character Creation

If you’ve created a document focused on the awesome of your setting, your players are already bursting with character ideas that fit directly into the kind of game you want to run. This is the point where you start to figure out exactly what you’re doing and making sure the player ideas will all mesh into a harmonious party (or not so harmonious if you expect a little PvP). If someone’s idea doesn’t really fit, you have to delicately shift him or her onto a concept that fits better with the others. Letting the player stick with something that doesn’t really fit can lead to problems that may be much harder to solve once you’re playing the game. But being too up front about “that concept doesn’t work, pick another one” might be touching the butterfly wings of the player’s interest in the setting. You know your setting better than anyone else, so can figure out what might work better while changing as little as possible about the concept.

You can also use group character creation. It really seems like the coming thing, and it’s starting to confuse me when new games don’t include mechanics to ensure that there’s a good reason to make a group of player characters that are already strongly hooked together and ready to cooperate.

As mentioned last week, you should always be on the lookout for opportunities to let players create things that will appear in game. There’s no easier source of investment than a player’s idea becoming important to the whole campaign. Even beyond NPCs, look for opportunities to engage your players in creation of things in the world; leave vague spots in your campaign notes and let players associated with them pull them into focus with new ideas. As long as it doesn’t seem like it will make a player too powerful or break something the players aren’t aware of beyond fixing, it’s a total win. The player gets creative input and you get to not bother detailing something until you know the players are interested in it.

Character creation for a campaign is a little like tending a bonsai tree; you have to be delicate about it, but if you correctly channel the players you wind up with perfectly molded PCs that can hit the ground running on the plots you want to run rather than naturally grown PCs that don’t really fit into the game. Even if you’re trying to make a total sandbox, it’s important to guide the players into making characters with the right tools to play in the sand. If you’re running a more scripted game, you’ll save yourself a ton of stress if the PCs roll off the assembly line with easy hooks into the plot and temperaments suited to active pursuit.

GM Tricks: NPCs

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Eight Types of Recurring NPC

Not counting the kind of NPC that shows up for one fight or encounter, or recurs simply for color (like a shopkeeper), there are eight kinds of NPC:

  • The Beloved Mentor vs. The Pointy-Haired Boss: Some NPCs are more powerful than the player characters and have an interest in telling them what to do. They may be a superior in whatever organization supports the PCs or just a powerful contact that gives them information and assignments. Some of these your players will constantly badger for advice; they’ll generally want to get the NPC to tell them what to do. Others, they’ll chafe under, hate, and wonder why they’re even bothering to work for this guy.
  • The Free Agent vs The Unwanted GMPC: Some NPCs are effectively peers to the PCs; maybe slightly more or less powerful, but on basically the same level. They will generally help the PCs fill out capabilities they don’t otherwise have, or provide extra help in a pinch. Some of these will be beloved allies of the PCs, asked to come along all the time and included in downtime activities. Others you’ll feel like the players think you’re forcing on them and the players will conspire to remove the NPC from their team as soon as possible.
  • The Lieutenant vs The Minion: Some NPCs are less powerful than the PCs, and intended to provide their support organization. They may be a natural consequence of backgrounds that suggest the character should have staff, or purchased through leadership traits. Some of them will have their names remembered by the players and willingly left in charge of vital tasks. Others, the players won’t even remember unless they happen to screw up.
  • The Nemesis vs The Invulnerable Pain: Some NPCs are opponents that just keep cropping up. Maybe they’re actively hostile but manage to avoid or survive every encounter with the PCs, or maybe they’re somehow legally protected or veiled in secrecy so the players can’t manage to fight them directly for many encounters. Some of them will be vital forces which the players love to hate, and may even consider trying to redeem for their own sides. Others will be ongoing annoyances that your players try to kill whenever they get the chance and give you that annoyed look if it turns out they can’t.

Clearly, these are set up in a fashion of the Platonic ideal vs. the too-frequent reality. How do you move recurring NPCs from the right side of the versus (where players would mostly rather the NPC didn’t exist when they remember him at all) into the left side (where the players think of the NPC as a vital, enjoyable character that they want onscreen as much as possible)? Some of the following tricks have helped me over the years.

Use Funny Voices

How are your foreign accents? Can you have a whole conversation in a different cadence or pitch than your normal speaking voice? Can you do an impression of anyone famous?

If not, learn. It doesn’t matter if your funny voice is bad, as long as it’s distinct.

Doing a different voice when you portray an NPC does two things:

  • It makes the NPC memorable.
  • It makes the NPC seem less like a mouthpiece for the GM.

Both of these are really important when you want buy-in on an NPC. If your NPC has a distinctive voice, you can just start talking to them and they’ll remember the character. They’ll also be less likely to think of the character as just another one of your puppets; sounding different is one of the few things you can do to create that illusion at the table.

Don’t worry that the voice is too silly. Players tend to appreciate some humor, even in a serious game. If your accent is really painfully bad, save it for a less important NPC that you won’t mind becoming comic relief. Save the ones you can do well for the NPCs you want taken seriously. But also keep in mind that just because they’re not really taking the NPC seriously, that doesn’t mean the NPC isn’t becoming beloved.

Do make sure you can remember what voice you used with an NPC. An easy way to do that is keeping a note on the back of a visual aid.

Use Visual Aids

Get access to a color printer and some card stock and make some printed headshots of NPCs (four, six, or nine to a page that you then cut up). Leave some space at the bottom to write the NPC’s name once the players know it. Once you’ve put pictures with the NPCs you know you want, get a bunch of pictures in a similar style of a range of faces so you can create a card for a new NPC you’ve invented on the spot.

I prefer this method because it leaves you with a nice blank space on the back to write notes on voice and any short-form information you need. What are the NPC’s relevant social stats? What PCs owe this NPC something? That kind of thing. It also keeps your portraits in a consistent size that’s easy to manipulate and keep track of at the table.

If you don’t have a color printer, you can do something similar in a variety of ways. For fantasy games, Paizo has a nice line of preprinted cards with portraits on them. For modern games, cutting headshots out magazines is an option. If you bring a laptop or tablet to game, you can download images and display them on screen.

The important thing, no matter your solution, is that you hold it up while portraying the character so the players are able to put a face other than yours to the NPC. They have something to visualize when talking to that NPC; even the best-worded description is going to fall flat next to being able to just look down and see the NPC’s portrait. Between having a face and a voice to latch onto, your NPC starts to feel very distinct and real; the kind of character the players can treat with equal importance to the other PCs.

Put It on the Sheet

It sometimes seems like cheating, but you can get immediate buy-in to an NPC by having at least one player write the NPC’s name on his or her character sheet (obviously, in a “contacts” section or similar place). Going one better, add some system where the player has to track something next to the NPC: favors/money owed, friendship rating, tasks the NPC can perform, etc.

Putting details on the character sheet is a shortcut to letting the NPC absorb some of the love the player feels towards his or her own character. The NPC is written down in a place where the player writes down everything that’s important in the game (i.e., his or her stats), so the NPC must be important.

Let the Players Make the NPC

Do you do shared chargen like from Smallville or Fate? Do your players write you backstories with their character submissions? If so, you probably have a ready and awesome source of NPCs the players will already by inclined to care about, because they inserted them in their character backgrounds.

Feel free to cheat and make a character more significant than really intended. If a PC’s beloved aunt turns out to be the head of a secret society when she was originally just mentioned as an aging housewife, it’s only a problem if the player had some kind of other mental construct that needed her to not be important. Feel free to discuss it with the player, but it’s always easy to get NPC buy in when the player is certain that the character didn’t exist at all until that player inserted it directly into the GM’s brain. It doesn’t matter that if the player didn’t invent the NPC, you’d have had to make one similar; what matters is that the player did invent the NPC.

If you start with less background on your PCs this is harder, but you can still achieve it to a lesser extent. Instead of saying “these are the names of your subordinates” just be like “hey, what are the names of your subordinates?”

Let Them Come to You

The easiest way to make players hate an NPC is to make them deal with the NPC when they don’t want to. In particular, NPCs that join the team because other NPCs said so, or the situation was clearly designed so they had to come, can make the players angry. It’s a theft of their agency and role as protagonists. At the worst, it can feel like the players are just audience to the GM’s descriptions of how awesome his character is.

Instead, don’t create situations where NPCs are required, even if they’re really useful. Put the problem out there and see if the players suggest an NPC that might be able to help. And never punish them for failing to bring along that NPC; if the NPC wasn’t memorable or likeable enough that the players thought to bring him or her along, then punishing the players for not going to the NPC will only further ruin the association.

And if you think that you can pull it off without seeming like you’re just being coy, play the NPC as several steps removed (another NPC that suggests someone that could help) or uninterested (the PCs have to convince the NPC to help). But not being coy is the hard part here; if the players start sounding sarcastic (“oh, yes, great one, what will it take to convince you to come along”), that’s the first sign that now the players are extra annoyed because they feel like you’re forcing an NPC on them and making them work to get that help.

Know When to Charge

You can also succeed too much. If you make an NPC someone that the players really like, they may wind up going to that NPC for help more than you’re comfortable with. Make sure there’s always some way you could limit an NPC from just becoming another PC: someone that can be relied on to drop everything and help whenever the PCs need it.

This is easy for mercenaries: they want to get paid, but may lower their rates for really worthwhile endeavors. For NPCs that are clearly supposed to be loyal to the PCs, you need to make sure they have a life outside of the PCs: they’d love to help, but they just can’t right now (or can’t unless the players figure out how to free them up, which may involve an alternate form of “payment” to accomplish that goal).

The converse is also true: you can sometimes increase an NPC’s estimation in the eyes of the players by choosing when to drop everything and help out for free. Knowing that there are things that the NPC will jump to help with is a special kind of characterization. If you’ve really gotten investment in an NPC, you can sometimes have the NPC ride to save the day and it won’t feel like you’re deprotagonizing the PCs (just don’t try that too much).