D&D takes a long time. Movies are around two hours long. MLB has been shortening baseball games because three hours was too long. The average commute (during the before times of 2019) was about a half-hour.
And yet, when you ask people about their weekly games, it sounds like sessions commonly go on for around four hours.
On the one hand, it’s actually quite impressive: I don’t think tabletop gamers are particularly focused or attentive people. It takes real effort to captivate players for that long, and in a campaign, they keep coming back.
On the other hand, that’s a high bar for consistency. As a parent, I cannot regularly find and commit to such a long block of time. I’m lucky to generally have free time at all, but it is inconsistent, interrupted, and distributed in small chunks of time.
So how can we keep playing?
My typical sessions of yore
Honestly, most of my pre-parenting games were much shorter than four hours. I think the median duration was around three hours, with the shortest being close to two hours long.
In general, I preferred to schedule games for weeknights. Although I had more time on weekends, I couldn’t commit to an entire afternoon (and therefore, an entire day) on a regular basis. However, weeknights were fair game, but that meant wedging sessions somewhere after dinner and before a reasonable bedtime.
I did, however, feel like anything less than three hours was too short. Most scenes take perhaps a half-hour of play, and I couldn’t get through a whole story with less than five scenes.
I was quite committed to this minimum and bemoaned the lack of commitment (and therefore lack of true interest) if players had to duck out sooner than three hours.
However, my expectations changed when I started my most recent campaign.
How short is too short?
I’m currently only running one campaign, and it’s unique. It’s at a local community center for teens as an after-school program. Due to the center’s hours, my day job, and daycare hours, I have one hour and fifteen minutes a week to run.
And there’s enough setup, chit-chat, and cleanup that it’s more like an hour.
That’s half of my previous shortest game and a third of an episode of Critical Role.
When I committed to running this game, I realized I had to throw out most of GM prep strategy and how to run a game. The amazing part is that only having a little over an hour has actually been quite liberating.
1. It’s a lot less prep
Even though these sessions are half the length of any previous session, it’s far less than half the prep. So much of prep is planning and imagining different eventualities, but in an hour, not very much happens.
Going into a session, I have a good idea of what the players will do first. Each step after that gets a little fuzzier until there are enough branches that by hour three, I might have multiple different encounters in mind. However, when we are only two encounters in, I can figure out most possibilities quite easily.
In fact, I consistently have over-prepared for this game, even when my only prep was thinking during the drive over to the community center.
2. The session can be incomplete
When I ran a full-length session, I planned to tell a full story every time. They would receive a quest, battle monsters, overcome obstacles, and complete it that night. If not that, they would at least get through a major milestone or accomplishment.
This expectation often made me rush through a session or railroad players towards some satisfying outcome. I tried to do it gently and benevolently to make my players happy, but it was stressful as a GM. I felt like the session was stalling if the players spent too long planning or getting off-track. I had to do mental acrobatics and rearrange content to make for an on-time arrival.
However, in an hour, I don’t expect to finish an entire story. We will pick up wherever we left off, and when my alarm goes off, I will end the session. Twice in the last three weeks, I ended in a the middle of the fight. I just took a picture of the minis and packed up for next time.
3. The players are in control
In almost all of my past campaigns, there was a big picture. Players of course had control at a more granular level, but either explicitly or in my head, there was a grand epic to be had. Maybe it was printed in the module. Maybe it was something I had written out. Maybe it was just a concept in my head.
I took a lot of inspiration from epic fantasy and other published fiction. The greatest stories always had that feeling of a grand vision, and we as readers or watchers are along for the ride to see it play out.
That approach can work for tabletop RPGs: in fact, some of my players have said they just want to see what I came up with behind the screen.
I, however, have more recently more enjoyed the idea of discovering the world and story with my players. In most published stories, from books to video games, players lack the freedom to truly influence or determine what happens.
Games do offer more choice than books, but it’s still quite limited. Mass Effect has choice, but the end is still one of a few options. The most freedom that exists perhaps comes from some ambiguity in the ending leaving things to interpretation, or maybe randomly generated content for players to create their own meaning in.
However, it all still falls short of what tabletop RPGs offer. In a campaign, nothing is true and nothing is canon until it happens at the table. As a GM, I don’t have to offer that freedom, but if I do, it makes the game a lot less work for me, and I can experience the same wonder of discovery with my players at the table.
Less than an hour?
Given my pitch above, I haven’t given any constraints to indicate that there’s any minimum at all. In my college dorm, we once wrote a story one word at a time on a whiteboard in the hall. Whoever walked by was welcome to contribute but only once.
It got weird very quickly.
I can imagine a game happening in 15 minute increments. Even now, I tell my daughter an ongoing story on our commute home once a week. She has no idea what’s going on, but it works for me.
Also play by post certainly has a no-session feel to it altogether. I haven’t really tried it myself, though. Maybe I should.
However, in a more conventional “meet on a regular and sit down together” method of play, I think an hour is probably my minimum. A half-hour sounds too short to be worth trying to convene a group. With that amount of time, we’re probably better off just trying to squeeze in a few rounds of a quick board game.
Perhaps my biggest realization is that I should consider the session length schedule in the type of campaign I run. Whether a group has one or three hours fundamentally changes what sort of stories we tell, and that should be built into the prep for the game, too.