The Color of Adventure VII: Game Length

Welcome back! This month we’re going to talk about game length. How will it affect your preparations to run your game? How will it affect what sort of game you plan to play? How do you choose your game length?

There are probably four main categories of game length, with many variations upon the themes.

First is the “one-shot;” this is the game that you play in one night. This is often mission-oriented: the party has been given a specific mission to carry out and a limited amount of time to do it in. Since there isn’t a lot of information that the party can uncover and sift through in a single night, the one-shot is often combat-oriented, and doesn’t involve a whole lot of detail. Players may play with pre-generated or “stock” characters.

Next is the single-adventure game. This differs from the one-shot in that an “adventure” often has a bit more to it than can be achieved in a single night of play (although the one-shot is really a subset of the single-adventure category). It will probably take several nights of game play, but it isn’t meant to go on for very long. Players may “play by class”–i.e., they’ll play “a fighter” or “a gang member.”

Third comes the long-term story arc; this is often a high-epic game. It revolves around a single over-arching plot, with many adventures to be had along the way. This one may last a few months, or it may stretch on for a year or three. Sometimes it evolves into the next type of game.

Fourth is the long-term game of indeterminate length (LTGoIL). This game has no set end-point; it goes on as long as the GM is willing to run it, or as long as the players want to play it, or until everyone moves to another state.

Adventure Length Details

The One-Shot

One-shots are often run from commercially-generated material. There’s less worry that the company might have written a lousy adventure, because few people mind wasting an evening on an experience that’ll probably be at least a little fun (if just for laughing at the material). Some games, like “Paranoia,” lend themselves to one-shots.

One-shots tend to be fairly structured. You know where they’ll begin, where they should end, and much of what should come in between. Mostly this is because not much should come in between–this game only lasts a few hours. Because of this you can be comparatively sure the party will end up where you want them. One-shots are usually straightforward. If the whole plot is someone telling the party to go here and do this, and then they do it, then things are at least somewhat constrained.

You won’t come up with lots of background material for your one-shot game. What would you use it on? It’s still a good idea to detail your NPCs, of course, as that makes them seem more real, although you won’t go into the usual depth. Mostly you should concentrate on a plot synopsis and the stages of the plot that you expect the characters to go through. (One exception: if you want to run multiple one-shots in the same universe, then having background material is very useful indeed as it can help bring things together, provide fodder for new one-shots, and keep you consistent.)

You’ll still want to be a little cagey; outline speeches rather than writing them if possible. Loosely detail scenes rather than writing them up verbatim. Even in the shortest one-shots there’s room for your players to surprise you.

You don’t have to worry about writing material that caters to the PCs–they won’t be fleshed-out characters anyway, and there’s little room for personal plots in a one-shot, particularly since you need to come up with everything ahead of time. Any puzzles or mysteries should be as fully-detailed as possible, since you won’t have time to go over things or flesh things out in-between sessions.

The Single Adventure

A single adventure (a murder mystery, a dungeon-crawl, a single politics-plot) can last for a little while. Unless your players are using characters that they’ve already created (some people run consecutive short adventures in the same universe) they probably will detail them in bold brushstrokes. The character concepts will be relatively simple; the personal details will similarly be simple.

You won’t be expected to work in lots of personal plots here either. To make things interesting, some GMs take the opportunity to “place” characters in the plot. A GM might tell a player that his warrior character happens to have a brother who is a well-known mage (said brother, of course, is hip-deep in that adventure’s plotting). Luckily you can come up with most such details ahead of time; it’s easy to pick a character to graft them onto when the time comes.

Single adventures may be designed around certain party concepts, such as a mercenary band or a traveling theater group. This means you need to keep the party’s professions in mind when creating the material, so that things make sense with the concept.

You’ll want to be sketchier on detail than with the one-shot. You’ll still know the starting point of things, and you can come up with a good guess as to what the end point will be (or some of the possibilities). You’ll want to be sketchier with regard to speeches and scenes, and stick to outlines more. You may want to prepare a few bits of background material (or at least think about it a bit) just in case the party takes a side-trip into something unexpected. Again, puzzles and mysteries will need to be planned out up front.

The Long-Term Story Arc

The epic (or not-so-epic) story that frames your gaming run will need to be sketched out ahead of time. You need to know the time scale that things are on, where they’ll take place, when you need to get your party to where, and what some of the possible outcomes are. (The longer the plot the less detail you’ll want to put into later material; creative players can change everything.) You’ll want notes on your timeline like “side plot #1 here,” “give the party the big secret here,” and so on. While you don’t need to plan out every side-adventure in advance, you’ll want to know where they’ll be, so that you can plan them out by the time they arrive. Outline notes are better than specifics.

If there are huge secrets that the story hinges on, then make notes like “under no circumstances let secret #3 out before this point or the game will end.” Keep this outline with you at all times while GMing. More than one game has gotten fubar’ed because the GM forgot he wasn’t supposed to let such-and-such happen yet. (Don’t confuse keeping things on track with railroading the players, however; sometimes you just have to let your players change your idea of your story or they’ll feel like they don’t have any effect on the game!)

The players will come up with more complex characters, and you can use their personal details to create some of your side-adventures. In a game of this length the players will be unhappy if you ignore their character backgrounds. You can put a limit on the length of character background if you worry that you can’t deal with too much information.

The longer the game, the more you should concentrate on background material and the less you should concentrate on in-game scenes and speeches. There’s more room for the players to deviate from what’s expected, so you must set yourself up for easy improvisation. (More detail on how to do this can be found in the earlier article in this series on preparation for an adventure.)

The Long-Term Game of Indeterminate Length

These games depend strongly on background material and players’ write-ups of their characters. The longer the game, the more players will want to see their characters grow and change with it. The longer the game, the more you should bring personal plots into things. Besides, it’ll help you come up with more plots to fill the time with.

The more NPCs and history you create for yourself, the more plots you can get out of them. If you concentrate on writing adventures you may run out of ideas. If you concentrate on people and their histories and plots, you can get multiple plots out of the same material, and even more out of that material’s interaction with other material or with PC backgrounds.

There isn’t necessarily a long-term story arc to detail, although it can be helpful to occasionally work longer stories into your game.

How Do You Choose?

A GM may run a one-shot for any of several reasons. He found one available somewhere (an RPG book, a website, whatever) and it sounded like fun. He had a really neat idea for a short game that he wants to try out. He wants to try a new gaming system, but isn’t sure he’ll like it. He’s playtesting something. He found himself in a room with other roleplayers, everyone wanted to roleplay, and no one had their characters from that other game with them. Maybe he’s using the one-shot to find out whether he likesa new gamer’s play-style before deciding to invite him into a longer game.

Single adventures may be run for some of the same reasons. The GM found the adventure in a book or magazine, or on a website; it sounded like fun. She had a really neat idea for an adventure that she wanted to try out. She wants to try a new gaming system and she thinks she’ll like it, but she isn’t sure. She’s playtesting something. She wants to try out a new player, and isn’t sure about him yet. A new GM isn’t sure she’ll be good at this GMing thing, so she wants to wade in slowly. Single adventures are also used as pieces of the two long game-types.

A GM may run a single long-term story arc because he has this amazing story he wants to tell. Many gaming groups want to play long-term games, and this is one way to set up a long-term game that has a definite end; GMs often want to get back to playing eventually, and this gives the GM a point at which to say, “it’s someone else’s turn now.” This also may give a gaming group an excuse to switch gaming systems or play with new stories now and then, without having to cut a game off at an arbitrary point–something it can be difficult to do.

Groups who play with LTGoILs are often groups of friends whose interest is in playing with each other, not in experimenting with different games. They may be more concerned with getting together every week and having fun than they are with which game they’re playing or who’s GMing.

So… how to choose? Start with why your gaming group is getting together. Are you friends, who just want to be able to roleplay together? Then you might prefer a longer game. Are you roleplayers who came together strictly for the roleplaying? You might prefer one of the first three, limited types of games, particularly if you aren’t familiar with each other and don’t know how you’ll get along.

Do you plan to roleplay together for the foreseeable future, or is it a short-term thing? Short-term gigs and uncertainty lend themselves to shorter games. It’s easier to break things off at a good stopping point. If you’re going to be gaming together for a long time, then it might feel disjointed to keep playing short games; you should probably throw in at least one longer story arc.

Does everyone agree on which type of game they want to play, or are there disagreements? If people can’t agree, then shorter games allow you to switch back and forth, giving everyone what they want at least some of the time. If you have some people who like to create rich characters and others who prefer loose outlines, then you probably want a longer story arc, perhaps punctuated by some single adventures. (Players who make characters without much depth will feel like they’re getting the short shrift in ongoing games, and players who put a lot of work into their characters may get frustrated with shorter games. Both can be at least partially satisfied with a long-term story-arc.)

Do you hate writing background material? Do you prefer to run from pre-made adventures that you find in books or on web sites? Then stick with the shorter games, or maybe the occasional mid-length story arc. You might run longer games, but rely on RPG supplements for your background material. Do you write great speeches and scenes? Run shorter games. Do you write up amazing NPCs? Run longer games, or run short games in the same universe, so they can be connected to each other and you can re-use your NPCs.

Remember, though, that no matter what you play, you can always take a weekend off to run a one-shot. Variation can be a lot of fun. If you want to GM a single adventure that doesn’t fit into your normal run, you can either start up a new run on a different night of the week, or alternate runs (one Sunday you run your ongoing game; the next you play a single adventure). One-shots in particular lend themselves to “hey, we have a free Saturday afternoon.”

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