How to make a game friendly to single-session play. by Nathan Harrison

photo credit: Christopher Onstott for  The Columbian  ( article )

photo credit: Christopher Onstott for The Columbian (article)

My post from the other day about making conscious design choices for convention-style play was mostly throat-clearing — I mentioned a couple examples, but it’s worth addressing more directly the methods that I’ve seen prove themselves useful. So, what are some concrete steps that a game or designer can take to better respect the time of busy players?

A reality check. What does this game really require in terms of time? When it comes to running it as a one-shot with just a few hours, is such a thing even possible? It’s fine if the answer is no! But be sure to state that plainly in the text, and ideally include the basis for why it can’t or shouldn’t be done. Let people know what the obstacles will be, if they attempt to try and do it anyway.

Start-up prompts for players & facilitators. Lists of traits, looks, opening situations, provocative questions, possible conflicts already in play, and perhaps above all, names! You can use soft prompts, meant to be used or just inspire other options, or hard prompts that must be used to speed up the setup process even more. Life on Mars and Fall of Magic both do hard prompts well, and I mentioned a host of other games that do all or part of this well in my previous post.

Rules or adjustments for faster play. This could mean an abbreviated system instead of resolution rather than using a particular subsystem, like Bloody Versus instead of the full Fight! mechanics in Burning Wheel. It might also mean adjusting a mechanic that controls the number of scenes, when end conditions trigger, where the game starts, etc.

Advice for what to use, what to do, and what to avoid. Tips that are focused on what a facilitator should do in general are an expected part of a game’s text, but running a one-shot or convention game presents unique needs. All of these questions hit on those needs: Are some player roles less beginner-friendly, other otherwise outside the “core” of the game? Do certain setup choices lend themselves for a quicker start and better one-shot play? Does a particular subsystem eat up a lot of time? Do certain kinds of settings, plots, etc. work better for longform play than for shortform? What should absolutely be included for a typical one-shot game to be a success? The designer of a game probably has a lot of insight into what would make a single session the best it can be, and it’s incredibly useful to share that in plainspoken terms.

Dead-simple reference sheets. Not all games have a form that easily suits this, but when a game can boil down the moving parts of the play experience into an easy-to-follow outline, it’s a huge relief. The play reference for Kingdom is a great example — you can nearly play the entire game off that sheet. The book is still necessary for reference, as each step is listed more than explained, but it’s a wonderful tool to be sure you’re staying on track. That kind of tool puts all the players on more even footing, too. Anyone can look over the outline and have an idea of what might happen, how the game might end, etc., and inform themselves without needing to use more playtime to go over everything.

Doing more with less time. by Nathan Harrison

There’s a tension when it comes to plotting the timeslot a game is best designed to be played in. On the one hand, my guess is the majority of players across the entire RPG hobby devote most of their attention to multi-session play. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the lion’s share of actual games happen at conventions, meetups, and other one-off gaming situations, owing to sheer volume. The spikes for things like D&D are awfully high, but never overlook that the Long Tail is long.

Few games truly excel in both spaces, so focusing on one or the other is usually the right move. Selfishly, though, I wish more longform games included optional accommodations for shorter play within the primary game text. (By which I mean, present in the rules corpus as published or released, rather than bodged together later and perhaps tossed out online.)

The bulk of the games I get to play are one-shots — whether through Ready, Set, Game; or major convention lineups similar to Games on Demand; or smaller events like the Indie Hurricane at GameStorm & other cons organized by Games to Gather. So yes, the desire for more games I can play, and run, is a self-serving one. It’s hard not to feel like it might be in the better interests of many games though, too.

The reality is that most would-be gamers don’t have the ability to commit to a regular campaign in a single system, in the manner that’s the assumed default for traditional RPGs. The player who misses every other session is a trope that’s as venerable as the concept of the multi-year campaign arc. So why do so many games continue to focus on the narrow group of gamers for whom free time is in surplus? It certainly doesn’t lend a game any advantages in trying to get the attention of and access to a new player.

The one-shot storyline is D&D’s answer to the dilemma, along with most other makers of traditional RPGs. Which makes sense for the challenges faced by that group of games — hastening advancement so that players experience more of the system would only bog things down further, so instead the compression effort goes into the narrative arc that play produces as its side effect. Create a compelling beginning-to-end scenario in that space for players to move through, and hope that it creates a good experience in a short time.

For most indie games, that’s a solution that either A) makes no sense, as everything in the narrative is created in the moment through play, or B) is assumed from the beginning, since the game scenario from the outset is a highly structured situation that the players will play within. Category A is true for a lot of storygames and indie RPGs, whereas category B holds for some games like that too, but is even more true of the larps of the American freeform & jeepform variety that I’ve had the chance to sample.

Category B works wonders for games where that kind of narrative structure is an assumed part of the experience, but it’s death for games that leave those assumptions up to the playgroup to decide at the table. In my experience, what works best for games in category A is the presentation of character, setting, and story offerings that the players may or may not choose to incorporate. Apocalypse World and its host of derivatives include it on playsheets as part of character creation. Kingdom contains its story seeds and prompting questions. In a Wicked Age has the four different oracles, Durance its system of planet creation, Serpent’s Tooth has the options within all the various kings, Fiasco has both its playset lists and insta-setups, etc.

For games running in a limited timeframe, that kind of accommodation is one of the best gifts a designer can give a facilitator. As open-ended as any game might be, it never hurts to have a list of ideas players can draw from. Blank paper induces creativity in some, paralysis in others.

Including that kindness within a game’s text also doesn’t really alter the play experience, which is both helpful and not quite helpful enough — it falls more into the grouping of “advice for the reader” and not an actual tweak for a game’s mechanics. Some games are in desperate need of this! Not all, of course: trying to rush & cram the full experience of Grey Ranks into a single 4-hour slot would be a waste of effort and the ruining of a great game, which is just one of several examples that leap to mind.

But to every game designer who’s thought to include a section on rules for faster play, or for shorter play, I say thank you. Squeezing a game to fit in limited time isn’t always the best way to play, but for a lot of us, it’s the only option we have.

Design space in chess. by Nathan Harrison

For Plaything of the Gods, I've been exploring how I can best make use of the elements of chess as part of the materials for a storygame. As ephemeral as the narratives from RPGs are, having physical objects as a tactile part of the game can be an excellent way to "ground" play. It's the same thing that I think makes dice such a fixture of RPG paraphernalia, and really shines in games that draw it into the play experience — like Ross Cowman's lovely game Fall of Magic, which I got to play at Indie Hurricane this year.

A chessboard & its pieces seemed like a good fit for the game from the outset. The source material I'm drawing from makes the parallels easy enough to see, and chess sets are readily available in most homes, too. Making use of those objects is something I want to maximize as a creative choice, which is where design space comes in.

Design space is a concept I first encountered in the columns of one of the chief creative forces behind Magic: The Gathering, Mark Rosewater. Whatever complaints others may have about the game, it's impossible to assert that the team behind that game has a poor understanding of how to make the most out of a limited array of components. In their case, those components are mana colors, card types, and card mechanics old & new. And time and again, Rosewater demonstrates in his column how the abundance or lack of design space in a concept influences their creative decisions and leads to better game-making.

To see what shakes out, I decided to make as exhausting a catalogue of the design elements present in chess as I could. I cheated a bit, in that some of the entries are elements that could be used in any game, whereas others are a kind of "thematic efficiency" that a game is afforded by using pieces from another well-known game. Both types are present in the list I came up with:

  • Color of pieces
  • Color of spaces
  • Horizontal/vertical moves, vs. diagonal
  • Matching vs. not-matching colors
  • Type of piece used (5 or 6 “kinds”)
  • Edge & limits of the board space
  • Squares shapes, 4 corners, etc.
  • Relative frequency of pieces, some in 8’s, others doubled, some unique
  • Adjacent placing of pieces
  • Rows & columns/ranks & files
  • Capturing pieces, also promoting
  • Gambits, or concept of sacrifice play
  • Point-based worth of pieces
  • Differing movement/capturing styles

I'm not sure yet if listing what I'm able to see as tools to play with in chess will be useful, but I haven't returned to design on this game since writing up the list. There's a few things I've tentatively settled on... rooks, knights, & bishops will likely represent three types of heroes/approaches that have a rock-paper-scissors relationship, for example. How I'll make use of all that, I'm not sure yet.