But here’s a thing I noticed: TONS of people, including some of our own, when asked if they wanted to play, would ask “how long” and when told something like “2-3 hours,” would frown and go “never mind, I only have an hour.”
See, GGC isn’t a gaming con. It’s a panel and event con. Lots of people giving talks or Q&As in conference rooms on pop-culture and feminist topics, punctuated by the occasional concert or puppet-making session or burlesque.
So with all those other wonderful things going on, people don’t have time to devote their whole afternoon or evening to a game! They wanted to play something that lasts 30-50 minutes, so they could get to the next thing.
I have to admit, I felt a bit disappointed in myself. I felt like I was letting people down. They came to our table, looking for a new and exciting experience at this new and exciting con, and we had to turn them away? Weak sauce! I wish that I and my comrades could have blown each and every one of those eager minds with story games.
But we couldn’t, because our games take hours to play.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with roleplaying for hours on end, even playing a game regularly for weeks, months or years! But we’ve come to view that kind of time and effort commitment as the norm. And it’s hurting the accessibility of story games, possibly moreso than any other factor.
I suspect this impacts, among other things, the presence of women in gaming, because not only does a female player have to be willing to enter a male-dominated hobby in the first place, she has to be willing to “join a club” in the form of a campaign game. And the “club” may be resistant to letting her join, at that.
Because something like GeekGirlCon is not the only situation where a story game that plays in an hour or less would be a boon. Fitting a regular, time-intensive artistic endeavor into your life is hard! Not everybody plays in a band, or on a sports team, or works in an art collective. And those who are the sort of people to do that, already do that. They don’t have time for 5 hours per week for who knows how many months. They often don’t even have 5 hours to spare for a one time deal.
But they might have an hour.
They might have an hour waiting for the show to start. They might have an hour between classes. They might have an hour after dinner at your place.
And when I say “they” I mean me. I mean you. We all have time and energy at a premium, and keeping story games at the level of deep commitment will ensure that story games are a marginal activity for diehards.
But the paradigm persists, because those are the tools in our box. I admit, when I designed The Dreaming Crucible, I was shooting for a one-hour game. And it turned out that it only plays in an hour-ish when you race right through the journey, leaving no breathing space for rich detail and emotional resonance. There are obviously some techniques involved in making this work, which I haven’t quite cracked yet.
So! What makes a successful hour-long game? Let’s look at some examples:
A Yaoi-inspired game of the forbidden passion between a dashing Spanish nobleman and his young ward, conducting their torrid affair under the auspices of a stoic butler and jealous maid. The starting fiction is fixed: four premade characters in a prescribed situation. Gameplay is regimented into very short turns: play a card, say a couple of romance-novel-y sentences. Many turns are simply atmospheric effects, like “the fire crackles in the gloom.”
Weak Points: The endpoint of a session is unpredictable: when that session’s Threat (by default, the maid’s jealousy) has been resolved or dealt with. There’s a mechanic for the Threat escalating and doing serious harm, but whether the Threat has been “dealt with” is left up to unstructured roleplaying.
A Shojo Manga dating game where three suitors vie for Momoko’s heart. Again: Premade characters, and very structured sequence of play: three dates with three different suitors. It’s neatly finite. The cardplaying mechanic is built for speed: you just say what’s happening, and Momoko’s player just keeps laying cards down as you talk, whenever she likes what you’re doing on the date.
Weak Points: The cards meter it somewhat, but there’s no real guiding force to how long a date lasts. When I played I found that we went well over an hour by the time all three dates were done.
A one-on-one Sword and Sorcery game about lone heroes questing in exotic locales and caught between the danger of a monster and the desire of a lover. Quick character and situation creation off of lists. Play is regimented: go back and forth, with each “go” describing ONE THING happening. Players stack up dice when the hero acts toward their goal, acts toward the Lover, or the Monster attacks. When all the Monster Dice have been rolled, you compare and start resolving the story.
Weak Points: The creation section has some awkward “dead air,” as one person reads and picks from all their lists. In play, there’s still nothing to guide how often you narrate Monster actions (and hence roll Monster dice, hence end the story), so play can drag on a bit.
A game about stupid little dragons and their stupid little adventures. Character creations is quick and funny, rolled off of charts. A session begins with a random adventure premise, and consists of the dragons bumbling around and (probably not) achieving their goal. The nature of the fiction is such that adventures skew toward short and silly.
Weak Points: Once again, there’s no real mechanic for ending the game. It’s all based on GM scenario-setting and guidance.
* * *
So there’s the sample data. The two strong techniques I see emerging are 1) tight, pre-loaded setup, and 2) very constrained narration, where roleplaying is parceled out in small, discrete units. The biggest pitfall seems to be a difficulty in knowing when the story’s done. Any other thoughts and observations?