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GeekGirlCon and games in an hour

So, I went to GeekGirlCon earlier this month to help Tori Brewster and friends run a Story Games table. And we all had a blast! Some wonderful games played, with friends and strangers both.

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:

Hot Guys Making Out

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.

G x B

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.

S/lay w/Me

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.

Mud Dragon

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?

Peace,

—Joel

13 thoughts on “GeekGirlCon and games in an hour”

  1. The Pickup Game, one of my game designs (in progress, because I never finish anything), is designed to be played quickly and on the fly (hence the name). One of the mechanics I’m toying with is having the number of scenes set at the beginning of the game- the Guide picks a goal for the protagonist character, and then picks how many scenes the game will go. FREX, “Xua Ho the Undying Spearman must find and confront the man who slew his father in 10 scenes.” This not only gives the players an idea how long the game will go, but also sets the “scale” of the individual scenes to some degree. Obviously if Xua Ho must avenge his father in 5 scenes, those scenes are going to cover a lot more ground and the conflicts resolved in them are going to be broader, than if he has 10 scenes or 20 or an unlimited number.

    I haven’t actually playtested this mechanic yet, but the goal is for the game to be playable with zero prep, something to do while waiting for another game to start, or whatever, it seems like it would fit in the category you’re talking about here.

  2. Oberon, interesting–scalability is definitely advantageous–being able to set the dials for a particular game session to meet the needs of the moment.

    Jason, Timo, great examples! What’ll be helpful is if you can elaborate a bit: share your experiences with these games, and particularly highlight what sort of useful principles or techniques we can garner from them.

    For instance, Timo, I’ve played Zombie Cinema, and it went well over an hour, with length of game largely determined by the results of conflict rolls, and the resulting movement of PCs and Zombies up and down the story track. What techniques should a facilitator have in mind going in, to keep play down to an hour?

    1. First, Zombie Cinema: This works in an hour if you make that the goal at the start of play. “We’re going to tell this story in one hour” – then check in every 10-15 minutes. Helps if everyone knows Zombie Cinema, of course. Just apply pressure early and keep the pace frantic. Keep roleplaying punchy.

      Roleplaying Poems: A game like Chris Bennett’s The Believers can be played in 15-20 minutes and is poignant and thought-provoking, touching on all the interesting bits of roleplaying – character stance, creative decision making, conflict, performance, immersion. There are bunches of good poems in the Norwegian Style book and blog. Marc Majcher’s collection of game poems is great. If you have an hour, pitch half a dozen of your favorites and play two or three.

      1. Cool! In your experience, what attributes of your favorite game poems that helps them deliver satisfying roleplaying experiences in that short a time?

        Like, what principles could we extract from a poem that’s working well, that we could carry forward into new game designs?

  3. Hey Joel, I have NorStyle & the RP poems book; we should endeavor to play some of these soon (like we don’t already have a plate full).

    Anyway, I especially appreciated this part of your post:

    “…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.”

    Lightbulb! I knew that long games were a turn off for lots of people (from personal experience w/ my wife), but connecting that to the gender gap among roleplayers in the U.S.? Makes a lot of sense to me.

  4. Cool, I’m glad that made sense to you. It’s a bit conjectural, but it maps to my own experiences pretty well, Not that it’s ONLY women who I’ve seen turned away by time commitment, but the percentage seems higher.

  5. “A roleplaying poem,” says Norwegian game designer and poet Tomas HV Mørkrid, “is a very short game, where the idea is to investigate a mood or scene or something else of limited scope.” Prolific game-poem writer Marc Majcher says First and foremost, a game poem is just there to be taken in and experienced with a … group of friends for a few moments, and then those moments are over – and hopefully, something small and wonderful will happen in the process.”

    Chris Bennett’s game poem The Believers is an exercise in introspection and wonder. Players assume the role of UFO contactees and collectively establish the nature and tenor of our otherwordly visitors. The experience ends with a choice – will you join the space brothers and leave Earth forever, or will you stay? It is a surprisingly emotional experience, entirely predicated on the combination of collaborative creative contribution and a simple but life-changing decision.

    Marc Majcher’s The Calais Bunker is built along similar lines – creative characterization culminating in a single moment of dreadful choice – but plays out against the rigid demands of a timer counting down fifteen minutes. The Calais Bunker takes place in 1944, and the players take the role of miserable German conscripts awaiting invasion. After fifteen minutes of steadily ratcheting tension, each player ends the game by making one statement of taking one action. In play it is a harrowing experience – a meditation on violence, helplessness and obedience.

    Tomas HV Mørkrid’s Stoke-Birmingham 0-0 takes the exploration of mood to beautiful extremes. Players portray Norwegian fans of the Stoke City Football Club, dull people sitting in a dull pub enduring a dull game in a dull country far from home. Mørkrid set out to create a “sore and anxious mood” [3], urging players to be boring when they can’t be silent, and under no circumstances to introduce anything interesting into the moment. When fully embraced, the game succeeds wonderfully. It isn’t a pleasant experience, but rather an edifying one, and strangely satisfying.

    In a way roleplaying poems capture and hold the moments we strive for in roleplaying generally – intense moments of immersion, the catharsis of a profound choice made or obligation discharged – stripped of everything extraneous. While the “extraneous” can include desirable things like deep characterization and meaty, thematic interplay across hours, playing without it can be revelatory. Gone are the frameworks needed to support more complicated forms. Gone are the opportunity costs associated with long-term play. Roleplaying poems usually have a light, meditative feel (even the harsh and unpleasant ones) and are so simple and direct that they are hard to break and easy to find meaning in.

    –JM

  6. Joel,
    I really appreciated your post and insights about gaming. I fit in the the category of someone who is interested in story games but have a hard time committing to a “campaign”. I was hoping to play Mud Dragon some time it sounds right down my ally. What’s this story game poem business? That also sounds amazing.

  7. Excellent, Jason, thanks! That’s a really great, extreme way to “live in the moment” in roleplaying: to strip away the expectations of sustained narrative and live in JUST ONE moment, period. Strikes me as being a great tool of roleplaying “training,” trying on different moods and experiences and exercising your imagination-muscles in bite-sized pieces. And it sounds like it provides a wonderful experience in its own right, too, fully satisfying and with its own closure, in a very small amount of time.

    I really do need to play some of these, instead of just reading about them.

    Brenda, Even as someone who’s well acclimated to “campaign culture” and its long-term commitments, I also find myself daunted by those expectations and have a hard time fitting them into my life. So many circumstances–I’m married, I have a daughter, I live outside the city, I have other pursuits that I also want to devote regular time to–conspire to edge out large-scale commitment to a game. And when I DO make space in my life for that kind of commitment, those other areas suffer!

    And everyone has factors like that in their life. bringing down those time barriers helps everyone.

    Long-term gaming is still *A* thing I want to do, but not the only thing. I’d love to have an arsenal of storygaming tools from the 15 minute poem to the 5-year campaign, that I can pull out to serve the needs of the situation!

    (for an explanation of roleplaying poems, see Jason’s comment above yours!)

  8. Hey Joel,

    Here are my thoughts. As a point of perspective I’d be curious as to what you think about board games that take 2 to 3 hours to play. Many Fantasy Flight board games can take upwards of 5 or 6 hours to play. Perhaps those are also for a fairly hardcore market? They certainly don’t demand weekly participation for months on end.

    Next, I notice you mention more than once games that don’t have a mechanically forced end-game. I wanted to say I’m not sure adding games that forcibly clock down after about an hours with of input is really the solution as that doesn’t allow for creative breathing room. For example, the reason the Monster/Lover player doesn’t HAVE to use his Monster dice is so that he/she can spend time just enjoying other aspects of the fiction and going where ever their creativity takes them. That said there are games that work on a clock: Fiasco, Montsegure 1244 and Grey Ranks come to mind. But in those cases you can see the end of the stream coming which means you can creatively time yourself to the clock.

    More interestingly your post made me think of games that have what I call a convenient unit of play. In A Wicked Age…(The Chapter), Dogs in the Vineyard (The Town), InSpectres (The Job), Lacuna (The Mission) and so on. These games basically have a single session unit of play that is very satisfying all on its own but they also have very deep emergent play properties when you string multiple units together. The down side is that because the single play units are so satisfying many people mistake the unit for the whole and never see the whole machine working.

    Anyway, this made me think about game that had a satisfying 1 hour unit of play but that could be played across multiple units, if you wanted to. The closest analogy I came up with is the idea of playing a single hand of poker versus playing until one person holds the entire pot.

    In other words, can we develop an RPG that is made of small satisfying “hands” or rounds of play?

    Jesse

  9. Jesse,

    I don’t play nearly as many boardgames as I’d like to, but my sense is: the issue is there, same as story games. In fact that may be part of WHY I don’t play boardgames as much as I’d like. How many times have heard “Battlestar Galactica/Pandemic/Arkham Horror? You need to set aside a DAY for that!” The board and card games that I DO play most are precisely the ones that can run in under an hour. Of course you’re right that boardgames don’t assume a week-to-week commitment, so that eases things up a little. Playing an all-afternoon boardgame isn’t much different from going hiking for the day, or attending a sporting event.

    I’m not saying games NEED a forced mechanical endgame to play satisfyingly in a short time, just that it’s a useful technique for achieving that. I really struggled with the word “weaknesses” in my writeups above. I don’t mean to imply that a game that doesn’t tell you in concrete terms when it ends is deficient or broken, just that it causes difficulties for this particular goal–games in an hour. I think rather than “weaknesses” I really mean “play dynamics to watch out for.” Like, the play dynamic of those games is such that, if you’re inattentive, play can run long.

    Which isn’t a bad thing; it means we can, as you say, “spend time just enjoying other aspects of the fiction and going where ever [our] creativity takes [us].” It can be lovely. It’s this joy of lingering on details and letting the fiction breathe that caused me to make peace with the fact that the dreaming Crucible is a 2-3 hour game, not a 1-hour game.

    But if you’ve only GOT an hour, then you need techniques to tighten that shit up. That either means the game mechanically mandating its endpoint OR it means employing techniques to keep the roleplaying tight in a more open-ended game.

    I like the idea of having a “convenient unit of play”, where you can play one module of story in a short time, and scale up by playing more modules. The rhythm of stringing narratively satisfying chunks of story together is appealing, It’s versatile while being aesthetically pleasing. The idea of playing a “hand” of story makes me smile. I think the closest analogy in storygaming to a hand of poker is the scene.

    In Ben’s HGMO, within the confines of a single night’s story, you play games in scenes, like in many games. The card play mechanics ensure that you can’t drag a scene on forever; you’ll reach a point fairly quickly where there’s no more options for cardplay and the scene must end. In a game of Final Fantasy-esque adventure Ben’s working on using the skeleton of HGMO mechanics, this idea is further refined so that every scene plays out a significant moment in your character arc. There’s more than a little In a Wicked Age vibe to it, but in smaller increments than IaWA. Looks promising!

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