Making Time for Tabletop Games – Mastering the Short Session

Tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs) have an aspect that sets them apart from other types of games – we have total control of their destiny. Unfortunately, many are deterred from tabletop adventures due to the sheer amount of time required to enjoy them. I’ve had some experience in playing short-form sessions of D&D, and my tips could help you and your tabletop group make the most of the precious extracurricular time adult life affords us.

Traditional TTRPGs

Someone says, “I played D&D last night” and it conjures a mental picture of a group of people sitting around a table together. Said table is littered with books, paper, and strange looking dice – perhaps there’s a map with some hand-painted figurines on it. Varied postures of players around the table hint at how long they’ve been there, after all, the typical D&D game is scheduled to last 4 hours or longer. Back in the day, before the demands of work and family were part of life’s equation, a single session could extend into the next day or consume an entire weekend.

 Making Time for Tabletop Games - Mastering the Short Session

A TTRPG session takes on a life of its own as players navigate a world of their making. In this manner, the game becomes an alternate reality that runs on its own clock. The pace of the clock is controlled by the actions of the players and Dungeon Master (or Game Master, I’m an old guy so I use the moniker Dungeon Master or “DM”), and its primary constraint is the “real time” players can devote to the game per session. The amount of real time available (let’s call it game time) will have a direct impact on how you, the DM, plan each gaming session.

Players may never consider exactly what variables go into planning a game. Encounter type, challenge rating (or encounter balance), NPC names, persona, and purpose are all rather obvious, but what may not be obvious is the need to provide some degree of a story arch to each session. This is where game time comes into the equation. This isn’t so critical when your group can devote 4 or more hours to a single game session. It can be a concern, however, when your game sessions fall short of that mystical 4-hour mark. I have been playing the 2-hour game for many years now. The catalyst for the short game was the dwindling of the real time my group could devote to getting together face-to-face. The method that made the 2-hour game possible was the internet and, to some degree, the Virtual Tabletop or VTT.

Making Time for Tabletop Games - Mastering the Short Session

The Short Session

Anyone who games with friends the traditional way, face-to-face, may have a hard time conceiving of a 2-hour game. You have probably traveled some distance to reach the host site lugging books, dice, drinks…etc. and the host has made ready an area for players. Time has already been devoted to just getting to this point. The idea of starting and ending a session on the 2-hour mark is hardly justified. It’s fair to expect that the time spent gaming be equal to or greater than preparation and travel time. I apply a similar ideology to my fishing trips; time on the water must be equal to or greater than drive time to and from where the fish live.

Gaming remotely by leveraging the internet and communication software like Discord, Skype, and Teamspeak (remember Ventrillo?) cuts out the drive time. Heck, you don’t even have to waste time putting pants on. Everyone can get into a game very quickly with a few keystrokes. Virtual Tabletops like Fantasy Grounds, Roll20, or D20Pro add an additional level of playability to the game, close the distance between players, and make collaborating on a shared map possible. It’s never going to be the same experience as being in the same room together, but when you are faced with the prospect of 120 minutes of gaming vs. no gaming at all… Well, you take what you can get.

Making Time for Tabletop Games - Mastering the Short Session
Fantasy Grounds VTT

Short Session Tips

Below are some things that I have learned over the last ten years as a Dungeon Master. The goal is to make the 2-hour game a satisfying experience. It’s not an exhaustive list, and by no means is it right for everyone. Also, these are terms that can be applied to any game, but they become crucial when playing short sessions.
Here We Go:

  1. Plan for no more than two combat encounters or one roleplay encounter and one combat encounter. This might seem obvious, but the real lesson is to not over-prepare. You will need to use that prep time to think about number two…”NO! Not that number two”… Keep reading.
  2. Think in terms of a weekly TV show format or “Episodic” form. This is important as it keeps the action moving. Remember that we are talking about short sessions. You want to limit situations where a single encounter spans multiple sessions. No one wants to track roleplay dialog across multiple sessions. The complexity of a combat encounter does not lend itself to a week-long ceasefire. Players like to come away with a sense of completion and they want to reflect on their success and failure. You are successful if they walk away from each session having achieved a goal that night. This is not to say you can’t carry over an encounter, but if an encounter is going to span multiple game sessions then try to engineer a cliffhanger that whets the players’ appetite for the next session.
  3. Avoid long campaigns (I still haven’t learned this lesson). Long campaigns lean heavily on a group’s ability to remember, and keeping a journal. A perfect example is our current campaign. I am running my group through the Storm King’s Thunder. This is a very large campaign. I have run the adventure much like it was intended. Unfortunately, this means that in-game time frame is but a couple weeks while, actually, real time spans eleven game sessions. Take into account a couple missed weeks due to holidays and we are now well into three months since we started. The group just completed a simple task of delivering a message that they received three months ago. Were it not for an ongoing adventure record we keep, they would not have remembered who or where the message came from (some of them didn’t because they didn’t review the record).

Making it Work

There is room in the short game to apply some creativity on the part of the DM. Depending on the scenario, you might be able to dissect a single encounter into smaller bits spread across 2 or more sessions and still deliver dramatic tension. I think that it’s awesome if you can work that way, but I wouldn’t lean on that to be your standard modus operandi. Tabletop roleplaying games have an aspect that sets them apart from other types of games in that we have total control of their destiny – unless you are a rules lawyer, and I am sorry guys, I don’t know how to help you.

What has been your experience as a DM? If you’re only a player, I’d like to know your opinion too. Please let me know. I love feedback. Feel free to leave your comments below or reach out to me on Twitter @Gravykingpin

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Gravy Kingpin

Writer at Mulehorn Gaming
Gravy Kingpin exists in two gaming worlds - Pen & Paper and console/PC. He's a part time guardian, part time Dungeon Master, and a full time husband and father of two.