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Started by Damocles, May 27, 2001, 06:41:00 AM

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I have been thinking about the role of time in rpgs. Not so much story time vs. real world time, but practical issues like how long a session lasts, how often people meet, how long character creation takes, how much time you spend on task resolution etc.
Does the time you need to create a character make any significant difference in how you feel about it? (Not so much background and such, but the mechanical part) I'd guess so. A long time investment should lead to greater aversion to character death, but is this a significant effect, and could you use it in some way in game design?
Very few games actually do something with time constraints within the rules. Puppet Land does with the one-hour time-limit. So does Toon. If I remember correctly, when a character dies the player is out of the game for, uh, three minutes I think. This is a meta-game mechanic, I think. In actual cartoons revival happens almost instantly. So what purpose does it serve? I assume it's a roleplaying aid leading the player towards playing the character as interested in his own survival even though it really isn't an issue. Put differently, cartoon characters are afraid of dying, even if they never do.

Ron Edwards


This post has languished for too long. It's a central issue.

I am thinking that one of the biggest problems with G/N/S is that people are not sure how to "frame" it relative to what they know of role-playing.

If we think in terms of boxes within boxes, categories and sub-categories, then the largest box of all for role-playing - in fact, the act and definition of role-playing is WITHIN this box - is the social interaction among real living humans.

And such interactions have parameters. They include things like:
- the degree to which the people know and interact with one another outside of role-playing
- how long the role-playing has been occurring
- the social context of the activity (campus group, old pals from high school, leisure night like "poker night," or any number of others)
- who wields authority over policy in the group. E.g., who can cancel a game night and no one thinks twice, vs. who incurs annoyance for the same thing. Or, who decides what game system is being used.
- hosting, food, and behavior in the household. Can guests wander to the fridge at will, or is there a "game spread" for this purpose only?
- gender composition
- age composition
- sexual and romantic undertones and overtones
- rivalries, hostility, tolerance, and sniping
- and more

Anyway, "real time of play" is obviously one of these parameters and shows up as an issue all the way back in early D&D. Consider the following:
- timed tournament play
- the assumption of long-term "campaign" play implicit in the reward/experience system, as well as explicit in the text
- the bizarre rule to figure out how much "game time" had passed given how much real time had passed since the last session (this strange design parameter persisted through a few games until someone finally figured out that no one cares)

I suggest that any and all of these social parameters, time included, are vastly under-explored in RPG design. The time limits of Puppetland and Soap are quite crude, really - a simple deadline.

It seems reasonable to me to expect a designer to have thought about this - how long IS a session, roughly? How many sessions constitute a "unit" of game-play? How long do we plan to keep this going, anyway? At present, these things are left entirely up to a play group. Since my entire philosophy of RPG consumerism and design is based on fulfilling specialty-desires rather than universal appeal, that seems ... well, like bad design.



The issue has sort of cropped up before, in consideration of the handling/search time issue. In fact, it's a major consideration in designing rules for "combat" - if it takes three hours to play out three seconds of action (which can easily be true in many of the systems out there), that certainly has a strong effect on the feel of the game.

In character creation, though, I have frequently found that people can role-play and show attachment to a character they make up on the spur of the moment at least as well as they can to a character they spent hours desiging.

I'd been looking at this post for several days myself, and just couldn't think of anything coherent to say. The sort of social issues under discussion seem almost completely out of anyone's control, and seem inevitably to be the result of a group dynamic inimical to direction.

                          - James

Ron Edwards


"The sort of social issues under discussion seem almost completely out of anyone's control, and seem inevitably to be the result of a group dynamic inimical to direction."

I'm not sure I agree. People used to say the same thing about thematic focus and director-power - "oh, that just depends on the group, you know?"

The word "control" is tricky - I do agree that control of such things, by game designer or individual in the group, is probably not possible. "Direction," though, is I think entirely appropriate as an issue for RPG design.

For instance, an RPG might specifically recommend a range for the number of players, getting away from the tacit approval of "more is better" found in many games. I do this in Sorcerer, and I've noted it crops up a bit in some recent games, similarly suggesting that 3-4 players is better for this RPG than, say, 8-10.

More radically, an RPG might be conceived that requires (a) both men and women in the play-group, and (b) that each player run a character of the other gender. I am not advocating such a design, nor do I think this is a good or a bad idea - it simply represents a concept for RPG design that might appeal to some designer, and even to some role-players.

[Jared, if you're reading this and you're about to go on your big gender toot, how about starting another 201 thread, OK?]

Or another RPG might have a time limit for something that is NOT the final deadline - it might be that within 45 minutes, the group must decide "what to do" about Old Mr. Simes. They'll have to make that decision based on whatever they know at that point, a little or a lot. The final length of the run might be open.

Or another RPG might not limit actual play time, but the event being created might have a hypothetical "time" involved that is separate from within-game time. The best examples are Extreme Vengeance, Hong Kong Action Theater, or perhaps the Tales from the Crypt (Masterbook) - the "thing" being created is a movie or TV episode, with the content and length thereof. Playing it might take a little longer, but when all is said and done, everyone can look back on the CONTENT of play and say, "Yeah, that's about right for content/timing, if this WERE a movie." I used to do this in Champions, using typical Fantastic Four or Avengers issues as a model for a single game session.

I think direction and influence about these things is incredibly important. The more they enter into that first chapter of RPG design, to the exclusion of that stupid cops & robbers analogy, the better.



Time is, indeed, an interesting subject.

I've been noting the preferences and interest levels of my players are specifically rooted in how long a particular scene or session takes to get through: to encounter, explore and resolve.

If it drags on, interest begins to lapse, even if they're the ones dragging it on (they're often very wordy, talkative and argumentative both among themselves and with NPCs).  The only solution to this is to focus on the relevant portions, do a little RPing, then speed things along descriptively to the next interesting, forward-movement moment.

If nothing notable happens in the session, the evening is often reviewed in hindsight as boring or uninteresting, and always leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Such occurences also have the tendency to slow down the next session: players are slow to start playing, slow to engage the story, slow to move towards scene resolutions.  This turns into a vicious cycle until something occurs to bring timely conflict introduction and resolution to a session.

I should also mention that I run three-hour sessions once a week.  This ISN'T enough time for me, and I suspect it isn't enough for my players, but it is all we've got as a group so we have to live with it.  My and my wife's experience in another on-line group with the same time-limit, I as player this time, was the same:  Things started going just as they stopped.

What this limit means is that conflicts must get started, advanced and resolved in three hours time: not as easy as it sounds because the time passes VERY quickly.

While there is the option of starting a conflict and leaving the session on a cliffhanger, this often creates problems down the road.
The least of these is that leaving the game too often on a cliffhanger creates tension, but overuse destroys any tension it might create as it becomes expected and unappealing.

I've noticed that the best times to finish a session are directly after the most recent conflict has been resolved, or immediately after the introduction of a new conflict.
The worst times are after post-climax "filler", or just after advancing the conflict (because it feels like reading a book and stopping in the middle of a paragraph).

Well, I had a point somewhere there before hungry, screaming kids interrupted...perhaps someone else can pick it up from there and drag the relevancy out.
Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio

Ron Edwards


One insight I can pull out of your harassed-looking post is the following.

At first glance, the danger of "nothing happens" (which is often upsetting to players) and the danger of "took too long" (ditto) seem to be unrelated. However, I think they are very related.

I'll put aside for the moment the possibility of a play group that has NO goal-oriented priority, and NO particular interest in anything but the "sensation" of playing their characters. So the Turku/Elayjitist approach is excluded from my discussion.

It might be valuable for both players and GMs to consider what they, personally, might consider to be required within the first half-hour or 45 minutes of a session, in order to have a good time.

I can say for myself that, as a player, if we're not embarked on some escapade or coping with some crisis, and if I as a PLAYER am not intrigued or emotionally connected to that activity, then the entire session is blown for me. It has never, in my experience of play, "picked up" or "recovered" once that primary window has been passed.

I've tried hard, under those circumstances, to role-play and enjoy whatever's going on, but again, in my experience, the entire social experience has pretty much fallen apart. People glumly roll, react to things, or generally flake out, but the session itself is only fun insofar as we enjoy being in the same room, NOT as an instance of role-playing.

So therefore, as a GM, I say to myself, "OK, I have a goal to establish such a condition, or more accurately, to provide the material for us to establish this condition, within the first half-hour or so." And since I'm such a raving Narrativist, the Call of Cthulhu method of providing a letter saying "Come here and investigate this" will not do, nor will the famous "squad" method of hiring the group to acquire or achieve something. (Barring a game like InSpectres in which this structure is a springboard)

Making decisions of this kind - I developed my thinking on this as a Champions GM, using the "comics model" of session design as I described in an earlier post - has gone a long way toward characterizing my entire style of play. And again, this is largely a SOCIAL decision, which is part and parcel of the aesthetic decision.



I try, when GMing, to start on a particularly visceral, visual scene, or at least get one in very early, to provide just such an emotional hook. I agree that the 'team' or 'note' intro just doesn't cut it.