Thursday, 19 May 2016

The Long and the Short

There are undercurrents swirling below the surface of the roleplaying hobby, invisible to the eye, but powerful enough that they affect just about everything we do. These are the mostly unspoken core assumptions about what our hobby is and how it is pursued at tables around the world. Roleplayers gather in small groups, negotiating acceptable conduct and proper play style, and rarely question the idea that their particular orthodoxy is one of many.

Once in a while that you get two gamers together talking, sharing stories, and realize that this is not the case at all. What is this other person talking about, we wonder? 'Cause it's sure not gaming. We have A Way Of Doing Things, and that's the only right and proper way. This guy's weird.

I was reminded of one of the undercurrents last week, while I was sitting in on a session of #RPGChat on Twitter. Somehow the conversation came around to the fact that the games we play at our table are an average of 12 sessions, which works out to about six months of play for each game. Many of the other people chatting were gamers who played traditional games, which is to say games that have no defined end point and can stretch on for years or even decades. 

"That's cute," one person said of six month-long games. Most were not so condescending, but it was clear that a lot of these players thought long-arc games were the right and proper way of doing things, the only legitimate way. Hell, if you weren't playing a game that was years long, that hardly counted as a game at all. 

I've already written in this space about my Short Campaign Model, and I won't repeat that material here, except to say that playing shorter games at my table didn't happen by accident. It happened after a years-long game ended without a satisfactory resolution, fading away because I was moving from one city to another. I had a period where there was no game to run, and I took a long, hard look at the way we'd been playing for a lot of years. What worked? What didn't? Could you play games that were more concentrated, had more of the things that me and my players enjoyed the most, and cut out a lot of the stuff that took a lot of time but contributed little to the overall enjoyment?

It turned out, you could. There was nothing written in stone requiring long-arc games like the D&D campaigns I played as a teenager. In fact, the older me and my players got, the less feasible those games became. Availability of players was always in flux; you could have someone suddenly drawn out of the campaign by a change in their home or work life, and there was no help for it. Any continuity built up around that character was gone, and maybe for good. All of that time and that effort maybe never paid off to anything.

I think the assumptions around long-arc campaigns grow out of the way traditional RPGs like D&D are built, with long, slow development of player characters over many sessions of play. Worse, I think a lot of players who are used to this sort of thing have a tendency to conflate character development with mechanical progression. Nothing could be more mistaken, although I remember the satisfaction associated with leveling up a character to the point where they got an Awesome New Power. 

The moments that mattered in those long-arc games, I decided, were the ones where our characters were able to make important choices and play out scenes where we saw their nature, what they believed, what they cared about. Although those moments can happen through serendipity, over the course of many months or years of play, they can -- and do -- happen on the smaller scale, when they are the goal of play. And deciding that you want to pursue a particular character arc doesn't make the satisfaction of playing through that arc less vital, or manufactured. Most importantly, moments of serendipity and discovery still happen in a short arc game. If anything, they happen more, because players are playing hard, with intent, pushing themselves into situations where their character is challenged every session. 

It's hard to explain this sort of thing to people who play traditional, long-arc games. Many of them would probably concede -- and some did, on the #RPGChat -- that their campaigns tend to eventually fade away, ending by attrition rather than because they had achieved their potential. Trying different modes of play is hard to imagine from the outside. What pushed me in the direction that I chose is that so much time in the traditional games I played was wasted on things that we didn't care about at all, and took little pleasure in. I can't count the number of times that a player in a traditional game I was involved with had a subplot that was unpursued, or a long, involved character backstory that was never brought into play at the table at all. 

As an adult gamer, I don't have time for that any more. I want every moment at the game table to be as jam-packed with gaming goodness as I can get. 

Six months of gaming twice a month gives you roughly 40 hours of gameplay, which is very close to the kind of time you might invest in a video game that you're really taken with. Sure, some games you go back to, again and again, but often you're ready for something new after 40 hours in a game. Some roleplaying games take a few sessions to really start to "cook", but frankly, after 12 sessions, most games have shown me everything they have to offer. The rest is just running out the clock. If you love a game, like I love FATE, you're probably going to get more out of simply running another game in the same system than you are by continuing to spool out the same material endlessly. And if you like trying different games at all, you need to play a game and move on if you're going to even get a chance to experience all the things the hobby has to offer. 

I don't expect long-arc gamers to agree with what I'm writing here. I'm probably describing something that seems entirely alien to them. That's okay. If I can persuade them at all that maybe their particular way of doing things isn't the only possible way, I suspect it is by leaving them with this thought: 

Really spend some time thinking about what it is that you enjoy at the game table. What bits do you remember, years later, when you're telling stories about a game to your friends? How many moments like that do you really get out of the average years-long game? 

What if I told you that I don't have less stories to tell from my short-arc games? 

I have more. A lot more. 

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