Gone… in 120 Minutes? And an Alternate Question… (#RPGaDay 2017, Day 8)

August is RPGaDay month. Yep, a month solid of RPG-related posts, answering these questions:

Today’s question is this:

What is a good RPG to play for sessions of 2 hours or less?

Hm, good question, though I’m afraid I don’t hae a lot of answers to offer: I find the optimal time for a session is more like 3-4 hours. I haven’t played many that work at 2 hours, actually.

I think Dread can be good and punchy in under two hours. If you have a small group of players who can focus and stay on task, Fiasco can also work. I imagine if you’re an experienced GM, likewise Paranoia would work well as a fast-and-furious one-shot.

Er, that’s all I’ve really got, in terms of personal experience! If I have only two hours, I’d probably rather play Outrider or Gloom or a few rounds of some card or board game, I think.

Maybe an alternate question?

How long does it take to learn to get the most out of a game?

Honestly, this really depends on the game, and also how closely it hews to some other game system I understand well. I think, anyway.

One example is the Cypher system. Some people like to rag on Monte Cook, and I can’t say I’ve loved everything I’ve read by him 1 but my experience playing Numenera a few weeks ago was impressive: the game is designed to be easy to learn even if you have no gaming experience, but it’s also designed to capitalize on previous experiences. It has feats, but they’re not really onerous. Your ability scores are spendable pools, but you can regenerate them. Your whizbang “magic” tech items are often one-shot things you use for effect.

In other words, Numenera seems to meld together familiar system features in ways I haven’t quite seen before, and as a player I felt like I handle on the system within a single session, though I see from design comments by Monte Cook that there’s some player-autonomy stuff I didn’t learn from that one session. (I have a borrowed copy of the Numenera core book on my desk but haven’t been able to read much of it yet, but I hear running it is also quite different from other RPGs and not onerous for the GM.) I think maybe within a few months I’d be able to get the most out of the system, especially if I had players who were open to trying new things and experimenting.

Dread is similar, but even easier to learn, rules-wise: it’s got a single mechanic—you pull a block from the Jenga tower when you’re doing anything that’s not an insta-success—and the character creation is basically filling out a questionnaire. Of course, that places a lot of burden on the GM, but it’s really manageable. Simple system, in other words. A simple system lets you focus on other things: subtleties in the character-design prompts you put into the PC questionnaires, for example, and stuff like the prep you put into the scenario. I think after just a few sessions with Dread, I got the hang of a lot of that, though of course I could always learn and master it more. I think there’s always more possible, no matter how much you master a system.

I find I’m attracted to simple systems, at least if I need to learn a new ruleset. I’m not attracted to, say, Pathfinder or D&D 4E in part because the complexity of the rules (character builds, feats, etc.), which just turn me off. At some point I heard about people find it necessary to use a spreadsheet to run one of those games, I think it was Pathfinder, and my reaction was, “Well, I’ll never run that!” I’m more than happy if others want to run it, but I’m not attracted to that kind of playstyle or load on the GM.

That said, I’m talking about rules now, and rules aren’t the whole of the story. There’s that other thing—that transferrable set of skills that come into play when you’re playing or running games. You learn how to differentiate between IC and OOC. You learn when it’s appropriate to crack a joke or reference a bit of pop culture, when when to let it slide. You learn a particular sort of problem-solving mentality, and a certain kind of inquisitiveness, and you learn to do voices, and to think up characters who are entertaining and fun and fit the game, and you eventually come to be the kind of player people love to have at their table, or the kind of GM that people trust and respect and love to play with.

That, I think, some people are better at learning than others. Egoists often suck at it, and so do people who’re in it for the identity-wank. Sometimes, you have to unlearn other things—like bad habits of mind, or your insecurities and personal geek resentments, or your geek social fallacies, or even your willingness to play with people you actively dislike as long as it means you get to play—in order to unlock these subtler achievements. If you manage it, and you have mastered the other stuff, and you put in the time to get good at the mechanics of playing or running a game, you might become a player or GM worth playing with. Not every player does.

One reason I think I’m a better GM now than in the past is that I’m not really willing to play with people who suck. Take Dread: a few years ago, I tried running it for some people, including one guy who ended up being a useless, lazy player who knocked over the Jenga tower a few minutes into the game, because he couldn’t be bothered to try. (He was actually laying on his side on a couch when he pulled the block, and when his character ought to have died, he shrugged. Though he wouldn’t admit it, I felt like RPGing made him feel self-conscious and that he was sabotaging the game, which was too bad because the rest of the people—all neophytes—seemed to be enjoying themselves as they figured out how to play.) Why this individual turned up for the game, I can’t say beyond the sense that he didn’t want to be excluded; but he also didn’t want to participate, and he ruined the atmosphere of a game that depends wholly on atmosphere. Since I was in a place were there weren’t many gamers, I just went on hiatus for a time and worked on other things: it was better not to play than to waste time on game prep that would be sabotaged and unappreciated. Not needing to play spared me the pain and aggravation, but also the risk of ossifying (again, after unlearning it once) the bad habit of getting used to playing with people who suck.

So the answer is, for simpler systems, it doesn’t take long. For more complex systems, I don’t know because I avoid them. But the really pertinent skillset is transferrable between games and game systems (and, I’m guessing, different aspects of your life), and that involves a bunch of skills and chosen attitude shifts that come together to make you a good player or a good GM. I think that’s always a work in progress: you can get a lot of the way pretty quickly, if you work hard at it, but I suspect that the more convinced you are that you’ve already arrived, the less likely it is you’re doing the work necessary to maintain that state. But maybe that’s just me.

And there’s your cod-philosophy dump about learning to play or run a system well.

  1. His d20 Monte Cook’s World of Darkness game, for example, seems too disconnected from the original WoD to really warrant using that branding, and is not something I’d ever want to play.

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