I was listening to some moron not too long ago… okay, hold on a second. Let’s get something out of the way so I don’t have to deal with any butt hurt crybabies. I spend a lot of time on Twitter and I see a lot of conversations. I follow several hashtags about RPGs. I spend time on other social media platforms reading what other people are saying. I try to keep my finger up the a$& of the RPG community online like a f$&%ing proctologist. And when I see some bit of idiocy, that tells me what I have to fix that week with a 5,000-word verbal colonoscopy. The problem is, every so often, someone recognizes a little bit of themselves or something they’ve said in the verbal lambasting that I call “the introduction.” And then they assume I am speaking about them. Directly. And no one else. *cough* Dungeon Bastard *cough*.
No one person is worth me getting uppity about. And if I wanted to call out a specific person, I would *cough* Dungeon Bastard *cough*. See? I watch trends. When I see several people talk about the same stupid thing, I know there’s a problem that needs The Angry Treatment. Now, often, for style and effect, I will boil down those bunches of conversations and reddit posts and forum threads into a statement like “some idiot said a thing” or “a lot of stupid GMs give really s$&%y advice about this.”
The point is, when I do that, I’m not talking about YOU. I’m talking about lots of people. And honestly, if YOU feel like I’m talking about you, maybe you’re running game bad and maybe you should listen. Or maybe you should just keep doing your thing and not give a flying f$&% about the opinion of some internet a$&hole who uses proctology metaphors to describe his own writing and clearly can’t edit for s$&%. Because you don’t need my permission to run your game any wrong way you want.
Point is, don’t go getting all butt hurt because you think I’m talking to you. I’m not talking to you. Unless I am talking to you. But maybe you deserve it.
Point is, I was observing the internet from my ivory tower, passing judgment on all of the gamers I see before me, when my attention was drawn by YET ANOTHER idiot bragging about how he ran a whole session that was nothing but “role-playing.” And you should know by now, I hate that bulls$&%. I hate it for so many reasons. But don’t worry, this article as not about why role-playing and interaction are two different things. It’s not about why people who use the word “role-playing” to mean “talking in character” should have the pretension beaten out of them with a copy of Stanislavski’s “The Method.” This is not about how combat and actions can and do have as much OR MORE role-playing in them than the talky talky bits and how they can reveal a lot more about characters. Instead, this article is about something most GMs don’t talk about. Something they don’t even think about it. In fact, I’m pretty f$&%ing sure lots of big name game designers don’t give it a f$&%ing thought either. It’s about the difference between an adventure and a session and why filler episodes and bottle episodes are complete f$&%ing horses$&%.
Campaign, Adventure Path, Arc, Adventure, Session
We can break down any ongoing series of RPG adventures into a bunch of small increment, right? This isn’t news to anyone. At the top, we have the idea of a campaign or adventure path. That’s a big ongoing story. The difference between those is a little fuzzy because most gamers and game designers don’t give a f$&% about actually building a useful lexicon to talk about RPGs. So the words are vague and weird. We’ll get to defining them eventually. But for right now, just accept that the whole game about a group of characters in a specific setting is a campaign or adventure path. An arc is a series of adventures that, together, resolve a specific plot thread. Some campaigns use arcs. Some don’t. And sometimes, arcs are the same as adventure paths and a campaign is a bunch of adventure paths. Again, people keep f$&%ing up the language of RPGs and I’m going to get around to fixing it someday.
But the spot where we all start to agree about the terminology is at the adventure level. We can agree (especially since I’ve written a butt-ton about it) that an adventure is a single story that begins with a motivation, ends with a resolution, and tells the story of how the PCs get from the motivation to the resolution. It’s the smallest part of the game that can be called a complete story.
Now, campaign, adventure path, arc, and adventure are all ways of breaking down the game. Breaking down the story. Because, remember: THE GAME AND THE STORY ARE THE SAME THING! They are narrative designations. Either you take a big giant story and break it down into smaller and smaller chunks. Or you take a bunch of little stories and add them all up into a big super story. Either way works. The point is adventures add up to arcs or adventure paths which add up to adventure paths or campaigns.
Now, we COULD compare all of this to a television series. The series itself is a campaign. Seasons might be adventure paths or arcs. Though sometimes there are arcs within seasons. And each episode is an adventure. And most GMs think of it just like that. But there’s something weird that happens in RPGs that doesn’t happen in TV shows. And, if you really want to run your best game, it’s something you SHOULD be aware of.
Fortunately, if you understand it, RPGs empower you to deal with it. Unfortunately, most people don’t.
More Metagame Madness: The Session
I’ve used the word metagame before. Because I’m reclaiming it from the dumba$&es who use the word as a way to tell their players they have to bend over and take it from the troll because they aren’t allowed to use fire. The metagame refers to all of the rules and principles and structures that live underneath the game – that aren’t really a part of the game system – but that nonetheless make the game possible. Honestly, I’m sad to say that this is a place where video gamers and card game players understand things better than role-playing gamers.
Anyway, in RPGs, we have this metagame concept of “the session.” You know, of course, that every week or every two weeks or whatever, we get together and play a chunk of the RPG game. Whatever game we can fit into three hours or four hours or five hours, that’s what we do. And we pick up next time where we left off last time.
The problem is that sessions don’t care about the story. They don’t care about the game. The narrative. They don’t care where arcs begin and end, where adventures begin and end. While RPGs are essentially episodic, the episodes have NOTHING to do with the narrative. This is in stark contrast to television shows. They are episodic and they are written around the episodic nature.
What’s the difference? Well, remember how we’ve talked about pace and structure and how the human brain needs certain hidden elements of the story in order to be satisfied with a good story? Well, when we break an adventure down into sessions, the brain doesn’t think of the whole adventure as a story. The players will view the sessions – NOT the adventures – as the episode of the game.
Does this matter? Well, not reeeeaaaaalllllllyyyyyyy. I mean, if you ignore this s$&%, it’s not going to ruin a good game. But it could spell the difference between an okay game and great game. And if your game is just okay and you lose track of the idea of session-as-episode for too long, you might be robbing your players of fun. In other words, you might be running a s$&% game and not even understand why.
If you’ve been attentive, you might notice that there’s a parallel narrative structure that runs through every part of the game. A campaign begins with a goal and a major event to set the PCs on the path to resolving it and it ends when that story is resolved. Arcs begin with the revelation of some particular story element and end when that element is resolved or dealt with. Adventures begin with motivations and end with resolutions. Encounters begin with the posing of a dramatic question and end when the question is answered. And even individual actions begin with a situation, the choice of an action, a resolution, and a consequence. The game is like one of those pregnant Russian dolls with a smaller pregnant Russian doll in her stomach who, herself, has a smaller pregnant Russian doll in HER stomach, like some sort of sick artistic representation of in vitro fertilization inception. The Russians are sick f$&%s is what I’m saying.
And that whole thing happens because our brains are wired to get the most out of a story when it follows that particular structure. So much so that it’s almost impossible to imagine a way of structuring a story without those elements.
Episodic Games that Do Not Give a F&%$
Now, it’s interesting that lots of video games are going the “episodic” content route for a number of reasons. And recently, ANOTHER egomaniacal internet a$&hole who uses overly long, drawn out non-sequitur introductions analyzed the practiced in video games. If you can stomach Jim Sterling’s “The Jimquisition” show (I know it’s not for everyone), you should check out this episode on episodic games.
Because, here’s the thing: we have the same problem. Assuming that you really do believe what I’ve been saying about structure and pace and providing a GOOD story – and you sure as f$&% SHOULD believe it – then you can probably already see the issue. No one – and I mean NO F$&%ING ONE – writes their modules or adventures AS IF they are episodic. Check out any of the short modules that Paizo cranks out for Pathfinder. Check out any one of the massive tomes of “adventure” that WotC is currently s$&%ing out semi-regularly. They are divided up into chapters or acts based on how the story should go. Based on how the adventure will play out. Based on physical locations and based entirely on the explorations of the characters. Do they even give a f$&% about how they fit into a session. No.
And have YOU ever written your own adventure with the idea that it was going to get chopped up and delivered across two, three, or four sessions? No. Of course not. We don’t. But we should. If we want really, REALLY good stories, we SHOULD.
Players and their F$&%ing Free Will
The problem with trying to design around sessions, of course, the same that it ALWAYS is. You have a bunch of f$&%ing players making choices that drive the pace and flow of the game. And if the game is open-ended, you have no idea where the f$&% they will be when it’s time to end a session. And so, it’s pretty easy to just throw up your hands and say “well, if I try to do anything about the whole session structure issue, I’ll be f$&%ing with free will and that’s way more important so I guess I don’t have to worry about it herpy derpy doo.”
But, the thing is, the game is mutable. And structure isn’t always about when plot events happen. Instead, it’s about the ebb and flow of the game. It’s about how the game moves between fast and slow, it’s about how it feels when it starts, it’s about how it feels when it ends, it’s about nebulous bulls$&% like that. And if you have a basic sense of the mold, you can pour your session into that mold. After all, RPGs are mutable things. And it’s your job to mutate them.
Running a Well-Structured Session
So, if you give a f$&%, and you should, how DO you impose a structure on the freeform and make every session FEEL like it’s an episode even when it really isn’t. Let’s break it down with some simple advice.
Know What Your Players Can Get Done in a Session
Every GM should know how much stuff they get through in a typical session. How many scenes does the party get through? How much time does combat take? If you put a pit or wall or other crazy obstacle in front of the party, how much time will they waste arguing how to get around it? It’s important to know how much stuff will fill a session. That way, if you’re running a published adventure, you can figure out what the players will probably get through in a given night. And if you’re writing your own material, you can write your material to synch up with that activity.
For example, if you’re writing an adventure and you know the party tends to get through three encounters and one obstacle in one session and you know they will start at the door to the dungeon, you can make sure you’ve got those elements scattered within the first few rooms of your dungeon and create a chokepoint or bottleneck so that the party will probably pass through those elements and finish the session. If you’ve got plans for an adventure at a festival and know the party will spend an hour on interactions, two hours on fun festival games, and one hour on the combat when the goblins attack, you can break things up appropriately by creating an interaction scene, two content scenes, an interaction, a contest, and then end on the goblin attack.
Either way, you have to know how much time your players take to do things. You can’t control the structure and pace if you don’t know what sort of time resources you have to work with.
Know When Your Session Ends and Always End It Early
Okay, this one is going to piss some people off, but those people want to run s$&% games. If you want to run a good game, understand your sessions will ALWAYS end early. And we’ll get to why in a moment. But for right now, understand this: you MUST set a definite end time on your sessions and you MUST never hit that time. You’ll probably always lose ten minutes or fifteen minutes or even twenty minutes. Because once you enter that home stretch, you’re going to be looking for your end point. Again, we’re going to come back to how to end your session in a bit. But right now, KNOW how much time you have. That means, start and end times are a must.
If Your Entire Session Consists of Just One Thing, You Suck
Those idiots bragging about how their entire session was just one big interaction or it only consisted of “role-playing?” Those people are running crap games. Don’t do that. Even if you think your players like it. Maybe they do, once in a while. But you can’t do that consistently. And if you STOP doing it, they will like your games MORE!
Pace and structure are about managing your game like a roller coaster. Slow climbs, fast falls, up and down, back and forth. It is VITAL that the pace of your game and the stakes and the tension all vary from scene to scene. And you can’t f$&%ing vary ONE ENDLESS THING. Don’t do it. Just don’t. And don’t go into my comment section and tell me how much your players love it when you do it. Because you’re a dumba$& and I will tell you so. You’re wrong. Stop being wrong.
Administration and Bookkeeping First
When your players first arrive to the game, they want to be social and chatty. That’s fine. Let them. You can also feel free to be a little social and chatty. It’s important to let them spend a few minutes being social and chatty. But then it’s time to game. And that means you have to start the game. But there’s also a little bit of business that usually has to get done. You know, clarifying rules, buying equipment, scheduling the next session, all that administrative crap that isn’t part of the game. DO THAT NOW. Don’t leave any garbage like that to happen during the session or after the session. Frankly, if you really want to do it right, hand out the XP from last session NOW.
There’s two things you want to accomplish. First, you want to make sure that nothing that ISN’T game has to happen after the game starts for real. Second, you want to make sure that you don’t have ANYTHING to do after the game ends. And we’ll come back to why a little later. Just trust me for right now. You will run your best sessions if the session is over the second the game ends.
Once you’ve gotten all of the bookkeeping and administrative bulls$&% out of the way, you’ve not only cleared the way for game AND for a good session end, you’ve also successfully transitioned your players’ brains from “social mode” to “game mode.” Which is good, because they are now ready for the recap.
All right, here is another place where I am going to start a lot of fights. Most GMs suck at recapping and do recapping totally wrong. In fact, it’s such a big issue that I need to write an entire article about how to recap properly. So, right now, I’m going to just ask you to trust me rather than write 2,000 words in this section about why people recap wrong and how to do it right.
First of all, you do the recap at the start of the session. You don’t send out e-mails or newsletters or anything else. The recap is PART of the session. It’s part of the transition into the game.
Second of all, the recap is brief. It hits the high points and encapsulates the important points that you expect will be important in the session. Remind them of their goal, the reason why the goal is important, and about anything that relates to the challenges they are about to face. Who the villains are, what the adventure site is, if a weird NPC betrayed them and then disappeared, that kind of crap. Cover the relevant high points and everything you know will be important for the current session.
Third of all (and brace yourself for fights), YOU – THE GM – YOU do the recap. You do not foist off the recap on your players. Not ever. You are ignoring a VITAL tool if you let a dumba$& player stammer through a recap.
Please withhold your arguments for a couple of weeks until you can read my article on recaps tentatively titled “No, You’re Wrong, GMs ALWAYS Do Recaps and ALWAYS at the Start of the Session, So Shut Up or I’ll Slap You.”
Start with Incitement
Once the recap is done, it’s time to transition DIRECTLY into the game itself. And your game session will ALWAYS begin with the players reacting to an incitement to act by making a decision. A NEW decision.
This is vital. Most GMs assume the session must begin at the same moment in time at which the last session ended. But that’s complete horses$&%. Sometimes, it’s actually useful to skip ahead. Because you want to start every session by pulling the players into the game. You don’t to warm up the engines.
Now, some people will say something like “always start with a combat” or “start with big action” or whatever. That’s not a universal rule. Combats or big action sequences do pull the players into the game, but not because they are combats or big action sequences. They pull the players into the game because they give the players something to react to immediately and ask them to make a decision right away.
Don’t start with the players talking about what to do next. Don’t start with them dicking around in town. Don’t start with shopping or training or other bulls$&%. Describe the situation immediately before them and ask them to react to it. And that means sometimes skipping ahead to the first interesting thing for the session.
For example, if you ended your last session with the party on the road on the way to the dungeon and getting ready to rest, don’t begin the game with them resting. Instead, do the resting as part of the bookkeeping before the recap. “When we ended last session, you were going to take a rest so go ahead and heal up and prepare your spells now before we get started.” And then skip ahead to the dungeon entrance. Cover the time skip with a brief transition like “after a good night’s sleep, you continued your travels and finally, just before noon, you arrived at the entrance to the dungeon.” And then give them the dungeon entrance and let them decide how to proceed.
Absolutely never ever start with “press A to continue” decision. That’s a non-decision in which you reiterate what the party was in the middle of doing and then ask them if they still plan to keep doing it. “You were on your way to the dungeon. You’re all rested up. Do you continue?” THAT ISN’T A DECISION DUMBA$%!
And look, if the players changed their minds or they did want to take care of something in the transition, they will stop you and say so. That’s fine. It’s okay if the players interrupt the incitement to action with a different decision. That still actively pulls them into the game. But go ahead and do a time skip.
Also, never ever start your game with something random or unimportant. Don’t start with a random encounter on the road to cover the travel time to the dungeon. Skip ahead to the first actual, real scene of the adventure. The first planned, substantial obstacle.
That doesn’t mean, by the way, you can’t start with travel. If the party is still three days from the dungeon, you don’t have to skip three days of travel. Skip ahead to the first significant encounter or event on the trip. But, if all you’ve got planned are some random encounter rolls, skip that s$&%. Just jump ahead to the start of your adventure.
Of course, of you END your session right, you won’t need to make too many adjustments.
End on a Story Beat
So, you started your session right, you made your sure your session includes a variety of different types of game play, and now you’re getting close to the end of the session. Once you know the end of the session is approaching, you should be looking for a good place to stop. And that’s why you’re almost always going to end early. Because you need to start looking for that golden endpoint. And when you hit that point, end the session. No matter what. End the session. Don’t stretch it out. Don’t go late. Find the ending and end there. Leaving the players wanting more is far, FAR better than leaving them exhausted. And there are no excuses. I know someone is going to say “but we have such limited time to play, ending early robs us of valuable game time.” That’s a quantity over quality argument. Good session structure is like salt. It makes every game taste a whole lot better.
Now, people will say “end on a cliff hanger.” And, again, that isn’t bad advice. But it’s usually not the BEST way to end a session. That approach is marketing trickery that works for two-part episodes of TV shows, but if you do it too often, it’s like a softcorce cable porno movie with no money shot.
The best place to end your session is at a major victory. When the players accomplish a significant goal, that’s a good end point. It leads to a very satisfying session. Obviously, the best ending is when they finish the adventure. But that’s also a little bit of a special case. Beating some mooks is an okay victory, but an end-worthy victory should be more substantial. It should be something the party would actually high five each other over.
If a victory doesn’t present itself, the next best place is a defeat or loss or reversal. When something big and bad happens, that’s a good place to end your session. And in this case, you want to end on the reveal. That is to say, when it becomes clear that the big bad thing just happened and you describe how it happened, stop there. Close the session there.
If neither a good victory or a rough reversal are at hand, the next best place to stop is right as you’re about to incite a new action. That is to say the next best place to stop is at a spot where it’s a good place to start next time. And in that case, you want to end right before the reveal. For example, if the party just reaches the dungeon, you want to end by saying “and by noon that day, you finally arrive at your destination… and we’ll continue next session.” Done and done.
Victory, reversal, or incitement to new action. That’s where you want to end. Those things are what we call story beats. They represent the rhythm of the story. And those are perfect spots to end. Victories are best, reversals are second best, and incitements are third best. Cliff hangers are actually incitements or sometimes reversals. And that’s why cliff hangers aren’t the best spot to end.
Now, if your session happens to end with the end of an adventure, then you have a little bit of a special case. Because there’s always more adventure that comes after the end of the adventure. You have a thing called the denouement. The denouement is the closing of the story. After the victory, the players go back to town and report their success and get rewarded and earn XP and celebrate. The denouement is of substantial importance. Never, ever separate the denouement from the adventure ending or arc ending or campaign ending.
If the adventure was about beating a dragon, say. And the party beats the dragon. Don’t make them wait until next session to return to town and celebrate their victory and count their treasure and tally the XP. This is, in fact, the only time when bookkeeping crap should be done at the end of a session.
But if it isn’t the actual END of an entire adventure or arc or campaign, end immediately after a victory, immediately after the reveal of a reversal, or immediately before an incitement to action.
Denial as Denouement
Let’s talk about the session denouement. As I mentioned, a denouement is a sort of tying up of things. It’s the ultimate resolution of the story. It immediately follows the climax. And it’s sometimes called “the falling action.” It actually comes from a French word meaning “to untie.”
Denouement is an important part of story structure because it slowly, gently eases people out of the story and makes the whole thing satisfying. It’s kind of like easing the car into the garage and letting the engine go quiet after a long drive. Or like cuddling after doing unspeakable and disgusting things with fellow humans.
Every session needs a denouement because every session needs to follow a good structure. But this is where things get kind of weird. A true denouement signals the end of a story. And most sessions don’t end the story. When a session DOES end the story, as I told you above, you make the denouement part of the game. If the session DOESN’T end the story, though, the best thing you can do is actually having a non-denouement. You leave the story hanging open. But you allow the players to transition themselves out of the game.
It comes down to this: as the players are cleaning up and putting their books away and all that crap, they are reflecting on the game that just happened. Or else, they are chatting about it. They are talking about what just happened and what’s going to happen next. The game is becoming fixed in their minds as they shift their brains out of the game. And you need to let that happen. It sounds like such a silly, small thing, but it’s a massive bit of psychological trickery to make your game sessions more memorable.
First of all, don’t engage in the post-session denouement. Just be quiet. Listen to them talk, respond when they ask a question with a simple answer, but stay quiet until people are actually going out the door. Then you can say good night and thank you and all that crap.
Second of all, don’t put ANYTHING between the end of the session, the denouement, and the departure. THAT is why you put all of your bookkeeping up front unless the adventure or campaign actually ended. You don’t want to break up the end of the last story beat and the players’ coming down from the game in their brains.
Start Right, End Right, and Change It Up
In the end, good session structure is about three things: starting right, ending right, and mixing up the middle. And it’s not that tough to pull off. You don’t even have to be ready to move things around. Oh sure, if you have a great scene to end your session with and you have the opportunity to juggle it into the right place, do that. By all means, be adaptable if you’re comfortable with that. But if you don’t (or can’t) juggle all of your scenes around, follow the structure I laid out and just make sure your game is built around variety.