My history with RPGs encompasses an unusual variety of settings in which to play. Each different circumstance involved different session lengths and conditions, and so I feel that I am uniquely qualified to discuss the subject of session scheduling.
NB: The following is necessarily edited and omits a huge amount in favor of the relevant.
The Early Days
When I first got involved with RPGs, we played at a student facility within the University of New South Wales here in Sydney, on Saturdays. The facility, known as The Blue Room for reasons I never really understood, was used by students post-lessons which meant that we didn’t actually take possession of the premises until Noon, and even then had to share the facilities with non-gamers until 1-2 PM. Most had lunch while we waited for the students to go home.
We had use of the facilities until 6AM, in theory, though numbers started falling off at about midnight. That’s 10-16 hours of play each week.
Around 6 or 7 PM – after 5-6 hours play – we would break for dinner – usually about an hour. Between midnight and 1 AM, we would break again for a late-night snack and then play through until one of us announced reaching the limits of his endurance.
The whole atmosphere was very casual, and ten minutes lost here and there was never a problem – I can even remember one occasion when all the games came to a halt because a player was approaching the high score in Defender!
Campus Security were the only people not happy with this arrangement, and after lodging a number of grumbles with university management, a couple of students not actually part of our group had too much to drink and made a mess on university grounds, providing them with what they claimed to be a Causus Belli. Claiming that they were too busy monitoring our group to keep full control of the rest of the campus grounds, they succeeded in restricting us first to a 1AM finish, then Midnight, and then in getting us banned altogether.
Until the last of these restrictions, all this really did was to cut out the late-late-session, though the fact that we had no opportunity to continue for an extra hour or two if necessary to finish the current stage of an adventure had a profound psychological impact on everyone.
As the final hour or so approached, first the GM would begin rushing, almost forcing the pace, and then the players would begin feeling and reacting in the same manner. Roleplaying elements became submerged in favor of cursory descriptions of action; all the characters everyone began to resemble a Sly Stallone knockoff. The haste made for some incredibly thick-headed decision-making by both parties.
The Long-Weekend Social AD&D Game
In the course of the Queen’s Birthday long weekend (early June in our state calendar), I participated in a standalone social game held at a suburban home from Friday night until Sunday afternoon. This was the first (and last) time I’ve roleplayed in any game where the players were free to consume alcohol (and some did, to excess).
The whole event was incredibly casual. Half the group spent the evening gathered around the bonfire in the back yard, players were continually scattered all over the quarter-acre block, there was a continuous stream of barbequed steak and sausages for whoever wanted them, and gameplay was incredibly calm and slow – until about noon on Sunday, when the GM suddenly seemed to realise that there were only three hours or so left in the game session. That was when the panic set in; having spent 36 hours getting about 6 hours of play done, the GM then attempted to get another 6 hours worth into the final three hours. Nor was he completely sober at the time.
Predictably, the results were something of a mess. My character didn’t even enter play until mid-afternoon on Saturday, and some players never got their characters into play. There was no organization in the campaign, either; players were told what level of character to bring, but beyond that it was open slather. Character backgrounds were virtually non-existent, some were overpowered with magical goodies while others were underpowered, concepts were contradictory (three players decided that their characters were brothers without noticing that one worshipped Aphrodite (Greek Mythos), one worshipped Odin (Norse Mythos), and the third worshipped Set(Egyptian Mythos))!
The First Principle
These experiences gave me my first principle of session length: The psychological effects of available time are more important than the physical or social effects.
If you have too much time and not enough game, the focus of the game and the urgency of events will dissipate. The longer the session, the harder it is to get the pacing right. And, unless you get the pacing exactly right, at some point you will discover that there isn’t enough time left, and a state of slight panic will set in.
The MLC & Institute Of Technology Eras
Around October of 1981, it became clear that we were no longer welcome at the University Campus, and we started looking around for somewhere else to play. We ended up hiring some meeting rooms on the first floor of the MLC Centre building in North Sydney, rooms which were completely unused over the weekend. This was about two or three miles away from where I was living at the time so I was able to walk home over the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge. This was also when I first started to GM.
We gained access to the facilities when the security guard day shift arrived at 9 AM, and were required to vacate the premises at Midnight, when the evening shift finished. Because there was no competing demand for the facilities, they cost very little to hire, and there were quite a lot of people gaming at the time – sixty to seventy-five – so the price per head was even lower.
The day obviously broke naturally into three sessions – morning, afternoon, and evening – but a funny thing happened: no game started in the morning session went anywhere. They had trouble holding onto players or getting regular attendance and those players they did get seemed to have trouble maintaining concentration.
The Second Principle
It didn’t take very long for this to establish the second principle of game scheduling: Habits are powerful and persistent, no matter how inconvenient they may be.
Because we were all used to starting play after lunch, and spending time gossiping and chattering about geekish things prior, what happened was that the ‘general chatter’ period became extended through the morning. It became a time for board games and card games and character generation and even some game prep – anything and everything except actual play.
As a result, when the opening times varied over time (in the direction of starting later and ending earlier), not much changed. It was, in general, only a matter of cutting short the “gossip period”. Over time, we became well known to the security guards, and when eventually the building stopped using human security and relied on electronic alarm systems, we were entrusted with arrangements for keys.
During this period, state laws were enacted which required us (and other organizations, clubs, playgrounds, and the like) to have insurance, which in turn required us to organize into a formal club – “The New South Wales Historical Gaming Society”. It wasn’t so much a requirement targeting accidents and injuries to members as it was targeting accidents to incidental members of the public.
Because the biggest risk we faced was of somebody tripping over a bag full of books, and our core activities involved nothing more strenuous or risky than sitting down at a table, the premiums started off very low – from memory, our weekly fees rose from $1 to $2.
The problem was that each time we got a new risk assessor, they kept confusing us with historical reenactment societies, and especially The Society For Creative Anachronism (SCA) which carried out activities like mock combats. As a result, the premiums kept going up, and then being negotiated down – but never down quite as far as it had been the year before.
As a result, from the outside, it appeared to management of the MLC building that we were engaged in continual disputes with the various insurers (we used to chop and change regularly, always seeking the lowest premium).
The Institute Of Technology
Eventually, the MLC building was sold, and (in part) because of this dispute history – which looked worse on paper than it actually was – the new owners informed us that we would have to move elsewhere. Since we had been using the MLC building for years at this point – it must have been 1985 or ’86 – we now had a long history of trustworthy behavior – we were able to find new premises on the 26th floor of the Institute Of Technology, a technical college in central Sydney (which later became the University Of Technology).
We had access to a student recreation/gathering area on the 26th floor, and to one of the classrooms. Also on this floor were the facilities of the Institute’s Radio station, something that would quickly become significant. But I’ll get to that in a few minutes.
We had access to the 26th floor from Noon to 10PM. That suggests breaking the day into two equal segments of five hours each, with each of them having a meal break at the start.
Didn’t Happen. The half-hour from Noon to 12:30 – or so – was lost to lunch and gossip, and the hour from 12:30 to 1:30 – or sometimes 2 PM. If the chatting went over-long, as it sometimes did, it could be as late as 2:30 before “serious” game play got underway.
5PM soon proved to be too early for the evening meal. 6PM was more typical, and 6:30 was not uncommon. So play session one ran from about 2 (by the time set-up was complete) to about 6 (a total of about 4 hours) and session 2 ran from about 7 to about 10 (about 3 hours).
But this brought about an interesting phenomenon: because people were used to playing until Eleven, that final hour of mad panic didn’t happen any more in the evening session (though it always felt like we were stopping early). Because the afternoon sessions were also down an hour on what people were used to, the same thing happened – and the same “finishing too early” feeling obtained.
In other words, the Second Principle was being (quite accidentally) used to the benefit of our games.
These session times were important because of the number of games being played. When we had first moved to the MLC Building, GMs ran the same campaign every week, all day. Occasionally, a game would finish early and a different game would then start on a given day, usually after a meal break.
While at the MLC, the number of GMs running campaigns increased, and some GMs (myself included) began running multiple campaigns concurrently. There were a number of arrangements tried to organize this; we tried splitting the games by the evening meal, we tried splitting them by days of the month, we tried combinations and we tried running them as “what do the majority feel like playing?”. There were a number of arguements between GMs over whether or not one was being greedy in tying up players in their campaigns.
Ultimately, we ended up sorting out some unofficial round rules and drawing up a timetable. The three most popular campaigns (by number of players) were permitted a full day each; other campaigns had a half-day each. They were all organized by availability of existing players. It turned out that mine were two of the most popular campaigns, and that they had no players in common with the next two most popular campaigns. So these formed the 1-2 punch at the start of the month, when tables were at a premium, and for the other weeks of the month, it was session-by-session. Anyone wishing to start a new campaign simply had to find players who were available – or who were more interested in the new campaign than in continuing within the game they were currently signed up for.
The notion of a timetable, so that players knew when the games they were committed to were going to be played, did not go over well with everyone, but it prevented so many arguements that most accepted it as a necessary evil.
You can see how the timetable evolved from one of my early articles at Campaign Mastery, Clash Of The Timetables.
The Third Principle
The timetabling adventures through the years establish the Third Principle of game scheduling: Predictable schedules can create patterns of behavior which strengthen games – if they do not conflict with the Second principle.
Session lengths play a crucial role in timetable negotiations. They have different lengths – afternoon sessions tend to be longer than evening sessions. They have different attendance restrictions – afternoon sessions can be delayed by players who work Saturday mornings, evening sessions occasionally run afoul of other social functions. They have different psychologies – afternoon sessions have daylight and are better suited to heroic and friendly campaigns, while night-time campaigns are better suited to gothic, horror, and cinematic game styles, as well as anything sci-fi oriented, because the environment helps players buy into the game.
The Fourth Principle
This identifies the fourth principle of scheduling: the environment can reinforce or or undermine a game; schedule accordingly.
Radio Station Dramas
In winter, when they kept the doors closed to retain warmth, there was no problem, but in summer, when the staff of the radio station wanted to keep their doors open for additional ventilation, they found they couldn’t because of the noise from roleplaying in full heat.
After a couple of years, these complaints led to us being relegated to a couple of classrooms. The space available, which was already more confined than we had been used to, reduced even more dramatically. Then we got moved to even smaller classrooms on the 25th floor. The situation was becoming untenable, but having learned already how difficult it was to locate affordable venues located centrally, we made the best of it, expecting that once the weather cooled, we would be permitted to return to the 26th floor open area.
But then an incident occurred that brought an end to our time at the Institute. One occasional attendee who had been an irregular fixture since the Blue Room days took it apon himself to climb the fire stairs to the 26th floor and have a stickybeak inside the Radio Station facilities – and got caught. He subsequently became the first and only member to be expelled from the club; we all felt betrayed and let down by his behavior.
The Woodstock Era
Fortunately, we had always been wary of the possibility that we would have to move again, and had been constantly on the lookout for potential future venues. The facilities that we moved to were somewhat controversial at first, since they were many kilometers removed from the city centre, but we quickly became accustomed to them.
The hours of operation were very similar to those we had enjoyed at our previous venue, but the arrangement of rooms meant some changes to the established routines. The preliminary card and board games went away, replaced by the occasional game when a roleplaying session finished early.
This was a period of stability in game environment, which meant that the only changes were in the games that were being played and not when. We stayed at Woodstock for well over a decade, and it was only when the facility was slated for redevelopment by the city council (who owned it) that we reluctantly moved.
About the only change that took place was that the timing of the evening meal slowly crept a little later, finally stabilizing at around the 6:30-7:00 mark. In essence, this added an hour and a half to the morning sessions, at the expense of the evening sessions, and marked the end of those incidental side-games.
Attempting to even the balance
There were numerous attempts to even the balance in timing between the two sessions over the years, and none of them lasted very long – two weeks was a good run. This only reinforced the significance of second principle as a dominant factor. In fact, this point is sufficiently important to reinforce it as the Fifth Principle of scheduling – but I’ll get to that in a moment.
The Gamestore Era
And so we moved to where we gather to this day – most of the time – a first-story game store, where we have been based for about a decade. Since the store had its own insurance, we let our organization lapse into history. The store opens at 9 or 10 AM, and for the first few years, closed at 10PM. Did we start at that 9 or 10 time? Hear that hollow echo?
We started at the same time that we had been starting. People would show up between noon and one, eat lunch and chat until somewhere between 1 and 1:30, and start play between 1:30 and 2 PM.
After those initial years, the store was sold to new owners who were not themselves gamers, and hence the closing time was adjusted to between 6 PM and 6:30. Where previously, we had been running two games a day, suddenly there was only time for one – unless we started earlier and interrupted the first game with a meal break in the middle. Did we start earlier? Any guesses?
We started at exactly the same time that we had become used to starting. And people started adjusting their lives to take into account a departure from home timed to get them to the game within the Noon to 1:30 window. People started sleeping later, for example.
The Fifth Principle
And that brings me to that fifth and final Principle: Any ingrained habit will persist until people are forced to change it.
It didn’t matter that we had more time available in which to play – because it would have meant starting at a time earlier than that which had become convenient and routine, it simply didn’t happen. The best that could be done was ensuring that everyone got to the game as close to the regular starting time as possible rather than being a little more casual about it, and even that could not be done with any regularity.
The Final Principle
The final thing that I have noted over the years is that Regular Breaks break immersion – but strengthen it the rest of the time. While I haven’t exactly nailed down how often they should come and how long they should be, I do have some guidelines to offer.
When I was working for the Australian Bureau Of Statistics processing the Census in 1996-97 and in 2001-2, OH&S rules mandated a 5 minute break every 2 hours as the absolute minimum for workers using computer screens or performing tasks which required high levels of concentration. Having slightly more was found to actually increase productivity and attention to detail, especially on the part of decision-making. To ensure that the productivity targets were achieved within OH&S guidelines, the breaks were mandated as a scheduled 10 minutes, every hour. This meant that if necessary while working on an urgent task or to meet a deadline, staff could miss a break without violating the OH&S guidelines.
With the increased use of tablets and laptops even in tabletop gaming, those OH&S guidelines – and especially the serendipitous effects on concentration, decision-making, and attention to detail – seem to be entirely valid as guidelines for gaming.
Putting It All Together
Ultimately, session lengths are the result of a confluence of other factors – start time, finish time, and meal times. The latter form natural boundaries that should always be taken into account. The worst possible session length is two hours; the first hour, everyone is distracted with chatter and food and non-game social activities, and the last hour can produce time pressures that lead to poor decision-making. Every hour in between is at maximum efficiency and attentiveness provided that regular breaks of 5-10 minutes every hour are taken. Sessions longer than about 6 hours are unsustainable unless they are considerably longer (at least 2 more hours and preferably 3-5 more) and broken by a meal. The same sloppiness/distraction effects also affect the half-hour before and the half-hour after a meal break. Don’t bother trying to change when those meal breaks happen – it won’t work. Build your session times around those meal breaks and natural partitions and you’ll get more play squeezed into the hours available.
Gaming at other times
Having tried gaming on occasions other than Saturdays now and then, I have some additional advice about scheduling games at such times. I’m presenting these as something as a postscript for the sake of completeness, because they aren’t part of the main subject of the article. A recent survey that I saw showed that 90% of RPG gaming happens on a Saturday; the remainder of these comments are addressed at the other 10%.
Some weekday comments
Weekdays are problematic because there is always the consideration of work the next day to take into account. I’ve seen games break up as early as 9PM as a result – and when you started at about 6:30 or 7PM, that’s a problem. Beyond this additional complication, all the advice about Saturdays still applies.
Some Friday Night comments
The one exception to the preceding comments comes on Friday nights. For more than a year, I used to precede my Saturday games – first at the Blue Room and then at the MLC Building – with a Friday Night session. These have been supplemented with other occasions from time to time.
And what I’ve noticed is that there is little urgency and less focus. People want to unwind after the working week and don’t want to do anything that feels too much like more work.
I’ve seen some games that took advantage of this state of mind – Paranoia worked especially well – and some that tried to swim against the tide, and they failed spectacularly. Old-school mindless hack-and-slash also works quite well.
If your thoughtful, intelligent players turn into savage barbarians in every game sessions, and you’re playing on Friday Nights, a change of schedule might produce more roleplay and less mayhem.
Some Sunday comments
Sundays are just like Saturdays except that they also have the problems of a weeknight insofar as most people will have to go to work on Monday morning. The exception is a long weekend, when they really ARE just like a Saturday.
Nevertheless, there are a few differences, psychologically, between a Saturday and a Sunday. The latter is usually a little more relaxed, the calm-and-casual point of the week. Saturdays are a little more business-like. Again, this can be important to the style of game that you want to run. It’s not a major factor, but it is nevertheless a contributing factor.
A Caveat and a Conclusion
Of course, all of this relates to gaming in Sydney, Australia, in an organized group or the remnants of such a group. The majority of tabletop RPG gaming is conducted in people’s homes, and of course, most of it is outside Australia. So your experiences may be different to mine, and so far as the advice is concerned, YMMV.
When do you play – and how do the principles I have identified vary, based on your experience? Your comments might be invaluable advice to a novice gamer whose circumstances are more closely related to yours than to mine, so don’t hold back!