Thursday, April 27, 2017

Guest Post by Kabuki Kaiser - Playtime

My first box was the blue box from Holmes, with a typed French translation which came on stapled sheets. It was a birthday present, you know, something suitable for an 8-years old kid. Yes, I have been called «the midget» in all the clubs I went to for about 8 more years after that, we should create a new word for this, «ageism» maybe. Anyway, that was bad. Especially since I was all about Dungeon Mastering, and designing my own adventures, which I won't show you — ever. Turns out adults rarely like having a kid DM them badly.

You found the blue box in game stores. There weren't any hobby stores back then, and in game stores, you found Chess, checkers, 2-3 wargames, and a couple of card games. You had to look for players then, your neighbors, and classmates are a-okay, but if you wanted to find people as passionate as you were about it, you had to go to clubs. Roleplaying games started in clubs. We all know how they (possibly) came as either a spin-off or a discovery in the Wargaming community, and found their audience there.

In clubs, you found scores of people, all wanting to join your game, and eager to spend 12+ hours playing it. That explains why you needed megadungeons, and the blurb on Metamorphosis Alpha that says «for 2 to 24» players [http://www.headinjurytheater.com/gammaworld.htm]. You needed it to last, and to cater for a small crowd. I've ran high level AD&D adventures for 16 players during 14 hours, that was common.

In a second phase, people took it to the Family & Friends zone, and started to play with smaller groups, and for shorter duration. That's where your average «5 players, 8 hours» comes from. Because of this, the adventures' format had to change as well. A challenge for 16 players is a death trap for 5, and a megadungeon of 300 keyed locations, and more, is something you'll never finish exploring, leaving you unsatisfied. We all have dozens of characters in our drawers, who will never get to know the end of the campaign. The reason we have them is that we've kept on playing adventures that have been designed for another format, and game culture, and sometimes because shit happens, like moving places or being not friends with people anymore. Oddly, the RPG productions did not adapt very well to the new format at first. I can't think of a single RPG (counter-examples welcome) with mechanics telling you what to do with those lost characters, or when moving houses. But they did adapt eventually, and adventures came divided into smaller, more manageable chunks. From D&D3 onwards, everything is designed for your average «5 players, 8 hours», and caters to the Adventure of the Week format.

We're now getting in a third phase, where people have even less time, and smaller groups. We get old, and have kids, and jobs, and stuff to do. Everybody's busy with something, and the internet, as well as the rise of MMORPGs has taken a heavy toll on the average gamer's time. Some people play online, others at the office after hours or with the good old friends who haven't moved houses, so that the average format is rather «3 to 4 players, 4 hours». The problem with the format, and I think that's the main reason why major publishers keep pretending that the former is still on, is that you can't shove a lot of narrative content in 4 hours, especially when combats take up 2/3 of this time. It's a paradox but the solutions all come from the founding phase, the clubs' era: sandboxes are perfect for this, you can join, and drop them anytime. Goodman Games [http://goodman-games.com] have rebooted the 2 to 24 players paradigm with the Funnel [http://goodman-games.com/dungeon-crawl-classics-rpg], that lets you have 24 characters at the game table with 6 players. No wonder the funnel is so successful, and has inspired many, including myself [http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/168001/Seven-at-One-Blow]. That's what I did as well in Castle Gargantua [http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/149190/Castle-Gargantua]. You know this megadungeon you'll never get to complete? Well, it's a sandbox now so don't worry, you just keep on playing, and there's not much of an upkeep.

What we don't have yet, and is becoming necessary, is narrative arcs, and adventures divided in chunks of 4 hours, side treks, and mini-dungeons weaved together meaningfully so that they bring a sense of fulfillment, a story arc, and fun bit after bit. We don't have them in New School systems such as D&D5 because the mechanics take too much time, and get in the way, and we don't have them in the Old School Renaissance because everybody, including people who want to do new, and different stuff, still think with the game culture of the clubs' era, and seem keen to publish massive things nobody will ever play as is. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is what we play, and it's about time we adjust the games we design to what our lives have become.

Kabuki Kaiser

As stated in the past, The Tavern is open to guest posts and guest posters. Play on!


  1. An interesting note on lost characters and moving. Frequently with me and my friends when rerunning adventures in new towns for new groups, the lost characters will show up as NPCs doing something in the background.

  2. I think we do have the meaningful story arc systems for the 4 hour sessions -- they're the Adventure Paths. From what I've seen they are derided or hated by most of the vocal OSR bloggers, who can't believe that a DM wouldn't simply just write their own campaign. The adventure paths are really where Pathfinder takes the lead for me, even though I'm not at all a fan of the complexity of the game mechanics.

    I don't know how many of the bloggers that hate APs have kids, I suspect the number is low. We're lucky to get together once every two weeks for a 4 hour session.

    1. Do you complete an adventure in 4 hours or do you feel that they have been designed in such a way that a game session can be wrapped easily in 4 hours?

    2. I no longer play Pathfinder, but 5E, and can say that as we play either the campaign hardbacks, or the short adventures in Adventurers League, we rarely have run into trouble wrapping things up in 4 hours or so. But that's because we plan for it, and the short adventures come in 1, 2, 4, or 8 hours in length (planned running time). But we've also, as a local gaming community, had no issues with stretching out those adventures over a longer time frame, often the 4 hours lead into two evenings. At first we did it in part because there wasn't enough content to cover every Monday night, but then we enjoyed taking our time and making sure that role-ing got as much time as rolling in our playing. While I play mostly Adventurers League because that's readily available (and it took me two years to find regular gaming, and another two to find a group I truly love), the adventure modules from the era of my youth (AD&D) seem adaptable enough to the same style. My homebrewing is in its infancy as of yet, but that's at least partly due to home renos making a disaster zone of my gaming area.

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  4. True, I forgot to write about the Adventurers' League format, which goes well with 4-hours sessions. I don't mind longer adventures divided into chunks if this is clearly a design goal, this is going in the good way.


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