Short form games are a newer type of RPG that I find fascinating. Rather than the standard convention slot of a one shot clocking in at four hours, slipping a short game in can happen practically anywhere in nearly any amount of time. Most recently my fascination led me to experiment with running five minute RPGs on the convention floor of Denver Comic Con for just about anyone I could catch. It was an interesting experience, and helped me distill the unprepped short game to what I would consider the absolute key components:
You don’t have a lot of time. I was running games that lasted between 3-7 minutes. However you start, it needs to leave nothing to chance in terms of gaining instant engagement from your player(s).
How much time do you really want to waste explaining rules? The answer for me in five minutes was: none. Your mileage may vary depending on the time frame you’re thinking of.
The scope of your story is going to be shorter. Where a campaign is the chapter book or the TV series and the one shot is the movie or a short story, a shorter game may be more like a YouTube video or in my case, the Vine. The shorter your game is, the less you will cover, so it’s important that you’re finding the most interesting moments to play. The way I like to think of this, since it is a social game, is how many decision points you’re going to cover. In five minutes, I can cover one major decision or action. In fifteen minutes you might have two or three decision or action moments.
Playing in a well established setting stereotype — fantasy for example, or wild west — gives you shorthand for describing and letting your players assume specific things about your setting. When you start trimming time from your game, you may simply not have time to describe everything anymore. Using shared tropes as shorthand eliminates the need to describe every detail. For example, if you play fantasy and tell your PC they are in a stone hallway in a dungeon, you both (and me writing this, and you reading this) probably just envisioned the same typical five foot wide D&D hallway with the occasional torch.
I run a lot of one shots and this is my favorite chant. This game is temporary, so you can really throw yourself into making fun and interesting decisions. There are no lasting consequences. The shorter the game is, the more true this becomes, because one piece that you get less of is player investment (and it matters less because you only need to keep their attention for that short amount of time). When I cut my games down to five minutes, we didn’t even necessarily end up with character names — just a brief description. It was fun to see these vignettes of characters in pretty desperate situations, and let them either succeed epically or die horribly trying. Because player engagement was high but player investment was low, we had a great time either way, no matter what type of person I was playing with.
The end result of this experiment was a bunch of heroic moments, punctuated by both success and tragedy, that left both me and the players jazzed and excited about playing. I’m not going to give up my normal play for five minute games, but as a means and method for a specific purpose I will absolutely be bringing them out again. I could also see this style of game working extremely well as an introductory tool to get new people into RPGs, especially if they are questioning how much time and effort to commit to a hobby they are not sure they’ll enjoy. And why shouldn’t we be able to play a game in whatever time is available to us?
While there are many games that I feel play better in a shorter time frame (I always run All Outta Bubblegum and Lasers and Feelings in two hour slots, not four), there are more and more games that are exploring this shorter play time intentionally and with purpose. A few that come to mind are Doll and The Sky is Grey and You Are Distressed from Ginger Goat Games, and Holding On by Morgan Davie. The four hour slot is a construct of convention time, and works well for more intensive systems, but we shouldn’t be constrained in when and how we play just because it’s traditional.
Do you know of or have some favorite short form games to run or play?
Edit: You can hear some five minute RPGs from Gen Con 2016 over on She’s a Super Geek  (finally!)