A little while back, Ryan Dancey made an interesting comment in Mike Mearls’ LiveJournal:

Dave Wise, who was one of my Brand Managers at WotC, and was a talented writer and editor for TSR, is married to the person who first made the observation, after watching his gaming group, that D&D seemed like 20 minutes of fun packed into four hours – which was her way of saying “shouldn’t this game be more fun, considering the work and time everyone seems to be putting into it?”

Assuming that you want to keep playing the games you’re already playing, how can you improve the “work to fun” ratio of every session?

The way I see it, a lot of the work that goes into a gaming session — whether you’re a player or a GM — is actually fun: building characters, levelling up, designing adventures, and so forth. To put it another way, while these things might be “work” in another context, in gaming they tend to be enjoyable. For this post, I’m going to define work as a combination of three things:

  1. Wrestling with the rules.
  2. Unbalanced investment in the game.
  3. Time spent not having fun.

…and fun as: primarily actual gaming, but also table talk and socializing during the game. Some groups prefer more of one than the other, and some contexts lend themselves more to one than the other (convention vs. home game, for example), but they’re both an important part of gaming.

Take a look at the rest of Ryan’s comment. As I read it, he’s talking about designing games to be efficient, so that playing them requires less work, and about mapping out guidelines that get gamers to more fun, more quickly. And that ratio, 20 minutes in 4 hours? It’s 12:1. If Ryan is right, that’s waaaay too much time spent not having enough fun.

I’m more interested in the second element — improving the games that you’re already playing — although I do want to touch on the first one as well. Let’s hit the work items one by one:

1. Wrestling with the rules

I’ve been running and playing D&D 3e since it came out, and I still can’t stand grappling. In all that time, I think I’ve gamed with two people who understood the rules for grappling and could use them effortlessly during a game. I’ve met many more who groan every time the word “grappling” comes up (myself included). To my mind, time spent puzzling through the grappling rules in a d20 game is work, not fun.

So how do you get around rules like this in your games? Not using them is always an option (although not necessarily the most satisfying option), as is finding an alternate approach — perhaps one that someone has written up online. In the case of the grappling example, Fiery Dragon made a neat set of cards that streamline a number of combat rules, including grappling, and put them in a format that’s easy to use at the table. (These are part of their first Battle Box, if you’re curious.) You can also talk those rules over with your group, and see if you can come up with improvements that are uniquely suited to your game.

That said, I view eliminating inefficient and timewasting rules as being primarily a design problem, so I’m going to move on.

2. Unbalanced investment in the game

In most games, the GM does much, much more work than the players — both during the game and in between sessions. Granted, this comes with the territory, and a lot of that work is quite enjoyable (or no one would do it!) — but sometimes that imabalance can be pretty frustrating as a GM.

Part and parcel with this is the fact that a lot of the time, the “average” GM has more invested in the game than the “average” player. That’s not a slam against players: the way most mainstream games are constructed, this imbalance is either explicit in the system or implicit in the way the game is played. Heck, it’s pretty much ingrained in the hobby as a whole.

Assuming you’re not already playing a game that handles the GM/player investment balance differently (Universalis, for example, where every player is also a GM), how can you address this imbalance? Here are a few ideas:

  • Get your players involved in creating parts of the game (through their character backgrounds, for instance)
  • Actively solicit feedback from your players, and act on it.
  • Have players who aren’t part of a scene take on the roles of NPCs.
  • Give rewards to encourage involvement (action points for doing cool things, XP for writing character journals, etc.).
  • Switch GMs periodically (a round-robin game).

That’s a short list for an important question — I’d love to hear your suggestions on this topic!

3. Time spent not having fun

What’s fun for your group? Take a look back at one of your game sessions: which parts had everyone involved, went by really quickly and are still being talked about long afterwards? My guess: there was probably conflict (not necessarily combat), everyone was acting in-character — and everyone had something invested in the outcome of that scene.

There’s an element of luck involved in creating memorable moments like that — no one’s missing from the table, everyone’s alert and not over-tired, etc. — but it’s not all luck. Think about watching a good action movie: even when there’s no action onscreen, you’re still enjoying the movie — because every element of it has been carefully thought-out and put together to be enjoyable.

It’s not as simple as saying, “Make your game like a good action movie,” though, or I wouldn’t be writing this. But there are some useful similarities between the two, particularly in the areas of pacing and details.

Many games contain advice to this effect: if nothing much is going to have for X amount of time, cut to the next time when something happens. Or, “The night passes uneventfully.” We all do that, and it’s a great start, but I think a lot of GMs are afraid to skip too much — I know I am, at times.

This ties into the other similarity, details: a good movie doesn’t waste a single moment on unimportant things. I think this is a pretty good maxim to apply to RPGs, as well. For example, in my last D&D game I found out that some of the players were intensely bored by item management, while other were excited about it.

We talked about it as a group, and solved the problem by moving most item management to email (between sessions) and creating some house rules to speed up the process. The result? We got to do more of the stuff that everyone liked during game sessions, and the folks who enjoyed item management still got their fix.

I know there’s a lot more that can be said on these topics (for example, take a peek at Bankuei’s post, “Roadmap to play,” over on Deep in the Game), and I’m interested in hearing other perspectives on this post, and on Ryan’s comment.