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More Fun, Less Work

A little while back, Ryan Dancey made an interesting comment in Mike Mearls’ LiveJournal [1]:

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 [2]. 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 [3] 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 [4], 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 [5], for example, where every player is also a GM), how can you address this imbalance? Here are a few ideas:

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 [6],” over on Deep in the Game [7]), and I’m interested in hearing other perspectives on this post, and on Ryan’s comment.

8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "More Fun, Less Work"

#1 Comment By Bankuei On July 21, 2005 @ 1:59 am

Hi,

Rules

I write up my own quicksheets, photocopy important pages, and I put the whole thing in order of what I think I’m going to reference the most. I usually grab a little presentation folder and organize the whole thing.

“Reference the most” usually means either something I have to look at for every single case of resolution (such as Burning Wheel’s Advancement Table) or else a resolution bit that I’m likely to use all the time but have a hard time remembering (such as L5R’s hairy social skills).

This handy little booklet option saves my books from endless paging and makes my life simple. It usually takes 10-30 minutes work, but it’s so much worth it.

Unbalanced Investment

I find that the unbalanced investement is usually higher at the beginning of a story arc, and cuts down as things continue. At first I tend to have to create a good conflict, and stat up LOTS of NPCs, as things continue, I have less and less to add. I also tend to write down a lot of Bangs (or trigger events) to give momentum to play, as things go on, it becomes easier and quicker to write these.

Though, the biggest thing I hate is having to stat NPCs. Right now L5R is earning a lot of my ire for that alone.

Not fun

I have to admit, most of the gaming experience has been a pile of not fun by way of convincing people that there has to be long boring parts in order to get to the good parts… Instead of prepping lots of delaying actions, we need to prep things that drive the conflict towards a finish, and with a bang!

Instead of giving people lame half clues, we need real info, real events that put power and decisions into the player’s hands- no more 10 sessions to find out the King is a vampire- he’s a vampire, and the King, and what are you going to do about it?

Of course, this also means the players can’t be deers in the headlights either, but that pretty much entirely links into my Jedi/Chicken Little rant 🙂

Chris

#2 Comment By Martin On July 21, 2005 @ 12:08 pm

I write up my own quicksheets, photocopy important pages, and I put the whole thing in order of what I think I’m going to reference the most. I usually grab a little presentation folder and organize the whole thing.

This is a cool idea, Chris! I’d probably switch the order to alphabetical for my own use, but that’s just me.

Photocopying stuff is a good tool in general — I photocopy monsters for D&D games so that I can scribble on them, and so that the players can’t tell what letter I’m looking at in the book. 😉 Same goes for frequently-used articles — I don’t know why doing it for rules had never ocurred to me!

Of course, this also means the players can’t be deers in the headlights either, but that pretty much entirely links into my Jedi/Chicken Little rant 🙂

I’m still thinking that rant over, which is why I haven’t responded to it. You make a lot of good points, though. 🙂

#3 Comment By John On July 21, 2005 @ 2:04 pm

Chris wrote:
Instead of giving people lame half clues, we need real info, real events that put power and decisions into the player’s hands- no more 10 sessions to find out the King is a vampire- he’s a vampire, and the King, and what are you going to do about it?

Nailed it. This is gonna be the topic of a rant of mine soon. Too many actual play experiences (of mine, but I bet you’re the same) involve delaying “the story” for as long as possible so things aren’t “too easy.”

But for some players, the fun is in the choices that they make (as players, and as actors of their characters) and choice comes from information and the power to affect change.

So, instead of spending 10 sessions slowly and carefully playing out every second of the attempted coup of the government (which yes, can be handled in a fun way) — another option is to have out the conflict in one session. Spend the whole session on it, and play through the six weeks it takes to either seize power or be assassinated or jailed or whatever. Then, bam! Things are different. What do you do now? Bet you can’t wait for next session.

Fun can come from getting things done, as in “resolved.” More of that, please!

Imagine a session with all of the tactics and intricacy of a typical D&D combat, but instead of determining that a monster is dead, you determine who now runs the Thieves guild. At this pace, 10 sessions is A LOT of “story.” A whole lot more than you get by painstakingly jumping over every possible hurdle, hour by hour, to feel like you “earned” it.

#4 Comment By Martin On July 21, 2005 @ 2:44 pm

(John) Imagine a session with all of the tactics and intricacy of a typical D&D combat, but instead of determining that a monster is dead, you determine who now runs the Thieves guild. At this pace, 10 sessions is A LOT of “story.”

This sounds like an absolutely fascinating way to play a game. I’ve only played Burning Wheel once — with Luke GMing, at last year’s GenCon — and this sounds like a perfect fit for the style of that session.

I can’t say for sure if it’d be a perfect fit for Burning Wheel, or just for Burning Wheel the way Luke ran it that one time — my guess is the former, though.

Dang, but that’s given me something to chew on! Constructing a model for how to handle this with a game that’s not specifically built for it (D&D, WoD, whatever) could be a really neat exercise.

#5 Comment By Bankuei On July 21, 2005 @ 3:26 pm

Hi Martin,

Constructing a model for how to handle this with a game that’s not specifically built for it (D&D, WoD, whatever) could be a really neat exercise.

Actually, when you look at BW, it’s pretty old school in a lot of ways, it just happens to nail conflict resolution and introducing conflict in a very good way. You could literally lift a lot of the ideas over to D&D and not “change the mechanics”(though in reality, you’re completely porting over scene framing and resolution ideas). Likewise with Primetime Adventures, Trollbabe, or Dogs in the Vineyard’s advice on scenes & establishing conflict.

What is a challenge, though, is trying to figure out how to get this idea across to players in a different game and getting them to use it on a regular basis, especially if they’re conditioned otherwise. Especially in-game responses and “meta-talk”, like, “This part is boring, let’s skip it”, “That was really cool”, etc.

I look forward to any ideas you come up with.

#6 Comment By Martin On July 21, 2005 @ 9:39 pm

(Chris) Actually, when you look at BW, it’s pretty old school in a lot of ways, it just happens to nail conflict resolution and introducing conflict in a very good way. You could literally lift a lot of the ideas over to D&D and not “change the mechanics”(though in reality, you’re completely porting over scene framing and resolution ideas). Likewise with Primetime Adventures, Trollbabe, or Dogs in the Vineyard’s advice on scenes & establishing conflict.

Guess what I’ll be checking out at GenCon this year (among other things)? Some of my recent reading on blogs and elsewhere was already leading me towards PTA and Dogs in the Vineyard, but this pretty much clinches it.

What is a challenge, though, is trying to figure out how to get this idea across to players in a different game and getting them to use it on a regular basis, especially if they’re conditioned otherwise.

Apart from just waiting for a moment that I’d like to skip, or that could benefit from a quick meta-discussion, I’m not sure how to approach this. It’ll certainly be on my back burners during play, and I’ll see what comes out of it. 🙂

#7 Comment By John On July 23, 2005 @ 2:29 am

Martin: Yes! Burning Wheel perfectly nails the kind of play I’m talking about. I’m glad you know about it. And you got to play with Luke, too. I’m jealous.

#8 Comment By Martin On July 23, 2005 @ 7:51 am

(John) Yes! Burning Wheel perfectly nails the kind of play I’m talking about. I’m glad you know about it. And you got to play with Luke, too. I’m jealous.

I was with two friends, and none of us had played BW before (two of us had read most of it, though). We all agreed that it was hands-down the best event we played at the con — Luke is an amazing GM, and we had a table full of great players (including Judd from The Forge, who is probably the best player I’ve ever met).

Needless to say, we made getting into the BW events at this year’s con our first priority. 🙂