As a thirtysomething gamer, my groups tend to be made up of people with careers and families. As such, we don’t have a lot of time to game. In some cases, we’re lucky to set aside three hours a week (or every two weeks) to game. And as those of you that have GMed for any significant period of time know, setting aside three hours does not equal three hours of play.

Short sessions can be a blessing and a curse for GMs. It’s a blessing in the sense that there’s less to prep for. It’s much easier to prepare two hours’ worth of material than six hours’ worth. Depending on the system, a single combat or intense negotiation could eat up most of that time.

On the flip side, a short session can also be a curse. An investigative mystery could take several sessions to solve, during which players forget key information from previous sessions. A single PC’s subplot could sideline the entire session. Finally, a meandering plot can lead to apathy and adventure fatigue, which could cause attendance issues.

Here are few things I’ve learned from running short sessions:

Set a Session Goal. Every session should make the players feel that they’ve accomplished (or had a chance to accomplish) something. Often, you can figure this out in advance. For example, the PCs are investigating a criminal gang that has been expanding their operations in a new area of the city. Your first session goal might be to have the PCs discover why they are expanding operations (a new, more ruthless gang is forcing them out of their old territiory) by confronting the gang leader.

Keep the Plot Moving. This goes hand in hand with setting the session goal. Don’t let the players spin their wheels for too long. If they need a clue, provide one. If they need guidance, aid them. If they are way off the track, bring them back. While red herrings can be fun, an extended red herring could eat up the entire session (and then some) and unnecessarily slow the adventure to a crawl. Worse, you might find some overworked players nodding off.

Recap at the Beginning. If you’re running short sessions, it’s probably because you and your fellow gamers don’t have a lot of free time. If you want to keep things moving, give a quick recap at the beginning of each session. This will refresh the players’ memories and correct any misremembered information.

Trim the Subplots. Most campaigns have subplots. A superhero may be trying to keep her identity secret from her boyfriend. A smuggler may have to avoid bounty hunters at every starport. Two PCs may start a romance. In some cases, the players may actually enjoy the subplots more than the actual adventure (this is common in superhero campaigns, where the trials and tribulations of maintaining a secret identity can be much more fun than beating up the villain of the week). Subplots, however, have a tendency to brush the main plot aside and, in some cases, leave some players spending the entire session watching another player have fun. While subplots should not be discouraged, you should limit the time spent on them, especially if they add nothing to the main adventure.

Keep Investigations Simple. If you are running an investigative adventure, don’t load up on the red herrings, dead ends, and clue trails. Start easy; you can always add more layers once your players are more comfortable. In most cases, a three-act model is sufficient. The PCs gather clues in Act I; this leads them to a confrontation and more clues in Act II; which leads to a final confrontation in Act III.

Use a comfortable rules set. The more comfortable your group is with the rules, the less time is spent rifling through rulebooks during the session. Also, pick a system that can resolve conflicts (especially combat, D&D 3.5, I’m looking at you!) relatively quickly. I once ran a 7th Sea campaign where players actively resisted having to fight, because they knew it would eat up the entire session.

Keep Important Rules at Hand. Always have the most important rules ready. GM screens are great for this, but a cheat sheet or two can be just as effective. If a PC has special abilities, give her a crib sheet with those abilities spelled out.

Those are few of my guidelines, how about you? How do you run an effective short session?