This past week I was at Origins and doing my best to play all the RPGs I could. Mostly I ran games, meaning it was my job to get the game started. That means from sitting down at the table, getting characters made, and then getting the story going. I did this for a number of games, Hydro Hackers, The Warren, Swords Without Master, and For The Queen. Along the way, I started to notice how important that effort is in order to get a good game, and just how long the process can take. That is what I want to talk about today, something a friend called, Time To Game (TTG).
Credit to Scott R. for teaching me the term TTG.
Time To Game
Time to game is the time it takes from the time you start to play until you are playing the scenario that you have provided.
This concept is more important for one-shots and convention games, where you have a limited amount of time to play the game, and you have to get the game set up and the scenario started. In ongoing campaigns, this is not an issue because you have made your characters awhile ago and are just bringing them out from game to game.
There are a number of activities that get encompassed into this TTG phase of play. While not exhaustive, here are the most common high-level activities:
Depending on how common your game is you may have to explain very little or a lot of the setting to the players sitting down. If you are running something like Star Wars: Age of Rebellion your setting description can likely be pretty minimal, condensed down to something like: we are playing just after Episode 4 and we are on Dantooine. But if you are running something less familiar like Hydro Hacker Operatives then you need to have a description of the setting so that players have an idea about what the game is about.
So games or settings that are popular require less explanation and games that are not as popular require more.
Depending on your game you will either have to make characters up, select pre-gens, or some combination, with the goal that before you are done, everyone has a character ready for play. Many indie games encourage you to make characters at the table, and in Powered by the Apocalypse games that is pretty much the norm, with Playbooks designed to facilitate that process. Other games, that have more in-depth character creation processes (including those that require software assistance) are better to just have pre-gens to pass out.
If you are creating characters at the table this is often more time consuming than people picking out pre-gens.
Teach Important Rules
Similar to setting, the better known the game, the fewer rules need to be taught up front. In general, you should only be covering the most important rules before the game starts, and then introducing other rules once play has begun. If you do have to teach rules before play starts, then the focus should be on the core mechanic of the game.
For a game of Dungeon World very little needs to be explained up front, other than how a move works. In Hydro Hacker Operatives there are some special rules about Hydration and Sweat that need to be reviewed that are outside of what common PbtA games have. In something like SW: Age of Empire it would be good to review how the dice work for task resolution.
This will also be impacted by how experienced everyone at the table is. A table of people who have never played the system before requires more explanation than a table of veterans.
Finally, there needs to be an introduction of safety tools (don’t comment here if you object to safety tools…find my past articles about them and comment there). Playing convention games with a safety tool is a good idea.
Different games need different safety tools. A rollicking game of Action Movie World may only need an X-Card to keep it from getting out of hand. While a game of Turning Point (coming soon) has three different tools embedded into the game that require an introduction.
While the familiarity of safety tools can help speed this up, its always good to take a moment and make sure everyone is on the same page, before getting started.
That Adds Up
So when you look at those general categories, these things can add up. So I know that for Hydro Hacker Operatives it takes nearly an hour to go through all of that, with Character Generation being the longest part. In a four-hour game that is a quarter of the time for TTG, leaving three hours to run the game and conclude it before your time is up.
Tips for shorter TTG
So how can we improve on that? There are for sure efficiencies that we can find and we are going to look at those in a minute, but we also have to remember that there is a point of diminishing returns. If we cut things too deeply we run the risk of starting the game with players who are not ready to play, and we will spend a portion of the game time getting them up to speed.
So there is a sweet spot where we spend some time getting everyone ready to game that is not too long and leaves them prepared enough to play. Then during the game we can fill in the additional setting and rules.
So here are some ideas for how we can go about doing that for each of the sections.
Here we want to reduce the time talking to the players while they sit and listen, as much as possible. The best way to do that is to have handouts and other aids that we can give the players to look at as we are getting ready to play and while the game is going on. Remember the adage, a picture is worth a thousand words, and at least a few minutes of explanation at the table.
When we do have to introduce the setting verbally, avoid lengthy histories. In most cases, they are not relevant to getting the game going. For instance, in every scenario of Hydro Hacker Operatives I have written, you do not need to know the history of how the water table and with it the US government collapsed. I need only say that it happened.
When possible if you can use pre-gens. Use them. The act of selecting a pre-gen is always faster than making them at the table.
If your game encourages creating characters at the table, then figure out the order to make them, and directly lead the group in making them. Gently prod players along. This is one area where side chatter can creep up, so keep people focused and moving from one section to the next.
Teach Important Rules
The first thing to do is to ascertain the experience level at the table, and then teach to the least experienced. So if everyone at your table has experience in your system, then you can just do a quick check to see if anyone has questions or you can check to see if they know the rules you think are important.
But if one person at the table has never played before, or has only played a few times, then you need to teach some rules to them, and the experienced players need to chill while that happens.
As for teaching rules before the game starts, as I said above, stick with core mechanics: skill checks, combat rolls, etc. As a player, I like to know the core mechanics of a new game before I start playing so that I have some idea of how the things on my character sheet, and the dice I need, work. It helps me understand if my character is good at something or not, which will help me decide what actions I take during the game.
I do not advocate not teaching any rules upfront and waiting for play for the reason I mentioned above. If someone does not know how their character works they will make choices that may be dangerous or foolish only to regret them once they pick up the dice.
So figure out for the game you are playing the minimal rules you need to teach and write them down so that if you need to teach them, you do not wander off script.
This starts with knowing what tools you need for the game you are running. My minimum is an X-card for any game, but then for other games, I may pull in other tools.
You should also be fully familiar with how to explain and use any safety tool you use in the game or that comes with the game. I find that many gamers are still getting familiar with safety tools beyond the X-cards, and sometimes they don’t know how the X-card works. So make sure you have a very smooth explanation that is clear on how to use the took and what the tool does in terms of safety. Know things like an X-card revokes consent while Lines & Veils establish boundaries.
Put it to practice
If you frequently run convention games or at game days, look at your TTG and see if it is acceptable and perhaps set a goal to reduce it by 10% to 25%. Then review what you are presenting upfront compared to what is happening at the table, and see if there are things you can remove.
I highly recommend that you outline your pre-game activities, so that you stick to a script and do not ramble or wander into other topics. Put this at the front of your prep.
Then try it out to see what works and does not work, and keep tweaking between events.
Smooth and Fast
Time to Game is an important part of running convention and one-shot games. The longer it takes to get the game going, the less time you have to play your scenario. By being mindful and purposeful we can find ways to decrease the Time to Game while at the same time making sure that all players are prepared to play when the scenario starts.
What are the things that hang you up when you are introducing a game? What tips do you have for reducing the TTG for a game? What games hit the table faster/smoother than others?