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Friday, March 3, 2017

Planning a healthy RPG weekend

 One of roleplaying groups I run play over extended weekends with a total play time of more than 30 hours. For this group I do a detailed planning and post-play analysis in an Excel workbook which I have made ready for download and use for others here. The tool also allows to plan chapters and single scenes beforehand and a bit of analysis on how you spend your gaming time.

In the following, I will outline why I came up with such a tool and for what purposes it can be useful. It has a lot to do with how keeping a sustainable enjoyable atmosphere around for a long time, considering health, group dynamics and dramaturgy. I will then describe the tool in a little more detail. I close with some observations I have made while using the tool.




Why and when doing time scheduling?


My longstanding RPG group lives or used to live all over Europe so we could only see each other every few months. We then coordinate our schedules that we have at least one additional game day of gaming. Usually, people arrive Thursday night and leave Monday morning the latest. So Friday, Saturday and Sunday are gaming days. In the past, we played excessively at the beginning and then energy was dwindling rapidly towards the end of the weekend to the point where people dropped out, the mood changed negatively due to sleep deprivation or not eating / drinking healthy etc.

We thought a lot about it and how we could keep the level of excitement which makes us forget stopping to play late at night at the beginning of the weekend but bring each day and possibly each session to a satisfying end.

This group is playing a famous module from the Germany’s TheDark Eye RPG, the Borbarad campaign, which is a pretty linear adventure from the 90s with more than a 1,000 pages. It’s epic and in a traditional campaign style has a minor dramatic climax every 5 to 10 hours of play and a big finale every 30 to 40 hours with a total play time of expected 300 hours of play. Taking into account the long breaks between sessions (between 3 and 4 months) it would be nice to end on a finale but that doesn’t always work out. 

The campaign has very distinct settings, genres and atmospheres it crosses from archaeological inquiries, diplomatic missions, dungeon crawls, the horror of war, fairy tales to mystical inner journeys, so overlapping to another session is often enough not possible at all. Then we prefer to skip some parts in mutual agreement or extend them to make up another full session.
Time table from actual gaming session,
Borbarad campaign

So eating healthy, getting enough sleep and taking into account the dramaturgic arc are the first elements for planning the weekend.

Another dimension highly relevant for me is group dynamics. People are friends privately and hadn’t seen each other for months when we come together. Taking into account for the relevant need of simple chat time is important for us for having a satisfying weekend. Moreover, gaming for such long sessions hardly ever comes without some tension, misunderstandings accumulating to real problems and missed expectations.

We therefor start every day with an expectation management session. Before we end a single game session we do a short debriefing. We use various techniques here since I believe that changing the format freshens up everybody’s energy for doing proper debriefing. Depending on the topic of the upcoming sessions we also like to do workshops or warm-ups to prepare for what is coming. This can be on how to play horror, how to use safety techniques, how to reflect inner turmoil characters might have had after life changing events etc.  What I learned from Nordic Larp and story games comes in handy very often for that. My latest musing is a lot about ritualising our play.

But there is also space to nerdily discuss rules clarifications and mechanics. Pretty often, we try to bring in new mechanics from new games we have heard about or played in. Originally, the group used The Dark Eye 4 (DSA4.1) with plenty of house rules, we then moved to an adaptation of Fate Core for several years before returning to DSA5. Since last year we play with the Powered by Aventurien set, a bastard system between DSA5 and PbtA. But introducing new mechanics also only for specific situations will be a constant driver for us exploring the possibilities of roleplay.

InGame, it’s important to us to leave space for discussing what happened last time since often enough several months have passed. We have a campaign wiki which we update between sessions and people bring in what they remembered and what they consider worthy to remember and to celebrate from the previous weekend. Sometimes, the nature of the campaign we play demands to take time to put together everything we have learnt so far or to better understand the opposition and their motivation. InGame we explicitly state when we want to have time for such group based information gathering and analysis and keep it separate from actual play. That means giving such discussions a beginning and an end point helped us a lot to keep energy high and avoid confusion about what is going on.

The last part of activities we have an eye on is the one on developing the group and the characters. For a long campaign with deep levels of character immersion we consider it to be important to dedicate sufficient time to discuss and review where the group of characters is going, how every single character has developed and how we would like to see that reflected in play. Traditionally, we could call this “level up”-time but by now there is much more behind this for us. Techniques and mechanics from indie games and Nordic Larp bring in additional tools on how to approach character and group development for us.

Finally, we wouldn’t be able to play all weekend long without proper logistics. Obviously, this means dedicating time slots for re-arranging furniture, dressing up the game table and room, cleaning up etc.

How the time table works

The following table is summarising all the activities described above which we distinguish when laying out the weekend’s time table. We discuss the time table by assigning an amount of time to each of the activities. For example, for five days 40 hours is a reasonable amount of time for sleep. In the end, some people always have a more difficult time in finding an end to the day than others and alone for that it’s good to have a deadline which allows at least for 7 hours of real sleep.

Arrival time and travel home vary vastly obviously and can be seen as placeholders for the general time people haven’t arrived yet.

Category
Activity
Description
Logistics
Arrival
Traveling to location
Travel home
Traveling home
Social
Welcome
Time while people arrive

Organisational
Shopping, planning organisational stuff

Clean-up
Move furniture, clean space before and after

Recreation
Idle time, offtopic chat
Food
Eat, prepare, order food
Sleep
Sleep
keeping the energy level high by sufficient sleep
Meta
Expectation mgmt
Exchange on what to expect from the rest of the day

Retro
Positive feedback and debriefing on the last session

Warm Up
Introduction games, unrelated to the main game for warm up

Rules discussion
Rules clarifications, discussion of mechanics
Development
Character review
Reviewing individual characters

Character development
Further developing characters (leveling up, refining concepts)

Group review
Reviewing group dynamics, group set-up

Group development
Further developing group concept
Play
InGame Wrapup
What happened last session

InGame Workshop
out of character discussions on what is going on InGame (tactics etc.)

Play
InGame action and adventure

The categories are not set in stone and we revise them frequently. However, keeping them more or less the same allows for comparison between weekends to see how if we use our time differently. That helps us to reflect about if our experience differs from what we see in the comparison. We also like to compare what we had planned for and what the actual time spent was.
Activity
Total
Planned
Diff
Arrival
9
11
-2.0
Travel home
11
13
-2.0
Welcome
1.5
1.5
0.0
Organisational
2
1
1.0
Clean-up
2.5
2
0.5
Recreation
8
7
1.0
Food
5
5.5
-0.5
Sleep
42
40
2.0
Expectation mgmt
0.5
2
-1.5
Retro
4
2
2.0
Warm Up
1
0.5
0.5
Rules discussion
0.5
0.5
0.0
Character review
1.5
1
0.5
Character development
0.5
1
-0.5
Group review
0
0
0.0
Group development
0
0
0.0
InGame Wrapup
0
0.5
-0.5
InGame Workshop
1
0.5
0.5
Play
30
31
-1.0
TOTAL
120
120

Main categories
Total
Planned
%
Play
31
32
-3%
Development
2
2
+0%
Meta
6
5
+20%
Social
19
17
+12%
TOTAL
58
56
+4%

When the time table is finished we print it several times and put it on relevant places like the kitchen, the smoking area etc. Since I use my laptop relatively often in play to look up notes, push handouts and pictures of NPCs and locations on a second screen, I update the time table while we play on my computer.

The following table shows how our last weekend looked in real, i.e. how we actually used our time. We played a bit longer into the night than what we planned to. We decided to start the actual play only on Friday and used the short time slot to play on Thursday to play Jason Morningstar’s “LastStand” with our campaign characters but in an alternative reality.

Time
Thursday
Friday
Saturday
Sunday
Monday
08:00:00
Arrival
Sleep
Sleep
Sleep
Sleep
08:30:00
Arrival
Sleep
Sleep
Sleep
Sleep
09:00:00
Arrival
Clean-up
Sleep
Sleep
Sleep
09:30:00
Arrival
Recreation
Sleep
Sleep
Food
10:00:00
Arrival
Organisational
Food
Sleep
Recreation
10:30:00
Arrival
Organisational
Recreation
Recreation
Clean-up
11:00:00
Arrival
Food
Character devel.
Food
Clean-up
11:30:00
Arrival
Food
Retro
Retro
Clean-up
12:00:00
Arrival
Play
Retro
Expectation mgmt
Recreation
12:30:00
Arrival
Play
Play
Play
Recreation
13:00:00
Arrival
Play
Play
Play
Travel home
13:30:00
Arrival
Play
Play
Play
Travel home
14:00:00
Arrival
Play
Recreation
Play
Travel home
14:30:00
Arrival
Play
Food
Play
Travel home
15:00:00
Arrival
Play
Play
Recreation
Travel home
15:30:00
Arrival
Play
Play
Play
Travel home
16:00:00
Arrival
Play
Play
Play
Travel home
16:30:00
Arrival
Play
Play
Play
Travel home
17:00:00
Welcome
Play
Play
Play
Travel home
17:30:00
Welcome
Food
Play
Food
Travel home
18:00:00
Organisational
Play
Play
Play
Travel home
18:30:00
Welcome
Play
Play
Play
Travel home
19:00:00
Clean-up
Play
Recreation
Recreation
Travel home
19:30:00
Organisational
Play
Play
Play
Travel home
20:00:00
Food
Play
Play
Play
Travel home
20:30:00
Character review
Play
Play
Play
Travel home
21:00:00
Character review
Play
Food
Play
Travel home
21:30:00
Character review
Recreation
Play
Retro
Travel home
22:00:00
Warm Up
Play
Play
Rules discussion
Travel home
22:30:00
Warm Up
Play
Play
Retro
Travel home
23:00:00
InGame Workshop
Play
Play
Recreation
Travel home
23:30:00
InGame Workshop
Play
Play
Retro
Travel home
00:00:00
Recreation
Play
Play
Recreation
Sleep
00:30:00
Sleep
Play
Play
Sleep
Sleep
01:00:00
Sleep
Retro
Retro
Sleep
Sleep
01:30:00
Sleep
Recreation
Recreation
Sleep
Sleep

Chapter and scene planning

Though the players and I as the GM collaboratively fill the time table, I also plan for how the chapters and scenes of the upcoming adventure might unfold on the time table. For what simply displays as “Play” in the time table above, is filled with names of the chapters and scenes planned by me. This way I can see when we might reach which part of the story and I have better control over questions like if I should skip a scene or can extend on something the players got more excited about.
tables with scenes and aggregates screenshot
This obviously is something which only applies to that degree to a traditional module as the one we are currently playing. Still, for people who strictly play “to find out” (which we still do within the campaign’s framework as much as possible) or do something less linear or sit in a sandbox this is less useful on the planning dimension but could still be interesting to track to see what has taken how much time etc.

For doing so, I divide the upcoming part of the module into chapters and subordinated scenes. For each scene I estimate how much time we might spent with it. The tool calculates the total time of all scenes and I can compare that with the actual time to play we have. The following table shows the scenes we played in our last weekend with actual play time. Comparing with planned scenes and times is more difficult here, since often scenes are added in play and others might be skipped entirely. [SPOILERS for the 4th part of the Borbarad campaign coming in! Simply skip the next three pictures / tables]

Chapter
Scene
Length
Total
Setting the scene
On the run
0.5
0.5

Four harpys
0.5
1

What happened here recently
0.5
1.5
Ssel'Althach
Das kühne Tier mit dem Krötensinn
1
2.5
Cabale in Tuzak
Situation at the capital
1
3.5

Being hunted by the KGIA
3
6.5

Preparing for battle
1.5
8

Attacking the palace
3
11

The Lord of Demons
2
13

Getting your breath back
0.5
13.5
A ward of ancient times
Dragon egg academy
1
14.5

Preparing for a journey
1
15.5

Bugs from out of time
1
16.5

Attack in Anchopal
2
18.5

Bravaldi's expedition
1
19.5

With the Zahori
0.5
20

The Qabalya
0.5
20.5

The grave robber duchess
3
23.5

The Mage's grave
4
27.5

The son of the Duke
1
28.5

Hasrabal of Goria
0.5
29

Intrigues in Rashdul
2
31

The Excel tool now automatically fills the time table slots dedicated for “Play” with the scenes. Two views are available: chapter view which shows the name of the respective chapter the scene belongs to and scene view showing the single scenes as in the table below. There are also different options on how to colour the scenes. They either simply alternate between scenes so the beginning of new scenes is easier to detect. Or they represent the colour of the scene’s dominating play style (learn more about that in the next chapter).

Time
Friday
Saturday
Sunday
12:00:00
What happened here


12:30:00
Das kühne Tier
Getting your breath back
The Mage's grave
13:00:00
Das kühne Tier
Dragon egg academy
The Mage's grave
13:30:00
Situation at the capital
Dragon egg academy
The Mage's grave
14:00:00
Situation at the capital

The Mage's grave
14:30:00
Being hunted by the KGIA

The Mage's grave
15:00:00
Being hunted by the KGIA
Preparing for a journey

15:30:00
Being hunted by the KGIA
Preparing for a journey
The Mage's grave
16:00:00
Being hunted by the KGIA
Bugs from out of time
The Mage's grave
16:30:00
Being hunted by the KGIA
Bugs from out of time
The Mage's grave
17:00:00
Being hunted by the KGIA
Attack in Anchopal
The son of the Duke
17:30:00

Attack in Anchopal

18:00:00
Preparing for battle
Attack in Anchopal
The son of the Duke
18:30:00
Preparing for battle
Attack in Anchopal
Hasrabal of Goria
19:00:00
Preparing for battle


19:30:00
Attacking the palace
Bravaldi's expedition
Intrigues in Rashdul
20:00:00
Attacking the palace
Bravaldi's expedition
Intrigues in Rashdul
20:30:00
Attacking the palace
With the Zahori
Intrigues in Rashdul
21:00:00
Attacking the palace

Intrigues in Rashdul
21:30:00

The Qabalya

22:00:00
Attacking the palace
The grave robber duchess

22:30:00
Attacking the palace
The grave robber duchess

23:00:00
The Lord of Demons
The grave robber duchess

23:30:00
The Lord of Demons
The grave robber duchess

00:00:00
The Lord of Demons
The grave robber duchess

00:30:00
The Lord of Demons
The grave robber duchess


While playing I continuously use breaks to update the tool to see where things are going for the current session.
As can be seen we were successful in ending scenes towards the end of each day. On Friday, we needed a break in the middle of the last session since we ran out of energy. The last scene on Sunday had a strong sandbox style and therefore could be perfectly interrupted without hassle when we ran out of time. We ended early enough on Sunday to have sufficient time for a retrospective and what we learnt from the new mechanics we used.

Analysing Playstyle in scenes


There is one more functionality in the Excel workbook which can be used but also ignored if not relevant for the group. What I like to do is identifying what playstyle was relevant in which scene and to which degree it was present. My group has a rough idea of what they like in roleplaying and the right mix of different playstyles adds a lot to a good experience. For my group I distinguish the following four areas:

Roadmovie scenes appear relatively often in a classic module. They contain a scripted story which the players are supposed to follow. However, in contrast to their bad reputation, a group conscious of moving along certain rails can use the freedom they have along the road for character and NPC interaction and simple scenes can turn into beautiful vignettes building up for the good of the overall story. Roadmovie like scenes in previous sessions have been journeys through adventurous landscapes or meetings with NPCs who offer plot hooks.

Sandbox scenes are defined here as scenes where the set-up is fixed but approach and outcome are highly flexible and open. Previous sandbox dominant scenes have been investigations in a city, overcoming a group of dangerous bandits hiding in the forest etc.

Deep and intense character play is present in many scenes but can also be the dominant topic of a scene. Especially scenes which are heavily intertwined with a character’s background and emotions have a chance to shine with character play.

Conflict scenes are meant to be scenes where mechanics on hit points and harm are pulled in. This is usually physical conflict but can obviously also be any other kind of challenge for the characters’ integrity.

The tool allows to distribute points per playstyle to any scene to reflect which playstyle was present to which degree (e.g. 2 points on Roadmovie, 3 points on Sandbox). Excel is then calculating the assigned points into percentage values (40% Roadmovie, 60% Sandbox) and calculates on a total level which playstyle has taking up how much time over the weekend.

Scene
Main play style
Roadmovie
Sandbox
Character play
Conflict
On the run
Character play
0%
0%
100%
0%
Four harpys
Roadmovie
100%
0%
0%
0%
What happened here recently
Roadmovie
100%
0%
0%
0%
Das kühne Tier mit dem Krötensinn
Character play
0%
0%
100%
0%
Situation at the capital
Sandbox
25%
50%
25%
0%
Being hunted by the KGIA
Sandbox
0%
67%
25%
8%
Preparing for battle
Roadmovie
100%
0%
0%
0%
Attacking the palace
Conflict
0%
0%
9%
91%
The Lord of Demons
Conflict
0%
0%
14%
86%
Getting your breath back
Sandbox
0%
100%
0%
0%
Dragon egg academy
Roadmovie
83%
0%
17%
0%
Preparing for a journey
Sandbox
47%
53%
0%
0%
Bugs from out of time
Roadmovie
53%
0%
47%
0%
Attack in Anchopal
Conflict
17%
0%
17%
67%
Bravaldi's expedition
Character play
11%
11%
78%
0%
With the Zahori
Character play
17%
0%
83%
0%
The Qabalya
Roadmovie
100%
0%
0%
0%
The grave robber duchess
Sandbox
0%
55%
45%
0%
The Mage's grave
Conflict
20%
30%
10%
40%
The son of the Duke
Character play
17%
0%
83%
0%
Hasrabal of Goria
Roadmovie
83%
0%
17%
0%
Intrigues in Rashdul
Character play
8%
42%
50%
0%

I assign the points in planning of the scenes and hence get an overview how much of our time we probably will spend on let’s say combat versus city exploration. I can then arrange for scenes or changes in scenes if I feel that the distribution does not fit the group’s expectations for the weekend.

Retrospectively I re-evaluate my expectations and adjust the scene length to actual play to get a better picture of what we were mainly doing over the weekend.

Play style
Time
%
Colour
Description
Roadmovie
7.2
23%
green
Scene by scene in a (on a large scale) scripted story
Sandbox
7.3
24%
yellow
Free play and interaction in a set environment
Character play
8.9
29%
blue
Intensive in-character play focused on the PCs
Conflict
7.6
25%
red
Conflicts heavily reflected in mechanics
Not assigned
0.0
0%
black
Scenes with a tie in any of the above styles
TOTAL
31.0



Observations and conclusion


I have been using this tool now for four weekends with the largest chunk of refinements after the first weekend which means the last three weekends are comparable. The result is better planning from my side, a higher degree of collaboration within the group on what we want to focus on and what is important for us. The post-analysis is great food for thought for us.

Our sleeping pattern has significantly improved. Having dedicated time for non-game relevant personal exchange brought huge benefits to play as tempting as it always was for all us to go “100% into gaming nonstop”. Expectation management and retrospectives have brought to light potential conflicts which otherwise could have undermined the experience for some or all of us significantly.

What we as a group who doesn’t see each other often do as well is having monthly online conversations where all kind of topics can be brought up and be discussed. That is an additional layer of exchange which is independent of the Excel tool but highly important for our experience. We document these discussions online if necessary and use the time before the next weekend to come to a conclusion about unresolved issues. For example, a problematic scene which left us all unhappy after one weekend was brought up in one of those online meetings. Everybody brought in what they had to say and in the next meeting we had a plan how to overcome the challenge.

When telling people online about my analyses, I often hear that I would “overengineer” or “taking the fun out of playing”. That might be true for others if they would use such a tool. It definitely is not the case for me and my group. Indeed, every statistical analysis, every attempt to bring a group experience into the realm of two-dimensional tables needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Still though, opening up for the sheer existence of a framework around what we call play and taking it with the seriousness of any other intellectual or emotional based group experience is worth having a look at.

In Nordic Larp theory it is often said that the game consists of many surrounding layers around actual play. That is definitely true as well for tabletop RPGs. The way one includes the surrounding bits is up to every group to decide. Time tables and playstyle aggregates may look boring but I’m sure some groups could profit from putting some thoughts on how they spend their time.


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