More with Less: Tight Loops

More with Less: Tight Loops

I talk with Chris Chinn about games a lot these days. We talk about RPGs on twitter. We talk about them while playing Borderlands. We talk about  RPGs while playing RPGs. One thing  out of many things we agree on:  RPGs take too long.

I like when RPGs have movement and pacing and momentum.  The game flows from one scene/element to the next in a logical and brisk matter.  I think that many of our games are built and structured against this.

I agree with what Chris says in the linked article. I’ve also been chewing on it on my own.

The first problem I see is the assumption that players will have to carve out a 4 hour block of time to play. It carves out an expectation that the game must fill a sizable chunk of time and our play will expand to fill it. Building an episodic story in 4 hour blocks week by week (or every other week or whenever you structure the scene) really does seem to imply that an RPG must take a long time to enjoy. RPGs are a fine wine that must age over time to be appreciated.

I disagree. I think RPGs can be made enjoyable in a smaller unit of time. I think that you could make a game that plays well in the space of one hour, an experience with a clear start, middle and end; play that opens a situation and then does something with it.  Play that doesn’t dawdle, look up rules, or roll for initiative.

What I don’t want anymore: a structure of RPG play that assumes a 4 hour block. I almost never have that time to play RPGs anymore, but more importantly, it feels like 4 hours assumes some  ”waste” in the game. Maybe players spend time figuring out what to do, or it could be the enacting of a complex procedure or mechanic, or it could be an in-game “shopping” trip.  Whichever it is, there is a certain amount of waste implied, an expected amount of filler that I no longer want to incorporate into my designs or my game.

I want to play a game for one amazing hour, and then I want to do it again.  If I can make a game play well in one hour, I can run that loop three more times and get a four hour game.

There are games out there that provide a good structure and/or rules set for doing just this.  I’ll touch on some of those, but I’m also looking at how I can work with this in my own games and my own designs. I want to work with you to see how you could use it in your play.

Once you say to yourself, ” You’ve got an hour to play and no more”, you are forced down the path of simplicity. Look at what you don’t absolutely need and discard it.

So, what don’t we need?

Excessive steps for a players turn.  This is extending on rolls a bit.  Basically, the more stuff you have to do procedurally on your turn, the slower things go.  This is a boring conclusion to reach, as it’s not conceptually interesting. Nevertheless, it’s a reality that more steps equals more slowdown in gameplay. We’ve got to be lean.

Lots of choices. Choice happens essentially at two places  There’s the choice of what we want our character to do and the choice of how we want them to do it.  The funny thing is many games provide not much mechanical support for the former choice and too much choice for the latter.  Not much structure is given for helping players decide their next step, but for the actions a game deems important, there is an embarassment of riches, to the extent that making a choice in the fiction can seem boundless and without heft (no mechanical support) and a choice mechanically can be overwhelming (too many options, not enough differentiation between options).  Guess what all of this means? Slow slow slow.

Capital “P” plot.  We’ve got an hour, so long overarching plots aren’t what we want to do (there is a way to build this that I’ll talk about later).  We need a situation that is interesting and resolvable (it could or could not get solved, it could or could not escalate), and we need to get players right into it and moving.

I’ve got a lot to say about this, but this is a good start. Interested to see what you think and what your experiences have been.

7 Responses

  1. Looking over your goals. It would appear that one of the steps that could facilitate this is a move away from task based resolutions (each sword swing or 10ft of stealth matters) and towards conflict resolution (there are guards how are we dealing with this?)

  2. Yes, I totally agree. The more detailed our units get, the longer our loop gets. That why detailed combat systems, even the fast ones, take too long for our purposes.

    Along with conflict resolution, we should also be looking to provide feedback that guides us to “what happens next?” so we aren’t floundering for purpose or narration.

  3. Absolutely my experience with conflict resolution systems. Personally non binary results also help me craft that what happens next. I think a binary system could I just wonder what might be needed to foster that.

  4. So, here is a simple, practical test – take any game you like, and have it resolve combat the same way it does any other skill roll (opposed or otherwise). Then use that as a starting point for what can be done in an hour, but also as the basis for being sure that hour is really what you want.

  5. That is a very nice unit of work to establish. It also highlights that many RPGs don’t have skill systems close to as interesting as combat systems, which should change.

  6. I’m very much on board with the concept of tightening the game. I started preaching short stories instead of novels for GMs back at At-Will. I’m in the middle of playing with RPG design again, and I’m definitely interested in what you come up with here.

    There are some players, including some in my game, that languish a little bit outside of combat, and seem to play RPGs because they like skirmish games, but find actual skirmish games lacking in depth. Moving to a conflict resolution system, it would be interesting to see if you could preserve some of the nuance and drama of the conflict. With your background transforming skill challenges, if anyone is qualified to do keep some of the nuance and drama in a conflict resolutions it’s you.

    I’m also intrigued by the idea of experimenting with some more self-imposed time limits on our game sessions to see what kinds of things we end up dropping or what kind of mechanics we end up adopting to make the hour session work!

  7. It’s a fun exercise to just drop a time limit and see where your play goes.

    Getting players to know what to do outside of combat is often difficult. Combat always has goals (take out the other guy, don’t be taken out) and parameters. Social situations or intriques often have no such clear goals or ways to get there. You can get almost any ruleset in the world to work for you in those terms if you add that bit of structure. Games that “thingify” well like Fate and Cortex+, give you a lot of room to make the abstract and intangible “real” in game terms and therefore something players can grasp a little better.