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I have GMed for a group of friends for over 10 years, mostly in the world of darkness and the Dresden Files universe. We really enjoy the character play, the storytelling and the occasional outburst of over-the-top supernatural powers. Recently we don't manage to play more often than 5-7 hours every 2-3 months and there is no chance at the moment to put more time in. This leads to us forgetting important plot elements & motivations and makes playing a "campaign" (several connected scenarios, each of them dragged out for several sessions) an arduous multi-year endeavor.

Now my question is: how do I make my scenarios shorter & more un-connected or are there other ways to do enjoyable _role_play and storytelling when play sessions are short and many weeks apart?

Doing out-of-session stuff like writing a diary etc. is also too time-consuming.

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When designing adventures for short sessions, one great way to start is to have some degree of player buy-in to being "ordered" into something. The characters are part of a group who work for a larger group. Another good trick to minimize time needed to do sessions is to do a bit of the legwork that players would normally do and just give it to them. For example, they are given a task (take down the big-bad located in the abandoned warehouse on Elm St.)and the legwork (why does the big bad need to be taken out and how are they known to be in the abandoned warehouse?). With a good chunk of the legwork done ahead of time, they won't waste their time tracking down the big bad's lair, or figuring out if the big bad is both big AND bad. With the legwork done, they just need to plan the assault, RP the gearing up process, etc.

Another trick to have complex plots is the game recap. Write up a recap/update after game that covers everything done and either email to everyone, or post to a WIKI. Invite player comments/edits/amendments to make sure everything is covered.

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Thanks! We now play a campaign of police officers in "Special Investigations". Every session is a new case, independent from the previous cases. –  chiborg Aug 2 '13 at 12:51
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Choose games that support this style of play

If I were you, I would consider a move to short-form games - these are games that are designed to be played in their entirety in a single session. They are one of the fastest-growing segments of the RPG world today, based entirely on my own observations. There are a number of examples in answers to my question on a similar topic.

Games like this are directly aimed at providing the sort of experience you are requesting: Self-contained sessions that require little to no work between sessions. They usually include scenario creation as part of the play experience. Examples include:

  • Fiasco, where setting up the situation is a collaborative effort (in fact, there's no GM in Fiasco)
  • Lady Blackbird where the scenario is defined for you - but loosely enough that you could play it at least a couple of times without it being exactly the same
  • Apocalypse World where the rules are designed to create conflict aplenty and planning too far ahead is pretty much forbidden. Even though AW supports repeated or campaign play, it is also good in single-session format.

To scratch your particular itch - supernatural relationship drama - I can recommend without hesitation a game I played and picked up at GenCon, Monsterhearts. As soon as we played it at the con, I knew it was the game to give my group back home the experience that we had been missing from Buffy the last couple of times we played. This Apocalypse World-derived game goes over very will with my group of Dresden fans, too.

My hunch was immediately borne out. My group made characters and got in a complete, satisfying scenario in a single 6 or 7 hour session, including dinner, and nobody did any work before hand.

Be aware, though, that as with many of the Apocalypse World-derived games, Monsterhearts may not necessarily be at it's best until several sessions in. The rhythm of the larger game - XP, new moves, and seeing the value of Strings you earned a few games back - might not be visible until then. Which is not to say it doesn't make a good one-shot, it just means that you don't get to see everything the game offers in a one shot.

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Something worth mentioning about short-form games: typically, they have rules that directly or indirectly construct the scenario for you, making it part of play or an outcome of play, so this is more on-topic for "how to design short scenarios" than it might first appear. Essentially it's "use a game with scenario-construction mechanics built-in." –  SevenSidedDie Oct 4 '12 at 18:57
    
@SevenSidedDie - Thanks, yes, that's exactly what I was trying to say. Editing to make it clearer! –  gomad Oct 4 '12 at 19:27
    
Add that to your answer and let's remove some comments. –  Zachiel Feb 2 at 23:02
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One of the techniques I often use is mystery item clutter. So basically a one-evening story contains a basic and easy to solve story, but the players find a hand full of semi-unrelated, yet interesting items. They cannot solve the mysteries associated with these items in this gaming session, as they need to get this information elsewhere, but they can do in another session.

There are several good points about this:

  • Players do remember because their inventory list says so: "Wait... I still have this amulet that we don't know what it did".
  • There was nothing else to remember about, as all mysteries are revealed in the next session dedicated to that specific item. And even if there was something to remember, the memory works relation-based, so players are much more likely to remember things about their "precious loot" than any random NPC they rescued 3 month ago.
  • You can turn any item into a mystery item in a moments thought whenever you see that it fits.
  • Players choose their direction, all I need to do is have several sheets of adventure ideas for each item, then players decide which one to do. This gives them a good sense of freedom of choice.
  • It serves as a cheap & dirty story rescue system just in case:

    The amulet suddenly glows with a vivid blue color, and you see how the wounds on the old man disappear. With a faint voice he whispers: "Thank you that you brought back my amulet of second life..." And the amulet falls to dust.

    While actually I had something entirely different planned, just didn't want to ruin this story. But the players will think that this was the original intention of the item. But be prepared to improvise a good explanation for this!

The downsides of this technique is that if you do it too often or too obviously, it will ruin the experience as in "Oh look another mysterious story-hook item that the GM doesn't tell us about till next session!" So make sure those items actually fit into the game world and do not feel placed for the players to find. And especially that you do not over-do the story-rescue-twist. Players must feel that the actual story behind such items is discoverable and not just at the whim of the GM's mood.

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Warning Ahead of Time

Since your definition of short ("5-7 hours") is longer that what most people describe as normal (3-4 hours), this advice may be a bit off, as it's for truly short sessions (1-2 hours)...

Systems with streamlined, unified mechanics

You want a system where the mechanic is almost always the same kind of rolling, where the combat system resolves in a roll or two per player, and where few, if any, in play lookups are needed.

Since you're already using WW's engine...

You can easily drop the combat system from Storyteller for a set of opposed rolls. We can borrow from Burning Wheel a bit...

Each side states a "goal" for the combat - the side that gets more successes gets their goal. Each success also becomes a damage level done or canceled; The winning side does the difference in damage levels and takes 1 damage level per 1 rolled; the loser does damage levels only for 10's rolled. Each such level is applied to one target. No matter what, the combat scene is over after the one roll.

Mission Based Play

To be blunt: Play with obligated characters - that is, characters who can't say "no" to the current adventure. Dresden's notorious lack of cash can force him into adventures. Karin Murphy HAS to investigate (at least for 12 novels) supernatural involved major cases. Donald Morgan has to investigate certain crimes, too; as the Warden, he's got more leeway than Karin, but really, he's just as dutybound. The Thomas Raiths, Chastity Carpenters, and even most of the Fae really don't have that - they have enough freedom to just say no. Molly becomes obligated when Harry takes her as apprentice.

When it droops, kick it

Don't let play lag. If they start to drag into a discussion that's not getting somewhere fast, give them a warning to pick a plan, and if not, drop a "kicker" on them. This could be something as innocuous as Toot's arrival in several of the later novels, or as big as Nicodemus dropping in for some quality time. Nothing makes a story feel less like it's making progress than a long debate over which way to go.

A requisite of this is that, if the players are discussing plans, so are the characters, for the same amount of time, or more.

If they don't have a clue, give them one

When things slow down because they don't know where to look, it's your fault as the GM. It means you haven't given them enough information. Cure it. Use an NPC, a familiar or a book. Give them the pointers in pairs, and let them pick which first, if you want to give the sense of choice.

When they search, they always find

To borrow some advice from several good games, including Burning Wheel... a failed roll isn't always a failed attempt; sometimes it's a success with a complication.

Harry tries to find the big bad with a spell. It works. It blows up his lab on that fail, but still finds the big bad.

Thomas tries to Track down Harry - he does, but not until Harry's being hauled by the big-bads.

Don't make the minions too tough

It's easier to add more than to soften them up on the fly. But if you have a plan, and realize it's too tough, after the PC's dispose of the guys who already had a bunch of unexplained damage levels, when they round the corner, the PC's find the other set of people who just fought them first... dead and/or dying.

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I have no experience with The Dresden Files, so this might not be applicable to your specific situation. I have found that it can work for a variety of games, though.

The "Impossible Mission Team" approach can be a lot of fun if you tailor it to the game world. Short, well-defined missions that are given to the player characters by an organization, powerful benefactor, or unknown entity can provide helpful boundaries. You can keep the PCs from going too far afield by tailoring very specific goals. If you want, you can even create the scenarios in a way that over time reveals a larger plot, but that's certainly not required.

A few months ago we switched our Eclipse Phase campaign over to this format, and it seems to be working well so far. The PCs are Firewall agents. What they do between sessions is immaterial, and the missions are all pretty much of the "We've only got 24 hours to save X" variety. There is a big, scary villain creating much of the havoc behind the scenes, but that may or may not become something the PCs piece together.

t doesn't take much to apply this approach to a wide variety of game worlds:

  • The PCs work for the baron, who is having a difficult time keeping the Western Marches under control. When his army detachments run into trouble that they don't have the time or wherewithal to confront, he sends in his special representatives.
  • The Sisterhood of the Eightfold Path is fighting a heretical presence within its ranks. The Sisterhood has created a secret organization devoted to rooting out the heretics.
  • After the Ragnarok Affair, a mysterious benefactor approached each member of your team, telling them that their superpowers would be put to best use fighting the most dangerous evil villain organization of all. Now the team fights O.G.R.E. across the globe. Every time O.G.R.E. makes a move, you are there to thwart them.

Admittedly this approach constrains the game, but in my experience it can work well as long as everyone understands the difference in approach up front. Getting players to buy into it is essential, so they can keep the game focused on accomplishing the mission.

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