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I want to introduce some new games to my group. But when I broach the topic like, "Howdja like to play Dogs in the Vineyard?" they balk - not at the prospect of trying something new, but at the prospect of committing a big chunk of time to a total unknown.

So, we're going to try "gaming tapas" - We're gonna set a short, limited number of sessions to try out some new games so people can get an idea of what a given game is like, and whether they'd like to come back to that game for a longer campaign.

My question, as GM, is - what's my ideal number of sessions to try a game out? The more sessions you have, the better idea you really get about the game. The fewer you have, the more games you can taste before settling in on one. What's the best balance?

I'm thinking 6. Apocalypse World at some point mentions that you haven't really started playing until you're six sessions in, and I figured independently that we needed 1 session for character creation, and at least 4 to play. Burning Wheel suggests 4 or 5 separate "teaching" sessions (tests, versus, range and cover, fight!, etc.,), so there's barely enough time in 6 sessions (including chargen) to try all of that. But that means (with weekly sessions) that trying out 4 new games (BW, AW, DitV, Leverage) will take six months!

Anyone have any direct experience with this problem? Does anyone have any concrete information on questions like the following:

Do "short circuit" techniques like If after the third session, three people want to abandon it, we move on to the next game at the next session. work? Or do they just cut down good games before the group has acclimated to them?

Would I be better off spending a session on character creation, to give my group a sense of what's possible in a given system, or handing out pregens, to avoid wasting a whole session on creating characters?

Specifically, this question is not only about the games that I've mentioned here - it's about techniques for testing the waters with any new game for a group. I have listed games that I intend to try in the sort-term, however, answers should focus more on the concept and less on individual scenarios or adventures for any one particular game.

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5 Answers

up vote 27 down vote accepted

Every session offers a chance for veto. Demonstrate central mechanics first, supporting mechanics (like character gen) second.

While it's nice, in theory, to say "We'll try this for 6 sessions" it is quite clear, to me, within one session of playing a game if I'm comfortable with the game or not. Just about a year ago, I did a number of games in "uncampaign" format, where there was a weekly meeting to try a different game as often as we felt like. Games the group didn't like didn't last beyond one session because it was obvious that the mechanics didn't mesh well with group expectations.

The trick is to keep things simple. The first session is to explore and demonstrate the core mechanic of the system. The central mode of conflict should be made ovious in the first session. If characters are sufficiently complex that they take non-trivial amounts of time to generate, they should be presented beforehand.

In running professional demos of the RPG I helped write, we had to communicate the central concept in a five minute combat. A four hour game was enough for a whirlwind tour of all the major mechanics and the length of time most convention games are budgeted for.

My advice: Run one game as a pre-gen demo game, and allow players to create characters during the second game of the system demonstration. Allow anyone to veto for any reason, and have a debrief after to see what went wrong for people. People are, of course, allowed to make persuasive cases and explain the difference interpretations of rules in the debrief, but it will bcome quite clear if everyone is willing to try a second session.

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15  
I totally agree. Someone who says "oh you have to try it for six sessions before you judge" is likely trying to sell you a game. We play one until a session results in a veto. It's theoretically possible to "miss out" on a good game we don't get - but it's not like there's not 1000 published RPGs, and some of those we get and enjoy immediately, so bah on the others. –  mxyzplk Aug 30 '11 at 1:51
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Like everyone else, I am thinking "a few sessions may tell you if it's the difference between like and indifferent; a single session can tell you if you actively dislike a system" –  Vatine Aug 30 '11 at 11:32
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The one session idea didn't go over well with my group - we're settled on short arcs with majority vetoes available after each session starting with the second. No vetoes right after chargen! –  gomad Sep 2 '11 at 18:24
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Remember, it may not be necessary for the entire group to be present, in order to try a game. A subset of the group, which has the interest in learning new game rules, and is trusted by the rest to filter out un-interesting games, might be enough when it comes to experimentation.

Explore the core mechanics, keep the up-front time investment small, let those who have the time and interest spend more on the game (preferably by reading rule-books in advance and/or experimenting with the game with other groups or as a sub-group), and make failure quick and painless (anyone can veto a game, for any reason, at any point, without hard feelings).

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A four to five hours hours game with pre-generated character is generally all you need to find out if you are interested or not in running a game. It is a lot of time to invest in a game that you may not like. This is why short test games are better. Pre-generated characters allow you to expend your role playing repertoire as well by playing someone you are not used to.

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I was going to suggest 2 hours of learning and 3 hours of playing myself. –  GMNoob Aug 30 '11 at 9:02
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One session.

Use convention scenarios developed for each of the games and allow at least four hours for the game. A game that doesn't at least pique someone's interest in that amount of time isn't going to benefit from more time commitment.

Specifically:

  • For Apocalypse World, run Hatchet City. It's a con scenario that is set up to be like a game already six sessions in. It gives your players pregenerated characters, but also gives them a game-starting roll+something to pick some true things off custom lists, which gives them just a touch of customisation very quickly and kicks off the action. (That said, playing Apocalypse World from chargen through the first session is really easy on the MC and is a lot of fun for the players—a con scenario isn't really necessary.)
    Playing Hatchet City is what got me into Apocalypse World, and running a "one-shot" of AW starting with chargen and the normal first-session stuff is how my first AW campaign as MC started.

  • For Burning Wheel, run The Sword (also available in the Adventure Burner). It introduces Duel of Wits, Fight!, Beliefs/Instincts/Traits/Relationships, Skill mechanics, equipment differences, spending Artha, and the overall game theme of player control, all in a tight package. (It doesn't introduce the concept of earning Artha very well, but if the rest doesn't hook them, Artha earning is unlikely to.)

  • I'm not familiar with any con scenarios for Dogs in the Vineyard. One town with pregenerated characters should do the trick though, even if you don't "finish" the town. They'll either get a taste for how it works, or they won't. From con games of DitV I've witnessed (though not played in), this works fairly well in a single-session amount of time.

The overall principle at work here is that most people will happily commit to one evening's worth of an unknown game if it's sold as only one session. However! There is this happy effect where people who play one-shot games often wish they would keep going, and your "one-shot", single-session game retroactively becomes the first session of a campaign.

The other advantage of this method is that it offers players a positive choice that is under their own initiative to make, which is a psychologically more receptive frame of mind than if they're constantly evaluating whether they want to veto. Asking them to commit to six sessions up front but giving them veto puts them in a negative frame relative to the game: the choice becomes "stick with the game for six sessions as planned" or "am I disliking this enough to impose my will on everyone and exercise veto?" That's effectively asking them to frequently think about not liking the game.

By contrast, keeping it low-commitment makes it pressure-free, and when the choice is between "just one session as intended" or "hey I really like this and I'm going to exercise positive agency to suggest we keep playing", there is a positive framing to how they relate to the game. And you definitely want to give your players every chance to think about the game they're trying with a positive mindset.

So set up your "one-shot" game, and let your players tell you when a game should be extended to multiple sessions. The player enthusiasm inherent in a campaign where that happens is golden.

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I was totally going to add an edit saying that I would start with Hatchet City and The Sword...*Leverage* is meant to blend chargen with play in The Recruitment Job, leaving me only Dogs to put much effort into - and creating a town looks like fun. I would still do full chargen with Dogs though. –  gomad Aug 30 '11 at 17:48
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While I also upvoted Brian's answer, I agree with SevenSidedDie that a consensus on continuing is usually better than a veto on stopping. –  Jakob Aug 30 '11 at 22:44
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One

For games that you can do a one-shot of in a night, and that you are familiar with. One session is fine to see if everyone likes it.

Two

For games that require chargen, you may want to spend one session doing chargen, and one session for the actual play

Three

Three is good for games with lots of rules -- Often, you can spend a whole session on chargen, a session fumbling with looking up the rules, and finally have a session where you get your feet under you. If you're lucky, you can resolve a plot and get some follow up, or test the advancement rules. If you're unlucky, and a one-shot adventure goes long, you have a chance to finish it up, rather than trying to tie it off at the end of your time.

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