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I'd like to convert my campaign over to more of an episodic format -- a complete hook, story, and conclusion in each session, with each session feeding into a bigger story/arc, just like a TV series. The part I'm struggling with is how to manage/manipulate time so that we complete an episode within the defined length of the session (e.g. three hours). Are there any tricks or tips I can leverage?

I've read several existing posts -- tying episodes together into a campaign, preparing a one-shot (a similar/related topic), etc. -- but I feel like I'm still missing the time-management component. I think my time-management questions fall into two categories: preparation and execution.

  • How much/what should I prepare? Assuming a three-hour session, are there units of measurement I should be using, such as # of scenes? I'm cool with over-prepping -- and I usually expect to do a bit of this -- but I'm curious what my expectation should be.
  • What can I do to make sure the session stays on track for the designated time? I'm expecting the players are going add in many unexpected variables (as they do today): problems will be solved differently than I expected, scenes will be added or avoided, some scenes will be longer than expected, etc. Am I just going to have to railroad the players at certain points, or are there ways to avoid that?

Right now, this is primarily for a D&D 5e campaign (light on combat, heavy on story), but I'm hoping to use similar strategies for other game systems too.

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This is actually a pretty common way to run RPG sessions.

Most of my experience running RPGs (Including D&D) in the past several years has been in 2-4 hour convention slots. The campaign I'm currently running is also structured as a series of self-contained episodes with three-hour time limits. There are a number of techniques you can use to pull this off, without having to actively run a timer or resort to heavy railroading:

Make sure everybody knows the time limit

In my current campaign, we all agreed up front that sessions would last three hours, no more and no less. This means that everyone has a clear idea of when the session is drawing to a close, and conscientious players tend to work together to make sure they keep the story moving, especially towards the end of our time. Because it's a friendly group and not a con slot, we sometimes go 30 minutes to an hour over, but for the most part we try to stick to the three hour time limit. It's a lot easier to do this when the whole group is working together, as opposed to me trying to do all the time management myself.

Use combat sparingly

Even the shortest combat scene in D&D takes disproportionately more time than any other kind of scene. In my three-hour sessions, I generally count on being able to run at most two combats, and usually only one. When I've run four-hour D&D sessions for fundraising events, the most combat we've ever been able to do in those sessions has also been two encounters, so I'm pretty confident that that's the limit. I try not to run a combat unless it represents a decisive point in the story -- random encounters are a no-go for this kind of play. It sounds like you're already leaning towards a low-combat campaign, so this should be no issue for you. Also, remember that monsters can run away or surrender if a combat seems to be going against them, and this is a great way to save time.

Try to limit yourself to 4 "scenes" per session

For several years I've participated in a yearly charity event where we run a four-hour session of 5e with a strict time limit. The quests we run are designed in a modular format where players pick from a "quest menu" to decide which challenges their table wants to take on. The quests are divided into three categories: Combat, Puzzle/Exploration, and Roleplay. Combat obviously takes the longest, Exploration the second-longest, and Roleplay generally goes the quickest. The goal for each game table is to complete 5 quests from the quest menu in an evening, and my tables have always managed to do this, albeit sometimes by hurrying through the last quest or two.

Five "scenes" in four hours means an average of forty-five minutes per scene. That means for a three-hour session you can probably run four scenes if you keep up a brisk pace, and three scenes if you're taking your time with them. If you're not doing any combat, you might be able to go up to 5 scenes, but I'd be wary of trying to cram in any more than that unless your players tend to really blow through social encounters.

Think of scenes as story beats instead of encounters

When we plan Encounters as DMs, the tendency is to rigidly prepare a specific situation. Obviously this is necessary for a good combat, but for more social scenes it can lead to an inflexible adventure structure that may make you feel pressured to railroad. When planning your sessions, think more about goals, and less about exactly how your players will achieve them. Do the players need to gather a key piece of information? Defuse a tense standoff? Foil a villain's plot? Each of those goals can be accomplished in a scene, but you don't necessarily have to know what that scene is until your players tell you how they want to achieve the goal. Stat out key NPCs and make maps of important locations, but don't get too attached to exactly how your players will interact with those elements. This will allow you to keep your sessions on schedule without resorting to really strict railroading.

Plan multiple successive end-points for a session

If you want players to have freedom to concoct their own strategies and go at their own pace, you're never going to be able to fully determine how far they'll get in a session. They might skip over a key encounter and surge ahead, or they might spend a full 90 minutes discussing a genius stratagem and fall behind. Rather than forcing players to keep a predetermined pace, I like to go into every session with at least two possible endpoints in mind: one that represents what I see as the ideal endpoint of the "episode" and another one that represents a "cliffhanger" moment about halfway through the "episode." That way, if the players go slowly (which, in my experience, they almost always do) you can still give them a satisfying ending, and just use the other half of your planned adventure for the next play session. Your players will have no idea they're "behind schedule," and you'll buy yourself some extra prep time too!

As an example, I recently ran an episodic session that was meant to end with the players climactically facing off against a small-time crime boss in their home town. The party spent more time than expected concocting an elaborate scheme to gain audience with the crime boss and pump him for information, and by the time they finally initiated combat, it was time to end for the night. So, as a way of ending the session, I described the crime boss's angry reaction to their deception, narrated his minions charging towards the party with weapons out, and then told them we'd pick back up next time. The players couldn't wait for the next session, and spent the interim plotting combat tactics for their inevitable showdown. The next time we played, we jumped straight into the combat, and we were able to take our time running a good fight and narrating a fitting close to the adventure. I never mentioned to the players that they'd gone slower than I'd expected, and no one was the wiser.

If you want, you can also plan a further endpoint for if the players move too quickly. But in my experience, players moving too quickly has never really been a problem. It's much easier to slow players down (especially ones who like to roleplay) than it is to speed them up, so plan accordingly.

TL;DR: Plan on running 3-4 scenes per session, with at most 1-2 focused on combat. Tell your players the time limit, and put a "cliffhanger" endpoint about halfway through your planned session in case the players are slow.

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This is hard, but there are a few things you can do to help.

I have often wanted to do this, but in practice it is incredibly hard. It is even harder to do without impeding the fun of the players.

TV shows can script everything out ahead of time, then tweak it so they think it will fit in the time slot, and then if needed add padding or cut things at the last second to make it all fit. With a game, you can't do that. Scenes will take longer or shorter than you planned. Players can get fixated on things and take exceeding long on them, or try to skip over things you planned. And that is just what happens at the table. Players might be late and real life can interrupt.

Still, there are a few things you can do to help somewhat.

Get player buy-in

The biggest thing is to get player buy in up front about the fact you want a self contained episode and you want it to fit within a certain timeframe. If you have the buy-in ahead of time, the players are likely to cooperate if you tell them something needs to be moved along and they may well be watching the clock themselves.

It also makes some of the other things easier to implement.

Yes, railroad at least to an extent

Remember that railroading vs. open-world is a spectrum, not an either-or choice.

With that said, if you want an episodic system, you almost need to move closer to the "on rails" side of that spectrum. Without a certain amount of railroading, its hard to even have a definition for what constitutes the end of an episode much less actually get there in any kind of a timely fashion.

If you have at least a rough plan for the set pieces ahead of time, then you can help move the players along to the next set piece and do so on your timeline in a way that will hopefully have you reach the end at approximately the time you want it to. If you have player buy in ahead of time, then hopefully they won't resist if when you try to move things along to the next piece. If you have player buy in ahead of time and things aren't working, you can even tell them directly that you are behind schedule and ask them to move directly to the next set piece if nothing else works.

I should stress that just because you have moved somewhat over towards the "on rails" side does not mean you need to just move from one combat to the next with the players just along for the ride outside of combat. There are some groups that do that and it is a valid style, but many players do not approve of that and it is possible to have a game be "on rails" enough to be episodic and still give the players a reasonable amount of agency along the way.

Use a visible timer

To help move things along in combat, have a time limit to make the move and use a timer to enforce it. This will discourage players from using up too much time to decide and discourage them from getting distracted by outside things like phones.

I haven't tried this outside of combat personally, but if necessary I suspect it would work well to keep things moving along outside of combat as well.

Again, this requires a certain amount of player buy in up front, but it save a lot of time.

Be willing to terminate combat early.

This is something of a last resort, but remember that the players will generally not know how many hit points any particular enemy has. If combat is just dragging on and you are confident the players will win, you can quietly slash the hit points of the enemies to end the combat early.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Ending combat early can be narratively satisfying too, since most enemies would have a sense of self-preservation. NPCs can recognize when they have no chance to win, and surrender or flee. This can save lots of time going around the table rolling dice when the outcome is already certain. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 30 at 18:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ Remember that railroading vs. open-world is a spectrum, not an either-or choice This needs to have flashing lights surrounding it. Good point. 😁 \$\endgroup\$ Aug 1 at 17:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ The last point can also be used preemptively and not only on combat. The players do not know what the world looks like until you tell them. So it is totally possible to prepare several variants of a set-piece with different length and choose according to the time you have left. Shortening the ending is of course not a good idea, but the penultimate set-piece should be fair game. E.g. the entrance the villain's lair might simply be trapped, or there might be some guards that need to be fought instead. \$\endgroup\$
    – mlk
    Aug 2 at 12:38

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