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I am currently DMing for a group of people whom I only recently met. We've been playing for some time, but we have a bit of trouble getting together regularly, but since everyone seems to enjoy that, whenever we are free, we have weekly games.

However, since this happens on a weekday and everyone has responsibilities, we can only afford to play 3-4 hours at a time. In the past I've been accustomed to session length of 4-6 hours. I notice that it's hard to keep up with several aspects of a good gameplay.

Keeping tabs on everything that happened in the previous session.

That is a problem, since even though we have a decent memory and grasp the situation we're in, we simply don't want to waste a lot of time reminiscing about what has already happened.

Shallow plot immersion

With 3 hours session length only after 40 minutes or so we are deep in the mood, and since we are on the clock, it's hard to "go with the flow" and just take the game at its own pace. The game we're playing (Mage the Ascension) is supposed to deliver a feeling of being in an oh-so-much-bigger-than-you world, where the character is surrounded by wonders. However, I need to limit time for exposition and if I just give them "yes, you did well, but it only matters in your town and everywhere else its still a crapsack world" conclusion.

The pacing limits open-world play

I took a one-sided decision to skip stuff that happens in-between scenes and it worked quite alright. However, this introduced railroading into the game, something I prefer to avoid. For the moment it's OK, but in the future when players get more comfortable with their characters and the setting, I would like to see to it that they get their share of open-ended play, where they can go to the market and buy some apples if they so desire. I can't see that being easy from time perspective. I want the world to have lots of openings, places you can go, things you could do. How do I do that without spending a lot of in-session time on developing and describing those places? I feel that I'm confining my players to limited, smaller scale world I presented them, because they do not have time to explore freely - hence they have less choice in what the next scene is going to be.

My players aren't attached to their characters

I know that it comes with time, but it feels hard to connect with a PC, when you only get to play with it 3 hours at a time. Even if that time is intense and filled with agency it's a bit iffy. I see it as a more Call of Duty-type experience where you play Sgt Whatnot for half an hour and switch to Lt Random for another half.

I can't plan a great adventure and hope to see its end

I have a tendency to build too much, great overarching stories that are so much bigger than the players, in an effort to create rich worlds in a top-down process. The specific sessions I try to fit into a Five Room Dungeon scheme, metaphorically of course. However, even with the best pacing there is I can't fit more than three to four major scenes in the game and it feels that my players can only accomplish so little during a single game session.

I need to battle these issues, and I have read plenty of generalised DMing advice, especially on pacing, immersion and player agency. I am posting this on RPG.SE, because instead of generalized advice on "how to be good", I need specific techniques that will allow me to consistently create a better experience all the while fitting into this tight schedule.

Also, I know about this question but my problem is not with infrequent sessions (for 7 hours every 2-3 months I'd simply go with a one-shot), but short sessions with okay frequency (3-4h every 1-3 weeks), so the answers there do not solve my problems.

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Playing short form requires several shifts in technique and approach. My group typically does 2-3 hour sessions. A 4 hour session is a marathon for us.

Drop the Filler

The first thing to do is let go of filler material. Filler material includes setting up adventures that are "clue to clue to clue to oh actually interesting development". This is the default for a lot of play, and it wastes time. Let go of having the players play out haggling for everything, or explain each store they go to for supplies, and so on.

If there are encounters that would take up time but not actually provide interesting choices or hard implications? Cut them out.

There's also a lot of time wasting in putting in situations that make it unclear what the players should even be trying to do. "Where should we go next?" "I guess we keep searching until we find a clue of what to do next?" etc. Videogames used to use mazes to add extra hours of gameplay as a filler device, and this is the same kind of thing.

Let players get to the fun interesting stuff without this obfuscation and play not only goes quicker, it's more fun period.

Scene Framing

Scene framing is the next step. You no longer say, "Ok, where do you want to go next?" as the default question. If you know the general thing the players are doing, you skip up to the next part and get right into it.

For example, you know the players are trying to track down a cult:

"After three days of talking with shady people, listening to wacked out babbling of street preachers, and having to do some small trading in hallucinagens, you finally find out where they're having meetings. At dusk, you find yourselves outside an abandoned church where several people died of plague years ago..."

Think of how movies or tv shows will give you a montage - so you can skip the legwork and go RIGHT to the interesting stuff. This alone cuts out a LOT of time wasting material.

The Rules you use matter

If you're playing a game where combats take 45 minutes... well, one combat will take up a significant chunk of your time. Understand that many of the older games and traditional games expect you to be playing for 6-8 hours as session, so if they expect 5 combats in a session, and you've got 3 hours to play... it's not going to fit.

If you're playing a game where conflicts of all types, take 5 minutes? Well, then things move much quicker. So pay attention to what rules you're using and what their impact is, so you can plan appropriately.

Getting into character, exploring the world, etc.

I've been playing this way for several years now. My group gets into characters quite well, because the focus of our play is on characters, their issues and personalities, which is because a lot of our game time is putting the characters into crisis points and fun interactions.

I find a lot of people used to playing with lots of time, think the solution to character or world development is simply pouring on more time, when in fact, it's about directed and focused play. I've had several people say, "We've done more in this two hour one shot than I've done in entire campaigns, for years."

That's because I cut out the filler, focus on the characters' choices and actions, and try to give situations that are at turning points. Each scene should matter and have some impact.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This is a very, very good answer. \$\endgroup\$ – T. Sar - Reinstate Monica Feb 10 '15 at 13:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ I love this answer, it's very helpful and to a degree I've already started doing that. Could you however elaborate a bit on my open world concerns? Maybe I should start a new question that asks exactly that... \$\endgroup\$ – eimyr Feb 10 '15 at 15:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think you should probably create a new question, because right now, it's not really clear where your problem lies. If the PCs want to go buy apples, they can go buy apples (Though I confess, in years and years of gaming, I think I've seen a 'shopping trip' that was interesting maybe two three times, tops. I find "haggling with the storekeeper" is something that gets brought up as a hypothetical piece of color a lot, but no one actually wants to do it.) So please. Elaborate, and we can try to clarify. \$\endgroup\$ – Airk Feb 10 '15 at 18:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ If you want to do an open world thing, give them a map and let them pick where they want to go. Make sure marked places are interesting ("The Fallen Keep of the Last Emperor? Hmm!") or at clear why the players would want to go there ("The biggest trade city in the valley. Supplies, hired help, rumors, etc."). \$\endgroup\$ – user9935 Feb 11 '15 at 6:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is an excellent answer, and even for games that aren't particularly time-restricted I feel like it could help the pacing a lot. Too many games get lost thinking "you have to let the players do what they want" only to end up with everyone saying "idk, what do you want to do next?" to each other after each development. \$\endgroup\$ – tzxAzrael Jul 25 '16 at 23:41
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A few quick suggestions:

Keeping tabs on everything that happened

This should be trivial. First, send out an email recap day of game. Second, spend literally five minutes where someone gives a "Last time we played" recap. Others should feel free to chime in, but this should still take no more than a few minutes. Remember - last session was short too, so you don't have that much to recap.

Shallow Plot Immersion

Honestly, I'm not sure what you're saying with this one. Are you saying it's hard to immerse yourselves because you're looking at the clock all the time? Then get rid of the clock. Have someone set an alarm on their phone and just play. If it's something else, maybe you can clarify?

Pacing Limits open-world play

I'm a bit confused by this one too. How does skipping the stuff that is in-between scenes create railroading? By definition, the stuff that's 'in between scenes' is boring. Do you narrate every step of the journey to the tavern in case your players change their minds? No, you do not. So when the players make a decision on what they're going to do next, end that scene, and start the next one with something interesting happening regarding what they are doing next. They still decide what the next scene is about. (Barring unforeseen events, at least.)

Players are not attached to their characters

Are your players switching characters? If not, what's up with the CoD analogy? The simple answer for this one is to make sure everything is focused on the characters. Don't waste time on things that aren't. Stay focused on making interesting decisions and cut out tedious legwork and clue-hounding. You'll find yourself getting more "character time" than in most 6 hour sessions.

I can't plan a great adventure and hope to see its end

Get used to not finishing "adventures" in a single sitting. Also, you'll find that by trimming the fat, you'll be able to do a LOT more than 3-4 scenes. What constitutes a "scene" in your mind that it takes 45 minutes to an hour to complete?

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