Have you ever had a game session that just clicked? The players were all into their characters. Everybody was paying attention, and were involved in the story. The GM remembered the names and mannerisms of all the NPCs.
On the other hand, have you had a session that seemed to be over before it started? The GM couldn’t figure out where they were going with this game. The players either seemed more interested in reading through source books, or making side jokes. Nobody could remember which big NPC they had made the deal with in the last session.
I’ve been thinking of the key difference between these two extremes as whether the players were in the zone… or not, as the case may be. Whatever you want to call it, it makes a huge difference to the quality of a session. Unfortunately, it’s also elusive and fragile. After twenty years of gaming, I still can’t recapture this state of nerdvana in every session, and all it takes to pull everybody back out is one person. What can we do to help get our games into “the zone?” This post is the first in a two part series on exactly this question.
Ghost of Games Past
My wife, son, and I spent our recent Fourth of July vacation at a family cottage. It’s a great place on a beautiful lake, remote and surrounded by nature. It also happens to have been the site of one of our recent Cabin Trips.
Bryan has mentioned the cabin trip before. This semi-regular event involves us getting together for a weekend entirely devoted to gaming, eating, and drinking, with the odd nature walk to break things up. Being at the cottage made me think back upon the game played there, and those that had gone before.
The Cabin Trip Hypothesis
What these reminiscences caused me to realize was that most of the best games I’ve either played in or run have been at cabin trips. There are certainly exceptions. We’ve had plenty of normal games that have been awesome. We’ve also had cabin trip games that have been not so awesome.
Still, I think I’m on to something for two reasons. First, the fact that so many of the trip games are good, despite the fact that they’re an extreme minority of all the games in which I’ve played. Second, games played during a trip that we’ve tried to continue afterward have not been nearly as successful at home.
It comes down to this: the chance that a game is awesome increases when that game is played during a cabin trip.
Anatomy of a Cabin Trip
Alright, so I can’t back up my hypothesis with numbers. You’ll just have to take my word for it. If this is true, though, what is it about our trips that are so conducive to games? Here are a couple possibilities.
GMing for a cabin trip entails running probably ten to twenty hours of game without more than a few hours of downtime between, or access to external references. Understandably, I tend to spend more time preparing to run cabin trip games than regular games. In addition, our integration of the Group Template into cabin trip games has brought this same planning into the players’ side of the equation. This makes me wonder if all that preparation just makes for better games.
There’s also the simple fact that we travel quite a ways to our destination. Why might this help? By merely getting out of our houses, we’ve left behind the distractions of our normal lives. The drive also serves to trap us in a car together for a few hours, letting us get out the non-game socialization that can often derail a session.
The places we tend to go are either physically or socially isolated. We often flock to locations where you can’t even see a neighbor. Alternately, we’ll go to places that might have neighbors, but they have no connection to the members of the trip.
This means that the neighbors (if there are any) aren’t going to stop by to chat or get a cup of sugar. It also means that we’ve left behind most of the TVs, computers, and gaming book libraries that might sidetrack people. Out there, we may not even have cell phone reception, much less internet. In addition, our families know that we’re gone for the weekend, so even if we are connected to our electronic umbilicals, they usually leave us to our geeky pursuits.
It’s been said that the prospect of being hanged focuses the mind wonderfully. Well, so does having a team working toward a single purpose. When you’ve gone through all the work to: coordinate a set of adult human beings to be in the same place at the same time, transport them to that place, and manage all the logistics for maintaining them for the weekend, all for exactly one thing, you generally keep your mind on that thing.
When we’re finally sitting around the gaming table after months of preparation, we know that this is what we’ve done it all to achieve. We’re there for the one and only purpose of hanging out and gaming with friends. We know it, our families know it, and we’re not going to let little things like car trouble, drunken hijinks, or kidney stones get in the way. (By the way Cabinauts, I call “no kidney stones.”)
A director of a three hour long movie has different options than that of an episodic TV show. Similarly, a GM for a weekend-long game session has way more options for telling a story than that of a regular game that lasts a few hours. Instead of trying to pack as much as possible into a few hours, and get to a good stopping point, you can plan out an arc that will last a few days. You (usually) don’t have to worry about whether the players remember what happened in the last session, because it was at most a few hours ago.
This is good for players too. Usually, the hardest time for the players is the very first game, when you may not really know your character or how it relates to the others. The very beginning of each session is almost as hard for me, as I’m trying to get back into character. This problem is alleviated when the weekend is essentially one long game session.
So cabin trips have all these great properties that make them conducive to good gaming. How can we use these ideas in our regular games? Read part two to find out!
In the meantime, I highly recommend you start planning your own cabin trip. Call it a “gamer retreat” if you want to get generic, but then you can’t call yourselves “Cabinauts” (I considered Cabiniteers, but that sounds too much like kitchen storage enthusiasts). Eat good food, drink good (i.e. high ABV) beverages, and play good games. Just don’t be the last to call “no kidney stones.”
Has your group planned something akin to a cabin trip? Do you have more ideas how such a trip could benefit a game? Just want to call “no kidney stones”? Let us know in the comments!