Game sessions tend to follow a pattern. There’s a certain amount of time spent waiting for everyone to arrive, and then another bit of chatting as people get ready. Everybody takes some time to remember where the game left off, and then a bit more to get into character. Finally, you get to actually play for a while, punctuated by a break or two. This is all book-ended with a ramp-down vaguely parallel to the ramp-up, in which you find a place to leave the game, take any last actions, bring the game to a close, and chat a bit more as everybody packs up.
In the end, it’s amazing how much of a game session you spend not gaming. Even during play, there’s an initial warm up that certainly isn’t going to win any role playing awards, at least for me. Even for a game that lasts a couple hours, there’s a surprisingly small RP sweet spot, but we’re really trying to play a larger game split into these segments. How do we handle this problem?
I don’t think that we can eliminate any of the non-gaming parts. They’re ubiquitous because they’re necessary. Instead, we have to keep them manageable, and work around them
I’ve come up with a couple suggestions for ways to mitigate the problem. None of them are useful in all circumstances, and they certainly won’t make the issue go away. Hopefully, they can alleviate the problem a bit at least.
The most obvious solution is to just play longer. During our Cabin Trips, in which we spend a whole weekend gaming, the best sessions are almost always on Saturday. We can spend most of a whole day playing, and little things like meals become merely breaks in an epic game session. Everybody’s got a hold of their character by that point, both mechanically and character-wise, and we generally don’t have to figure out how to bring the plot to a conclusion yet.
Of course, we can’t always devote a weekend, or even a whole day to a game. In fact, this is a very rare occasion for us. However, the solution works extremely well, if you have the luxury.
Keep it Going
Another option is to find a way to maintain the game between actual sessions. This could entail talking about what happened, doing a write-up, or making plans for the next session. This should help keep the group invested.
Individually, you could spend a bit of time before the game getting into character. Take a moment to remember your character’s goals, motivations, and mannerisms. Hopefully this will all reduce the time it takes to warm up to the game.
If You Can’t Beat ‘Em…
Matt has recently got me reading Heroes Die by Matthew Woodring Stover. Aside from being a great read, this book gave me an idea for an interesting way to handle session breaks. Don’t ignore them, integrate them into the game.
In the book, much of the action takes place in a different dimension. Some of the characters are transported into this other dimension to have adventures… as reality shows. A game could use this conceit directly, with the PCs being technologically phased into place, but only for a limited amount of time.
You could also generalize the idea. Maybe the PCs are SCUBA divers or astronauts exploring a wreck, but they have a limited amount of time before they have to return to their ship for more air. Perhaps the group is exploring a location that regularly becomes inhospitable for a certain period, such as a planet whose surface is deathly hot in the day.
In either case, the group has a limited amount of time before they have to return to some sort of home base. This would create a natural break, which would punctuate the action for both the players and the characters. This would hopefully make the session break less disruptive to suspension of disbelief. As a side benefit, it would also make player absences easier to explain.