10 Sessions Is Just Getting Started
I feel like this is where the #rpgaday #rpgaday2017 exercise first fully reveals itself as a trad thing. But let’s take them at their word and repeat yesterday’s exercise: not just playable at 10 sessions but excellent at 10 sessions.
I’m gonna ramble a bit.
PbtA games in general have gotten lots of mentions and that’s fair. Burning Empires got a mention from Mark Delsing, and I’ll always love it, but 10 feels too long for a phase and way too short for the full 3-phase campaign.
Despite the fact they’re each built for 30 sessions, I felt like both The One Ring’s big Darkening of Mirkwood campaign and King Arthur Pendragon’s big Great Pendragon Campaign felt really solid at the 10-session mark. It’s like playing out the full first act. In both games, we hit the 10-ish session mark here, and it felt good to look at that moment of play and say “yup, fine place to pause.”
Unfortunately neither of those games have gotten restarted. But I don’t know that we need to. They’re both very positive experiences in my mind. If we ever did, they’d probably be another 10-session-or-so run.
In both cases, there are several economies and multisession processes that don’t play out until actual at-the-table time has progressed. When our first knight died in KAP, his death would not have had the visceral player-gut punch if we had just shortcutted via, I don’t know… a PbtA game’s situation-advancing procedures, for example. Time has to pass in the real world, I think, for the investment hooks to get set in our mouths.
In our TOR game, we’d lost one or two, maybe, characters to the Shadow. And again there was that session-after-session layering of context and relationships and big-picture progression. It was big and powerful! That 10-ish session run (might have been 11 or 13, can’t honestly remember right now) felt like the world had started safe and naive, and ended at the precipice of actual danger.
For whatever reason, the vibe of a double-digit run of any PbtA style game I can think of just feels different. I think the “make more story leads” moves that those games all seem to have are maybe more on-the-nose, you know? They come with urgency because urgency is punchy and it drives plot. I like those things! But compare that to the end-of-year stuff in KAP that demands interpretation and invites our monkey brains to create patterns from them: you killed some Saxons, mmhmm…oh and you had a bad year of crops…hmm…oh and look, a nephew went missing…oh wow, your bad year of crops forced you to go raid some Saxons to feed your family, even though you had no intention of fighting this winter, and in retaliation they’ve kidnapped your nephew!
That is a very neat process. It’s old-school. I’m having trouble coming up with new-school games that do anything like that. One isn’t better, objectively, than the other. But there’s definitely something to the ownership or accomplishment you feel from your brain completing patterns, versus “okay, what is your enemy up to?” type right-now bangs of more modern games.
Oh, here’s a new-school example — and it’s also a good example of a game that is excellent at the 10-ish session commitment: Space Wurm vs Moonicorn. So in that game, Johnstone Metzger hasn’t introduced explicit “now complicate the situation” type moves. Instead, there’s a good selection of moves that require the setting expands. I think that’s a combination of standard Dungeon World Discern Reality and Spout Lore moves, and the mandated five-Front setting. Complexity in our SWvM run seemed more old-school style organic than, say, the start-of-session stuff in Urban Shadows.
One of my players has mentioned more than once that he feels constantly reactive and off-tempo when he plays in my PbtA games, and I think he’s not wrong. Some of that is me, sure, fair cop. Punchy games demand a lot of reaction. But there’s definitely something to be said for the slow accumulation, week after week, and the breathing room to figure out how to go forth and do stuff you want to do.