One thing this pandemic year is teaching me is the pleasure and necessity of longer-term play. Because the quality of roleplaying has, in my experience, been diminished – playing via video is both lo-fi and exhausting – I try to make up for it with quantity.
We’re several months into an Impulse Drive campaign with my local friends. The players are anywhere from five to 30 minutes away, but a couple of us have health issues that make isolation serious business. We’re also in Arizona, which is one of the currently worst-hit states. I have no idea how long I’m going to be running my “local game” in this delocalized way. If we’d been running Impulse Drive in person, though, I’d have wrapped it up weeks ago.
This flavor of space adventure is such that the characters spend a chunk of time in one place, doing jobs, meeting NPCs, getting a little embedded into local events, and then move on. Each setting (a planet, usually) is like a mini-campaign, three to five sessions long. Then things get awful or complicated or otherwise irreconcilable, and they just hop into their ship and move on to the next place. Structurally, it’s making the task of slowly spooling out a long-term campaign tolerable.
That’s a good thing, because I lost my long-term play skills at some point.
Here’s some stuff I’ve had to (re)learn lately about keeping our online game up and running.
Probably the most useful decision I made early for keeping the game rolling is structural: much of the action is driven by the interplay of factions in the game. I’m not sure how I’d keep a small, personal story interesting for months on end, but the way our ID game is set up, there are organized groups of various scales, from one planet to the whole sector, all pursuing their own goals. The setting feels organic and evolving.
I set up this game with the help of the factions system in Stars Without Number and have grown it by hand since then. Leaving behind the formal SWN system, which involves managing stats and economies for each faction and some lonely-fun play time between sessions for the GM to roll dice, has meant less interesting uncertainty. It’s less of a sandbox, which I found necessary because like most PbtA games, Impulse Drive is focused on character-driven action. Staying focused on the characters is also my personal preference.
There’s a fine and entirely achievable balance, I think, between maintaining a sandbox setting and meaningful character drama within that setting. I’ve been figuring out how to make that work for years.
The Power of Forgetting
One of my favorite release-valves for prepping over a long stretch of gaming is that players just don’t remember stuff. So I’ll check in now and again, mostly at the end of a session. I will ask: so what are your intentions next session? If it’s a party/crew/gang type of game, that’s a chance for them to settle out a plan. If it’s more relationship or melodrama based, I treat the conversation as something of a “next week, on this show…” TV-type teaser. In either case, it becomes apparent what folks aren’t really keying into. Sometimes the players just kind of give up on even major events. That’s awesome. Let them.
There’s a power in leveraging players’ natural inclination to forget about stuff. This helps you stay focused on the threads that actually interest the players, rather than forcing your agenda/storyline/beats down their throat. I am grateful for my one player who takes copious notes, but as a practical matter, I’m always happy to let things drop.
The other power of forgetting is that you don’t have to let things drop forever. One of my favorite things is reincorporating material from many sessions ago. Not too many! Maybe 3-4 sessions if we’re playing weekly. I’ll look through my notes, see a “put on hold” note on some dangling thread, and then pull that thread back into focus. Occasionally I’ll run into blank stares if everyone had just kind of edited the thread out of their mental journals. But mostly it’s a source of new energy, because I can take whatever thread they decided to forget about and go in some wild new direction. Useful!
Discovery vs Novelty
One factor that has made me prematurely quit/drop games in the past is the novelty of a new system. My dumb simian brain loves shiny new things, but it’s also necessary for this blog. Those shiny new things might be a whole new system, but they can also be new moves or abilities that open up a character’s play in an interesting new way. Unfortunately, Impulse Drive has a pretty short list of advances per playbook. Once you’ve upgraded your stats (boring) and bought up all your gear slots (boring!), there just aren’t that many moves. There’s a list at the back of the book of optional any-playbook advances as well. But our short-ish sessions combined with session-based advancement (at the end of every session, get an XP for each of several things on a list) meant everyone reached the end of advancement. Weird place to be.
Since we’re dug deep into this game, I’m trying to retrain my monkey brain to crave narrative discovery instead: new settings, new plot twists, actual character development and not just expansion. This is, of course, some of the very oldest-school style of gaming. Traveller never even had advancement, other than buying better ships and gear. That was it. Plain old playing-to-find-out was so fundamental that realizing I craved character advancement for my novelty hit was unsettling. When did this happen? How did this happen?
Sweeping pronouncements like PbtA has trained a generation of gamers to ignore narrative in favor of advancement are a room-temperature take at best. I mean, good grief, that’s kind of core to plain old D&D, yeah? New feats and spells and unlocked abilities. I think it’s the other kind of games, the kind where you play (only) to find out what happens next, that have fallen out of focus. Fate, of course, has been banging this drum a very long time. Lack of advancement, for good or ill, is one of the things that turned me off from Fate. Maybe it’s time to revisit.
Is character advancement the low-value sugar hit of gaming? Insert your favorite True Scotsman argument here. Just saying: if your game advances characters every session and sessions are over quick, you might ramp everyone up faster than you expected. Be ready for the sugar hits to stop.
It Might Just Last Longer Anyway
One thing I’ve noticed about playing online is that our sessions run shorter than they did when we were live (about 4 hours, both at home and at con tables). We don’t get as much done, don’t cover as much ground. I have to think that – given folks keep coming back! – the brevity of sessions is playing a big factor in how our season is lasting so long. I think our focused play time is around 2.5 hours, with some advancement paperwork and checking in on plans at the end.
I’ve been wondering if it’s not that our online sessions are so (too) short, it’s that our live sessions are so long. Are we tiring ourselves out? I feel like there are depths of characterization that are hard to get at when you’re sprinting through a shorter playtime, but that may be rationalization. At this point, I’m happy to give up those depths in return for the ongoing layering we’re getting from playing so many more sessions.
How do you keep yourself and your players interested in a game? Hit me up in comments!
Quantity Has a Quality All Its Own – Joseph Stalin, maybe (probably not)