This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!
Problem: Not Enough Time
I play with some of my friends every weekend, but when we actually get to sit down and play, there doesn't seem to be a lot of time. Some of the smallest modules can feel like they take forever. Is there a better way to manage game time?
-- Joshua, from AskWizards.com
We dealt with a similar question recently but specifically in terms of the logistics of running a large group. The suggestions there could be implemented on any scale. Mostly it has to do with having focus and discipline. I used to run a weekly game each Friday. In theory, the game was to run from 7 to 11, a nice four-hour block of time. The problem was, on Fridays, people would come from work and stop to get dinner on the way. Some people would arrive early and, seeing no one else had arrived yet, they'd run to the store. Eventually people dribbled in, some eating their take-out food. We'd spend time joking around about movies or TV or the news, and so on down the list of possible distractions. As a result, the game seldom started until 8 or later. By 10 or 10:30, people who had been working all week were getting tired, and the game would wind down. Out of a supposed four-hour game session, we ended up with only two hours of real game time. When you're running 3rd Edition rules, and especially at high levels, that means you can manage one, maybe two combats with some in-between stuff. As with your situation, any adventure took for-flippin'-ever to complete.
What was the problem? We were not focused on the game. Hey, it's only a game! Why should we take it so seriously?
Here's why -- because we should show courtesy toward other players. One player dropped out of the campaign because, time-wise, it wasn't worth it to him to commute from the other side of town for so little play. He liked his character, liked my DMing style, liked the campaign, and liked the other players, but the time issues ultimately outweighed all those positives.
I relate that story to illustrate the importance of managing the fundamentals. So often we focus on small-scale time-saving strategies to shave off a few minutes here and a few minutes there. Instead, your emphasis belongs on the area that will have the biggest impact.
For starters …
Establish a start time and stick to it. The game gets underway with whoever is present when it's time to start. Even if everyone is there but only some are ready to roll, launch with the players who are prepared. This creates an expectation of punctuality, and it applies to you as well as the players. When players realize that you are serious about starting on time, they should become serious about being ready on time. We all know people have habitual issues with lateness, and the occasional scheduling conflict is inevitable, but you still need to pick a start time and stick to it. Late arrivals need to catch up and integrate themselves into the action as they can. If you really want to enforce the point, award xp bonuses to people who are show up on time (or reduce xp for latecomers on a prorated basis -- if you miss 30 minutes of a three-hour session, you get only five-sixths of the experience).
Time is the meat and drink of a good game
If your game session is an all-day affair -- a Saturday, for instance -- and you decide to have a lunch or dinner break in the middle of the game and then resume afterward, it's essential to set a time limit. If people are leaving the house and splitting up for food, they should get carry-out and bring it back. If the whole group feels like going for a sit-down dinner, that's fine, but if only one or two want that, they should curb the impulse in the interest of not holding up the game for everyone else. Another option is placing a group order at a restaurant that delivers -- delivery isn't limited to pizzerias anymore. If you plan ahead, you could make food, have people bring specific items or take turns bringing the whole meal, or cook something quick and easy during play -- frozen pizza or lasagna can be popped in the oven even while the game is going on and devoured when it's ready. Breaking for the meal is still a good idea, though, because it's tough to role-play with your mouth full.
Snacking during the game usually is not much of a problem, but I can state from experience that a little organization helps here, too. Have things available nearby but not actually on the gaming table. Even if you have a big space, you don't want people's view of the action (if you're using miniatures) blocked by bags of chips and bottles of pop. Keep the containers out of the way, but provide paper plates or napkins or cups so each player can take what they need from the snack area and have a small pile of it at hand. Aside from the benefit to the game, people will be less likely to over-indulge in snacks if they need to get up from their chairs and walk even three steps to reach the munchies. Consider the nature of the snacks, too. Anything that makes your fingers greasy will also make your miniatures and dice greasy. At the very least, provide plenty of napkins (and keep those within reach!)
When last we saw our heroes…
I cannot emphasize enough the usefulness of a campaign log, journal, or recap. What might be a time gap of mere minutes or moments for your characters may be a week (or even a month) between play sessions. We're all busy people with full lives, and some people play in more than one D&D campaign at a time or run one and play in others. A lot of game time can be spent trying to remember what happened last time, who this NPC is, why we were in this dungeon again, whether we had three or four of those Six Magical Whatsits needed to complete the mission, and just where everyone was standing when the umber hulks burst through the floor.
Ideally, one of your players will volunteer to be a record keeper for the party. The job might just as easily fall to you as the DM. Whoever does it, start each session with a summary of what went before. This can be a recap of what happened last game session, or it can be an executive summary of where the party is in the campaign. Some serialized TV shows (e.g., Battlestar Galactica) begin with a 'previously on our show' segment that hits highlights from several earlier episodes that are relevant to the episode that's about to begin. This is really important if your adventure or campaign involves a complex plot or a big cast of characters.
The other advantage of doing this is that it provides a clear start-point for the session. Once the recap is read or passed out, the game is officially 'on' and it's time to focus. When people come in late, they can get the handout (or whatever) and read it themselves before joining play. In teaching, this is called a 'sponge activity' -- something relevant to the day's lesson that gives students a focus point to start the class and draw them into what they will be doing that day.
In the end, there are lots of little things you can do to save a few minutes here and a few minutes there, but nothing will have as big an impact as you creating an atmosphere where game time matters. Start on time. Break on time. Come back from break on time. Don't interrupt other people. Pay attention to what's happening so people don't need to recap things as you go along. As the DM, be ready and organized, and help keep your players on top of what is happening. A little prep work by you and your players can save hours of puzzled looks and wasted time later on.
Have a question for the Save My Game column? Head over to the message boards: What's a DM to Do or What's a Player to Do. Be sure to include "Save My Game" as part of your message's title. Or, send us a question directly, to Ask Wizards.
About the Author
Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, and son Allen. He just finished his doctorate in education and is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981.