Thursday, 16 February 2012

Why Didn't I Think of this Before?

In reply to this comment, I got this perceptive observation:

I've generally found that most nonfiction books were published first as articles, and that the book contains no more content than the article did but takes ten times as long to read. I've also found that huge numbers of novels were published first as short stories, and that the novel contains no more content than the short story did but takes ten times as long to read. I think the fact that every piece of writing has to be packaged as a book-length product in order to make any money or achieve any sort of public profile is a terrible shame, and makes writing a lot less fun than it would otherwise be, and leads to us readers wasting an incredible amount of our finite lifespans.

Which I agree with, on balance. As life goes on I get less and less patient with novels, especially long ones. There are plenty of exceptions, of course, but for every novel-length book I read that I think deserves a novel-length exploration, there are probably 5 that could be reduced to a long short story or, at best, a novella if you sheer off the fat. I imagine a machine whereby manuscripts are fed on a conveyor belt into some sort of cheese-grater device which simply shreds away the excess and sends it to be packaged as hamster-bedding or compressed into MDF. (There are also incredibly long novels that could be reduced to merely averagely-lengthy novels by the same process: I won't name names, but one recent example I can think of begins with "D" and ends with "ance of Dragons".)

Anyway, it got me thinking about RPG campaigns. I've always been very much a less-is-more sort of person when it comes to sessions. Between two and two-and-a-half hours is the sweet spot for me; any longer than that and my attention starts to wander. Brevity is the soul of good orc-killing.

(Incidentally, there is another reason for preferring short sessions, which I call - I've just decided - the Ben Bova Principle. This is based on a bit of writing advice by Ben Bova, who said that he always tries to finish a day's writing half-way through a sentence, with ideas yet to be written down. This is so the next day when he sits at the type-writer he immediately has something to write, and this gives him the momentum to continue. The Ben Bova Principle apples to RPG sessions too; if the players still have stuff they want to do at the end of a session, it means they'll immediately have something to do when they start the next session.)

When it comes to campaigns, however, I think that this doesn't really hold true. Lengthy campaigns, I'd say, are usually really worth their length - in that length can also mean depth. The longer a campaign goes on, the more stuff is generated, the more bonds are tied, and the more players become invested in what is happening. And the pay-offs are greater, especially in games like D&D, Pendragon and WFRP, where advancement is not just fun for its own sake but actually makes play even more interesting by offering more options.

Indeed, I'd probably invert my rule-of-thumb observation about novels: for every 5 long campaigns that are worth their length, there is 1 that isn't.

But this presents us with a problem, alluded to in the comment above: Our finite lifespans. I have so many ideas for different campaigns that I want to play, and I want to fit as many in as possible. How does one reconcile these two conflicting truths: that both lengthiness and variety are basically unqualified goods?

An obvious answer leaps to me off the computer screen: Two campaigns per session. By extending the length of a session to 4 hours, I can run two 2-hour sessions of different campaigns a night. Why didn't I think of this before?


  1. I'm finding that running several (2-3) fortnightly campaigns at once seems to work well - ideas that don't quite work in one can fit in the other, and it seems to greatly reduce campaign fatigue.

    OTOH yes, shorter 2.5-3 hour sessions seem better than 4-6 hours. The exception is one very old school 'open' campaign using Pathfinder Beginner Box where each session is a complete adventure, that needs 4-6 hour sessions to work.

  2. What might work well is to have one of the games be sort of a "short subject" before the one that takes up most of the campaign (and absorb most of the fucking-around period.)

    You could rotate the "short" and the "feature" if you wanted.

  3. Mega campaign with teleporting between them.

    Just like Gygax's crew found themselves on the Warden and in the wild west.

  4. I'll be interested to hear if the 2.5 hour point, where you've lost focus in the past, changes with two campaigns. The 'interest drop' might be a physical/physiological product or it might be an intellectual product.

    Or you might bypass it by playing 4 hours in one day just not having sessions back-to-back.

  5. I like to change things up over the course of a single long campaign. It's one of the reasons I suggest that there be multiple characters per player. You can take different arrangements of characters and tell stories with different tones and feels while still within the same campaign world and still having the benefits of longevity. Depending on how you bring things together, this can be either an epic or a picaresque or a merger of the two.

  6. Goddamnit, that's Hemingway, not Bova.

  7. Food for thought, however, I won't get out of bed for anything shorter than an 8 hour session. It must have something to do with immersion and intensity but I can't see the point in playing for 2 hours.

    Let's be clear too, who cares whether shit novels started as shit short stories there are many more great novels than I will ever have time to read that could not be presented satisfactorily as short stories.

  8. poe: I think the interest drop is more intellectual than physiological. I just have a short attention span, I think.

    borkborkbork: Hemingway, Bova, what's the difference...? ;)

    Kent: Even at the age you are now? I play semi-regualarly in a Call of Cthulu campaign that has 6 hour sessions, with a half-hour chippy break in between, after which at least two of the 35+ year old group of players always start falling asleep.

  9. lol ... eh, wait a sec, youre not 35 yet from which I gather you weren't as self-deprecating as it first seemed.

  10. Double Feature Game Night?

    Top idea: leave 'em wanting more twice as much. And it might give the regular GM a breather.

    Short and sweet: this post is truly worthy of generic response #97.

  11. Stephen King says that 2nd draft = (1st draft - 20%)... I think the really good authors understand that some of what they write is crap that needs to be filtered away before publishing.

    Bad authors, on the other hand, love the "sound" of their own voice more than the truth of the story.

    Most authors are bad authors. Good authors write short stories when it's right and long stories when that's right.

  12. Kent: I'm 30, the only one in that group under 35 (I think).

    Chris Hogan: You could even mix it up by having one "Feature Film" (the serious game) and one "B Movie" (the jokey one) each week.

    Mr. Blue: The only problem with that is, you need to write long stories to make a living. There's always an incentive to write novels over short stories, because you just get more bang for your buck that way. This means good authors might end up writing long stories that don't need to be long stories.

  13. Well, I suppose bad storytellers can be rich authors with the right marketing... but they are still bad storytellers.

    One word establishes my case: Twilight.

  14. (Disclaimer: For a million dollars, I would make vampires glitter too)

  15. Our group did that in highschool. I think it was because everyone wanted to DM...