Monday, 9 July 2018

The Structure of a Session

Structure is talked a lot about in RPGs. Most often in the form of how to structure a good encounter, how to structure a campaign, or adventure, etc.

What is not often talked about, and which is something I think is one of the most important forms of structure, is how to structure a session. I define a session as the time between players sit down to play and the time they get up to leave. It could be one hour, or several. It is during this time that the players and GM engage in play. Some groups have a session every week, some every two weeks, some less frequently. What is accomplished during a session can vary, same with the relationship between sessions. A bunch of sessions could be part of a year long campaign, a small multi-session adventure, or even just a one-shot adventure.

I think it is important to talk about the structure of a session because OSR games tend to traditionally have a strict structure to their sessions and I think this is one of the things that makes the OSR different from more modern styles of play. The classic example would be a megadungeon. Traditionally, no matter how the previous session ended, the player characters start in the small town outside the mega-dungeon, their goal to recoup and recover if needed, interacting with the townspeople as they do so, and then venture back into the megadungeon. There they will risk life and limb for treasure, all before deciding to stop, hopefully in a empty room or safe haven, and then play will resume next time outside of the megadungeon as the current session started. Traditionally you're supposed to also have the PCs make their way out of the dungeon before the session ends but I know at least for myself, I've largely hand-waved this, they just start the next session in town.

I don't think it's by chance that the megadungeon style of play is so popular or has lasted so long. It sets a strict structure to a session which does two important things which I view as ideal:
  1. It allows players to retread the same ground and become familiar with it's location and peoples. They can try to take advantage of this familiarity so their character can progress further in the world.
  2. It allows for a regular mixed style of play.
This second point I think is more important than a lot of people realize. Most RPG games aren't a singular game, but groupings of rules that are designed to adjudicate certain commonly occurring activities of play. Such as combat, social situations, puzzle-solving, exploration, etc. Most players have a few of these activities that they enjoy more than others. Some players like combat, some like social role-playing, some like exploration. What I find, almost all players do not like, is doing the same activity all session. 

Having a structure to the session seems artificial on the surface: couldn't the player simply begin and end each session in the dungeon? Couldn't they spend an entire session shopping in town or an entire session convincing the local Lord to gather an army for them to command?

Yes, you can, and I find modern play tends to be much more forgiving in this manner. In modern play the evolving narrative takes you where it will. The player characters very often are considered more important than normal humans much the same way that the characters in works of high or epic fantasy tend to be always at the center of world changing events and tend to have a high degree of influence and control in shaping them. 

Most OSR games in contrast tend to embody swords and sorcery or other forms of fantasy that aren't high fantasy. Where if you, as a dirty commoner can manage to gain an audience with the King, he'll talk to you disdainfully for a bit, before largely ushering you away, and probably not consider your proposition unless you have some significant leverage. The narrative in OSR games doesn't have the yes...and approach that more modern games tend to. It tends to be always much more constrained by the verisimilitude of the game world, which in turn is often constrained by the structure of the session.

Part of the reason characters don't start where they left off in a megadungeon is to allow for time to progress, the megadungeon gets partially repopulated, stuff happens, NPCs storylines advance, etc. this creates a sense of verisimilitude for the players as they feel their characters are part of a living breathing world that will and does continue without them, that has agency and existence beyond them, much like the real world does. The narrative can't take them where it wills because, as like in the real world, things aren't that simple.

I think the structure imposed on a session is an artificial construct that is necessary. It helps move along play and keeps people from getting bored as it introduces a variety of play. I think the rules of OSR games are also written around this idea. Most of them tend to be rules light where there is not enough complexity, or depth to them to engage in the same activity all session. I also think it is better for this structure to be repetitive. Partially because, as already mentioned, it allows the players to become familiar with the game world, and partially because it allows them to see the consequences of their actions really play out. 

If the narrative of a story is wide ranging: a couple combat based sessions spent in the south seas fighting pirates, a session or two spent in Blackport, a session spent talking to the King, and a couple more sessions traveling along the coast, I find very often the consequences of actions tend to become very abstract and disconnected as the time and place in which they occurred and the time and place in which the players are now, become removed. If a player character stabs a beggar in Blackport, generally it's not a big deal. They'll never see them again and probably won't remember it after a session or two. If they piss off the King, it's probably also not be a big deal, the narrative continues. There are consequences of course, the players may be chased by the Kings men as they travel up the coast, instead of being helped by them. But I find these consequences tend to lack a certain weight as there is still a sense of forward momentum in the narrative. They will continue in their story and world events, as the primary agents of it, adventuring along, regardless of what they do. There isn't a sense of true loss, of finality, or world events or more consequential actions spiraling out of control.

In contrast, with the repetitive nature of a session's structure when playing a megadungeon, the players always begin and start in the same place, and often tread over the same ground. While this may seem like it is a recipe for boredom, I find it often leads to play where there is a greater sense of depth and consequence.

An RPG game is not like a high fantasy novel. The players haven't read chapters about a certain NPC character, been privy to their inner monologue or read a lot of backstory about them when they meet them. They get to know them through play and play only. By having the players talk to the same NPCs at the beginning of every session, they get to know them better and the NPCs begin to get fleshed out more. In my experience this causes them to care for them more. They are much more reluctant to annoy the local tribe of orcs in the megadungeon and have them rampage from it, slaughtering all the townsfolk they have befriended, espeically if they know that once killed those townspeople are not coming back and they won't have anyone to buy their stuff from in the village. In this manner things tend to have a greater sense of weight, as there has been more interaction and more investment.

Session structure is invariable tied into the world/game structure. This can make it hard for certain styles of game to embody the session structure and it's ideals that I have outlined above. However I think with a little alteration it's possible to have a more strict structure to your session and have outlined some common styles of play and how I would structure the session for them.


This is probably the easiest. As I have already outlined the players start and end each session in a small village outside the megadungeon. The goal each session is to venture into the megadungon and find treasure. Starting in the village allows regular interaction with NPCs and the spontaneous creation of character relationships and evolving storylines.


This is a little more complex. I find the easiest solution is to take a hub and spoke approach. Where the players start off  in some city/town/village that serves as a hub. It has a number of points of interest equidistant around the main steading that serve as spokes. The players always start and end each session in the steading. Each session they can decide to venture out to a point of interest, explore, or re-explore it. The points of interest are often connected narratively on the fly by the GM and help reinforce a greater story. Once players have exhausted an area and explored everything around it, they can venture onto a new steading which serves as a new hub.

For example one spoke may be a necromancer lair. Another a strange pool of water with a meteorite in it. When the players explore the strange pool of water the GM may decide that the meteorite is unholy and the necromancers want it. And so the necromancers begin to spy on the players and infiltrate the town. Once the players have totally explored the area and wiped out the necromancer cult they may get ominous signs that the next town was the true base of the cult and so decide to move onto it to further pursue their goal. The next town thus becomes the new hub.

Wilderness Exploration:

Some hex-crawls are a bit different where they are mostly untamed wilderness or where the players find themselves strangers in a strange land that is largely unknown and alien. It's fairly easy to begin and each session in a camp. Where the players characters have decided to setup camp and rest for a few days. But I find in addition to this the best thing to do is structure the setting and game with the idea of A QUEST. 

Where they are not just exploring, they are on an important quest! Kind of like how in The Hobbit Bilbo and his gang weren't just exploring an interesting wilderness landscape that had a forest with giant spiders or goblin mountains. They were on a quest to get to Smaugs lair. The Quest gave them purpose and direction, something that is often sorely needed in wilderness type hex-crawls. This may seem like it's limiting player agency, but I find if you tell the players that they can just explore anywhere, they'll explore the goblin mountains a bit or the forest full of spiders but soon feel a bit directionless. However, if you tell them that at the other end of the map is the lair of a dragon and you have a magic key to break into his lair, it becomes immediately more interesting. In this manner the Quest has a way of giving the player characters immediate personal connection with what they are doing.

The Quest also creates a setup for re-occurring characters. Where they aren't just exploring the Desert of Death by themselves, they're part of a caravan lead by the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred who is determined to find the city of the Elder Gods lost in the sands. Each time they are in camp they'll have to talk to him and deal with negotiating his interests and their interests. Or the party isn't just trying to cross the Black Marshes, they're trying to bring the body of their slain comrade to his home village on the other side of them. And every step along the way they're being harassed and harried by Glothgar, the leader of the local gnoll tribe who killed their comrade and gets perverse pleasure from trying to steal and desecrate his body.