Wednesday, December 05, 2012

What are the Three Major Timescales in RPGs?


When designing an RPG, there are three time scales you have to worry about: The Immediate, The Session, and The Campaign.   Each is a component of the next and scale up in the amount of time elapsed.  So there are many Immediate moments in a Session.  There are many Sessions in a Campaign.  Immediate moments are very brief periods of time- usually the usage of a single game mechanic.  Sessions are one sit-down play experiences: whether that’s thirty minutes or ten hours.  A Campaign encompasses all of play from when a group begins creating fiction using your game to the moment they conclude the fiction.

The Immediate time frame is filled with what the players are doing at the table at any given moment.  Each immediate moment could be very different from the next.  Players could be rolling dice in combat.  They could be talking in character to barter for information.  They could be strategizing their next attack.  They might be acting out a romance scene between their characters and so on. 

As a designer, you have to think about what you want your players doing at any given moment.  If your first thought is, “Whatever they want!” then you need to rethink.  A game needs focus.  If players aren’t given direction (or hooks) from the game’s text, they’ll just flounder about until they make up their own rules or drop the game altogether.  By limiting what can happen in the Immediate time frame, you give the players creative constraints within which they can work.  So, does your game involve romance?  Does it involve hand-to-hand combat?  Is it about fulfilling a quest or learning about some new world?  Do you need rules for all of these?  Or just some?

Also, you need to think about what the players are really doing at the table.  Okay, you might have a game about mecha pilots being mercenaries for hire, and as part of that they need to be able to negotiate a bounty for their services.  So what does that negotiation actually look like AT THE TABLE?  Is it simply a matter of rolling 2d6 and referencing their characters’ negotiation skills?  Do the players have to spend points of some kind?  Is it left to the acting skills of the players to decide?  Is it done by GM fiat?  Fighting, negotiating, picking a lock, hacking a computer, etc. are all different activities for the characters, but from a design standpoint, these can all be the exact same activity for the players: rolling dice then checking against a target number.  Conversely, they could all be completely different depending on how you write your rules!

So when thinking about the Immediate time scale, consider what is actually going on at the table in the real world.  Think about what the players should be literally, physically doing at any individual moment of the game- then design rules to support that.

Rules for the Immediate time frame are generally procedural.  They guide the players, step-by-step, through different processes of resolving dilemmas.  Sometimes, these types of mechanics are referred to as crunchy or grainy, but that’s not helpful terminology.  Examples of Immediate Timescale rules are things like combat rules, task resolution, conflict resolution, saving throws, recovery mechanics, Chargen, equipment lists, critical hit tables, random encounter tables, and so on.  These rules are generally used for brief moments then set aside, and often players rotate through them during a Session.

Speaking of which, the next step up (as far as timescales go) is The Session.  During an average session, whatever amount of time that might be, what do you envision the players doing?  What should they have accomplished by the end of the night?  Things that happen within The Session time frame are a result of what happens over the course of multiple Immediate time frames.  These can be things like traveling, character advancement, treasure accumulation, character death, mission completion, reward cycles, and so on.  Rules for what goes on at The Session level tend to be a mix of procedural (e.g. leveling up a character) and directional (e.g. the goal for the night is to explore the next level of the dungeon). 

The third time frame is The Campaign, or “why are we playing this game in the first place?”  The Campaign (for lack of a better word) is the author’s vision for what the game is all about.  It is what should happen when all The Sessions are added together: from beginning to end.  Rules for The Campaign timescale tend to be mostly directional, e.g. “Fulfill this quest” or “Survive with dignity” or “Solve the crime.”  The Campaign provides an over-arching context and focus for rules at the Immediate and Session levels.  Not all rules at the Campaign level are directional, though.  Some might be procedural.

This is where pacing rules can come into play.  Take D&D’s experience point mechanics for instance.  These are pacing mechanics for character advancement.  The D&D design and development teams come up with how many XP the typical character should earn in a Session then adjust their rules, tables, values, and expectations accordingly.  It provides concrete guidelines for DMs to follow during the course of the entire Campaign. 

That’s one example, but for the most part, Campaign level rules are guide interactions among the players rather than interactions between the players and the game’s step-by-step mechanics.

Since this is Socratic Design, we can think about these three timescales in the form of questions:  “What are we doing right now?” ; “What are we doing tonight?” ; and “What are we doing during this campaign?”  I believe I have to credit Ron Edwards for first organizing play in these three terms.  But players should be able to clearly and succinctly answer these questions at any given moment.  If your playtesters can’t, then perhaps you need to work on how your vision is being communicated by the game’s text.

Anyway, if you can think about designing your rules to cover each of these different time scales, the coherence of your design will be markedly improved.  It will also help you understand how play will flow from moment to moment and create an emergent game experience for the players.



P.S. I’ve included a diagram of play formy game “Blasted Sands” that shows how the different time frames work within the context of a flow chart.  You can find the text of that game here (spelling errors and all!).  I appologize for the low resolution of that image.  I could not find my hi-res version.  Once I do, I'll upload it.