An Open Letter about Scenario Length


Organized Play General Discussion

Wayfinders 4/5 5/55/55/55/5 **** Contributor

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The Current Trend toward 5 Hour Scenarios

Doug Hahn noted in a recent post (in the GM thread for 4-04 To Seek the Heart of Calamity) that a number of recent PFS scenarios have run long. To those who do not want scenario spoilers, here is the pertinent bit:

Dough Hahn wrote:

Length

This one really needs a 5-hour slot. The elemental encounter took an hour and really walloped ‘em. I skipped scorpions altogether, and the quicksand.

We simply did NOT have time.

As with 4-03 I would like to reiterate that some of us have hard stops on weeknights and it would be nice to see some of these scenarios trend back down to the 4-hour mark instead of against the 5-hour mark.

I will note that in addition to PFS 4-03 and 4-04, 4-06 also runs past the 5 hour mark, making it impossible for me to run any of these scenarios on our regular Wednesday night game nights. This makes me sad as both 4-03 and 4-06 have some delightful weirdness.

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When scenarios run long, I run repeatables instead

I recognize that sometimes you will have an excellent story like Lodge of the Living God that will require you to run it in a weekend home game or in a double-slot over the course of two nights. But if we get too many of these scenarios in a row, suddenly I can't run any of the new storyline at my location. We run games weekly, and many of my players are veterans who have played all the older scenarios.

Running repeatables is an unsatisfactory way to fill this gap. I’d love to have our players also experience the Metaplot.

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Mid-Week Game Nights are crunched for time

One issue that we've been facing at Dreamers has been a change in game store hours, post-pandemic. It used to be that the majority of game stores stayed open until 11pm. But post-pandemic, every game store in Minnesota closes at 10pm. This has left us with 3.5 hours in which to run scenarios.

Now, I'm an experienced GM. I can usually use all sorts of tricks to run games more efficiently:

★ Custom Handouts
★ Printouts of the Mission Briefing
★ Gear and Spell Cards
★ Keeping the players on task, and using NPC dialogue to clue them in
★ Calling fights when there are no longer any significant enemies left
★ Limiting player signups to 4 people for slightly longer scenarios

I’ve gotten really, really good at providing a really fun and informative run in a shorter time frame. But I cannot fit 5.5 hours into 3.5.

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Longer Scenarios discourage GM recruitment

We run 3 tables regularly at Dreamers, which means that we rely on casual and newer GMs to fill that third table. This is normally a good thing. The Dreamers regulars know that Bret and I cannot run everything because 3 > 2. This means that we have a great incentive to recruit and build new GMs, or to encourage casual GMs to continue building their skills.

But new and casual GMs run much slower than experienced ones. I want them to branch beyond repeatables, but it can be frustrating to a GM if they are rushing endings.

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Final Thoughts

I know that one size does not fit all. Some stories just need more time to tell. But I’m betting that the Bay Area and Twin Cities are not the only locations with a hard cutoff for mid-week game nights.

Thanks so much for listening,
Hmm

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Pathfinder Maps, Pathfinder Accessories, Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Maps, Starfinder Roleplaying Game, Starfinder Society Subscriber; Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber

I'm a "fast" GM, most scenarios run 3-3:30 for me. So anytime a scenario goes over 4 for me, I worried that its going to cause problems for a lot of venues. However there was also a trend of scenarios creeping down below 3 hours, which I think is too short, and I was glad to see it creeping back up (but they overshot). So it's always going to be a balancing factor.

I think for places with hard-cutoffs, there will always be a risk, and rather than only repeatables, you'll want to keep some of the forth coming relaunched Quests around, along with some of the shorter Dark Archive case files, or Kingmaker Companion quests. Ie, don't schedule any of those just because they're new, save them for when you need to replace a long running scenario in your schedule.

Wayfinders 4/5 5/55/55/55/5 **** Contributor

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That is a good point about the Dark Archive Case Files and Kingmaker Companion quests. I will keep them in reserve for the next time I get surprised with a really long run time scenario...

2/5 *** Venture-Agent, Texas—Austin

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For what it's worth, we're facing a similar issue in Austin. Our primary local game store only stays open later on nights when Magic has tournaments, which provides a bit of flexibility but it messes with our usual schedule a lot.

If anything, this might help make a strong case for some higher level quests going forward too: maybe breaking some of these arcs into two parts each worth 2 xp.

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I know NielsenE mentioned specifically the shorter Dark Archive but just to emphasize... some of the Dark Archive Case Files are quite long, so just be careful with those.

Also the Kingmaker Companion adventures generally seem longer rather than shorter and some are split between 2 levels that are not especially close to each other. (3/6 6/10 etc)

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Yup, there are issues with the casefiles and Kingmaker Companion quests for use as filler in schedules/replacement for long scenarios, but they are one of the tools we have to work with so they are good to keep in mind.

Issues to keep in mind
1) Adventure mode: some communities really want to play their own characters. With most of the casefiles/companion quests being single level (or mid-story jump leveling) this can be tricky, even if you use the "clone of a pfs character" approach.

2) Length: Some case files are shorter than scenarios. Some longer. You need to do your research first to know which ones can work. Most of the kingmaker ones, I feel would be better as 2 3-hour sessions. If your venue, community, and scheduling system allow for splitting an adventure mode game across two sessions a lot of the longer ones should work just fine (and still not as obtrusive into a long-term schedule as a full Adventure) and can be a huge boon for filling a regular schedule at a reduced hours venue. Though this won't work for all communities, the more varied schedules your players have, etc the harder it would be to use the longer offerings as scenario replacements.

Grand Lodge 4/5 ** Venture-Agent, Colorado—Denver

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I will admit as a PFS event organizer at my local FLGS that some scenarios do run quite long. I just handwave/quicktime the second to final encounter if needed.

Where can I find these "Kingmaker Companion adventures" you mention?

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Store page for the companion guide. They've been sanctioned in a similar manner to the casefiles. adventure mode, 1/2 scenario credit. But very variable length from less than a scenario to double+length.

Grand Archive 4/5 ****

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I would like to see a return of marking some encounters as optional.

Silver Crusade 5/5 5/5 **

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Jared Thaler - Personal Opinion wrote:
I would like to see a return of marking some encounters as optional.

Seconded. The reality is that GMs WILL treat some encounters as optimal when they realize that they just don't have enough time. Better for the story if these are pre-chosen by the authors than decided at the table.

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Thanks for bringing this up, HMM!

I am a faster GM too. I suspect the quality of some games feels rushed and has been a turn-off for some local players, because we're often short on time. People seem to have more fun when we can stretch it out with some silly roleplay and even a little socializing at the table along the way.

My Experience

I used to run on weeknights at multiple locations in San Francisco. We're down to 1 after the Pandemic. Many stores have a hard stop at 10 PM. Players with jobs can't really get there till 6 PM at the earliest. So… you have a 6-10 slot. Okay that's fine, right?

Not so fast! Players often run a little late because of parking/traffic/transit delays/dinner. You also need a 10-minute bio / stretch break in your session. Lastly, you need to clean up and be out the door at 10 PM, meaning the end time is actually 9:45.

That 4-hour slot on the Warhorn schedule is actually a 3.5-hour slot (or more realistically 3.25 hours).

It's not ideal, but it's the reality many VOs, such as myself, face.

My Suggestion

The official length of scenarios should be 3.5-4 hours, not 4-5 hours. Bring back optionals like Jared said or just write shorter scenarios (or… keep the page count up and add more flavor and less crunch).

A shorter official run time would also let GMs have a little more wiggle room for roleplay, flavor, and breaks. Personally, I hate feeling like it's GO! GO! GO! from the moment people sit down to the moment they leave. It's stressful and anxiety-inducing for everyone at the table.

Honestly it's totally insane many of us commute, work 8+ hours, commute to a store, and then play 4-5 hours before heading home. That's another half of a work day. So much dedication!

I would love to see more 3-hour scenarios. Let GMs fill the remainder with content such as interactivity with players, roleplay, and setting flavor.

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My observation comes from conventions, since I'm primarily a PbP GM/player now. However, I do occasionally run/play on VTT and once upon a time had a meat space venue.

There are two circumstances that drew out run time: 1) more and more people want to embody their role play probably as a side effect of streaming campaigns they watch, and 2) new players or new to content players (run times increase around me for the next couple of months a new class is released).

None if those are bad things, but they are part of the variables.

Sovereign Court 4/5 5/5 ** Venture-Lieutenant, Netherlands—Leiden

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Some other things that I've found make the runtime of a scenario potentially much longer:

* Many NPCs to talk to. Some groups may grind through this with ruthless efficiency, but others won't. Extreme example,

1-18:
there are 17 NPCs in the village that you can talk to and you need to figure out who to trust. It can be done with a few dice rolls each, but it invites to longer play.

* Evasive enemies, such as devils that can fly and turn invisible and might use kiting tactics. If the GM chooses to actually play them evasively, the fight can take a loooong time.

I don't think we should never use these in a scenario. But if you do, it might be good to do it early, and make a later encounter optional. So that it can work out well for different kinds of groups.

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Concealment, mirror images, sacks-of-hitpoints-with-regeneration, and reactions like Crumble can really draw stuff out too.

I budget at least 1 hour for Extreme encounters; 1.5 if it will be particularly challenging or use tactics like Ascalaphus mentioned. I tend to budget 30-45 min for moderate encounters and call most low/moderate early. (Many GMs run out the clock to the bitter end, even when there is absolutely nothing at stake). While things have improved over the years, it would be nice to see even fewer "fight to the death" encounters.

Some scenarios, like 3-15, are special and justifiably need a 5-hour slot or a 2-session schedule. I would not mind that being more of the norm for "high-level" (APL ≥ 10) 2E play if other scenarios trended down to 3.5 hours.

Dataphiles

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Doug Hahn wrote:
The official length of scenarios should be 3.5-4 hours, not 4-5 hours. Bring back optionals like Jared said or just write shorter scenarios (or… keep the page count up and add more flavor and less crunch).

These are good ideas. I won't lie, I've been GMing for several years and, hand-on-heart honest, I can honestly say I've never run a game that's finished in under 4 hours. I've currently taken an extended break from running online because over-running was making GMing society games too difficult; I was often needing to split an adventure over 2 sessions (I'm UK-based, so for my US players we had to play in what was late evening for me). This made scheduling to get all the same players back for the second part extremely stressful. And, I won't lie to you, us Brits, we love to really get into character with our roleplay - more time on the clock! Typically to get a scenario to fit a 4-hour block, I'd need to cut content for it (usually a combat), which I'm not SUPPOSED to do... I'm currently running some dragon game for my local group, and I note a lot of the premade org games for that one advise a minimum of 3 hours - those scenarios tend to last for 2-3 evenings! But yes, I think including more 'optional encounters' is the way to go. Gives the GMs more agency to adapt to the needs of the players, that's never a bad thing.

***

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I'm not necessarily interested for shorter adventures (I feel that between Dark Archives, Bounties and Quests, there are just too many short adventures). But I'd love an indication somewhere about the adventures length, even if it's fan made. Knowing beforehand, as a player, how much time I must block for an adventure would really help planning. And as a GM, it may validate my feelings when I think an adventure is bigger than 4 hours.

The main issue for me is when you unexpectedly realize after 3 hours of play that you need at least 2 extra hours to finish the adventure properly. If it's something we are all aware of it's not so much of an issue.

Wayfinders 4/5 5/55/55/55/5 **** Contributor

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Heh. Most of the Dark Archives stories run longer. Only a few of them are as short as they claim. I wish they had had a bit more consistency. Bounties and Quests have their place -- they are great as a way to get people gaming at non-gaming conventions because most people can spare an hour to play a short adventure. They're also really awesome for afterschool gaming programs, something that I am looking into doing this Fall.

I don't even mind the occasional longer scenario. I am just hoping that future scenarios aim for that four hour mark, or give us a bit more leeway in whether we can drop a fight in the middle of an adventure that isn't moving the plot forward. I'd much rather cut something in the middle to save more time for a well-designed boss fight.

If they could include an expected play length, that would be great! It is the number one thing that I look for in reviews. However, play length is hard to estimate. So many things can make a scenario run unexpectedly long - some players are easily distracted, or new, and GM prep can make a huge difference in run time.

I can make estimates for myself when I look at the number of encounters in an adventure and see if there are circumstances or tactics that will make it drag... But sometimes it is hard to know what will bog an adventure down. Pacing is more art than science.

Hmm

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Some of the Dark archives are taking me 4-5+ hours to run… with cut content.

Based on the tin, out pfs group was planning on completing them end of November. We’re now hoping to be done second week February.

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I must admit I found the optional encounters in the past pretty uninteresting.

For obvious reasons they never had key plot elements and so tended to be quite dull. As a result we missed them out unless that affected the chronicle sheet in some way (at which point it probably isn't an optional encounter anymore).

Having to create an optional encounter that is interesting but skippable is a really tough ask of the writer who already has to work to the set time limitations.

4/5 5/55/55/5 *** Venture-Lieutenant, Minnesota—Minneapolis

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Just a note, the contributor tag after the original poster’s name indicates someone who has written products for Paizo.

That said, I think that instead of optional encounters perhaps we need to think of more ways to allow GMs to finish in a shorter amount of time.

Starfinder has a rule about significant opponents. Bringing that forward to all of the systems and having ways to end an encounter when all the significant opponents are defeated can greatly speed up gameplay without affecting the plot.

I really loved the surrender mechanics in Struck by Shadows and would like to see something like that applied more universally. Once the big opponent is down, allow the action to move on.

Shortcuts for rest and recovery would also be great. Many players are achieving this by taking Assurance on Medicine skill so there are less dice rolls. It would be nice to be able to use Heal spells out of combat and not have to roll the dice.

Game Aids often greatly speed up play. This is something we could do outside of the scenarios, coming up with sheets that help run skill challenges. A lot of people benefit from having some visual representation for progress.

For an Organized Play scenario, some of these would require it be written into the scenario or new general rules be invoked for Org Play. Other things (such as game aids) we can do ourselves, but they aren’t going to be enough to make something like Lodge of the Living God fit in a 3.5 hour slot.

One question I have is if there is any playtest or other checks on scenario length before they are published? Individual writers can do their own, but once it is submitted is anything done to check how long the scenario takes to complete?

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