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Scene Duration and Scenes-per-session

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Scene Duration and Scenes-per-session

I've been wondering about Scene Duration and number of Scenes per session. In a typical 3-4 hour session, how many scenes does your group cover? (If your favorite RPG doesn't use "scenes" per se, count "rooms" or "locations" instead.)

For most sessions I recall, I

For most sessions I recall, I count fewer than 10 scenes per session. PbtA systems seems to have a faster scene rate, for me anyway, those sessions can go to 10 or 15.

Follow up: What's the balance of short versus long scenes?

I'd be interested in answers to this for my own nefarious purposes. Does anyone tend to have a fair number of very short scenes interspersed with more meaty scenes?

One of the best campaigns (a

One of the best campaigns (a Nobilis game) I played in had a timer for scenes. Every scene lasted 5 minutes (I think. Maybe more or less). At the end of 5 minutes, you could request an additional 5 minutes. This meant that we could split our large party of characters, but no one was sidelined for too long. And it meant the action was more focused, rather than flabby and meandering.

There were other factors that made the game great, of course, but when we played that game or other games without the timer it was less good.

So I think there is a definite link between scene length and the quality of a game, and that more short scenes is better than fewer, longer scenes. That is the sense I get from my experiences in play, anyway. Usually, we have longer scenes, and it can lead to a more meandering game that is somewhat less satisfying.

Weird question, but what sort

Weird question, but what sort of timer did you use? Who had access to it ( or could see it)?

Oh, also, how long did scene set up take and was that considered part of the 5 ( + optional 5) minutes of play?

I think it was just a

I think it was just a stopwatch or an egg timer (since this was before cellphones were ubiquitous; now it;d probably be someone with a timer app). The GM set the timer and kept an eye on it, but anyone could ask to see it or ask how much time was left on it.

Usually there was a short break between scenes, where we'd decide what scene came next. The GM would ask someone who hadn't been in a scene recently if they had something they wanted to do, or would propose a scene for a character. And people would use that as an opportunity to say they're stepping out to get a snack or use the bathroom or whatever. Once the scene framing started, the timer started, but there usually wasn't a lot of time establishing things: briefly describe the environment, explain who is there, get to the characters interacting as quickly as possible.

At a rough estimate, how long

At a rough estimate, how long do you think you averaged time-wise on the between-scenes discussions?

This is all very interesting to me, since I'm working on something where time is very much of the essence ( total play time not meant to exceed 2 three hour sessions, with a full 3 Act structure and post-game debrief procedures).

Knowing what worked for you could very much help me with what I'm working on.

Usually it wasn't long

Usually it wasn't long between scenes, like 30 seconds to a minute. But occasionally we'd pause for longer if something came up, like discussing what pizza to order. About the same for that game as for any other game. When I play Fiasco or Swords Without Master recently, it's pretty similar: pause for a second, get people's feedback and feelings on the scene, see if anyone has an idea for the next, see if anyone wants to bow out of the next scene, then whoever is in charge starts framing the next scene.

Very cool to learn that. I'd

Very cool to learn that. I'd tried, some years back now, to make a game where scenes could be as long as 15minutes ( including everything), with a 5 minutes heads up before the timer ran out. In theory, they could be shorter, but our scene-cutting skills ( and lack of good rules for it) were somewhat lacking. There was definite meandering involved. I'm wondering now if a significantly shorter time limit like your 5+5 would have fixed the issue ( or at least helped).

Hmm.... ( sounds of gears turning)

Other Borders (DramaSystem/Malandros)

I've been running a mini-campaign of Other Borders (two sessions in), and I just went through the videos taking timecodes to judge scene length (trying my best to subtract OOC talk and rules discussions). OB uses Tom McGrenery's "Malandros" hack of DramaSystem, which replaces the procedural mechanics with PBTA-like Moves. DS, of course, is a highly "narrativist" system, relying almost entirely on player-generated action and dialogue. Here's what I found:

SESSION 1 (short session)
Scene 1* - 32
Scene 2 - 16
Scene 3 - 22
Scene 4 - 5
Scene 5# - 7

Scene 1 - 31
Scene 2 - 13
Scene 3 - 20
Scene 4 - 2
Scene 5 - 15
Scene 6 - 21
Scene 7 - 28
Scene 8# - 2

* GM Establishing Scene
# GM Wrapup Scene

I was surprised to find that the average scene length between these two sessions differed by mere seconds (!)

Is the average scene length a meaningful thing?

Tod, nice job on tracking scene length through a session! That's great data collection.

I wonder how meaningful that average is, though? (An honest question - I'm curious if you think it reflects something or not, in this case.)

Your second session looks like this:

Scene 1 - 31
Scene 2 - 13
Scene 3 - 20
Scene 4 - 2
Scene 5 - 15
Scene 6 - 21
Scene 7 - 28
Scene 8# - 2

All but scenes 4 and 8 are in the 15-30 min range, which sounds pretty typical. (In my games, almost all scenes are 15-40 mins long. It's a fun thing to explore and fool around with, and sometimes we'll cut back and forth if scenes are getting long, meaning it doesn't all take place as one chunk.)

Is it possible that those two outliers are something different? A different kind of scene, in some way?

Absolutely. Those were both

Absolutely. Those were both mine. :-)
I used them both to push NPCs forward. Offstage badness, you might say. One of them was a fast montage with shots of festival-goers partying, intercut with shots of people getting killed (this was setup, the BigBad NPC is moving in on the town). The other was the final "cliffhanger" scene in which we learn a small but important piece of backstory for the same BigBad NPC. So those scenes were definitely more omniscient-strategic than local-tactical.

Is scene length a meaningful thing? In some cases, perhaps. Usually, probably not. But really I was just wondering how much it varies from one group to another, especially if playing the same game.

Scene length varies a lot and

Scene length varies a lot and in my experience depends on the story arc. So, beginning of the game there are shorter 5 or 10min scenes. At the story climax, a scene can be 10-30min long.


As another datapoint, I was in a couple of very slow-moving trad games a few years back, and I got bored enough that I started writing down how long things took. I seem to remember roughly an hour per scene. (I’ll come update this if I can actually find my notes!)

I remember a very experienced convention GM (again, in a trad style) telling me that her most reliable rule of thumb was “3 scenes per 2 hours of play”.

I found some more notes...

I was involved in two very "traditional" RPG groups for a bit, and the games were slow enough that I had time and energy to write down how long everything took. (You know, for science! And now it's finally paying off!)

The games didn't have discrete scenes, so this is approximate, but:

The session with group 1 was about 6 hours long, and had 5 scenes.

The session with group 2 was about 4 1/2 hours long, and had 5 or 6 scenes.

This is something I've seen in slow-moving trad games before. I find it pretty frustrating, because usually these aren't exciting, dramatic scenes, but, rather, long stretches of play where nothing happens at all (negotiation, looking up rules, making plans, failing Perception checks, and similar).

With the second group (they're playing D&D 5e), a round of combat lasted (surprisingly consistently!) roughly 30 minutes, with fights lasting 1-3 rounds, which seems pretty consistent with the observations above.

I found other notes, from my game Land of Nodd, a rotating GM kind of setup (which I really should update and submit to the site here!):

Scenes are consistently 10-25 mins long, with an average of 15-20 minutes. Sessions tend to be shorter, for a 'scenes per session' of about 10.

In my Monsterhearts campaign, we had sessions of about 3 to 3 1/2 hours, and a total of 7-12 scenes per session, making the average scene length about 20 minutes.

Paul T: what do you think

Paul T: what do you think makes for such different amounts of time per scene, aside from more gamist/simulationist mechanics ?

I've recently finished

I've recently finished playing a neo-trad game and noticed just how slow it was compared to what I'd normally play. I think the main things slowing it down were a lack of framing mechanics, limited resolution mechanics, and the GM being impartial and reactive. In one instance, we decided to meet with someone who we thought would have useful information. Clearly at some point the GM decided that this guy wouldn't actually know anything, but for us to work that out we had to play out this long and delicate conversation over tea and cakes. Normally you'd just skip this sort of stuff, or engage some mechanic that would determine whether or not you get the information, or something - but this just went round and round because there's no real elegant way to end it given the system's assumptions.

This particular scene was egregious enough that I interrupted and asked why we're playing this out if absolutely nothing is going to be happen, but there were plenty of other similar scenes where what we were trying to achieve only happened very, very slowly. We might move the plot forward a bit, but aligning what the players were intending to achieve with what the GM imagined the situation to be was difficult and took time.

The game was actually enjoyable overall, but trimming out all the zilchplay would have sped things up significantly. Depending on how you count a scene, that last session had 4-6 scenes? But the lines between scenes can be hazy.

Also, any scene were the players have to plan out something is a nightmare, takes forever, and becomes almost completely irrelevant once set in motion because the game was never tactical to begin with. Argh.

That sounds about right

If I had to try to nail it down, I'd say it's some intersection of mechanical complexity/steps, narrative complexity/steps (detail), interactivity, negotiation, and the need for opacity. Aik's examples here are pretty much exactly what was going on in those trad games I'm remembering. For instance, in one game we spent 20 minutes making a plan for how to run across the road without being seen; once we put the plan into action, we found/learned that there was no one watching the road, so it didn't really matter. In the other game, there was a nearly hour-long negotiation between the players about the way to do something which we eventually decided to not even try.

If you just have one person narrate a quick scene, it can be over in 2 minutes (as in AsIf's examples, above). As soon as you have two, who need to interact, that will take a bit longer. Add game mechanics and procedures which take time, and it gets longer still. How hard is your scene framing? How much unknown/unshared information is there that we need to negotiate with each other? (Do we need to ask each other a bunch of questions before we can even play the scene, for instance? How many people have to agree on each point before we go forward?) How much information are we expected to be holding secret from each other, which needs to be shared, communicated, or worked around?

What are the stakes of failure? Is failure fun, or a disappointment? Something to avoid?

Design is a big part of this, too, not just in terms of mechanical complexity, but in terms of *focus*. Do the procedures of the game get us straight to the heart of the matter, and then cut through it, or do we have to negotiate that, too?

Finally, of course, attention to detail and the preferred pace of the players is important, but, in my experience, not as big a factor (somewhat surprisingly!). Certainly not big enough to get us from a 2 min scene to an hour-long scene!

No scenes per se

2-20 minutes in narration/dialog mode. Sharing the remote control is key.

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