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With RPGs, what counts as one unit of play? Or, basically, what is a single session of a roleplaying game?

Lately I’ve been playing The Beast, a single-player epistolary RPG that takes place over the course of sessions, each lasting 5-15 minutes, and it’s gotten me thinking more closely about units of play and the nature of RPGs in general.

On a concrete level, I log all my plays on RPGGeek, so I have to think frequently about whether some gaming thing I did counts for those purposes. But it’s also fun to think about in the abstract — and my thinking has changed over the years.

Contents: one play

To count as a session of play, my current thinking is that it must:

  1. Be discrete
  2. Not be crazy-short
  3. Involve roleplaying

So if I play a session of Savage Worlds that lasts four hours, and then play again a day later, but only for two hours, that’s two sessions. Even though the first session was twice as long as the second, the unit is the discrete time spent playing, regardless of length — provided it’s not crazy-short (which these sessions are not). And obviously Savage Worlds is a roleplaying game, so there we go.

Wibbly wobbly

Where things get interesting is on the fringes and in the liminal spaces. #1 isn’t too fuzzy, and really has no fringe: When the session ends, so does the unit of play.

Number two is a bit fuzzier, since “crazy-short” is obviously a subjective measure. Number three is fuzzier still, since any given roomful of gamers is reasonably unlikely to agree on a single definition of “roleplaying.” So let’s poke those two a bit.

Number two

Most of my gaming over the past few years has fallen into six broad time slots, session-wise:

  • 9 hours[1], when the weekly game ran really long
  • 6 hours, which was about normal back in Utah
  • 4 hours, like most Gen Con slots
  • 3 hours, my new normal in Seattle
  • 90 minutes, how long my online group plays
  • 5-15 minutes, for short-form games

I’d probably describe anything under 3 hours as a short session in conversation, and anything over 4 hours as a long session, but they’re all fundamentally sessions.

For me, only the last entry — the shortest — pushes up against the boundary of what I’d consider a play. My sessions of The Beast are short, but not the shortest I’ve played: My free RPG The Thief can be played to its conclusion in under 5 minutes. And at some point in my gaming career I’m going to play a game that takes 30 seconds, and I suspect I’d still consider that to be one play.

At any point on the time spectrum, the key is that meaningful gaming happens during the session. If I sat at my desk and made a character, that’s not a session. If we sat down to play D&D and, 10 minutes in, had to call it a night, that’s not a session.

The Beast and The Thief both define the unit of play in the rules — and that’s important, too: If the game designer says “This is a session,” I give them the benefit of the doubt.[2]

Number three

My initial list of criteria for what counts as a play is missing a few things — intentionally so:

  • A game master
  • More than one player
  • Any reference to the format of the game

Despite GM-less solitaire RPGs going back as far as the second-ever fantasy RPG, 1975’s Tunnels & Trolls, I’d be willing to bet there are gamers out there who don’t consider GM-less games, let alone solitaire games, “real” RPGs.

Throw in format, and the waters get even murkier. Is an epistolary game like The Beast an RPG? I think so, absolutely. How about a map game like The Quiet Year, where no one does any in-character roleplaying, or the fractal history RPG Microscope, where in-character play is optional and no one owns any elements of the game (in the sense of owning a PC, for example)? Ditto and ditto — but I’ve seen folks contend that those aren’t RPGs at all.

Like units of play, I place a lot of weight on what the game’s designer says about it. If she calls it an RPG, it’s an RPG.

But it doesn’t rhyme

Back in high school, one of my English teachers wrote this on the board:

Stay off the grass

He then asked us if that was a poem.

Duh, right? Of course not! It’s a lawn sign.

But what if a poet writes it and calls it a poem? Then yeah, it’s a poem. That was the closest we got to a definition of “poem” that the whole class could agree on.

Everything is personal

Alongside the designer’s intent, though, is the personal component: Do I think it’s an RPG? Because at the end of the day, I’m the one playing it and I get to decide what it is — for me. So do you, for you — so does everyone. (I’m not sure one trumps the other, intent or experience; RPGs are weird.)

That’s why, for example, I count collaborative setting creation as play: When we sit down to create a Dresden Files city, we’re making roleplaying choices and collaborating in ways that feel like play to me. There the collaborative element matters — whereas The Beast, defined as a solo RPG, necessarily doesn’t take that into account.

I have zero stake in what anyone else considers a play (or thinks about what I count as play), save as a philosophical question — it’s just an interesting question to think about. But it’s also a question that’s broadened my gaming horizons — and that I do care about.

[1] Somewhere in the past 30 years of gaming, I may have played a session that ran longer than 9 hours. Let’s just take “9 hours” to mean “a really long time.”

[2] Especially when it’s me.

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