Last column we continued our in-depth focus on judging the game with a discussion of "rules lawyering" and a process for fairly and consistently adjudicating rules. This week, we're going to turn towards a more practical element of being a gamemaster: actually sitting down and running an RPG session.
Running an RPG session, especially your first time, is hard, and a first-time gamemaster can quickly make a mess of things. On the other hand, a well-practiced and experienced gamemaster can make hosting an RPG session seem easy; he or she knows all the secrets for gathering folks, getting them in the head space to game, and then running them through. Let's talk about what those secrets are.
When and Where
One of the first challenges you face in deciding to host an RPG session is determining when and how long you'll play. In "The Challenge of Campaigning," I argued strongly in favor of a weekly schedule for games, at a minimum bi-weekly. What I didn't discuss was when, how long, and where they should run.
I generally have had the most success in running groups for long-term campaigns on Mondays or Thursdays. The specific day is going to depend on your and their schedules, of course, but by avoiding the precious weekend nights you take a lot of pressure off the participants. Mondays, in particular, have worked out well as they give the weekend beforehand for campaign preparation if needed.
After years of trying various patterns of play, I've found that a four to five hour session length is optimal. Four to five hours is, not coincidentally, about the length of dinner and a movie, a tailgate plus football game, or a concert plus drinks. If you play after work, it means you can play at 7pm and wrap up before midnight, which fits comfortably into most people's after-work schedules.
For venue, a quiet room with comfortable seating and a large table is ideal. I've found the best choice is the gamemaster's home, provided he has a large enough table or living room. Of course, if one of the players has a dedicated game room where you can have rules and miniatures spread out, go with that. I generally avoid trying to run games in public places such as game stores or coffee shops, because it's loud and uncontrolled, which makes it hard for introverts to feel immersed and comfortable. That said, if you have a villainous spouse, sometimes it's your best option. Whatever you choose, it's best to find one venue for your campaign and stick with it. You can try to make a rotating venue (one in which each player hosts for a week, for instance) work, but I guarantee that the "friction of war" will frequently cause tardy and lost players who end up at the wrong location.