A Tribute to Slow Play culture

We know about Slow Food and why it’s good to take time when eating. Can we enjoy slow playing? Should we be more thoughtful about the pace at the table?

Often we celebrate spontaneity, quick improvisation and wits at the table. I love that, too. It feels great to be thrown into unforeseeable situations, twists established in the middle of a dialogue to which I need to react in-character suddenly. The expecting eyes of my players on me when I want to see what I do with a 6- result.

But first of all that is not everybody’s style and towards everybody’s talent. I often need to remind myself about that fact and that it’s my patience which is required not somebody else adapting to my need of quick reactions.

And secondly, as with Slow Food, maybe we should more often actively fight against the urge to run high speed.

A while back, for example, I ran Dialect in two sessions each 3 hours long. Taking so much time created such a rich play experience. Every scene was worth being extended. We took time for meta discussions and had longer breaks than usual.

Can you play slow? Do you enjoy it? Have you designed for slow play? Which games benefit from taking time for them?

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I really dig slow play. We played a single campaign of Stonetop for just under 60 sessions. That’s the sort of thing that Stonetop is really designed… stories that unfold over dozens of sessions, years of in-game time. Lots of asking “how are you feeling about this?” and growing, shifting relationships between the PCs and NPCs and the community. Love it.

The Seeker in our campaign went from having “Not a fucking wizard” written on his player’s name tent to having “(Probably) Not a fucking wizard” to building a tower just outside of town (cuz that’s where the supernatural weather vane needed to go, duh) to adding a Drive of “Shame: Avoid or delay using your magical powers” to eventually destroying his character-defining magical artifact.

The Would-be Hero went from a being a doubt-ridden, guilt-ridden ex-slaver to slowly being dubbed Breaker of Chains by the Hillfolk she used to persecute, coordinating the war effort against her own father, and eventually bringing down the entire hierarchy of her people and then deciding to put leadership behind her and come back to Stonetop and get married to her long-time will-they-won’t-they sweetheart.

A 7-9 Parley with a pair of ghosts in session 1 led to some locals making bloody burnt offerings at the shrine of Danu in session 3, and the Blessed’s failure to directly and firmly address this led to a cult springing up in town a few seasons later, leading to a human sacrifice, and a sorcerer who escaped and became a bugaboo for the next year or two.

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I once played in a campaign that went for 14 sessions and covered 3 very eventful in-game days. It wasn’t slow in the sense that we took a long time to make decisions (though I’m sure I did, because I am terrible at improvisation), but we took our time and let things that needed to happen happen and gave the scenes room to breathe, and were rewarded with a much deeper and more interesting story. I got a little impatient with the pace sometimes, but I have to say I wouldn’t have cared nearly as much at the end if we’d kept skipping ahead to the next big event.

I often feel like I need to push forward when I’m facilitating a game, but as a player sometimes I want to go off on interesting tangents and have long conversations. So I try to keep in mind that as long as things are happening and the players are enjoying the game, the pace is fine.

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At the weekly game night I’ve been running for several years now, I’ve gotten pretty good at managing one-shots that pack in as much drama as possible and hit most of the points of a three-act structure within 3 hours. I can deliver the goods, and have fun doing it, but doing that on a regular basis can get tiresome. So the campaigns I run move at a much slower pace.

Currently I’m running a Freebooters on the Frontier campaign as an “emergent” sandbox. Old-school wilderness exploration with resource management. I try to move things along if there’s too much of a lag, and try to end each session at a good juncture, but generally the pace is dictated by the players’ choices and the vicissitudes of random generation. We just finished our third session, and aside from some marauding scavengers at camp one night, there hasn’t really been any fighting. Play has been mostly about travel, terrain-based challenges, and interaction among party members. After 9 hours of play and 4 in-game days, they’ve only just reached the “dungeon” that was their initial goal.

I love this pace because we’re not trying to emulate a movie or TV show, modes of entertainment in which our culture is already saturated. We’re immersing ourselves in something particular to the medium of tabletop RPGs: a world of our own collaborative creation.

Pacing matters, and I try cut past uninteresting bits, but I also try to find interest in mundane details by asking clerics what it looks like when they pray in the morning, or how the fighters care for their gear. The double-edged sword to this approach is that while the pace gives things a certain depth, it’s going to be really hard when one of the PCs dies. I’m quite attached to all of them.

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That is a very interesting point you raise here, @Gerrit! I played with my long-running group over Easter, and while there was drama and decision and danger, there was also a lot of time just talking in character or about a character. So what if we devote time to talk about Frederik’s hats or Dairine’s children? Or stones?

I’ve seen these rather rambling discussions derided as “tavern talk”, because they don’t serve a real purpose in the story. That is a very valid point if you only have three (or even twelve) hours for one game, or if you want to recreate the feeling of a good movie or book. Still, I treasure them, because my weekend face-to-face group are not on a schedule, they have both run for years and will continue to do so, and I love the slice-of-life stuff.

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Oh, that is so right in this context and such an important element. Actually, forcing the pacing of TV shows on our games (sometimes referred to as cinematic play) is one of the (many) problematic elements of this way of thinking currently so popular in RPGs.

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I love this discussion! I’m mostly committed to fast play for a number of personal reasons, but you raise an excellent point, @Gerrit: there are players who don’t shine when it comes to quick improv, but who can make incredible contributions just as anyone else if given a little time.

I have a friend who’s very creative but just freezes if she’s on the spot. If she has time to think about her character and the story, she comes up with amazing ideas.

Despite my preference for fast play, I ended up writing a game that forces players into slow play. Melody of a Never-ending Summer follows a strict day cycle, where each player is prohibited from actively roleplaying their character and must instead describe a brief summary of how they spent their day. The game only jumps into the traditional conversation of an RPG in special weekly events and bonding moments between characters (these have to be earned through play). There are other special moments that have to be earned by slowly playing through the days and working towards a goal.

I feel this makes those special moments very meaningful, and helps people who aren’t great at improvising to “phone in” the day-to-day scenes and plan ahead for the special ones (and they know exactly when they’ll happen).

Is it possible to conciliate fast and slow play at the table? Or do you think it’s something everyone has to agree to?

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That’s tough. Ideally, I think, you have two elements there:

  • Slow play that’s actively interesting and engaging for even the players who aren’t directly involved in any given scene. (In practice, I’ve found that difficult to pull off–especially with a larger group of 5-6 players, which is what I usually play with face-to-face. I’ve had better luck with groups of 3 players, and players who were all committed to the character stuff, like you often find among the Gauntlet.)

  • Slow play that’s punctuated by tight, tense action. Just because you have slow play, doesn’t mean it all has to be slow. When danger rears, fast, intense, consequential play is great–and gives excellent fodder for slow play later.

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In regards to the first problem, I’ve been testing delegating narrative functions to players not in a scene when I’m facilitating a trad game. But then again, not everyone likes getting a GM question out of the blue

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I wonder how much effect high-production-value AP shows have on our perceptions of how fast play should go. In a podcast format, all the pauses and false starts and sitting with an idea can get edited out, because that stuff is less fun for an audience person. And even in livestreamed games, the players view themselves as performers needing to be snappy to entertain the viewers. I know I’m always self-conscious about posting my Gauntlet hangouts recordings because I know they’re not as tight and zippy as, say, an episode of One Shot.

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I just started up a new group with people all pretty new to RPGs, and a particular kind of slow play has emerged in this group that I’d never thought of before: taking the time to describe places in extreme detail.

Once we know what the next scene is going to be, we regularly spend half an hour just describing what the place is like, who the PCs might know there, what people are wearing, how the Maitre D is looking at you, or how the docks workers aren’t. “This is the kind of bar where there’s no door on the one bathroom, but no one cares. And there’s a thing in the corner some local inventor came up with; she calls it a pinball machine, and it’s constantly squeaking and spitting out black smoke.” These are the kind of details that GM advice is always telling you to include to set the tone, but I’m coming to really love reveling in them and getting the whole table involved. Doubly so for places we know we’re going to come back to or spend a lot of time.

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I think I’m constitutionally incapable of this kind of play. I’m in two weekly groups that meet for two hours each, and both my design and play are warped around this constraint. We have long-running games sometimes, but each two hour block is always a self-contained arc. When I’ve played in more relaxed settings I just want to get more done - a four hour slot is just two, two hour blocks of intense fun, right?

I fully recognize that this is kind of messed up.

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Is it messed up or efficient? :slight_smile:

Part of it’s absolutely time constraints, but for me it’s also frequency of play and cycling different games. There are too many games to play, so if you can “wolf down” mini-series-sized shorter campaigns and get onto the next system to try out, it feels like you’re doing stuff. If you can only meet once every 4-5 weeks, you want to get that good gaming juice.

I do like me some drawn-out descriptions of melancholy strip malls, though, so I’m torn.

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It’s messed up in that I’ve worn grooves in my brain to default to that mode of play, when I fully recognize that a chilled out six hour sesh of Fall of Magic is very pleasant and totally correct. But in the moment I’m like “Barleytown, TLDR, let’s get a move on, this scroll has a back side too and we’re burning daylight.”

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This is really similar to brain grooves I keep finding in my head that was put there by various RPGs (read: D&D)

I doubt I’m alone in this, but here’s a few examples of how my brain is warped due to it:

  1. When discussing a novel, a friend said the society depicted only works for good people. I countered with “or Lawful Neutral” as, fundamentally, I think of alignment as a 3x3 grid.

  2. Instead of “spoons” I think about “spell slots”. Granted, I do this in part intentionally as I am lucky enough to not need to count my spoons, but still.

There’s a bunch of other artifacts of my thinking that come from gaming, but these are the most obvious. I think the first is actively harmful.

Edit: I’m going to move this to another thread.

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Playing with adults I feel I have to stick to short format, get in late get out early, purposeful play, because we all have too much going on to have a chance at continuing. I occasionally run games for kids and they are so much more willing to let things breathe. I’m hoping my kid enjoys RPGs, because I’d love running a summer long campaign leisurely an hour at a time without an obligation to get to the climactic part

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@Jmstar:

I am often looking for ways to get into that “mode” of play. Do you have any online recordings of you playing in this style, or other game sessions that you feel do this well?

It could be interesting to look at specific techniques and see which could benefit from a “slow down”; it’s possible that it’s not a continuum from “slow play” to “fast play”, but that super interesting hybrids are possible.

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I don’t, we’re not public performers. And it’s hard to tease out what we do “differently” since this is just how we’ve evolved, but I know we aggressively edit scenes, keeping lots of balls in the air as we move focus around the table.

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Thanks, Jason!

I was typing in a rush (on the bus) and I might have come across as rather more demanding than I intended - my apologies! I’m still adjusting to (and a bit weirded out by) the new culture of recorded and livestreamed play. (I’m now running into people who say things like, “I’d love to play D&D with my friends, but I guess I’ll have to wait until December, because I don’t have a good camera or a good microphone at my place…” Very bizarre to me!)

What I meant to ask in my second sentence was if there were any public game personas or groups that you feel approach this technical aspect of RPG play in the same way that you do. Have you seen anyone who seems to do a similar thing?

I still think it would be very interesting to approach this somewhat backwards: look at both techniques that slow things down or draw them out, and techniques that speed things up and give focus, and find new ways of combining them.

For instance, in a thread like this, it’s possible that what people are looking for or want to celebrate isn’t the overall pace of the game, but the inclusion of specific types of scenes or interactions (like sequel scenes, to use writer’s jargon for a second, which get omitted entirely in many games).

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One day I get you into online playing. Maybe a live action online game could pull you over the edge. :slight_smile:

Actually, @Paul_T, what you brought up about “where can I see this style of play” is for me the most fascinating element of Actual Play culture. That we can see styles and play cultures from such different angles.

Especially pacing at the table is something nearly impossible to describe. But with an AP you could actually watch it happen!

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