I think that “slow play” can mean a lot of different things, and it’s worth thinking about which you’re into or want to pursue/accentuate. These can all go together, or they can be entirely separate “dials”, as far as your game is concerned!
- A relaxed and slow approach to gaming in general - not anything to do with the fiction, but the social environment.
For example, do you take a whole extra session just to meet up, chat about the upcoming game, brainstorm, and throw out character ideas? When it’s your turn to choose an action, can you take your time and discuss with your friends, or is there pressure for you to announce something right now, before everyone gets antsy? If we have to look something up in the book, is it comfortable to pause, or do we put the book away and move on if we can’t find the information within a few seconds? Do we all speak loudly and quickly, over each other, or is there lots of breathing room and silent moments?
- The time pressure on the group in general.
Is there a strict time limit? In convention play, the last hour of your final session, or a one-shot with a strict timeline, we have to be aware of the clock all the time. By contrast, an open-ended home game which intends to be a campaign of indeterminate length, we can afford to spend a session, say, drawing portraits of each others’ characters, or writing out the stats on our company’s employees and the ship they use along the trade routes - no problem, we’ll get back to the action next week.
- The pace of events and their resolution in the story.
Does every scene push the story forward? Do important conflicts get resolved quickly and new situations develop, or do they stick around, unresolved, for a long time?
How many interstitial or sequel scenes does our story have? These are scenes where the characters relax, let down their guard, and/or deal with the emotional consequences of the action which has taken place.
In a dungeon crawl or typical D&D adventure, a sequel scene might be “making camp” and sharing stories around the campfire, or a character convalescing in the Houses of Healing after a brutal near-death.
What’s the ratio of “plot driving scenes” to “sequel scenes” in your game? At one end of the spectrum, we get breathless action or suspense stories. At the other, “slice of life”-style play, where we have breakfast, wash dishes, have a chat with a friend on the phone, or reminisce about our former life with an old friend.
- The pace of resolution, step-by-step, in the game itself.
What kinds of mechanical procedures and procedural steps does our game require to resolve an issue? Is it a single die roll, leading to a dramatic and final resolution? Or is it a drawn-out, step-by-step process, which we can delve into for lots of detail?
A familiar example for many gamers is combat. Is a fight over in a single roll, with one person down and the victor standing over them? Or do we have a whole detailed combat procedure, with moves and maneuvers and wounds and sword swings, which can create specific choreography, consequences, or character change? How many steps are there in each moment - does resolving a single sword swing require five rolls and two lookup tables?
You could also think of this is the level of mechanical detail. When I was much younger, and had a lot more time to play, we could use very rules-heavy systems without feeling constrained by them; these days, I don’t want my games to make me jump through any unnecessary hoops, because I don’t get to play as often as I’d like, and I want to get the experience I’m looking for in a certain timeframe.
- The level of fictional detail.
How much detail is there in any particular fictional event, character, or other element? You’ll note that this is quite separate from (2) and (3). We could, for example, have a game where action is constantly happening, but the level of fictional detail is really high: it’s all people jumping and diving and explosions, but we’re narrating it all like it’s in “bullet time”, watching the bullet fly towards our hero, inch by inch, as their lover leaps into its path, yelling for everyone to duck…
It can also be separate from (4) and (1), of course; some drawn-out mechanical procedures have a lot of fictional detail, and some have very little, and we can colour in our fiction with lots of fictional detail because we’re moving slowly and it’s not that important, or because we’re trying to milk the most intensity and drama out of every moment.