The Ten Minute Scene


I’m working on a game that is structured into ten minute scenes. We playtested last Saturday and I was struck by the powerful effect that this constraint had on play - ten minutes is not much time, so it focuses play wonderfully. In my case each scene has some specific prompts for things that must occur within it, and the harsh time limit meant that players immediately engaged with the scene’s core concern.

My game is a freeform larp, so diegetic time and actual time are pretty much 1:1, and setting a timer seems like it would be less effective for tabletop, where there are more variables in how player time has to be spent. But as a designable surface, time and its limitation seems really fruitful.

I’m reminded of the improv exercise where you play a scene, then play it again in half the time, and then half again, until it is just a frenzied gesture.

Let’s talk about existing tabletop and live action games that incorporate time as a tool in their design, or games that could make use of this.


The Storybrewers’ Our Mundane Supernatural Life uses a random timer (2-5 minutes) for each of its twelve scenes, and I’ve found that it helps achieve the game’s goals of being a slice of life simulator:

Play through the scene. The scene may not end until the timer runs out—and when the timer ends, it must end immediately.
If the drama finishes too early, that’s fine. Show us the trivial, mundane and everyday.

The characters have individual and shared conflicts, and in the couple of games I’ve played of it, these timers (and the way the day is broken up) helped us keep the characters and setting up-front, with the conflicts taking a back seat.


Puppetland has the rule “All stories take an hour, but an hour is not always an hour.” I don’t have any experience how that works out in play, though.

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.


Ten candles springs to mind. (I’d summarise how it works but I only started reading it yesterday!)


Sarabande is a Nordic LARP that does really cool stuff with music and time and repeating rhythms. You play Parisian artists in the Montmartre and one of the few rules is that, as artists, you can only express yourself through art. No dialogue, but you can monologue, song, dance, paint, recite free form poetry, mime, etc. each scene is framed with about a two minute piece of music to establish that every day is much like every other day, followed by ten minutes covering the events of that day, repeating for about two hours.

Had a stunning experience with it with about a dozen strangers a couple years ago, almost all of whom I greet with hugs every time I’ve seen them since


Kiss her Before the World Ends uses timed scenes. I haven’t played it yet but I’m really keen to do so and the scenes are super short. First round scenes are 4 mins, second round are 5 mins, third round is 3 mins and I think some of the downtime resolution between scenes is also time limited.


So AFAIK there’s no RPG that actually does this, but there’s board game where you play a music track and the timing of the music tells you when stuff happens mechanically. That would be super-cool in roleplaying, like if you had a track long enough for a session.


There is one! It uses the song Sabotage by the Beastie Boys and it’s fantastic. It’s by Italian larp designers with which @Jmstar has collaborated. The song is short and so is the game. It’s the story of a heist gone wrong and every time they scream in the song, a new phase is entered.


In “Out of Order,” an unpublished courtroom game I worked on a few years back, a timer is employed to limit the amount of time an attorney can brief the witness player, but the actual examinations are open-ended.

I recently read Supernatural Victims Unit which is a Law and Order themed game, and time is employed in a broader way, limiting the detectives phase and the attorneys phase to an hour each, but I don’t think they say that the game needs to be strictly timed with a timer.


In my upcoming laog Last Words there is a strict time limit of five minutes per scene.

For once, I like abrupt scene endings since I played Our Mundane Supernatural Life and The Election of The Wine Queen (where anybody shall (!) end the scene at inappropriate minute).

The other thing is that the exact timing is necessary since players don’t have all communication enabled. You can’t hear everybody. So you need an external tool.


I actually had a recent experience that this thread sparked as well. I was at a workshop on acting for participation, and we were doing a simple exercise where you paired off with a partner and improvised a scene where each person needed something from the other.

We actually played the same scene three times and were told to play with different levels of intensity, but I’m not sure we did that. But the scenes were maybe 90 seconds long, which meant the conversation didn’t get very far.

The first time we played the scene I approached it using a strategy of working up to asking the other person for something slowly. The second time I let him take a little bit more of the lead. But in neither case did we get to anything of substance.

The third time I played the same scene I just started by laying out an ultimatum for the other player, since I already knew what they were after, and just wanted to play a scene that would actually be interesting, and provide a fun experience for the actor playing opposite of me.

I’m not sure if this was a result of the short time, playing the same scene 3x, or both.


In Connection Lost, you play a person in a space shuttle that will crash to Earth in exactly one hour, and that is how long you play. And that is an amazing tool, because it really shows you how long and how very, very short an hour is.

When we played the Good Society Larp online, we had very clear time constraints on our time together. For the collaboration phase where we established our connection, we could play a shared memory, but only if we were quick enough otherwise.


I started work on a game years ago for playing heist/Mission Impossible style scenarios that used stopwatches. Basically the idea was each player had an amount of time on their stopwatch. In the normal flow of play, it was a freeform players describe action - GM describes outcome model. When a character acted in their areas of expertise, their player could start the time on their stopwatch, and while the stopwatch was running they had total narrative control. Which largely stalled out because I quite liked it as an idea, but it wasn;t actually a game I wanted to play :sweat_smile:


Sarabande is such a beautiful game! I had a similar experience playing it. Thanks for suggesting it in this context. I can still do my movement routine!


I would like to know more about this game Gerrit. This game sounds really delightful and this is the first I’ve heard of it!


I use soundtracks with informational cues in larp sometimes. My game Perfection has 90 minutes of uninterrupted play, and a soundtrack that tells you when 30 and 60 minutes have passed. I have another (unpublished) game called The Wonderful Year where someone is infected with the plague every time you hear church bells in the diegetic soundtrack.

This feels like it would work less well for tabletop, because there’s usually a layer of procedural friction with things like die handling or negotiation or scene setup, but I guess you can play freeform tabletop as well.


The Sabotage game was hidden in a KS update while the KS for Crescendo Giocoso was running:

To quote them:

The aim of the game is to create a super-compressed shared narrative, in the space of 3:01 minutes.

I have only played it once but it screams (haha) to me to be played again - online. Actually this could be a wonderful jam format and if there were no copyright issues, a wild mix or roleplayed pop songs would make a wonderfully short Actual Play format.


For that very reason, Our Mundane Supernatural Life was my game of the year 2018. The experience is enhanced by mapping out the scenes of the game in advance. The downtime between scenes is limited because of that. I used that in The Election of the Wine Queen, too: play is structured in three acts, each act has four to six scenes which are pre-planned by the players. Then you can go through them without interruption.


I have run my first playtest for Last Words, a laog with scenes going for exactly 5 minutes each. Here is a recording if you are curious how that goes:

I very much enjoyed the sharp endings. However, the situation surely is a bit different in the game: one player is in total isolation for the whole game: they can talk to one other player but can’t hear anybody. Instead, they communicate with the third player through a Google Drawing. One player can hear the others but plays with closed eyes or in darkness. So 5 minutes can feel very different (longer) under these circumstances.


Gerrit you are doing such interesting work using the affordances of digital play. I admire it a lot!